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Doctrine of Man: Dichotomy vs. Trichotomy

April 4, 2021 Series: Great Doctrines of the Christian Faith

Scripture: Genesis 2

Scripture Reading -> Genesis 2


Last week we concluded our discussion on the Doctrine of Creation.

We looked, in-depth, at the timing of creation in Scripture.

Based upon the characteristics of several Scriptural verses, we agreed that it is most appropriate to discuss the subject using a literal, interpretive approach.

Again, examining several passages in several different books of the Bible, we saw that the only correct interpretation of creation is that it occurred in 6 literal days – maybe not a strict 24 hour day – but an approximate 24 hour day.

Finally, we ended by reminding ourselves of the absolute necessity of maintaining this understanding….

The necessity of having a proper doctrine of creation as defined by the Bible and not as we would want to have by reconciling with other schools of thought.

Do you remember our closing question?

If you can’t accept the teachings of God in the first two chapters…how on earth are you going to accept the rest of Scripture?


Today, we are going to look at the Doctrine of Man – specifically, we are going to look at the Constitutional character of man…

That is, we are going to look at the meaning and usage of the words:

  • “body” and “soul” and “body” and “spirit” in the Scriptures

As is our custom, lets see how the Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes the Doctrine of Man into a wholistic perspective of the Bible.

Chapter 4: Article 2

II. After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after his own image, having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfil it; and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change. Beside this law written in their hearts, they received a command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures.

At the creation of man

  • God not only created a physical universe
    • the earth
    • the sun
    • the moon
    • the stars
    • the plants
    • and the animals.

Germain to our discussion today, God also created man on the 6th Day.

While the Doctrine of Creation involves the entirety of creation,

The Doctrine of Man reduces the view to the creation of man

Man was created with two essential elements in his nature.

Genesis 2:7 provides a little more detail into the creation of man:

The Scriptures teach that God formed the body of man out of the dust of the earth, and breathed into him the breath of life and he became…

and he became a living soul.

We see that man consists of two distinct principles:

  • a body and a soul
  • one material, the other immaterial;
  • one corporeal, the other spiritual.

Two Theories on the Constitutional Character of Man

These are the constitutional elements of man –

  • or, in other words, the distinct substances of man are identified.

From this, have sprung two basic views concerning theses essential elements

  • Dichotomous view
  • Trichotomous view

We’ll first look at the Dichotomous View, or Dichotomy.

Dichotomy is the orthodox view of man

It teaches the basic constitutional nature consists of body and spirit (or soul)

  • And there are only two distinct parts of man:
    • Body
    • Soul (or spirit)

Doctrine of Man: Dichotomy

Let’s look at some supporting passages that teach man consists of a material and a spiritual element:

Matthew 10 28 (body and soul)

  • The body is the physical aspect of man.
  • The soul is the nonphysical

First Corinthians 5:5 (spirit may be saved)

  • The flesh and the spirit are to be delivered under Satan that the flesh might be destroyed but that the spirit might be saved.
  • The spirit refers to that inner part of man … that essential character of his non-physical being.

As we continue to read Scripture, we'll see:

These two words soul and spirit do not denote two different elements in man:

  • Rather, they serve to designate the one spiritual substance of man.

Romans 8:10 (spirit is life)

  • Paul said the body is dead because of sin but the spirit is alive
  • that is to say the inner spiritual being of man is alive.

1 Corinthians 7:34 (both body and spirit)

  • Denoting the two essential elements of man's constitutional nature

2 Corinthians 7:1 (flesh and spirit)

  • the flesh and the spirit referring to the body and the soul.

Death is sometimes described as the giving up of the soul

Genesis 35:18 (soul was departing)

  • That essential nature that truly is life (the soul) is departing from the flesh
  • This is a similar concept as we find the word spirit is used.

Death is sometimes described as the giving up of the Spirit.

Psalm 31:5 (I commit my spirit)

  • a reference not to just one aspect of man's internal being
  • but the fact that he is giving his soul
  • he is giving up who he truly is unto God
  • and committing it at death to the Lord.

Death is sometimes described interchangeably as giving up the soul and spirit

Revelation 20:4 (I saw the souls of them...)

  • Here the immaterial element of man is referred to as the soul
  • It is a reference to those individuals who had been beheaded
  • their soul is representative of who they truly are.

1 Peter 3:19 (preached to the spirits)

  • a reference to the people.
  • But here again the word soul and spirit used in the same type of connotation but meaning the same thing.

These two terms merely serve to designate the spiritual element of man from two different points of view.

So, you see, man was, indeed, created as a twofold being.

But the body and soul are so united that:

  • we must consider a man not only as a twofold being.
  • without question there are two essential elements to his nature
  • body and soul … body and spirit.

But the Scriptures really talks of man as a monistic creature.

  • that is, one essential person, one essential being.

Therefore, we must not go too far and say that dichotomy is trying to separate man from body and soul or spirit from body in this life.

  • both of these are essential elements of the composition of man.

Neither do we look at man with the idea that:

  • since there is a body and…. since there is a soul that ->
    • the body is irrelevant in relationship to the spirit

Scripture looks at man as a whole, complete being.

His entirety is to be brought under the authority of Christ.

Genesis 2:7

  • A living being is formed then God breathes within him
  • Man is one being a living being both body and soul.

Dr. Gordon Clark –

“the point to notice here as God constructed man out of two elements the dust of the ground and of his own breath. The combination is the nephesh which is a Hebrew term which means that which breathes or a breathing creature that corresponds to the New Testament term psyche which translates soul or life.”

He goes on to state a parallel illustration may be of help.

Suppose under proper laboratory conditions I mix some sodium with some chlorine and the mixture becomes salt. Salt is not one of the elements. It is the name of the compound. So also in Genesis God took some clay breathed his spirit into it and the combination was a living soul.

Doctrine of Man: Trichotomy

Dichotomists believe that according to the account of Genesis 2 7 all men were created with two essential characteristics nature.

  • They have a body.
  • They have a soul or a spirit (but these refer to the same element)

In contrast, Trichotomy is the view that men consist of three parts

  • Body
  • Soul
  • and Spirit.

It is important to note that this view did not result from the study of Scripture.

  • It was born out of the study of Greek philosophy
  • It was a very popular view of the great Greek philosopher Plato

There are only two major passages of scripture used to support this teaching:

1 Thessalonians 5:23 --> spirit, soul, body

Hebrews 4:12 --> dividing soul and spirit

  • Here are references to the three words: body, soul, and spirit.
  • But only in two passages in the whole of scripture

Remember our rule of interpretation? It is this:

  • where there is more scripture that is clear concerning the teaching of the essential elements of man's constitutional nature
    • that the weight of Scripture must rule

Since there are many, many other passages that speak of body and of soul  --
of the elements of man alone, the result is that those that outweigh the interpretation of these two verses of scripture must be correct.

So also, hermeneutically, we would say:

  • That to take these two passages of Scripture as the final statement and understanding of scripture concerning man's essential character
    • over the several other passages that seem to teach against this view would violate our own principle of hermeneutics

If we follow standard principles of interpretation:

  • These two passages must yield to the rest of the passages that teach just the opposite.
  • We would be forced to say that man consists of only two elements.
    • And not the tri-partite understanding of Trichotomy

But nevertheless, we must try to understand the view.

  • First: the body they say is made up of the five senses.
  • Secondly: the soul is made up of the will, emotions, intellect, and morality.
  • Third: the Spirit is the religious aspect or the spiritual nature.

Those that hold to this view are, for the most part, dispensationalist in theology.

Trichotomy teaches that in salvation, it is the spirit of man that is regenerated.

  • That if man’s soul through man’s will allows the spirit to flow out…
    • the soul will be directed in its emotional, intellectual, moral practices
    • and that will be carried forth through the five senses of man or into man's essential sensual nature.

Doctrine of Man: Warnings

But when the soul acts in opposition to the Spirit...

  • The Spirit may want to do the things of God.
    • but the soul decides that it does not want to do the things of God.
    • this is a great conflict within man as the spirit is supposed to be convicting the soul.

Therefore, this teaching allows:

  • that when the soul acts in the opposite nature of the spirit
  • the soul suppresses the spirit and the individual acts like a non-Christian!

And this is one the most essential doctrines in the doctrine of regeneration for the Dispensationalist or the Trichotomist:

  • That an individual can be redeemed in his spirit but live as a carnal Christian in his life.
  • The individual is able to say he can live without thinking willing or acting morally as a regenerated creature.
  • That there is no need obey Christ (John 14:15)
  • or be Christ-minded (Philippians 2:5, Matthew 11:29)
  • or to imitate Christ (Romans 13:13-14, 1 Corinthians 11:1)

But the scriptures do not give such a definition of man.

We must understand some of the dangers of Trichotomy.

Holding to the separation between the Soul and the Spirit

  • Allows man to treat the Spirit in a mystical way
    • For example, the Pentecostal may argue that because the spirit is the higher element of human nature, "speaking in tongues" is highly desirable or "I feel in my spirit....or God spoke to me and said..."
  • Allows for the doctrine of free will
    • since the body, as flesh, tends toward evil, and we are said to be spiritually dead;
    • nevertheless, the soul retains the ability to make a decision to accept Christ as Savior,
    • thus preserving the “idol” that the human will,
      • and not the grace of God
      • that man is the ultimate factor in determining just where, exactly, we will spend our eternity.
  • Allows the concept of the “head and heart” distinction.
    • You’ve heard the phrase, the distance between salvation is the distance from your head to your heart…either 12 or 18 inches
    • That you need to move from your head to your heart
    • This is a very mystical saying…how do you do that?
    • Where in Scripture, do you find that idea?
      • This type of phraseology emphasizes experience over knowledge
        • It tells us that what is most important, is how you feel
        • That you can “feel” like you are a Christian whether or not you live like a Christian…it is that same emphasis on the spirit

… championed by Trichotomy

Application & Implication to Man (AIM)

The Scriptural doctrine of the nature of man

  • as a created spirit in vital union with an organized body,
  • consisting, of two, and only two, distinct elements or substances,
  • is one of great importance.

It is connected with some of the most important doctrines of the Bible.

  • with the constitution of the person of Christ.
  • with the nature of his redeeming work.
  • With the nature of His relation to the children of men.
  • with the doctrine of the fall, of original sin, and of regeneration.
  • With the doctrines of a future state and of the resurrection.

If the body is not important, and the spirit is instead of utmost importance, then you need to explain why the body is given such attention in:

  • the creation account.
  • in the Incarnation, Jesus Christ, as the second person of the Holy Trinity, assumed to himself a true human nature (Gal 4:4).
  • the Resurrection.
  • Jesus' resurrection is a bodily one (1 Cor 15:3-8Lk 24:40-43).
  • His resurrection is itself the basis for the bodily resurrection of those who are in Christ (1 Cor 15:35-58).
  • We will not spend eternity as angelic beings with harps sitting on the clouds, but instead as redeemed persons in resurrected and glorified bodies, forever rejoined to our soul-spirit.


This doctrine was introduced into the early church but soon came to be regarded as dangerous if not heretical.

Yet, this doctrine remains very popular today in dispensational churches and in evangelical Christianity.

It supports the notion of the carnal Christian:

  • That the soul may be preserved but the individual may think and act in any manner that he would like as a lawless being

We cannot accept and we must therefore reject such a teaching concerning the essential character elements of man.

  • because God is always calling the whole man to Christ not just a part of man but the whole man.

Both the body and soul (spirit) are being called. Man is being told to bring his whole person under the authority of God's Word for the sanctification of life.

Now consider this, as Easter is being celebrated throughout this land during church worship services with full fanfare and an eye towards experiential rather than true worship, with absolutely no mandate or instruction from God to alter His Sabbath, set it aside, and celebrate the way we think we should...

  • how would we, if we held to the concept of free-will-determination or carnal-Christianity or Trichotomy, really understand and do honor to the sacrifice Christ made on the cross?
    • He sacrificed his body.
    • He had a bodily resurrection on the third day.
    • He promised us a bodily resurrection, united with our souls.
  • He repeatedly taught that the whole man is to be brought under Him.

Are we to say the body is nothing? 

Are we to say His commands to obey Him are nothing?

Is all of that to be discarded and reduced to a mere trifle because we want to be able to decide when and how we obey and worship Christ?


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