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Spirit and Soul

October 16, 2006


One group holds that man has three constituent parts: body, soul and spirit (trichotomy).

“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23

Others say no, man has two parts, one material, one immaterial: body and soul/spirit. Soul and spirit are generally used interchangeably (dichotomy) :

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. ” Matthew 10:28

A third view denies both, asserting that the Bible’s “Hebrew” perspective sees man as a unified whole without constituent parts.
I am going to argue for a view sympathetic to trichotomy, without particular emphasis on man’s elements being three in nature (though I think this also can be supported). My aim in this post is to demonstrate that the Bible presents a definite contrast in the concepts of “soul” and “spirit.”

Part I: The Nature of the Debate

1. The debate is frequently characterized by some interesting arguments, and less commonly by some relevant ones. One in the interesting category is a charge linking trichotomy with Gnosticism (Trichotomy: Beachhead For Gnostic Influences) by Kim Riddlebarger, a dichotomist. The suggestion is strange coming from the dichotomy camp, because Gnosticism is characterized by a dualism that has roots in Platonism, and throughout the early centuries of the church the rampant error of Neo-Platonism was expressed in dichotomist terms. So if the charge is valid for trichotomism, I cannot see how it would not be for dichotomism as well.
One of Riddlebarger’s principal arguments is that trichotomy is a “popular” concept, whereas “most scholars” hold to dichotomy. The idea of the majority vote of exegetes is something of a red flag. This kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” argument suggest that the smart people see things his way. I’m sure I am as susceptible to intellectual pride as the next fellow, but I also know when I am being had.

A lot of the discussion seems really to be about something else: about Pentecostalism, Wesleyanism, Calvinism, Dispensationalism, Lutheranism etc., rather than with the data of Scripture. I can’t help thinking that if the Biblical argument convincingly supported a
particular view, the proponents would not resort to arguments of this type.

The suggestion of a “Hebrew view” of man as achieved a certain level of acceptance, and appears as a common retort to this whole debate. George E. Ladd wrote a chapter entitled “The Greek versus the Hebrew View of Man,”which is certainly erudite and describes much of the ancient Greek culture’s approach to man’s nature. He then contrasts this pagan view with some of what the Bible reveals about man. The title is somewhat misleading, as he is describing a Biblical view, based on statements of Scripture, not a “Hebrew” view, as though it was derived from on the
language or culture of the ancient Hebrews. Neither the Hebrew culture nor the language is inspired. (The Biblical text is.) Hebrew in fact is virtually identical to Canaanite (Phoenician), and very closely related to other Semitic languages. Semitic terms and cultural constructs were used by pagans for centuries before Hebrew (and Aramaic) were employed by the Holy Spirit for the composition of the Old Testament.

At any rate, Ladd’s work does not really successfully make the case that Hebrew was without psychological terms or an anthropology that distinguished internal versus external capacities in man. I am not really even sure that he meant it to, whatever has subsequently been made of his chapter.
2. To some extent the debate over a number: one, two, or three, is missing an important point. We make conceptual divisions all the time, and though these serve to elucidate aspects of the subject under consideration, they may or may not reflect ultimate reality. A simple example is the spectrum of visible light. A continuous gradation from one end to another, we nevertheless separate it conceptually into distinct colors. We ask how many colors are in a rainbow. A frequent answer in our culture is seven (strangely including “indigo,” which is otherwise not usually included in the “basic” colors, a la the box of eight crayons.) “How many colors” is a misleading question, however, as no real separation exists in the spectrum. Yet we are not
constituted to handle color in this way, and so culturally we provide answers to this question, despite the physical reality. Indeed the perception of visible “light” within the electromagnetic band as well as the particularities of color have as much to do with the biology of eye and brain as with any objective physical properties.
Similarly, distinguishing various faculties within the human being doubtless reflects truth about the structure created by God, though far from exhaustively or definitively. Even truth revealed by Scripture may not be the same as “ultimate reality” whatever that may be), which is certainly far more complex. There will always be another way to chop us up, and “lumpers” and “splitters” will probably never see eye to eye.

3. Debate over soul and spirit falls short in one other way: we don’t really even know what we are talking about. What is a “soul” anyway. The Epicureans, who understood matter to be composed of atoms, thought the soul was made up of particularly fine and delicate atoms, which quickly dispersed at death. This is why the Epicureans laughed at Paul when he preached about resurrection on the Areopagus. He obviously was ignorant of “science.” (Acts 17)

By etymology, both words are connected with the breath, which is after all an invisible substance, which nevertheless has power and is associated with life. Pneuma, “spirit” is composed of the root pne(w), found in the verb pneo “to breathe, to blow (of the wind),” with the addition of a nominal suffix -ma, indicating the result of an action, hence: “the breath, the wind.” The Hebrew word ruach has essentially the same derivation. In Latin as well, spiritus, is based on the root spir-, which also indicates breathing and from which is derived respiration. Psuche is also related to the breath. The verb psucho also means to breathe, and the adjective psuchos means cold, as of a cold wind or something chilled by being blown upon. These etymologies do not indicate that individuals actually equated the spirit or soul with breath, much less that there is something ontologically true about the derivation of the terms.
Medieval scholasticism sought to discover the nature of spirit. The well-known question about how many angels could stand on the point of a pin (not as more commonly misquoted “dance on the head of a pin”) concerned the relation of spirit to space (i.e. does it have extension or simply location) as well as the mysteries of the number zero in its geometric expression, the point (c.f.
Zeno’s paradoxes).

4. Though my argument will favor trichotomy, let me state unequivocally, trichotomy should not be defended as the “trinity” of man. Man being composed of spirit, soul, and body is not even a
good illustration of the Trinity. This would be more consistent with Monarchianism.
5. It comes down (at last) to the proposition that “spirit” and “soul” are used pretty much interchangeably in the Bible. Now we have something we can deal with: a falsifiable theory
as to the linguistic usage in the statements of Scripture. We are not dealing with tainted origins of ideas or tendencies to drift into this or that error, guilt by association, or other smoke and mirrors of doctrinal distraction. We can stay on the exegesis plane, and let theology follow what we find in the Biblical text.

I don’t know, but I suspect that a number of those who say that “spirit” and “soul” are used interchangeably have only assumed this to be true as they look at the statements of Scripture. To the extent that this is done, it is circular reasoning, and it is not surprising what conclusion is reached. Treatments I have seen on this subject fall far short of demonstrating the assertion. Furthermore, I think that there is persuasive evidence that the two words are not true synonyms, or that the area of semantic overlap is less than commonly believed.
Two words or expressions in a language are said to be synonyms to the extent that they share the same referential meaning in at least some of their uses. Picture two overlapping circles, where each circle represents the semantic range of the word. The area in common is where either word could equally well serve for the desired meaning. In the non-common areas a distinction of some kind separates the words. Some pairs have a great deal of overlap, while others share very little.
For example in English large and big have a substantial area of overlap between them. It often makes very little difference whether you ask for a large piece of pie or a big one. On the other hand it makes a big difference whether I say I am a “big Cowboy fan” or a “large Cowboy fan.” Clothing sizes in general are marked as small, medium and large; big is not typically used for this function.

Spirit and soul may well share an area of overlapping meaning, though it is almost unheard of for two words to have 100% overlap, and these two words do not. For example, nowhere in the New Testament, for example is Jesus said to cast out an “unclean soul”* and nowhere is the term “Holy Soul”* used. In fact, I don’t believe the word soul is ever used in connection with God.
One example of synonymy cited to me from two sources occurs in the Magnificat:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Luke 1:46-47

This does have the benefit of being a New Testament citation, though it is a beautiful example of Hebrew poetic parallelism. In fact it is of a type known as synonymous parallelism. Both soul and spirit here fill similar role: each refers to the inner life of Mary, who is praising and exulting in God. Strictly speaking the two elements do not have to be true synonyms themselves to be used in synonymous parallelism. The two verbs used in parallel, magnifies and rejoices in, are not exactly synonymous, but they have similar meanings, and this is all we can safely conclude
about spirit and soul as well from this example.
It should be pointed out that the above example, while found in New Testament Greek,certainly reflects Hebrew usage (and was undoubtedly uttered by Mary in Aramaic or possibly Hebrew). This particular pairing is not uncommon in Hebrew poetry, as a couple of other examples will show:

“I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” Job 7:11

“My soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.” Isaiah 26:9

However, one hopes that poetic parallelism is not the best that can be done to demonstrate that spirit and soul are used interchangeably. Conversely, only a handful of verses are usually adduced to show a distinction. The most straightforward, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, was cited earlier:

“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the terms are not interchangeable here, but it could be a pleonasm. A similar verse is frequently quoted that I think clearly is pleonastic:

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Mark 12:30.

Heart and mind and soul appear to be covering some of the same semantic ground. However, I am not convinced that the Thessalonians verse is so used, particularly with the emphasis on complete sanctification, the context of the second coming, and parallel statements in Paul, where he speaks of “redemption of our bodies” at the parousia (Romans 8:23).
Another strong indication that “spirit” and “soul” are not being used interchangeably is the well-known use in Hebrews 4:12:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

Interestingly, this verse really ought to be definitive that in at least this one context the two words are in some sense separated. Yet, in the discussion one typically finds a rather unconvincing denial. The complication is that the word “division” (merismos), while commonly referring to the act of separation, can also refer to the result of separation. We see the same phenomenon in English: in math division is the operation of “cutting” a quantity into parts. In the military or in business by contrast a division is a unit that results from the splitting of a larger unit. So the suggestion is that it is the second sense in view here: that “soul” is not said to be divided from “spirit,” but that the inner being, “soul and spirit” is the area to which the word of God is said to penetrate. Personally, I find this explanation hard to swallow, especially given the multiple cutting terms used in the context: sharper, two-edged, sword,
piercing. I would expect “division” to indicate the act of cutting, rather than the unit resulting from the cutting.
6. The two words occurring together is of some help in suggesting a semantic distinction, but to demonstrate the distinction definitively on a linguistic basis, we would like to find a use
contrasting the two words. Contrast in identical environment is the ideal evidence, but the somewhat less satisfactory contrast in analogous environment is also helpful.
We do have an example of contrast in 1 Corinthians 15:45 (though not evident in the ESV):

“The first man Adam became a living being [psuche: “soul”]; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit [pneuma].”

The whole point of the passage is a contrast between Adam and Christ. Paul employs multiple contrasting pairs, such as perishable and imperishable (v. 42), weakness and power (v.43), earth and heaven (v. 47), each of which involves one inferior element and one superior element. Verse 45 keys off of Genesis 2:5: “and the man became a living creature [Heb.: nephesh, LXX: psuche]” and makes a double contrast with Jesus: merely “living” versus “life-giving”
and “soul” versus “spirit.” While not an ideal example of contrast, because of the double alternation obviously changes the environment, the suggestion is strong that “soul” is used in this context as both a different and in some way an inferior entity.
7. The most definitive texts in my opinion, however, are not readily obvious in English translation. They are somewhat indirect evidence since they do not involve the nouns psuche and pneuma as such, but their respective adjectival forms psuchikos and pneumatikos. The former is relatively rare in its usage, but the two are never used interchangeably in the New Testament. The contexts in which they are found make this clear and unambiguous. Each word is transparently related to its associated noun. Pneumatikos means “of or concerning the spirit, spiritual.” Psuchikos means “of or concerning the soul,” though it is hard to capture in a single English word.
Classical uses suggest “spiritual” is a reasonable translation, but this will hardly do for Scriptural instances,as we shall see. Transliterating “psychic” obviously gives a wrong sense. A Latin derivation would yield “animal” from anima “soul,” which might imply something like “beastly,” which is not really the meaning (though there is probably something to explore here). This is in fact how the Vulgate renders it, as well as the Louis Segonde in French, where we find “homme animal (1 Corinthians 2:14),” which has to sound to native speakers like “animal-man,” even though animal would be a natural adjectival form for âme, “soul.” Some sources employ “soulish,” though it is not clear that this is widely accepted as an English word. Of the four uses in the Bible, the KJV renders it “natural” twice and “sensual” twice. Neither of these translation is particularly apt in rendering the Greek, and conceal the connection to “soul,” though this is evident in the Greek.

Part II: Examination of Evidence

1 Corinthians 2:10-15

10 These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 14 The natural (psuchikos) person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually (pneumatikōs) discerned. 15 The spiritual (pneumatikos) person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.

a. Verses 14 and 15 contain a contrast between the adjectives psuchikos and pneumatikos. This is a contrast in identical environment, both adjectives modifying anthropos “person.” The contrast definitively distinguishes between the two terms, and though the evidence is indirect in regard to the corresponding nouns, it is significant evidence that psuche and pneuma also are to be distinguished from the point of view of this text.
b. The context refers both to the Spirit of God and to man’s spirit (v. 11). Is the term spiritual to be derived from the former or the latter? The suggestion that pneumatikos simply means led by the Holy Spirit would mitigate against taking this passage as specifically presenting a trichotomous view. However, the term psuchikos clearly relates to man’s psuche, and it is reasonable to see pneumatikos as parallel to it. Elsewhere Paul indicates a significant link between man’s spirit and the Holy Spirit: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16), which is consistent with the idea that those regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit relate to God through the faculty of the human spirit. That the human faculty is involved is further indicated by the adverb pneumatikōs, since the spiritual man is clearly stated to have a capacity that the other lacks, the ability to discern things through the spirit, “spiritually.”
c. The contrasted term psuchikos seems to imply an absence of functioning of the human spirit, not to mention the Holy Spirit. It certainly indicates one “who does not have the Spirit of Christ” (Romans 8:9). It is virtually defined for us as such in Jude 19 (see below).
d. At any rate, this passage is presented not to prove trichotomism, but to demonstrate a clear contrast between psuche-family terms and pneuma-family terms.
1 Corinthians 15:42-46

42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural (psuchikos) body; it is raised a spiritual (pneumatikos) body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being [psuche]”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual.

a. A second strong contrast between psuchikos and pneumatikos occurs in the same
epistle. Again, the main point in presenting these here is to illustrate the clear distinction between psuche-family terms and pneuma-family terms. Note that a contrast between the
noun-forms occurs as well (v.45), as discussed above.
b. The usage here is different from thirteen chapters earlier, though undoubtedly related. In this case the two adjectives modify soma, “body.” It is significant that we do have the three elements in question all represented here: spirit, soul, and body.
c. The term psuchikos is not only contrasted with pneumatikos, but it is also linked with
a litany of descriptive terms: “perishable,” “dishonor,” “weakness,” and starting in verse 47, “from the earth,” “of dust,” whereas pneumatikos is linked with their opposites.

d. What is the significance of these adjectives modifying “body” rather than “person”?
In this case the difference is not before and after regeneration, as in chapter 2, but at death and after resurrection. Therefore even regenerate people,i.e. “spiritual” people are said to have
their bodies buried as psuchikos. One possible explanation could be that the dead body of a spiritual person is no longer “pneumatikos,” since the spirit is absent (“away from the body and at home with the Lord” 2 Corinthians 5:8). However, this would seem unlikely, as the body would thus retain the psuche and yet be dead.
A more likely understanding is that even the “spiritual” retain a body that lags behind. This
would be consistent with Paul’s statement that at the coming of Christ we will see “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). So then in this life even the “spiritual”
face drag from soul and body which is awaiting “redemption” (c.f. Romans 7:7-24). “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Jude 19

“It is these who cause divisions, worldly (psuchikos) people, devoid of the Spirit.”

a. Though the word is translated “worldly” here and in other translations “sensual,” it is the same word psuchikos. This is not the most felicitous translation, since it carries something of the idea, but pretty much misses the point of the adjective. One of my particular objections in the NIV was the use of “worldly” for sarkinos and sarkikos is 1 Corinthians 3:1 and 3 respectively.

b. Also the ESV translation gives the appearance that “devoid of the Spirit” is a separate
element in a list following “worldly,” grammatically it is a participial construction explaining “worldly”: psuchikoi, pneuma me echontes (“soulish, not having the Spirit”). Thus psuchikos is defined as not having the Spirit. Certainly the Holy Spirit is in view; it is not saying the person has no spirit–yet it is unengaged. This passage is surely the justification for the NIV translation of psuchikos in 1 Corinthinans 2:14 as “the man without the Spirit.”

c. Once again I think the passage clearly implies two distinct faculties: soul and spirit.
James 3:15-17

15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual
(psuchikos), demonic.
16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then
peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.

a. There is no actual contrast between the word families here, just the remaining New Testament use of psuchikos. Yet it is contrasted in its association with a wisdom from “below,” and some very unflattering adjectives, not only “earthly,” but “demonic.”
b. Even though no contrasting pneuma-family term is used, it is impossible to understand
psuchikos as equivalent to pneumatikos.


The suggestion that the New Testament Greek terms pneuma and psuche are commonly used interchangeably is seriously open to question on a number of different levels. In a number of uses, such as to refer to demons or the Spirit of God, we never find psuche. There are several other uses of the two terms, and there might be significant semantic overlap, though this needs to be demonstrated and not merely assumed. This posting has focused specifically in the area of anthropology, in which the alleged synonymy of the two words is most significant. Comparing uses in which the two nouns appear together, and there are not many, there is evidence that spirit and soul are distinguished, at least by some authors. However, with the the study extended to adjectival forms, the contrast between the two terms becomes beyond question. It is my judgment that this contrast reflects on the nouns as well. I do not insist that the elements of man’s constitution are three in number, but it does seem clear from the Bible that soul and spirit are not the same.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    October 19, 2006 1:03 pm

    But what about “The Lost Component, Mind”

    Matt 22:47, etc?

  2. October 19, 2006 5:36 pm

    Sorry, I must have lost my mind.

  3. Anonymous permalink
    October 24, 2006 1:15 pm

    Touche’. ;^)

    So, just curious how you view the spirit and the soul to be different? I’ve not understood the trichotomist viewpoint on this issue. If they are different things, then, what do each of them do? (if you have or know of a paper on this, please point away, I’m asking not challenging.)

    On a separate point, I agree that the argument of Gnostic influence is equal for both the dichotomist and the trichotomist. Gnosticism has entered into both views within evangelicalism to some degree, or at least in my experiences I’ve seen them.

  4. October 24, 2006 5:25 pm

    I didn’t exactly say I was a trichotomist. However, this is close enough to the truth, I suppose. I do not wish to be dogmatic that man has exactly 3 elements, though this does seem a reasonable and consistent viewpoint. I also don’t wish to be dogmatic as to whether these are “separate parts” of man. What is a soul, what is a spirit? Is it some sort of ghost that happens to inhabit a sort of tissue machine? I do have a post in mind that will set out a scheme for the interplay of the various components. It is admittedly speculation, but for what is worth I find it interesting, and maybe someone else will too. I know this is a very misleading analogy, but I kind of like the hardware/software idea. Well, it is along those lines.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    October 26, 2006 10:13 am

    Sounds good… I look forward to your post on that topic. I’ve not seen many folks on either side (di or tri) lay it out very clearly. I’ve also not been looking extensively either, but I’m looking forward to your thoughts on it.

  6. Steven Carr permalink
    November 12, 2006 3:16 am

    You point out that Paul is contrasting Adam and Jesus.

    Adam was , of course, created by breathing life into dead matter.

    Is there a lot of typology in the following passage :

    So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.

    The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

    Is Paul saying that we will share the nature of the second Adam, just as we shared the nature of the first Adam?

    That out resurrected bodies will not be made from the dust of the earth, which brought death (as the first Adam was), but that we shall become life-giving spirits?

    You mention Acts 17, which shows some people scoffing at the idea of resurrection.

    Presumably that was Paul’s ‘target audience’, as the converts to Christianity in Corinth scoffed at the idea of resurrection, and even the Thessalonians had to be told not to grieve like those for whom the dead were lost.

    In fact the Corinthians probably denied all reward for the dead, as they refused to take part in baptism for the dead.

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