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Against Trichotomy


By Robert L. Reymond in A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith

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 pre-resurrection 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] penetrates 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)

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