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Grace Notes

Man As Spirit, Soul, and Body (Chapter 5)
By John Woodward


The Record of the Early Church

Various fathers of the early church believed in a body, soul, and spirit distinction in man. Dichotomists tend to discredit this testimony by attributing it to the influence of Greek philosophy. Marais made this connection in an article on biblical psychology: "Under the influence of Platonic philosophy, trichotomy found favor in the early church. . . "126 Yet, the trichotomy of Plato differed significantly from biblical trichotomy. As Heard pointed out, Plato, the intellectualist, assigned to reason or nous the sovereign place [in man's makeup]; but . . . in Scripture psychology the intellect holds the second place not the first. To harmonize Plato and St. Paul together is impossible. The appetitive nature of Plato corresponds, we admit, to the body or animal nature of St. Paul (1 Thes 5:23). But the psuche of St. Paul is distributed by Plato between the emotional and intellectual natures seated in the heart and head respectively, while the pneuma of St. Paul is unknown to Plato.127

Platonic trichotomy is further removed from a biblical one due to Plato's view of the three parts of soul. As Richard Norris observed,

For Plato. . . the human soul is in fact tripartite. Its two lower, and mortal parts are the seats of desire and of assertive action; its superior part, the rational (to logistikon), shares with the world-soul the attributes of incorruptibility. . .128

To discredit trichotomy by a similarity with Platonism confuses similarity with source. One could likewise attri-bute the source of the dichotomist view with Greek dichotomy (mater and spirit); some writers have argued for such a connection.129

The trichotomous view was considered an orthodox interpretation in the first three centuries of the church. Berkhof summarized this record: The trichotomic conception of man found considerable favor with the Greek or Alexandrian Church Fathers in the early Christian centuries. It is found, though not always in the same form, in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa. But after Apollinaris employed it in a manner impinging on the perfect humanity of Jesus, it was gradually discredited. Some of the Greek Fathers still adhered to it, though Athanasius and Theodoret explicitly repudiated it. In the Latin Church the leading theologians distinctly favored the twofold division of human nature. It was the psychology of Augustine that gave prominence to this view.130

Heard cited additional sources in the early church: Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Didymus of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil of Caesarea all note the distinction between soul and spirit, and designate the spirit as that which bears the truest image of God.131


An example from the eastern church would be John of Damascus, who spoke of the soul being the sensuous life-principle that takes up the spirit (which is the "efflux" of God).132

Lockyer documented early expressions of trichotomy. He quoted Justin Martyr's comparison: "As the body is the house of the soul, so the soul is the house of the spirit." He also mentioned another analogy used in the past: The ancients had a fitting way of illustrating the threefold possession of man. They likened the body to the material framework of a chariot--the soul, with all its powers, to the horses driving the chariot along--the spirit, to the charioteer, whose firm hands held the reins and whose keen eyes determined the course.133

Lockyer commented on the implications of this view of man: If the spirit part of man is inoperative, or under the control of evil spirits . . .then there is chaos, tragedy, and death, for God meant the body to be the servant of the soul, and the soul the servant of the spirit.134

A factor that hindered the church's acceptance of trichotomy was its reaction to dualism. Plato's view of the soul as preexistent and superior to the material body denied the doctrine of creation ex nihilo . In the third century Manichaeism advocated a radical dualism in cosmology and in man. Rather than the wrestling with subtleties of the soul/spirit distinction, the fathers addressed the issue of man's basic unity, in contrast to these dualistic philo-sophies. As Rodney Hunter summarized it,

76 . . . They held to the doctrine of the Resurrection as descriptive of the destiny intended by God for humanity: Both body and soul were destined for immortality since the person functions as a living whole.135

The Heresy of Apollinaris

Since the view of Apollinaris mark the decline in the acceptance of trichotomy in the western church, his teaching deserves closer inspection. This bishop of Laodicea in Syria affirmed the orthodoxy of Christ's deity and humanity as expressed in Nicene Creed. The difficulty, however, was the way he tried to explain how Christ's humanity was constituted through His incarnation. W. Walker summarized Apollinaris' view:
. . . That Jesus had the body and animal soul of man, but that the reasoning spirit in Him was the logos . By this he meant that the highest directing principle of His existence could not be a human mind, but must be divine. For Apollinaris the human mind is corrupt and in the service of the flesh. In consequence it must have been replaced in Jesus by the logos . . .136

This view was interpreted as denying the full humanity of Christ, and was condemned at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in A. D. 381. The view of Apollinaris influenced the eastern church and even in the west it was eventually conceded that, although Christ's mind was human, His center was not that of man but the Logos Himself.137


The Trichotomy of Luther

Most of the scholars of the Reformation continued to hold to the dichotomous view of man. Berkhof noted the trend of dichotomy from the days of Augustine (in the fourth century) through the Protestant Reformation (in the 16th century). During the Middle Ages it [dichotomy] became a matter of common belief. The Reformation brought no change in this respect, though a few lesser lights defended the trichotomistic theory.138

Without tracing out these "lesser lights," an examination of Martin Luther's view seems to illustrate the reluctance of contemporary theologians to acknowledge trichotomy as an orthodox view in church history.

In his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Luther gave a detailed explanation of the parts of man when he discussed Mary's Magnificat: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior" (Luke 1:46). Luther wrote, Let us take up the words in their order. The first is "my soul." Scripture divides man into three parts, as St. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:23. . . The nature of man consists of the three parts--spirit, soul, and body . . . The first part, the spirit, is the highest, deepest, and noblest part of man. By it he is enabled to lay hold on things incomprehensible, invisible, and eternal. It is, in brief, the dwelling place of faith and the Word of God. . . 139

This quotation shows the Reformer's distinction of the spirit from the soul ontologically. Luther's reference to


1 Thes. 5:23 gives further support to his basic definition of trichotomy.

One might wonder why Luther's trichotomous teaching has been virtually ignored. One reason may be that his references to the soul as the immaterial part (in contrast to the body) have been taken as evidence of dichotomy in his writings. His definition of soul in the same context exemplifies this:
The second part, the soul, is this same spirit, so far as its nature is concerned, but viewed as performing a different function, namely, giving life to the body and working through the body.140

In his Systematic Theology , Strong gave a footnote to Luther's trichotomous statement quoted above, noting that Delitzsch also quoted this passage in his System of Biblical Psychology . Yet, Strong hastens to refer to Thomasius' argument for Luther as dichotomous. Thomasius's argument, however, primarily rests on the preceding quote, which merely describes the soul as immaterial. This being the case, it is vital to rightly examine Luther's teaching on the model of man in the context of this description to the soul. When Luther said that the soul is the same "nature" (German--natur) he was affirming what trichotomists concede as well, i.e., that the soul and spirit are united as the immaterial side of human nature. In the same paragraph that he defined soul he continued to further elucidate the distinction between soul and spirit:
It is its [the soul's] nature to comprehend not incomprehensible things but such things the reason can

79 know and understand. Indeed, reason is the light of this dwelling; and unless the spirit, which is lighted with the brighter light of faith, controls this light of reason it cannot but be in error. For it is too feeble to deal with things divine. To these two parts of man [the soul and spirit] the Scriptures ascribe many things, such as wisdom and knowledge--wisdom to the spirit, knowledge to the soul. . . 141

This shows that Luther believed the distinction between soul and spirit to be more than merely a functional one. The term "part" is used eight times in this context in denoting the parts of man (spirit, soul, and body). The German term Luther used was teil , meaning "part," "division," or "portion."142 He also used the synonym stuck , meaning "piece," "part," or "portion."143 However uncomfortable to the ears of the proponents of monism or monistic dualism, Luther did not hesitate to speak in terms of the three parts of a person.

After noting the distinction of the body, Luther gives a profound analogy relating to the tabernacle. What seems at first glance to be an unusual comparison becomes increasingly meaningful. Luther continues,
Let us take an illustration from the Scriptures. In the tabernacle fashioned by Moses there were three separate compartments. The first was called the holy of holies: here was God's dwelling place, and in it there was no light. The second was called the holy place; here stood a candlestick with seven arms and seven lamps. The third was called the outer court; this lay under the open sky and in the full light of the sun. In this tabernacle we have a figure of the Christian man. His

spirit is the holy of holies, where God dwells in the darkness of faith, where no light is; for he believes that which he neither sees nor feels nor comprehends. His soul is the holy place, with its seven lamps, that is, all manner of reason, discrimination, knowledge, and understanding of visible and bodily things. His body is the forecourt, open to all, so that men may see his works and manner of life.144

Luther continues by drawing attention to the priority of man's spirit in sanctification. Expounding again on 1 Thes 5:23 he even takes note of the sequence Paul mentioned:
When the spirit that possesses the whole inheritance is preserved, both soul and body are able to remain without error and evil works. On the other hand, when the spirit is without faith, the soul together with the whole life cannot but fall into wickedness and error

. . .As a consequence of this error and false opinion of the soul, all the works of the body also become evil and damnable, even though a man killed himself with fasting and performed the works of all the saints . . . it is necessary that God preserve, first our spirit, then our soul and body, not only from overt sins but more from false and apparent good works.145

Thus Luther clearly connected trichotomy of man with the biblical strategy for progressive sanctification.

The Resurgence of Trichotomy

There were notable examples of trichotomist writing in the 17th and 18th centuries. An example of devotional literature in the 17th century was the influential A Method of Prayer, by Madame Guyon. This text of mystical piety, although arousing opposition by church authorities in France, endured to inspire Christian leaders in subsequent centuries. These included John Wesley, Jessie Penn-Lewis,


and Watchman Nee. 146 In 1769 M. F. Roos published in Latin a scholarly expression of trichotomy. 147

The nineteenth century featured a resurgence of trichotomy by several British and German theologians. From Britain came J.B. Heard's The Tripartite Nature of Man , and J.T. Beck's Outlines of Biblical Psychology . In Germany were Olshausen, Lotze, Goschel, Auberian, Delitzsch (who wrote the often-quoted A System of Biblical Psychology), and G. F. Oehler (who authored Theology of the Old Testament). Other works that affirmed this model of man included Ellicott's Destiny of the Creature , and Van Oosterzee's Christian Dogmatics .148 These scholars' volumes advanced trichotomy as biblical, reasonable, and relevant to Christian life and ministry.

The 20th century has witnessed several theologians who have advocated trichotomy. Systematic theology texts supporting trichotomy include volumes by E. H.Bankcroft, H. C. Thiessen, L. S. Chafer, M. Cambron, P. B. Fitzwater, H. Lockyer, and F. H. Barackman. Other trichotomist volumes on Biblical anthropology include G. H. Pember's Earth's Earliest Ages , L. T. Holdcroft's Anthropology: a Biblical View , J. Penn-Lewis' Soul and Spirit , Oswald Chamber's Biblical Psychology , T.Austin-Spark's What is Man? , Watchman Nee's The Spiritual Man , and Dale Moody's The Word of Truth.


Bible conferences have been communicating this devotional truth through a trichotomous model of man. For example, the Keswick convention, which began in England in in the late 1800's, has taught the deeper life through an explicit trichotomous view of man. Evan Hopkins' writings exemplified the movement; he supported this model of man with several quotes from Delizsch's book.149 Prominent evangelical ministries such as Christian Literature Crusade, Capernwray Missionary Fellowship have, and the Institute in Basic Life Principles have been communicating the abundant life with the trichotomous model of man.150


The theological vindication of trichotomy in the nineteenth century gave fertile soil to a variety of teachers and ministries that have been teaching from this perspective in the twentieth century. Although it has gained popularity in more fundamental circles and on a popular level, most systematic theologians have maintained the traditional, dichotomist viewpoint. To further address this disparity, the next chapter will present a holistic form of trichotomy as biblically and theologically valid.

126 Marais, "Psychology," ISBE , 4:2496.

127 Heard, The Tripartite Nature of Man , 64.


128 Richard A. Norris, "Soul," in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity , 2d ed. (NY: Garland Publishers, 1997), 2:1__.

129 Heard, The Tripartite Nature of Man , 7.

130 Berkhof, Systematic Theology , 191.

131 Heard, The Tripartite Nature of Man , 4.

132 Strong, Systematic Theology , 487.

133 Lockyer, All the Doctrines of the Bible , 144-45.

134 Ibid., 145.

135 Rodney J. Hunter, ed., Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), s.v. "Soul," by R. A. Muller, 1202.

136 Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church , 3d ed., (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970), 132.

137 Ibid.

138 Berkhof, Systematic Theology , 192.

139 Martin Luther, Luther's Works , ed., Jaroslar Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1956), 21:303.

140 Ibid.

141 Ibid.

142 Muret-Sanders Encyclopedic English-German and German-English Dictionary , 1910 ed., s.v. "Tiel," 2:952.

143 Ibid., s.v. "Stuck," 937.

144 Luther, Luther's Works , 304.

145 Ibid., 305-06.

146 Jeanne Guyon, Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ . edited by Gene Edwards (Goleta, CA: Christian Books, 1975), 145-50.

147 Clark, The Biblical Doctrine of Man , 43.

148 Strong, Systematic Theology , 484.

149 Evan H. Hopkins, The Law of Liberty in the Spiritual Life , American ed. (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1991), 47,49,58-60.

150 A Comprehensive Course in Effective Counseling (Oak Brook, IL: Institute in Basic Life Principles, n.d.),

by John Woodward
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