Trichotomy or Dichotomy?

Ray Mayhew


The trichotomy (body/soul/spirit) dichotomy (body/soul) debate is an issue that I have not thought about for some time, but as a good friend recently asked me about it I thought I would make my (rapid) reply available to others who might be interested.


I have held to trichotomy simply because it seems pastorally more useful than dichotomy. However, I am not sure that the scriptures themselves set out to nail this one down definitively (hence it can be argued both ways).


To begin with, I think we need to ask the question “What are the significant theological/pastoral implications of having a “position” on this?” And if they are not significant do we even need to embrace a “position”?


I am not sure we can reduce the mystery of the human person neatly into two or three parts. In scripture it seems that we have a bagful of descriptive metaphors (as we do need some handles to talk about the capacities of the human person) but I think the constitution of creatures made in the image of God is not given to us comprehensively or definitively. Human personhood is a mystery (the analogue would be that divine personhood is a mystery just as the divine person is a mystery (of tri-unity). Not that I would in any way parallel the two as Augustine seems to do).


It seems that in scripture we have we have enough to talk intelligently about the human person, but not to comprehensively dissect him or her, simply because we are a body, soul, (and spirit?) unity that is somewhat indivisible. The Jews would not even enter such a debate as, to my knowledge, they have always affirmed the indivisibility of the human person.


After death and before the resurrection theologians struggle to speak about the human person as without a body it seems that we are not fully human, but that we do retain our personhood. We are given hints and metaphors that are hard to systematize. As it has been said, it seems that “God downloads our software to his hardware until we get some new hardware (at the resurrection) onto which he can install our software.


Using the construct of trichotomy I think it is obvious that we have the capacity to know and interact with the physical world (through the body). To know the non-material world, the capacities we usually put under “soul” (intellect, will, emotion etc.). And via our spirits to know and interact with the the spiritual or divine world. But having said that a person has these capacities, but we still don’t know what personhood is. It is a mystery.

There is agreement that we are made in the image of God but there is no agreement what this is. I think a fruitful way forward in the area of personhood has been pioneered by John Zizioulas in his book Being as Communion and a few quotes might help to reframe the debate.

He begins by affirming that God is God only as person (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and not as a divine essence or substance. In other words, there is no divine “substance” or “unknown” god lying behind the person of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “Divine substance, or essence” is that which supports and mediates divine personhood, but it is not prior to it (in other words, divine personhood did not “emerge” out of some divine essence). And in fact that divine substance has no meaning if you detach it from divine personhood (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

The same is true of man. He is an indivisible person (not a substance). The various pieces (body, soul, spirit etc.) only allow him to function as an integrated person—relating to both God, man, and the physical cosmos.

Therefore to try and analyze the “substance, or essence” of God or man is a mistake because God and man by definition are not “substances” but persons, and being persons means existing in relationship (for God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. and for man in communion with both God and humankind).

The danger is that we get fascinated by the constitution of man (how the body works, what the mind and soul are, and what the spirit is etc.) and forget that these are only the means of meditating personhood, and personhood is a mystery .

Therefore if God’s way of being a Trinitarian person is relational this means that personhood (not only for God, but for man made in his image) is not a “substance” but is something constituted relationally. Which, by the way, is why some scholars like to translate “righteousness” as “right-related-ness”, as it capture this relational dimension.

This is why if we are totally deprived of all relational contact personhood is damaged (as begins to happen towards the end of the movie Castaway) and when we occasionally read of a feral child who has been denied all human contact.

So personhood is a mystery. You are not a combination of parts. A combination of parts can make up a car but not a person! And not just a person, but a unique person of infinite value to God who can be known and valued via the capacities we might label as body, soul, and spirit. (But note that we have not yet even used the words “man’s nature” or “the heart” etc.). So when we welcome a friend we are not greeting a body, soul, and a spirit, but a person. The discreet parts are simply the means by which the mystery of the human person interacts with God and the other persons (and beings) in creation. And by the way, the teaching that your spirit is the “real” you is gnostic not Christian. It is no more the real “you” than your body is.

“The incarnation means that humanity (spirit, soul, and body) has been sanctified and subsumed into the godhead. And the fact that our bodies (not just our spirits) are temples of the Holy Spirit means that the human body is viewed by god as a worthy vessel of divine life.”


Much more could be said, but John Zizioulas says it much better than I can and his book is a superb resource to add to the trichotomy/dichotomy debate.