Posted By MSH 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.