Trichotomous or Dichotomous?
There are lots of tricky sounding words that have been cut and pasted onto Christian theology. The words themselves are not found in the scriptures, but they are used to define concepts that are contained in the word of God.
The word “trichotomy” or “trichotomous” is used to describe the belief that human beings consist of “three” – spirit, soul and body.
The apostles were trichotomous in their theology. The apostle Paul said – And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ – I Thessalonians 5:23.
The scriptures in both the Old and New Testaments make a distinction between the soul and the spirit. In the Old Testament the word for spirit is Ruach, in the Greek, Pneuma. The word for soul in the Hebrew is Nephesh, in Greek, Psuche.
Sometimes the words for spirit and soul are used interchangeably and the meanings overlap. The word for spirit is used on occasion to indicate the soul, and vice versa. Because of this there arose out of the murky swamp of theological definitions the ominous two-horned “dichotomous.” A dichotomist believes the spirit and the soul are the same, therefore humans are merely two, soul and body. Some folks even go so far as to label anyone who is a trichotomist as a heretic. It is time for the three-horned trichotomus to stop being chased through the swamp to turn and defend its theological right to exist.
I’m sure no one would want to deliberately offend the apostle Paul by accusing him of being a heretic for his comment in I Thessalonians 5:23, yet that is what those critics of the tricohotomist position are doing when they contradict the apostle who said - Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ – I Corinthians 11:1. The Apostle Paul was a very fine Hebrew scholar and who I am sure, recognized the distinction in the Hebrew of soul and spirit; the spirit being the life force, and the soul the actual person.
Following the Apostle’s example I don the name tag that designates me as a trichodomist. Now I must respond to the growling protests of the dichotomists in our audience who think the apostle Paul is wrong.
I am willing to acknowledge that the words soul and spirit are sometimes used interchangeably; at the same time I also recognize that they are also used separately, indicating that they are two distinct elements. Can both concepts be reconciled? Yes, they can.
It is generally understood by those who follow the trichotomous theology that the spirit gives life to the body and influences the soul. The soul is understood to be the person of anyone. We save souls, because the soul survives the death of the body and must be cleansed by faith in the atonement through Messiah Jesus in order to inherit eternal life.
What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul (psuche)? - Mark 8:36.
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul (psuche): but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul (psuche) and body in hell - Matthew 10:28.
He will redeem his soul (nephesh) from going down to the pit, and his life shall see light - Job 33:28.
Dichotomists believe that the soul gives life to the body, and in the original Greek it is indicated that the soul can also be part of the life force.
Yet, the very definite distinction between soul and spirit still exists, leading us to the conclusion that spirit and soul are two distinct elements of a human’s construction that are one to the point of being indistinguishable from each other, but they can also function separately.
Let’s take a look at this example from the scriptures –
The prophet Isaiah says,
With my soul (nephesh) have I desired Thee in the night, yea, with my spirit (ruach) within me I will seek Thee early, for when Thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness – Isaiah 26:9.
The prophet’s soul/person desires God, he seeks Him with his spirit.
And Mary said, My soul (psuche) does magnify the Lord, and my spirit (pneuma) has rejoiced in God my saviour – Luke 1:46,47.
Mary’s soul, her person, who she is, magnifies, her spirit rejoices.
The spirit and the soul can operate simultaneously in separate functions.
The soul/person is made by God through His Spirit and given life by His breath -
The Spirit of God has made me (the soul/person) and the breath (neshamah) has given me life – Job 33:4.
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath (neshamah) of life; and man became a living soul (nephesh). – Genesis 2:7
As the Lord liveth, that made us this soul (nephesh) - Jeremiah 38:16.
The word neshamah (breath), which can also mean spirit, is used in reference to the life force in a human to distinguish it from God’s Holy Spirit (Ruach). The word ruwach can be used to designate man’s spirit and also God’s Holy Spirit. We must then examine the texts that we are studying to determine the usage; whether it is being used to designate a human spirit, or God’s Holy Spirit.
Jesus said that it is the spirit that gives life (quickens) – John 6:63.
For the body without the spirit (pneuma) is dead – James 2:26
Here Jesus and the apostle James are telling us that the pneuma/spirit is the life force.
When we die -
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit (ruach) shall return unto God who gave it – Ecclesiastes 12:7. While the spirit, or life force, can return to God upon the death of the human body, the soul, which is the person, cannot return to God unless it is redeemed; that is sanctified by the atonement of Jesus Christ. This is why we can see from the examples given to us in the Scriptures that when someone dies, their spirit, the life force returns to God, but the soul must remain. When Abel was murdered by his brother Cain, his spirit, his life force returned to the God who gave it, but his voice was heard crying out from the ground (Genesis 4:10). The person/soul that needed to be saved remained behind.
The Hebrews believed that after the death of the body, souls were separated into two dwellings based on their deeds. The righteous dead remained in paradise and the wicked were in hell to await the resurrection of the dead. So we see that when the beggar Lazarus died in Jesus' parable, his spirit returned to God, but Lazarus' person/soul is seen in paradise with Abraham - And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom (Luke16:22,23).
The apostle Peter tells us that after Jesus died on the cross He was sent by the Spirit to hell where He ministered the Gospel to the souls there (I Peter 3:19,20). Their spirits/life forces had returned to God, but their souls, their persons, who they are, remained in hell or paradise waiting redemption.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that – The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart – Hebrews 4:12.
Here the word tells us that there are two; soul and spirit. The context indicates that these two are united so closely they are also like two parts of one body, the joint, a connection and the marrow, the inner part of the bone. The scriptures are showing us by this comparison of soul and spirit and joint and marrow, that these two things that are so intimately connected as one are also two and can be separated.
Therefore, the soul/person of anyone is intimately joined to the spirit in such a union of the two, so as to make the two completely one to the point of being indistinguishable from the other, yet they can operate separately and be separated from each other upon death.
Because soul and spirit are so closely united, we can begin to see why in the scriptures the two elements of spirit and soul are sometimes used interchangeably and viewed as one.
We can see this principle operating in the relationship of the Father and the Son. The Son’s person/soul is begotten and given life by the Holy Spirit –
Thou art My Son, this day have I begotten Thee - Hebrews 1:5, Psalm 2:7.
I have put My Spirit upon Him: He shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles - Isaiah 42:1.
For He whom God hath sent speaks the words of God: for God gives not the Spirit by measure unto Him - John 3:34.
For as the Father has life in Himself: so hath He given to the Son to have life in Himself - John 5:26.
The two, the Son and the Father are joined in intimate union through the joining of the Father’s Spirit with His Son’s person/soul. The two are one – I and My Father are One (John 10:30).
We are made in the image of God; - He is Spirit, - God is a Spirit - John 4:24.– He has a person, which is referred to in the Scriptures as “soul” as we shall see, and He has an image which is His Son, Jesus, who is the begotten Word, the image of God’s character and holiness.
Human beings are soul, the person, animated by the “breath” spirit, and these two invisible components are housed by a visible image of flesh and blood. The spirit is thus likened to the “joint” described in Hebrews, making the connection with the marrow - our souls, two invisible components united with the visible bones of our image, which is made in the image of our Creator, consisting of spirit, soul and image.
The distinction between soul and spirit is also exemplified in the Scripture’s portrait of God the Father. Jesus said, “God is Spirit” – John 4:24. The Father is one Spirit (ruach) and He also has a “person.” God’s person is referred to in the Old Testament as “soul,” (nephesh).
Behold! My servant whom I uphold, My elect One in whom My soul (nephesh) delights! - Isaiah 42:1.
Be instructed, O Jerusalem, lest My soul (nephesh) depart from you, lest I make you desolate, a land not inhabited - Jeremiah 6:8.
I will set My tabernacle among you, and My soul (nephesh) shall not abhor you - Leviticus 26:11.
The Lord tests the righteous, but the wicked and the one who loves violence His soul (nephesh) hates - Psalm 11:5.
God’s soul or “Person” directs the operations of His Spirit. God wills, sends, and ministers His Spirit to create and interact with men.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters – Genesis 1:1,2.
Thou sendest forth Thy Spirit, they are created – Psalm 104:30.
I will pour out of My Spirit upon all flesh - Acts 2:17, Joel 2:28.
He therefore that ministers to you the Spirit, and works miracles among you… Galatians 3:5.
God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to His own will... Hebrews 2:4.
And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which works all in all - I Corinthains12:6 KJV.
We can see from these Scriptures the interaction of a Mind/person that wills and a Spirit that responds.
We are told in the New Testament that that God is invisible Spirit and that He dwells in light unapproachable, and Jesus is the image of that which is invisible and unapproachable (I Timothy 6:16.)
We know that God’s Spirit can interact with men, but His holiness, the unapproachable light of His person/being is beyond contact with mere humans. Thus the glory of God’s person/soul operates through His Spirit to communicate and move among men. The Spirit therefore acts like insulation. We can use the example of an electrical cord. We can touch the cord, but not the power it is insulating.
God says in Joel 2:28 that He will “pour out My Spirit upon all flesh.” This event was fulfilled in Acts chapter two. Because of the Messiah’s sacrifice for us we, too, can be joined in intimate union with God as Jesus is joined to His Father. Through faith in the atonement, Jesus’ amazing sacrifice for mankind, God’s Holy Spirit can be united with His people, and the two, God and man, are joined as one as the Father desires us to be – in an intimate relationship with Him, just like spirit and soul.
For through Him (Messiah Jesus) we both (Jew and Gentile) have access by one Spirit unto the Father - Ephesians 2:18
Free ebook! - Understanding the Biblical Trinity from the Scriptures - It's all about God's Love for You