Audio File Download: Episode 6
Welcome to the Isaac Hunter Podcast. In this episode I want to discuss a topic that was brought up during my dissertation defense, and most specifically, where a committee member asked me to defend and support a Trichotomic view of biblical anthropology. This is basically one of the two views of what humans are, stating either 1. the human being is made up of two distinct items (the soul and body) or 2. the human being is made up of three distinct items (soul, spirit, body).
So, let’s jump into this debate and see what I argued in my dissertation and how I would defend that view….
Supporting a Trichotomic View
The Bible does not actually define any kind of anthropology, as some would suppose, but simply assumes one. There is no chapter or verse that lays out, unequivically, the nature or fundamental essence of the human being, before or after the fall or even in the future immortal state. Rather, Jesus, the NT writers, and OT writers all accept a rather consistent explanation for the makeup of the human being and, thus, only through a principled harmony and reconciliation of the relevant passages can we determine what that theology was, or, at best, provide an educated guess.
Both views, Trichotomistic and Dichotomistic, have had their defenders throughout church history. Mainly they have oscillated between the definitions of three distinct substances: the body (σῶμα), the soul (ψυχή), and the spirit (πνεῦμα).
During my dissertation defense, I was challenged by one of the committee members, he stated, “…there really is no basis for trichotomism and Isaac merely assumes it…”
I would argue that this is fundamentally and categorically incorrect. In the dissertation any assumption I made was based not on a lack of evidence but on the demand for brevity in order to make my point . In the dissertation I also assumed that Christianity was a valid worldview, in fact, I assumed it was “the” valid worldview, and that the Bible’s predictive teaching was relevant and applicable (i.e. the prophecies would be fulfilled in the future). Yet, there was no issue here from the committee on this subject.
To simply arrogate my assumption has no supporting evidence is quite presumptive. In actuality, the trichotomic view has a rich and varied history of support within the universal church, especially in the early years. It was supported by the likes of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen (though the more I learn of him the less I’m certain his support is of any benefit), Didymus of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil of Caesarea.
The same committee member went on, stating there were only “..two principal texts marshaled in defense of trichotomy (i.e., 1 Thess. 5:23, Heb. 4:12).”
Again, this is also incorrect. But, before we go any further, let’s read these texts so we’re all on the same page:
“Now may the God of peace Himself dsanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body ebe preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Th 5:23).
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” (He 4:12-13)
There are actually numerous references in the Bible that indicate a trichotomic view of man. Examples of this are: Luke 1:46-47; Ps 104:29-30; 146:4; Jas 2:26; and Job 33:4. But, there is also support in modern scholarship as well with the JFB, UBS Handbooks, and Eerdmans all maintaining some form of Trichotomy. Examples of this are:
The UBS Handbooks say of He 4:12, “What is intended by this figure of speech is to emphasize that the word of God penetrates deeply, so that there is nothing in the total personality which can possibly be hidden from the revealing nature of what God says.”
Paul here is not actually speaking specifically of the soul from the spirit. He is using the relevant fact (as they understood it), that the individual is made up of body, soul, and spirit, so that he could get across to his reader that the Word of God is so sharp it can separate that which is but for God inseprable. Can you separate the soul from the spirit? We can barely do so between the soul and body (though how much of that actually lies at independent human volition is debatable). In fact, we are reassured by Jesus that it is impossible for another human to harm an individual’s soul (and apparently the soul and spirit are intricately tethered, while still remaining fundamentally distinct) (Matt 10:28).
What is crucial to understand is not that the Word of God can do this (though important in its own right), but to Paul the Trichotomic view was common enough knowledge to use it as an example to illustrate his point.
Another scholarly reference is from Dr. Heiser. He states in the Faithlife Study Bible on a Biblical Anthropology, “For example, Heb 4:12 refers to the Word of God’s ability to “divide the soul and spirit.” However, this does not indicate an actual division between soul and spirit. Rather, the verse claims that the Word of God can penetrate the inner person in such a way—not that such a division exists prior to its work. Soul and spirit are no more separated in Heb 4:12 than “bone and marrow” of the same verse.”
It’s clear in Heiser’s conclusion that he’s recognized that it is not about bone and marrow or soul and spirit, but about the working of the Word of God in the heart of man. Yet, his interpretation of this passage is typical of how the dichotomists do. yet, this not only violates a plain, straightforward reading of the text (bringing in presuppositions and eisegesis), but he assumes the bone and marrow are not separable (which they are). Separating bone and marrow is a very, very difficult task, though it was done by some cultures in the past as marrow was a good source of nutrients. But marrow is the core of the bone itself and the place where the two come together is difficult for humans to assertain. The same is true (apparently) for the place where the soul and the spirit come together. They are so intricately tethered together that only God could divide them.
All this, of course, to say, the Word of God does likewise to the individual, laying them open to the core constituent parts before God, as can be seen in action in 1 Co 14:24).
The Pulpit Commentary states of 1 Th 5:23, “The apostle here divides human nature into three parts—spirit, soul, and body; and this threefold division is not a mere rhetorical statement…but a distinct statement of the three component parts of human nature. The “spirit” is the highest part of man, that which assimilates him to God; renders him capable of religion, and susceptible of being acted upon by the Spirit of God. The “soul” is the inferior part of his mental nature, the seat of the passions and desires, of the natural propensities. The “body” is the corporeal frame. Such a threefold distinction of human nature was not unknown among the Stoics and Platonists. There are also traces of it in the Old Testament, the spirit, or breath of God, being distinguished from the soul.”
And the Eerdmans Commentary on 1 Th 5:23 states, “This benediction emphasizes that the whole person of believers, their body, soul, and spirit, must be kept in holiness and integrity until the parousia. In contrast to those who adopted the Greco-Roman mind-set, reflected in the behavior of the ataktoi, which tended to give the spirit priority over the body, Paul hopes for the sanctification of the whole person.”
This idea of giving the spirit priority over the body is, of course, very similar to what many in modern evangelicalism have done today. They render the spiritual as some kind of ethereal realm, almost fantasy, and the physical as less-than.
The JFB Commentary states of 1 Th 5:23, “All three, spirit, soul, and body, each in its due place, constitute man “entire.””
While the UBS Handbooks state of 1 Th 5:23, “This is the only place in which Paul makes the threefold distinction: spirit, soul, and body…Luther seems to think that the first includes the second and third: “your whole spirit, together with soul and body,” but this sense is unlikely. It is clear from the context that spirit is here a part or aspect of human nature, that the Holy Spirit is not referred to.”
So, as you can see, this idea is not a wide eyed interpretation. It is established in modern scholarship, though it does vary in degree, and is often found presented even if the author disagrees because it is a common view.
Arguments against the Trochotomic view, on the other hand, are often difficult to follow. One argument states that Ge 2:7 limits the creation of man to the dust of the earth and breath of life. But it actually includes all three elements. This is best illustrated by using the Greek LXX:
And God formed the human with earth from the land (as in σῶμα) and blew into his face the breath (πνοὴν) of life, and the human came into being as a living soul (ψυχὴν ζῶσαν). It is a fascinating idea to consider, that the soul was created at the intersection between body and spirit. He came into being “as” a soul. The preposition “as” is actually in the Greek as “εἰς.”
In actuality, the “living being” cannot exist without the integration of all three. When one dies, the tether between soul, spirit, and body are severed, resulting in the death of the “living being” and rendering the soul as existent yet not living.
Where Did the Dichotomic View Come From?
The same committee member made the claim that “Dualistic anthropology arose from the OT according to Christ’s/Paul’s reading of Exod. E.g., Matt. 22.”
Deut 6:5 and Matt 22:37 do speak of just a soul without mentioning the spirit. But it also mentions the heart and the mind, which as I would gather from the Bible would identify faculties or repositories of emotion, will (heart) and thinking (mind) within the soul. This in no way negates the fact that the “living being” was created as the result of the interaction between body (flesh) and spirit.
But, let’s say it did. The issue is not that “spirit” is not mentioned here, it is that “spirit” is mentioned elsewhere, in multiple places that at least appears to identify as a distinct and separate substance from “soul.” If this be the case, then it is required of us to consider and incorporate this element into our understanding and description of biblical anthropology. If we deny any part of Scripture we are twisting it. Our theology must develop from a harmonization of the whole.
I would argue that a dichotomic anthropology arose, not from a clear and straightforward reading of Scripture, but a bizarre need within Christianity to insist on “spirit” being immaterial so that God and the angels can be without form and ethereal. A Trichotomic view necessitates a rejoining of the three at the resurrection, while many dichotomists would be just as happy with no physical resurrection but only a spiritual one.
Additionally, to say trichotomy is error because it has been abused by cults is simply rendering guilt by ill-informed association. Not to mention, such a practice, if applied consistently, would render all Christian doctrine unusable since every doctrine has been perverted at one time or another by fringe groups.
Defending Trichotomic Anthropology
The issue, really, is not that the words “soul” and “spirit” are synonymous, but that they are used today synonymously. It is a presupposition being anachronistically read back into the text to assuage modern Christian sensitivities and uncomfortabilities with biblical truth.
The Trinity is the same kind of issue. It’s not in the Bible in a direct sense. There is no particular passage that says “this is about the Trinity” like there is with the special dispensation for some to be single rather than married in this life. Yet, despite no direct reference, this doctrine is aggressively defended on all fronts.
The same is true of the Trichotomic view. It is evident throughout the text of the Bible, but nowhere does it explicitly say humans are made up of three distinct but currently integrated parts. Rather, it is assumed by the biblical writer in many different places as if it were common knowledge in their day.
In Ecc 12:7, “…the dust will return to the earth as it was,
And the spirit will return to God who gave it.” From this statement we clearly see the direction of two of the three elements that make up the “living being” of Genesis 2:7. Now, in Genesis 35:18, we can see clearly that the soul does indeed depart and is separated from the body at death, and Luke 16:19ff provides the destination for that disembodied soul after the dead decoupling is complete (either Hades in Torment or Hades in Paradise or simply Paradise).
Fundamentally, the very nature and purpose of death is a consequence and penalty for sin. It is, by its very nature, unnatural to how the original human was designed (and subsequently how we originally should have been). And I can only imagine death will be an extremely traumatic event and it’s state will be foreign, unnatural, and unsettling at best for the whole of its duration.
Look at the only other disembodied creature in existence on earth that we know of: the demon or “unclean spirit.” Now, there is no origin story provided for these creatures in the text. Nothing. They simply show up during the time of Christ as though their existence was common knowledge. These creatures clamored to embodied something, anything. If they were expelled, they would gather together their friends and drive back even harder until the fate of that person was worse off than they originally were. They in fact preferred embodiment of pigs than whatever it was Jesus had planned for them. If this is how it is with demons, how is it for humans when they are separated from their bodies at death?
Now, it is clear there is a self which remains unchanged throughout the duration of life for the “living being.” The true and essential and accurately depicted nature (or essence) of the “living being” or its constituent parts that make up that “living being” are, aside from the glimpses given in the Bible, completely unknown and most likely unknowable to the human entity.
We are simply constrained by Scripture to harmonize all portions into the greatest whole available to us and pray this is enough to get the picture we need of the elemental and disparate realities of existence.
Interestingly enough, in his book Are People Basically Good?, RC Sproul made an incredible comment. He said, “Theologically, we recognize that the Holy Spirit can distinguish between spirits, souls, minds, and consciences, but to simplify it, the church has said that there is a physical dimension to our lives and a nonphysical one.”
This is quite a fantastic statement. For one, it assumes that humans are incapable of discerning spiritual truth from the Scripture for themselves without the Church having to dumb it down for them (which is rather arrogant), and for two, Sproul here is clearly admitting the fundamental reality of biblical anthropology is Trichotomic, but only those in a divine state can discern such distinctions.
So, not only is the Trihotomic view clearly seen throughout the Bible, but it was also predominate in the writings of the Early Church (with some interesting variations and definitions), and is clearly seen to be viewed (though often and oddly warily) by modern scholars and theologians. Yet, many would argue ferociously against it, defending instead a kind of quasi-Gnosticism, alluding to the physical being bad and the spiritual, ethereal plane being better or somehow more holy or pure.
But, even if the terms “soul” and “spirit” are used interchangeably in the Bible, how does this discredit the view that these two terms do in other places concretely define three elemental segments that conjointly constitute the “living being?” Even if only one verse could be found that states the Trichotomic view, would this not have to be harmonized with the rest of Scripture, and without sacrificing it on the altar of human orthodoxy?
Of course, harmonization of Scripture using the full counsel of God is not typically done in modern theology. Instead, theologians and pastors and teachers often tend to provide knee-jerk responses based on presupposition rather than clear and straightforward reading of the text.
When in doubt, allegorize it out.
Now, since there were no questions sent in this week, I wanted to tackle two questions of my own that I came across recently during my research.
1. Are there any lower organisms that are not subject to death?
So, this question does appear to be correct. There are several creatures on earth that seem to be immortal, at least to a point. Some have developed the ability to regress in age to their younger selves and then experience growing to adulthood again and again. Others have regenerative properties, such as when a particular worm is cut in half, the two halves grow back into two separate worms. Turtles also seem to be immortal in that they do not experience genetic or cellular damage to their organs, no matter how old they are. Unfortuantely, one thing none of these creatures have found a solution for is being prey to a predator. So, technically, they can die, but just not necessarily from natural causes. Lobsters also seem to have beat the limit to the aging process as they have been caught at 140 years old (so much for old ages in the Bible being genetically impossible). The oldest whale recorded was 211 years old. But, the tardigrade is apparently the king when it comes to immortality. They remain immortal by controlling their metabolism. They can live for thousands of years (though I’m not certain how modern humans would know this).
So, apparently, immortality is possible. Who knew? But I would not assume this means the fact that death entered into all creation is violated with this reality. In fact, it does appear as if these creatures can and do die, but they have simply developed methods of avoiding death as much as possible. Humans do the same thing today with advancements in medicine. It does not remove the reality that the curse has a hold on everyone and everything in the physical universe.
2. In a recent episode of James White’s Dividing Line (51 min – 9-16-21) he makes the following comment, “If you define yourself as the standard of what it means to be a Christian then your gonna eventually come to the conclusion that the church hasn’t done very well for a long time.” Comments?
Of course, his intent of this statement in context was we should not use ourselves as the standard for what it means to be a Christian and I assume he’s including in this all that we believe and how we interpret the Bible and what kinds of traditions and practices we have and participate in as part of our faith.
The problem with this statement then is if we do not use ourselves as the standard then what do we use as the standard? I typically try to use the accounts of the Bible in the first century, then look to the accounts of the second to the fourth centuries as the standard for Christian faith and practice. But, I always get pushback for doing this by modern evangelicals (because a lot of what they do is not at all biblical), saying that we should not use the apostolic or early church as our standard since they had just as many problems as we do today. Surely Dr. White is not suggesting we use Reformers as our standard, since he’s said many times before that Calvin or Luther would have had James White excommunicated.
I would argue, especially given the times and age in which we live, the only standard is that which God convicts of us individually, and that which our conscience would allow. I think a great deal of denominationalism is propagated not because it necessarily contains truth, but because it allows for the congregants to take a back seat, not have to struggle with the text or wrestle with the issues of today and those of yesteryear. Instead they can coast along, happily following whatever their denomination tells them to think or believe.
Our standard should be the Bible. Our local fellowships should be modeled after the New Testament churches. Then we look at the first few centuries as examples. Lastly, we look at Church History to see what believers in different time periods did right and what they did wrong so that we can learn from their mistakes. But, afterward, it is up to us to determine (for ourselves) what the standard is we are being called to in Christ today.
I agree with his statement. I don’t think the organized church has done very well for a very long time, if ever.
So, that’s it for this episode. As always, if you have any questions for me, any biblical, theological or philosophical topics that you want to hash out, you can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can post a comment in the episode notes on the website at http://www.isaachunterthewriter.com.
Until the next time we are together….be well.
Please consider supporting this podcast by purchasing one of my books on Amazon or from my website at isaachunterthewriter.com. Let me read you an excerpt from one of my novels.
Excerpt from Our Daughter:
“Okay, mom,” Randy said.
“You behave yourself and be nice. You’re lucky to have company while you wait for the doctors.”
The woman turned and started back the way she came.
“The nurse said it would be twenty or thirty more minutes, so we’ll eat quick and be back up here before they take you in, okay?”
“Sorry for him,” the woman said to Katie as she walked by.
As the woman left, Katie noticed the boy moving around again on the bed. Before she realized what was happening, the tiny lump disappeared and she could hear the faint sound of bare hands and feet on the tile floor.
He was low crawling under the beds toward her.
A moment later, Randy popped his head out from under the nearest hospital bed, craning his neck around to look up at her.
“Hello, there,” Katie said.
Randy disappeared back under the bed, the bed sheet draping down almost to the floor. Katie could still see three little fingers pressed to the tile.
“What are you here for?” Katie asked, readjusting her seat in the chair, trying to get the ache in her chest to lessen.
For whatever reason, the wheelchair was really uncomfortable.
“Why are – ”
Randy’s voice trailed off for a moment as he looked around.
“Why are you here?”
“I’m getting my leg fixed,” Katie said. “See?”
Randy poked his head back out from under the bed and looked at the leg she was pointing to.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“The doctor said it’s broken,” Katie said. “Shattered.”
“Can you feel it?” Randy asked, able to stay out from his hiding place.
“I can feel it, but it’s not too bad,” Katie said, then tapped the IV in her arm. “This thing is giving me medicine of some kind for the pain. At least that’s what the nurses said.”
“Why are you – ”
Randy stopped mid-sentence.
He scooted out from under the bed entirely and slowly crept over to er on all fours.
“What are you, some kind of spider?” Katie asked, giggling a little.
“What are you?” Randy echoed.
He was now only about a foot away from her chair and sat there, his legs folded up under him, gawking up at her.
“What are you staring at me for?”
“I’ve never – ”
Randy put out a hesitant hand and ever so gently touched her arm.
“Are you some kind of ghost?”
He looked around again.
“Are you – ”
He leaned in, talking in a whisper.
“Are you dead?”
A nurse came around the corner and stopped abruptly, spotting the empty bed in the far corner where Randy should have been.
“Randy Andrews,” the nurse said, her hands now on her hips. “You get right back into the bed and you stop playing around, please. They are ready for you in surgery.”
Katie watched as Randy scrambled on all fours under the beds and back up onto his, pulling the sheet back over top of himself again.
She started to ask him about his question, but couldn’t get the words out before his parents appeared at the door.
Katie sat there quietly, watching Randy stare back at her from under his sheet. She glanced over at his parents and the nurse, noticed Randy’s dad had no hair on the top of his head.
Are you dead?
What kind of question was that?
The snap of the wheel locks being disengaged on Randy’s hospital bed jarred Katie out of the confusion she was in.
The doctor she’d first seen was now at the door, waiting for Randy.
He was his surgeon.
They wheeled Randy out of the room, his parents following right behind, disappearing to the left, heading for his operating room.
The pre-op room was empty again.
Are you dead?
What kind of crazy question was that?
The nurse came back through the double doors.
“It won’t be long now,” she said.
Katie tried not to think about the dull ache growing just behind her sternum.
The nurse disappeared around the corner as Katie watched the double doors to the operating rooms slowly shut.
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