Every human being has a physical body, yet clearly who we are is not only defined by our bodies. As our bodies age or are damaged, there is something fundamental to who we are which is distinct from our bodies. The Bible tells us that in addition to our physical bodies, as human beings we possess an immaterial spirit and soul.
What can be confusing, however, is what exactly a person’s spirit is, and what their soul is, and how these two relate to each other.
Two Views: Trichotomy and Dichotomy
The Trichitomous view holds that the soul and the spirit are two distinct things, whereas the Dichotomous view holds that soul and spirit are two words which describe two distinct aspects of the same thing, namely the immaterial part of a human being.
Those who hold a Trichotomous view often claim that this three-part human nature is one of the ways in which we have been created in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27). Just as God is a greater trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit, He has created us in his image as a lesser trinity of body, soul, and spirit, says the thrichotomist. This assertion is usually followed by an explanation of what the difference is between soul and spirit. A common explanation is that the soul refers to the mind, encompassing both cognitive and personality-related aspects, whereas the spirit is the part of a person which connects with God. This, it is commonly said by trichotomists, is what distinguishes human beings from animals, who are not created in God’s image; though they have bodies and cognitive abilities (including emotions and personalities), they do not have a spirit, which makes them capable of relationship with God.
There are several passages in the Bible which suggest that there is a separation between the soul and the spirit (Romans 8:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 4:12). However, there are also several Bible verses which use the terms soul and spirit interchangeably (Matthew 10:28; Luke 1:46–47; 1 Corinthians 5:3, 7:34).
Hebrews 4:12 says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” This would suggest that there is a dividing point between the soul and the spirit, but that they are so closely connected that the division of them is something which only God is capable of carrying out.
Advocates of the trichotomist position include James M. Boice, whereas J.I. Packer and John Calvin are some examples of those who hold a dichotomist view.
J.I. Packer’s argument for the dichotomous view
In his book “Concise Theology”, Packer explains the dichotomist view in this way:
Each human being in the world consists of a material body animated by an immaterial personal self. Scripture calls this self a “soul” or a “spirit.” “Soul emphasizes the distinctness of a person’s conscious selfhood; “spirit” carries the nuances of the self’s derivation from God, dependence on Him, and distinction from the body.
Biblical usage leads us to say that we have and are both souls and spirits, but it is a mistake to say that soul and spirit are two different things. (J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, pp. 74)
Packer goes on to explain that the trichotomous view tends to define soul as “an organ of this-worldly awareness,” whereas spirit is a distinct organ of communication with God.
This distinction, Packer argues, can lead to an unhealthy pitting of spirituality against intellectualism, in which intellectual engagement with God is considered “soulish”, i.e. unspiritual, while “spiritual perception” which is unrelated to the study of the Bible or rational thought. Furthermore, he adds that the trichotomous understanding of humanity may lead to a low view of the value of the material world, including our bodies, which would be inappropriate since we are embodied souls, and the hope of the gospel is not that we will escape this physical world, but that we will be resurrected to new and everlasting life in physical bodies.
My response to Packer’s view
I agree with Packer that it is wrong to devalue the physical world. As i have written about recently, this life matters! (See: Suicide, Christianity, & the Meaning of Life)
However, I do not believe that we should decide on theological positions based on fear of what they might lead some people to do. This is the kind of thinking that leads people to avoid teaching the scandalous truth about God’s amazing grace because they are afraid that some people might use it as a license to sin.
I do not believe that we should decide on theological positions based on fear of what they might lead some people to do.
Instead, we ought to develop our theological positions based on Scripture first, considering authorial intent as well as how these things were understood by the early Christians, subsequently applying reason (this is called “theological method”).
It seems dishonest, based on Scripture, to not acknowledge a distinction between soul and spirit. However, I am in agreement with Packer that we must not ever believe or teach that an intellectual pursuit of God is unspiritual, or that seeking God’s will in Scripture is less spiritual than seeking it through “spiritual perception”. Yet, the way the words are used in the Bible leads me to believe that soul and spirit are separate, yet intimately connected aspects of human personhood, the latter of which sets us apart from the animal world.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you lean more towards the trichotomous or dichotomous view, and why?
Check out this discussion that Mike Payne, worship pastor at White Fields Church and I recently had on this subject for our church’s YouTube channel: