Back To The Basics: The Constitution of Man Pt 2


This week I am continuing the series on the constitution of man I began February 1. You can read the first instalment here.  While it may seem an unimportant topic, it is essential to have a right understanding of the constitutional makeup of man if you are to have a scriptural view of man.  This topic impacts other important areas of the christian life and worldview often in unexpected ways.  This post focuses on the trichotomy view of man the third and final post in this short series will examine the dichotomy view.

As stated previously the trichotomy view holds that man is an amalgam of body, soul and spirit.  This view is very important because it is held by so many in the pews, often in contradiction to the official doctrine of their church or denomination.[1] Although this view has been present throughout church history, especially in the Eastern Church, it came to the fore of evangelical thinking with the ascendancy of classic dispensationalism.  The Schofield Reference Bible notes were instrumental in the spread of this view, and taught that the spirit is the seat of God-consciousness, the soul is the seat of self-consciousness and the body was the seat of environmental awareness.  The notes further taught that these three functions required three unique and separable substances.[2]  The influence of the Schofield bible, coupled with an uncritical reading of some biblical texts has led to the proliferation of the trichotomy view.  While few modern scholars hold this view[3], it is not without its influential proponents.

The trichotomy argument is often just a primae facea case built on the presence of the words body, soul and spirit in the text of the bible.  As noted previously each is viewed as a unique substance.  These terms will be treated in detail later, however it is important to note that the argument for the trichotomy view is made against the backdrop of the ubiquity of the terms.

The argument for trichotomism rests on two key texts, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, and Hebrews 4:12.  Although there are other texts that may be used to support the trichotomy view, these texts are the strongest and the clearest, and are often viewed by trichotomists as unassailable proof-texts.

First Thessalonians 5:27 states “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.”  This is seen as a clear statement of three constituent parts of man.  Chuck Smith, the founder of Calvary Chapel, commenting on this verse offers this interpretation.

“Notice, Paul recognizes the tricotomy of man: your whole spirit, your whole soul, and your whole body. The three parts of man’s being: body, soul, consciousness and spirit. Spirit, which is dead, until we receive the Lordship of Jesus Christ and we are made alive…That is your whole man. (Paul Prays) God, preserve me physically, my body. God, preserve my mind, my consciousness. And God, preserve my spirit, blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [4]

Smith and other trichotomists treat this text as an explicit apostolic teaching on the constitution of man.  The mere use of the terms by Paul is seen claimed as recognition of the trichotomy of man.

The second chief text of the trichotomy argument is Hebrews 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.”  This text is viewed as teaching that the immaterial part of man is divisible into two constituent components, soul and spirit.

Smith commenting on this verse takes it simply at face value “here it declares that the Word of God is alive. It is powerful. It’s sharper than a two-edged sword, and as such, piercing even to the dividing asunder of the soul and the spirit.[5]  He clearly sees soul and spirit as two separate substances which can be divided.  He further elaborates on the function of the soul and the spirit:

“There is a lot of worship that is purely psychic and touches our emotions and is soulish, but not necessarily spiritual. It doesn’t really touch our spirit… For it is the Word of God that is able to divide between the soul and the spirit. That’s something that is hard for us to divide. Man’s soul and spirit are so intertwined, there is such a crossover network between the two, that it’s really hard for us to discern when it has really touched me spiritually or just touched me in a psychic way, in an emotional way.”[6]

For Smith the soul is the seat of the emotions and presumably the intellect, while the spirit’s soul function is to interact with God, they are clearly divisible and fulfill mutually exclusive functions.

On the basis of these two texts, and generally following the thinking of Smith, Trichotomists assert that the Bible clears teaches the three fold division of the constitution of man.

Before discussing the merits of the argument for the trichotomy view, a brief discussion of the terms spirit and soul is warranted.  The New Testament term for spirit is pneuma.  The UBS 4 dictionary defines it as: spirit, inner life, self; disposition, state of mind; spirit being or power; life.[7]  Clearly the definition of spirit in the new testament in broader than the constituent part of man that is in relationship to God.  Schweizer in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament  states that pneuma can denote man as a whole with an emphasis on the psychical rather than the physical.  Furthermore referring to 1 Thessalonians 5:23 he states that the formula of spirit (pneuma), soul and body, is  traditional, perhaps liturgical and “thus tells us little of Paul’s view of man.”[8]

Soul,ψυχή, is similarly defined as self, inner life, one’ss inmost being; (physical) life; that which has life, living creature, person, human being. [9] It is striking to note that both terms can refer to the person as a whole, and that there is no lexical basis for differentiated between the two as related to the constitution of man,

The Hebrew cognates ruach (spirit) and nephesh share similarly overlap in meaning and often refer either to the totality of a person or the totality of his or her inner being.[10]  These words in fact often appear in Hebrew poetry as synonymous parallelism, such as in Job 7:11 “I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in nthe bitterness of my soul.” And Isaiah 26:9 “My soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.”  In synonymous parallelism two or more lines, using different words say the same thing, often to express totality.[11] It is clear that in both the New Testament and the Old, there is little lexically that leads to an understanding of soul and spirit as mutually exclusive categories.

The trichotomy view stands or falls on the exegesis and interpretation of the two key texts: 1 Thessalonians 5:23, and Hebrews 4:12.  A brief examination of these two passages will clearly show that they do not teach a trichotomist view of the constitution of man.

When considering the Thessalonians passage the first thing that must be noted is that it is not a doctrinal statement but a prayer.[12]  Paul is not teaching didactically, but rather is expressing his heartfelt prayer for the sanctification of the Thessalonians.  To turn this passage into a statement of the trichotomy of the human constitution is to ascribe a meaning that Paul never intended.

Anthony Hoekema argues that the key to properly interpreting this passage are the words translated completely (holotelis)  and whole (holokleron). [13]  These words mean “whole purpose” and “complete in all parts” respectively.  The Emphasis in this verse is clearly on the unity of man and not on separation.  Paul was praying for the complete and total sanctification of the Thessalonians. As in Hebrew poetry, the synonyms spirit and soul are used to illustrate the depth of the sanctification Paul is praying for.[14]

It is also noteworthy that the verb translated “kept blameless” (τηρηθείη) is singular. The grammar is clear that three divisible individual constituents are not being kept blameless, but rather the whole person is in view.  This grammar is more supportive of monism that of trichotomism.

Contextually and exegetically it is clear that Paul is not teaching nor referencing the trichotomy view of the constitution of man in 1 Thessalonians 5:23.  As Hoekema concludes, this passage “provides no ground for the trichotomic view of the constitution of man.” [15]

Similarly a close examination of Hebrews 4:12 shows that the passage does not teach a distinction between soul and spirit.  As with the 1 Thessalonians passage the grammar precludes a separation of spirit and soul as two mutually exclusive substances.  They are both in the genitive case (ψυχῆς), (πνεύματος) and are both governed by the participle (διϊκνούμενος).[16]  Such a construction does not point to a division between soul and spirit, but rather points to an appositional use of the genitive.   An alternative translation would be “piercing to the division soul, even spirit.  Also the parallel construction in the immediate context (κριτικὸς ἐνθυμήσεων καὶ ἐννοιῶν καρδίας·) is not translated or understood as able to judge between the thought and intentions of the heart, but rather as able to judge the thought and intentions of the heart.  Such a different reading of so similar a construction in the immediate context is unlikely.

The key to a proper interpretation of the passage is the realization that the language is figurative.[17]   Again in parallel, soul and spirit provide a full picture of the innermost part of man.  It must be noted that in the immediate context are two other sets of parallel terms, joints and marrow and thoughts and intentions.  In each case the terms represent categories that cannot be separated.  The bones of joints are filled with marrow, and there are no intentions that are not also thoughts.  For these reasons it is clear that Hebrews 4:12 neither teaches nor alludes to a trichotimy of the human constitution.


For the above reasons the trichotomy view of the constitution of man must be rejected.   There is neither exegetical nor lexical evidence in scripture that points to a threefold division in the constitution of man.  John MacArthur bluntly states “No Scripture text ascribes different substance and function to the spirit and soul.”[18]

The roots of trichototomy are not found in scripture but in Greek philosophy.[19]  A platonic view of man certainly informed the trichotomist view, but its parallel to Greek philosophy is more clearly shown in the work of Plontinus.[20] Plontinus sees a threefold division in men those who only understand the physical, those who understand philosophically and those who understand at the highest level (spiritually).  While not directly analogous to the trichotomy view the parallels are clear and are a powerful demonstration that trichotomism is more compatible with pagan philosophy than with biblical truth.[21]


[1] Kim Riddlebarger “Trichotomy: Beachhead for Gnostic Influences” accessed at  on 11/30/10.  Originally published in Modern Reformation (July August, 1995),1.


[2] James R. Beck and Bruce Demarest The Human Person in Theology and Psychology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 129.

[3] Grudem, 472.

[4] Chuck Smith  Through the Bible “1 Thessalonians 4-5” accessed at Accessed 12/1/10.


[5] Chuck Smith  Through the Bible “Hebrews 3-4” accessed at Accessed 12/1/10.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Barklay M. Newman “A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament” in Greek New Testament 4th Revised edition with dictionary (United Bible Society: 1983), 145.

[8] Eduard Schweizer “pneuma pneumatikos” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968, reprint 2006), 435.

[9]Newman, 201.

[10] William Lee Holladay and Ludwig KöhlerA Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. (Leiden : Brill, 1971),242, 334.

[11] D. Brent Sande and Ronald L. Giese Cracking Old Testament Codes (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman: 1995), 302.

[12] Anthony A. Hoekema Created in Gods Image (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1986), 208.

[13] Ibid.

[14] John MacArthur 1&2 Thessalonians in The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Series (Chicago: Mood Press, 2002), 206.

[15] Hoekema, 209.

[16] Reymond, 423.

[17] Hoekema, 208.

[18] MacArthur, 206.

[19] Beck & Demarest, 127.

[20] Riddelbarger, 6.

[21] Ibid., 7.

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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.