The Constitution of Man

During the past week my family and I read Chapter 23, “The Essential Nature of Man” in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994). In the chapter Grudem considers how many parts there are to man and the origin of the soul. He supports the dichotomist view that man consists of two essential parts–the body and the soul/spirit–and the creationist view that a person’s soul is created by God. On the other hand the systematic theology textbook that I used at Bible college, Henry Clarence Thiesen’s Lectures in Systematic Theology (see the bibliography at the end of the post), supports the trichotomist view that man consists of three essential parts–the body, the soul, and the spirit–and the traducian view that a person’s soul is inherited from the person’s parents. As I did in our family reading, I’ll follow Grudem’s presentation here, but I’ll also draw on the presentations in the books listed in the bibliography.

How Many Parts Are There to Man?

Everybody agrees that we have a physical body. Most people feel that we also have an immaterial part, a “soul,” that will live on after our body dies. Some people believe that we also have a third part, a “spirit,” that relates to God. The view that we have three parts is called trichotomy, the view that we have two parts is called dichotomy, and the view that we have only one part is called monism. Since the Bible is clear that we have a soul that is distinct from our physical body and will live on after we die (Genesis 35:18; Psalm 31:5; Luke 23:43, 46; Acts 7:59; Philippians 1:23-24; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 6:9; 20:4), I won’t consider monism here. Following Grudem, I’ll present Biblical evidence for dichotomy and then arguments for trichotomy and responses to them.

Biblical evidence for dichotomy:
– “Soul” and “spirit” are sometimes used interchangeably. For example, Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV unless otherwise noted) and people who have died and gone to heaven are called “spirits” in Hebrews 12:23 and “souls” in Revelation 6:9 and 20:4.
– The Bible says that at death either the “soul” or the “spirit” departs. Examples of the former are “Her [Rachel’s] soul was departing, for she was dying” (Genesis 35:18) and “This night your soul is required of you” (Luke 12:20; God to the rich fool). Examples of the latter are “Into thy hand I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:5; David to God) and “He [Jesus] bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).
– Man is said to be either “body and soul” or “body and spirit.” When he sent out the twelve apostles, Jesus told them, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). On the other hand, Paul says, “Deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord”” (2 Corinthians 5:5) and James says, “The body apart from the spirit is dead” (James 2:26).
– The “soul” can sin and the “spirit” can sin. According to Grudem, trichotomists usually agree with dichotomists that the soul can sin but generally think of the spirit, when renewed, as free from sin. However such passages as “A stubborn and rebellious generation…whose spirit was not faithful to God” (Psalm 78:8) and “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit” (2 Corinthians 7:1) imply that the spirit can sin.
– Everything that the “soul” or the “spirit” is said to do, the other is also said to do. Trichotomists hold that the soul includes our intellect, emotions, and will and that our spirit relates to God. However the Bible also refers to the spirit as thinking and feeling and the soul as praying and worshipping. Examples of the former are “Jesus perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves” (Mark 2:8) and “Jesus was troubled in his spirit” (John 1:21) and of the latter are “I [Hannah] have been pouring out my soul before the LORD” (1 Samuel 1:15) and “To you, O LORD, I [David] lift up my soul” (Psalm 25:1).
Grudem opens and closes his presentation of the Biblical evidence for dichotomy by emphasizing the overall unity between body and soul. When God created man, He “formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7). When Jesus returns, our bodies will be raised and reunited with our souls/spirits to live with him forever (1 Corinthians 15:51-54).

Arguments for Trichotomy and Responses to Them:
Grudem presents seven arguments made by trichomists and then gives his responses to them. I’ll give his responses with the arguments.
1. 1 Thessalonians 5:23, “May your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” clearly speaks of three parts in man. Grudem suggests that Paul could be giving synonyms (“spirit” and “soul”) for emphasis as Jesus does in Mark 12:30, “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.” However, although in Mark 12:30 all four terms are synonymous, in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 “body” is clearly not synonymous with “spirit” and “soul,” suggesting that perhaps “spirit” and “soul” are also not synonymous.
2. Hebrews 4:12, “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,” clearly speaks of the separateness of the soul and the spirit. Grudem responds as he did to 1 Thessalonians 5:23 by suggesting that “soul” and “spirit” are just additional terms for our inner being rather than separate parts.
3. 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:4 identifies three kinds of people–“people of the flesh” (3:1), “the natural person” (2:14), and “the spiritual person” (2:15)–with “the natural person” and “the spiritual person” seeming to refer to Christians dominated, respectively, by the soul and by the spirit. Grudem responds that in the context “spiritual” seems to mean “guided by the Spirit” rather than “dominated by the spirit.”
4. 1 Corinthians 14:14, “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful,” implies that Paul’s mind does something different than his spirit does. Grudem argues that nothing in the passage suggests that Paul regards his spirit as different from his soul and that he could just as easily have said “my soul prays but my mind is unfruitful.”
5. Many trichotomists claim to have a spiritual perception of God that they know is different from ordinary thinking and feeling. Grudem concedes that Romans 8:16 confirms that we have a “spirit” within us with which we perceive God but argues that such passages as Luke 1:46-47 (quoted above) show that we could just as easily refer to it as our “soul.”
6. Some trichotomists argue that both humans and animals have a soul and that it is our having a spirit which makes us different from animals. Observing that our souls and bodies relate to God in ways that animals can’t, Grudem suggests that what makes us different from animals is the spiritual abilities that God gives our souls and bodies rather than a separate part called a “spirit.”
7. Trichotomists argue from Romans 8:10, “If Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness” (RSV), that when we become Christians are spirits become alive. Grudem cites such Bible verses as Deuteronomy 2:30, “the LORD your God hardened his [Sihon the king of Heshbon’s] spirit,” to show that unbelievers have a spirit and argues that in Romans 8:10 Paul means that when we become Christians we as whole persons become alive rather than that just one part of us becomes alive.

Although admitting that the arguments for trichotomy have some force, Grudem concludes that they aren’t strong enough to overcome the evidence given in “Biblical evidence for trichotomy” (above) that “soul” and “spirit” are often interchangeable and/or synonymous. He also hypothesizes that by identifying the spirit with relating to God and thinking of it as distinct from our intellect, emotions, and will trichotomists could come to rely on “spiritual” discernment rather than on Bible study for guidance. However he doesn’t give any evidence to support his hypothesis.

One of the questions which Grudem asks at the end of the chapter is which view the reader held before reading the chapter and which he or she held after reading it. Before reading the chapter I held the trichotomist view, but now I realize that there is Biblical evidence for each view.

Where Do Our Souls Come From?

Two views have been common in the history of the church–creationism and traducianism. Creationists believe that a person’s soul is created by God and sent to the person’s body sometime between conception and birth. Traducianists believe that a person’s soul is inherited from the person’s parents at conception.

Biblical evidence for creationism:
– “Children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Psalm 127:3).
– “The spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
– “God…gives breath to the people on it [the earth] and spirit to those who walk in it” (Isaiah 42:5).
– “the LORD…formed the spirit of man within him” (Zechariah 12:1).
– “the Father of spirits” (Hebrews 12:9), referring to God.

Biblical evidence for traducianism:
– “God created man in his own image…and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply,'” (Genesis 1:27-28).
– “He [Adam] fathered a son in his own likeness, after his own image” (Genesis 5:3).
– “Levi…was still in the loins of his ancestor [Abraham] when Melchisedek met him [Abraham]” (Hebrews 7:10).

Creationism accounts better for Jesus’s being born without sin, but traducianism accounts better for our being born in sin. If you’d like an explanation of the preceding statement, please ask for one in a comment on this post and I’ll give it in a reply to your request.

Louis Berkhof concludes: “The Bible makes no direct statement respecting the origin of the soul of man, except in the case of Adam. The few Scriptural passages that are adduced as favoring the one theory or the other, can hardly be called conclusive on either side. And because we have no clear teaching of Scripture on the point in question, it is necessary to speak with caution on the subject” (Berkhof, page 200; see the bibliography below). I agree.


Considerations in systematic theology textbooks that I found especially useful in my personal study of the constitution of man besides Chapter 23, “The Essential Nature of Man,” of Grudem’s Systematic Theology are:
– Berkhof, Louis. “The Constitutional Nature of Man.” Systematic Theology. Fourth edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939. Pages 191-201. Berkhof supports dichotomy and creationism. He provides surveys of views held in the history of the church.
– Strong, Augustus Hopkins. “Essential Elements of Human Nature” and “Origin of the Soul.” Systematic Theology. Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1907. Pages 483-497. Strong supports dichotomy and traducianism.
– Thiessen, Henry Clarence. “Man’s Psychological Constitution” and “The Origin of the Soul.” Lectures in Systematic Theology. Revised by Vernon D. Doerksen. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979. Pages 159-162 and 164-167. As observed above, Thiessen supports trichotomy and traducianism.


2 thoughts on “The Constitution of Man

  1. Allison

    I don’t remember ever hearing about the debate about how many parts there are to man. After reading your post and the examples from scripture, I can see a person taking either side.

    The debate over where our souls come is also new to me. I’d be interested in hearing more about both views.

    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      Thanks, Allison, for your comment. I’d encountered and thought about the debate over the number of parts there are to man before, but I don’t remember encountering or at least thinking about the debate over where our souls come from before. I’m still thinking about each.


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