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The Essence of Man

We’ve been working through the aspects of man.

We’ve basically done a bunch of lexical work (in both the OT and NT), showing how the biblical authors understood the nature of man.

The evidence has overwhelming been showing that man should be understood holistically. We’ve been stressing that point, and it is very important.

People have a tendency to view man in terms of his constituent parts (physical, spiritual, emotional, mental, etc). The result, is we, then, seek to deal with man in compartmentalized ways.

We make the assumption that the various issues which plague man, must therefore, be dealt with separate ways. But the biblical authors do not do this. Rather, they see man as having various aspects, not parts.

It is a subtle distinction, but an important one that has consequences and ramifications.

They understand man holistically, and therefore talk about man (and deal with man) in a holistic manner.

Today, we’ll finish out the the topic of anthropology by discussing some systematic issues of man’s essence and make-up.

Systematic Theological Issues:

Dichotomy or Trichotomy (is man body and soul/spirit, or body, soul, and spirit)?

“A view rather popular in conservative Protestant circles has been termed the ‘trichotomist’ view. It says that man is composed of three elements. The first element is the physical body. A physical nature is something man has in common with animals and plants. There is no difference in kind between man’s body and that of animals and plants. The difference is simply that of degree, as man has a more complex physical structure. The second part of man is the soul. This is the psychological element, the basis of reason, of emotion, of social interrelatedness and the like. Animals are thought to have a rudimentary soul. Possession of a soul is what distinguishes man and animals from the plants. While the soul of man is much more involved and capable than that of the animals, their souls are similar in kind. What really distinguishes man from the animals is not that he has a more complex and advanced soul, but that he possesses a third element, namely, a spirit. This religious element enables the human to perceive spiritual matters and respond to spiritual stimuli. It is the seat of the spiritual qualities of the individual, whereas the personality traits reside in the soul.

A goodly portion of trichotomism is indebted to ancient Greek metaphysics. Except for an occasional explicit reference, however, the influence of Greek philosophers is not readily present.” (Franz Delitzsch, A System of Biblical Psychology).

“Probably the most widely held view, through most of the history of Christian thought, has been the view that man is composed of two elements, a material aspect (the body), and an immaterial component (the soul of spirit)... Many of the arguments of dichotomism are, in essence, arguments against the trichotomist conception… The terms spirit and soul often seem to be used interchangeably. Note, for example, Luke 1:46-47, which is in all likelihood an example of parallelism: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.’ Here, the two terms seem virtually equivalent.

There are many other instances. The basic components of man are designated as body and soul in Matt 6:25, 10:28, but body and spirit in Ecclesiastes 12:7 and 1Cor. 5:3, 5. Death is described as giving up the soul (Gen. 35:18; 1Kg. 17:21; Acts 15:26, but as a giving up of the spirit (Ps. 31:5; Lk. 23:46).

At times, the word soul is used in such a way as to be synonymous with one’s self or life-- Matt. 6:25 - ‘For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life (psuche).’  There are also many references to being troubled in spirit (Gen. 41:8; Jn. 13:21), but also being troubled of soul (Ps. 42:6; Jn. 12:27).” (Ericson, ST).

*In other words, he’s essentially describing everything we spent the previous two episodes on. The bible interchangeably uses soul and spirit with the greatest of ease, and seemingly, without distinction.

- Dichotomy arguments -

The terms “soul” and “spirit” are often interchangeable when referring to the immaterial aspects of man. Essentially, they seem to speak of the same thing, but in different ways (aspectival): (1) “Soul” seems to be used with making a distinction between man’s immaterial aspect versus the material aspect of himself. (2) “Spirit” seems to be used to refer to the immaterial aspect of man in relation to the immaterial or spiritual realm.

Now, this sounds very close to the Trichotimist.

Remember, they say the soul is a reference to a person’s physical experience, whereas the spirit is a reference to the spiritual experience.

So they will say that this is what separates humans from animals. Animals can experience the physical, but they have no religious experience.

But this does not work, because when you examine the use of the terms, either can refer to the whole immaterial part of man (Matt. 10:28; 1Cor. 7:34).

Also, either word may designate the disembodied immaterial part of man (Acts 7:59; Rev. 6:9).

The Scriptures seem to teach that man has two basic elements-- the soul/spirit and the body (Gen. 2:7; 2Cor. 5:1-10).

Having said that, two aspects (or elements) do not authorize us to break man into parts that operate distinct from one another. They interact together in a seamless fashion that truly defies distinction.

“We have noted that in the OT, man is regarded as a unity… The pictures of man in Scripture seem to regard him, for the most part, as a unitary being. Seldom is his spiritual nature addressed independently of (or apart from) the body. Having said this, however, we must also recall those passages which point to an immaterial aspect of man which is separable from his material existence. Scripture indicates that there is an intermediate state involving personal conscious existence between death and resurrection. This concept of an intermediate state is not inconsistent with the doctrine of resurrection. For theintermediate (i.e., immaterial or disembodied) state is clearly incomplete or abnormal (2Cor. 5:2-4). In the coming resurrection, the person will receive a new or perfected body (1Cor. 15). The full range of the biblical data can best be accommodated by the view which we will term ‘conditional unity.’ According to this view, the normal state of man is as a materialized unitary being.” (Erickson, ST).

When you consider the various arguments of dichotomism, you’ll quickly discover that they are really just arguments against trichotomist. That does not make them wrong, just useful to understand.

However, when it comes to the trichotomist’s position, we would say that too much emphasis is made on select texts to push the position. In fact, just consider the following passages:

Mark 12:3 - “and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your mind, and with all your strength.”

This would require a quadrocotomy.

In that sense, the verse actually better fits the idea of a holistic (aspectival) approach.

Matt. 22:37 - “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.”

This creates a different trichotomy.

However, “body” is not even mentioned, so it could actually be easily argued that the body is an unspoken addition, making another quadrachotomy.

There are two passages commonly used to support a trichotomy position.

1 Thessalonians 5:23

“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The assumption, here, is that the separate enumeration of spirit, soul, and body demand that they be taken as separate entities.

But since the passage is concerned with the preservation of the whole man, it seems more reasonable to suppose that the piling up of the terms is for emphasis, rather than definition (Guthrie, NT Theology)-- Paul wants the whole man sanctified.

*Also, if you took a trichotomist position, it would imply that certain aspects of man can be sanctified, while others remain unsanctified.

So we’d say it’s nothing more than a figure of speech. Not too mention, you’d have to argue this verse in the face of the rest of the Scriptural evidence we showed in the previous two episodes.

Hebrews 4:12

“For the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

This would be the only passage left to argue for the Trichotomist position. So if you choose to view man as three (based on this passage alone), it would be in the face of the entire Scriptures.

Having said that, here’s why it doesn’t hold up:

There is no “between” in the Greek. So it’s not implying there is an actual distinction between the two.

Notice also, the passage is filled with couplets (living and active; soul and spirit; joints and marrow; thoughts and intentions).

This helps us understand what the author is doing-- He’s actually speaking in hyperbole.

He’s trying to show how powerful the Word of God truly is, in that it can even cut into those places for which there is no separation.

How do you distinguish between a thought and intention of a thought?

Before modern medicine, how do you separate a bone from it’s marrow?

So the entire point is to show that there is no true separation. Yet the Word of God is that unique reality that reveals that which is otherwise impossible to reveal. And that’s the point.

So it’s not a good argument for trichotomy. Rather, it simply makes the dichotomy position even stronger.

“Our author is not concerned to provide here a psychological or anatomical analysis of human constitution, but rather to describe in graphic terms the penetration of God’s Word to the innermost depth of man’s personality…. The point is that no separation could be more intimate than that between soul and spirit, or between joints and marrow…. The mention of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, then, serves to convey effectively the notion of the extreme power of penetration of the Word of God, to the very core of man’s being.” (P.E. Hughes, Commentary to the Hebrews).


“Concerning the imago metaphysically, Paul consistently infers that human nature is dichotomous. The person is a complex unity consisting of ‘spirit’ and ‘body,” and the inner and outer person. Two principle Pauline doctrines, namely, the doctrine of redemption and the intermediate state, establish dichotomy. According to Rom. 8:23, salvation in this life is applied to the outer self or the body. Phil. 1:22-24 attests Paul's longing to leave this earthly body (sarx) to be with Christ in the disembodied state.” (Lewis and Demarest, IT).

It’s important to train ourselves not to think of man in the sense of “parts.” Rather, it’s more biblical to see man from different ‘aspects.” These aspects do not create separations within man, but maintain the wholeness of man, and help us see how these aspects are all interrelated.

An example of this is seen in the realm of apologetical methodology. It is not uncommon for a person to affirms the total depravity of man as an absolute truth, and yet believe that through reationalitic arguments (or evidences) that a person can be persuaded to seek Christ. The way this is done is by making an unbiblical distinction between the heart (totally depraved) and the mind-- nothing more than a distinction between the soul and spirit.

The Origin of Man’s Immaterial Essence: Traducianism or Creationism?

“Creationism is the view that God creates a new soul for each person and sends it to that person’s body sometime between conception and birth. Traducianism on the other hand, holds that the soul, as well as the body, of a child are inherited from the baby’s mother and father at the time of conception. Both views have had numerous defenders in the history of the church, with creationism eventually becoming the prevailing view in the Roman Catholic Church. Luther was in favor of traducianism, while Calvin favored creationism. On the other hand, there are some later Calvinists theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and A.H. Strong who favored traducianism (as do most Lutherans today). Creationism has had many modern evangelical advocates as well.” (Grudem, ST).

Behind this, is the philosophical question that deals with the omniscience of God.

Essentially, the question arises as to whether our souls were in existence before the body.

The argument has been offered over the centuries that it’s almost impossible to distinguish between God’s eternal knowledge of each soul, and the pre-existence of that soul.

In other words, the fact that we’ve all been eternally known by God, did we not, then, essentially exist in His mind before we were conceived?

Again, this is philosophical, and so not all that helpful.

In the early church, Origen (184-253) began to teach the pre-existence of the soul.

“Origen held that the soul had been through many previous incarnations in which it had incurred sinfulness. His views were not very different from the transmigration doctrine of Plato and the Greeks in general…. The pre-existence theory has never been acceptable to orthodox Christian theologians. It is wholly absent from the Bible and quite inconsistent with the eschatological doctrines of eternal life or the eternal punishment of the individual.” (Buswell, ST).

Why care?

At one level, the issue has little to concern anyone. It’s merely a small point of theological debate for the sake of clarity. Yet, at another level, there are real questions related to original sin, and the holiness of God.

So does God create a sinful child because He creates each soul?

Does a person have the freedom to abort an unborn child because they are not yet in possession of a soul?

So while it’s a somewhat obscure conversation, it can have real life consequences.


Essentially, this is the idea that the spirit of a person is brought into existence through the natural process of procreation.

Direct Scriptural proof-texts: Gen. 5:3, 46:26; Jn. 1:13; Heb. 7:9-10.


ndirect Scriptural proof-texts:

Gen. 2:1-3; God rests on the 7th day. The point is that God has now ceased from creating. So any person now born, is born simply via natural process-- this includes the spirit/soul.

Ex. 20:11

Lk. 1:34-35; In the birth of Jesus, Joseph is not the Father. Rather, God is the Father. If Joseph was the Father, then the argument goes, that Jesus would have inherited a sinful soul/spirit. Again, the implication is that the spirit/soul is brought into being through the natural act of procreation.


This view states that the human parent creates the physical body, but God uniquely creates the spirit.

Scriptural proof-texts.

Ecc. 12:7

Isa. 57:16

Zech. 12:1

Heb. 12:9 - “Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subjected to the Father of spirits, and live?”

Berkouwer rightly observes, “It should not surprise us that nowhere in the Scripture is the origin of the soul spoken of as a separate theme…. It would seem to be undeniable that the Scriptural evidence called onto to support creationism is interpreted in terms of particular anthropological presuppositions…. [Regarding Heb. 12:9] the point of difference is not that God is the source of one ‘part’ of man, and earthly fathers the source of another ‘part,’ but rather that God is the Creator of life in His incomparable glory and majesty” (Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God).

When taking into account the Scriptural date, it seems that there are many references to God sovereignly overseeing the procreative process from start to finish of the whole man, rather than any one part (Ps. 119:73; 139: 13-16; Jer. 1:5; Gal. 1:15).

This issue has caused rifts in relationships between churches and individual believers. At times, harsh words have flown about, saying things that go well beyond what has actually been taught.

To hold to a Creationst position can cause a person to begin to develop an unbiblical dualism between spirit and body.

To hold to a Traducian position can lead to a rejection of the continuation of the image of God in man.

It seems best to see that the entire person is created/reproduced at conception.

Yet this doesn’t mean that only man is involved in that conception, a charge often leveled against the Traducian position. God is clearly , and intimately, involved in the opening and closing of wombs. In fact, He is infinitely involved in the entire creationing/fashioning of each person (c.f., Ps. 139:14 - “I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well.”).


So those are our thoughts.

This officially brings Theological Anthropology to a close.

We hope this has been of some help to you, and gives you a good place to begin thinking on these issues. It can be complex, sometimes heated, but nevertheless, a good conversation to have.

All thoughts, ideas, and theologies of Scriptures have consequences-- so it’s important to get them right.

Next time we’ll jump into hamartiology.


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