Back to the Basics: The Constitution of Man Pt. 3


Today I am wrapping up the series on the constitution of man I began February 1. You can read the first instalment here and part 2 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 dichotomy view of man, which I believe is the biblically correct view. 

Although certainly not universally held, the predominant view throughout church history has been the dichotomist view.  As stated previously this view holds that man has two constituent parts, one material (body) and one immaterial (soul/spirit).  Although popular with the Alexandrian fathers, the trichotomist view fell out of favor on the heels of the Apollinarian Christological heresy that was spawned by the trichotomy error.[1]  Since that time, until the rise of dispensationalism and the popularity of the Schofield Reference Bible the predominant view among evangelical believers was the dichotomist view.  This is the view espoused in the Westminster Confession and in all of the other reformation creeds that address the constitution of man.[2]   Even though this view has been historically held by bible believing theologians through the centuries, it still must be evaluated in light of the biblical evidence.

Unlike the trichotomist view, the dichotomy view does not rely solely on New Testament passages.  From the beginning of mankind, the dual constitution of man was taught.  This is seen in the account of the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7.  Adam form the beginning is portrayed as a unified being with both body and soul.[3] “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. The implication is that Adam was formed, but was not alive until God breathed the breath of life into him, and then he became a living creature, literally a soul of life (לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה) a nephesh hiyah.  There is clearly something apart from the body that constitutes and animates the person of Adam, he has an immaterial component.

Jeremiah 1:5 also points to two constituent components of the human constitution.  YHWH declares to Jeremiah “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”  While this verse has frequently been used to argue for the personhood of the unborn, it also clearly teaches personal identity apart from a fully formed body.  While not teaching the eternality of the human soul, this verse does show that the immaterial constituent of man is capable of being in relationship with God before the body is full formed.

Not only is the soul or spirit present at the earliest stages of life, but it is also extant after physical death.[4]  In both the Old and the New Testament there is clear teaching that the immaterial soul/spirit continues after physical death.  Rachel’s death in Genesis 35:8 is described as her soul departing.  The preacher in Ecclesiastes 12:7 describes death as the dust returning to the earth, and the spirit returning to God.  This is a clear statement of the separation of the material and the immaterial at the time of death.  In the Parable of the rich fool, God warns of the fool’s impending death saying “This night your soul is required of you.”  And as previously noted the thief on the cross was with Jesus in Paradise after his death , and the martyr Stephen  at his death exclaims “Lord Jesus receive my spirit”.  It is the clear testimony of the whole counsel of Scripture that the material and the immaterial constituents of man separate at death.[5]

It is noteworthy that these passages speak of either the soul or the spirit departing at the time of death, the terms, in both the Old and New Testament are used interchangeably.   There is no distinction in the meaning of the terms as related to the departure of the immaterial constituent of man at the time of death, and no passage describe both the soul and the spirit departing at death.[6]

Some may argue that the departure of the soul or spirit is simply figurative language for death.  As previously stated all of the biblical words for soul and spirit can be used to connote the idea of life.  There is however a text that clearly illustrates that the departure of the soul or spirit must be more than a metaphor for physical death.  In Matthew 10:28 Jesus warns “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” This is a clear statement that man is composed of one component that man can kill, and another that cannot be destroyed by man.  Jesus himself is clearly teaching that man has two constituent parts.[7]

The dichotomous nature of man comes into sharper focus when one of the most common terms for the immaterial constituent of man is considered, the heart.  In both the Old Testament (leb/lebab) and the New (kardia) the heart is seen as the seat of thoughts and desires.  Unlike the popular western notion of the heart as the center of emotions, to the Hebrew mind set the heart represented the totality of the inner man, and was in effect the control center of man. The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis notes “In the Old Testament the words (leb/lebab) have a dominant metaphorical use in reference to the center of human psychical and spiritual life, to the entire inner life of a person.”[8]

This use of heart is seen in its first occurrence in Scripture, Genesis 6:5  “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”  The heart is seen as the place of thought, and is tied to evil behavior; it is the inner man, and it controls behavior.

It is the heart that must be changed and that is the picture that both Jeremiah and Ezekiel use in describing the New Covenant.  Ezekiel 36:26 states “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” In this passage heart and spirit appear in synonymous parallelism, and represent the seat of thought and will from which actions flow.[9]

This view of the heart as the seat of thought and will from which actions flow is also clearly seen in the New Testament. In Luke 6:45, Jesus teaches, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.”  Likewise the transformation of the heart is seen in Hebrews 10:22, “let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

While the spirit/soul terminology might, if handled carelessly, lead to confusion about the constitution of man, when the use of the heart is examined it becomes clear that biblical anthropology favors the dichotomy position.  The heart represents the totality of the inner man, the core and the control center of the person.[10]

An important note of caution must be added here.  While the Bible clearly teaches a division between the material and the immaterial constituents of the human person, we must be careful not to make too great a distinction.  The dichotomy of man does not precisely correlate to the idea of embodied and disembodied existence.[11]  The idea of the sharp distinction between the physical and the spiritual is more platonic than biblical.  The body is not a prison from which the soul will eventually be freed.[12]

Furthermore, we must affirm that in light of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15) that the normal state of existence for man is as a material/immaterial union.[13]  It is the whole person who will be glorified or punished in the eternal state.  As noted earlier, Jesus warned that the body and soul of the wicked will be cast into hell, both the material and immaterial constituent components of the individual.

The bible views man as a whole, but still affirms both a physical and a non-physical aspect of existence.[14]  It is best to view the constitution of man as a dichotomy that exists in a complex unity.[15]  The normal state of man is one of unity, however that state can be broken into the material and immaterial, and is at physical death, as the soul/spirit enters the intermediate state.  However at the resurrection, a reunification between the material and immaterial occurs and the complex unity is reconstituted.[16]

The biblical evidence is clear, when considered lexically, exegetically and contextually the constitution of man can only be dichotomist in nature.  There are clearly only two constituent component of the human constitution, and the normal state of their existence is one of complex unity.  Although they are clearly identified, and separated at physical death, they will be reunited in the resurrection, and the eternal state of man will be one of physical/non-physical unity.

Far from an obscure point of theology, this doctrine has practical implications for faith and practice.  The trichotomist view is closely tied to the rise of the doctrine of the carnal Christian.[17]  Because the person is divided into the soul, in relation to himself, and spirit, in relation to God, the trichotomist can believe that a Christian can have a spiritual relationship with God without ever altering his soulish thinking or bodily actions.  Likewise a trichotomist view has led to an improper view of pastoral care.   A belief in the division of the spirit and the soul has led many pastors to turn to psychology (literally soul study) to counsel their flock, seeing a division between their role as a spiritual caretaker and the counselor as a soul worker. [18]  It is also tied to the errors of the Pentecostal movement, which often favors “spiritual” aspects of life while finding little or no value in the “soulish” intellect, and therefore finds little reason to consider doctrine or to confront error.[19]

For these reasons, many other practical reasons and most importantly for the glory of God the biblical doctrine of the dichotomy of man in complex union must be affirmed and defended.


[1] Reymond, 422.

[2] Ibid., 423.

[3] Grudem, 472.

[4] Grudem 474.

[5] Beck & Demarest, 125.

[6] Grudem, 474.

[7] Reymond, 423.

[8] Alex Luc “bEl)” in NIDOTTE vol. 2 ed. Willem A. Vangemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997),  749.

[9] Iaian M. Duguid Ezekiel in The NIV Application Commentary Series (Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 1999), 415.

[10] Beck & Demarest, 134.

[11] Erickson, 536.

[12] Beck & Demarest, 137.

[13] Erickson, 537.

[14] Hoekema, 217.

[15] Beck & Demarest, 137.

[16] Erickson, 537 – 8.

[17] Riddlebarger, 5 – 6.

[18] Winston SmithDichotomy or Trichotomy? How the Doctrine of ManShapes the Treatment of Depression” Journal of Biblical Counseling Vol. 18 no 3 (Spring 2000), 23.


[19] Riddlebarger, 4.

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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.