Friday, September 23, 2011

Why Trichotomy is Wrong, The Biblical Evidence For Dichotomy

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).


  1. Thanks for posting this, Andy. I remember studying this issue when I was a Pentecostal student at Southeastern College of the Assemblies of God. The professor sided with the bi-partite view, although he conceded that it might be "possible" that the tripartite view was correct. He had to make that concession since Pentecostals place the final emphasis on experience and not on Scripture.

    Non-cessationist "Reformed" ministers and theologians are not truly Reformed in my opinion.

  2. Thank you sir for this well documented scriptural thorough work. I understand that your work is not accomplished yet and still on the process. However, If I find that your conclusion jumps over putting the other side evidences into scrutiny.

    I would think that these scriptures have to be taken into consideration,

    I. first, Paul heare clearly compare the natural (soul-oriented) man as opposed to the new creatino in Christ, that is the spiritual man,

    "... it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, "The first man, Adam, became a living soul (ψυχην)," the last Adam was a life-giving Spirit. But not the spiritual first, but the natural (ψυχικον); afterward the spiritual. The first man was out of earth, earthy; the second Man was the Lord from Heaven. " (1Co 15:44-47)

    II. Coupled with this scripture from James,
    "This is not the wisdom coming down from above, but is earthly, sensual (ψυχικη), devilish," (Jam 3:15) the point is made clearer as a solid biblical line of thought.

    III. This scripture is the most challenging one against the Bichotomy theory, "For the Word of God is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing apart of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." (Heb4:12)
    Unless one interprets this Pauline passage as complete literary exaggeration, it tells exactly all what Trichotomists need in support for their theory!

    I do not claim a point finally made. I am only adding the yonder side argument. Actually I think that scripture is not meant in the first place with deciding upon such a philological debate.

    Accept my appreciation in Christ,
    Deacon Basil, a, k, a, Christopher Mark!

  3. Thanks for your time in replying to my article. I did not take 1 Corinthians 15:44-47 into account because, as the context clearly shows, this passage is not describing the composition of man. It is addressing the nature of a man at the resurrection. The comparison is between corruptible animal bodies, and incorruptible glorified bodies.

    On the passage in question, Matthew Henry writes, “Believers shall at the resurrection have bodies, made fit to be forever united with spirits made perfect. To God all things are possible. He is the Author and Source of spiritual life and holiness, unto all his people, by the supply of his Holy Spirit to the soul; and he will also quicken and change the body by his Spirit. The dead in Christ shall not only rise, but shall rise thus gloriously changed. The bodies of the saints, when they rise again, will be changed. They will be then glorious and spiritual bodies, fitted to the heavenly world and state, where they are ever afterwards to dwell. The human body in its present form, and with its wants and weaknesses, cannot enter or enjoy the kingdom of God.”

    Notice that Henry speaks of “spirits” made perfect; and in the very next breath says that our bodies will be raised by the supply of the Holy Spirit to our “soul.” Henry, like all orthodox theologians of the Church saw the two words as synonymous. The contrast of the passage is not between soul and spirit, but between the earthly body and the heavenly, glorified body of the resurrected believer.

    As far as James 3:15 goes, again the contrast is not between soul and spirit but between natural, unregenerate “wisdom” and spiritual, i.e., heavenly “wisdom.” That this is the proper way to understand the use of the word ψυχική, is evident from the way in which the same word is employed by Jude in verse 19 of his Epistle where he writes, “οὗτοί εἰσιν οἱ ἀποδιορίζοντες, ψυχικοί, πνεῦμα μὴ ἔχοντες.” Here Jude defines ψυχική as unregenerate, because he says they πνεῦμα μὴ ἔχοντες (have not the Spirit).

    As for the Hebrews passage, I spent the whole next part of this 8 part series treating the proper exegesis of it and 1 Thess. 5:23

  4. I am not a theologian, nor a student of philosophy, and I speak from a mere Christian point of view of no particular denomination.

    But it is my understanding that those that do not accept Jesus' sacrifice at Calvary, are dead in the spirit, but still possess a "personality" i.e. soul, and a body.

    I am of the belief that some human beings are dichotomous and others are trichotomous in that they are alive in the spirit. I illustrate this as being fashioned in the Image of God, who has three parts, God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus. Through original sin, what was once trichotomous, becomes dichotomous, as the spirit has died. It is only through the sacrifice of Jesus that one can become trichotomous once again. This is my reasoning.

    1. Thanks for interacting. I would suggest that you read the entire series. It will clarify why I assert that man is, by constitution, dichotomous. These are not philosophical arguments, they are biblical ones. As the Reformers said, “If it is not Biblical, it is not theological.” Philosophical categories may occasionally help us organize our thinking or systematize our explanations, but at the end of the day, the only thing any Christian should ever care about is what Scripture actually says. This is not a denominational issue, and nothing on my blog ever is. I would place myself in the Reformed camp, because I believe this represents the true teaching of Scripture and has a demonstrable stream of continuity throughout 2,000 years of Church history to back it up.

      As far as the analogy to the Trinity goes, Christians have always rejected as heretical the notion that God is 1/3 Father, 1/3 Son and 1/3 Holy Spirit. God is not comprised of parts. He is one in His divine Essence while subsisting in Three Persons. The problem with making a trichotomous view of man an analogy for the Trinity is that, even if I am composed of 3 “parts” (which I deny), I am still only ONE person. That makes this a horrible analogy for the Trinity, for it denies that God is actually Three Persons. As far as the terms “soul” and “spirit” go, check my whole series and you will see that I have gone through the whole Bible to demonstrate that the terms, both in Hebrew and Greek, are used interchangeably.


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