Home > Bible Topics > History and Culture > this page
Site Contents
Daily Readings
Bible Topics
Worship Topics
Ministry Topics
Church Year
Theology Topics
New Additions

Body and Soul
Greek and Hebraic Tensions in Scripture

Thoughts on the Di-/Trichotomous Debate

Dennis Bratcher

There is much in Christian tradition, and thereby in various church doctrines, that has its roots in philosophical ideas and speculation rather than in Scripture. The Reformation helped, but did not address all aspects of the problem, so we are left with a legacy of theology that was developed to answer the questions raised by idealistic Greek philosophy, especially the Platonic and neo-Platonic strands, rather than to explicate Scripture. That leaves us with the sometimes uncomfortable reality that the biblical perspective does not work from the same philosophical base that many early church formulations do.

Part of the problem is the dualistic way that we have conceptualized human beings through most of Christian history. Simply, this holds that human beings are made up of two (dichotomy) or three (trichotomy) distinct parts, one physical (body) and one spiritual (soul, spirit, mind). In either di- or tri- models, death is the breaking apart of the spiritual, which is immortal, from the physical, which is the part that dies. The real person is the spiritual since the body is only a shell that is discarded at death. For the real us, death is not really real; it is only a doorway through which the soul/spirit passes between worlds or planes of existence.

A dualistic view of reality understands there to be two (thus dualism) levels of existence. The top level (a logical metaphor, not a spatial term) is ultimate reality, and consists of ideas, such as truth, beauty, goodness, justice, perfection. In other words, the ultimate reality is non-corporeal, or non-physical. It is the level of spirit and deity.

The lower level is the physical world which in which we live. It is the opposite of ultimate reality, thus it is not real in the sense that it is not ultimate. It contains the imperfect physical manifestations of the ideas that exist in the perfect plane, so by definition it is characterized by falsehood, ugliness, evil, injustice, imperfection.

So, for example, I can have an idea of a perfect chair. That idea is the ultimate reality of "chair," because it is perfect in every way. However, any given chair that exists in physical time and space is only an imperfect attempt to copy the ultimate reality that only exists on the level of idea, since any given physical chair cannot be perfect in every way. A physical chair is therefore false, ugly, evil, etc., since it only crudely approximates the ideal or the ultimate reality of "chairness."  The result of this conceptual model of reality is a view that, by definition, sees everything that exists in the physical world, since it inhabits that level of reality that is imperfect and evil, as itself imperfect and evil.

As this is applied to human beings, it has interesting results. On the one hand, human beings are viewed much like the physical chair. Since they exist in the lower level of reality, they are by definition evil, imperfect, and, to introduce a value term, sinful. However, since human beings also exhibit the capability to think and contemplate the ideal level, to conceptualize ultimate reality they must be something more than purely physical and totally evil. So, the idea is introduced that human beings also have a "spark of the divine" within their physical body.

This spark of the divine, usually termed soul or spirit depending on the system used, is what allows human beings to conceptualize the ideal plane, and is also the part of humanity with which God can communicate. But this small flicker of the ideal is trapped in a physical body that is totally a part of the lower level of existence, which is to say, is totally evil. Therefore, while the real us can have communion with God on some primitive level as a function of God’s grace, the physical body remains evil and sinful. It cannot ever be anything other than that because that is the nature of physical existence.

So, there is constant struggle between the physical side and the spiritual side of human beings. But the soul can never master the physical, so the only final solution to the struggle is to shed the physical body and move to the ideal plane of existence, which for human beings is death. Thus is born the concept of the immortality of the soul, a spirit trapped in an evil physical body that needs to be shed so that the real us can move on to that ideal level of perfection that we can never reach as long as we are trapped in physical existence.

This has implications is many areas, such as thinking about how God works with humans. In this view, humans can never be transformed into anything other than sinful beings as long as they live in a body that is by definition sinful. They cannot really obey God, so God does what is necessary on their behalf in Christ. Since Christ was righteous, God in His grace has decreed that the righteousness of Christ is to be counted as (the technical term is imputed) the righteousness of humanity.

Continuing the logical metaphor of "top-bottom," as God looks down at humanity, he would see their evil and sinfulness. But Christ serves as the mediator coming between God and sinful humanity, so that when God looks at humanity, he sees the righteousness of Christ. The righteousness of Christ is counted as human righteousness. People are not really righteous and cannot be, since they still live in evil ,sinful bodies in an evil, sinful world. But, drawing heavily on legal metaphors, they are pardoned even though they remain guilty and sinful.

This view has many other implications for how we think about Christianity, such as thinking we have to shed the physical body to be with God (immortality of the soul), rather than the biblical view that God actually redeems his creation (the physical world), with the model of death and resurrection. Interestingly, it is that same model of death and resurrection that the early church used to talk about salvation, especially in the baptismal liturgy (buried with Christ, raised to new life).

This view also leads to the practice of mortification of the body, attempts by various means to subdue the physical aspect of human existence. Throughout church history it has come out in various ways, from living in monasteries isolated from the physical world, to vows of celibacy, to very restrictive ideas about sexuality (it is sinful for any purpose but procreation).

Finally, however, from the perspective of Scripture itself, the whole di- or tri-chotomous idea is not a very good conceptual category for talking about God’s work with human beings. Even though it was used extensively in the Early Church and has been popularized in some circles today, it is not a category used in Scripture.  That simply says that it is not a category that reflects how the ancient Israelites, or even by and large NT writers, conceptualized human beings. It comes largely from Greek philosophy, which begins with some very basic assumptions about the nature of ultimate reality and therefore addresses conceptual issues that lie outside the range and concern of most biblical thought as well as the biblical message (which is focused on "salvation" issues, not questions of ultimate reality).

As noted, the basic starting point in this conception is that the physical world is inherently evil, and unredeemably so, which leads to a radical dualism in how reality and human beings are understood (body/physical=bad; soul/spirit=good). It fits very well with a classical Calvinistic system, since for Calvinists sin is rooted in the physical world and thus the body. This leads to a position that humanity, as long as they exist in a physical world, can never be other than sinful. Wesleyans disagree from the ground up with this conception.

Now, I realize that the modification functional attached to di/trichotomy as used by some people tries to alleviate some of these problems by attempting to move the concepts from talking about ultimate reality to addressing human behavior in terms of models.  But I would suggest that it is still working within a conceptual framework that does not lend itself either to explicating Scripture, which works with vastly different conceptual categories, or with Wesleyan theology, which begins with different assumptions about the world and God’s work in it.

The Hebraic view that dominates Scripture does not conceptualize human beings this way. There is only a whole person animated (alive) by the breath of God. They are either alive, and have breath (same word translated as "spirit"), or they are dead and do not have breath. The biblical writers could certainly distinguish between different aspects of humanity, such as the difference between thought and hunger, or between pain and love, but never developed dualistic notions of a person being made up of divisible parts. The person was the whole. Anything less than the whole, was not a person. This extended even to how they conceptualized death. For us, it is a biological fact. For them, anything that diminished life was a form of death.

All this says, from the biblical view there cannot be a person without a body. That’s why the biblical conception of afterlife requires a bodily resurrection that has a physical dimension, including scars!

There are several aspects to consider from this Hebraic perspective in looking at Scripture. First, the English words used for translation of the Hebrew and Greek terms (body, soul, spirit, mind) now have ranges of meaning arising from nearly two millennia of use in the church, and range far beyond the meaning of any of those terms in the original languages. So, we read those terms today in light of that accrued meaning rather than the meaning within the biblical language or text itself.

For example, there is no Hebrew word or idea even closely related to the concept communicated by the word "soul" in English. The Hebrew term translated "soul" in the King James Version (Heb: nephesh), has a wide range of meaning in Hebrew, most often simply meaning "person," but also meaning hunger, appetite, throat, or even dead corpse. But it does not mean what we now mean by "soul." The same is true of the term "mind," a concept not clearly expressed in the Hebrew language, although the metaphor "heart" comes close as it refers to an action of will ("Love the Lord with all your heart" means to make a conscious decision and commitment to serve God).

Likewise the term spirit in Hebrew is a metaphorical term to describe activity or vitality, a metaphor drawn from the fact that the same word in Hebrew (Heb: ruach) also means "wind" or "breath" (especially the movement associated with both). So, for example, Ecclesiastes 12:7 is not a specific statement that the "spirit" or soul returns to God at death. It is simply a metaphorical reference to the fact that at death, people stop breathing; the breath that is a gift of God, a gift that animates human beings and brings life, is gone and returns to the one who gave it (cf. Ps 104:29-30). That metaphor can be used to confess something about God, specifically that He is the only source of human life (cf. Gen 2:7). But it does not imply a di/trichotomous conception of humanity. Likewise the "spirit" of God is a way to talk about God as present and active in the world. Even in the New Testament, even though the writers sometimes use the terms in a wider meaning in dialog with their culture, the basic conception behind most of the terms remains Hebraic, not Greek.

A second issue relates to two features of Hebrew language that are also evident in the New Testament, especially when the writers are using Old Testament texts or alluding to them directly or indirectly. Both are rhetorical techniques, or ways that languages or cultures who use certain languages communicate ideas or points of emphasis. First, Hebrew has a tendency to describe the whole by referencing parts of the whole. "Strong right arm" is a way to refer to the overall strength or power of a person. "From Dan to Beersheba" is a way to reference the entire land of Israel, from far north to south. "David" is a way to talk about the Israelite monarchy.

Second, Hebrew has a tendency to string together two or more complementary images for poetic effect or emphasis. That is, the same idea is repeated with a series of words that mean the same thing. This is especially evident in poetic passages, and is termed parallelism . For example, in Psa 19:1, there are 2 pair of parallel lines in which the words of the paired lines mean essentially the same. The same feature can also be used to contrast ideas (see Parallelism in Hebrew Writing).

The implication of these features is that a series of words, such as "with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might" (Deut 6:4), is not an attempt to describe different aspects or compartments of human beings, but is a way to say "with all of your being," with the whole person. They are not "parts," as in a trichotomous view, but an emphatic way for an element to stand for the whole, and for a series of parallel terms to emphasize a point.

This feature is fairly obvious in the passage from 1 Thessalonians (5:23): "May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."  The emphasis is clearly on the whole person, not on a person composed of three parts.

There may be some sense in which the terms may reflect the person as seen from various points of emphasis, for example, the person in relation to God’s gift of life (spirit), in relation to his existence as a human being (soul), and in relation to his existence in a physical world (body). But that is not quite the same as a trichotomous view, even a functional trichotomy. The conception is of a unified human being, not one who can be broken down into component parts.

And this does have significant implications for how we conceptualize God’s work in the lives of human beings. I personally think it carries great risk to try to talk about God sanctifying only the "spirit" or the "soul" or the "inner man" while leaving the "mind" or the "body" or the "outer man" untouched by God’s redemptive transformation. This is about as close to Calvinism as you can get, or at the very least leaves us with an adulterated Wesleyan view (called Keswickian) in which the sinful nature rooted in the physical body is only continually suppressed by God’s grace. This leads to a pessimism about human ability even with God's help to respond to God and to fulfill the "righteous requirement" of relationship with God (cf. Rom 8:4; see The English Term "Perfect") . It also has implications for other concepts, such as resurrection.

The same principles above apply even to passages in the New Testament, such as in Hebrews. The dividing "soul from spirit" is paralleled to dividing "joints from marrow," which by the principle of parallelism suggests that the terms mean the same thing on some level. Yet, we don’t usually talk about joints and marrow being distinct parts of humanity. The imagery here is in the context of God being able to discern the hidden intentions of a person and separate them from false external motives, just as a sword can expose and divide the hidden parts of a person. It is far more likely that this is vivid metaphor than it is commentary on the component parts that comprise human beings.

None of this is to say that a "functional trichotomy" has no value for anyone in helping conceptualize human beings. But it is not a biblical concept, and not one that lies behind the biblical formulations of human beings or God’s work with human beings. For that reason, I personally do not find it helpful. I have also found it very easy for people to misunderstand such metaphors and thereby reach conclusions inconsistent within a larger Wesleyan  theological framework.

The biblical view is not a statement about ultimate reality, and will not answer all the questions we want to pose to it. It is just the biblical perspective, from a certain cultural and world view, and will not always satisfy all of our curiosities or answer all the questions we might want to pose from 2,000 years later in history.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
See Copyright and User Information Notice

Related pages