Back to the Basics: The Constitution of Man Pt.1

vitruvian_manThe constitution of man is a question that has vexed the Christian mind for centuries.  Perhaps because of the intimacy of the question or perhaps because of the seemingly contradictory biblical data it has been hotly debated for centuries.  The question is whether man is a monism, dichotomy or trichotomy.

This question is at the heart of biblical anthropology.  All other areas of anthropology, from the meaning of the imagio Dei to the nature of original sin are all affected by the constitution of man.

Far from being and esoteric and impractical theological question, a proper understanding of the constitution of man has far reaching implications.  A misunderstanding of the constitution of man can lead to serious doctrinal errors and has implications for pastoral ministry.  For these reasons this is an area of theology that deserves far more attention that it receives.

A Definition of Terms

Any discussion of the constitution of man must be grounded in a proper understanding of the terms involved in the debate.   The constitution of man may be defined as the makeup of man, and the study of the constitution of man answers the question of whether man is a unitary whole or if he is made up of constituent parts; and if there are constituent parts what they are.[1]

Within the study of the constitution of man there are three primary positions.  The first is monism.  Those who hold to monism view man as a unified whole, they view man as a simply physical being, or less commonly as purely spirit.  The second common position holds to the dichotomy of man.  This position sees man as a combination of two constituent parts, a physical component and an immaterial component, often identified as “body” and “soul”.[2]  The third view holds to the trichotomy of man.  This view sees man as an amalgam of one physical constituent and two immaterial components, typically labeled body, soul and spirit.[3]


As mentioned above monism is the belief that man is simply a whole without any constituent parts.  Although it would seem a simple position, monism is far from a unified camp, with views ranging from the simply materialistic to the Christian.

The materialistic view sees any perceived immaterial aspects of man to be merely matter and the effects and functions of matter.[4] Although popular with modern atheists, this view in many ways found its most exemplary articulation in the work of Thomas Hobbes.  Hobbes argued that man is not an amalgam of the material and the immaterial, and that the mere notion of a non-corporeal component of man was incoherent.[5]  For Hobbes, the soul and the spirit are merely artifacts of biology, and all that man is, is merely matter.

This is the view shared by many who deny the immortality of the human soul, and his influence is still felt, notably among the psychological establishment.  Behavioralism, mind-brain identity theory, and epiphenomenalism all espouse anthropologies that are rooted in Hobbsian thinking.[6]

The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, one of the forerunners of higher biblical criticism, offered a second view on monistic anthropology.  He proposed a theory that has come to be known as dual aspect monism.[7]   He argues that soul and body are merely different aspects of the same human person.  They are merely aspects or modes of being, rather than substance.

Like Hobbes, Spinoza proposed a theory that is echoed today.  Existential-phenomenological philosophy and process theology both espouse an anthropology that harkens back to Espinoza.[8]

These views are easily dismissed as unbiblical.  The innovators of these positions made no attempt to root their argument in Scripture and they are merely human philosophical constructs.  These theories quickly fall in the face of the Scriptural data, which clearly teaches that man possesses both a physical and spiritual component.  Not only does the spiritual constituent exist, but scripture clearly states that it can and does exist apart from the body after physical death.[9]

This is clearly evidenced in passages such as Luke 23:43 where in Jesus speaking to the thief dying on the cross says “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in lParadise.” This is a very clear statement that the thief will be in existence and able to interact with Christ apart from his dead physical body.  Likewise Stephen in Acts 7:59 prays “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”.  Again Stephen is clearly talking about an immaterial constituent component of himself interacting with Christ after his physical death.  It is clear from these passages and others that there is moiré to man than merely a body.

Not all monists seek to develop their argument apart from the biblical data however.   Theologian G.C. Berkouwer, argues for a biblical monism.  At the heart of his argument is his assertion that personhood in the bible is always a matter of relation rather than being.[10]  In essence Berkouwer claims that the bible always views man as a whole that is in relation to God.[11]  Berkouwer, unlike the materialists does not deny the intermediate state, rather he relegates it to the category of unknowable, claiming that the bible is essentially silent on the matter.[12]

The biblical data, however is ample.  As mentioned previously, Jesus spoke of the thief being with him in Paradise and Stephen spoke of Jesus receiving his soul.  While details of the intermediate state are sparse, what can be said with absolute confidence is that it exists.  The overwhelming data pointing to the existence of the intermediate state led Theologian Robert Reymond to bluntly label Berkouwer’s position as “nonsense.”[13]  The account of the thief on the cross is particularly damning for Bekouwer’s argument.  Not only is the intermediate state clearly pointed to, but in that state the thief will have a relationship with God, he will be with Jesus.

It is clear that no matter what the formulation, monism fails to account for the biblical information.  Although monism may be appealing to those who dismiss all things spiritual or to those who advocate a pantheistic view of the universe, scripture is clear that we have an immaterial component (soul) that can function independently of our biological thought processes, and even our bodies.[14]  No matter what the formulation, monism must be rejected as unbiblical.

[1] Millard J. Erickson Christian Theology Volume 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 519.

[2] Paul Enns The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), 306.

[3] Ibid. 307.

[4] John W. Cooper Body Soul & Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism – Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 17.

[5] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan XXXIV cited in Cooper, 17.

[6] Cooper, 18 – 19.

[7] Cooper, 19.

[8] Ibid. 20 – 21.

[9] Wayne Grudem Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 483.

[10] G.C. Berkouweer Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1962), 194 – 8.

[11] Robert Reymond A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 419.

[12] Lewis B. Smeads “G.C. Berkouwer” in Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 84.

[13] Reymond, 419.

[14] Grudem, 483.

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John Chester

About John Chester

John serves the saints of Piedmont Bible Church, a Grace Advance church plant in Haymarket Virginia, as their shepherd, a position he has held since 2012 and hopes to serve in the rest of his life. Prior to being called to ministry John worked as a lacrosse coach, a pizza maker, a writer, a marketing executive, and just about everything in between. John is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary and The Grace Advance Academy. He hails from The City of Champions, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and is unbelievably blessed to be married to his wife Cassandra.