Dichotomy vs. Trichotomy

Dichotomy vs. Trichotomy                                                                        by Jack Kettler

Is a man in his created constitution made of two parts, body and soul? Alternatively, is a man created with three parts, body, soul, and spirit? This study is an introductory overview of these two positions on man’s constitution known as trichotomy and dichotomy. Trichotomy is the minority viewpoint in church history, although it has had some notable theologians in favor of it.

Trichotomy: means a division into three parts: 1. body, 2. soul, 3. and spirit.

Arguments for:

There is seemingly a distinction in Scripture between the soul and spirit. Proponents of this view refer to Romans 8:16; 1Thessalonians 5:23, and Hebrews 4:12. The main proof text for trichotomy is Hebrews 4:12, which states, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit.” At first glance, soul and spirit are separate entities. 

According to a trichotomous view, man is ontologically three-fold in composition.

Dichotomy: means a division into two parts: 1. body, and 2. soul.

Arguments for:

Soul and spirit are used interchangeably as seen in Matthew 6:25; 10:28; Luke 1:46–47; 1Corinthians 5:3; 7:34, thus negating the trichotomous view.

According to a dichotomous view, man is ontologically two-fold in composition.


This overview will feature a contemporary defense of trichotomy, followed by a critical analysis of trichotomy.


“Responses to Common Objections to Trichotomy

Before concluding this study, the question needs to be faced: are the arguments against trichotomy unanswerable? Although some of these challenges have been indirectly addressed above, there needs to be an additional response to the criticisms of trichotomy. Below is a composite list of challenges followed by a brief response for each.

Interchangeability of Terms

The first objection to be considered is that Scripture uses “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably. This is the primary objection to trichotomy by most evangelical dichotomists. It is thought that the significant overlap in these terms requires the interpretation that they are only synonyms of man’s immaterial part. That “soul” and “spirit” share many meanings is readily conceded. The present writer judges that the distinction between these terms can be supported, but not proven in the Old Testament text alone. This is due to the nature of progressive revelation. The obvious distinction between body and soul is unclear in the concrete style of Hebrew thought and language, how much less should we expect a definitive case to be made in the Old Testament for the subtle distinctions between the soul and spirit. If this admission seems to jeopardize the proposition of this paper, consider Berkhof’s comment about the lack of decisive evidence for dichotomy in the Old Testament alone:

We should be careful, however, not to expect the latter distinction between the body as the material element, and the soul as the spiritual element of human nature, in the Old Testament. This antithesis–soul and body–even in its New Testament sense, is not yet found in the Old Testament.154

The personal nature of the Holy Spirit as a member of the triune Godhead was not explicitly revealed in the Old Testament; it should not be surprising that the distinctive role of the human spirit would require New Testament revelation as well.

There are several examples of the similar usage of soul and spirit that are used as evidence against trichotomy: they both can be troubled (John 12:27; 13:21); they both can be involved in worship (Luke 1:46,47); they both can be objects of salvation (Jas 1:21; 1 Cor. 5:5); they both are involved in thinking (Acts 14:2; 1 Cor. 2:11); and they both are used with “body” to describe the whole person (Matt 10:28; Jas 2:6). These and other examples are given to prove that the terms are used interchangeably. These examples only document that the terms have a significant overlap; often a biblical writer conveys his point by using either term, with the appropriate connotation. This overlap of meanings does not dictate that an identical part of man is described by either term. This rebuttal is further supported by the following observations: (a) Nephesh is sometimes used to describe a dead body, yet this does not prove that the soul and body are not distinct parts of man (Num. 6:6; Lev 24:18); (b) The Spirit of Christ and the Holy Spirit are both titles of the third person of the trinity–this does not equate the Son and the Spirit (Rom 8:11; 1 Cor. 3:16); (c) Both animals and humans have nephesh–this does not invalidate man’s distinctive quality of soul which is necessitated by his creation in God’s image (Gen 1:24; 2:19). Overlap in word usage of soul and spirit does not prove a singular identity.

Another example used in the case for the interchangeability of the terms is their use as relating to salvation. The soul is saved (Heb. 10:39) and the spirit is saved (1 Cor. 5:5). Although this could be explained as another example of synecdoche, it may point to a more detailed model of salvation in the epistles. The body of a converted person is not credited with its new privileges until the resurrection; believers are “. . . eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (Rom 8:23). On the other hand, salvation is described as an accomplished fact for the one who is regenerated (Eph. 2:1-8); the spirit is one with God’s Spirit (1 Cor. 6:17), Who “Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:16). This may indicate that the soul is presently in the process of being saved (Jas 1:21: Ps 23:3). Thus, technically, the believer’s spirit is already saved from the penalty of sin, his soul is being saved from the power of sin, and his body will be saved from the presence of sin (at the resurrection–Phil 3:20, 21). The New Testament confirms the need for the functional attributes of the believer’s soul to be progressively delivered from the influence of sin. The mind is to be renewed (Rom 12:2), the will is to be yielded (Luke 9:23), and the emotions are to be directed (Phil 4:4). Thus, the three aspects of salvation correlate with the parts of man.

In listing arguments against trichotomy, Grudem mentions the unity of man by describing the involvement of the body in virtually every activity of the soul. . . . We should not slip into the mistake of thinking that certain activities (such as thinking, feeling, or deciding things) are done by only one part of us. Rather, these activities are done by the whole person. When we think or feel things, certainly our physical bodies are involved in every point as well.155

His observation is a valid one. Yet, if the dichotomist affirms that every action involves both body and soul, he should not require an isolated action of the spirit as distinct from the soul. As an organ of the soul, the spirit is expressed through it. The criterion of requiring a function of the soul that does not have a counterpart in the physical organism could be used as an argument for monism (which Grudem rejects).

By syecdoche, the spirit can be used of the soul and often is (1 Cor. 16:18; 2 Tim 4:22). This does not negate the distinction between them; the context determines the usage intended. As was shown in chapter two, several lexicons support the distinction of spirit from soul as more than one of connotation (e.g., Cremer, Thayer, Vines, and TWBOT). Similarly, the soul is often used to represent the whole person (although dichotomists concede that man is body and soul).

One of the distinctive qualities of the regenerated human spirit is that it is essentially holy–a partaker of God’s nature (2 Pet 1:4; 1 Cor. 1:2; 6:17). Therefore, Paul can testify that he delights in the law of God in the inner man (Rom 7:22). An objection has been raised to this trichotomous interpretation. 2 Cor. 7:1 seems to indicate that the spirit can prompt sin: “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” This may imply that the believer’s spirit has inherent sin too.

In response, the trichotomist reaffirms the basic unity of man’s personhood. The distinct role of the spirit as the part that primarily expresses God’s life in the believer, never removes responsibility from the spirit; man is unified in personhood and responsibility. But what is the precise nature of the spirit’s need for “cleansing”? The previous context gives a clue, describing the need for consecration. This practice alludes to the holiness concepts of the Old Testament. One of those concepts is the danger of defilement with unholy things, even if the Israelites were holy in themselves (Lev 21:1-14). Similarly, the believer must guard against the defilement of worldly values and demonic influences–both of which can still be understood as technically external to his spirit (Rom 12:2; Eph. 6:10).

Another distinction of the spirit is that it usually describes the believer after physical death, although both soul and spirit stay together (Acts 23:8, 9; Heb. 12:23). This usage corresponds with what one would expect of man’s spirit in its primary relationship to God. The only New Testament exceptions (to referring to the intermediate state in terms of “spirit”) occur in Rev 6:9 20:4. In these passages the context is martyrdom; this shifts the emphasis to the bodily release of the immaterial part. It seems that this is the determining factor in the use of “soul” in these passages.

There are other distinctions in the New Testament usage of “spirit.” Beckwith and Oehler mention several: (a) the spirit does not die nor is killed; (b) the spirit is not the subject of inclination, or aversion; (c) whatever belongs to the spirit belongs to the soul also, but not everything that belongs to the soul belongs to the spirit as well (cf. the tabernacle analogy).156 Oehler further observed that the soul is used of the subject as personal and individual, but the spirit is not so used.157 Drawing on Gen 2:17 and Job 33:4 he specified that the soul exists and lives only by the vitalizing power of the spirit.158

In his extensive word study on pneuma , Schweiser noted that it is always used to contrast sarx in the unbeliever, never psuche; it is never used of non-Christians for impulses that are ethically negative; and it cannot be hated or persecuted as the soul can.159 Kerr observed that spirit does not hunger or thirst, although these physical functions are sometimes attributed to the soul. Some have noted that God is the “Father of spirits,” but never as the “Father of souls” (Heb. 12: Zech. 12:1). The observations in chapters two and four give further evidence of the distinction between soul and spirit.

Heart, Mind, and Strength in Luke 10:27

Another objection made against trichotomy is this: if 1 Thess. 5:23 is interpreted as referring to trichotomy, then Luke 10:27 teaches man has five parts. In the synoptic Gospels Christ quoted Deut. 6:5 when He identified the greatest commandment: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (cf. Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). In the Gospels, “mind” is also included in this Great Commandment. In Matthew the preposition en is used to bring out the concept of instrumentality; (Perhaps this is why he inserts “mind” but leaves out “strength”). The heart includes soul and spirit; the soul includes the mind. The preposition used in Mark, (ek), denotes inwardness. The aspects of man from Deuteronomy plus “mind” are used for emphasis.160

How does this differ from other texts used to show the ontological distinction between soul and spirit? First, the incomplete and concrete style of the Old Testament language should be noted. Although the Gospel references are in the New Testament, the quoted revelation is Mosaic (which reflects its more less precise articulation of man’s inward parts). Waltke noted that the three terms, . . . rather than signifying different spheres of biblical psychology seem to be semantically concentric. They were chosen to reinforce the absolute singularity of personal devotion to God.161

On the other hand, Paul’s intention in 1 Thess. 5:23 is to specify the different aspects of man that should be entirely sanctified. The importance of progressive revelation applies here also; Paul’s epistles give further clarity about the subtle differences between soul and spirit. This New Testament epistle should be expected to give more advanced light on the immaterial parts of man than the Mosaic quotation did (cf. chapter four). 1 Thess. 5:22 is not used as an isolated proof text; it is a confirming testimony that is uniquely important due to its place in the progressive revelation of the New Testament.

Alleged Contradictions

Trichotomy has also been challenged with the assertion that passages interpreted in support of trichotomy would necessarily contradict those that teach two parts of man.162 This argument assumes that trichotomy is of a crude sort that would contradict descriptions of the person as essentially material and immaterial. Such does not logically follow. Since the spirit is contained in the soul, a summary statement that only mentions two parts does not contradict ones that teach a third part. Passages that distinguish spirit from soul are presenting further detail and precision. A similar explanation is required to avoid some apparent discrepancies in Scripture. Examples of this principle of variance without contradiction can be found in the Gospels. Were there two angels at Christ’s empty tomb (Luke 24:4) or one (Matt 28:2)? Were there two demoniacs in Gadera (Matt 8:28) or one (Mark 5:2)? Where there two blind men healed at Jericho (Matt 20:30) or just Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46)? In each case one writer gives less detail than the other. These differences in quantity of information do not require contradictions in Scripture. Similarly, texts that present man as body and soul do not contradict others that present the added detail of body, soul, and spirit.

The Role of Conscious Awareness

It is objected that the Bible is ambiguous on whether man has two or three parts so the matter should be judged on rational grounds, which favors dichotomy.163 The rational grounds are said to favor dichotomy because of a lack of a conscious awareness of the spirit.164 This argument applied to anatomy would question the existence of an organ or part that a person could not see or feel. Whereas the observable techniques of science can prove the deficiency of this test, the question of the parts of man’s immaterial side must be decided on a different basis. Evidence has been presented above for interpreting spirit as the organ of God-consciousness, and the soul as the organ of self-consciousness. Likewise, Rom 6-8 presents the detailed description of the conscious, internal struggle of the believer with his physical members (of the body), the flesh and the will (of the soul), and the law of God in the inner man (the spirit). Therefore, biblical revelation and the dynamics of one’s internal struggle can be understood better through a trichotomous model.

The Use of “Soul” in Relation to God

This argument against trichotomy is that, since “soul” is ascribed to God, therefore He can relate directly to man’s soul; the organ of spirit in man is unnecessary.165 One could challenge the proposition that God has a soul in a way similar to man’s soul. Although the word “soul” is used in relation to God (Jer. 5:9; 6:8), this usage is rare and could be interpreted anthropomorphically. Similarly, God is said to have a hand, back, eyes, a right arm, etc., yet theologians do not deduce from these statements that God has a physical body (prior to the incarnation of the second person of the trinity). Rather, His essential nature is spirit (John 4:24) and He is materially invisible (1 Tim 1:17). Granted, God is a personal being Who has made man in His image. He does have mind, will, and emotions (which are functional attributes of the human soul), yet the application of redemption is primary the role of the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 8:16; 1 Cor. 6:17). The twenty six New Testament occurrences of the adjective “spiritual” (pneumatikos) as consistently positive and godward, confirm the scriptural evidence for man’s spirit as the primary organ for communion with the Holy Spirit.

The Possibility of Heretical Deviation

A further reason for the avoidance of trichotomy is the opinion that it is prone to heretical views. On the other hand, dichotomy is said to be a safeguard against doctrinal errors. This argument may be the primary objection of many evangelical dichotomists. It has been shown in chapter five that the heresy of Apollinaris brought trichotomy into disrepute; it has not yet fully recovered from this stigma. The western church found it easier to apply Occam’s razor and take the simpler view, i,e. man having only two parts. Strong is forthright in preferring dichotomy in order to automatically refute the following errors:

(a) That of the Gnostics, who held that the pneuma is part of the divine essence, and therefore incapable of sin. (b) That of the Appolinarians, who taught that Christ’s humanity embraced only soma and psuche , while his divine nature furnished the pneuma . (c) That of the Semi-Pelagians, who excepted the human pneuma from the dominion of original sin. (d) That of Placeus, who held that only the pneuma was directly created by God. (e) That of Julius Muller, who held that the psuche comes to us from Adam, but that our pneuma was corrupted in a previous state of being. (f) That of the Annihilationists, who hold that man at his creation had a divine element breathed into him, which he lost by sin, and which he recovers only at regeneration; so that only when he has this pneuma restored by virtue of his union with Christ does man become immortal, death being the to the sinner a complete extinction of being.166

Admittedly, dichotomists have the convenience of refuting these errors a priori due to eliminating the spirit as a distinct part of man. However, holistic trichotomy as presented in this paper would also condemn the heretical views just listed. It should also be noted that heretical views arise from monistic, and dichotomist models as well.167

This criticism of trichotomy is more a statement of preference than of veracity; it uses guilt-by-association. An example from church history can illustrate the problem inherent in this approach. During the Reformation, the Anabaptist movement grew out of a commitment to evaluate traditional beliefs in the light of Scripture. Infant baptism was rejected in favor of believer’s baptism. However, the movement was quite divided and there were extreme views and practices such as the Munster revolt of 1534. John Matthys, an Anabaptist preacher, claimed himself Enoch, who would prepare for Christ’s return. His group took over this German town, proclaiming it the New Jerusalem, and enforced community-of-goods and polygamy were practiced. This episode affected the doctrinal preferences of the Lutherans. Walker noted, “Such fanaticism was popularly supposed to be characteristic of the Anabaptists, and the name became one of ignominy.”168 This was unfortunate, because the distinctives of believer’s baptism, an eagerness for the Second Advent, and the separation of church and state should have been judged by the Bible alone, not by aberrations. Likewise, heresies that incidentally have misrepresented the human spirit should not disqualify trichotomy.


Much of the criticism directed toward the distinction of body, soul, and spirit, is side-stepped when the spirit is not defined as a separable part of man, having a different essence than that of the soul. This writer by no means minimizes the academic credentials and intellectual depth of evangelical dichotomist theologians. The case for holistic trichotomy would be further strengthened were it not for the frequent ambiguity in the Bible regarding spirit (as referring to either God’s or man’s). The responses above seek to demonstrate that trichotomy is based upon sound hermeneutics and is logically coherent. The final chapter will point out some practical implications for this model of man in Exchanged Life counseling.


154 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 193.

155 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 476.

156 Beckwith, [NSHERK]”Biblical Conceptions of Soul and Spirit,” 12.

157 Gustav F. Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament (NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1883), 152.

158 Ibid., 150.

159 Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [TDNT] (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) s.v. “Psuche,” by Eduard Schweizer, 6: 649, 654-55.

160 Eduard Schweizer, “Psuche,” [TDNT], 6: 641.

161 Bruce Waltke [TWBOT], s.v. “Nephesh,” 2: 589.

162 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 195.

163 Henry C. Sheldon, System of Christian Doctrine, (Boston: Carl H. Heintzemann, 1900), 274

164 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 194.

165 Strong, Systematic Theology, 485.

166 Strong, Systematic Theology, 487.

167 For a survey of liberal and neo-orthodox views of the nature and functions of soul and spirit in man, see Agnes Sutherland, The Spiritual Dimensions of Personality (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965).

168 Walker, A History of the Christian Church, 336.” (1)

A contemporary analysis of trichotomy from Vincent Cheung’s Systematic Theology:  

“Another objection against equating the image of God with the intellect of man is rooted in the view that man is a TRICHOTOMY consisting of spirit, soul, and body. Proponents of this doctrine assert that the Bible portrays man as a trichotomy, and since “God is spirit” (John4:24), the image of God must therefore be man’s spirit and not his soul or body. This being so, the image of God is not the intellect of man, but it is a non-intellectual part of man called the “spirit.” The problem with this view is that the Bible does not endorse trichotomy, but instead teaches that man is a DICHOTOMY consisting of soul and body.

Trichotomists cite Hebrews 4:12 to support their view, but a proper reading renders their position impossible. The verse says, “For the word of God is living 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.” The trichotomists claim that although it is difficult to distinguish between the soul and the spirit, this verse says that they can be divided by the word of God. Therefore, the soul and the spirit are two different parts of a person. However, the verse does not say that the word of God can divide the “soul and spirit and body,” but that it can divide “soul and spirit, joints and marrow.” Since both “joints and marrow” belong to the body, or the corporeal part of man, the natural interpretation is that “soul and spirit” also belong to the same part of a person, or the incorporeal part of man. If X = soul, Y = spirit, and Z = body, then the trichotomist understanding of this verse will make it say, “dividing X and Y, Z and Z,” which produces an awkwardness that is absent in the dichotomist interpretation. Dichotomists understand that soul = spirit, and therefore X = Y. Thus, the verse reads, “dividing X and X, Z and Z,” which preserves the symmetry intended by the biblical author.

Robert Reymond provides a grammatical argument, and writes:

Here the trichotomist insists, since the soul can be “divided” from the spirit, 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…or divides the soul from the spirit.11

Moreover, the verse does not in fact refer to any dividing power in the word of God, but its ability to penetrate. The word of God is so powerful that it reaches, affects, and transforms even the deepest regions of a person’s mind – that is, “it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (v. 12).12

The next verse confirms this interpretation: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (v. 13). The point is that nothing about us is hidden from God, not even our thoughts and intentions.

Another verse the trichotomists use is 1Thessalonians 5:23, which says, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The three words translated “spirit, soul and body” are different Greek words. This is taken to mean that Paul refers to God’s preservation of the “whole” man, which the apostle asserts to consist in three parts: spirit, soul, and body.

11 Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, p. 421-422.

12 “Attitudes” are just as mental or intellectual as “thoughts.” Thus the symmetry of the verse extends to this latter part, so that if Q represents the intellect, the verse would read, “…dividing X and X, Z and Z; it judges the Q and Q of the heart.” X and Q, then, would refer to the same part of man.

However, Mark 12:30 makes this interpretation impossible. Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” He mentions four items here with which we must love God, namely, the heart, soul, mind, and strength. If 1Thessalonians 5:23 demands the understanding that man consists of three parts, then Mark 12:30 demands the understanding that man consists of four parts. Thus the trichotomist argument from 1Thessalonians 5:23 fails.

Scripture uses repetition for emphasis. The fact that the above verses use different words to refer to man does not necessarily mean that each word designates a different part of man; rather, the intention is to refer to the whole person.

Popular Christian preaching often assumes a sharp distinction between the spirit and the soul, identifying the “heart” with the spirit and the mind with the soul. However, the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament defines “heart” (Greek: kardia) as, “the inner person, the seat of understanding, knowledge, and will….”13

Kittel contains a lengthy article on the word, and says, “The heart is the seat of understanding, the source of thought and reflection.”14

And as with other lexicons, it confirms that “The NT use of the word agrees with the OT use….”15

The word “heart” includes a range of meanings in Scripture, but except when it is speaking of the physical organ, it refers to the mind, while the context stresses its particular functions.

Gordon Clark estimates that, “the term heart denotes emotion about ten or at the very most fifteen percent of the time. It denotes the will maybe thirty percent of the time; and it very clearly means the intellect sixty or seventy percent [of the time].”16

Since both the emotion and the will are functions of the intellect, or the mind, except when it refers to the physical organ, the word “heart” means the mind in the Bible.

On the basis of several pages of relevant passages, Clark concludes,

“Therefore when someone in the pews hears the preacher contrasting the head and the heart, he will realize that the preacher either does not know or does not believe what the Bible says. That the gospel may be proclaimed in its purity and power, the churches should eliminate their Freudianism and other forms of contemporary psychology and return to God’s Word….”17

It is unbiblical to distinguish between “head faith” and “heart faith” or “head knowledge “and “heart knowledge.” In the first place, the mind of man is not his “head” or his brain. The mind is incorporeal, made in the image of God; it is not part of the body at all. Thus, the contrast between the “head” and the “heart” errs on more than one level.

13 Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 2; (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 1981; p. 250.

14 Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 3; (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999 Original: 1965); p. 612.

15 Ibid. p. 611.

16 Gordon H. Clark, The Biblical Doctrine of Man; (Jefferson, Maryland, The Trinity Foundation, 1984), p.82.

17 Ibid. p. 7-88.

In any case, the trichotomist distinguishes between the spirit and the soul, or the heart and the mind. Therefore, the contrast is between faith in the spirit and faith in the mind, or knowledge in the spirit and knowledge in the mind. But since trichotomy is false, this contrast is also false. And since the words spirit, soul, heart, and mind all refer to the same incorporeal part of man, faith in the spirit is faith in the mind, and knowledge in the spirit is knowledge in the mind. They are different words for the same part of man. This also means that faith and knowledge are always intellectual.

In A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, and regarding the inclination and will of man, Jonathan Edwards writes, “the mind, with regard to the exercises of this faculty, is often called the heart.”18 And in his lexicon, Thayer writes, “kardia … the soul or mind, as it is the fountain and seat of the thoughts, passions, desires, appetites, affections, purposes, endeavors…used of the understanding, the faculty and seat of the intelligence….”19

The heart is intellectual. On the basis of an extensive presentation of the evidence, Robert Morey concludes in his Death and the Afterlife:

“Man’s immaterial side is given several different names in Scripture. It has been called the “spirit,” “soul,” “mind,” “heart,” “in ward parts,” etc., of man. The names should not be viewed as referring to separate entities but as descriptions of different functions or relationships which man’s immaterial side has…Indeed, spirit and soul are used interchangeably in various passages…”20

Therefore, a human being consists of mind and body. The terms spirit, soul, heart, and mind are generally interchange able:

“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.” (Matthew 10:28)

“Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” (2Corinthians 7:1)

“For it does not go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” (Mark 7:19)

18 The Works of Jonathan Edwards, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2000 (Original: 1834), p. 237.

19 Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2002 original: 1896), p. 325-326.

20 Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1984), p.65.” (2)

A historic critical analysis of Trichotomy.     

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology on Trichotomy:

Ҥ 2. Trichotomy.

It is of more consequence to remark that the Scriptural doctrine is opposed to Trichotomy, or the doctrine that man consists of three distinct substances, body, soul, and spirit: σῶμα, ψυχή, and πνεῦμα; corpus, anima, and animus. This view of the nature of man is of the more importance to the theologian because it has not only been held to a greater or less extent in the Church, but also because it has greatly influenced the form in which other doctrines have been presented; and because it has some semblance of support from the Scriptures themselves. The doctrine has been held in different forms. The simplest, the most intelligible, and the one most commonly adopted is, that the body is the material part of our constitution; the soul, or ψυχή, is the principle of animal life; and the mind, or πνεῦμα, the principle of our rational and immortal life. When a plant dies its material organization is dissolved and the principle of vegetable life which it contained disappears. When a brute dies its body returns to dust, and the or principle of animal life by which it was animated, passes away. When a man dies his body returns to the earth, his ψυχή ceases to exist, his πνεῦμα alone remains until reunited with the body at the resurrection. To the πνεῦμα, which is peculiar to man, belong reason, will, and conscience. To the ψυχή which we have in common with the brutes, belong understanding, feeling, and sensibility, or, the power of sense-perceptions. To the σῶμα belongs what is purely material.73 According to another view of the subject, the soul is neither the body nor the mind; nor is it a distinct subsistence, but it is the resultant of the union of the πνεῦμα and σῶμα.74 Or according to Delitzsch,75 there is a dualism of being in man, but a trichotomy of substance. He distinguishes between being and substance, and maintains, (1.) that spirit and soul (πνεῦμα and ψυχή) are not verschiedene Wesen, but that they are verschiedene Substanzen. He says that the נֶפֶשׁ חַיָה, mentioned in the history of the creation, is not the compositum resulting from the union of the spirit and body, so that the two constituted man; but it is a tertium quid, a third substance which belongs to the constitution of his nature. (2.) But secondly, this third principle does not pertain to the body; it is net the higher attributes or functions of the body, but it pertains to the spirit and is produced by it. It sustains the same relation to it that breath does to the body, or effulgence does to light. He says that the ψυχή, (soul) is the ἀπαύγασμα of the πνεῦμα and the bond of its union with the body.

Trichotomy anti-Scriptural.

In opposition to all the forms of trichotomy, or the doctrine of a threefold substance in the constitution of man, it may be remarked, (1.) That it is opposed to the account of the creation of man as given in Gen. ii.7. According to that account God formed man out of the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life, and he became נֶפֶשׁ חַיָה i.e., a being (אֶשֶׁר־בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָה) in whom is a living soul. There is in this account no intimation of anything more than the material body formed of the earth and the living principle derived from God. (2.) This doctrine (trichotomy) is opposed to the uniform usage of Scripture. So far from the נֶפֶשׁ, ψυχή, , anima, or soul, being distinguished from the רוּחַ, πνεῦμα, animus, or mind as either originally different or as derived from it, these words all designate one and the same thing. They are constantly interchanged. The one is substituted for the other, and all that is, or can be predicated of the one, is predicated of the other. The Hebrew נֶפֶשׁ, and the Greek ψυχή, mean breath, life, the living principle; that in which life and the whole life of the subject spoken of resides. The same is true of רוּחַ and πνεῦμα, they also mean breath, life, and living principle. The Scriptures therefore speak of the נֶפֶשׁ or ψυχή not only as that which lives or is the principle of life to the body, but, as that which thinks and feels, which may be saved or lost, which survives the body and is Immortal. The soul is the man himself, that in which his identity and personality reside. It is the Ego. Higher than the soul there is nothing in man. Therefore it is so often used as a synonym for self. Every soul is every man; my soul is I; his soul is he. What shall a man give in exchange for his soul. It is the soul that sins (Lev. iv.2): it is the soul that loves God. We are commanded to love God, ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ. Hope is said to be the anchor of the soul, and the word of God is able to save the soul. The end of our faith is said to be (1Peter i.9), the salvation of our souls; and John (Rev. vi.9; xx.4), saw in heaven the souls of them that were slain for the word of God. From all this it is evident that the word ψυχή, or soul, does not designate the mere animal part of our nature, and is not a substance different from the πνεῦμα, or spirit. (3.) A third remark on this subject is that all the words above mentioned, רוּחַ,נֶפֶשׁ , and נְשָׁמָה in Hebrew, ψυχή and πνεῦμα in Greek, and soul and spirit in English, are used in the Scriptures indiscriminately of men and of irrational animals. If the Bible ascribed only a ψυχή to brutes, and both ψυχή and πνεῦμα to man, there would be some ground for assuming that the two are essentially distinct. But such is not the case. The living principle in the brute is called both נֶפֶשׁ and רוּחַ, ψυχή and πνεῦμα. That principle in the brute creation is irrational and mortal; in man it is rational and immortal. “Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?” Eccles. iii. 21. The soul of the brute is the immaterial principle which constitutes its life, and which is endowed with sensibility, and that measure of intelligence which experience shows the lower animals to possess. The soul in man is a created spirit of a higher order, which has not only the attributes of sensibility, memory, and instinct, but also the higher powers which pertain to our intellectual, moral, and religious life. As in the brutes it is not one substance that feels and another that remembers; so it is not one substance in man that is the subject of sensations, and another substance which has intuitions of necessary truths, and which is endowed with conscience and with the knowledge of God. Philosophers speak of world-consciousness, or the immediate cognizance which we have of what is without us; of self-consciousness, or the knowledge of what is within us; and of God-consciousness, or our knowledge and sense of God. These all belong to one and the same immaterial, rational substance. (4.) It is fair to appeal to the testimony of consciousness on this subject. We are conscious of our bodies and we are conscious of our souls, i.e., of the exercises and states of each; but no man is conscious of the ψυχή as distinct from the πνεῦμα, of the soul as different from the spirit. In other words consciousness reveals the existence of two substances in the constitution of our nature; but it does not reveal the existence of three substances, and therefore the existence of more than two cannot rationally be assumed.

Doubtful Passages Explained.

(5.) The passages of Scriptures which are cited as favouring the opposite doctrine may all be explained in consistency with the cur-rent representations of Scripture on the subject. When Paul says to the Thessalonians, “I pray God your whole spirit, and soul, and body, be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Thessalonians v.23). he only uses a periphrasis for the whole man. As when in Luke i.46, 47, the virgin says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour,” soul and spirit in this passage do not mean different things. And when we are commanded “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, with all thy strength, and with all thy mind” (Luke x.27), we have not an enumeration of so many distinct substances. Nor do we distinguish between the mind and heart as separate entities when we pray that both may be enlightened and sanctified; we mean simply the soul in all its aspects or faculties. Again, when in Heb. iv.12, the Apostle says that the word of God pierces so as to penetrate soul and spirit, and the joints and marrow, he does not assume that soul and spirit are different substances. The joints and marrow are not different substances. They are both material; they are different forms of the same substance; and so soul and spirit are one and the same substance under different aspects or relations. We can say that the word of God reaches not only to the feelings, but also to the conscience, without assuming that the heart and conscience are distinct entities. Much less is any such distinction implied in Phil. i.27, “Stand fast in one spirit (ἐν ἑνὶ πνεύματι), with one mind (μιᾷ ψυχῇ).” There is more difficulty in explaining 1Cor. xv.44. The Apostle there distinguishes between the σῶμα ψυχικόν and the σῶμα πνευματικόν; the former is that in which the ψυχή is the animating principle; and the latter that in which the πνεῦμα is the principle of life. The one we have here, the other we are to have hereafter. This seems to imply that the ψυχή exists in this life, but is not to exist hereafter, and therefore that the two are separable and distinct. In this explanation we might acquiesce if it did not contradict the general representations of the Scriptures. We are constrained, therefore, to seek another explanation which will harmonize with other portions of the word of God. The general meaning of the Apostle is plain. We have now gross, perishable, and dishonorable, or unsightly bodies. Hereafter we are to have glorious bodies, adapted to a higher state of existence. The only question is, why does he call the one psychical, and the other pneumatic? Because the word ψυχή, although often used for the soul as rational and immortal, is also used for the lower form of life which belongs to irrational animals. Our future bodies are not to be adapted to those principles of our nature which we have in common with the brutes, out to those which are peculiar to us as men, created in the image of God. The same individual human soul has certain susceptibilities and powers which adapt it to the present state of existence, and to the earthly house in which it now dwells. It has animal appetites and necessities. It can hunger and thirst. It needs sleep and rest. But the same soul has higher powers. The earthly body is suited to its earthly state; the heavenly body to its heavenly state. There are not two substances ψυχή and πνεῦμα, there is but one and the same substance with different susceptibilities and powers. In this same connection Paul says, Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven. Yet our bodies are to inherit that kingdom, and our bodies are flesh and blood. The same material substance now constituted as flesh and blood is to be so changed as to be like Christ’s glorious body. As this representation does not prove a substantial difference between the body which now is and that which is to be hereafter, so neither does what the Apostle says of the σῶμα ψυχικόν and the σῶμα πνευματικόν prove that the ψυχή and πνεῦμα are distinct substances.

This doctrine of a threefold constitution of man being adopted by Plato, was introduced partially into the early Church, but soon came to be regarded as dangerous, if not heretical. It being held by the Gnostics that the πνεῦμα in man was a part of the divine essence, and incapable of sin; and by the Apollinarians that Christ had only a human σῶμα and ψυχή, but not a human πνεῦμα, the Church rejected the doctrine that the ψυχή and πνεῦμα were distinct substances, since upon it those heresies were founded. In later times the Semi-Pelagians taught that the soul and body, but not the spirit in man were the subjects of original sin. All Protestants, Lutheran and Reformed, were, therefore, the more zealous in maintaining that the soul and spirit, ψυχή and πνεῦμα, are one and the same substance and essence. And this, as before remarked, has been the common doctrine of the Church.76

Footnotes by Hodge

73August Hahn, Lehrbuch des christlichen Glaubens, p. 324.

74Göschel in Herzog’s Encyklopädie, Article “Seele.”

75Biblische Psychologie, § 4, p. 128.

76See G. L. Hahn, Theologie des N. T. Olshausen, De Trichotomia Naturæ Humanæ, e Novi Testamenti Scriptoribus recepta. Ackermann, Studien und Kritiken, 1839, p. 889. R. T. Beck. Umriss d. biblischen Seelenlehre, 1843.” (3)

In closing:

Vincent’s Word Studies on Hebrews 4:12:

“Even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit and of the joints and marrow (ἄρχι μερισμοῦ ψυχῆς καὶ πνεύματος ἁρμῶν τε καὶ μυελῶν)

Μερισμὸς dividing, only here and Hebrews 2:4, is not to be understood of dividing soul from spirit or joints from marrow. Soul and spirit cannot be said to be separated in any such sense as this, and joints and marrow are not in contact with each other. Μερισμὸς is the act of division, not the point or line of division. Joints and marrow are not to be taken in a literal and material sense. In rendering, construe soul, spirit, joints, marrow, as all dependent on dividing. Joints and marrow (ἁρμῶν, μυελῶν, N.T.o) are to be taken figuratively as joints and marrow of soul and spirit. This figurative sense is exemplified in classical usage, as Eurip. Hippol. 255, “to form moderate friendships, and not πρὸς ἄρκον μυελὸν ψυχῆς to the deep marrow of the soul.” The conception of depth applied to the soul is on the same figurative line. See Aesch. Agam. 778; Eurip. Bacch. 203. Attempts to explain on any psychological basis are futile. The form of expression is poetical, and signifies that the word penetrates to the inmost recesses of our spiritual being as a sword cuts through the joints and marrow of the body. The separation is not of one part from another, but operates in each department of the spiritual nature. The expression is expanded and defined by the next clause.

A discerner (κριτικὸς)

N.T.o. olxx. The word carries on the thought of dividing. From κρίνειν to divide or separate, which runs into the sense of judge, the usual meaning in N.T., judgment involving the sifting out and analysis of evidence. In κριτικὸς the ideas of discrimination and judgment are blended. Vulg. discretor.

Of the thoughts and intents of the heart (ἐνθυμήσεων καὶ ἐννοιῶν καρδίας)

The A.V. is loose and inaccurate. Ἐνθύμησις rare in N.T. See Mat 9:4; Act 17:29. Comp. ἐνθυμεῖσθαι, Mat 1:20; Mat 9:4. In every instance, both of the noun and of the verb, the sense is pondering or thinking out. Rend. The reflections. Ἔννοια only here and Pe1 4:1. It is the definite conception, which follows ἐνθύμησις Rend. Conceptions.” (4)

“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) And “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)


1.      John Woodward, Man as Spirit, Soul, and Body: A Study of Biblical Phycology, (Pigeon Forge, TN, Grace Fellowship International; Revised edition (September 5, 2000), Chapter 7, pp. 92-104.

2.      Vincent Cheung, Systematic Theology, (self-published, Lulu. com March 13, 2006), pp.122-125.

3.      Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), pp. 47-51.

4.      Marvin R. Vincent, D.D., Word studies in the New Testament, (New York, New York, Scribner), p. 974-975.

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com

For More Study:

Dichotomy or Trichotomy? How the Doctrine of Man Shapes the Treatment of Depression by Winston Smith

Trichotomy, A Beachhead for Gnostic Influences by Kim Riddlebarger https://thirdmill.org/magazine/article.asp/link/http:%5E%5Ethirdmill.org%5Earticles%5Ekim_riddlebarger%5Ekim_riddlebarger.Trichotomy.html/at/Trichotomy

What Does the Word Say? Man Comprises Body and Spirit A discussion with Dr. Spencer and Marc Roby http://whatdoesthewordsay.org/reference/2019-transcripts/Session103.pdf

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