The nature of man is a theological question that has been debated for centuries. Specifically, the discussion centers around whether man is composed of two parts (dichotomy) or three parts (trichotomy). The dichotomist position argues that man consists of body and soul/spirit, while the trichotomist view claims man is made up of body, soul, and spirit. Both sides cite biblical evidence to support their perspective. This article will examine the key biblical passages related to this topic and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the dichotomy and trichotomy positions.
The dichotomy view
The dichotomist view argues that man is made up of two constituent elements – a physical body and an immaterial soul/spirit. Key biblical passages used to support this position include:
- Genesis 2:7 states that “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” This verse indicates that God formed man’s body from the dust and breathed life into him, implying two parts.
- Ecclesiastes 12:7 says “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” This verse speaks of the body returning to dust and the spirit returning to God at death.
- Matthew 10:28 quotes Jesus saying, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” This verse makes a distinction between body and soul.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:23 states “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This three-part list is not seen as referring to three distinct parts of man, but rather two parts (soul and spirit) that make up the immaterial aspect.
Those holding the dichotomist position emphasize the functional unity of man, while acknowledging he has both physical and spiritual components. They argue that the soul and spirit are interchangeable terms referring to the immaterial aspect of man that lives on after the body dies. Biblical evidence indicates the body dies and decays, but the spirit/soul goes on into eternity (see Ecc 12:7, Lk 23:43, 2 Cor 5:8, Phil 1:23-24). On this view, man is a holistic being with both corporeal and incorporeal parts.
The trichotomy view
The trichotomist perspective posits that man is made up of three distinct components – body, soul, and spirit. Some key biblical passages used to argue for this position include:
- 1 Thessalonians 5:23 makes a threefold mention of spirit, soul, and body (see above). Trichotomists take this as evidence of three separate components.
- Hebrews 4:12 states that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit…” This verse distinguishes soul and spirit as divisible.
- 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 differentiates a “natural person” (Greek psychikos – soulish) who rejects spiritual things and a “spiritual person” who embraces spiritual truth. Trichotomists see this as evidence that soul and spirit are distinct.
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 contrasts a “natural body” with a “spiritual body,” again implying a constitution of three parts.
Those holding the trichotomist view make distinctions between soul and spirit. The soul is seen as the center of human personality, emotion, and self-consciousness. The spirit is the capacity to relate to God, featuring qualities like intuition, conscience, and the ability to worship. At salvation, the spirit is regenerated by the Holy Spirit. The body is simply the physical flesh and bones.
On the trichotomist view, man is made in the image of God in that he has a tripartite nature corresponding to the Trinity. The body relates to the Son, the soul to the Father, and the spirit to the Holy Spirit. This perspective sees biblical distinctions between soul and spirit as evidence that they are separate components within man.
Analysis of the dichotomy and trichotomy positions
There are reasonable arguments on both sides of this debate. Here are some key considerations when evaluating the strengths of each perspective:
- Holistic view of man – The dichotomist position emphasizes man as a holistic being. The trichotomist view sees man as more compartmentalized.
- Soul and spirit terminology – The Bible does not always differentiate soul and spirit terminology consistently. There is much overlap in meaning.
- Trinitarian argument – The trichotomist argument that man mirrors the Trinity is theologically weak. Man is not a direct parallel to God’s triune nature.
- Salvation emphasis – The trichotomist position places heaviest weight on the spirit as the aspect regenerated at salvation. But Scripture emphasizes the whole person.
- Unity of immaterial nature – While dichotomists see soul and spirit as functionally unified, trichotomists argue soul and spirit can have contrasting desires (Mt 26:41).
- Emotions and intellect – Trichotomists associate the soul with emotions and intellect, while the spirit relates to God. But Scripture does not define such clear divisions of attributes.
Considering these factors, the strengths seem to weigh in favor of the dichotomist perspective. The holistic view of man and the biblical emphasis on the unity of man’s immaterial nature fit better with the dichotomist position. The trichotomist view tends to impose definitional rigidity that is not clearly delineated in Scripture.
Whether one holds to dichotomy or trichotomy has some potential practical implications. Here are a few areas where the difference shows up:
- Salvation – The trichotomist emphasis on the spirit’s regeneration may promote a more passive view of salvation. The dichotomist view better captures the biblical emphasis on repentance and faith from the whole person.
- Sanctification – Trichotomists may fall into a “let go and let God” approach, waiting for the Holy Spirit to sanctify them. But Scripture calls for active discipline and obedience from the whole person.
- Anthropology – The dichotomist view promotes a more unified view of man in theological anthropology. Trichotomy sees man as divided components working separately.
- Eschatology – The dichotomist position sees the soul/spirit as the immortal aspect that lives on after death. Trichotomists hold that only the spirit continues while the soul sleeps.
- Emotions – Trichotomists may take a suspicious view of emotions as solely belonging to the “soul” and not the spiritual life. But a holistic view sees emotions as an integrated part of being human.
These areas of potential difference show that one’s view on the nature of man impacts other theological perspectives. The more holistic dichotomist position offers a view that integrates rather than separates aspects of human nature.
The dichotomy versus trichotomy debate is an old one, and strong cases can be made on both sides. Upon considering the biblical evidence and evaluating the strengths of each position, the dichotomist view of man being comprised of two main components – body and soul/spirit – is most compelling. This fits best with the scriptural presentation of man as an integrated whole. Seeing body, soul, and spirit as separate parts risks imposing artificial fragmentation on human nature. As always, some mystery remains, and limitations exist in these kinds of theological constructs. But the unified emphasis of the dichotomist position seems most faithful to the biblical witness. The nature of man is complex but holistic, a soul/spirit inhabiting a corporeal frame in an integrative way. Through exercising faith in Christ, man’s dichotomous elements can both be redeemed and live eternally in right relationship with God.