The Essential Nature of Man

Posted by Robert Hood on

By Bob Hood B.A.; M.Div.



It is evident that man has both a material part (physical body) and an immaterial part (soul).  The Scriptures teach that God formed the body of man of the dust of the earth, and breathed into him the breath of life and he became a living soul. According to the creation account in Genesis 2, man consists of two distinct principles, a body and a soul: the one material, the other immaterial; the one corporeal, the other spiritual. The impression left upon any ordinary reader by perusing the Creation narrative is surely that man is composed of body and of soul.


 Trichotomy or Dichotomy

Some people believe that in addition to 'body' and 'soul' man has a third part, a 'spirit' that directly relates to God. The view that man is made up of three parts (body, soul and spirit) is called trichotomy and the view that man is made up of two parts (body and soul) is called dichotomy.  Many trichotomists believe that man’s soul includes his intellect, emotions and will.  They hold that all men have souls by which they either serve God or serve sin. They hold that man’s spirit is a higher faculty of the inner man than the soul and comes alive at the moment of salvation (Rom. 8:10).  The spirit of a person is that faculty in man that most directly relates to God through prayer, worship and other “spiritual” activities (John 4:24, Phil. 3:3). 

The dichotomist believes that “spirit” is not a separate part of man, but merely another term for “soul.”  They would argue that both terms, soul and spirit, are used interchangeably.  Dichotomists believe the Scripture indicates that the immaterial part of man that lives on after the body dies includes “soul” and “spirit,” which are not distinct ontologically.  


Arguments for a Trichotomy

A common verse used in support of a trichotomy is I Thessalonians 5:23, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely: and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

This argument appears to have weight from the Greek text, which uses the definite article, attached to each word emphasizing identity.  Absence of the definite article would emphasize quality.  However, it is more probable contextually that Paul is merely representing the whole man and not defining the parts of man. Surely the intent of this passage is not to define the essential ontological makeup of man. The emphasis is on wholeness rather than distinction. I agree with Grudem who argues that Paul is “simply piling up synonyms for emphasis”[1]  The definite article should be considered anaphoric (previous reference). The article points back to what was previously mentioned reminding the readers that the God of peace can sanctify them completely… and in a final statement verse 24 says, “He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it.”  Some would argue that the “and” between soul and spirit demands a distinction in entities. The trichotomist insists that the conjunction "and" between "spirit" and "soul" intends that they be viewed as separate entities. But I would urge, first, that it is no less precarious to argue that "spirit" and "soul" refer here to separate, immaterial entities on the basis of the "and" between them than it is to argue that “heart” and “soul” and “strength” and “mind” in Luke 10:27 refer to separate immaterial entities because of the repeated "and" there. Second, the adverb "wholly" and the adjective "whole" in the verse strongly suggest that the author’s intent and emphasis of the verse is on the Christian man viewed here in his entirety as the "whole man" being preserved blameless.

Hebrews 4:12 seems to separate soul from spirit and so suggests a distinction between them.  However, this verse may simply be emphasizing the point that the word of God leaves nothing hidden.  Ryrie makes this point, “The verse does not say that the Word severs soul from Spirit but that it pierces through to divide soul and spirit, thus exposing the innermost aspects of man.”[2]  Here the trichotomist insists, since the soul can be "divided" from the spirit, it is evidence that they are two separate and distinct ontological entities. But this is to ignore the fact that "soul" and "spirit" are both genitives governed by the participle "dividing." The verse is saying that the Word of God "divides" the soul, even the spirit. But it does not say that the Word of God divides between soul and spirit (that would require some such word as metaxu) or divides the soul from the spirit. The verse no more intends to teach an ontological division between soul and spirit  than it intends, when it goes on to say that the Word is the judge of thoughts and of intents of the heart (again, two genitives governed by the noun "judge"), that thoughts and intents are ontologically distinct things. Clearly, intents are simply one kind of thought. What the verse is actually saying is that the Word of God is able to penetrate into the deepest recesses of a man's spirit and judge his very thoughts, even the secret intentions of his heart.



Summary of 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12

The trichotomist interpretation of 1Thessalonians and Hebrews must be rejected for the following reasons: 1) Systematic study of Biblical theology: The Scriptures should be viewed as a whole and in harmony with all of its individual parts and without contradictions. If the broad sweep of Scripture uses words such as “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably, then these two apparent discrepancies should be harmonized with the whole;  2) Context of the verses in question:  A basic rule of Biblical hermeneutics is an examination of the context in which any verse is found. To ignore the context is to ignore the intention of the original author. Neither of these texts deals with the constitution of man.  The author of Hebrews is emphasizing that the word of the Lord cuts into the very core of our person revealing even the motives behind our actions. The author of 1Thessalonians is emphasizing the sanctification of the entire person. In contrast the author in Genesis 2:7 clearly intends to communicate the nature of man as material and immaterial, body and soul. 

Another passage used to support a trichotomy is I Corinthians 2:14-3:4.  This passage speaks of different kinds of people, those who are “of the flesh,” those who are unspiritual (lit. “soul-ish”) and those who are “spiritual.  Apparently some trichotomists suggest three different sorts of people are represented here suggesting that there are different elements of man’s nature.  It seems, however, that this passage is not pointing out different parts of man but is speaking about the influence of the Holy Spirit and the resulting effect of that influence.   

Trichotomists also say that they have a spiritual perception or awareness of God, which is different than ordinary emotional or thinking processes.  They describe this as worshiping God and sensing Him in their spirits.  This personal experience or spiritual perception is also what makes man different from animals because even animals have souls. However, could this perception of spirit easily be attributed to the soul of one who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit?  Whether or not an animal has a soul depends how soul is defined.  If soul is defined as the immaterial element of man’s nature that relates to God (Ps. 103:1; Luke 1:46) and lives forever (Rev. 6:9), then animals do not have a soul. If a soul is defined to mean the intellect, emotions and will, then at least the higher animals have a soul. 


Arguments for Dichotomy

A major argument for a dichotomy of body and soul is that Scripture uses soul and spirit interchangeably.  For example, in John 12:27 Jesus says. “My soul is troubled” whereas in a very similar context Jesus was “troubled in Spirit” (John 13:21).  Mary’s words in Luke 1:46-49 is an example of Hebrew parallelism which is a repeated use of different but synonymous words.  Mary says, “My ‘soul’ magnifies the Lord and my ‘spirit’ rejoices in God my Savior.” The Scripture says that at death the soul departs or the spirit departs.  If the soul and spirit were separate and distinct things, it should be expected that the Scriptures would affirm that both soul and spirit departed to heaven to assure the reader that no essential part of the person was left behind.  The Bible is comfortable describing the experience of death as either the “soul” departing or the “spirit” departing. It never mentions both departing in a single passage – showing that they didn’t view them separately and that it really didn’t matter theologically  which word the biblical author used. When Rachel died her “soul” was departing (Gen. 35:18) and Elijah prayed that the dead child’s soul would return into him (I Kings 17:21).  Isaiah predicts that the servant of the Lord would pour out His “soul” to death (Isa. 53:12). In the New Testament God told the rich fool that his “soul” was required of him (Luke 12:20). On the other hand, sometimes death is viewed as the returning of the “spirit” to God.  David prayed, “Into your hand I commit my spirit” and Jesus quoted these exact words (Ps. 31:5; Luke 23:46).  “At death the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Eccl. 12:7).  Jesus “bowed His head and gave up his Spirit” (John 19:30) and in the same way Stephen prayed “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Hebrews 12:23 calls the departed saints of the Old Testament “spirits of just men made perfect,” while the apostle John refers to martyred believers as “the souls of those who have been slain.”   Augustus Strong’s Systematic Theology affirms a dichotomy with these words, “The prevailing representation of man’s constitution is that of dichotomy.”[3] 

Scripture does not present the spirit as a purer, higher facility that is free from sin and responsive to God.  The soul can sin or the spirit can sin.  Paul encourages the Corinthians to cleanse themselves “from every defilement of body and spirit” (2 Cor. 7:1) implying that man’s spirit can be defiled by sin. Paul speaks of an unmarried woman who is concerned about being holy “in body and spirit” (I Cor. 7:34). 

Asaph describes Israel as “a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation that did not set its heart aright, and whose ‘spirit’ was not faithful to God” (Ps. 78:8).

A person can have a “haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18), and can “err in spirit” (Isa. 29:24). Nebuchadnezzar’s “spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly” (Dan. 5:20).  A man’s spirit is not the spiritually pure part of his being but can have sinful desires and attitudes. 

It is difficult biblically to demonstrate the difference between soul and spirit. 

Grudem points out, “Everything that the soul is said to do, the spirit is also said to do, and everything that the spirit is said to do the soul is also said to do.”[4] Man’s thinking, feeling, and deciding are activities not just done by the soul but also the spirit (Acts 17:16; John 13:21; Prov. 17:22; Mark 2:8; Rom. 8:16; I Cor. 2:11). 

It is a mistake to think that certain activities such as thinking, feeling and deciding are done by only one part of man and not the whole person.  Scripture does not portray the spirit as responding to God but shows the soul worshipping, praising and giving thanks, which are all activities that involve thinking, feeling and deciding.  Obviously physical bodies are involved as well since bodies are designed by God to be a fit vessel for the soul (spirit). It seems that the Bible uses soul and spirit interchangeably to refer to the immaterial side of man and it is difficult to see any distinction between the uses of terms.

Some trichotomists claim a distinction between soul and spirit – with each part having a unique function. However, scripture does not support the separation of these functions. Thinking, feeling, and deciding things are not said to be done by our souls only. Our spirits (souls) can also experience emotions, for example, as when Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him” (Acts 17:16), or when Jesus was “troubled in spirit” (John 13:21). Another function which some trichotomists claim to be a function of the soul, thinking or knowing, is also said to be done by our spirits in the scriptures. Mark 2:8 speaks of Jesus “perceiving [Gk. epiginōskō, ‘knowing’] in his spirit”. Romans 8:16 says that the Holy Spirit “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God”. How can we know that we know without some form of thinking? (Which some trichotomists attribute to the soul, yet Paul attributes to the Spirit?) On the other hand, trichotomists claim that our spirits are what relate to God most directly. But the Scriptures constantly attribute spiritual activity to the soul as well. “Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” (Ps. 103:1). “Praise the LORD, O my soul!” (Ps. 146:1). “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). For other examples, see: Ps. 25:1, Ps. 62:1, 1 Sam. 1:15, Deut. 6:5, Ps. 42:1, 2, Ps. 42:5, Ps. 35:9, Ps. 119:20, Ps. 119:167.

The Fall and the Nature of Man

Regarding the fall of man, Biblical theology stands in contrast to the trichotomist view. Whereas the trichotomist believes that particular parts of man escape untouched by the fall into sin and the curse of God, Scripture clearly teaches that after the fall, man retained the image of God yet was totally depraved in all his capacities. Trichotomists interpret Ephesians 2:1   “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins”   as referring to man’s spirit that was dead and made alive by the indwelling Holy Spirit. So a Christian’s spirit has been made alive and he can now relate to God whereas an unbeliever cannot relate to God because his spirit is dead in trespasses and sins. However, when man fell it was the whole man. Scripture does not say that man’s spirit died. The body (material) immediately began to decay and would eventually die and the thoughts and intents of his heart (immaterial) were evil continually and filled with futility because of moral decay in the soul. The deadness in Ephesians 2, man’s fallen state, is in body and soul as he relates to God. 


      Although the arguments for trichotomy appear to have some force by proof texting, none of the texts used to defend a trichotomy provides conclusive evidence that would overcome the wide testimony of Scripture showing that the terms soul and spirit are frequently interchangeable and are in many cases synonymous. The broad context of Scripture does not support the trichotomist emphasis upon the separation of soul and spirit. The insistence that the soul is referred to as the life in man while the spirit is the deeper inner man, the organ of God-consciousness, is conjecture that can be refuted by  exegetical and analytical examination. The terms "soul" and "spirit" are used virtually synonymous in Biblical theology. 


[1] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 478.

[2] Ryrie, Basic Theology, 224.

[3] Strong, Systematic Theology, 483.

[4] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 476.