Reading Systematic Theology with Wayne Grudem – What does Scripture mean by “soul” and “spirit”? Are they the same thing?

This post is part of a 50+ post series from the classic work by Wayne Grudem (PhD, Cambridge), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. The aim of each post is to provide an overview of each chapter in the book and related resources for each topic.

Synopsis of Chapter

In Chapter 23, Wayne Grudem covers the essential components of man and the three major concepts in theology: trichotomy, dichotomy, and monism. He reviews the biblical data on what he teaches is the correct understanding of man’s essential nature: dichotomy. But he also reviews the arguments for and responds to the other major Christian perspective: trichotomy. 

In this chapter, there were a couple of other concepts he reviewed briefly: monism and the origin of the soul. Grudem surveyed monism which denies the immaterial part of a person. He rightly categorizes it as non-evangelical and non-biblical. Finally, he covers how are souls are created.  

Biblical Argument for Dichotomy

Dichotomy views that “man is two parts, body and soul (or spirit).” This can be supported in several ways in Scripture.

For one, the Bible uses “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably. For example, in Luke 1:46-47, “And Mary said,“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” In this way Mary seems to be using the terms “soul” and “spirit” to speak of the same thing. Jesus too did something similar in John 12:27 (my soul is troubled) and John 13:21 (troubled in spirit). In both passages, John seems to be describing the same concept using different words for the immaterial component of Jesus.

Second, at death Scripture says that the “soul” departs or the “spirit” departs. In some cases, the Bible speaks of a soul departing at death: Genesis 35:18, 1 Kings 17:21, and Isaiah 53:12. In other cases, the Bible speaks of a spirit departing at death: Psalm 31:5, Ecclesiastes 12:7 and John 19:30. In other words, soul and spirit seem to be used interchangeably when the Bible connects death to either element. 

Third, man can be described as “body and soul” or “body and spirit” in Scripture. In Matthew 10:28, “soul and body” describe a unified person while in 1 Corinthians 5:5, “flesh” and “spirit” also describe a unified person. Because the Bible doesn’t distinguish between “soul” and “spirit” in these contexts, it’s safe to reason there is no difference between them in essence. 

Fourth, everything the soul is said to do the spirit is said to do. Our spirits can express emotions: Acts 17:15, John 13:21, and Proverbs 17:22. And likewise our souls worship God in emotion: Psalm 62:1, Psalm 103:1, Luke 1:45. So both our spirit and our soul can be filled with emotion, especially in worshipping God.   

Trichotomy: Reasons & Responses

However, other Christians reject dichotomy and support trichotomy. There are a few passages that seem to support a trichotomist understanding of man’s essential nature. There are also extrabibilical arguments, but they do not seem to be as compelling. 

On the Scripture side, 1 Thessalonians 5:23 distinguishes between spirit and soul, Hebrews 4:12 indicates it’s possible to divide between soul and spirit, and 1 Corinthians 14:14 suggests that Paul’s mind and spirit are doing different things. The underlying assumption of each of these passages is that the spirit and soul are separate things. If so, that would suggest trichotomy since the body is assumed in the discussion.

A dichotomist could respond to each of these verses with a few other passages in support of dichotomy. For instance, when Paul distinguishes between spirit and soul in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Jesus did something similar when he admonished believers to love God with all the “heart”, “soul”, “mind”, and “strength” (Mark 12:30). And yet, nobody suggests our inner person is made of four components. In a similar way, Hebrews 4:12 is not speaking of two components, but of two aspects of the same immaterial substance. In other words, trichotomy is not necessitated in any of the passages the trichotomists quote.  

Monism: No Immaterial Part of Man

A far greater error in the essential nature of man is monism. This materialistic understanding argues that man does not possess an immaterial spirit (or soul), only a body. But this position ignores the vast majority of relevant biblical data.

  • Jesus promised the thief on the cross he would be with him in paradise, though his earthly body would soon die (Luke 23:43).
  • To be away from our body is to be present with the Lord in our spirits (2 Corinthians 5:8).
  • Our spirit prays indicating something different from our body (1 Corinthians 14:14).
  • Stephen cried out to Jesus to receive his spirit (Acts 7:59).
  • Souls in heaven pray to God (Revelation 6:9). 

Although there is a unity of body and spirit while we remain on the earth, the spirit eventually is separated from the body at death. We are not made of only one component, so monism is not biblically justified.

The Origin of the Soul

There are three major views on the origin of the human soul. In creationism, God creates a new soul for each person and sends it to that person’s body sometime between conception and birth. Traducianism, teaches that the body of the child is inherited by the baby’s mother and father at the time of conception. The third, less biblical position is pre-existentianism where souls of people exist in heaven long before their bodies are conceived on earth.

Within Protestant theology, creationism and traducianism is generally acceptable with biblical support for each position. Creationism seems to have more Scriptural support especially in Ecclesiastes 12:7b, “the spirit returns to God who gave it.” God appers to be the author and giver of the spirit that lives within each of us, not our parents.        

Application: Why Dichotomy Matters

There are varying negative results when adopting a wrong understanding of theology. For instance, believing in monism is a worse error than believing in trichotomy. Since monism denies the existence of the soul, this is more akin to atheism than Christianity. Trichotomy is less concerning because it appeals to the Bible with just a different emphasis on the same text. Trichotomists don’t deny the Bible like monists. 

However, understanding the nature of man as being dichotomy is important. Dichotomy seems to focus our attention on the most important parts of a person: the inner component and the outer component. Both components are essential. When we introduce a third, alien component we don’t get more definition, but less understanding on the way God constructed people.  

“Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). 

Special Terms

  • creationism
  • dichotomy
  • monism
  • soul
  • spirit
  • traducianism
  • trichotomy

Resources: Wayne Grudem

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