Dichotomy or Trichotomy?



There are two common Biblical views on the human soul.  In this post I am going to present the argument for both and why I hold the position that I do.  Essentially, a Dichotimous position is that Man consists of two parts, one part Body and the other part Soul.  The Trichotimous view argues that Man is Triune and consists of Body, Soul, and Spirit.  Each being distinct from the other.



Essentially the Dichotomous view holds that Man is both Spirit and Flesh.  There is the material part which we all see and touch, and there is the immaterial.  Just as the body can be classified into different pieces so can the immaterial aspect of man be distinguished into different aspects.

For example, the material can be distinguished as consisting of parts like the ears, nose, skin, eyes, etc.  The immaterial would be things like conscience, heart, spirit, and mind.  The greater distinction though is between the body and the soul in general.  One of these is sown in the earth and the other returns to God upon death.


“and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Ecc 12:7 ESV


There are many verses discussing this immaterial aspect of man both new Testament and Old.  See below for a brief sample.


“But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Deu 4:29 ESV

“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.” Gen 2:7 ESV

22And they fell on their faces and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?” Num 16:22 ESV

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” Mat 16:26 ESV

“For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” Psa 62:1 ESV

“And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Matt 22:37 ESV


The clearest of these passages distinguishing between the two is found in 1 Corinthians chapters 4 and 5.  I covered them extensively on my post on the State of the Dead if you want a breakdown verse by verse.


“1 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. ; 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, ; 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. ; 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, ; 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. ; 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” 2 Cor 5:1-4, 6-8 ESV


Notice the juxtapostion that Paul makes above, we see that which is material dying away.  We see that which is immaterial being eternal.  We see that which is material being referred to as a tent that makes us groan.  And the Inner Man inside (2 Cor 4:16) that tent being renewed day by day.


“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” 2 Cor 4:16 ESV

“I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” 1 Cor 15:50 ESV


I like the analysis that SimplyBible provides on a comparison of the above two passages and am including it for review:


“This verse clearly portrays the human being as having two parts (“dichotomy”), the outward and the inward: “Though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” (2Corinthians 4:16). If we were to transpose terms from the previous verse to this verse, it would read, “Though our body is decaying, our spirit and soul is being renewed day by day.”

Similarly, the outward man is described as “flesh and blood” (1Corinthians 15:50). Again we could transpose that expression into the above to make it read, “Though our flesh and blood is decaying, our spirit and soul is being renewed day by day.”

I am making the point that the expression “flesh and blood” matches “outer man”, and in the same way “spirit and soul” matches “inner man”. There is of course a difference between flesh and blood, and there may well be a difference between spirit and soul, but the differences in either case do not amount to humans having more than two distinct natures.” – SimplyBible


Essentially, even if the Trichotomous position is correct on some level, the Dichotomous one is also correct.  In my mind, the Dichotomous view properly understood is making a broad distinction rather than a narrow one.  Simply stated there are two general aspects of man, that which is material and that which is immaterial.




It is my assessment that those who hold to this view do so because of conclusions they want to have on other doctrines.

For example, some will make a strong distinction between the soul and spirit because they believe that God creating man in his image means we must therefore be Triune.


“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Genesis 1:26 ESV


I will concede that this is a nifty idea, but in all honesty I cannot see a direct nexus between source material and conclusion in this doctrine.  I think that the idea is being read in.  Man made in the image of God can just as easily mean a host of different things.

The proof-texts to support this view most frequently are the next two found in the New Testament.


“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Heb 4:12 ESV

“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Thess 5:23 ESV


The strength in these two passages above is that soul and spirit are distinguished from each other in the context.  There would be no reason to argue one as a synonym for the other, at least in this passage anyways, as it doesn’t work with the context.

And if one happens to hold to this view because of these verses I understand.  The reason I disagree though is because there is no good reason to assert that the writer doesn’t just mean parts of a whole.  For example:


“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.Mark 12:30 ESV


If I were to use the same reasoning on the above verse then that would mean we have to make clinical distinctions between the heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Should we refer to the finger as a separate essence than the hand?  What about all the other organs?  Instead of  2 or 3 divisions of man should we not be arguing for a million or so distinctions?  This is why Christians have in the past made helpful distinctions between essence and accidents of a substance.

Rather than all that mess we should keep in mind that first century anatomy terms do not have the same exact meaning of those that we use today.  Second, we should focus on what it is that they are teaching rather than the specific words they are choosing, this protects us from eisegeting an anachronism.




The plainest reading of all the passages used by Trichotomists is that the writer is speaking of parts rather than wholes.  Even if one must insist that the Spirit is part of the Soul of a man in the same manner that a “nose” is part of the “face” that is fine.  But I would caution against building further conclusions and distinctions off of that as one invariably has to make unnecessary assumptions to get there.  After all, twenty-three assumptions later and you’re stuck with the Investigative Judgement.

This is why I hold to a Dichotomous view.  At the end of the day, man is most easily divided into material and immaterial.  We do not know where one ends and the other begins.  We can study the material with modern science but the immaterial is still quite beyond our grasp.

About ACTheologian

I am a layman who blogs my Biblical studies. Enjoy, please read with an open Bible and do double check with your pastor.
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4 Responses to Dichotomy or Trichotomy?

  1. tjustincomer says:

    When you study Hebrew, it doesn’t take long before you realize the same word is used for multiple things. This is particularly keen to recognize when talking about body parts. The Hebrew word lev means heart, and it is indeed the physical heart. Yet, it also refers to the mind, which is the ‘spiritual’ (meaning non-physical) heart – the place of reason and of thoughts. This is true right down the line in all of the body parts mentioned in the Scripture. There is a duality, but not three distinct ways to look at these words. There is a physical component, and then a non-physical component. They are interwoven in the Hebrew mind, and shouldn’t be separated, but even so it makes an interesting point on behalf of dichotomy vs trichotomy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Melini Moodley says:

    Good post! Both views are definitely better than the erroneous idea of “Breath plus dust equals living soul” that forms the foundation of the teaching on the state of the dead in Seventh Day Adventism that is then propped further by other verses used out of context.


  3. Pingback: A Respectful Argument against Abortion with Reason only, no Bible | Armchair Theologian

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