This final installment of Issues of the Soul, will consider how the aspect of the human soul fits with our understanding of human nature as a collective whole. There are three traditional views on the matter: Monism, Dichotomy and Trichotomy. We shall now turn our attention to understanding all three.
First, Monism is the view that man cannot exist apart from a physical body and that the “soul” and “spirit” are just expressions for the “person.” Not only is there no Scriptural support for this, but God’s Word actually speaks to the contrary (Luke 23:43, Acts 7:59, Philippians 1:23-24, 2 Corinthians 5:8, Revelation 6:9). Those who claim to hold to an orthodox view of Christianity cannot embrace this view.
There is, however, freedom to embrace either of the next two views as a Bible-believing Christian:
This is the most common view held by theologians, and is the position that I will make a case for in this post. It sees Scripture as using the words spirit and soul interchangeably. Accordingly, this position would say that man is comprised of body and soul. One reason for this view is that in Scripture, everything the soul is said to do, the spirit is said to do as well and vise versa. For example both the soul and spirit are recorded as worshipping God (Psalms 103:1, John 4:24).
Another main reason for accepting this position is the original creation and death. The creation account appears to teach that man was made of two substances. The body was made of earthly material and the soul/spirit was given by God (Genesis 2:7). Furthermore, when the spirit departs, the body is dead (James 2:26).
Here are additional comparisons which confirm the transposable use of soul and spirit (Grudem):
1.Troubled in soul / Troubled in spirit (John 12:27 / John 13:21)
2. Soul departs / Spirit departs (Genesis 35:18 and 1 Kings 17:21 / John 19:30 and Acts 7:59)
3. Body and soul / Body and spirit (Mathtew 10:28 / 1 Corinthians 5:5)
4. Soul can sin/ Spirit can sin (1 Peter 1:22 and Revelation 18:14 / Psalms 78:8)
This view sees the body, soul and spirit as completely separate entities. The body is obviously the physical, which is not different from the dichotomist view. However, this belief would separate the soul as solely the intellect, will and emotions, and the spirit as the superior faculty that comes alive when one becomes a Christian.
This view is often defended with the use of Romans 8:10, which says, “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” The human spirit, however, “is not something that is dead in an unbeliever but comes to life when someone trusts in Christ, because the Bible talks about unbelievers having a spirit that is obviously alive but is in rebellion against God” (Grudem, 481). Some Scriptural references for this are: Deuteronomy 2:30, Daniel 5:20 and Psalms 78:8. Furthermore, when Paul says that we are made alive to Christ, “he does not imply that our spirits were completely ‘dead’ before, only that they were living out of fellowship with God and were dead in that sense…the same as we were ‘dead’ in ‘trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1)” (Grudem, 481).
Another argument that is made in defense of Trichotomy is that First Thessalonians 5:23 clearly speaks of three parts of man: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit, and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (NASB). However, this verse is inconclusive, and certainly is not enough to build a whole position around. For instance, Paul could be piling up synonyms for emphasis like is done in other parts of Scripture. Examples of this would be Matthew 22:37 and Mark 12:30, which are obviously not dividing all the aspects listed into separate parts of man. No, the point Paul is making in First Thessalonians 5:23 is that we are to love God with our entire being. Grudem explains it this way: “Likewise, in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 Paul is not saying that soul and spirit are distinct entities, but simply that, whatever our immaterial part is called, he wants God to continue to sanctify us wholly to the day of Christ” (Grudem, 479).
In my opinion one of the stronger defenses the Trichotomist can make centers on Hebrews 4:12, which says, “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (NASB). If this sword divides soul and spirit, then aren’t these two separate parts? The response to this would be to point out that the purpose of the passage isn’t to depict division, but rather to show that the deep parts of man are not hidden from the word of God.
While I have been more convinced of the case made by the Dichotomist view, and why most theologians (according to Wayne Grudem) are also Dichotomists, there are certainly wise and believing saints who hold to the Trichotomist standpoint. This is a non-essential element of Christian doctrine which allows for liberty. Have fun discussing and debating it, but never let it breed dissension.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology; An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.
Lewis, Kevin. Personal notes from Essential Christian Doctrine Lectures. Biola University; La Mirada, CA, 2013.
Shedd, William G.T. Dogmatic Theology. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003.