I plan to deal with the error of Trichotomy in a series of posts. Lord willing, it will look something like this:
1) We will present the Scriptural data relevant to the subject. In other words, we will show that Scripture does not support Trichotomy.
2). We will answer supposed Scriptural evidence for Trichotomy.
3). We will look at several of the inherent flaws and dangers of Trichotomy.
Part 1: The Scriptural evidence for a bi-partite division of human nature, not tripartite.
First of all we should give some background, and define our terms.
It’s an interesting phenomenon: Virtually all theologians in all streams of the Christian tradition have believed and taught that man is comprised of two parts – one material part and one immaterial part. The material part, of course, is the body. The immaterial part the Bible variously calls the soul or spirit. This is known as Dichotomy. Somehow though, the reigning notion among the average person in contemporary Christianity is that man is composed of three parts – body, soul and spirit. Let us reiterate, most theologians are dichotomists, but nearly all popular Christian literature and teaching is Trichotomistic.
It is very tempting to launch into a tirade against Trichotomy right here and now. It would, indeed, be east to blast it for all of the theological heresies it is responsible for. I could point to its Gnostic tendencies, its proclivity for mysticism, or its denigration of the mind, but that will be for another post. Right now, I wish to present the biblical evidence for the dichotomist position. Let me insert a word of warning. Many will likely be tempted to think that Scripture is largely silent on the issue (and that perhaps this is the reason for the differing opinions). I assure you, that is not true.
Before proceeding with all the Scriptures I plan to present, let me say something about the words “soul” and “spirit” in the Biblical languages, which if considered would clear a lot of the confusion.
First of all, The Hebrew word for soul is נֶפֶשׁ (nephesh), and it occurs 753 times in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. 475 times it is rendered “soul.” 117 times it is rendered “life.” It means breathing. When it appears in Genesis 2:7, Scripture applies it to man, noting that God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life and he became a living soul.
רוּחַ (ruach) is the Hebrew word for “spirit.” It occurs 378 times. Of these occurrences, 232 are rendered “spirit;” 92 are rendered “wind;” and 27 are rendered “breath.” The similarities between breath and wind are obvious enough, especially when we consider the antiquity of Hebrew. But note that both words mean breath and are therefore interchangeable synonyms by definition alone.
The Greek word for soul is ψυχή (psyche) occurs 105 times. 58 times it is rendered “soul.” And 40 times it is rendered “life.” Like its Hebrew counterpart, it means breath as well. Thus it is the immaterial part of human nature.
The Greek word for spirit is πνεῦμα (pneuma). Of its 385 occurrences in the New Testament, it is rendered “spirit” in all but 21 cases. It means breath, or a current of air, or by implication the human soul.
As I said above, if these definitions were simply considered, there would be no confusion on this subject.
We will now view the Scriptural data.
Matthew 10:28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (This passage presents man as a bi-partite being comprised of body and soul.)
Ecclesiastes 12:7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. (This passage switches the terms and presents man as being composed of body and spirit.)
Scripture describes death as the separation of body and soul in these passages: Genesis 35:18; 1 Kings 17:21, Acts 15:26. The following passages refer to the soul as the immaterial part of a man which survives death: Revelation 6:9 and 20:4
But then Scripture describes death as the separation of body and spirit in these passages: Psalm 31:5; Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59. The following passages refer to the spirit as the immaterial part of a man which survives death: Hebrews 12:23; 1 Peter 3:19
James 1:21 and Hebrews 6:19 tells us that it is our soul which communes with God. Romans 8:16 and 1 Corinthians 6:20 tell us that it is our spirit which communes with God.
We are told in Ephesians 2:3 that our soul has been affected by sin. 2 Corinthians 7:1 informs us that our spirit has been affected by sin.
The body is said to be dead without the spirit. This is stated and/or implied in James 2:26; Matthew 27:50; Luke 23:46; John 19:30; Acts 7:59. But Scripture just as clearly tells us that the soul is the life of the body in Matthew 6:25; 10:39; 16:25-26; 20:28; Luke 14:26; John 10:11-18, Acts 15:26; 20:10; Philippians 2:30; 1 John 3:16. Remember I said that sometimes the Greek and Hebrew words were translated “life.” This is why in some of the above references, you will find the word “life.” Not “soul” or “spirit” in the English text.
The mind is considered to be the cognitive function of the soul wherein though and reason occur. Yet, while this is true, Scripture also states, either explicitly or by implication that thought and cognitive understanding occur in one’s spirit. See Matthew 26:41; Mark 2:8; Luke 1:46-47; Acts 17:16; 1 Corinthians 2:11; 1 Peter 3:3-5. Indeed, whenever pneuma is used of man, it refers either to the immaterial part of man’s being or to his mental disposition (e.g. spirit of fear, spirit of meekness, etc.) Hence it is clear that it is equivalent to psyche. The Trichotomists, especially the Charismatic ones, place the spirit over the soul, hence the mind must be neglected for the sake of the spirit. But Scripture frequently uses pneuma to refer to a state of the mind (nuos).
I could go on, but I hope that by now it is clear that Scripture most definitely uses the words soul and spirit interchangeably (e.g. Genesis 2:7; Job 32:8; 33:4; Ecclesiastes 12:7; Isaiah 10:18). Anyone who is interested in testing my assertion is more than welcome to compare the several hundred other occurrences of these words in Scripture and see that I have taken as examples passages which are representative of all the others.
If Scripture has any authority with us, this should be enough to put the nail in the coffin of Trichotomy. Scripture does not affirm a tri-partite nature of man, nor is it silent on the issue. Scripture presents man as a bi-partite being composed of an immaterial part (the soul or spirit), and a material part (the body).