Biblical Anthropology, Part 7

Posted By on January 9, 2010

Time to (finally) wrap this one up. You may have thought our discussion of biblical anthropology–specifically what “makes up” a human being–was over.  Not so.  We’ve spent six posts going through the evidence, beginning with looking up every occurrence of Hebrew nephesh, ruach, and leb to see how the OT describes the inner nature of humankind. We saw pretty clearly and conclusively that the OT material does *not* allow for a tripartite division of the “inner part(s)” of human beings. The terms all overlap in the same ways. Frankly, THAT is what is missing in many systematic theologies that speak on this issue. Seldom does anyone look up all the occurrences of the relevant terms and group them as we did. (I’ve created a page on the blog to archive the discussion for latecomers). Only one question remains: What about New Testament statements that apparently distinguish between soul and spirit (for example, Hebrews 4:12)?

Let’s deal first with Heb 4:12.

Heb 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.

Though this verse is often part of the discussion in the two parts (dichtomous) vs. three parts (trichotomous) debate on the biblical theology of human nature, it’s pretty apparent that it’s consistent with all the evidence to this point: human nature is viewed as a whole, and that whole has a material component and an immaterial component (so, dichotomy).  The phrase “soul and spirit” no more speak to a separate “soul” and a separate “spirit” within humanity than these OT verses do–verses that we saw in earlier posts demonstrate that “soul” and “spirit” (and “heart” for that matter) overlap in what they describe:

Isa 26:9 – My soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit within me earnestly seeks you. For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.

Job 7:11 – “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.

1 Sam 1:15 – But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.

In short, “soul” and “spirit” are two ways of speaking to the same immaterial nature of a human being.  Completely in synch with the OT.

This brings us to the only verse in the Bible that appears to support trichotomy: 1 Thess 5:23.

1 Thess 5:23 – 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 may surprise you that the only verse in the entire Bible that has “spirit” (pneuma), “soul” (psuche), and “body” (soma). Think about that. In one corner we have the truckload of data for dichotomous human nature, and in the other we have this one verse. It would seem pretty foolish to make this one verse the arbiter of one’s position, and yet people do that all the time., and then force the rest of the data into that mold.  The problem with that position is familiar to us:  the terms absolutely and demonstrably overlap in the OT, so it is a methodological (and interpretive) error to split them out.

That means that we ought to view 1 Thess 5:23 in light of the data pile staring it down. That’s pretty easy. Think of it this way: IF, as we have seen in a number of cases, “spirit” and “soul” are two different terms to describe the same inner, immaterial “part” of a human, then do the same in this verse.  The outcome is dichotomy (element 1 = “spirit and soul” = immaterial; element 2 = body = physical). Paul is praying that the Thessalonians would be santified in their whole being; he’s not going against the grain of the entire OT.

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15 Responses to “Biblical Anthropology, Part 7”

  1. Eli Evans says:

    I’d say the POINT of Hebrews 4:12 is that the word of God is SO sharp that it can cut into the joints of things that are mixed to such a degree that they would otherwise (with a duller implement) be impossible to divide. The metaphor at hand is butchery; apparently, it is as difficult to separate the spirit from the soul as it is to separate the “joints” from the “marrow”. When you take an animal apart, you reduce what was once an integrated whole (say, a chicken) into piles of tissue, none of which is a chicken — the sum of the parts being less than the whole. According to Hebrews 4:12, you can no more have a “spirit man” and a “soul man” than you can a “tendon man” and an “organ man”.

  2. blop2008 says:

    I do cling to 1 Thess 5:23 for a trichotomy. But if this isn’t the case, then I’ll have to reajust my understanding. I’ll be reviewing this information in the near future.

  3. MSH says:


    good luck :-) – it’s that verse against everything else!

  4. blop2008 says:

    @MSH: Right…. :-)

  5. Sabio Lantz says:

    I graduated a psychology major Christian college (Wheaton). I remember clearly being taught about the Bible’s confirming us having a spirit and a soul.

    I think the Chinese also struggle with the number of invisible parts of the body — probably also driven to fulfill some numerological pressure.
    For example, they have:
    shen ? “spirit”
    hun ? “spiritual soul”
    po ? “physical soul”

    Translations are hard since there is overlap in both English and Chinese.
    I think the common dilemma is that they want a word for the emotion side which changes but is immaterial. And a death-surviving side which is unchanging.

    What do you think?

  6. Nobunaga says:

    The major thing for me in this blog of Anthropology is what happens at death, the separating of the Spirit at death from the body, this to me is the clearer way to see the dichotomous nature as we see the body (dead) and the Spirit going to be with the Lord. As far as when we are alive, with all the words that overlap why stop at 3 ?

    There is;


    i think it could go on ?

    for simplicities sake a dichotomous human nature is preferable to me although the argument could be made for a trichotomous nature but then it gets complicated on were you draw the line with all the above words mentioned as Nepesh relating to man. So for me… keeping it simple there is Body (and all that intails listed above, and more) and Spirit. being a simple fella i’ll stick to two for now.

  7. MSH says:

    @Nobunaga: agreed; good points

  8. MSH says:

    @Sabio Lantz: I’m wondering if you’ve read all the posts on this topic. I don’t see your common dilemma as a dilemma.

  9. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ Mike
    May I make 2 suggestions:
    (1) For such series, make an index post. Then, at the beginning of each post in the series, give a link to the index post so the reader can go back and look at the annotated list of related posts. Otherwise navigation is cumbersome and uninviting.
    (2) Put your e-mail in the “Who is this Lunatic” tab for people to write you instead of needing to make comments like this in the comment section.
    Just some thoughts.
    — Sabio

  10. MSH says:

    @Sabio Lantz: good idea, but the problem is that pages I make for collections of posts wreaks havoc with my front page (visually moves things out of margins, that sort of thing). Not sure what to do because of that.

  11. MSH says:

    @Sabio Lantz: good idea on the second one, too, and something I can do easily.

  12. Ken Hamrick says:

    After reading your series, I have a few suggestions…

    It seems to me that the Hebrews did understand that man is both material and immaterial, but that they did not conceive of the two as easily separable as we usually do. Nephesh and sheol are parallel in that they refer to the union of both as if one, and also refer to the strictly immaterial. Just as a soul is both body and spirit together, sheol is the place of the dead, both the pit in the ground and the spiritual abode. Abel’s blood cried out to God from the ground. This seems to indicate that the Hebrews saw the union of material and immaterial as so strong that both go into the ground together–thus, even the spiritual part of sheol is seen as underground, since the spirit does not end up far from where the body delivered it. And though we might scoff at the idea of a physical location for a spiritual abode, it is true that while a man lives his spirit is located within his body. Christ made it clear that sheol’s spiritual abode had two compartments, one for the righteous and one with suffering and flames. It is also clear that this was not heaven where God was said to be. Christ went to “prepare a place”–a place that had not yet been prepared, a place in the presence of the throne of God. It seems logical that the OT saints remained in sheol as a holding area until Christ satisfied justice though the cross.

    While I agree that soul and spirit are mostly synonymous, I suggest that we should not dismiss all distinctions. The soul is most closely represented by the idea of “mind,” but with the understanding that in man that mind is possessed by an integral spirit. What the mind does the spirit does in much the same way that where the balloon goes the air within the balloon also goes, etc. Animals have a rudimentary soul, in that they have what we have (in a lesser capacity), including emotions, but they lack a spirit. The distinctions are usually unimportant in biblical references, since whenever one worships God in his soul he just as truly worships God in his spirit. Only when Scripture makes a distinction is there a distinction to be made. The spirit is that immaterial part of us that is most like God. It provides the everlasting nature of human existence. The body will die; the soul will live on only because of the spirit within it. While we are in these bodies, the soul is the interface between the spirit and the body in one sense, and encompasses both spirit and body in another sense. The soul, as the mind, is composed of both material and immaterial. The mind has its spiritual aspect, but it also has its physical aspect, controlling all body processes, etc. The mind can be enraptured in spiritual worship, and it can also be depressed due to chemical imbalances. When we die, the material part of the soul/mind is left behind, and the immaterial part (with the spirit within it) goes to God.

    I think it also helps to realize that the spirit has faculties that parallel the body. A disembodied spirit may move on its own, without physical feet. (Look at the unclean spirits who left the demon-possessed man and went into the swine. They had to see the swine, as well as be able to move to where they were at.) A disembodied spirit needs no 11-cis-retinal in order to see. This also explains why we are not condemned from the moment of conception. The spirit of a child is limited in its understanding by the body. A spirit without a body may go through a wall, but a spirit within one of these corruptible bodies must use a door. Also, though a disembodied spirit can see the door, the spirit of a (living) physically blind man cannot see. The physical body limits the spirit while the spirit is within it. In the same way, the spirit of a newly conceived child must wait until the body and mind have developed to a certain point before they can reach an accountable understanding. It is absurd to suggest that a zygote understands the law written on its heart and has any conflicting thoughts regarding it. In a (physically) living human being, thoughts require synapses and brain cells, which the zygote does not yet have.

    When the disciples saw Jesus on the water, they said, “It is a spirit.” Why didn’t they say, “It is a soul?” Just as there were eight souls saved on the ark… To say, “It is a spirit,” is to mean a disembodied spirit, while soul could be either. While the spirit has an existence apart from the body, the human soul has no existence apart from the spirit.

  13. Amjuicer says:

    Sorry to come so late to the conversation. I’ve come to your site often, since I found your writing on the Divine counsel.
    I’ve thought about the difference between ruach and nefesh for years, and come to a slightly different conclusion. All the ruach references to animals seem to come in relation to the Flood. I wonder if they don’t speak to a kind of federal blame; all life that breathes was destroyed because of the evil intentions of antediluvian Man.
    If we eliminate those references to a ruach in animals, nefesh becomes something we share with animals and ruach becomes something we are given as an image of God. We can communicate with animals, like a pet, to a certain extent, because we have the nefesh in common. My dog makes it known when she wants to play, or go out, or share my food. Nefesh, in my mind, is the common spirit in all animals. It may include consciousness and instinct.
    In the same way, we can communicate with God to a similar limited extent because we have been imbued with his ruach. This higher form of spirit is something I still can’t define, although I’m trying. I don’t know what word to use for it in English.
    I’ve thought a lot about another Hebrew word, neshamah. It obviously also means breathe, God’s, man’s and the breath of animals. But when used of animals, that same federalality (I don’t think that’s a word) could be implied. It is always used of animals being destroyed when the human inhabitants of a city were destroyed. Perhaps their sin was contagious.
    When used of man, neshamah may imply the intellect. Especially in Gen 2:7 and Job 32:8.
    I love your site, Michael, and have returned to it often.

  14. Dave Lewis says:

    @Ken Hamrick

    Your post reminds me of one of my father’s favorite sayings…

    “Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is already made up.”

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