Image/Identity: Are people made up of two or three parts?

Image/Identity: Are people made up of two or three parts?

While the Bible speaks of aspects of our humanity in various terms, it is not in as neat and tidy a manner as some would prefer. And in an effort to answer the question on which this section is based, a debate has ensued over what is called dichotomy and trichotomy.

Dichotomy teaches that we are basically two parts—that which is material and physical, and that which is immaterial and spiritual. Christian dichotomists note that the Bible does distinguish our existence into the two major groupings of material and immaterial1 and note that upon death we are only two parts that are separated until our resurrection.2 They also note that “soul” and “spirit” are terms the Bible often uses interchangeably.3

Trichotomy agrees with dichotomy, with a notable exception. Unlike the dichotomist who sees the spirit and soul as usually synonymous terms in the Bible, trichotomists say that we have a spirit with God-consciousness and a spiritual capacity through which we relate to God in addition to a soul with affections, desires, reason, emotions, will, and self-consciousness. Those Christians arguing for the trichotomist position do appeal to Scripture,4 do see places where a distinction is made between the spirit and soul,5 and do see that the Holy Spirit works with the human spirit.6

While this may all seem like a tertiary debate, it has profound implications for how we treat and care for people. For example, as pastors we frequently deal with hurting people and long to help them. But how are they best helped?

In “Dichotomy or Trichotomy? How the Doctrine of Man Shapes the Treatment of Depression,” Winston Smith notes how most Christian counselors take a threefold view of human nature; they see spirit, soul, and body as three constituents that need to be addressed by spiritual, psychological, and medical means, respectively.7 However, trichotomy is rooted more in Greek philosophy than biblical exegesis. The Bible emphasizes the fundamental unity of human nature in a “duplex” of inner and outer man, which “provides a more unified view of man . . . more psychologically accurate, and truer to human experience.”8

It is our conviction that the Bible reveals the aspects of our being according to the dichotomist view. Furthermore, we believe that it is best to minister out of the personal view, where we are dealing with a whole person, not merely aspects of someone. The personal view emphasizes the unity of a person so that his or her spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual, volitional, familial, and social existence coalesce to make one person. Therefore, to truly help people, particularly those who are hurting and suffering, we have to minister to the whole person.

Practically, this means that if someone has a chemical or hormonal imbalance that would benefit from medication or needs an operation for cancer, they should not be derided for not having enough faith, as if every issue is solely a spiritual issue. Conversely, sometimes people are depressed and struggling for spiritual, not physical, reasons; in these cases, rather then giving them a pill, we need to help them grow in the gospel and lovingly limp with them as empathetic friends.

Admittedly, the Bible is complicated when it speaks about the aspects of our being. But so are people and so is the help they need. Therefore, while the Bible may not be as clear as some systematicians would prefer, it is as perfectly and gloriously messy as life under the sun is; the Bible is thus more helpful than tidy systems that seek in vain to simplify the complexity of human life. Indeed, to truly help whole people, we must minister to the whole person since true spirituality encompasses all of our being.

We must minister to people physically by considering their health and diet and exercise, emotionally with love and compassion, intellectually by answering their questions biblically, volitionally by appealing to their will for obedience, familially by dealing with issues related to their family of origin and current family dynamics, as well as socially by dealing with the social network and interpersonal relationships both in and out of the church.

This is all necessary because the aspects of our being are not isolated but instead impinge upon and affect one another because we are whole persons. A woman struggling with serious depression serves as one example. As I spent time with her, it seemed possible that some of her trouble was physical (she had a long family history of clinically diagnosed depression and high rates of suicide), emotional (she was discouraged because loved ones had recently died, leaving her feeling alone), intellectual (she was struggling to understand how God related to her depression and wrongly assumed Christians were always supposed to be happy), volitional (she was not choosing to pray or read Scripture regularly), familial (she was hurting because her spouse had recently committed adultery), and social (she was hurting, as she had recently moved to our city from another state and thus lost close connection with her friends). For her, like most people, there is not one answer that addresses one aspect of her being but rather answers that address all the aspects of her being.

What area of your life are you currently struggling the most with? How does looking at that issue from a variety aspects of your humanity help you uncover a way to overcome it?

1Rom. 8:10; 1 Cor. 7:34.
2Eccles. 12:7; Matt. 10:28; Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59; James 2:26.
3Gen. 41:8; Ps. 42:6; Eccles. 12:7; Matt. 6:25; 20:28; 27:50; Luke 1:46–47; John 12:27; 13:21.
4Luke 1:46–47; Phil. 1:27; 1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 4:12.
5Matt. 20:28; 27:50.
6Rom. 8:16.
7See Winston Smith, “Dichotomy or Trichotomy? How the Doctrine of Man Shapes the Treatment of Depression,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 18, no. 3 (2000): 21–29.
8Ibid., 22.