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4. Essential Nature of Humanity

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What is the essential nature of humans? We’ve considered that God made humans in his image, and therefore humans reflect God in a variety of ways. However, God does not have a body because he is spirit (John 4:24), so it is clear that God did not make humans exactly like him, especially in the essential components that make up their nature. There have been three prominent views on the essential nature of humans throughout history: trichotomy, dichotomy, and monism. We’ll consider each.

Trichotomy

Trichotomists believe that humans have three parts: body, soul, and spirit. The body is the material aspect of humanity. The soul and spirit combine to make up the immaterial aspect of humanity. The soul includes the intellect, emotions, will, and conscience. The spirit enables humans to interact with and worship God (John 4:24) and makes them different than animals, which do not have spirits. It is believed that before the fall, the human spirit was alive to God, but when the fall happened, the spirit died within humanity. Ephesians 2:1 says before humans are born again, we are “dead in our transgressions and sins.” Apart from salvation, humans are led by their soul or body instead of their spiritual nature, which is dead. However, when saved, the spirit in humanity is regenerated and therefore interacts with God and submits to him (cf. Rom 8:10 NASB). Some would even say the regenerated human spirit is perfect and sinless,1 while the soul must continually be renewed (Rom 12:2) and the body disciplined until the resurrection (1 Tim 4:7, 1 Cor 9:27). The primary verses used to support trichotomy are 1 Thessalonians 5:23, which says, “Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy and may your spirit and soul and body be kept entirely blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Also, Hebrews 4:12 says,

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart.

Certainly, these verses appear to support that humanity has three parts: a body, soul, and spirit. With that said, with further investigation, it seems clear that the soul and spirit are not distinguishable parts of the human constitution but terms that are generally used synonymously, which is one of the dichotomist’s primary arguments.

Dichotomy

Dichotomy has been the most held view throughout history.2 Dichotomists believe that humans only consist of two parts—a material and immaterial part called the body and soul or body and spirit. Genesis 2:7 describes how God made humans this way. It says, “The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” “Living being” can also be translated “living soul” (ASV). Many verses focus on these two essential parts of human nature—the material and the immaterial—as noted below.

Christ said this: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Matthew 10:28

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

James 2:26

… An unmarried woman or a virgin is concerned about the things of the Lord, to be holy both in body and spirit.

1 Corinthians 7:34

turn this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

1 Corinthians 5:5

Further support for humans being made in a complex unity of the material body and immaterial soul is the fact that at death, the body and soul are temporarily separated. The body returns to the ground while the spirit or soul goes to heaven until God eventually resurrects the body. Many verses support this. In Revelation 6:9, the disembodied souls of those martyred during the great tribulation cry out to God for justice. It says, “Now when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been violently killed because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had given.” Also, Hebrews 12:23 mentions “the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect” who continually worship God in heaven. And in 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul says, we “would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” When a person dies, the material body and the immaterial soul are separated until the resurrection.

Rebuttal of Trichotomy

How do dichotomists handle 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12 which describe the soul and spirit as separate but indivisible parts of the human constitution? (1) They would argue that the authors are simply piling up or combining terms for emphasis.3 Those verses are similar to Luke 10:27 and Matthew 22:37, which say, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” and “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Should heart, mind, and soul all be distinguished? In these verses, the emphasis is to love God with one’s entire being. Likewise, 1 Thessalonians 5:23 is simply a prayer for God to bless both the material and immaterial parts of a person, whether the immaterial is called spirit or soul. And Hebrews 4:12 is emphasizing how God’s Word can pierce the deepest parts. If someone wants to distinguish between “thoughts” and “intentions,” God’s Word can pierce that deep. And if someone wants to distinguish between the “soul” and the “spirit,” God’s Word can pierce that deep as well. The point is not that thoughts and intentions are distinguishable, nor are the soul and spirit. The point is God’s Word is more effective and revealing than we can imagine.

(2) In addition, as support for the soul and spirit being the same, dichotomists point out how the words are commonly used interchangeably throughout Scripture. Because of this, it is impossible to distinguish them or designate separate roles for them, as portions of a human’s immaterial part. For example, in Luke 1:46-47, Mary says, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior.” She is clearly using Hebrew parallelism—meaning the soul and spirit are the same. Essentially, she is saying her inner-being worships God. Likewise, Job used similar language for his discouragement. In Job 7:11, he said, “Therefore, I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” Also, as quoted previously, in Revelation 6:9 when describing the disembodied martyrs in heaven, they are called “souls,” but in Hebrews 12:23, they are called “spirits.” The terms spirit and soul are used synonymously throughout Scripture to describe the immaterial part of humans. They should not be distinguished.

As far as the trichotomists’ belief that the human spirit, which relates to God, died at the fall and is regenerated at salvation, it would be better to think of our whole being as dead in the sense of them being out of fellowship with God and not just our spirit (Eph 2:1). Also, Scripture never teaches that our spirits after salvation become pure. In fact, Scripture teaches the opposite. In 2 Corinthians 7:1, Paul said this: “Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that could defile the body and the spirit, and thus accomplish holiness out of reverence for God.” We are to cleanse both our bodies (actions) and spirits (wrong motives and thoughts) from sin in order to become holy and worship God as we should. Only after death or at the resurrection will our spirits become pure. As mentioned previously, in Hebrews 12:23, believers awaiting their resurrected bodies are called “the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect.” Likewise, there is no clear biblical support for animals being distinguished from humans because they don’t have a spirit. In Ecclesiastes 3:21 (ESV), Solomon said: “Who really knows if the human spirit ascends upward, and the animal’s spirit descends into the earth?” If the spirit refers to the immaterial portion of a being which includes the intellect and emotions, animals have that to various degrees, just like humans. What makes humans different than animals is that they are made in the image of God, they can interact with their Creator in the sense of worship and obedience, and their spirits will live eternally.

Monism

Monism teaches that humans consist of one element—the body. They believe that when Scripture uses the words body, soul, spirit, or flesh, they all refer to one’s whole being, not distinguishable parts of the human constitution.4 Often the fact that Hebrew thought viewed the body as a singular unity, unlike Greek thought which parsed up the body, is emphasized. Monists also believe that body and soul cannot be separated, and therefore, it is impossible to live in a disembodied, intermediate state.5 Though the focus on the unity of a person should be applauded, as that is the primary way Scripture describes people, this view has many contradictions with Scripture. Scripture teaches that though humans are a unity, they have material and immaterial aspects. When a person dies, their body and soul are conditionally separated until the resurrection (2 Cor 5:8, Heb 12:23, Rev 6:9, etc.). For these reasons, this view has never been popular amongst Christians.

Applications

What are some applications from considering the essential nature of humans?

1. Though humans have material and immaterial aspects to their nature, humans should be ministered to as a complex unity.

Yes, humans have a soul (including their intellect, will, emotions, and conscience) and a physical body, but these are unified. This means we cannot minister to one’s spiritual life and neglect the body, including things like diet, exercise, and rest. The body and spirit are connected. The body affects the spirit, and the spirit affects the body. Sin can lead to sickness (1 Cor 11:29-30) and experiencing sickness can make it easier to sin. A joyful disposition can lead to physical healing, while a depressed disposition can lead to sickness. Proverbs 17:22 says, “A cheerful heart brings good healing, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”

2. Because God created humans as complex unities, each aspect of their nature must be honored, cultivated, and used to glorify God.

It is possible to depreciate one aspect of human nature and exalt the other. To the Greeks, the body was evil, and the spirit was good. However, they are both essential parts of our nature, which God has given us and that we must cultivate. In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Paul said,

Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body.

Our bodies were purchased by God. He owns and indwells them; therefore, we must glorify God through them. Certainly, this includes maintaining good health, but also using our bodies to serve God and his people. Also, Romans 12:1-2 says,

Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice—alive, holy, and pleasing to God—which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.

We must present our bodies to God as sacrifices—being willing to do whatever he wants us to do, even if it hurts or is uncomfortable—and we must continually transform our minds through the study of Scripture and thinking on godly things (Phil 4:8-9). Each aspect of our being must be honored, cultivated, and used to glorify God. We should not cultivate our spirit and neglect our body, or cultivate our body and neglect our spirit. God created them both as a complex unity; therefore, we must honor God with our entire person.

Reflection

  1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
  2. What are the three views of the essential nature of humans and the biblical support for them?
  3. Which view do you believe is most biblical and why?
  4. What are some applications from the fact that God created humans as a complex unity, with a material and immaterial part?
  5. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown

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1 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 475). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

2 Aaron, Daryl. Understanding Theology in 15 Minutes a Day: How can I know God? Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

3 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (pp. 478–479). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

4 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. (Eds.). (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (p. 421). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

5 Erickson, M. J. (2001). Introducing Christian doctrine (2nd ed., p. 182). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Man (Anthropology)

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