Bernard Chikoko from Tanzania writes:
Dear Pastor Confex,
Would you please help me to understand the difference between ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ from a biblical perspective. Thanks.
Thank you for your question. It is a good one!
Let me begin by highlighting that the Bible emphasizes on the unity of man. As a whole person man is to love and glorify God in whatever he does. However, Christians do differ on what constitutes man. Some believe that the Bible teaches that man is made up of body and soul. This in theology is called dichotomy view. Others believe the Bible teaches that man is made up of body, soul, and spirit. This in theology is called trichotomy view. Historically dichotomy has been the predominant view of the Church.
I hold to the dichotomy view because I see that the Bible uses the words “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably. In some cases, we read in the Bible that when a person dies his/her soul leaves the body (Gen. 35:18; Luke 12:10) while in other cases the same Bible tells us that when a person dies his/her spirit leaves the body (Eccl. 12:7; Luke 23:46). But there is no single verse in the Bible that says that when a person dies his/her soul and spirit together leave the body. Further, some verses speak of man as being made up of body and soul (Matt. 10:28) while others speak of man as being made up of body and spirit (James 2:26; 2 Cor. 7:1). The parallelism in Mary’s Magnificat (Song of Praise) in Luke 1:46, 47 is also worth noting: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (ESV). The words, “Soul” and “spirit” are here used interchangeably just like the words “the Lord” and “God my Savior.” This is abundant proof that “soul” and “spirit” are the one and same thing.
However, those who hold to trichotomy view often cite verses like 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12 to argue that man is made up of body, soul, and spirit. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 says, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (ESV). Hebrews 4:12 says, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (ESV).
In response to the argument that these two verses are teaching that man is made up of body, soul, and spirit I would say that 1 Thessalonians is using “spirit and soul and body” to emphasize the entirety of our being rather than teaching trichotomy view. This form of emphasis can also be seen in the words of Jesus Christ in Mark 12:30 in which he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (ESV). Jesus is not here teaching that man is made up of heart, soul, mind, and strength rather he is emphasizing that we must love God with all our being.
Similarly, Hebrews 4:12 is not teaching that the soul is different from the spirit rather it is emphasizing the power of God’s word to penetrate into the depths or innermost parts of our being and convict us of sin. This innermost part of our being is in this verse described or emphasized by using the terms, “soul,” “spirit,” “joint,” “marrow,” “thoughts,” and “intentions.” On a lighter note, if the sword of God’s word is able to divide “soul” and “spirit” then it would be more accurate to say it also divides “bone and marrow” rather than “joint and marrow.” But the author of Hebrews’ intention is not to distinguish two things that are different but to emphasize on the penetrating power of God’s word.
I hope this helps.
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