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What does the Bible say about the Soul?

Is it a tertium quid?

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Question:  Dr. Luginbill, Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I am a recent convert and was in the past an unbeliever. When I came to walk and talk with the Lord I was a "clean pallette". Unfettered by any man's doctrine, rote rituals, creeds, or oral traditions. And my very first act of faith before I started anything was to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. I have been studying for only 2 1/2 years, a spiritual babe on milk to be sure. But with the same scientific fervency I used to disprove the existence of God (what about the dinosaurs), I now use to prove the existence of God, His Son, and His Holy Spirit. Early on I fell onto your website thru a hyperlink off bible.ca. I have since read 95% of what you offer. Some things twice. I like your theory on the dinosaurs by the way and the Genesis Gap has absolutely floored me. I keep trying to find reasons not to believe you but your style of hermeneutics and word etymology get my vote. Here is my problem, I have an ongoing debate with a friend of mine about the Dichotomous verses Trichotomous nature of man. I have read what you have to say BUT how do I reconcile the following explanation on Spirit vs. Soul taken from an article on bible.org:

Soul and Spirit: The two entities SOUL and SPIRIT are carefully distinguished in both Old and New Testaments. The word SOUL translated from NEPHESH in Hebrew and PSYCHE in Greek represents the living principle of the body, and is shared by man and the animals. On the fifth day of creation, as God created animal life in the oceans, and birds, He designated them as having “life” (Gen. 1:20), or NEPHESH. On the sixth day, “Man became a living SOUL” (Gen. 2:7) as well. The soul refers to desires and appetites both of the flesh and the mind, perhaps summed up by the word “consciousness.” Plants, while alive in the biological sense, are not conscious (this may also be true for certain other “lower” organisms classified as animals by modern biology), and therefore not alive in the Biblical sense, nor does their death imply Biblical “death.”

The SPIRIT is quite different. God Himself “breathed into (man's) nostrils the breath (RUACH) of life” (Gen. 2:7), thereby imparting only to mankind some measure of His own spiritual nature. It is noteworthy, that while God identified as “Spirit” (John 4:24--Greek PNEUMA), nowhere is He identified as “soul.” He stands separate from mere beings, not driven by the same desires as animals and man. The spirit, then, is the recreated “image of God” (Gen. 1:27) in man, separating us from animals, while bonding us to God. This spiritual side makes possible an earthly life in tune with God and an eternal life as a son of God.

Anything you could say to help edify me and my friend would be appreciated. In Christ.

Response:  Good to make your acquaintance. I am very happy indeed to hear that you have found these materials to be useful, and am glad to have a chance to try and answer your question. The difference between the dichotomy and trichotomy positions is one of those things that seems at first glance to be of no particular import in understanding the truth of scripture overall. However, I have found many, many times in my life that often our proper, biblical understanding of any point of scripture is inevitably conditioned by everything else we know (or think we know) and believe about what the Bible says.

D.F. Wells has lamented over the state of theological learning in this country, comparing the collective evangelical understanding of the truths of scripture to the flight of a falcon circling farther and farther out from the center with every cycle. Long before I ever heard this analogy it seemed to me that what those of us who in deadly earnest are trying to know the whole truth of scripture ought to be doing is circling ever closer to that perfect center with ever cycle, putting our shoulders to the work and leaning in until we arrive at the goal, individually and collectively. Where I disagree first and foremost with Dr. Wells is in his remedy of returning to "confessionalism", that is, of essentially enshrining an understanding of biblical principles once and for all without the need to defend them on the merits. This characterization is, it is true, not at all the way that he and others would put it, but to my mind that is the effect. For example, on this issue of di- vs. tri- I would only need direct you to a confessional statement that proclaimed one side or the other and that would be the end of the story. Case in point, my background is "trichotomy", and dichotomy is a position I was led to precisely by investigating what scripture actually has to say. And I can honestly say that switching has opened up scriptures on a number of other issues which otherwise would have been muddled. Let me start with what a couple of statements from our Lord wherein we may see the essential dichotomy between flesh and spirit:

The Spirit is what gives life. The flesh doesn't benefit you at all. The words which I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.
John 6:63

The spirit is eager (i.e., to do God's will), but the flesh is weak (i.e., so as not to follow through).
Matthew 26:41

Both of these verses are easy enough to understand, even without exegesis. But where would a "soul" fit in here if it were a tertium quid, that is, a completely separate entity? It is impossible in these and most other passages to work in the idea of a "soul" as a third party in any understandable way, and attempting to do so usually requires some very convoluted and verbose explanations which are difficult if not impossible to understand - unless, of course, when the person says "soul" he/she really means "spirit" (consciously or unconsciously). That is really at the heart of the problem for trichotomists as I think can be seen from the selections you quote in your e-mail where one can clearly see the author struggling to explain a distinction which does not “feel right” prima facie.

No one can even really imagine or find any convincing basis in scripture for a system of thought that has two internal, non-material, independent entities within us. That is not the way we think, not the way we perceive our internal experience, and, more to the point, not the way scripture ever represents things. There is an internal struggle in Man, but that is between the flesh and the "who we really are inside" part of us. Until a person can say in good faith and explain in a straightforward way how, in addition to the draw of the flesh, there are somehow two of you inside with functions that can somehow be distinguished, trichotomy is merely a curiosity, at least in practical terms. In terms of interpretation of scripture, it can do a lot of damage, not in the least because it clouds the point of responsibility. So much of what scripture has to say is dichotomous when it comes to our choices as human beings: light and darkness, life and death, right and wrong, good and evil, the one way or the "other" way, God or the devil . . . the spirit or the flesh.

The problem is that life is not all "black and white" in this world of corruption and body of corruption in which we live. We still have a fight to fight once we are saved, and the battleground on which we fight it is "the soul", that is, not some third entity, but the place where the only two discrete entities of our nature, spirit and body, intersect. The "soul" is our internal, whole person of body-spirit at once, and it is conflicted because our perfect spirit interacts with and can at this point only express itself through the corrupt, mortal body we now occupy (leading to the struggle we all face on this internal battleground). Search the scripture and see, there is hardly a passage where the Greek word psyche and the Hebrew word nephesh (the words your selection pasted in above calls “soul”) cannot be translated in this fashion, namely as "heart" or "mind" or "person" or "inclination" or "appetite" or any one of a number of words that express not a unique, separate entity of our nature, but instead the intent, the thinking and the emotion of the whole person. The “soul”, then, in purely biblical terms, is the “whole internal person”, the “who we are inside” as our spirit and body interact. But there are no passages in scripture as far as I am aware where it is crystal clear that this supposedly independent "soul" must be a true tertium quid, that is, a truly independent and completely immaterial entity with its own discrete existence. There simply is no such thing, and attempting to “jimmy” some third part into our biblical nature only results in theological confusion and misunderstanding.

I will try to respond briefly to the comments you include. Let me start by saying that much of the burden we are suffering under here was placed on our backs by medieval theologians who were very much influenced by Greek and Roman philosophy. Latin, for example, does distinguish between the anima or life principle and the animus or mind. Neither concept as it is to be understood in secular pre-Church Latin, I hasten to add, is either identical with or easily transferable to either the biblical spirit or the soul (whether one understands "soul" in trichotomist or dichotomist terms). Therefore these words and the specific and variable "takes" on them in the Latin fathers are hardly persuasive arguments for those who feel strongly that it is what the Bible says that counts.

In the quote you include, there is much that I would agree with for, to my mind, it proves what I would say is the biblical position of dichotomy where the "soul" is a biblical way of expressing the living person who is a combination of spirit and body (rather than a separate entity in its own right). When the author says that "soul" is the "living principle", this takes matters way too far (i.e., this harkens back to the anima vs. animus distinction treated above). I don't ever remember reading about this "living principle" in scripture (but it is a distinction sometimes made in ancient secular philosophy). The Genesis passage quoted states that the animals created by God actually had life. That is, they have spirits which animate their flesh like we do (although there is a quintessentially qualitative difference when we are speaking of the human spirit). The implication from your quote is that we have a spirit and soul, but animals only have a soul, not a spirit, but that is to misread the essential dichotomy of all of God's animate creation:

Who knows whether a man's spirit rises upward or whether the spirit of the beasts goes down to the earth below?
Ecclesiastes 3:21

Animals are here said to have spirits (in both cases above the word in Hebrew is ruach), and so, of course, do we. The soul, on the other hand, or nephesh, is not something we have but something we "are" (i.e., it is a synonym for the "us" that occurs when the spirit animates our physical bodies). It is not the case that in Genesis 1:20 God gave animals a nephesh, but in fact the Hebrew says very clearly that they are "nephesh chayah", living beings, and the language is exactly the same as that used for Adam in Genesis 2:7. When God breathes in the spirit, the "breath of life", Adam also becomes a nephesh chayah, that is, a "living being", just as the animals are "living beings", just as we at birth receive a human spirit which animates our flesh and quickens us. Since the phraseology is identical in the Hebrew, in both cases it is very clear that nephesh chayah is something we are, not something we have. Q.E.D., the "soul" is not a separate entity, but rather it is the result of the interface between body and spirit, the inner consciousness where the battle between sin nature and human spirit is played out.

In general, there is much about the passage you include for critique that is true and not at all incorrect. The problem, the danger, is when in spite of understanding the essentially dichotomous nature of Man (at least in the nuts and bolts of discussion) it comes across as if there are three elements, all separate, all self-contained. That is not at all the case, and this notion has led to much confusion in the interpretation of scripture.

I will not rehearse the entire argument on this for you here (or that of the image and likeness of God - another long debate) since I have it on-line for you in excruciating detail (as you may already be well aware). Please see these links:

        The Dichotomy of Man (from Basics 3A)

        The Dichotomous Nature of Man (from Satanic Rebellion #3)

        Is the Nature of Man Trichotomous?

        Is Man trichotomous, and does that mean that salvation is three-tiered?

Biblical Anthropology I: The Nature of Human Beings and Human Life according to the Bible.

The Soul vs. the Human Spirit

At any rate, I hope this will prove useful for you and your friend. Please feel free to write me back any time on this or any other biblical topic.

In Him who is the truth, the way, and the life, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob Luginbill


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