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Soul, Spirit, and Knowing God
By Gary F. Zeolla
Christians generally believe there is a part of us which is distinct from our material bodies. However, there is disagreement within the Christian community as to whether our immaterial nature consists of one part or two.
The belief that our immaterial nature consists of two parts is called trichotomy. It teaches that humans are composed of body, soul, and spirit. The opposing position is known as dichotomy. It teaches that soul and spirit are interchangeable terms for our one immaterial selves. So the only distinction is between our material selves (our bodies) and our immaterial selves (our souls/ spirits).
But which position is correct? The answer to this question is important. What one believes about the relationship of the human soul and spirit will affect what one believes is involved in knowing God. This will become apparent by looking at the distinction trichotomists make between the soul and the spirit.
Does Our Intellect Matter?
Watchman Nee (1930-1972) was an influential preacher whose ideas still influence the Church today. His position is a good example of trichotomy.
Nee writes, "That the body is man's outward sheath is undoubtedly correct, but the Bible never confuses the spirit and soul as though they were the same. Not only are they different in terms; their very natures differ from each other."(1)
And what are these different natures? Nee teaches, "... the soul is the site of personality. The will, intellect and emotions of man are there."(2) And further, "The elements which make us human belong to the soul. Intellect, thought, ideals, love, emotion, discernment, choice, decision, etc., are but experiences of the soul."(3)
As for the spirit, Nee writes, "... EVERY communication of God with man occurs there." And Nee teaches the spirit has three main functions: "conscience, intuition and communion." These three functions are then defined as:
"The conscience is the discerning organ which distinguishes right and wrong; NOT, however, THROUGH THE INFLUENCE OF KNOWLEDGE stored in the mind but rather by a spontaneous direct judgment...."
Intuition is the sensing organ of the human spirit.... that knowledge which comes to us WITHOUT ANY HELP FROM THE MIND, emotion or volition comes intuitively...."
Communion is worshiping God. The organs of the soul are incompetent to worship God. GOD IS NOT APPREHENDED BY OUR THOUGHTS, feelings or intentions, for He can only be known directly in our spirits...(4)
The trichotomist position is also seen in the New Unger's Bible Dictionary. Its entry for "spirit" states, "The term soul specifies that in the immaterial part of man that concerns life, action, and emotion. Spirit is that part related to worship and divine communion."(5)
The idea of there being a distinction between soul and spirit is also promoted on the Internet. A posting on an Internet Newsgroup says:
Man was originally designed to commune with God through the spirit. That spirit in man would in turn put soul and body into subjection through obedience to God. The supernatural wisdom and power flowing from God would enter into the spirit of man and empower man to serve God.... The human has a spirit, a soul, and a body of flesh. Various things make up the soul, such as mind, will and emotions.(6)
And a World Wide Web page states, "Man is a soul being which contains a spirit. The soul is the center of: person, life, emotion, desires & appetites.... Through the spirit in us, we can glorify & worship God in spirit. God sends the spirit."(7)
Summing up, these trichotomists teach that the soul is where our emotions, will, and thought reside. But the soul (and thus these attributes) is not involved in knowing God. It is only through the spirit that God is known. But how does the spirit come to know God?
Nee says, "Intuition is related to communion or worship in that GOD IS KNOWN BY MAN INTUITIVELY and reveals His will to man in the intuition...."(8) But what is "intuition?"
The American Heritage Dictionary's definition is: "In·tu·i·tion (īn“t”-īsh¹en, -ty”-) noun. 1. a. The act or faculty of knowing or sensing WITHOUT THE USE OF RATIONAL PROCESSES; immediate cognition.... b. Knowledge gained by the use of this faculty; a perceptive insight. 2. A sense of something not evident or deducible; an impression."(9)
The Newsgroup posting gives a somewhat similar view:
The spirit will see things in another dimension and relate those things back to our soul through the brain. The brain will store this information in a place that we call the unconscious part of the mind. Sometimes our brain will let this information slip to the conscious side of our hemisphere and we will see what our spirit is seeing through what seems to us as a dream or lucid dream.(10)
So in the trichotomist position, knowledge of God comes into us through some kind of "direct" route, either through intuition or dreams. Either way, it is clear that in this position our conscious, thinking processes are not involved in knowing God. And this anti-intellectualism is a direct result of the trichotomist position.
Meanwhile, in the dichotomist view, the intellect (along with all of the other faculties mentioned above for both the soul and the spirit) would be involved in knowing God. So the question is, do we know God solely through some kind of non-conscious intuition or dreams, or does knowing God involve all of our faculties, including the intellect?
The way to answer this question is to look further at the relationship of the soul and the spirit.
Definitions of Soul and Spirit
The next step in this study will be to look at the definitions of the words soul and spirit. First to be looked at will be the definitions found in an English dictionary. Following are the possible definitions which are relevant to this study from The American Heritage Dictionary:
soul (sol) noun
1. The animating and vital principle in human beings, credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion and often conceived as an immaterial entity.
2. The spiritual nature of human beings, regarded as immortal, separable from the body at death, and susceptible to happiness or misery in a future state.
3. The disembodied spirit of a dead human being; a shade....
5. A human being: "the homes of some nine hundred souls" (Garrison Keillor).
6. The central or integral part; the vital core: "It saddens me that this network . . . may lose its soul, which is after all the quest for news" (M. Kalb).
spir·it (spīr¹īt) noun
1. a. The vital principle or animating force within living beings. b. Incorporeal consciousness....
2. The soul, considered as departing from the body of a person at death.
6. a. The part of a human being associated with the mind, will, and feelings: Though unable to join us today, they are with us in spirit. b. The essential nature of a person or group.
7. A person as characterized by a stated quality: He is a proud spirit.(11)
A comparison of these definitions will show many similarities. The most important to this discussion is the first definition for the soul where it is said to be "credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion" and the sixth definition for the spirit where the it is said to be, "associated with the mind, will, and feelings."
And note that the definition for soul uses the word spirit (#3); and the definition for spirit uses the word soul (#2).
In addition, a quick check of Roget's Thesaurus shows one of the synonyms given for soul is spirit; and one of the synonyms given for spirit is soul.(12) So in popular usage, the words soul and spirit are interchangeable.
Hebrew and Greek Lexicons:
The next area to study is how Hebrew and Greek lexicons define the meanings of the original words that soul and spirit translate. Below are the relevant portions for these words taken from Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew Aramaic Lexicon and Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon. First, the Hebrew words for soul (nephesh) and spirit (ruach):
1) soul, self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, passion
1a) that which breathes, the breathing substance or being, soul, the inner being of man
1b) living being
1c) living being (with life in the blood)
1d) the man himself, self, person or individual
1e) seat of the appetites
1f) seat of emotions and passions
1) wind, breath, mind, spirit
1c) spirit (as that which breathes quickly in animation or agitation)
1c1) spirit, animation, vivacity, vigour
1c3) temper, anger
1c4) impatience, patience
1c5) spirit, disposition (as troubled, bitter, discontented)
1c6) disposition (of various kinds), unaccountable or uncontrollable impulse
1d) spirit (of the living, breathing being in man and animals)
1d1) as gift, preserved by God, God's spirit, departing at death, disembodied being
1e) spirit (as seat of emotion)
1e2) sorrow, trouble
1f1) as seat or organ of mental acts
1f2) rarely of the will
1f3) as seat especially of moral character(13)
So in Hebrew "soul" refers to "that which breathes" and to the mind, desire, and emotions. And "spirit" refers to "that which breathes" and the part of us which experiences emotions and is responsible for "mental acts."
Now the Greek words for soul (psuche) and spirit (pneuma):
1a) the breath of life
1a1) the vital force which animates the body and shows itself in breathing
1a1a) of animals
1a12) of men
1c) that in which there is life
1c1) a living being, a living soul
2) the soul
2a) the seat of the feelings, desires, affections, aversions (our heart, soul etc.)
2b) the (human) soul in so far as it is constituted that by the right use of the aids offered it by God it can attain its highest end and secure eternal blessedness, the soul regarded as a moral being designed for everlasting life
2c) the soul as an essence which differs from the body and is not dissolved by death....
2) the spirit, i.e. the vital principal by which the body is animated
2a) the rational spirit, the power by which the human being feels, thinks, decides
2b) the soul
3) a spirit, i.e. a simple essence, devoid of all or at least all grosser matter, and possessed of the power of knowing, desiring, deciding, and acting
3a) a life giving spirit
3b) a human soul that has left the body
4) the disposition or influence which fills and governs the soul of any one
4a) the efficient source of any power, affection, emotion, desire, etc.(14)
Thus in Greek "soul" refers to the animating principle which feels, desires, and can attain everlasting life with God. And "spirit" is also the animating principle which feels, thinks, and decides. And notice once again, the use of the word soul to define spirit (twice in fact: 2b,3b). Only #4 for spirit gives so much as a hint the two might be distinct.
Summing up, overall the definitions of the English words and lexical entries for the Hebrew and Greek words indicate that "soul" and "spirit" are interchangeable terms, with common characteristics ascribed to both.
Back to Unger's
One of the examples of the trichotomist position quoted previously came from the New Unger's Bible Dictionary. Its entries for soul and spirit will now be studied in depth. Below are the relevant portions from both entries:
SOUL: (generally the rendering of Heb. nephesh, a "breathing" creature; Gk. psuche, "breath," etc., the equivalent of nephesh). The Heb. term may indicate not only the entire inner nature of man, but also his entire personality, i.e., all that pertains to the person of man; in the sense of person; somebody, everybody (Deut. 26:16; cf. Josh. 11:11,14)....
The Gk. term psuche has the simple meaning of life (Matt. 6:25; Luke 12:22); that in which there is life, a living being (1Cor. 15:45); every soul, i.e., every one (Acts 3:23). It also has the meaning of the seat of the feelings, desires, affections, aversions (our soul, heart, etc.; RV [Revised Version] almost uniformly soul); the human soul, insofar as it is so constituted that, by the right use of aids offered it by God, it can attain its highest end and secure eternal blessedness; the soul regarded as a moral being designed for everlasting life (3John 2; Heb. 13:17; James 1:21; 5:20; 1Pet. 1:9). Another meaning of psuche is the soul as an essence that differs from the body and is not dissolved by death (Matt. 10:28); the soul freed from the body, a disembodied soul (Acts 2:27; Rev. 20:4).
SPIRIT: (Heb. ruach, "breath, wind"; Gk. pneuma, "wind, breath," the "vital principle," etc.). A term used in the Scriptures generally to denote purely spiritual beings; also the spiritual, immortal part in man. Other terms (nephesh; psuche) refer to the animal soul or life of man, though it seems evident that these words are also used frequently in a broader and deeper sense with reference to man's spiritual nature (Gen. 2:7; Ps. 42:2; Matt. 10:28; 11:29)....
There are, however, passages (such as 1Thes. 5:23; Heb. 4:12) that emphasize a distinction between soul and spirit.
The term soul specifies that in the immaterial part of man that concerns life, action, and emotion. Spirit is that part related to worship and divine communion. The two terms are often used interchangeably, the same functions being ascribed to each....
However, soul and spirit are not always employed interchangeably. The soul is said to be lost, for example, but not the spirit [Mt 16:26; Mk 8:36]. When no technical distinctions are set forth, the Bible is dichotomous, but otherwise it is trichotomist (cf. Matt. 10:28; Acts 2:31; Rom. 8:10; Eph. 4:4; James 2:26; 1Pet. 2:11).(15)
The first two sentences of the third paragraph in the second entry were quoted near the beginning of this article. But note the sentence that follows, "The two terms are often used interchangeably, the same functions being ascribed to each." An interesting admission.
However, the articles also claim there are "passages that emphasize a distinction between soul and spirit " and says the terms "are not always employed interchangeably." But notice that only two Scripture references are given "that emphasize a distinction" and only one example of where the terms are not used interchangeably.
The last paragraph of the second article seems to be saying that if read casually the Bible appears to teach dichotomy. But if studied carefully, it is trichotomist. This interesting claim is investigated in Part Two of this article.
1Watchman Nee. The Spiritual Man, Vol. I, (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., 1968), p. 21.
3Ibid., p. 35.
4Ibid., p. 31, 32. Italics in original. Capitalization added.
5from New Unger's Bible Dictionary; originally published by Moody Press of Chicago, Illinois. Copyright (C) 1988, on the PC Study Bible 2.0.
6A Christian Perspective: alt.bible.prophecy, 3/10/1996.
7Dennis Schmidt: Overview of Body, Soul, & Spirit: (Internet page no longer valid).
8Nee, p. 32. Capitalization added.
9American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from InfoSoft International, Inc. All rights reserved. Capitalization added.
10"The dream image we see is called a lucid dream because we are aware of the dream state while we are in the dream." A Christian Perspective.
11American Heritage® Dictionary.
12The Original Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (Americanized Version) is licensed from Longman Group UK Limited. Copyright © 1994 by Longman Group UK Limited. All rights reserved.
13Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew Aramaic Lexicon, on the Online Bible 6.20, 1995.
14Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon, on the Online Bible 6.20, 1995.
15New Unger's Bible Dictionary.
Soul, Spirit, and Knowing God - Part Two
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.dtl.org).
The above article was published in Darkness to Light
and posted on this Web site in 1996.
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