Ask Steve: Dichotomism and Trichotomism


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Brothers, We are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry, Updated and Expanded

by John Piper

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B&H Publishing Group, 2013




Question: Steve, am I made up of a spirit, soul and body? In other words, do I have three parts as a human being? More? Less? What are your thoughts on what we humans are made of?


There is some debate about what constitutes a human being, or how many parts they have. The Bible makes an illustration of the human being as being made up of a spirit, soul, and body. But questions abound. Are the spirit, soul, and body all the same thing? Or are they three separate parts? Or could the spirit and the soul be one and the same while the body is different? Although I am not particularly dogmatic about my stance and don’t think that it is a heresy whether I choose the two-part theory or the three-part, my observation is that Scripture most likely points to the two-part theory, or dichotomism.

Dichotomism teaches that the human is composed of a physical body and an immaterial soul/spirit (which are two terms used interchangeably speaking of the same entity). The physical body is the visible part of the person, which everyone sees. This physical part will eventually die, but will be resurrected to glory when Christ returns for His church. The nonmaterial part of the person is called the soul/spirit. There is no distinction between soul and spirit. At times, Scripture may speak of soul and spirit as two separate parts, but they are most likely one and the same entity. When texts are compared (such as Gen 41:8 with Psalm 42:6 and Heb 12:23 with Rev 6:9), it appears that soul and spirit are merely interchangeable terms. Other texts like Matthew 10:28, Acts 2:31, and 1 Corinthians 5:3 also reveals the soul and spirit to be the same entity. Genesis 2:7 affirms that there are only two parts to the human body: the body derived from the dust of the ground, and the soul that was breathed into the person by God.

Regardless of what view you take of this position, one must agree with two things: 1. The body is not the only entity that a human has, and it is not the same as the soul or spirit, 2. Any one entity is not more important than the other. Believing that the body is all there is (with no spirit/soul) is to believe that this material world is all there is to life, thus denying the afterlife. This view is held by most secular humanists, who do not believe in God, sin, or an immaterial existence beyond this world.

Believers, who think that the body and the soul are the same, run into some problems as well. This is called monism. If the body and the soul are inseparable, then that would indicate that believers who die fall into “soul sleep,” and do not go to any intermediate heaven or hell. People who believe in this theory may be in the danger of also placing too much emphasis on the physical body (ex. health, lusts, pleasures), but not having enough eternal perspective that only comes with regard to the soul/spirit (ex. building treasures in heaven, evangelism). This is the folly of elevating the body in importance over the soul/spirit. However, the opposite effect can also be true, where one elevates the spirit/soul over the physical body since “eternity is all that matters.” One must understand that the physical body will be resurrected in glory someday and must not be treated as second-class, but should be properly cared for as good steward in this life, knowing that it will be the physical (but sinless) body we will have for all eternity in the new heavens and the new earth.

The third option is called trichotomy, which believes in the distinct parts of body, soul, and spirit. Like the dichotomist’s view, trichotomy understands the body to be the physical, visible part of man. They define the soul as the essence of our being, or what animates us and characterizes us as people. It is the psychological element of man, the basis for our reason, intellect, and social interactions. Possession of a soul distinguishes humans from plants, animals, and other forms of animate life. According to the trichotomist, the spirit is distinct from the soul in that the spirit is what actually connects us to God. It is the religious element of man which allows man to respond to spiritual things. Because unbelievers are dead in sin (Eph 2:1;Col2:13), that entails that the spirit within them is dead as well, until it can be revived to life through rebirth by the Holy Spirit. When sinners repent and get saved, their spirits come to life, and it is because of the life of the spirit that believers can actually respond to and obey God. God has to bring life to the spirit, which He does in His sovereignty that allows the sinner to repent and trust in Jesus for salvation.

In response to monism and dichotomism, there are few things that need to be said. First is that monism, especially in the materialistic sense, should be rejected, since the Bible clearly does not support the idea that humans are only composed of a physical body or that the body and soul are the same. Trichotomism is a much stronger position and is not a heretical idea to hold in any way. However, dichotomism is to be preferred over trichotomism because there seems to be more biblical support for the idea that humans have only a body and a soul/spirit.

For example, Jesus says in Matthew 10:28 that people must fear the One (God) who can kill both body and cast soul into hell. Here Jesus speaks of two entities, not three, implying that the spirit and soul may be one and the same. There are many passages that use the words spirit and soul as if they were different parts. However, context would indicate to us whether the terms speak of different entities or are used interchangeably to speak about the same idea. In Luke 1:46-47, Mary speaks about how her soul exalts the Lord and her spirit rejoices in her Savior. It seems as if the text speaks about two distinct parts of her body, but the two terms portray the same kind of activity, which is worship of God. Trichotomists say that it is the spirit that is responsible for any kind of genuine spiritual interaction with God, yet Luke 1:46-47 portrays Mary’s “soul” as participating in the same function of the spirit as well. Other instances of the term being used interchangeably are John 12:27 and 13:21, and Hebrews 12:39 and Revelation 6:9, which seems to indicate that the spirit and soul are one unit indicate of the person, separate from the physical body.

The human being is essentially a complex unity composed of a body and a more difficult unity of the spirit and soul. Holding to the doctrine of dichotomy is important because it gives us a healthy understanding of the human being. It is not only body, and so we should not live for this world alone while ignoring the things of eternity, since Christ commands the church in Matthew 6:19-21 to store up treasures in heaven.

In contrast, concentrating on the soul/spirit and ignoring the health of the body is not beneficial either, since it leans on a platonic view of the Christian faith that ignores the place of our physical bodies in the new earth. We must have a healthy balance that will honor God with our bodies, being able to maintain it properly but not idolize it, as well as understanding our priorities in this life and how that affects our eternity in heaven.