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Tripartite dogma: spirit, soul, and body

(Garth D. Wiebe, Aug 2014, expanded and made separate entry April 2017, last edited Oct 2021)

I do not subscribe to tripartite dogma (man = 3 parts = spirit + soul + body). I usually don't go out of my way to challenge it, because I haven't really seen any particular harm come from it. I just don't see any such teaching in the Bible. Note: Just because I do not subscribe to the tripartite formula doesn't mean I am "bipartite" (believing that man is composed of two parts, spirit and body). Call me "non-partite," or "a-partite," or maybe even "anti-partite," if you want to make up another term, or maybe just call me a "stick in the mud," as the American saying goes.

The question is, why do we need to make up formulas where the Bible doesn't?

First, some definitions: The main issue is just with the word "soul" = "ψυχη" (Roman translit. "psuche" or "psyche") = "life," as in any/all aspects of the life you are living, not to be confused with "ζωη" (Roman translit. "zOE") = "life" = being "alive" (as opposed to "not alive" = "dead"), βιος (Roman translit. "bios"), which refers to a life form (as opposed to an inanimate object), and "πνευμα" (Roman translit. "pneu-ma") = hyper-literally "blow-effect," normally translated breath, wind, or spirit, where πνευμα as "spirit" is that within you that caused/causes/drives "the life you live." See Gen 2:7 (LXX), where it is the "life" that a man lives out as a result of God having breathed the breath of "life" (ζωη = aliveness) into the first man (and hence the rest of us, who are from his living body, his children, initially as seeds). ψυχη has become very religious and mystical, when it is not. It can mean just generically anything/everything, any/all aspects about your life and being, the "life you live," so is very broad in its meaning and application, and you have to look at the context to see how it is used in each place. ψυχη was also ascribed a religious meaning in ancient times by ancient Greek philosophy.

There are really only two proof-texts for the tripartite dogma. The first tripartite proof-text is Heb 4:12

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than every double-edged sword, and penetrating until the division of both ψυχης (life you are living) and of πνευματος (spirit), of both joints and marrow, and judge of feelings and of thoughts of the heart.
Well, that's actually only two things, but the essence of the proof-text is that the "spirit" and the "soul" are divided with a sword, for any bipartite people who might claim that they are one and the same. However, this does not teach tripartite dogma; in context, it teaches about how "the Word of God is..." There it says "sword," which is a weapon, as in, not "scissors" nor "kitchen knife" nor "X-Acto knife." So, the ψυχη, "life," there refers to the "life" that needs to be aggressively severed off, or slashed away, which would be our old life in Adam.

The second proof-text is 1 Thess 5:23. This mentions all three things, but it doesn't teach tripartite dogma either.

Yet may the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly, and may unimpaired of you, the πνευμα (spirit) and the ψυχη (life you are living) and the σωμα (body), blamelessly in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ be kept.
This speaks of God "sanctifying" and "preserving" us at the coming of the Lord Jesus. In that teaching, God is going to preserve our ψυχη, "life," there referring to our ολοκληρον (Roman translit. oloklEron"), our "unimpaired" life, (i.e. our life in Christ), αμεμπτως (Roman translit. "amemptOs") "blamelessly."

I think that's the sum total of the two "proof-texts" for tripartite theory. One other might be Gen 2:7, but there you have dust/soil/ground, breath (Hebrew נִשְׁמַ֣ת, Greek LXX πνοη = "pnoE" = "breath"), life (Hebrew חַיָּֽה, Greek LXX ζωη = "zOE" = "aliveness"), and life/soul (Hebrew לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ, Greek LXX ψυχη = "psuche," = "life"), so that would be four things, and notice that I myself am also using Gen 2:7 as a basis for the definitions, as well.

Notice that these aforementioned scriptures are scriptures talking about something else, from which tripartite theologians glean tripartite dogma from. But scripture never comes out and just says it like so:

Man is three parts: Spirit and soul and body
ανθρωπος εστιν τρεις μερη: πνευμα και ψυχη και σωμα
See how easy it is to just say that in English or Greek? But the scriptures don't say that. Tripartite theologians have to read it out of scriptures that are talking about something else, scriptures that could just come out and say, ανθρωπος εστιν τρεις μερη: πνευμα και ψυχη και σωμα, but don't.

The tripartite theory is contradicted by what Jesus said in Matt 16:24-26, Mark 8:34-37, and Luke 9:23-25, where we are supposed to destroy our ψυχη. If that is "soul" then we are to "destroy" our soul. And understand that the word is "destroy, utterly kill, demolish, or ruin" (απολεσει/απολεση, dictionary entry απολλυμι, see LSJ entry "ἀπόλλυμι"). But if it is our "life," as in the "life we are living," then it totally makes sense, since we are supposed to destroy our old life and live a new, changed life. Here are the three parallel passages, as literally as I can translate them, word for word, yet still be readable (Note: ψυχην is just the accusative case of ψυχη -- dictionary entries cite the nominative case of nouns):

Matt 16

24 then the jesus says to-the disciples of-same if any is-willing behind me to-come renounce sameself and lift the cross of-same and be-following me

25 for who ever may-be-willing the ψυχην of-same to-save will-be-destroying it yet who ever may-destroy the ψυχην of-same on-account of-me will-be-finding it

26 for what is-being-benefited [a] man if-suppose the whole world he-may-gain yet the ψυχην of-same he-may-be-forfeited or what will [a] man be-giving in-exchange of-the ψυχην of-same

Mark 8

34 and calling-toward the throng together to-the disciples of-same he-says to-them any-who is-willing behind of-me to-come renounce sameself and lift the cross of-same and be-following me

35 for who ever may-be-willing the ψυχην of-same to-save will-be-destroying it yet who ever should-destroy the ψυχην of-same on-account-of me and of-the good-news this-one will-be-saving it

36 for what shall-be-benefiting [a] man if-suppose he-may-gain the whole world and may-be-forfeited the ψυχην of-same

37 or what will [a] man be-giving in-exchange of-the ψυχην of-same

Luke 9

23 yet he-has-been-saying toward all if any is-willing behind me to-come renounce sameself and lift the cross of-same according-to [the] day and be-following me

24 for who ever may-be-willing the ψυχην of-same to-save will-be-destroying it yet who ever may-destroy the ψυχην of-same on-account of-me this-one will-be-saving it

25 for what is-being benefited [a] man gaining the whole world yet destroying or forfeiting sameself
There are many other contradictions to ψυχη categorically being rendered "soul," too many to go into. Look up the following references and you will see:

All of these passages work fine if you translate ψυχη as "life" (as in, the "life" you are living):

The last reference, Rev. 20:4, is also particularly significant, because we know that obviously the bodies of the martyrs were killed, not the "soul" of tripartite dogma. But, if you understand ψυχη as "the life they were living" then it makes perfect sense, since by killing their bodies the persecutors terminated the "life they were living."

A lot of people try to categorize and make up pat formulas, of which the tripartite formula is one, whereas I don't see the justification in the scriptures. There are words for body (σωμα, "soma"), flesh (σαρξ, "sarx"), πνευμα (traditionally, "spirit"), ψυχη (traditionally, "soul"), mind (νους, "nous"), heart (καρδια, "kardia"), and conscience (συνειδησις, "suneidEsis"). That's seven things that you could say man is "made up of" right there, if you wanted to. Or you could use Mark 12:30 for the formula and claim that it is four parts: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, through-mind/thinking (διανοια, "dianoia"), and strength (ισχυς, "ischus")." Or, use Acts 4:32 to say that there are two parts, heart (καρδια, "kardia") and ψυχη (traditionally, "soul"). Also, what about Acts 17:25, where God gives ζωη ("zOE") = "life" and πνοη ("pnoE") = "breath" to all? So, again, I don't really make it a point to confront and argue the popular tripartite dogma of man = 3 parts = spirit+soul+body. I just need to document here that it is based on some fairly obscure proof-texting. If that man-made tripartite formula works for you, then it's not worth fussing about that much. I haven't found that believing that formula either helps or causes any harm, just some confusion here and there. However, I've found that sticking to the original meanings of the words is less confusing in the long run, and when you don't read scripture through the tripartite filter, there is more clarity, because you aren't preconceiving and preconditioning what God may be saying to you through the scriptures according to extra-biblical religious dogma.

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