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With few exceptions, the Christian church has affirmed that human nature is a body-soul composite. As created by God, a human’s body and soul are united as a self-conscious person in a psychosomatic unity—a view known as dichotomy. The purpose of this essay is to survey the biblical teaching regarding the body (the physical/material element of human nature) and the soul (the immaterial element variously described in the Bible as either “soul” or “spirit”). After considering the biblical data, we will address a popular departure from the biblical teaching known as trichotomy—the view that humans are composed of bodies, souls, and spirits—which denies that human nature is a body-soul composite.

We begin with our bodily existence. Since it is taught in the creation account, Christians have affirmed this truth against the challenges of non-Christian and pagan thought. The Bible tells us that bodily existence is essential to human nature, which mitigates the tendency to depreciate the body because it is material, as found in Platonic philosophy (which asserts that the soul is immortal and essential to human nature, while the body is not), or Gnostic distortions of Christian teaching (which contend that our divine spiritual nature dominates human existence). Christianity, on the contrary, teaches that the body is not a mere appendage to the spirit and that the spirit does not transmigrate to higher or lower forms of life (as in reincarnation). Neither is the body the prison house of the soul, a popular but unbiblical notion. The body is an essential element of human existence. The body is not evil just because it is material.

Death and the resulting separation of body from the soul are due to the wages of sin, the tearing apart of the unity of body and soul that God established at creation. God created the human body first, and only then did He breathe life into the body He made from the dust of the ground and designed for existence in a material world (Gen. 2:7). God pronounced everything He had made to be “very good” (1:31), including the body, as reaffirmed in Psalm 139. Our return to dust at death after the soul’s departure from our body is not the ultimate liberation of the spiritual from the material but the sad consequence of Adam’s sin and the curse (death).

Trichotomy has been rejected by virtually all Christian theologians.

In addition to the creation account, there are other important considerations regarding the material element of human nature. In His incarnation, Jesus Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity, took to Himself a true human nature (Gal. 4:4), indicating that our bodily existence was suitable for Christ’s incarnation. A second consideration is that Jesus’ body was raised from the dead (Luke 24:40–43; 1 Cor. 15:3–8). It is described as the firstfruits of the resurrection of the bodies of those who are in Christ (1 Cor. 15:35–58). Contrary to popular lore, we will not spend eternity as disembodied spirits, floating weightlessly on the clouds. Rather, we will be redeemed in resurrected and glorified bodies, forever rejoined to our soul-spirit with the integrity of the person fully restored. Through His bodily resurrection and glorification, Jesus has undone the penalty of sin—the separation of body from soul at death.

The fact that we have an immaterial, spiritual element in addition to our material bodies is equally clear in Scripture. This immaterial element is variously identified in Scripture as “soul” (Greek psych ) or “spirit” (pneuma). Jesus speaks of “soul and body” in Matthew 10:28, while in Matthew 26:41, He contrasts “flesh” and “spirit.” The terms “soul” and “spirit” are used interchangeably. A “spirit” is immaterial (Luke 24:39) and said to be within us (1 Cor. 2:11). Elsewhere, Paul speaks of sanctification as purification from “every defilement of body and spirit” (2 Cor. 7:1). James speaks of a body without a spirit as “dead” (James 2:26) because at death, the spirit leaves the body (Matt. 27:50; Acts 7:59).

The term “soul” is used in various ways throughout Scripture, but it generally refers to life as constituted in the body (as in Matt. 16:25–26; 20:28; Luke 14:26; John 10:11–18; Acts 15:26; 20:10; Phil. 2:30; 1 John 3:16). The word often serves as a synonym for the entire person (e.g., Luke 12:19; Acts 2:41, 43; Rom. 2:9; 3:11; James 1:21; 5:20; 1 Peter 1:9). “Spirit” can likewise refer to human life in a general sense (as in Matt. 27:50 when Jesus gave up His spirit), or it can refer to the spiritual aspect of human life in contrast to the flesh (Greek sarx, as in 1 Thess. 5:23).

Trichotomists contend that the body is the material element of human nature, the soul is the life force, and the spirit is the immortal element of human existence that relates to God. Trichotomy has been rejected by virtually all Christian theologians as a speculative Greek philosophical notion rather than a biblical conception. Admittedly, a doctrine is not necessarily false simply because of its origins, but it is important to remember that a doctrine’s pedigree is often a good clue as to its ultimate consequences. When viewed from the perspective of Christian reflection across time, trichotomy has a dubious pedigree. With its roots in Plato’s separation of body from soul and Aristotle’s further division of soul into “animal” and “rational” elements, the trichotomist notion of human nature as tripartite is unmistakably pagan rather than biblical.

Trichotomy has been defended in a number of ways. In popular Christian literature and preaching, it is asserted that since God is a Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and since humans are created in God’s image, humans too are tripartite, composed of a body, a soul, and a spirit. But such analogies are unnecessary inferences and not properly drawn from the biblical data.

Two biblical texts are often used to demonstrate trichotomy to be the biblical teaching. Several early Christian writers found confirmation of trichotomy in the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:23: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Yet in the light of the cumulative biblical data, another intention on Paul’s part is apparent. The Apostle is not cataloging the constituent elements of human nature any more than Jesus was doing so in Luke 10:27 when He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” As Jesus does, Paul uses multiple terms for the sake of emphasis.

The most widely used proof-text for trichotomy is Hebrews 4:12: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Trichotomists argue that a division is made between soul and spirit, indicating that they cannot be synonymous. But the idea of “division” is never used in Scripture in the sense of distinguishing between two different things. It is always used when distributing and dividing up various aspects of the same thing (Matt. 27:35; Luke 11:17–18; John 19:24; Heb. 2:4). The author’s point is not that the Word divides soul from spirit as though these were two distinct elements of human nature but that the Word of God divides soul and spirit in the sense of penetrating into our innermost parts.

The difference between trichotomy and biblical dichotomy has significant consequences that inevitably inform a Christian understanding of the creation account and essential human nature. For instance, trichotomy holds that God does not redeem the whole person in this life (body and soul) but places a regenerate (eternal) spirit within us that does not need redemption.

God has made us in His image, entailing a bodily element suitable for earthly existence and prefiguring Christ’s incarnation. God gives us souls (or spirits) with conscious self-awareness that desire to and are able to commune with Him. Death (our great enemy) is the separation of that which God has joined together. It is the curse upon a fallen race, not our liberation from things material. In the general resurrection at the end of the age, God raises us as “spiritual bodies” (redeemed bodies and souls) that are imperishable and that, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, are raised in power and therefore suited for the eternal glories of heaven.

Man as the Image of God

Man in Covenant Relation to God

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From the September 2022 Issue
Sep 2022 Issue