Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Trichotomous Man or Dichotomous Man?

Now here's a subject of interest for all you theo-geeks: are we a three-part being (body, soul, spirit); or a two-part (soul and spirit used interchangeably to describe the eternal, intangible part of man)?

I was only vaguely aware that there are conflicting views on this philosophical puzzle until earlier this month. While I have been taught that the soul is made up of the mind, will and emotions (while the spirit is the core of one's being, which is enlivened upon regeneration), I confess that I have never given it much thought - until I began studying the theology of biblical counseling. (I was accepted into the Institute for Nouthetic Studies yesterday, by the way.) In preparation for the coursework, I am currently reading John Macarthur and Wayne Mack's "Counseling" and Jay Adams' "The Christian Counselor's Handbook" - neithor one of which are light reading. As it happens, both address the two-part vs. three-part understanding of man in early chapters.

Funky chart - but is it biblical??

In my own book, I had taken the trichotomous position; even maintaining that because one's spirit is regenerated at conversion, if the soul and the spirit were one and the same, the Christian would never again show a proclivity to sin after the new birth. Going back and re-examining that stance in light of Scripture (especially Paul's discussion of the ongoing conflict between the "old man" and the "new man" in Romans,) it doesn't hold up.

Jay Adams traces the trichotomous view of man to Greek philosophy and maintains that it is not biblical . Furthermore, its reemergence in contemporary thought is partly due to Freud's theory of the ego, the super-ego and the id. Uh-oh. He writes:
"Trichotomy is not supported by a superficial appeal to 1 Thessalonians 5:23, where Paul is not distinguishing the parts of man, but simply heaping word upon word to emphasize entirety. Jesus Christ did the same thing when He spoke of loving God with all of one's "heart, soul, mind and strength" (Mark 12:30). The Scriptures use the term soul (pseuche) and spirit (pneuma) interchangeably. Cf. Luke 1:46, 47, where the two are used in parallelism."

John Street goes into an even more detailed explanation:

" The typical bifurcation between the soul and the spirit made by some Christian psychologists cannot be biblically sustained. One Christian psychiatrist offered this explanation: "The soul is the psychological aspect of man, whereas the spirit is spiritual...The mind alone lies in the psychological aspect of man and not the spiritual." Such an artificial distinctions grows from reading psychological meaning into biblical terms. Both "soul" and "spirit" speak of the same intangible aspect of the inner man, the part of man that only God sees. A concordance study of psyche shows that when Scripture uses the term "soul" in relation to man, it refers to that aspect of the innner man in connection with his body. When it uses the term "spirit", it is that aspect of the inner man out of connection with his body. No distinction exists in Scripture between the psychologically oriented and the spiritually oriented man."

Not to be outdone, Ken L. Sarles offers a comprehensive look at the usage of spirit/soul both in Hebrew and Greek (whenever a theologian starts a sentence with "If we go back to the original Greek...", I'm inclined to say, "You win! I'll take your word for it!") From "How to Counsel Biblically":
"The body represents everything material, while the soul represents everything immaterial. In this case, the terms soul and spirit are understood as viewing the immaterial aspect of human nature from different vantage points. That is, the numerical essence of soul and spirit is one. Evidence for dichotomy can be found in Scripture's interchangeable usage of the terms soul (nephesh in the Old Testament and psyche in the New Testament) and spirit (ruah in the Old Testament and pneuma in the New Testament)....In evaluating dichotomy, the strongest defense is the argument from creation. Genesis 2:7 records that man became a living soul. The term is inclusive of everything that has a living, breathing being. It would be more accurate then, to say that man has a spirit, but is a soul. Furthermore, the interchangibility of the terms argues for dichotomy."

There are very well-thought-out defenses of the trichotomous position, too, which seem to make a strong case from Scripture (including this one). However, as interesting as examning the question may be, I personally do not think that it matters too much whether our soul is distinct from our spirit or they are "two sides of the same coin". In fact, I was rather surprised to realize that this is a poiunt of heated dissention among theologians - somewhat on par with the pre-millenial/post-millenial debate! I want to have this spiritual reality straight in my mind for the sake of doctrinal accuracy in my book, but if it were such a crucial matter I'm sure Paul or the Lord Jesus Himself would have spelled it out a bit more precisely.

Taking the Bible alone, the main point is this: if you have been re-born, you are a new creation in Christ. The old has gone; the new has come. You are no longer a slave to sin. Your inner man has changed - no matter how you wish to call it. Your spirit thirsts for God and He Who began a good work in you will carry it on to the day of completion. I don't see any indication of a trichotomous man, but nor do I think it's any big woop - certainly not one worth debating much.

If you go back and read the words in red, (not to mention the Epistles), you don't see much hair-splitting philosophical debate - even with the Greek dudes in John 12:19-21 who were eager to talk to Jesus. What we DO see is a lot of common-sense, get-out-there-and-do-it commands, coupled with a call to constant devotion and commitment to inner holiness. This should always be our main concern, first and foremost.

But you've got to admit, the nit-picking theological questions can be great fun to study out.


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Firstly, I have to say I am staunchly anti-Calviniist because I think it is an unbiblical belief system (no, I am not Arminian - as Calvinists call anyone who isn't Calvinist). I find the dichotomous view most often with Calvinism, which is why you will find it with Jay Adams (I like 90% of Jay Adams - I just disagree with his Calvinism).

I have always been trichotomous in my beliefs, and I think you really can't explain away Hebrews 4:12 where the author DIVIDES soul and spirit - which means they can't be the same. Sometimes the two terms are used synonymously, but not always.

The body is the physical part of us that we can see and touch. BUT, we are spiritual beings and it is our spirit that is our actual life - which is why it continues after the death of the body. (Spiritual death of course is the unsaved condition) The soul is who we are - our personality.

That's sort of simplistic for lack of a better way to explain it, but that's how I see it - BIBLICALLY!

Marie said...

Thanks for weighing in Glenn - you may well be right; there are strong arguments on both sides, but as interesting as the question is to me, I admit it's not one of the ones that keeps me up at night.

I am pretty much like you re: Calvinism (as is my church/pastor). We're definitely not Arminians, but I'd be hard-pressed to endorse the extreme view of Limited Atonement Adams endorsed in "Competent to Counsel" ("Be careful not to tell anyone to whom you are evangelizing that Christ died for them, because you have no way of knowing if he/she is one of the elect or not".) I checked that with my pastor's wife, a NANC counselor, and she admitted that's an area where she would disagree with Jay Adams.

He, Calvin, and all the others are (and were) just men- loyal servants of Christ and extremely knowledgeable, but ultimately just men and therefore fallible. They can err. They may be wrong on the dichotomous position (although the counseling books I'm reading make a pretty strong argument), but as long as we focus on what's important - soteriology, sanctification, etc., I don't think it makes all that big of a difference practically speaking. Like eschatology, I think it's okay to agree to disagree.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Trichotomy, dichotomy - like you said, it has never been one of those things that I give any thought about unless I'm asked.

I've got all those Jay Adams books and have read them all, but it's been about 5-6 years since and I need to go back over them.

That one point of Adams' about evangelizing has been a real point of contention with me. If what the Calvinists say is true, then what is the point of evangelizing anyway? You can never tell someone that Christ died for them!

Marie said...

I know - "I have great news! Christ might have died for you!" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

Adams definitely does advocate evangelism, Calvinists do...it would be the hyper-Calvinists that take the "what's the point" attitude.

My pastor describes how predestination/effectual calling and man's free will/responsibility work together as a mystery -- as if these two truths are nearly parallel lines that intersect at some distant point, but we cannot see where and hgow they intersect from our finite vantage point. It's a bit of a mystery, and I've given up trying to figure it out perfectly.

There's much we can get out of counseling texts without driving ourselves to distraction about these "debatable" points.

LCB said...

As a quick note, I think theologically this is an easy topic to miss the mark on.

Man is both body and soul. Just as the body can be subdivided into parts for consideration or study(and yet remains a unified whole), so to can the soul.

Let's assume, for argument, that we had a body, a soul, and a spirit (with the soul and spirit being different). My first question would be "Where did they come from?" We see clearly the biblical origins of the body, and we can look at nature and see how bodies come into being. We can see clearly the biblical origins of our soul (the breath of life within us, Hebrew here should be 'Rouhak'). Further, we can clearly see in nature and with reason that we as persons are undivided. Each body contains/is one individual, unique and whole.

So if there is this 3rd, seperate and distinct non-physical element (spirit) where does it come from? Further, where do we see it with reason?

I think a two-part view of the person (the two not being opposed) is the most sound from the perspective of theology and reason.

The historical Catholic understanding has been that, upon our Resurrection, our souls will be reunited with our bodies in Resurrection. The idea that there is an additional non-material component entering into the equation has never been present to the best of my knowledge.

So, my conclusion, feel free to subdivide the soul in any way that is helpful. Sometimes a doctor looks at the heart and lungs as a group together, sometimes the organs by themselves, so to we can do with the soul.

If it helps a person to view the soul in the 'classical' sense with the intellect directing the will and the passions, great. If it helps a person to view the soul (especially the conflicted soul) as two parts battling it out, great.

To add an extra layer of theo-geekness...

This issue did come up in a round-about-way during the reformation/counter-reformation period a bit in relationship to the Sacraments, especially Baptism. The Catholic conclusion was that Baptism made an indelible/permanent mark upon the soul, drawing on a not insignificant body of work dating back to at least Augustine.

Even though both Luther and Calvin sharply disagreed on the matter of Baptism, I really don't recall reading them objecting to the basic two-part structure of the human person. However, when we start considering their views on things like Baptism it starts to get a little murky. Though it's been a few years since I've read those specific works.

All in all, I think that Luther and Calvin had deficient understandings of Baptism and their positions represent too significant of a departure from historical Christianity, especially Augustine, Cyril and Thomas. If our starting position is one of accepting general Lutheran/Calvinistic views on Baptism, it starts to create a lot of problems about what the human person consists of.

Since Luther/Calvin's views on Baptism aren't essential to holding reformation beliefs, I think it might be helpful to reconsider the indellible mark approach to baptism, since it isn't really in conflict with larger reformation theology themes and could bring both greater unity with historical Christianity and a more coherent structure of the human person.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...


Hebrews doesn't say it's dividing soul - it says it divides soul and spirit - puts a division between the two. That's like saying one divides the heart from the lung when operating.

As for Romanist baptism, there is no such thing as an indelible mark on the soul. That is an unbiblical notion - in fact, Romanist infant baptism is unbiblical also. Romanist believe baptism saves you, but that will not be found in the Bible.

Bob said...

I grew up as a tri-chot, but reading Millard Erickson's text "Christian Theology", the di-chot position seems to make more sense.

An interesting question, isn't it? :)

Ma ~ said...

This came up recently on a friend of mine's blog. She is having a hard time believing that a person suffers for all eternity in Hell and used this:

Eze 18:4 Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.

Her argument is that the soul dies (literally) and does not suffer without end.

I thought maybe a trichotomy may clear this up...but maybe it doesn't.

Marie said...

Jay Adams covered this in a recent lecture in the course I just finished, "theology and Counseling".

Spiritual death = the soul separated from God; eternal death = body and soul separated from God eternally.
Spiritual death does NOT mean anhillilationism; the disembodied spirit survives death in a conscious state.

So whether you lean di or trichotomous, the end result is the same: the soul/spirit is eternal. Separation from God for the unbeiever is, indeed, eternal - that is what is meant by "the second death".

Very sobering.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Actually, in that passage about the soul sinning being the one dying, the soul just refers to a person. The person who sins is the one who God holds accountable. This is in response to the previous passage about children's "teeth" being "set on edge." The complaint was that the fathers sin was what the children were punished for, but God was pointing out that wasn't true, that only the person responsible was punished.

Ma ~ said...

Thanks Glenn,

In context, that makes perfect sense.:)