Is Man Tripartite or Bipartite?

April 21, 2013 | 5 comments

Televangelist and Founder and President of Charis Bible College, Andrew Wommack, has said:

The most important revelation I have ever received is the understanding that we were created by God with three distinct parts: spirit, soul, and body.

This idea of man as essentially “tripartite” verses the Catholic and biblical notion of man as a body/soul composite is a rather common misconception among Evangelicals and Pentecostals. They may not go as far as Mr. Wommack and say this is “the most important revelation” they have ever received, but they will be quick to defend their position nonetheless. And I Thess. 5:23 is often their first biblical stop:

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.

Sounds pretty clear, doesn’t it? Or, how about Hebrews 4:12?

For 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.

The Catholic Response:

First of all, and from a philosophical perspective, the soul is pure spirit and is the form of the body. By the “form,” we mean it actualizes the potentiality of the body. Without the soul, the body is not even a body; It is a corpse. It is reduced to its constitutive parts. But what is most important for us here is the fact that the soul is spiritual in nature. It has no parts. You cannot divide up into constitutive parts that which has no parts at all. Thus, the idea of dividing the soul into two parts analogous to the division of soul and body makes no sense.

From a biblical perspective, we have to be careful to distinguish what Scripture speaks of as powers, qualities or characteristics of man verses the essential elements that constitute his essence. For example, in Luke 10:26-27 Jesus has an interesting back-and-forth with a lawyer who was more interested in justifying his own position than in really coming to the truth (can you imagine that?). The lawyer asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds:

“What is written in the law? What do you read there?” And [the lawyer] answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus lists four things here. So should we now conclude man to be quadripartite? I think not. But if we are going to add up various lists of man’s powers or qualities, we could come up with a much greater list than just three or four. That’s the problem.

The truth is, St. Paul and the inspired author of Hebrews, who if he was not St. Paul, was definitely Pauline in his theology, were not teaching man to be essentially tripartite. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in paragraph 367:

Sometimes the soul is distinguished from the spirit: St. Paul for instance prays that God may sanctify his people "wholly", with "spirit and soul and body" kept sound and blameless at the Lord's coming. The Church teaches that this distinction does not introduce a duality into the soul. "Spirit" signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God.

For St. Paul, the “spiritual” element in man represents the God-consciousness that is introduced into the life of a man through grace. We get a great picture of the Pauline understanding of this in I Corinthians 2 and 3. He refers to men in three categories. The “unspiritual man” or literally the “soulish man” (Gr.—psukikos’, I Cor. 2:14), “fleshly men” (Gr.—sarki’nois, I Cor. 3:1), and the “spiritual” man (Gr.—pnuematikos’, also in I Cor. 3:1).

The “soulish” man or “natural man” as it is sometimes translated in I Cor. 2:14, or as the RSVCE has it, the “unspiritual man,” is someone who is caught up in the “soulish” realm wherein resides the intellect and will. But he is apart from God’s grace to aid his understanding. Thus, again, the RSVCE has it as “unspiritual:”

The unspiritual man (psukikos’) does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

The “fleshly man” (sarki’nois) refers to the man who is dominated by his “lower nature” or the passions, and as such, he cannot please God. He too, like the “unspiritual man” is acting apart from grace. Whereas the “spiritual man” (pneumatikos’)is one who is allowing himself to be led by the Spirit of God. I Cor. 3:1-3 puts it this way:

But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh.

At times, in St. Paul’s writings, as well as other places in the New Testament, the “unspiritual man” and the “fleshly man” are telescoped into one category. They are referred to as being “in the flesh.” Romans 8 is a great example of this. Here, St. Paul does not make the fine distinction he makes in I Corinthians 2-3 between the psukikos’ and the sarki’nois. He lumps them all into the one category of “in the flesh” whether they are being dominated by the "soulish" realm or the "fleshly." “The flesh” would then simply represent the human person apart from grace. Keep an eye out for the use of “flesh” and “spirit” here in Romans 8:3-14:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him… for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

So we see here in Romans 8, St. Paul puts it more simply in saying, in essence, one is either led by the Spirit or one is “in the flesh.” One is either being led by the Spirit and so is in friendship with God, or we would say, he is “in a state of grace,” or one is apart from grace and therefore in a state of being wherein one “cannot please God.”

In I Corinthians, St. Paul takes it a bit deeper and distinguishes between the “natural man” or the “soulish man” (Gr. psukikos’) and the “man of the flesh” (Gr. sarki’nois), who are each apart from God's grace, as opposed to the “spiritual” man who is in friendship with God.

What is most important for us here is to note that St. Paul’s introduction of the “spirit, soul and body” in I Thess. 5:23 and elsewhere was not intended to teach man to be “tripartite.” Man is essentially a body/soul composite. St. Paul is introducing the “God-consciousness” that is introduced into man’s soul through grace and elevates him to a level of understanding and loving God that he could not attain to according to his nature alone.

If you want biblical texts that give us what constitutes man in his essence, Jesus said it plainly in Matt. 10:28:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul: rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Ecclesiastes 12:7:

And the [body] returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Both of these texts are speaking directly to man's essence; They refer to man as he is constituted in death and in eternity. When examined carefully, as we have done here in this post, further distinctions of the human soul in Scripture refer to various powers, qualities or characteristics, not to the constitutive elements of human nature.

 


Tim Staples is Director of Apologetics and Evangelization here at Catholic Answers, but he was not always Catholic. Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian...

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Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Ludy Perumal - Blacktown, New South Wales

Hello Tim,

I thank God for people like you. Your write up on the nature of human beings (Tripartite/Bipartite) was really helpful for me in my study.

I am a Catholic. However, following a course on Counselling which is run by a protestant denomination. Sounds interesting ha? The course was advertised in Sydney's Catholic Weekly.

I was about to give up when I realised that the doctrine was totally different with issues related to 'justification', 'sacraments' etc. But decided to stay as God might use me for dialogue with Protestant teachers. I obtained permission to answer my assignments from a Catholic point of view, as the course was open to all Christians. The explanations on your website are so helpful.

I have also been at some of your talks in Sydney and bought your CDs. I keep thanking my God everytime I listen to people like you. Please know that you are always in my prayers.

Our family has lost our brother and his family to one of the protestant churches. He says that it is not protestant but the 'city church' in Melbourne. However, they don't take part in mass nor the sacraments. Like God brought you back to the true faith, I am praying that my brother will come back strong as you and your family.

God Bless You.
Ludy

March 30, 2014 at 11:07 pm PST
#2  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Ludy,
Great to hear from you!
I'm glad my products have been helpful to you along with all of the information we have here at www.catholic.com.
I hope to visit Australia again in the next couple of years. I love it down there. The Church is vibrant in Sydney.

March 31, 2014 at 3:41 pm PST
#3  Pedro Manchaca - Chicago, Texas

Tim..

Thanks for the post.. There seems to be a challenge, however.

You posited that 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and other scriptures (i.e. Hebrews 4:12) are "not intended to teach man to be 'tripartite.'" And, yet, your use of Matthew 10:28 and Ecclesiastes 12:7, which you attempted to use to substantiate "what constitutes man in his essence," actually contradict the very position you are trying to establish. Matthew 10:28 delineates the soul and body of man and Ecclesiastes 12:7 refers to his spirit.

What's more, you also stated, "Jesus lists four things here. So should we now conclude man to be quadripartite? I think not. But if we are going to add up various lists of man’s powers or qualities, we could come up with a much greater list than just three or four. That’s the problem."

Using your own reasoning, then, you yourself are precluded from concluding that "Man is essentially a body/soul composite" since any list that might enumerate man's composition cannot be used for that very purpose.

Thanks..

May God richly bless you..

P. Manchaca

April 9, 2014 at 11:03 pm PST
#4  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Hello P. Manchaca,
I think you missed the point of what I was saying. But you make some good points.
We cannot simply take Scripture verses that pile up man's various powers, qualities, or distinctions in his inner life, and conclude that he is "essentially" made up of all these "parts." In fact, I would add here Jesus' words in Mark 12:30: "You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart... soul... and... mind, and... strength." So if we had "body" to this, we now have five parts. We are now "pentapartite?"
The truth is, we have to discern properly what is a power of the soul, or a quality of man, verses what comprises the fundamental nature of man.
You say my "use of Matt. 10:28 and Ecc. 12:7... actually contradict the very position [I am] trying to establish." That is not so. Jesus makes it very plain that man is constituted by "body and soul" in Matt. 10:28. What else would he have to say?
As far as Eccl. 12:7 goes, there man is clearly bipartite. "Soul" and "spirit" are used interchangeably in both the Old And New Testaments. What is most important is that man is bipartite, according to Eccl. 12:7.
Thus, when we then approach texts like I Thess. 5:23, we must ask the question: "Is this introducing another constitutive element in man?" And the answer is no. We have to consider how the author uses "spirit" elsewhere in his writings as I did in my post. We can then conclude this is not the case. This is not to diminish the importance of the spiritual element. As I said in my post, the person who does not possess that element does not belong to Christ. But it is to properly understand what that spiritual element in man is.
As far as your point that "any list that might enumerate man's composition cannot be used" to understand what constitutes man, I beg to differ. As I said in my post, we simply have to take any such list and carefully discern what is being said. We can know what is a matter of constitutive elements of man's essence, verses powers or qualities in man that while important, are not constitutive of what man is fundamentally.
Vine's Expository Dictionary says this: "Apparently, then, the relationships may be thus summed up Soma, body, and Pneuma, spirit, may be separated, Pneuma and Psuche, soul, can only be distinguished." (From notes on Thessalonians, by Hogg and Vine, pp. 205-207 & Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, pp. 589).
A study on this goes beyond what I can do here, but when we speak of man being separated into his constitutive parts in Scripture, there are only two of them (Matt. 10:28; Eccl. 12:7; Eccl. 3:21, etc.). And yes, "spirit" and "soul" are sometimes used interchangeably (Rev. 6:9; Heb. 12:24, for example). The Church has chosen to use "soul." But what is most important here is to note that the lists that go beyond two for man are never in the context of what constitutes man's nature. It refers to various qualities, characteristics, or nuances in man's inner life, but the texts that speak of his fundamental nature, always refer to two parts: Body and soul (or spirit).

April 13, 2014 at 10:30 pm PST
#5  Benjamin Thomas - Swansboro, North Carolina

But what about animals, don't animals have a driving force of life, a spirit? Are they just corpses? The Church does not teach that animals have a spirit/soul I thought, perhaps I'm mistaken, so if they do not then what is the spirit that gives them life? I'm completely confused by this, but I'll trust the Church. Just wondering what answers there are for animals and what bearing that has on our nature.

May 15, 2014 at 5:56 pm PST

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