Reformed Basics On Dichotomy And Trichotomy

Louis_BerkhofThe question came via Twitter yesterday asking what trichotomy is, from where it comes, and how Reformed theology speaks about this issue. I couldn’t do any better than Louis Berkhof  (1873–1957). Born in the Netherlands, he moved to the USA as a boy. He was raised in the Christian Reformed Church. He was the systematic theologian for decades at Calvin Theological Seminary and wrote what, along with Hodge’s Systematic Theology (1872) was the basic system among English-speaking (particularly American) Reformed and Presbyterian folk for most of the 20th century. First published in 1932 as Reformed Dogmatics, it was later re-titled Systematic Theology. It is a sound, sane, sober and brief account of the basics of Reformed theology. He does a good job of giving a brief account of the history of a doctrine, its place in the system, and a brief summary of the biblical evidence. Today we’re blessed with a number of new systematic theologies (e.g., Mike Horton’s, The Christian Faith, which you will certainly want to get and use. Here’s an interview I did with Mike on systematics and this volume).


It is customary, especially in Christian circles, to conceive of man as consisting of two, and only two, distinct parts, namely, body and soul. This view is technically called dichotomy. Alongside of it, however, another made its appearance, to the effect that human nature consists of three parts, body, soul, and spirit. It is designated by the term trichotomy. The tri-partite conception of man originated in Greek philosophy, which conceived of the relation of the body and the spirit of man to each other after the analogy of the mutual relation between the material universe and God. It was thought that, just as the latter could enter into communion with each other only by means of a third substance or an intermediate being, so the former could enter into mutual vital relationships only by means of a third or intermediate element, namely, the soul. The soul was regarded as, on the one hand, immaterial, and on the other, adapted to the body. In so far as it appropriated the nous or pneuma, it was regarded as immortal, but in so far as it was related to the body, as carnal and mortal. 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. The trichotomic conception of man found considerable favor with the Greek or Alexandrian Church Fathers of the early Christian centuries. It is found, though not always in exactly the same form, in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa. But after Apollinaris employed it in a manner impinging on the perfect humanity of Jesus, it was gradually discredited. Some of the Greek Fathers still adhered to it, though Athanasius and Theodoret explicitly repudiated it. In the Latin Church the leading theologians distinctly favored the twofold division of human nature. It was especially the psychology of Augustine that gave prominence to this view. During the Middle Ages it had become a matter of common belief. The Reformation brought no change in this respect, though a few lesser lights defended the trichotomic theory. The Roman Catholic Church adhered to the verdict of Scholasticism, but in the circles of Protestantism other voices were heard. During the nineteenth century trichotomy was revived in some form or other by certain German and English theologians, as Roos, Olshausen, Beck, Delitzsch, Auberlen, Oehler, White, and Heard; but it did not meet with great favor in the theological world. The recent advocates of this theory do not agree as to the nature of the psuche, nor as to the relation in which it stands to the other elements in man’s nature. Delitzsch conceives of it as an efflux of the pneuma, while Beck, Oehler, and Heard, regard it as the point of union between the body and the spirit. Delitzsch is not altogether consistent and occasionally seems to waver, and Beck and Oehler admit that the Biblical representation of man is fundamentally dichotomic. Their defense of a Biblical trichotomy can hardly be said to imply the existence of three distinct elements in man. Besides these two theological views there were, especially in the last century and a half, also the philosophical views of absolute Materialism and of absolute Idealism, the former sacrificing the soul to the body, and the latter, the body to the soul.

2. THE TEACHINGS OF SCRIPTURE AS TO THE CONSTITUENT ELEMENTS OF HUMAN NATURE. The prevailing representation of the nature of man in Scripture is clearly dichotomic. On the one hand the Bible teaches us to view the nature of man as a unity, and not as a duality, consisting of two different elements, each of which move along parallel lines but do not really unite to form a single organism. The idea of a mere parallelism between the two elements of human nature, found in Greek philosophy and also in the works of some later philosophers, is entirely foreign to Scripture. While recognizing the complex nature of man, it never represents this as resulting in a twofold subject in man. Every act of man is seen as an act of the whole man. It is not the soul but man that sins; it is not the body but man that dies; and it is not merely the soul, but man, body and soul, that is redeemed in Christ. This unity already finds expression in the classical passage of the Old Testament — the first passage to indicate the complex nature of man — namely, Gen. 2: 7: “And Jehovah God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” The whole passage deals with man: “God formed man . . . and man became a living soul.” This work of God should not be interpreted as a mechanical process, as if He first formed a body of clay and then put a soul into it. When God formed the body, He formed it so that by the breath of His Spirit man at once became a living soul. Job 33: 4; 32: 8. The word “soul” in this passage does not have the meaning which we usually ascribe to it — a meaning rather foreign to the Old Testament — but denotes an animated being, and is a description of man as a whole. The very same Hebrew term, nephesh chayyah (living soul or being) is also applied to the animals in Gen. 1: 21, 24, 30. So this passage, while indicating that there are two elements in man, yet stresses the organic unity of man. And this is recognized throughout the Bible.

At the same time it also contains evidences of the dual composition of man’s nature. We should be careful, however, not to expect the later distinction between the body as the material element, and the soul as the spiritual element, of human nature, in the Old Testament. This distinction came into use later on under the influence of Greek philosophy. The antithesis — soul and body — even in its New Testament sense, is not yet found in the Old Testament. In fact, the Hebrew has no word for the body as an organism. The Old Testament distinction of the two elements of human nature is of a different kind. Says Laidlaw in his work on The Bible Doctrine of Man: 1 The antithesis is clearly that of lower and higher, earthly and heavenly, animal and divine. It is not so much two elements, as two factors uniting in a single and harmonious result, — ‘man became a living soul.’ ” It is quite evident that this is the distinction in Gen. 2: 7. Cf. also Job 27: 3; 32: 8; 33: 4; Eccl. 12: 7. A variety of words is used in the Old Testament to denote the lower element in man or parts of it, such as “flesh,” “dust,” “bones,” “bowels,” “kidneys,” and also the metaphorical expression “house of clay,” Job 4: 19. And there are also several words to denote the higher element, such as “spirit;” “soul,” “heart,” and “mind.” As soon as we pass from the Old to the New Testament, we meet with the antithetic expressions that are most familiar to us, as “body and soul,” “flesh and spirit.” The corresponding Greek words were undoubtedly moulded by Greek philosophical thought, but passed through the Septuagint into the New Testament, and therefore retained their Old Testament force. At the same time the antithetic idea of the material and the immaterial is now also connected with them.

Trichotomists seek support in the fact that the Bible, as they see it, recognizes two constituent parts of human nature in addition to the lower or material element, namely, the soul (Heb., nephesh; Greek, psuche) and the spirit (Heb., ruach; Greek, pneuma). But the fact that these terms are used with great frequency in Scripture does not warrant the conclusion that they designate component parts rather than different aspects of human nature. A careful study of Scripture clearly shows that it uses the words interchangeably. Both terms denote the higher or spiritual element in man, but contemplate it from different points of view. It should be pointed out at once, however, that the Scriptural distinction of the two does not agree with that which is rather common in philosophy, that the soul is the spiritual element in man, as it is related to the animal world, while the spirit is that same element in its relation to the higher spiritual world and to God. The following facts militate against this philosophical distinction: Ruach-pneuma, as well as nephesh-psuche, is used of the brute creation, Eccl. 3: 21; Rev. 16: 3. The word psuche is even used with reference to Jehovah, Isa. 42: 1; Jer. 9: 9; Amos 6: 8 (Heb.); Heb 10: 38. The disembodied dead are called psuchai, Rev. 6: 9;20: 4. The highest exercises of religion are ascribed to the psuche, Mark 12: 30; Luke 1: 46; Heb. 6: 18,19; Jas. 1: 21. To lose the psuche is to lose all. It is perfectly evident that the Bible uses the two words interchangeably. Notice the parallelism in Luke 1: 46, 47: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” The Scriptural formula for man is in some passages “body and soul,” Matt. 6: 25; 10: 28; and in others, “body and spirit,” Eccl. 12: 7; I Cor. 5: 3, 5. Death is sometimes described as the giving up of the soul, Gen. 35: 18; I Kings 17: 21; Acts 15: 26; and then again as the giving up of the spirit, Ps. 31: 5; Luke 23: 46; Acts 7: 59. Moreover both “soul” and “spirit” are used to designate the immaterial element of the dead, I Pet. 3: 19; Heb. 12: 23; Rev. 6: 9; 20: 4. The main Scriptural distinction is as follows: the word “spirit” designates the spiritual element in man as the principle of life and action which controls the body; while the word “soul” denominates the same element as the subject of action in man, and is therefore often used for the personal pronoun in the Old Testament, Ps. 10: 1,2; 104: 1; 146: 1; Is. 42: 1; cf. also Luke 12: 19. In several instances it, more specifically, designates the inner life as the seat of the affections. All this is quite in harmony with Gen. 2: 7, “And Jehovah God . . . breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Thus it may be said that man has spirit, but is soul. The Bible therefore points to two, and only two, constitutional elements in the nature of man, namely, body and spirit or soul. This Scriptural representation is also in harmony with the self-consciousness of man. While man is conscious of the fact that he consists of a material and a spiritual element, no one is conscious of possessing a soul in distinction from a spirit.

There are two passages, however, that seem to conflict with the usual dichotomic representation of Scripture, namely, I Thess. 5: 23, “And the God of peace Himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”; and Heb. 4: 12, “For the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.” But it should be noted that: (a) It is a sound rule in exegesis that exceptional statements should be interpreted in the light of the analogia Scriplura, the usual representation of Scripture. In view of this fact some of the defenders of trichotomy admit that these passages do not necessarily prove their point. (b) The mere mention of spirit and soul alongside of each other does not prove that, according to Scripture, they are two distinct sub-stances, any more than Matt. 22: 37 proves that Jesus regarded heart and soul and mind as three distinct substances, (c) In I Thess. 5: 23 the apostle simply desires to strengthen the statement, “And the God of peace Himself sanctify you wholly,” by an epexigetical statement, in which the different aspects of man’s existence are summed up, and in which he feels perfectly free to mention soul and spirit alongside of each other, because the Bible distinguishes between the two. He cannot very well have thought of them as two different substances here, because he speaks elsewhere of man as consisting of two parts, Rom. 8: 10; I Cor. 5: 5; 7: 34; II Cor. 7: 1; Eph. 2: 3; Col. 2: 5. (d) Heb. 4: 12 should not be taken to mean that the word of God, penetrating to the inner man, makes a separation between his soul and his spirit, which would naturally imply that these two are different substances; but simply as declaring that it brings about a separation in both between the thoughts and intents of the heart.

These quotations are taken from the Kindle edition.

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  1. I have a trichotomy roughly every six weeks (generally with the same practitioner, though he has never been a member of the Company Of Barbers And Surgeons).
    A little more seriously, a major Chinese church leader taught trichotomy and applied it in great detail (e.g. in “The Release of the Spirit”), so it must not be ignored, though it can’t be right. If soul and spirit are distinct, they cannot be separate non-material bodies, any more than joints and marrow can be separate physical bodies.

  2. In my experience with Christians from almost every corner of the church, the terminology of trichotomy is very common, especially in charismatic and pentecostal circles, though I suspect few would be aware of its negative implications.

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