Dichotomy & Trichotomy

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Anthropology, is the study of man. In regards the whole human being there are several views as to what makes up a human. In Christianity there are two opposing views about the essence of man. On one side was the view from naturalism that man is merely a material beast, a product of the stuff in the box, of one substance.

This is called “monism.”

On the other side was the biblical Christian view that man is different than the other creatures, that he is both flesh and spirit. We referred to this in our tour as “dualism”; it is more formally known as “dichotomy”.

Not surprisingly, several have raised their hands and asked: “But I thought that man was made up of three parts—body, soul and spirit. Isn’t he more of a triad than dualistic?” This view, by the way, is called “trichotomy”.

Great question. It is one that I deal with in my seminary class, but chose not to wade into in the short time frame of the Truth Project. Our intent was to high-light and examine the great contrast between the two opposing views of man in our culture. Is man merely a material beast, no different that any other product of evolution? Or, is he a created being with a spiritual element that will survive physical death? This, I believe, was the key issue to deal with, not the more complex argument regarding dichotomy versus trichotomy.

However, we do find both of these latter positions within Christian thought, and several have asked…so, let’s briefly survey them.

 

Trichotomy

Both trichotomy and dichotomy understand that man consists of flesh and spirit. But the trichotomist sees the spiritual element of man consisting of spirit and soul, separate entities. The spirit is…well, spirit—that which is closest to God. The soul is usually associated with the mind, the emotions and the will. The strongest argument, I believe, for trichotomy lies in the following four passages where both the soul and spirit are mentioned:

 

“I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.”  ~ Job 7:11

 

 “My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you.” ~ Isaiah 26:9

 

 “May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:23

 

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” ~ Hebrews 4:12

 

The argument is that if the Scripture uses different words to describe the essence of man’s nature, then they must be distinctly different parts. There are many examples in scripture where everything one could say about a given subject is NOT mentioned in any one series of verse, but IF…as a whole…the scriptures recognize other parts, then that MUST be taken into account and way very heavily in the positive for evidence.

 

Dichotomy

Dichotomy, or anthropological dualism, rests primarily upon the argument that the Scripture uses soul and spirit interchangeably and synonymously. While there are many examples of this, I believe it to be a result of the eastern way of thinking. Eastern thought is far more holistic than western thought or even the thinking of the Greco-Roman’s of Jesus’ day.

For example, if in every case the spirit and the soul are used interchangeably as representing the exact same thing, we might see the Scriptures refer to those who have already died as either “souls” or “spirits”, and we do find many example of this, but does that categorically “prove” that we only have one referred to by two different names or does it prove that the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but specifically can and sometimes DO represent different parts of the same human?

 

In Revelation 6:9, John writes of seeing “the souls of those who had been slain for the Word of God,” but in Hebrews 12:23 they are referred to as “the spirits of just men made perfect.”

Again, in Revelation 20:4, John sees the “souls of those who had been beheaded” come to life and reign for a thousand years with Christ, yet in 1 Peter 3:19, we are told that after Christ’s death, He went and preached to “the spirits in prison” and in 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul states that he has handed a man over to Satan, “so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.”

One time those who have died are referred to as “souls” and another time they are referred to as “spirits.” Is the Scripture describing a separate piece of the dead in this verse and another piece in that verse?

The dichotomy perspective would say “no”; that “soul” and “spirit” refer to the same single, spiritual element of man that lives after death. Again, notice that they were not described as “souls and spirits” but each term is used as referring to the totality of the individual.

In Genesis 35:18, it is Rachael’s “soul” that departs upon death, yet in John 19:30 we read that Jesus bowed His head and “gave up His spirit” and Stephen, as he was being stoned to death, prayed “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). In 1 Kings 17:21, Elijah prays for the “soul” of the dead child to return and when it does the child comes back to life. Yet in James 2:26 we read that “the body without the spirit is dead” and Ecclesiastes 12:7 says that it is the “spirit” that returns to God at death.

The dichotomist would ask, if the soul and spirit are separate, then why do we not read that Rachael’s soul and spirit departed; why didn’t Jesus pray for God to receive His spirit and his soul; why does Elijah pray for only the soul to return when James says that it is the absence of the spirit that makes the body dead?

Nowhere do we read of the soul and the spirit departing from a person at death; nowhere do we read of descriptions of the dead as souls and spirits.

The dichotomist would therefore argue that this is evidence that the soul and the spirit are synonyms of the same spiritual part of man.

Yet is there no evidence of a separation between the two?

Both Dichotomists and Trichotomists can view the exact same scripture and see two different things. An example of this is found in Galatians 5:17. Here there is a battle raging between the “flesh” and the “spirit,” and yet, there is a reference to a third part by the use of the word “desire”. 1 Peter 2:11 says the war is between sinful desires and the “soul”. Is this proof that the spirit and soul are one and the same? Not necessarily! The trichotomist would say that the passage in Galatians is pointing out the two natures. The nature of sin and death which is still at work in the body and the new nature of who we are as spiritual beings. While they would say that the passage in Peter is simply referring to “where” the struggle takes place and that is in the mind, will and emotions…a.k.a., the soul, and there is merit to both arguments. I personally believe in a trichotomy and in Galatians I see two opposing forces, while in Peter I see a direct reference to character and conduct which emanates from the soul.

What about the trichotomist’s two verses that seem to make a clear distinction between the soul and spirit? How does the dichotomist respond to that? Well, let’s look.

“I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.”  ~ Job 7:11

If one believes that the weight of Scripture shows the two terms are used interchangeably, then this verse would be understood as a common way of using synonyms to bring forth an emphasis. For example, the poet might say, “Draw near; come close; pull up a chair…”using the repetition of synonymous terms and phrases to emphasize the point.

“My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you.” ~ Isaiah 26:9

The same could be said for this verse—synonyms used for emphasis.

Otherwise, what are we to think…one part of man yearns at night and another part longs in the morning? This doesn’t make a lot of sense? The dicotomist would argue that it does only if one reads it as the totality of my spiritual being both yearning for God in the night and longing for Him in the morning.

In truth, in these verses the dichotomist would be correct, for this is a literary style known as “parallelism” and is very common in ancient Hebrew poetry.

One can see the beauty of the language when this use of synonyms is employed by looking at how the passages would read without it, just repeating the same word. (Try it with Job 7:11 and you will see what I mean.)

So, this brings us to what I believe are the two most difficult passages to deal with and in which the trichotomist would have their greatest argument.

 

“May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:23

 

This passage should cause the dichotomist great pause, for at first blush, it appears as if there is here a list in which we find the three elements of man: spirit, soul and body.

However, the dichotomist would argue that if this were the correct understanding of the verse, all of the other passages mentioned would then become a problem.  I disagree! There are MANY passages in scripture which do not mention all that could be said of a given topic. In fact many times, more is less. To complicate a passage by being overly accurate and literal, often detracts from the greater focus of the passage.

The proper approach to studying complicated issues like this is to first divorce yourself from your bias and look at the totality of scripture, paying attention to the time, language and mind-set of both author and reader. There is more blending of the two words “soul and spirit” in the old testament than there is in the new. This can largely be explained by the more holistic understanding of man that the early Hebrews had, which began to change under Roman captivity and was more evident in those writings which addressed a Gentile (or Greek) audience. While this cannot clear all issues up, it goes a long way towards reconciling the differences in usage of the two words.

So, the explanation would look something like this: there are many places where the Scripture lists things and they are not necessarily all different pieces. For example, most trichotomists would say that the soul includes the mind and the heart, but in Matthew and Luke, Jesus says that we are to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and mind and soul…a list. If these are each separate pieces, then we now have man consisting of a body, a spirit, a soul, and a heart and a mind—five. But if the spiritual aspect of the heart and the mind are really part of the soul, then why not understand the list in 1 Thessalonians the same way? Why not understand the literary use of these synonyms to emphasize the totality of our spiritual being and my physical being kept blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ? That two would certainly reconcile all of the passages.

 

Finally let’s look at Hebrews 4:12,

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” ~ Hebrews 4:12)

The dichotomist would state, again, that in light of the weight of the Scriptural evidence, where soul and spirit are used interchangeably and are referring to the totality of the spiritual aspect of man, then this passage, too, is using these synonyms for emphasis as in someone encouraging you to fight with all of your strength and all of your might. Rather than looking at the passage as listing six individual pieces: spirit, soul, joints, marrow, thoughts, attitudes, look at the passage as listing two things that the Word of God can penetrate and divide: the spiritual part of man (soul/spirit) and the physical part of man (joints/marrow); followed by a third action: judging the heart (thoughts/attitudes).

Now, the trichotomist may not find all of this convincing and may continue to believe that 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12 are giving us evidence of separate elements of man’s makeup and this view has merit.

 

The difficulty

The only difficulty for which the trichotomist has an answer that the dichotomist does not is concerning how our spirits can be 100% “of God” and yet still have desires for evil.

This is NOT a problem for the trichotomist.

 

If we are a tri-part being…spirit…soul…body, then the choices we make are not directly controlled by either our flesh or our spirit, but is that part of us which exists between the two which is influenced by both and in which we make our choices to serve either good or evil.

 

This is hinted at in the writings of Paul in Romans 7 and in the writings of John in 1 John 3:9.

 

There are two ways of translating (and therefore understanding) 1 John 3:9. The passage reads like this…

 

“Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” ~ 1Jn. 3:9

 

 

The wording for cannot sin, can be taken to mean that the child of God cannot sin habitually. This is true on one level. A child of God cannot live a life-style devoted to sin as if he never came to know the Lord. As Matthew Henry would say,

He cannot so sin as to denominate him a sinner in opposition to a saint or servant of God. Again, he cannot sin comparatively, as he did before he was born of God, and as others do that are not so. And the reason is because he is born of God, which will amount to all this inhibition and impediment. 1. There is a light in his mind which shows him the evil and malignity of sin. 2. There is that bias upon his heart which disposes him to loathe and hate sin. 3. There is the spiritual seminal principle or disposition, that breaks the force and fulness of the sinful acts. They proceed not from such plenary power of corruption as they do in others, nor obtain that plenitude of heart, spirit, and consent, which they do in others. The spirit lusteth against the flesh. And therefore in respect to such sin it may be said, It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. It is not reckoned the person’s sin, in the gospel account, where the bent and frame of the mind and spirit are against it. Then, 4. There is a disposition for humiliation and repentance for sin, when it has been committed. He that is born of God cannot sin.”

 

I would agree with Matthew Henry, but I also see another conclusion here that does not present and “either/or”  scenario, but a “both/and”. The words, “the seed of Christ” speak of the nature, character and tendency of  Christ remains in him.

Who is “him”?

I would argue that this is the spirit of the man. That part which Paul says, “If I sin, it is no longer I who does it, but the sin that remains in me, for I know that IN ME (that is in my flesh) nothing good dwells.”  That part of man which is incapable of “producing sin” is the spirit man..that is “who the man actually IS.” So it is also true, that because the born again man has the divine nature in his spirit, his soul is still subject to evil. Which is why James tells us to receive the engrafted word of God which is able to save our SOULS. James is here speaking to Christians, and therefore they are already saved. So what part of the Christian is saved by receptivity to the holy word of God…the mind, will and emotions!

 

There are several other places in the New Testament which reveal this absolute new man or new creation, while not denying the need for our souls to be conformed to His image. This I believe is the greatest proof of the existence of a soul which exists separate from the spirit, yet directly connected with it in function.

Hi I am Pastor Mark...

I have been a pastor for nearly 30 years now (2018), though never quite like I am today. (more on that in a moment)

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As to my home, I have been married since 1995 to my wonderful wife Terissa Woodson who is my best friend, greatest personal support and most valued aid.
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As far as my education goes, I grew up in a Christian home, but questioned everything I was ever taught. I graduated from Bible college in 1990 and continued to question everything I was ever taught (I do not mention my college in order to avoid being labeled). Perhaps my greatest preparation for ministry has been life and ministry itself. To quote an author I have come to enjoy namely Fredrick Buechner in his writing entitled, Now and Then,

"If God speaks to us at all other than through such official channels as the Bible and the church, then I think that He speaks to us largely through what happens to us...if we keep our hearts open as well as our ears, if we listen with patience and hope, if we remember at all deeply and honestly, then I think we come to recognize beyond all doubt, that, however faintly we may hear Him, He is indeed speaking to us, and that, however little we may understand of it, His word to each of us is both recoverable and precious beyond telling."

~ Fredrick Buechner

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By 2009 I’d been Pastoring for nearly 20 years. Earlier in 2009 the Lord revealed to me that the way we had structured our church was not in keeping with the New Testament. This was a shock to me and it is was a revelation that did not come all at once but over the course of a few weeks.

We were a traditional single pastor led congregation. It was a top-bottom model of ministry which is in part biblical, but not in the form of a monarchy.

The needed change did not come into focus until about 9 very intense months of study and discussions with those who were leaders in our church at the time.

We believe the Bible teaches co-leadership with equal authority in each local assembly and though we currently only have one Pastor/Elder, it is our desire that God, in His faithfulness and timing, may bring us more as we grow in maturity and even in numbers. Having multiple shepherds with God's heart and equal authority protects both Shepherds and sheep. Equal accountability keep authority and doctrine in check. Multiple shepherds also provides teaching with various styles and giftings with leadership skills which are both different and complementary.

Well that is about all there is of interest to tell you about me. I hope our ministry here is a blessing to you and your family. I also hope that it is only a supplement to a local church where you are committed to other believers in a community of grace.

~God Bless!