Home > C. H. Spurgeon, doctrines, John MacArthur, S. Lewis Johnson > Body, Soul and Spirit: Trichotomy or Dichotomy

Body, Soul and Spirit: Trichotomy or Dichotomy


I briefly looked at this idea of dichotomy and trichotomy, over a year ago, when it came up in the last of S. Lewis Johnson’s “The Divine Purpose” series.  At the time I wasn’t very clear on the difference between the views, and didn’t research it further. I’m now looking at it again, after my Sunday morning Spurgeon sermons, where I came across this interesting passage from Spurgeon:

The Teaching of the Holy Spirit (#315, May 13, 1860)
But now, further—all that the Believer truly knows which is profitable to himself is taught him by the Holy Spirit. We may learn very much from the Word of God morally and mentally, but the Christian philosopher understands that there is a distinction between soul and spirit. He knows that the mere natural soul or intellect of man may instruct itself well enough out of the Word of God, but that spiritual things are only to be spiritually discerned. He knows that until that third, higher principle—the spirit—is infused into us in regeneration, we have not even the capability or the possibility of knowing spiritual things! Now it is this third, higher principle, of which the Apostle speaks when he speaks of “body, soul and spirit.” Mental philosophers declare there is no such thing as the third part—the spirit. They can find a body and a soul, but no spirit. They are quite right—there is no such thing in natural men. That third principle—the spirit—is an infusion of the Holy Spirit at regeneration and is not to be detected by mental philosophy! It is altogether a subtler thing—a thing too rare, too heavenly, to be described by Dugald, Stewart, or Reid, or Brown or any of those mighty men who could dissect the mind, but who could not understand the spirit! Now, the Spirit of God first gives us a spirit and then afterwards educates that spirit.

I was aware of the Dallas Seminary / S. Lewis Johnson trichotomy view, and that others generally, including John MacArthur and most others in Reformed circles, see a dichotomy in which the “soul and spirit” are the same thing as contrasted with the body.  Evidently Spurgeon too was a trichotomist, of the variation that only believers have the third component of the spirit.

From online blog comments and facebook discussions, apparently the doctrine of trichotomy is (at worst) often reviled and called heresy, or (best) seen as something believed primarily by charismatics: who apparently conclude from trichotomy that theological knowledge is “unspiritual” whereas the Spirit needs to be in direct communication with God.  One well-known covenant theologian disdains trichotomy as somehow an  important part of “goofy dispensationalism.”  Yet Martin Luther was also trichotomist, as were many of the early church fathers; see this article concerning the history of belief in trichotomy.

Dan Phillips even responded to casual blog-comment discussion with these observations on trichotomy:
1. Some Reformed guys really disagree with it.
2. Some Reformed guys (S. Lewis Johnson, for one) really don’t.
3. I definitely have seen trichotomy abused (i.e. cough::Bill Gothard::cough)
4. Abuse of a doctrine doesn’t necessarily discredit the doctrine.
5. I can’t imagine a planet on which the mere thought that soul and spirit might not be interchangeable is rightly regarded as “heresy.” It’s a difference among brothers.

S. Lewis Johnson provided in-depth teaching, with a good look at the specific scriptures, in his two messages within his “Systematic Theology” series on this very topic (combined with the related issue of creation and traducianism):
Man and His Nature, Part I   and   Man and His Nature, Part II

Concerning 1 Thessalonians 5:23, he observes:

Now, you could render this.  Some of our greatest Greek scholars say that that little word “complete,” or entire I think in your text, that second word, should go with each one of these nouns, body, spirit, soul, and may your whole spirit, may your whole soul, may your whole body.  Or your spirit in all its parts, your soul in all its parts, your body in all its parts be preserved complete.

In other words, Paul clearly distinguishes between body, soul, and spirit, and to make it a definite, uses an adjective that means complete in all its parts.  And refers the adjective to each of the three nouns as if to suggest there are parts to the soul, parts to the spirit, but that all of each is to be preserved for each.  He’s talking about sanctification.  And he’s saying, of course, when we come into the presence of the Lord, he’s praying that our spirits, our souls, and our bodies will be preserved complete.  Our spirit, in all its parts, in our in all its parts, our body in all its parts. As if to collect –distributively speak of them.  I don’t have time to go into the Greek texts, but the adjective, the second one that’s translated entirely, or whole, here is used distributively.  And that, as far as I can tell, is the only meaning possible of these texts.

He also points out some details concerning 1 Corinthians 15:44:

Now, one other passage we could look at, which is disastrous to the dichotomist’s view is 1 Corinthians 15, verse 44 where Paul speaks about the earthly body adaptive to the present sensuous world and the glorified body adapted tot he future spiritual world, and he uses the word soulish and spiritual of these two bodies.  And he says the present body is a soulish body, but our body to come is a spirit body.  And that wouldn’t make any sense at all if those two terms meant essentially the same thing.  Listen to what he says.  1 Corinthians 15, verse 44,

“it is sown” (that is our bodies that we have her now, we Christians)  “It is sown a soulish body (a natural body), it is raised a spiritual body (a pneuma body). If there is a natural body, (that is a soulish body) there is also a spiritual body.”

And so Paul distinguishes here between the body that we have now and calls it the body of the psyche, and he says that at the resurrection, we’re going to have the body of pneuma.  And if that does not distinguish between those two terms, I don’t know what does.

S. Lewis Johnson goes on to the significance of the distinction between the soul (the emotions) and the mind or intellect (the spirit):  the fact that God speaks to us in our spirit (mind) rather than to our feelings.  Our feelings (soul) should always be dominated by the mind.  Certainly MacArthur and other dichotomists agree with that conclusion, as in their sharp criticism of charismatic chaos; but here the scriptures give even stronger support to this understanding:

Well, now you see, if man is made up of spirit, that part of his being which is preeminent is his mind, and when he is born again is renewed, quickened by the Holy Spirit.  And if it is true that God speaks to men in their minds and in the spirits, and this works itself out through his psyche, his self, his emotions, his loving, his hating, all of the other things that make up his general passions, feelings; and if that expresses itself in its physical body, just as I am in my mind, thinking of Scriptural truth which is being brought through my passions, through my emotions to you, and you can see it in my face, well, then God speaks in a man’s spirit, that part of his being which is characterized by rationality.  He speaks in that part of the man which is his mind, not in his feelings.  But his feelings should always be under the dominancy of his mind.

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  1. June 15, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    I appreciate hearing that it is not a ‘slam dunk’ for either side! I guess I’m surrounded by tri’s and wonder what is so horrible about the di’s. Is there a deep theological trap here? There seem to be enough places where a differentiation does not seem to be made to make me wonder if it really matters or if the terms are interchangeable…I assume folks on eiter side could fellowship with the other side as Christian brothers and sisters.

    • June 18, 2012 at 8:14 am

      Yes, it’s really not that much of a difference, not a major doctrine to cause great division. I don’t see a deep theological trap either. Yet some people clearly have made it so, and in the Reformed world some of the dichotomists (MacArthur and Masters Seminary followers) think that trichotomists are usually charismatics who use the soul/spirit division as somehow related to the continuationist belief. Agree that it’s not a major idea that comes up often in Christian fellowship, and not something that would hinder fellowship among otherwise similar-minded believers.

  2. December 5, 2013 at 5:24 am

    The Word of God is capable of dividing soul and spirit (Heb 4:12) With each man’s original sin his spirit dies. (The day you eat of it ye shall surely DIE!) This is why we must be born AGAIN by the Spirit. This is why we are DEAD in trespasses and sin NOT physically dead but SPIRITUALLY dead. We must be born of the Spirit because that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. This is why the man dead in sins cannot understand things of the Spirit because his own spirit is dead. This is why we need the “regeneration by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5) which occurs the moment we receive Jesus as Savior.

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