Monday, March 21, 2022

What is a Human Person? Dichotomy vs. Trichotomy

Some Christians think a human person is a trichotomy, consisting (in a temporal state) of three parts or substances: body, soul, and spirit. This is to say that human = body + soul + spirit. On this view, the body is the physical aspect of the person. The soul is where thinking, feeling, and willing occur. The spirit is what relates or connects us to God. Because the New Testament uses different words for soul and spirit, the argument goes, there must be a metaphysical distinction.

Contrasted with the trichotomous view is that a human person is a dichotomy: body + soul. The dichotomous position holds that ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ refer to the immaterial aspect of the human person. On this view, the New Testament terms are metaphysically synonymous with regard to spirit and soul. 

Of course, it would not be a philosophical/theological debate without another wrinkle. There is also a monist view, which holds that soul and spirit just refer to the whole of the human person and there is no immaterial aspect of humanity irreducible to physical constituents and that survives the death of the body. Body, soul, and spirit all just refer to the same thing. Body/soul monism is probably a minority view in Christianity but nonetheless has some defenders.

In this post, I will offer some brief arguments to the effect that the trichotomous view of the human person should be abandoned. The monist view is also problematic, though for other reasons. I may take this up another time. My focus here is to show the incoherence of a trichotomous biblical/philosophical anthropology. We have good reasons to think of the human person as a composition of body and soul (or body and spirit); there is only one immaterial constituent. This post will not be an exhaustive exposition of the topic, but I hope sufficient for some practical purposes.


Two proof texts are often given in support of the trichotomous position. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 says “And the God of peace Himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”; and Hebrews 4: 12, “For the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.” More passages are usually offered in defense of this view, but these are the clearest and most frequently cited.

Those holding the trichotomy view have sometimes argued for an analogy to the Triune God creating man in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27). Since God is One in Three Persons, God made man with three parts to mirror Himself. I submit this analogy should not be made. First, God is not composed of ‘parts’. Each Divine Person is not a ‘part’ of God as the body, soul, and spirit are said to be parts of the human person. Dividing God up in this way undermines the unity of Divinity. Each Person is truly God in the fullest sense. Secondly, there is nothing physical in God. But there is something physical with man. On the trichotomy view, the physical aspect of man does not really ‘do’ anything because the soul (and the spirit?) are the only things that think and act. But when it comes to the Holy Trinity, every Person is the very fullness of life, vibrancy, beauty, and action. Temporal analogies to the Holy Trinity are always fraught with difficulties. They should be avoided, and the trichotomy view of man should never be connected to the Trinity in this way.

We should also note that proof-texting is usually a misguided endeavor. If the trichotomist will only offer proof-texts, the dichotomist could just as easily do the same thing. As could the monist. Nothing would decide any argument if it proceeded by way of volleying proof-texts. Further, against the move of simply proof-texting, we can witness many heresies put down by the church over millennia. Each aberrant view took some passage or set of passages as their starting point. The Bible can be cut, copied, and pasted to support almost any position. Passage context is essential as is the full picture of special revelation. The weight of texts in their context is important. Cogency and internal coherence are critical in explicating a given position. I will also add that the tools of philosophical analysis are necessary for full-bodied biblical theology. Without these tools and methods, we would not be able to make systematic sense of the Bible. In many cases, biblical data underdetermines answers to key questions. For example, questions about the nature of God. The Bible describes God as having both physical and non-physical attributes. What is the most accurate understanding of the nature of God? Philosophical theology helps show that the biblical descriptions of God in physical terms must be understood metaphorically or figuratively. This is because if it were the other way around, the entirety of biblical revelation would collapse into a hopeless contradiction. If God is a physical being, limited to time and place (as physical beings are), then He could not be the Creator of the cosmos, nor could He sustain the world order, nor could He bring about events described in the Bible such as miracles and other aspects of His providence. So, we need to bring the full complement of the rational faculties God has given us to the task of answering questions raised by the Bible or by life in general aided by biblical revelation. We should not believe things that are false. We believe the Bible is true and teaches us true things about God and ourselves and does not commit any errors in what it teaches us. Therefore, whatever the Bible teaches must be at least not be contradictory or incoherent.

From the standpoint of charity, an equally important aspect of this conversation is to understand exactly what is meant by the trichotomous view. It is often not very clear. The dearth of scholarship defending the trichotomous position makes this task even harder. If one’s only goal is to use the trichotomy to make a sermon point or call attention to some other topic, then that approach should be disclosed and qualified, so as to not mislead the reader or listener. If one is making a metaphysical assertion, asserting a truth about philosophical anthropology, then that should also be stated. Equivocating or articulating what amounts to pseudo-doctrine must be avoided, for the sake of the faithful if nothing else.

Spirit as a Faculty or Property of the Soul

Perhaps one could think that the spirit is a faculty or special capacity of the soul. It would be like saying the soul of the person has the properties of thinking, willing, feeling, and so forth, but that there is an activity or property of the soul which relates to God. This might be called the ‘light trichotomy’ view. If the spirit is a property of the soul, and the human person consists of body and soul, then I do not necessarily see the same problem of coherence. This might even make more sense of the biblical data. But if the trichotomous view ultimately collapses into the dichotomist view, it becomes trivial from the standpoint of philosophical anthropology.

Spirit and Soul as Distinct Substances

What happens if one takes the view that man is composed of three parts, body, soul, and spirit, and the two immaterial parts are distinct substances or distinct immaterial entities of some kind? I call this the ‘hard trichotomy’ view.

The main problem of coherence on the hard view is that it strains the identity of the human person if that identity in any way persists through time. If there are two parts of our immaterial nature, then there is no identifiable part of ‘us’ after death. Let's say Socrates dies. What of Socrates survives? Who is he after he dies?  Is Socrates his soul or his spirit? The trichotomy view raises this question and does not provide any good answers. We cannot think that two substances, both identified with Socrates, survive his death (on pain of violating the law of identity). If both persist, the spirit must be something lesser that is dependent upon the soul in some way. Yet, if this is the case, then what survives is the soul of Socrates and the spirit of Socrates that depends upon the soul. We identify Socrates with his soul after he dies and his spirit is not central to his identity. But if we do this, then it really dos not make sense to say that Socrates is composed of three parts, since one part is not central at all to what it means to be Socrates or what it means to be a human person either before or after death. The spirit is simply not an essential part of Socrates. It makes more sense to identify Socrates as the composition as a body/soul during his earthly life and to identify the soul of Socrates as what subsists after his death. Christian doctrine holds that the soul of Socrates will one day be rejoined in some way with physical constituents to form a resurrected body, making a complete person

Further, if the soul is where man thinks and communicates and feels, then then the spirit cannot have these capacities simultaneously on pain of contradiction. For to affirm that Socrates’ soul is thinking and his spirit is not thinking, or that his spirit is worshipping and his soul is not worshipping is unintelligible. The result of trichotomy is that we can predicate two different things of the same person at the same time in the same relationship. Conversely, to say that both the spirit and soul are each thinking or worshipping in sync is equally problematic, for this would mean that there were essentially two centers of consciousness within one person and that undermines core principles of identity, thought, and action. And it seems to me that if the soul and spirit necessarily move in harmony and relate to each other, then they would need the same properties. Yet, if they have the same properties and move or act in sync at all times, then it is hard to say what the real difference is. Saying the spirit is a necessary part of man becomes ad hoc at best. No matter how it is explained, the trichotomy view has the effect of rendering absurdities and makes speaking about the inner life of a person or the immaterial aspect of human nature unintelligible. 

Moreover, on the trichotomy view, it must be said that we relate to or worship God and are not aware of it. Clearly, Christians think this is false. To avoid contradiction or indolence, there cannot be anything of the soul in the spirit, and vice versa. The hard trichotomy view, given what is says about the soul and spirit, leaves us with a human person that has a rational and volitional soul and a spirit, where the latter can only be a passive recipient of divine experiences. However, these divine experiences would not really be experienced, because there are no receiving capacities of the spirit. There is no thought, will, or emotions in the spirit. The spirit could not communicate or spill over into the soul, the part of man with thinking and feeling because there is no means of access between these two parts of man. If the soul is experiencing God through the spirit, then it must be the spirit is subsumed within the soul and we again have an otiose trichotomous proposition. 

The trichotomous view is also guilty of multiplying explanations or entities beyond which is needed to explain the phenomena in question. Positing either a soul or a spirit to explain the immaterial part of man in its functions is all that is needed. In response, a proponent of the trichotomy view might simply say that the Bible demands this. If this is the case, so much the worse for Ockham’s Razor. However, that is not the case. There are plentiful scriptures that refer to the soul and spirit interchangeably (Luke 1:46-47, Mark 12:30 and John 13:21, Revelation 6:9 and Hebrews 12:23, et. al.). If we press the trichotomy view and take its basis seriously, we should think that man also has a ‘heart’ in addition to his soul and spirit. There should really be four parts of man, then; body + soul + heart + spirit. For the Lord Jesus tells us to worship God with all of heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:36-49). Surely, then, Jesus is contradicting the trichotomous position of the soul as the component of thought because He is separating the terms soul and mind in this passage. But that is not really what is being taught. We recognize Jesus is telling us to love God completely, with all our being.

It is far simpler and more faithful to the teaching of Scripture to think of references to spirit and soul as each communicating something about the immaterial constituent of our self, which includes the body. Man is a composition of the material and immaterial. The immaterial component subsists after bodily death, and this is best thought of as the soul. To posit man a composition of the material two immaterial components adds unnecessary complexity and ultimately lands in incoherence.

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