Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The dichotomy and trichotomy models of man

The focus of the last post was on comparing the 'Monism'/'whole man' model of humanity to a model which acknowledges a complex unity of constituents (in the present life), being a material body and a nonmaterial element, the non-material element continuing beyond bodily existance - for a summary and scriptural evidence for this model see

In an earlier post, we looked at the usage of the terms 'soul' and 'spirit' in Hebrew. In summary, while there is overlap between the translated hebrew concepts of ‘roo-akh’ and ‘nephesh’; in an existential sense, a distinction between the terms denotes 'Roo'-akh' / ‘spirit’ as the special gift of God to man. 'Soul'/'nephesh' is commonly concieved of as the whole creature (including animals), or the life or 'lifeblood' of a creature.

Thus, since it is scripturally established that the non-material component continues beyond the bodily existence, what constitutes this non-material element? The following is a brief overview of the dichotomy and trichotomy models of man, and the Biblical grounds cited for each position. The dichotomy model poses body and (soul/spirit), essentially proposing that there is no split in man's non-material element. In contrast, the trichotomy model holds three distinct elements in man being 'body', 'soul' and 'spirit', thus proposing a distinction between man's spiritual and 'soulish' (mind, will and emotions) elements.

Those advocating a trichotomy model of man in body, soul and spirit rely on the verses of
1 Thessalonians 5:23 in Paul’s prayer ‘I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’; the claim is that this demonstrates that there is a tri-model; and Hebrews 4:12 as it refers to the word of God dividing asunder of soul and spirit’ is also taken to indicate a distinction between soul and spirit. Note that both refernces are in Greek NT. Note also that man in the Biblical Hebrew framework is essentially 'dust' from the ground (adam-ah) and God's breath, 'neshamah'. In Ecclesiastes 12:7, the author writes ‘Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.' It seems logical that our understanding needs to be oriented to the Hebrew concept of created man, and moreover it needs to reconcile the Greek New Testament language to the Hebrew framework - rather that the other way around.

Berkhof argues in his Systematic Theology that a tri-model of body, soul and spirit finds its roots in Greek pagan philosophy which poses that our material body and immaterial spirit can relate only through a third intermediate entity, namely the soul. Reymond rightly points out the difficulties with forming a 'triune' doctrine based on these scriptures – mostly for the reason that in doing so we regard them out of context extracting a secondary message from the text which was not intended by the author. Burns agrees with this and warns that the Apostle Paul’s use of the terms taken to mean a trichotomy of ‘body’/’soul’ and the ‘spirit’ is problematic– and caution is sounded here as what we have of the Apostle’s thought on the subject is far from systematic (Burns 2007). Reference is also made by trichotomists to Jesus’ teaching in Luke 10:27 to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' (parallels in Mark 12:30, and Matthew 22:37). Again, Reymond draws attention to the primary purpose of the passage the passages as simply admonishing us to love God with our entire being. Variations in text of these ‘components’ between the gospels are also relevantly noted here, likely indicating an encompasing parallelism rather than set distinctions.

Advocates of the dichotomy body and (soul/spirit) cite Ecclesiastes 12:7 ‘Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.’; and Mathew 10:28 ‘And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.’; and 2 Co 5:1-10 (referring to spirit and body) and Ph 1:21-24 (contrasting being present in the body with being present with Christ). Reymond notes that because of this evidence all the reformation creeds including the Westminster Confession affirm the dichotomy of body and (soul/spirit). Grudem concurs with this view stating “Such a view of dichotomy within unity will also help us to remember that, in this life, there is a continual interaction between our body and our spirit, and that they affect each other”. A dynamic model is thus suggested, a unity made up of two distinct elements a material body and an immaterial soul/spirit of man.

Burns C. P. (2005). Cognitive Science and Christian Theology. In Soul, Psyche, Brain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Grudem, W. (1994). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine.

Reymond, Robert L. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville, Tenn: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998)

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