Dichotomy, Trichotomy, or Polychotomy?

Someone asked: “If the soul of the believer will go to heaven when he dies, what about his spirit?” This view that the essence of man consists of three parts—body, soul and spirit—is very common today. Although most theologians reject this tripartite view of man, this teaching is very popular among evangelicals today.

Creation by MichaelangeloTrichotomists believe that the spirit (Heb ruach, Grk pneuma) is the seat of God-consciousness, spiritual capabilities and reason, while the soul (Heb nefesh, Grk psyche) is the seat of affections, desires, emotions, will and self-consciousness.

Yet, from Augustine in the 4th century until the 1800s (not surprisingly, the same period when amillennialism was the only view of the church, before John Darby and the dispensationalists arrived on the scene), the prevalent view was that man is made up of two parts: body and soul-spirit. The body (Heb basar, Grk soma, sarx) is the material or physical. Gnostics teach that everything good dwells in the immaterial, but the body is the seat of all evil.

Dr. Kim Riddlebarger says that the pagan Gnostic impulse of evangelicalism’ quest for secret knowledge apart from the text of Scripture (gnosis), a disparaging of matter, including an aversion to things physical and intellectual—finds an effective beachhead in many evangelicals today through this tripartite view. In “Trichotomy: Beachhead for Gnostic Influences,” he lists the following “dubious pedigree” that arose as a result of this view:

• It lessened the value of the physical, demotes doctrines; but emphasizes the spiritual, such as Pentecostalism.

• It produced the unbiblical doctrine of “carnal” Christianity.

• It aided the Arminian doctrine of free will (spirit is not dead in sin, but still has a will to make a good choice).

• It produced experience-based “praise and worship” culture to arouse the emotions, escape the physical realm, and enter into the spiritual.

Scripture has an impregnable case for dichotomy, the view that man consists of two parts, body and soul. Various texts show us that man consists of material (body) and immaterial (soul-spirit) parts:

(a) Soul and spirit are used interchangeably (Gen 41:8 – Psa 42:6 and Matt 20:28 (life=psyche); Matt 27:50 and Matt 6:25 – Eccl 12:7; Luke 1:46-47 and John 12:27 – John 13:21)

(b) Death is giving up soul (Acts 15:26 [life = psyche)]; 1 Pet 4:19) or spirit (Matt 27:50; Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59)

(c) The disembodied dead are called “souls” (1 Pet 3:19; Rev 6:9-11, 20:4).

(d) Man’s relationship to God is not just through the spirit (Psa 51:17; Ezek 36:26; 1 Cor 6:17), but also through the soul (Mark 8:36-37, 12:30; Luke 1:46; Jas 1:21)

(e) A twofold, not threefold, division happens at death (Eccl 12:7; Matt 10:28; Luke 23:46; Jas 2:26; Acts 7:59)

Compare the above with only two texts that seem to support trichotomy, the view that in addition to the material, the immaterial consists of two distinct substances:

(a)  1 Thessalonians 5:23: division into spirit, soul, and body?

(b)  Hebrews 4:12: division between soul and spirit?

According to A. A. Hodge in his Outlines of Theology, page 299, this is the view of most Greek philosophers, including Aristotle, Pythagoras, Plato, and most Greek philosophers, who contributed to Gnosticism.

These two texts do not necessarily teach trichotomy. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul is not trying to split man into three parts (spirit, soul, body). Is Jesus saying that man is made up of four parts in Mark 12:30 (heart, soul, mind, strength)? There are several texts that lists different “parts” of man, and if they are taken literally, the resulting view would be polychotomy—not two or three parts, but many parts.

For example, in Deuteronomy 6:5, God commands Israel to love him with all their heart, soul and strength (see Matt 22:37) while Mark 12:30 lists heart, soul, mind, strength, and Mark 12:33 adds understanding. Isaiah 64:4 tells us that God is so unique that no eye, ear, mind can describe him. Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:5 that he is exhorting them so they may develop a love that issues from a pure heart, good conscience and sincere faith. All of these lists merely encompass the whole being, not parts, of a person.

In Hebrews 4:12, the Greek verb used for “dividing,” merismos, is never used anywhere in Scripture to differenti­ate between two different things, but is always used when distributing and dividing up various aspects of the same thing (see Heb 2:4; contrast with diameridzo in Luke 11:17-18; Matt 27:35; John 19:24). Thus, this verse, in saying that the Word of God divides soul and spirit, teaches that the Word penetrates our innermost parts.

So whenever you think of yourself as body, soul and spirit, think again. Gnosticism may have a beachhead into your soul.


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9 thoughts on “Dichotomy, Trichotomy, or Polychotomy?”

  1. Pingback: FRANCIS SCHAEFFER ANALYZES ART AND CULTURE PART 85 (Breaking down the song “When I’m Sixty-Four” Part B) Featured Photographer and Journalist is Bill Harry | The Daily Hatch

  2. “According to A. A. Hodge in his Outlines of Theology, page 299, this is the view of most Greek philosophers, including Aristotle, Pythagoras, Plato, and most Greek philosophers, who contributed to Gnosticism.”

    I’m looking at page 299 of Outlines of Theology and it says nothing about this topic, it’s about the nature of Atonement.

  3. I have noticed that the words “soul” and “spirit” are used interchangeably when it pertains to going to heaven but when it comes to the immaterial part going to hell, the word “spirit” was never used, only “soul”. Is there an explanation for this?

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