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Soul, Spirit, and Knowing God
By Gary F. Zeolla
Are the soul and spirit one or two immaterial parts of human beings? Part One of this article began to address this question by first looking at each position.
The belief that our immaterial nature consists of two parts is called trichotomy. It teaches humans are composed of body, soul, and spirit. The opposing position is known as dichotomy. It teaches "soul" and "spirit" are interchangeable terms for our one immaterial selves. Thus we possess a physical body and one immaterial part.
Watchman Nee and others were used as examples of the trichotomist position that teaches the intellect, volition (will), and emotions are contained in the soul. Whereas our intuition and dreams are experienced in our spirit. Furthermore, their position is communion with God occurs through the spirit, not the soul. It was then shown that this position led to an anti-intellectualism with regards to knowing God.
Other trichotomists divide up the human faculties differently. H.A. Ironside taught, "Soul is the natural life with all its capabilities of passions, emotions and instincts."(1) Meanwhile, "It is the spirit that thinks; it is the spirit that weighs evidence; the spirit is that part of man to which God, who is Himself a Spirit, communicates His mind."(2)
In this form of trichotomy the anti-intellectualism of Nee and other trichotomists is avoided. But Ironside's position is similar to theirs in that he divides up human faculties between the soul and spirit. And he still teaches communion with God occurs through the spirit, not the soul. In the dichotomist view, there is no such division of human faculties and all human faculties are involved in our knowing God.
Part One also showed that in English and in Hebrew and Greek, the words "soul" and "spirit" are generally used interchangeably. But what does the Bible teach?
Verses with Both Soul and Spirit
This subject will be investigated by looking at verses which contain both the words soul and spirit. There are six such verses that are relevant to this study.(3) One passage where soul is used in one verse and spirit in the next will also be looked at.
1 Sam 1:15:
And Hannah answered and said, "No, my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor intoxicating drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD." (4)
In both versions of the trichotomist position outlined above, it is said the soul is where emotions are experienced. But Hannah says she is experiencing the emotion of sorrow in her spirit. Trichotomists also teach it is in the spirit one relates to God. But Hannah says she is pouring out her soul before the LORD.
"Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul."
Job, like Hannah, is experiencing an emotion (in this case anguish) in his spirit. But more important is the structure of this verse. The Book of Job is included in the poetry section of the Bible. This is important because of a Hebrew poetic device know as Hebrew parallelism.
The New Geneva Study Bible (NGSB) explains this literary device, "The most prominent distinguishing feature of Hebrew poetry is the repetition of ideas, called parallelism. An idea is stated and then immediately expressed again in different words, with the same concepts of the two lines corresponding more or less closely."(5)
Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary elaborates:
The three main types of parallelism in biblical poetry are synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic.
Synonymous parallelism-- A parallel segment repeats an idea found in the previous segment. With this technique a kind of paraphrase is involved; line two restates the same thought found in line one, by using equivalent expressions [examples given are: Gen 4:23; Ps 2:4; 24:1-3; 51:2-3; 103:3,7-10; Jer. 17:10; Zech. 9:9].
Antithetic parallelism-- By means of this poetic construction, the thought of the first line is made clearer by contrast-- by the opposition expressed in the second line [examples given: Ps 1:6; 34:10; Prov 14:20]
Synthetic parallelism-- Also referred to as climactic or cumulative parallelism, this poetic construction expands the idea in line one by the idea in line two. In synthetic parallelism, therefore, there is an ascending (or descending) progression, a building up of thought, with each succeeding line adding to the first [example given: Ps 1:3].(6)
So when Job laments, "I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul" what form of parallelism is he using? Antithetic is easily ruled out as speak and complain, and anguish and bitterness are not antonyms.
It might be synthetic parallelism. "Complain" could be an expansion of "speak" and "anguish" can progress to "bitterness."(7) But in 10:1 Job repeats the second phrase, only this time he uses "speak" instead of "complain." So he seems to use the words interchangeably. And its hard to see how "soul" can an expansion of "spirit."
So the only option remaining is synonymous parallelism. Speak and complain are both means of vocalizing our feelings to others. Anguish and bitterness are both forms of severe emotional distress. Soul and spirit would then be where our emotions originate.
"With my soul I have desired You in the night, yes, by my spirit within me I will seek You early; for when Your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness."
Again, here is an example of Hebrew parallelism. It could be synthetic parallelism. Isaiah desires God at night and seeks Him in the morning. But then spirit would have to somehow be an expansion of soul (reversed from above).
A better option would be synonymous parallelism. "Desire" and "seek" would then be just different terms for expressing the need for God's presence, with "night" and "early" simply meaning "at all times." Then soul and spirit would both be a reference to where this need for God's presence originates. This viewpoint would eliminate the problem of how soul can be an expansion of spirit AND spirit be an expansion of soul.
Either way, once again, the soul is said to be relating to God in some manner, in this case by desiring Him.
And Mary said: "My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
This passage is a clear case of Hebrew parallelism of the synonymous variety.(8) This is easily seen by comparing the two sections, end to beginning. First, it should go without saying "the Lord" and "God my Savior" are referring to the one true Deity (Isa 43:10-12). (9)
Second, the Greek word for magnify is megaluno and includes the meaning, "to esteem highly, to extol, laud, celebrate." Meanwhile, the Greek word for "rejoice" is agalliao and means, "to exult, rejoice exceedingly, be exceeding glad."(10) So both words include the concept of joyful praise in God's presence.
So if "Lord" and "God" both refer to the one true Deity, and "magnify" and "rejoice" both refer to joyful praise in the presence of this Deity, then it would follow "soul" and "spirit" both refer to the place in humans where our joyful praise toward this Deity originates.
And note once again, Mary says she is experiencing emotions in both her soul and her spirit, and she is communing with God in both her soul and her spirit.
And so it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being [literally - soul]" The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.
The New King James Version (quoted above) takes "spirit" as a reference to the human spirit by not capitalizing the word. If this translation is correct then this verse is contrasting Adam's soul with Jesus' human spirit.
This contrast might have some relevancy here. But the uniqueness of Jesus would make a direct application difficult. Further, the main purpose of this verse is to contrast Adam and Jesus, not soul and spirit.
The Modern King James Version translates the verse somewhat differently, "'The first man, Adam, was made a living soul,' the last Adam was a life-giving Spirit."(11)
Here, "Spirit" (being capitalized) is taken as a reference to the Holy Spirit and not the human spirit. If this interpretation is correct then this verse is not relevant to this study.(12)
The two verses most commonly cited in support of trichotomy will now be looked at.
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Watchman Nee comments on this verse:
From this we can easily understand that the whole person comprises three parts. This verse also makes a distinction between spirit and soul; otherwise Paul would have said simply "your soul." Since God has distinguished the human spirit from the human soul, we conclude that man is composed of not two, but three parts: spirit, soul and body.(13)
But is Nee's conclusion a valid inference from this verse? A comparison will be made with other verses in the Bible which mention "parts" of human beings.
Moses declares in Deut 6:5, "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength." It appears Moses is also teaching a trichotomy of sorts. But notice that Moses' three parts are different from Paul's. Moses seems to be teaching we are composed of heart, soul, and strength.
Two of these "parts" Paul doesn't mention. So maybe heart and strength should be added to Paul's three making humans five-part beings (pentachotomy?).
2Kings 23:25 says about king Josiah, "Now before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses; nor after him did any arise like him."
Here the writer also appears to be teaching a kind of trichotomy. But he uses one new term - "might." So maybe this term needs to be added to the above five making humans six-part beings (hexachotomy?)
In Matt 22:37, Jesus appears to be referring to Deut 6:5. But He words it a little differently, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." So in addition to the above, "mind" now needs to be added making us seven-part beings (septachotomy?).
Interestingly, the next two times Jesus is recorded as repeating this command, He again words it differently, "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30; see also Luke 10:27).
All four of these terms have been mentioned previously; but why did Jesus go from a three to a four part description? Could it be that such descriptions are not meant to teach some kind of human anthropology. But instead, all Moses and Jesus are saying is we are to love God completely and the writer of 2Kings that Josiah turned to God completely.
In the same way, Paul could simply be praying for God to sanctify and preserve the Thessalonians completely.
The NGSB agrees with this interpretation:
your whole spirit, soul, and body. Three words are used to emphasize the wholeness of the perfection. "Spirit" and "soul" are used as virtual synonyms in the Bible for the spiritual component of a person. When the terms occur together (as here and in Heb 4:12) it is difficult to find any significant difference in meaning. Compare the fourfold representation of "heart," "soul," "mind," and "strength" in Mark 12:30. (14)
Lastly on 1Thes 5:23, several other terms are also used in Scripture to refer to our immaterial nature: Mind - literally kidneys (Ps 7:9); Inward parts (Ps 51:6); Inmost body - literally rooms of the belly (Prov 18:8); Bile - literally liver (Lam 2:11); Inner being (Isa 16:11); and Inward man (Eph 3:16). Should we be divided into all of these parts also?
For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
Nee comments, "The writer in this verse divides man's non-corporal element into two parts, 'soul and spirit.' Further, "And from this it follows that since soul and spirit can be divided, they must be different in nature. It is thus evident here that man is a composite of three parts."(15)
Ironside writes similarly, "Here we learn that God's Word distinguishes between soul and spirit."(16) But was it the original author's intent to teach such a division exists within us?
The NGSB comments on this verse:
division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow. Though some find here support for the view that a human being is basically a trichotomy consisting of body, soul, and spirit, the context is against it. It stresses the power of God's word to enter the deepest recesses of a person's being, not a sort of division into constitute parts. Also, if the idea of division were intended, we would expect the author to say "bone and marrow" instead of "joints and marrow."(17)
A little explanation on the last sentence might be helpful. The marrow is inside of the bone.(18) Meanwhile, the joint is, "A point of articulation between two or more bones, especially such a connection that allows motion."(19)
So the two are not directly connected so they cannot be divided in any literal sense. So the author cannot be using dividing "joints and marrow" as an illustration of dividing the soul and spirit.
John Gill elaborates further on this verse:
the apostle's meaning seems to be this, that whereas the soul and spirit are invisible, and the joints and marrow are covered and hid; so sharp and quick sighted, and so penetrating is the divine Word, that it reaches the most secret and hidden things of men: and this sense is confirmed by what follows.
"and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" - Christ knows what is in man; he is the searcher of the hearts, and the trier of the reins of the children of men; and this will be more apparent at the last day, when he will make manifest the counsels of the heart, and will critically inquire, and accurately judge of them.(20)
So by looking at the context (namely, the rest of the verse), it is seen that the point of Hebrews 4:12 is not to teach some kind of anthropology. Rather, the intent of the verse is to emphasize the power of God's Word and its ability to reach into even our unseen parts.
Reverend Kim Riddlebarger arrives at a similar conclusion; but he approaches the verse from a different angle:
In Hebrews 4:12, is its argued that the author makes a clear division between soul and spirit, implying that they cannot be synonymous. But John Murray contends that the verb used here - translated as "dividing" in the NIV - is never used elsewhere in Scripture in the sense of distinguishing between two different things, but is always used when distributing and dividing up the various aspects of the same thing (see Heb 2:4; Lk 11:17-18; Mt 27:35; Jn 19:24).(21)
The point is not that the Word separates two distinct things - soul from spirit - but that "the Word of God judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Heb 4:12). The Word does not divide soul from spirit, as though these were two distinct entities, but the Word does divide soul and spirit in the sense of penetrating our inner most parts.(22)
None of the verses studied above give support to the trichotomist claim that the soul and spirit are somehow two distinct immaterial entities. Further, the teaching of trichotomists that emotions are experienced solely in the soul while communion with God occurs only in the spirit was contradicted by the verses studied (see also Ps 143:3-8; John 12:27; 13:21).
Other verses teach that both the spirit and soul can have "wisdom." Hence, both have intellectual capabilities (Exod 28:3; Prov 24:14). And the spirit can "will" while the soul "chooses." Hence, both are capable of volition (Exod 35:21; Job 7:15). So the soul and the spirit are not "different in nature" as Nee claimed above.
Much more could be said on this subject. But this will have to suffice for now. There are two main points to this study. First, we cannot be separated into different immaterial parts with some of our faculties being placed in one part and other faculties in another part.
Reverend Riddlebarger writes, "As men and women, we are necessarily a body - the physical element of our nature, and we are also a soul/ spirit - an immaterial aspect described in the Bible as either soul or spirit. These two are united together as one person; as a psychosomatic unity."(23)
Second, and most importantly, our whole being, our intellect, volition, emotions, and intuition are involved in our knowing God (1Chron 28:9; Jer 24:7; John 4:24; 17:3).
For follow-ups to the above article, see Letters on Soul, Spirit, and Knowing God and Questions on Human Nature.
Footnotes: All Scripture references from: New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers,
1982, unless otherwise indicated.
1) Ironside, H.A. Death and Afterwards. (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, Inc., N/A.), p. 36.
2) Ibid., pp. 38,39.
3) Two additional verses also have both words (Isa 42:1; Matt 12:18). But in these verses the reference is to the Holy Spirit not the human spirit.
4) All verses quoted from the New King James Version., Copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson Inc. Copied from the PC Study Bible: Complete Reference Library. (Seattle: Biblesoft, 1996), unless otherwise indicated.
5) Sproul, R.C. ed. New Geneva Study Bible: NKJV. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), p. 752.
6) From Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary; Copyright (C) 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers. In PC Study Bible 2.1.
7) One definition for bitterness is, "Resulting from or expressive of severe grief, anguish, or disappointment: cried bitter tears." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from InfoSoft International, Inc. All rights reserved.
8) "A synonymous parallelism like that of the Psalms characterizes vv. 46b-47." Liefeld, Walter L. Luke in Expositor's Bible Commentary. Vol. (Grand Rapids: Regency, 1984), p. 835.
9) This should go without saying. But actually Mormons teach "God" refers to the Father and "Lord" refers to the Son (but see 1Kings 18:36-39).
10) Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon.
11) Modern King James Version, copyright 1962, 1990, 1993. Used by permission of the copyright holder, J.P. Green, Sr.
12) See the study note for 1Cor 15:45 in the NGSB for a good explanation of why the latter is probably the preferred interpretation.
13) Watchman Nee. The Spiritual Man, Vol. I, (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., 1968), pp. 21-22. Emphases in original.
14) Sproul, p. 1900.
15) Nee, p. 23. Emphasis in original.
16) Ironside, p. 41.
17) Sproul, p. 1939.
18)_ "The inner spaces of long bones, as those in the arms and legs, are filled with marrow, important in the formation of blood cells." The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1995 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
19) American Heritage® Dictionary.
20) John Gill's Expositor. In the Online Bible.
21) Murray, John. "Trichotomy." In Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol.2 (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1977), pp. 30-31.
22) Riddlebarger, Kim. Rev. "Trichotomy: A Beachhead for Gnostic Influences." In Modern Reformation, July/ August, 1995, p.24.
23) Riddlebarger, p.22.
Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light
Soul, Spirit, and Knowing God. Copyright © 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).
The above article was published in Darkness to Light
and posted on this website in 1996.
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