Is Humankind Two or Three Parts?

Are we body and soul? Or are we body, soul, and spirit? It’s not as clear-cut as most Renewalists believe.

Most Renewalists on TV (and in my acquaintance) believe in trichotomy (three parts or tripartite humanity), while a few who are not on TV or have not achieved widespread visibility believe in dichotomy (two parts or bipartite humanity).

Are the Scriptures clear about such tidy, compartmental divisions?

Old Testament

It was written Hebrew (and a little Aramaic), and here are key nouns.

1.. The noun basar (pronounced bah-sahr), and it is the soft tissue of any animal or the whole body. It is used 270 times. (There are other nouns for this idea, but this one is sufficient for our purposes.)

2.. The noun nephesh (pronounced neh-fehsh) can also mean body, but it is life-force, life generally (as distinct from death), breath (Gen. 2:7), and body and soul—together. A man does not only have soul, but he is a soul (Gen. 9:5). It can be translated as person (Lev. 4:2; Ezek. 18:20). He is a unit. It is used 757 times.

3.. The noun ruach (pronounced roo-ach, and the -ch- is said like the -ch- in Bach) has a variety of meanings, depending on the context: wind (Exod. 10:13, 19; 14:21; 2 Sam. 22:11); the general character of the individual or group, angelic beings (1 Sam. 16:15-16, 23; 18:10; 1 Kings 22:19); the Spirit of God is used 11 times (Is. 40:13; 42:1; 48:16; 63:11; Num. 11:17, 29). The ruach of God can give revelation (Num. 11:25; 1 Sam. 10:10; Neh. 9:30). It is used 378 times.

4.. The nouns leb (pronounced lehb) and lebab (pronounced leh-bab) can be translated as “heart” or “mind.” It is the seat of the emotions (1 Sam. 2:1), desire (Ps. 37:4), thought (Gen. 6:5, and decision (1 Chron. 12:38). “To say in his leb” can be translated “to think” (Ps. 35:25). Plans are made in the leb (Gen. 27:41). Leb is used 854 times and lebab 252 times.

New Testament

It is written in Greek, and here are key nouns.

1.. The noun sarx (pronounced sarx, and we get our word sarcasm from it, as in biting the flesh) literally means “flesh,” but it can be translated as “body.” It can also be translated as “sin nature” in a few contexts (Rom. 7:5, 18, 25; 8:3-13; 1 Cor. 5:5). This shows that the sin nature resides in our flesh or mammal natures. It is used 147 times.

2.. The noun sōma (pronounced soh-mah, and we get our word somatic from it) means “body,” in animals (Jas. 3:3), but mostly it is used for the human body in the NT (Matt. 5:29; 6:22; 26:12). Greek philosophy taught dualism, which says the connection between body and soul is looser, and sometimes we have to escape from the body by contemplation. In contrast, NT thought says they are closely connected, as a unit. However, we must distinguish body and soul in many doctrines. Our spirit-soul will live forever after we die by God sustaining it. And at the resurrection of the dead, we will have join up with a transformed body. We are called to keep the body holy and separated from the world’s pollution (1 Cor. 6:18-20), and not just the soul. This is the unity of the two. It is used 142 times.

3.. The noun psuchē (pronounced psoo-khay, and be sure to pronounce the -ps-, and we get our word psychology from it). It can be translated as “life, soul, person, mind.” It encompasses the whole person (1 Pet. 3:20; 2 Pet. 2:14). In Matt. 6:25 Jesus illustrates that both body and soul has needs together, as a unit. In Acts 20:10, Eutychus fell from a third story window, and Paul rushed down and prayed for him. “His life [psuchē] is still in him!” Eutychus was all right. Psuchē is also the seat of the emotions. Jews and Greek stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned the psuchē [minds] against the Christian brothers and sisters (Acts 14:2). The psuchē can rest, relax and be merry (Luke 12:19). It is used 103 times.

4.. The noun dianoia (pronounced dee-ah-noi-ah) means “mind, thought, understanding,” and it is more closely connected to the heart than the Greek version of mind. Jesus said to love the Lord with your minds (Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). In Mary’s song, God scatters the proud in their innermost thoughts (Luke 1:51). The mind can be seen positively, “prepared for action” (1 Pet. 1:13) and wholesome (2 Pet. 3:1), or “enlightened (1 John 5:20; cf. 1 Cor. 2:12; 2 Cor. 4:6; Eph. 4:17). Or it is negative “darkened” (Eph. 4:18), “hostile (Col. 1:21). Our thoughts can be located in our sinful nature (Eph. 2:3). It is used 12 times.

5.. The Greek noun nous (pronounced noose) also refers to “mind, intellect, understanding.” It initiates thoughts and attitudes. It is where spiritual development occurs. Believers can have “the mind” of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16. Jesus opens the mind and understanding of the disciples during his resurrection appearance (Luke 24:45). We speak an intelligible (mind-produced) words, as distinct from payer languages (1 Cor. 14:19). Paul encourages the believers to have the nous renewed (Rom. 12:2). Gentiles (unbelievers) engaged in futile thinking (Eph. 4:17), and believers can have a new mind (Eph. 4:23). Minds can be “depraved” or “corrupt” (Rom. 1:28; 1 Tim. 6:5; 2 Tim. 3:8), “puffed up” (Col. 2:18), or “unclean (Tit. 1:15). It is used 24 times.

6.. The noun pneuma (pronounced p’noo-mah, and be sure to pronounce the -p-; we get our word pneumatic from it). It can mean that which animates or gives life to the body (Matt. 27:50); the human spirit generally (Jas. 2:26); the part through which a person interacts with the spirit world, but best of all he can relate most intimately and immediately to God. It can mean evil spirits that come from the spirit world (Matt. 8:16; Luke 4:36; Acts 19:12-16). The noun can also refer to the Holy Spirit, but there are already many articles on him at this website (see the categories Spirit, Fruit, Gifts and also Triunity). This noun is used 379 times in all of these contexts.

7.. The noun kardia (pronounced kahr-dee-ah) and it is the seat of mental and emotional activities: thinking (Matt. 2:6, 8), grieving (John 16:6), rejoicing (John 16:22), desiring (Rom. 1:24), desiring (Rom. 1:24), understanding (Eph. 1:18), and deciding (2 Cor. 9:7). The center of the spiritual life is the heart: temptation (John 13:2), devotion (Luke 12:34), faith (Rom. 10:9), or doubt (Luke 24:38). Salvation is the matter of the heart (Rom. 10:9-10), but the heart cannot accomplish it on its own (Eph. 2:8). The Spirit resides in the kardia (2 Cor. 1:22; Gal. 4:6). The peace of Christ can rule in our hearts (Col. 3:15). It is used 156 times.

Conclusion from the Biblical Data

It is clear that the NT authors borrowed heavily from the OT. The nephesh and psuchē seem to be the same. The ruach and pneuma correspond to each other, and so do the leb and kardia. Many people see the parallels between “spirit” and “heart,” as synonyms, while others say that this can be expanded to “spirit,” “heart” and “soul” together, as synonyms. Nous in Greek corresponds to leb in Hebrew, because both mean “mind,” though leb can also mean “heart,” as we have seen.

The sarx and sōma relate to the basar, but sarx may have slightly differing nuance, if Paul develops the idea that the sin nature is in the flesh; otherwise they are the same.

It is misleading to mix and match these terms for the inner person in tidy and airtight categories.

Therefore it seems to me that we can at least make two divisions between the inner being (soul, spirit, heart) and the outer being (body or flesh). In our living, God wants all of it. In our dying, our spirit-soul-heart goes to be with him, while in our dying the body and flesh lie in the grave, until they too are resurrected.

Can we hold to the tripartite division with so many terms?

For and against Trichotomy and Dichotomy

We let two prominent theologians discuss this issue: J. Rodman Williams and Wayne Grudem. Both are technically dichotomists, but Prof. Williams seems to believe in trichotomy, or he argues for it strongly. In fact, it is difficult to pinpoint what Williams believes, so he will be considered a trichotomist for this post.

Prof. Williams asserts that the human spirit operates through the mind, will, and emotions (the soul), but they are not identical with any of them. The spirit of humankind is “the principle of the soul” (vol. 2, p. 212), but the soul is not identified with the spirit. He affirms that trichotomy goes in the right direction, but has a serious weakness, if it assumes that the soul is separable from the spirit and are made of different substances; they are not separable or made of different substances (vol. 1, p. 213 and note 64). However, in his view the soul is grounded in spirit, but is not a third part. Yet the spirit of man is his very essence (p. 212).

On the other side, division is possible. In the Magnificat, Mary cries out that her soul magnifies the Lord, and her spirit rejoices in God her Savior (Luke 1:46-47). The word of God can pierce to the division of the soul and spirit (Heb. 4:12).

Next, the soul is the conscious life, including a wide range of his intellectual, volitional, and emotional life. The mind can understand concepts, while the emotions rejoice in goodness and beauty. The will can put into practice the mind and go beyond instinct and the environment. The soul is the “kind of life man has” (p. 214, emphasis original). The concept of soul is very elusive. The soul is grounded in and lives out of the spirit. So when the body dies, spirit / soul lives on.

Prof. Williams seems to believe in this equation:

Spirit ≥ the soul

That is, the human spirit is equal to and yet greater than the soul.

Prof. Grudem believes that spirit and soul are identical. And when Scripture seems to separate and differentiate them (1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 4:12; 1 Cor. 2:14-3:4; 1 Cor. 14:14), Paul or the other authors are just being emphatic and complete. After all, we love the Lord our God with our heart and soul and mind (Matt. 22:37). It is not possible that these are different parts of humankind, as if he is now divided into parts beyond trichotomy, including a spirit (a tetrachotomy?). Paul and others are simply emphasizing the whole person, bringing all the various biblical terms together into one inner unit.

However, we can speak from our spirit (but not our minds) in prayer languages, and from our minds with our native languages (1 Cor. 14:14, 19). If the spirit can do things that the mind cannot, then they are not identical, but Prof. Grudem insists that nothing in 1 Cor. 14:14 suggests that the spirit is different from the soul. People assume this and place the mind in the soul category.

So Prof. Grudem seems to believe in this equation:

Spirit = the soul.

The human spirit is equal to and identical with the soul. He is a dichotomist.

Maybe we can compromise, because all the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation seem to affirm a deeper part of humanity, whether it is called the “spirit” or “heart” (see the Hebrew and Greek word studies in the Old Testament and New Testament, above). Thus, we can mentally believe in or assent to a set of doctrines, like God exists (Jas. 2:19), but we may not let salvation go into our hearts (Rom. 10:8-10).

However, it would be misguided to say the spirit and soul are different substances, as if the spirit is made of soft material like foam rubber, while the soul is made of steel or such like. The word substance has a long and unclear history in Christian thought.

Maybe an illustration on the unity of the inner being of a person can help.


This is the Well of Soul and Spirit:

The blue represents water: H2O. And the well is contained in the ground or body (we could make it more elaborate and picture stonework going down deep and holding the water). The ground or stonework (body) surrounds and contains the soul-spirit.

So the spirit and soul are made of the same (nonmaterial) substance, illustrated by the water. But the spirit is deeper than the soul. As the water in the deepest part of the well is still H2O, so is the soul near the top. In other words, Williams has caught the “spirit” of Scripture better than Grudem and others have.

Maybe this equation is clearer:

The spirit ↓= the soul

That is, the human spirit is deeper than the soul (and “deeper” is indicated by the downward arrow) and equal to and identical with the soul. This has the advantage of distinguishing them but without separating them into different substances. Both are H2O, so to speak (and I don’t know what the soul or spirit is made of!). In other words, the inner life of the person has depth, reflected in the terms soul / spirit, but he is not made of different substances. The only exception is the soul / spirit (same substance) and the body are different substances and have different properties.

Presumably, however, for strict dichotomists it should just read only “soul,” so for them the illustration is wrongheaded.

The other disadvantage of the illustration for some is that in Hebrew thought the body and soul are much more closely connected as a unit. That may be, but the New Testament teaches a distinction, because the body goes to the grave and decays, while the spirit / soul lives on. Acts 2:25-32 is clear on this point and quotes from the Old Testament.

25 David said about him:

“‘I saw the Lord always before me.
    Because he is at my right hand,
    I will not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest in hope,
27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
    you will not let your holy one see decay.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence.’

29 “Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. (Acts 2:25-32)


Here are two things that all theologians referenced at this website agree on:

1.. The spirit is also defiled by sin and is not perfect (2 Cor. 7:1; Ps. 51:10).

It is not true that the spirit is perfect when it is born again. This would present an untenable scene at judgment. God says to you, “I now set aside your spirit without judging it since it is morally perfect, but I judge only your sinful soul!”

2.. Both the unbeliever and believer have a living spirit.

The spirit in Sihon, king of Heshbon, rebelled against God (Deut. 2:30). Nebuchadnezzar’s spirit was sinfully and rebelliously proud (Dan. 5:20). Israel’s spirit was not faithful to God (Ps. 78:8). It is not as if an unbeliever has a dead spirit until he is born again, and a living soul whether he is born again or not. Both believer and unbeliever have a living soul / spirit (again the same for Prof. Grudem).

When Paul writes that our spirits are alive because of righteousness, he means alive to God, while before then we were living outside fellowship with God and were dead to him—we ignored him. It is not as if our spirits were deflated balloons until we were born again and then it was filled with air when we were born again.

Further, we were dead in our trespasses and sins without God (Eph. 2:1), but now we must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (Rom. 6:11). It is disjointed to conclude that our spirit was made alive, but our whole person is not a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). No, our inner being, whether soul and spirit or just soul, is a new creation.

We are a unit, and too many separations or placing the numerous terms in the Hebrew and Greek word studies in neat categories defy the unity of the inner person.

Where does our soul come from?

The answer is unclear. Some say the soul was passed on through the parents (Gen. 1:24), which is called traducianism (passing it on).

Others say God creates it (Ps. 139:13). This is called creationism.

So does God work by secondary causes (parents) or does he intervene and create a soul / spirit at some time in the womb? The Scriptures are not 100% clear, and maybe it is mysteriously a combination of both.

One thing is clear: the soul does not pre-exist and enter the baby, or else what happens to the soul if the parents never have a child? Pre-existentianism is not supported in Scripture. God foreknows people who will exist, not “floating” disembodied souls that never come into bodies.

Anything beyond this is speculation without any clarity. Don’t get involved in it.

How does this post help me grow in Christ?

You are fearfully and wonderfully made! You live in your body, and you are a soul. This post says we have even a deeper part of our inner life called the spirit, but the soul and spirit are not differing substances, but the spirit runs more deeply in you than just the mental faculties. You have a heart. You can believe with the heart or you can believe a set of truths with your head through notional agreement. You can say, “I believe in the resurrection of Jesus,” but has this truth penetrated your heart? That is, have you put your entire being in his hands by trusting in him, the resurrected Lord? Have you trust completely–spirit / soul– in him? Do so today.

Whether we are bipartite or tripartite, God wants all of us, spirit / soul and body. Your trust in him must encompass your whole being.


Word Study on Spirit, Soul, and Body


Works Cited

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s