Is trichotomy supported?
By Spencer D Gear PhD
(image courtesy Heartlight)
I examine the controversial verse of 1 Thessalonians 5:23 (ESV): ‘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’.
On the surface this appears straight forward. People are made of three parts: spirit, soul and body. That’s signed, sealed and delivered. It’s as clear as crystal! Or, is it?
This verse is not an easy one to interpret for some of the following reasons. Are people tripartite beings – body, soul and spirit? Or are they bipartite – body and soul/spirit, with soul and spirit being interchangeable words for a person’s unseen, inner being?
It has caused long hours of study by Bible exegetes over the years. Commentator William Hendriksen gave his researched conclusions in 5 pages of small font in his commentary (Hendriksen & Kistemaker 1955/1983:146-150).
Through the Judeo-Christian centuries, there have been three main views on the nature of human beings. They are:
Human beings consist of body, soul and spirit. This was held by the Greek church fathers and has its origin with the Greek philosopher, Plato. This appears to be the view supported by 1 Thess 5:23. However, it’s the only NT verse I could find that stated this trichotomous view of people.
Kim Riddlebarger’s (2010) assessment was:
With its roots in Plato’s distinction between body and soul, and Aristotle’s further division of soul into “animal” and “rational” elements, the trichotomist notion of human nature as tri-partite is unmistakably Greek and pagan, rather than Hebrew and biblical. As Louis Berkhof notes, “the most familiar but also the crudest form of trichotomy is that which takes the body for the material part of man’s nature, the soul as the principle of animal life, and the spirit as the God-related rational and immortal element in man” (Berkhof 1941:191).
Dichotomy means that human beings consist of body and soul/spirit. The immaterial part of a human being is described as either soul or spirit. This is the view of the Latin speaking Western theology in the early centuries of the church.
1.3 Unitarian or unitary
This view ‘rejects any kind of dualism. Man is simply made of the physical stuff of which the body is made. There is no soul, or spirit, or immaterial part of man that is distinct from the body’ (Craig 2009).
Therefore, I will not give a simplistic answer, especially in light of these …
2. Challenging verses
(image of martyrdom of St. Andrew, courtesy Commons Wikimedia)
Matt 10:28 (NIV): Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell’. No ‘spirit’ here.
Matt 22:37 (NIV): ‘Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ No ‘spirit’ here.
Mark 8:36 (NLT): ‘And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?’ No ‘spirit’ here.
Mark 12:30 (NIV): ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ No ‘spirit’ here.
Acts 20:10 (NASB): ‘But Paul went down and fell upon him and after embracing him, he said, “Do not be troubled, for his life [psuche] is in him.”’ Psuche is rightly translated as ‘life’. The term for ‘spirit’ is not used here.
1 Cor 2:14-15 (NASB), ‘But a natural [psuchikos] man does not accept the things of the Spirit [pneuma] of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually [pneumatikos] appraised. But he who is spiritual [pneumatikos] appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one’.
So, the adjectives based on psuche (soul) and pneuma (spirit) are different in meaning.
1 Cor 7:34 (NIV), ‘An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband’. No ‘soul’ is used here.
Rom 1:9 (NIV), ‘God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you’. No ‘soul’ or ‘body’ here.
Heb 4:12 (NIV): ‘For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’. Soul and spirit are clearly different words and they can be ‘divided’ according to this verse.
What does it mean to penetrate ‘even to dividing soul and spirit’?
1 Pet 3:9 (NIV): ‘After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits….’ No ‘souls’ here.
Rev 8:9 (NASB): ‘and a third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life [psuche], died; and a third of the ships were destroyed’. No ‘spirit’ here.
3. William Hendricksen’s conclusions
He provides exegesis in his commentary to support this conclusion:
a. The trichotomistic appearance of the passage is considerably reduced as soon as it is seen that the words in dispute are found not in one clause but in two clauses:
hence not: “And may your spirit and soul and body be kept …”
“And without flaw may be your spirit,
and your soul-and-body
May it be kept.”
But thus rendering the passage we can do justice to its grammatical syntax and even to its word-order [and may your the spirit, the soul, and the body be preserved (completely) whole].
b. Every trace of trichotomy which still remains can be obliterated in one of these ways:
(1) by considering the word “soul” to have the same meaning as “spirit,” the change from “spirit” to “soul” having been introduced for stylistic reasons. This eliminates trichotomy.
(2) by accepting the position that although both “spirit” and “soul” refer to the same immaterial substance (hence, no trichotomy here either!), this substance is viewed first (in one clause) from the aspect of its relation to God – the “spirit” being man’s power of grasping divine things, his invisible essence viewed as a recipient of divine influences and as an organ of divine worship – ; then, in the next clause, from the aspect of its relation to the lower realm, as the seat of sensations, affections, desires. This could well be the true element in theory e.
If a choice must be made, I would prefer this second alternative. It is in harmony with the distinction between the two words which is present elsewhere (as has been shown). There is also an interesting parallel in a somewhat similar passage, Heb. 4:12, where it is obvious that the two words have distinct meanings.
The main point has been proved, namely, that, either way, every trace of trichotomy has disappeared (Hendriksen & Kistemaker 1955/1984:150).
I have a problem with this kind of explanation as it seems to be a begging the question logical fallacy (circular reasoning) where the non-trichotomous view (dichotomy) is assumed at the beginning and leads to the same non-trichotomous (dichotomous) conclusion.
For a detailed discussion of the difficulties with this verse, see the commentary in Hendriksen & Kistemaker (1955/1985:146-150).
3.1 A better explanation
Let’s look at the Greek construction of 1 Thess 5:23 (transliterated): hagiazw hymeis holoteleskai kai terew hymeis ho pneuma kai ho psyche kai ho swma terew holokleros ...
The literal translation is: ‘and may [the God of peace] sanctify you completely your (the) spirit and the soul and the body be preserved (completely) whole’.
Therefore, the meaning is not to develop support for a trichotomous view of human beings but for a holistic view of people. Lenski explained:
The question is simple: “is man composed of two or of three parts?” In other words, can spirit and soul be divided as soul and body can? A reference to Heb. 4:12 does not establish the affirmative. Man’s material part can be separated from his immaterial part; but the immaterial part cannot be divided; it is not a duality of spirit and soul.
Where, as here [in 1 Thess 5:23], spirit and soul are distinguished, the spirit designates our immaterial part as it is related to God, as being capable of receiving the operations of the Spirit of God and of his Word; while soul (psuche) designates this same immaterial part in its function of animating the body and also as receiving impressions from the body it animates. Death is described as the spirit’s leaving the body and as the soul’s leaving, for it is the sundering of the immaterial from the material (Lenski 1937:366-367).
4. A simpler explanation
Let’s examine Heb 4:12 (NIV): ‘For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’.
This verse states that we can differentiate between a human being’s unseen part and what is seen. But it is not decisive in dividing soul from spirit. From other Scriptures such as 1 Cor 2:14-15 and 1 Thess 5:23 we find the immaterial part of the “spirit” relating to God and are able to discern God’s Spirit and Scripture. The immaterial part, called the “soul” indicates that which relates to life in the body and is associated with perceptions and desires – often carnal.
Also, at death what happens? Is it the soul or spirit that leaves the body?
4.1 At death, the soul leaves the body:
Genesis 35:18 (ESV): ‘And as her [Rachel’s] soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin’.
Matt 10:28 (ESV): ‘And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna].
Rev 6:9 (NIV): ‘When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne’.
4.2 However, the spirit leaves the body at death:
(Painting “Untergang der Titanic” by Willy Stower, 1912, ‘ the sinking of the Titanic’, courtesy Wikipedia)
James 2:26 (ESV): ‘For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead’.
Eccl 12:7 (ESV): ‘and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’.
Luke 23:36 (ESV): ‘Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last’.
Luke 8:54-55 (ESV): ‘But taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise.” And her spirit returned, and she got up at once. And he directed that something should be given to her to eat’.
Is this sending a contradictory message about the naming and function of the immaterial part of a human being? Some verses state the soul leaves the body at death while others take the view the spirit departs from the body. How do we resolve this difficulty?
There is enough biblical evidence to indicate that at death the immaterial part (whether named soul or spirit) leaves the body. i.e. the immaterial part leaves the material body to go to the Intermediate State to be with God or separated from God. The biblical data indicate the immaterial part of the human being is called soul or spirit. They are interchangeable words.
The Intermediate State is where all people go at death and it is not the grave. Only the body rots in the grave. See my article, The Intermediate State for believers and unbelievers: Where do they go at death?
John Calvin stated: ‘We, following the whole doctrine of God, will hold for certain that man is composed and consisteth of two parts, that is to say, body and soul’.
Leading apologist, William Lane Craig, in dialogue with a student stated:
When we get to the New Testament, it is indisputable that the language of the New Testament is dualistic throughout. You constantly have the dualism between soul and body, or spirit and body. No one denies that the language of the New Testament is dualistic. The only question is: is this to be taken literally, this dualistic language?
Here I think the answer is that this is meant to be taken literally especially when it concerns the intermediate state of the soul after death. When you have the intermediate state of the dead in Christ described, it is very evident that these persons are still existent, that they are in communion with Christ, and are awaiting the resurrection. In other words, it is exactly the traditional Jewish view that we have attested in the intertestamental Jewish literature.
The only difference is that the souls of the righteous dead are said to be with Christ, not kept in treasuries or chambers or sockets, but rather they have gone to be with Christ. So there is a Christian spin on it, but it is the traditional Jewish dualistic view (Craig 2009).
However, eminent Old Testament scholar, Gleason Archer, wrote of 1 Thess 5:23, ‘Quite clearly, then, the spirit is distinct from the soul, or else these verses add up to tautological nonsense. We therefore conclude that man is not dichotomic (to use the technical theological term) but trichotomic’ (Archer 1982:260).
In spite of Archer’s protestations, the evidence points to the soul and spirit being evidence for the unseen part of human beings.
I find Lenski’s explanation (as above) one of the simplest and soundest I’ve read to explain 1 Thess 5:23 and Heb 4:12,
Where, as here [in 1 Thess 5:23], spirit and soul are distinguished, the spirit designates our immaterial part as it is related to God, as being capable of receiving the operations of the Spirit of God and of his Word; while soul (psuche) designates this same immaterial part in its function of animating the body and also as receiving impressions from the body it animates.
6. Works consulted
Archer, G L 1982. Encyclopedia of Bible difficulties. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Regency Reference Library (Zondervan Publishing House). Available online HERE.
Berkhof, L 1941. Systematic theology. London: The Banner of Truth Trust.
Craig, W L 2009. The doctrine of man (Part 5). Reasonable Faith (podcast online), 15 March. Available at: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-1/s1-the-doctrine-of-man/the-doctrine-of-man-part-5/ (Accessed 23 June 2019).
Hendriksen, W & Kistemaker, S J 1955/1984. New Testament Commentary: Thessalonians, the Pastorals, and Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.
Lenski, R C H 1937. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus, and to Philemon. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers (1937 and assigned in 1961 by Augsburg Publishing House).
Riddlebarger, K 2010. Trichotomy: A Beachhead for Gnostic Influences. Reformed Perspectives, vol 12, no 47, November 21-27. Available at: https://thirdmill.org/magazine/article.asp?link=http:%5E%5Ethirdmill.org%5Earticles%5Ekim_riddlebarger%5Ekim_riddlebarger.Trichotomy.html&at=Trichotomy. (Accessed 31 July 2019).
Copyright © 2019 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 02 August 2019