The Three Parts of Man Fallacy
In the organization with which I was involved for many years, there was a doctrine that was foundational to several other doctrines. The concept of man having three parts was the basis for our understanding of the nature of man at creation, the nature of fallen man, the nature of born-again believers, and especially our understanding of the gift of holy spirit. As with so many of the things I was taught then, it seemed to perfectly explain everything and for years I held it as one of the most important doctrines because of how several other doctrines were based on and depended on it. This doctrine is not unique to the ministry I was in; many others embrace it as well, and even several of the standard commentaries profess this or similar concepts. But the three parts of man is a Greek idea, and not based on the Hebrew Scriptures, although later Jewish thinking has been at least influenced by, if not wholly converted to it.
Man was said to consist of three parts: body, soul, and spirit. This was based on one verse.
I Thessalonians 5:
23 And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [see NASB]
For some reason we almost always referred to the three parts in the reverse order of how it appears in this verse. A related verse spoke of three actions God took in fashioning man.
7 Even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him. [see NASB]
It was said that each of the three actions of God corresponded to each of the three parts of man. He formed the body out of the dust of the ground, made the soul, and created the spirit. The soul was said to be the “breath life” which made man alive and which was also in animals, while the spirit was something new, and unique to mankind. It was the part of man that enabled him to have communication with God. When man sinned he lost that spirit and from then on, according to this doctrine, God had to communicate with man by means of external phenomena except when He placed His Spirit upon certain individuals. Finally, after Christ died and rose again, the gift of holy spirit was given, which replaced the spirit man had lost, making him once again the three part being he was meant to be. This is a fairly popular doctrine, but it is actually not Scriptural.
First of all, a great emphasis was placed on the distinction between "created" and "formed" or "made." To create (Hebrew bara) means to bring into existence, out of nothing, that which never before existed. In contrast, form is the word yatsar, meaning to form, fashion, or make. It is more general than bara. And made is asah, which is even more general, and means to do, to make, to produce, etc. The fact that the words "formed" and "made" are used throughout Genesis 1 instead of “create” with the exception of 3 verses (verses 1, 21, and 27) was said to imply that God was fashioning things out of material that already existed, having been created in verse 1. (See In the Beginning, Old Earth Creationism and The Gap Theory).
But while bara is used to describe bringing into existence out of nothing, it is not limited to that meaning. It is used in Isaiah 65:18 referring to a restored Jerusalem, and in Joshua 17:15 and 18 it is translated as "cut down" in the sense of clearing out and developing the land. It is used in a number of other ways as well.
19 Also, thou son of man, appoint thee two ways, that the sword of the king of Babylon may come: both twain shall come forth out of one land: and choose [bara] thou a place, choose [bara] it at the head of the way to the city.
47 And the company shall stone them with stones, and dispatch [bara] them with their swords; they shall slay their sons and their daughters, and burn up their houses with fire.
13 For, lo, he that formeth the mountains, and createth [bara] the wind, and declareth unto man what is his thought, that maketh the morning darkness, and treadeth upon the high places of the earth, The LORD, The God of hosts, is his name.
6 Thou hast heard, see all this; and will not ye declare it? I have shewed thee new things from this time, even hidden things, and thou didst not know them.
7 They are created [bara] now, and not from the beginning; even before the day when thou heardest them not; lest thou shouldest say, Behold, I knew them. [see NASB]
It can also be used like yatsar or asah in a more general sense of to do or to make.
10 And he said, Behold, I make a covenant: before all thy people I will do [asah] marvels, such as have not been done [bara] in all the earth, nor in any nation: and all the people among which thou art shall see the work of the LORD: for it is a terrible thing that I will do [asah] with thee.
30 But if the LORD make [bara] a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD.
I Samuel 2:
29 Wherefore kick ye at my sacrifice and at mine offering, which I have commanded in my habitation; and honourest thy sons above me, to make yourselves fat [bara] with the chiefest of all the offerings of Israel my people?
1 But now thus saith the LORD that created [bara] thee, O Jacob, and he that formed [yatsar] thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.
7 I form [yatsar] the light, and create [bara] darkness: I make [asah] peace, and create [bara] evil: I the LORD do [asah] all these things. [see NASB]
Now when it comes to man, I was taught that the part of man that was created was the spirit. Three words are used in Isaiah 43:7. "Even every one that is called by my name: for I have created [bara] him for my glory, I have formed [yatsar] him; yea, I have made [asah] him." It was said that God would not have used three different words unless there were three things being referred to. (Ironically, the same ministry taught about figures of speech, one of which was the use of more than one word to refer to the same thing, used for emphasis.) They said that God formed man's body, made his soul, and created his spirit. However, Isaiah 43:7 makes no mention of spirit, soul, or body, and no mention of different parts of man. God created, formed, and made man in his entirety, as a complete whole.
In addition Genesis 1:26 says, "...Let us make [asah] man in our image, after our likeness." They had said that God's “image and likeness” was spirit (which they said was created), yet this verse says God made [asah] man in His image. Then verse 27 says, "So God created [bara] man in his own image, in the image of God created [bara] he him; male and female created [bara] he them." Both asah and bara are used to describe making man in God's image. Plus, it says He created them male and female. Since spirit is not male or female, this instance of created can’t be referring to their spirit, so bara isn't used exclusively of the spirit of God in man, as I was taught.
In addition, verses 26 and 27 are reiterated in Genesis 5:1-2. There again, both asah and bara are used to describe making man in God's image, and bara is used to describe God creating them male and female. There are also a few other verses that speak of God creating man, with no reference to spirit or three parts of man (Genesis 6:7; Isaiah 45:12). God created man as a whole entity.
Interestingly, the same three words describing God making man in Isaiah 43:7 are used referring to the heavens and earth in Isaiah 45:18. "For thus saith the LORD that created [bara] the heavens; God himself that formed [yatsar] the earth and made [asah] it; he hath established it, he created [bara] it not in vain, he formed [yatsar] it to be inhabited: I am the LORD; and there is none else." The Hebrew word “formed” (yatsar) is used in a number of places to describe God’s act of creation. Similarly, the Hebrew word asah, translated "made" in the above verse, is also used in a number of places to describe the work of God’s creation. Genesis 2:4 reads, "These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created [bara], in the day that the LORD God made [asah] the earth and the heavens." In Exodus 20:11 we read, "For in six days the LORD made [asah] heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day..."
The phrase “the heavens and the earth” is a Hebraism (a Hebrew idiom) referring to the totality of God’s creation, which is described as having been “formed,” “made,” and “created.” This includes God creating all the raw materials in the beginning and fashioning everything – including man – as described in Genesis 1. (See Old Earth Creationism.)
To begin with, I Thessalonians 5:23 is the only place in the whole Bible where the three words, spirit, soul, and body, occur together. Many theologians have interpreted this verse as saying that man consists of three parts, but this concept comes from Greek philosophy, not the Scriptures. The ESV Study Bible has the following comment on this verse:
Spirit, soul, and body represent the entirety of [a person]. It seems UNLIKELY that this is a tripartite division of human nature into body, soul, and spirit, where ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ would refer to different parts; more likely Paul is simply using several terms for emphasis. For similar ways of expressing the totality of [a person] see Matt. 10:28; Mark 12:30; 1 Cor. 7:34.
The phrase is a Hebraism used to refer to the entirety or totality of a person, in the same way that we are told to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind in Matthew 22:37, or with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength in Mark 12:30 and Luke 10:27, or all of our heart, soul, and might in Deuteronomy 6:5. And there are a number of verses that refer to doing something with the whole heart and soul. In addition, Jesus speaks of fearing him which is able to destroy “both soul and body” in hell (Matthew 10:28), and Paul speaks of a woman who cares for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy “both in body and in spirit” (I Corinthians 7:34). If any of these verses were intended to be a treatise on what constitutes man, they would contradict each other. How many parts does man have – two, three, four? And which list is the right one?
Most theologians agree on what part of man the “body” represents. It is the physical, tangible part that we can see. But there are a variety of opinions as to what “soul” and “spirit” refer to. Most of them consider one or the other to be the “true essence” of man which lives on after the body dies. For example, Barnes New Testament Notes has the following comment on I Thessalonians 5:23:
There is an allusion here, doubtless, to the popular opinion in regard to what constitutes man. We have a body; we have animal life and instincts in common with the inferior creation; and we have also a rational and immortal soul. This distinction is one that appears to the mass of men to be true, and the apostle speaks of it in the language commonly employed by mankind. At the same time, no one can demonstrate that it is not founded in truth. The body we see, and there can be no difference of opinion in regard to its existence. The soul (psuche) the vital principle, the animal life, or the seat of the senses, desires, affections, appetites, we have in common with other animals. It appertains to the nature of the animal creation, though more perfect in some animals than in others, but is in all distinct from the soul as the seat of conscience, and as capable of moral agency. See the use of the word in #Mt 22:37 Mr 12:30 Lu 10:27 12:20 Ac 20:10 Heb 4:12 Re 8:9, et al. In the Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy this was distinguished from the higher rational nature, (ho nous, to pneuma) as this last belonged to man alone. This psuche, "soul," or life, it is commonly supposed, becomes extinct at death. It is so connected with the bodily organization, that when the tissues of the animal frame cease their functions, this ceases also. This was not, however, the opinion of the ancient Greeks. Homer uses the term to denote that which leaves the body with the breath, as escaping from the erkos odonton – the fence or sept of the teeth – and as also passing out through a wound. This psuche continued to exist in Hades, and was supposed to have a definite form there, but could not be seized by the hands.
This is an example of the Greek philosophy that has permeated the Christian Church since the second century, and ties in with Satan’s Big Lie – that man has an immortal soul which lives on after death. (God said you will surely die; Satan said you will not surely die. See The State of the Dead.)
Next we will examine what the Scriptures say about the soul and the spirit, what the Biblical definitions are, and the difference between the two.
The word ‘soul’ is translated from the Hebrew word nephesh and the Greek word psuche. Strong’s defines them as follows:
5315 nephesh – a soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, passion, appetite, emotion.
5590 psuche (from psucho, "to breathe, blow" which is the root of the English words "psyche," "psychology") – soul (psyche); a person's distinct identity (unique personhood), i.e. individual personality.
The word ‘spirit’ is translated from the Hebrew words ruach or nashamah, and the Greek word pneuma. Strong’s defines them as follows:
7308 ruach – wind, spirit
5397 nashamah – breath
4151 pneuma – properly, spirit (Spirit), wind, or breath. The most frequent meaning (translation) of 4151 (pneúma) in the NT is "spirit" ("Spirit"). Only the context however determines which sense(s) is meant.
While there may be differences of opinion in some lexicons and Bible dictionaries, when studied in context the Hebrew Scriptures define ‘soul’ as a living being that has breath. I was taught in the past, and many commentators still say, that man's soul is his life force (that which makes him alive) and that his spirit is that part of man which is created in God's image, and which allows him communion with God. It is this spirit, I was taught, that made man unique from the animals. The supposed distinction between spirit, soul, and body, as well as the supposed distinction between created, formed, and made, was said to be the foundation for understanding the nature of man, as well as the holy spirit. But this is not quite accurate from the Scriptures.
So the soul (nephesh) is not the "breath of life" that made man alive. The concept of spirit is closely related to breath or wind, being an invisible force that you can see the results of. Two Hebrew words that are both translated either "breath" or "spirit" are nashamah and ruach. They are used interchangeably in the phrase, "breath of life," in the different places where it occurs. Nashamah is used in Genesis 2:7 and 7:22, while ruach is used in Genesis 6:17 and 7:15. So the "breath of life" is the spirit or life force that makes man and animals alive. God breathed into man's nostrils the spirit of life and man became a living soul. Notice it does not say that God put a soul in man. It says man became a living soul. The word "soul" (Hebrew nephesh) means simply a conscious being animated by breath life.
Animals are described as "living souls" as well. In Genesis 1:21 and 24, the phrase "living creature" (chai nephesh in Hebrew) is literally a living soul. In Genesis 1:20 the phrase "the moving creature that hath life" is translated "swarms of living creatures" in other versions (RSV, NRSV, NASB). Even the New King James Version (NKJV) says, "Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures." A soul is simply a living creature. But a soul can also be dead. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezekiel 18: 4 and 20). When people died, they would be called dead souls (Leviticus 21:11; Numbers 6:6; 9:6,7,10; 19:11,13; and other places, where the word nephesh occurs, although it is translated "body" in most English versions).
There are some cases where it is said that a person "has" soul, but it is in the sense of having life, or distinct personhood, not in the sense of his soul being a distinct part of him that can be separated. The word soul is also used in a variety of other ways referring to a person's life ("as my soul liveth") or to the person himself ("I said to my soul..." means "I said to myself" or "My soul desires it" means "I myself desire it"). But the thing that must be emphasized here is that the word soul is never used as an entity that is housed in a body and released to live on after death. Such an idea was not a part of Hebrew thinking in Old Testament times. The article on “soul” in the Encyclopedia Britannica describes the early Hebrew mindset.
The early Hebrews apparently had a concept of the soul but did not separate it from the body, although later Jewish writers [extra-Biblical] developed the idea of the soul further. Old Testament references to the soul are related to the concept of breath and establish no distinction between the ethereal soul and the corporeal body. Christian concepts of a body-soul dichotomy originated with ancient Greeks and were introduced into Christian theology at an early date by St. Gregory of Nyssa and by St. Augustine.
This is also true of the Greek word psuche in its Biblical usage (though not in the secular use of the word). Psuche is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word nephesh. Nigel Turner writes the following in Christian Words (T&T Clark):
We must concede that the Biblical Greek psuche means "physical life" ... Alongside this conception...there appears in Biblical Greek the meaning "person"...the life of man, his will, emotions, and above all, his "self." If a man gained all the world only to lose his psuche (soul), it represents a loss of himself--not a part of him. When there were added to the church about 3000 psuchai (Acts 2:41), whole men were added. The fear coming upon every psuche was upon every person (Acts 2:43). Every psuche must be subject to the state (Rom. 13:1), and so throughout the New Testament (Acts 3:23; Romans 2:9; I Corinthians 15:45; I Peter 3:20; II Peter 2:14; Revelation 16:3).
Another example that can be added to that list is Revelation 20:4, which refers to "the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus." This does not refer to disembodied souls, as many understand this passage. It simply refers to those persons who had been beheaded, and it is describing them being raised, to live and reign with Christ. Verse 6 refers to this as a resurrection, implying that they were dead, not previously existing in a disembodied state.
We saw from Genesis 2:7 that man became a living soul when he was infused with the breath of life. This breath, or spirit, of life is common to man and animals. (Not to be confused with the spirit of God, which is the same Hebrew word ruach, but identified in the context as God's spirit.) Animals are identified as having the breath or spirit of life in Genesis 7:15. "And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath [ruach] of life [chai]." Both man and animals have a common fate, according to Ecclesiastes.
Verse 21 is sometimes misread as a description of man going to heaven when he dies. Chapter 12, verse 7 is similarly misread.
Do these verses say that man goes to heaven when he dies? Proper understanding of these verses depends on understanding the definition of ‘spirit.’ It is not referring to man's consciousness, nor is it speaking of his soul (in the sense of his life, personality, seat of conscience, desires, etc.). It is the "breath of life," the life force that makes man and animals alive. That life force was added to a body and man became a living creature. When a soul dies, the body returns to the earth, and the life force returns to God who gave it. But it’s a life force, not a separate, conscious entity. For further discussion of this concept, see The State of the Dead.
The words for "spirit" in both Greek and Hebrew have a number of different meanings, but all relate to the basic idea of an invisible force or influence. We have looked at the difference between soul and spirit, and the Hebrew words used for each. We also saw that the breath (or spirit) of life is the unseen force that makes man a living soul. The word can also be used to refer to literal breath, as well as literal wind. It can also mean the "spirit of man" (Ecclesiastes 3:21; Zechariah 12:1) which is used interchangeably with "soul" and basically means one's self. For example, When Job says "I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul" (Job 7:11), they are both ways of referring to the anguish in the inner depths of his being. It is also parallel to the word "heart." For example, Psalm 77:6 - "I call to remembrance my song in the night: I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search." Also Psalm 143:4, "Therefore is my spirit overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is desolate." (See also Exodus 35:21; Deuteronomy 2:30; Psalm 34:18; 51:10,17 and others).
Just as the spirit of man refers to the man's inner self, or his heart, in a similar manner God's inner self or heart is called the spirit of God, or the spirit of the Lord. For example, in Genesis 6:3 God says, "My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh". Isaiah 63:10 says that Israel’s rebellion vexed, or grieved, God's spirit." To say "my spirit shall not always strive" is equivalent to saying "I will not always strive." To say rebellion grieves God's spirit is another way of saying that it grieves God. The spirit of God, being an extension of God's heart and mind, is frequently described in Scripture as having the same qualities of God. But this does not make it a separate person. Paul's explanation in I Corinthians 2 clarifies this, by comparing the spirit of God with the spirit of man.
So the spirit of God is not a separate person from God, any more than a man’s spirit is a separate person from the man.
God's spirit also refers to His presence. Psalm 51:10 refers to man's spirit, and in the next verse, David links God's spirit with His presence: "Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me." Psalm 139:7 also connects God's spirit with his presence. "Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?" The very first occurrence of spirit, in fact, illustrates that God was present in His creation. Genesis 1:2 reads, "...the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."
The spirit of God has been called an "impersonal force" by some, mainly as a response to the Trinitarian belief that it is a person. However, this may not be the best word to use. It is more than an impersonal, abstract power; it is the operational power and presence of God. It is His heart and personality as communicated to His creation. Alan Richardson, in his Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1958, p. 120), describes the holy spirit like this:
To ask whether in the New Testament the spirit is a person in the modern sense of the word would be like asking whether the spirit of Elijah is a person. The Spirit of God is of course personal; it is God's dunamis [power] in action. But the Holy Spirit is not a person, existing independently of God; it is a way of speaking about God's personally acting in history, or of the Risen Christ's personally acting in the life and witness of the Church. The New Testament (and indeed patristic thought generally) nowhere represents the Spirit, any more than the wisdom of God, as having independent personality.
I was taught that “The Holy Spirit” was another name for God, and that “holy spirit” (with lower case h and s, and no “the”) was God’s gift to me, and was now “my spirit,” one of the three parts of man (spirit, soul, and body). But this actually finds no Scriptural foundation, and the gift of the holy spirit is never called “my spirit” or “his spirit” referring to the one who received it. It is the spirit of God or the spirit of Christ, at work in and through believers and in various situations, which is given as a gift. (See a detailed study of this in the article on Holy Spirit.) When someone in the Bible spoke of “his spirit” it referred to his human spirit, the spirit of man, the innermost part of his being. This becomes particularly significant when we look at verses like I Corinthians 14:14 where Paul says that his spirit prays. This is dealt with in detail in the article about Speaking in Tongues.
So to review, God created the heavens and the earth in the beginning, and subsequently fashioned it to be habitable for man. His creative acts are variously described as creating, forming, and making (as well as other words). But there is nothing in Scripture that identifies those three words with three parts of man respectively. Man was created as a whole, indivisible entity.
The phrase “spirit, soul, and body” in I Thessalonians 5:23 is not a treatise on the parts of man, any more than “heart, soul, mind, strength, etc.” in Deuteronomy or the Gospels. God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life, and man became a living soul. Man doesn’t have a soul; man is a soul. And a soul can refer to any living creature that has the breath of life. A soul can also die, and is then referred to as a dead soul. Man is also described as having soul in the sense of his life or his personhood, but soul is never used to describe a separate part of man that lives on after death.
Another use of the word soul is the innermost being of a man, which is also called the spirit of man. When a person refers to “my spirit” in the Bible, it is referring to the spirit of man in him, and not the “gift of holy spirit.” The gift of the holy spirit that God gives is His personal presence and power working in people or situations. It was called the Spirit of the Lord in the Old Testament, and the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, where it has the added aspect of being the spirit of Jesus Christ, by which he lives in us.