What is a soul? Trichotomous vs. dichotomous views

Continuing the discussion from Ask Nathan Rittenhouse (March 5-9, 2018):


Along this line (above) is a question I have that came out a conversation I had over the weekend regarding the soul. I researched last night in Groothuis’ “Christian Apologetics” and Lewis’s & Demarest’s “Integrative Theology” and have more questions than when I began. :slight_smile:

Simply put, what is a soul? In the research I did, I discovered thichotomy vs/ dichotomy. Is it important to consider this?

In what way is the spirit different than the soul?

Lastly, this all came out of a simple discussion around the notion that “boundaries are the key to keeping your soul safe”, and “your property is your soul” (Cloud & Townsend, in regards to a property line and boundaries).

Thank you!


Megan, one way to look at this and which I find helpful is the soul can be considered our intellect, will, and emotion, while the spirit of someone could be considered that which is akin to personality, thus, whether a person is introverted, extroverted, quiet, flamboyant, etc.
Trichotomy and Dichotomy are close and make interesting discussion but should not be something to cause dissension. Both believe in a spirit, soul, and body, the difference is in whether one considers soul and spirit to be utterly united, a dichotomy, or merely interactive, but separate, a trichotomy. What makes the discussion difficult to conclude is that sometimes the terms soul and spirit are used to denote one aspect of a person while other passages show a clear distinction. For further investigation you might want to visit the many resources hot-linked at this site https://www.monergism.com/topics/anthropology/trichotomy-vs-dichotomy.

As far as Cloud and Townsend and the whole issue of boundaries I do not agree with their evaluation and find that they misuse a very clear biblical teaching on the use of property lines that should not be used in any sort of spiritual sense. I admit bias in this area since I have been involved with some serious relational upsets because of the C&T boundary being misapplied according to their recommendation. You may find this link to be a succinct counterpoint on this http://www.psychoheresy-aware.org/unbibbound96.html.

Thank you for taking the time to respond! I appreciate it!

1 Like

Awesome Question! I’ve come to like the idea that the soul is like a stomach and what you put into it will become what you are, that is why we need a cleansing of sin and let the spirit of Jesus fill us with joy! :wink:

Hello @Megan_Kemp. This is a good question, which could help you study further the nature of man. I believe it’s important for you to consider both trichotomy and dichotomy for you to be able to answer your question.

Basically, trichotomy is the view that man is made up of three parts (body, soul, and spirit), then dichotomy is the view that man is made up of only two parts (body, soul/spirit).

Your question, “in what way is the spirit different from the soul” presupposes trichotomy. Dichotomists believe that soul and spirit are merely different terms in Scripture where both are used interchangeably in meaning the same thing.

Trichotomists believe that the soul includes the intellect, emotions, and will, then the spirit is a different faculty, which is a part that worships God. This distinction is explained according to them through experience, in our seemingly different perception between our ordinary emotional and thinking process and our spiritual awareness.

Their biblical basis for example is 1 Thessalonians 5:23:

“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

For them, this is a clear-cut evidence from Scripture that there are three parts in man.

Dichotomists, however would respond that the phrase is inconclusive, in a sense that Paul could use synonyms for the purpose of providing emphasis. They would cite Mark 12:30:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”

For them, the point here is not that there are different parts in man, but rather that Jesus uses different terms to emphasize that we should love God with all our being. Since heart does not refer only to the emotions. Dichotomists would further argue that Scripture uses both soul and spirit interchangeably and that man is described in Scripture as either body and soul or body and spirit.

I hope this helps a bit.


Hi friends,

I think this summary of the topic from the ESV Study Bible may be helpful:

Biblically, there are at least two distinct aspects of a human being—spiritual (spirit/soul) and physical (body). Some interpreters hold that the “soul” and “spirit” are distinct parts of a human being, and therefore that we are composed of three parts: body, soul, and spirit. This view is called “trichotomy.” However, the vast majority of evangelical scholars today hold that “spirit” and “soul” are basically synonymous and are two different ways of talking about the immaterial aspect of our being, “soul” pointing to our personal selves as responsible individuals and “spirit” pointing to those same selves as created by and dependent on God. This view is called “dichotomy” (see note on 1 Thess. 5:23–28). It is important to see that there is a fundamental unity between the physical and spiritual within humans. While a distinction is made in the Bible between the material and immaterial parts of the human being, the emphasis is on the necessary connection between body and soul. Regeneration and sanctification for the Christian is a spiritual experience intended to be expressed in the physical body in and through which we have been made to live. The separation of body and soul caused at death is an unnatural tragedy, which will be remedied when the body is resurrected, allowing humans to exist as they were intended to do.

From the same source, the note on 1 Thessalonains 5 reads:

Spirit , soul , and body represent the entirety of human nature. It seems unlikely that this is a tripartite division of human nature into body, soul, and spirit, where “spirit” and “soul” would refer to different parts; more likely Paul is simply using several terms for emphasis. For similar ways of expressing the totality of human nature see Matt. 10:28; Mark 12:30; 1 Cor. 7:34.

I find these reflections helpful. It seems to me that we lack sufficient Biblical data to firmly land on a trichotomist view of human nature. This also seems to better reflect the way that words are used, with some flexibility in meaning depending on the context - vs what seems to me to be an artificially rigid separation of ‘spirit’ and ‘soul.’

What is powerful is the unity between our souls and bodies. This has led me into investigating how we make sense of consciousness, rationality, intentionality, and experience without reference to a soul. These are areas where I believe a thoroughly naturalistic approach to human nature has a difficult struggle!


Megan Hi,

This is a question I have often struggled with. Don’t have any answer, but here are some verses to compare.

1Samuel 1:15 And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD.

Job 7:11 Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.

Isaiah 26:9 With my soul have I desired thee in the night; yea, with my spirit within me will I seek thee early: for when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.

Isaiah 42:1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.

Matthew 12:18 Behold my servant, whom I have chosen; my beloved, in whom my soul is well pleased: I will put my spirit upon him, and he shall shew judgment to the Gentiles.

1Corinthians 15:45 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.

1Thessalonians 5:23 And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.



Thank you for everyone’s responses!!


1 Like