Man, uniquely situated among the various created orders, is also unique as to his nature. He is material or body, true enough, in the sense that he possesses a physical body. But the witness of Scripture is that man is more than simply a material body. Christians have interpreted this witness in several different ways.
Monism (“Whole Man”)
I will begin with G. C. Berkouwer’s view of the “whole man.” Berkouwer argues that “humanness” in the Bible is always defined in terms of relation (relationis) and not being (entis). That is to say, what it is specifically about man that holds the Bible’s interest is neither his “soul” nor his “heart” understood as an immaterial substantia but rather simply man in relation to God. According to Berkouwer, Scripture always and only views man as a total “one” before God, and it has no interest in either trichotomy or dichotomy. Such terms as “soul” and “spirit,” Berkouwer argues, are interchangeable, flexible, and imprecise, and are not intended
to give to a scientific anthropology the status of church doctrine or biblical teaching. They only wish to underscore man’s inescapable God orientation, to say that man is more than the chemical components of his flesh. Man as he is constituted, as he exists in himself abstracted from his relationship to God, does not interest the Bible and therefore is not a proper object of theological concern.1
Berkouwer recognizes that his rejection of the notion of the human soul as an ontic entity separable from the body “runs hard against the pious belief that at death the soul departs to be ‘with the Lord.’” But he insists that
we must think of the future of man, not in terms of the part of man that is with Christ, but in terms of the victory of Christ over sin and death, of total resurrection, of the glorious acts of God still awaited in the coming of Christ to establish the New Earth. The state of man in the “between times” we must leave as one of the hidden things. Scripture itself “gives us no help in a search for an analyzable anthropological conclusion.”2
We shall shortly see, to put it bluntly, that this is nonsense, but we should acknowledge now that his view is motivated by the very proper concern that any analysis that distinguishes between “constituent parts” within the “whole man” runs the risk of making the soul the valuable and God-like part of man while the body is that which drags the soul down to sin and corruption. Such a notion must be rejected out of hand as completely unbiblical. Both ontological entities are valuable and significant to God. But Smedes rightly asks a series of questions:
[O]n the profoundly difficult subject of man, has Berkouwer adequately faced the question of whether … his quarrel is not with an antiquated psychology, and whether therefore it may be unnecessary to reject the old ontology of body and soul once it is separated from the old psychology?… is it not possible that the classic ontological distinction between soul and body still best fits the religious and redemptive portrayal of man?… given the fact that man, after death, is at home with the Lord while his body is rotting in the grave, and given the fact that the Bible speaks of a separation of the soul from the body, is it not possible that the older notion best fits both pious hope and biblical suggestion? And, after we clear our minds of the expendable psychology that was appended to the body-soul distinction, what would be wrong with assuming that man is a substantial soul, and that the man with whom the Bible is concerned is the whole man, body and soul, in their mysterious but indivisible unity? Berkouwer [elsewhere] insists that the “unmixed and unconfused” natures of Christ do not impede their genuine unity in the One Christ. Why should not man be a unity—a different kind and level than that of Christ’s unity, indeed—between two distinct ontological realities? Could we not have both, the “whole man” in dynamic relationship with God and the whole man in a unity of ontologically distinct entities, body and soul?3
It should be clear from Smede’s comments that whatever else one might say, the Bible will not permit us to view man simply as the “whole man” in relationship to God. He is either a dichotomous (body/soul) or trichotomous (body/soul/spirit) creature in relationship to God.
The trichotomist must admit, along with the dichotomist and in agreement with Berkouwer, that there is a certain “imprecision” at times in the Bible’s use of the relevant terminology. One has only to consider the several New Testament quotations of Deuteronomy 6:5, for example, to see this. Where Luke 10:27 reads that we should love God with all our heart (καρδία, kardia) and soul (ψυχή, psychē) and strength (ἰσχύς, ischys) and mind (διάνοια, dianoia), Matthew 22:37 reads that we should love God with all our heart and soul and mind, omitting strength, while Mark reports in 12:30 that we should love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength (reversing the order of the last two Lukan words), and in 12:33 that we should love God with all our heart and understanding (συνέσεως, syneseōs) and strength, using another word for “mind” and omitting “soul” altogether. In all, five different words are employed without even mentioning the body. Surely, no one would insist, on the basis of these series of words connected by “and,” that each of these words refers to an immaterial, ontologically distinct entity, and that therefore Luke was a quintchotomist, Matthew was a quadchotomist, and Mark was a sexchotomist. With Berkouwer we must all admit that these parallel admonitions are simply saying that we are to love God with our entire or total being. Similarly I would urge that the three passages that trichotomists regularly advance in support of trichotomy do not really draw an ontological distinction between “soul” and “spirit, as the following expositions will demonstrate:
1 Corinthians 15:44: “[The body] is sown a natural [ψυχικόν, psychikon] body, it is raised a spiritual [πνευματικόν, pneumatikon, that is, a supernatural] body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual [that is, a supernatural] body.”
Here the trichotomist urges that to assert that there is no difference between “soul” and “spirit” is to assert that there is no distinction between the preresurrection body and the resurrection body. But precisely because it is evident that there is a difference between these two bodies, he continues, it is equally clear that there is an ontological distinction between soul and spirit.
I would note, however, that the implied subject of both verbs (“sown,” “raised”) is the same subject, the body, and that the same word σῶμα, sōma, is used in both instances, suggesting that it is the same body numerically that is sown and raised. If the two words really intended totally distinct ontological entities, then the body that is raised is not the same body that is sown. Paul doubtless intended simply to say that the “soulish body,” that is, the body whose attributes fit it for life in this natural world during this age, will be so transformed that, as the “spiritual body,” it will fit the life which the person who is associated with the risen Christ will live in the supernatural New Earth situation.
1 Thessalonians 5:23: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly [ὁλοτελεῖς, holoteleis] and may your whole [ὁλόκληρον, holoklēron] spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The trichotomist insists that the conjunction “and” between “spirit” and “soul” intends that they be viewed as separate entities. But I would urge, first, that it is no less precarious to argue that “spirit” and “soul” refer here to separate, immaterial entities on the basis of the “and” between them than it is to argue that heart and soul and strength and mind in Luke 10:27 refer to separate immaterial entities because of the repeated “and” there. Second, the adverb “wholly” and the adjective “whole” in the verse strongly suggest that the emphasis of the verse is on the Christian man viewed here in his entirety as the “whole man.”
Hebrews 4:12: “Sharper than any two-edged sword, [the Word of God] pene-trates even to ‘dividing’ of soul and spirit … and is the judge of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
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 (that would require some such word as μεταξύ, metaxu) or divides the soul from the spirit. The verse no more intends this than it intends, when it goes on to say that the Word is the judge of thoughts and of intents of the heart (again, two genitives governed by the noun “judge”), that thoughts and intents are ontologically distinct things. Clearly, intents are simply one kind of thought. What the verse is actually saying is that the Word of God is able to penetrate into the deepest recesses of a man’s spirit and judge his very thoughts, even the secret intentions of his heart.
While these verses offer no support to the trichotomous view, this erroneous view of man’s constituent make-up has been made the base for the espousal of other erroneous views both in Christology (Apollinarianism) and in the area of sanctification (the view that it is the Christian’s spirit which is regenerated, his soul remaining unregenerate, and that it is this condition which accounts for the struggle within him to live either righteously or unrighteously).
The dichotomist affirms that the Bible teaches that man’s constituent elements are the material body and the immaterial soul (or spirit)—two ontologically distinct entities—which are in a mysterious, vital union and interact in what Berkhof calls the “union of life.” In other words, he is neither pure matter alone nor pure spirit alone but a wonderful duality-in-unity and unity-in-duality. The scriptural support for this view includes the following verses:
Genesis 2:7: “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath [נְשָׁמָה, nes̊āmåh] of life, and man became a living being.”
Ecclesiastes 12:7: “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (This seems to be a commentary on Genesis 2:7.)
Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (emphasis added).
Here our Lord makes it plain that a person has an entity that men may kill. He calls it the body (σῶμα, sōma). But he has another entity that men cannot kill. He calls it the soul (ψυχή, psychē). By his use of the καί … καί, kai … kai, construction in the second half of the verse, which grammatically means “both … and,” Jesus clearly teaches that man’s constituent parts are two, namely, “body” and “soul.” This is the reason he could say to the dying thief, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43; emphasis added).
2 Corinthians 5:1–10: “Now we know that if the earthly tent [the body] we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God [that is, the resurrection body] … we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we [that is, our souls] will not be found naked.… as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.… we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.”
Philippians 1:21–24: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
Because of this evidence, the Reformation creeds all adopt the dichotomous view of man. Again, the Westminster Confession of Faith will be sufficient to illustrate the point.
The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous … are received into the highest heavens.… And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell.… Besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none. (XXXII/i; emphasis supplied)
It is clear that the Confession of Faith views people as having one ontological entity which permits them to die and to see corruption. The Scripture calls this entity the body. But men are another ontological entity, and have thereby an immortal subsistence that neither dies nor sleeps when it leaves the body at death. The Bible calls this entity the soul or spirit. It is plain that the Confession of Faith in accordance with the Scriptures clearly teaches here the dichotomous view of man.
This is not to suggest that Holy Scripture never intends any distinction in its usage of “spirit” and “soul.” H. D. MacDonald has nicely captured the nuancial distinction between “spirit” and “soul” when he writes:
However used, both terms refer to man’s inner nature over against flesh or body, which refers to the outer aspect of man as existing in space and time. In reference, then, to man’s psychical nature, “spirit” denotes life as having its origin in God and “soul” denotes that same life as constituted in man. Spirit is the inner depth of man’s being, the higher aspect of his personality. Soul expresses man’s own special and distinctive individuality. The pneuma is man’s nonmaterial nature looking Godward; the psyche is that same nature of man looking earthward and touching the things of sense.4
Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998), 418–424.
- Lewis B. Smedes, “G. C. Berkouwer,” in Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1966), 84.
- Ibid., 93–94.
- H. D. MacDonald, “Man, Doctrine of,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1984), 678; emphasis supplied.