Appealing to Scripture we find in Church history that some have taught that man is dichotomous being (body and soul). This view finds its anchor in Genesis 2:7 where we learn,
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
Dichotomy teaches that the constituent nature of man is body (dust of the ground) and soul (breath of life).
Others have taught that man is trichotomous being (body, soul and spirit). They would appeal (errantly) to passages like Hebrews 4:12,
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. ”
In Church history Watchmen Nee was one of the biggest proponents of the idea that man is a tripartate being. This view has had some pretty bizarre (read Gnostic) interpretations — not least of which was Watchman Nee.
This post is not primarily about dismissing trichotomous thinking on the nature of man but allow me to quickly dismiss it by noting that Hebrews 4:12 is not teaching that soul and spirit are two distinct natures in man that are to be divided out. The Greek verb that is translated here as “piercing” is never used in Scripture for the sense of distinguishing two different things but instead is used when referring to distributing and dividing up various aspects of the same thing (see Heb 2:4; Lk 11:17-18; Mt 27:35; Jn 19:24).
Citing Kim Riddlebarger who is citing John Murray,
“The point is not that the Word separates two distinct things–soul from spirit–but that “The Word of God judges the thoughts and attitude of the heart” (Heb 4:12). The Word does not divide soul from spirit, as though these were two distinct entities, but the Word does divide soul and spirit in the sense of penetrating into our inner most parts.”
However there is another school of thought that doesn’t get talked about much and that is the idea that man is a modified unichotomous being. This views admits that man is body and soul but sees body and soul as so integrated that to over separate them in our thinking is a serious mistake. Modified unichotomy tips its cap to the idea that man is comprised of body and soul (dichotomy) but wants to emphasize that man as a creature remains a psychosomatic unity, so that while distinction between body and soul certainly must be made a divorce of the two in the creature is not allowed. The idea that man is a modified unichotomy seeks to embrace the organic integrity that is man.
The upshot of the modified unichotomy view is that man cannot be divided between his ideological self (soul) and his corporeal self (race / ethnicity) without doing grave and serious damage to the nature of man. The implication is that who man is racially and ethnically impacts what we think ideologically and what we think ideologically cannot be divorced from who God has made us in our racial – ethnic persons. It is merely to recognize that who we are corporeally impacts who we are as incarnated thinking beings. The brain and the mind are not the same thing but neither can they be divorced from one another. The body and the soul are definitely not the same thing but while living they cannot be divorced from one another.
We are whole beings. What happens at death is altogether unnatural and will be cured when we take on our glorified bodies. Until then, what we think, and who we are as corporeal being as the inheritance from our forebears are integrated.
Holding this view allows me to say “no” to both Darwin who was a materialist and to Franz Boas who wanted to completely ignore the corporeal aspect of man and so really was a high brow Gnostic. (Boas has done more than probably anybody in the 20th century to advance postmodernism through the back door of cultural anthropology.)
The person who embraces modified unichotomy avoids both the scylla of materialism which sees man only as matter in motion and the charybdis of man as merely a unembodied thinking mind as if who man is in his wholeness has no impact on man. What we are finding among the Evangelical and many Reformed is a verbal affirmation of man as bipartate but an unwillingness to embrace the implications of that so that there is hostility to the idea that the creaturliness of man in his genetic wholeness has any impact of the non-corporeal reality of man (i.e. — his thinking, his inherited disposititons, etc.). This has the surreal result that these folks who refuse the psychosomatic unity of man are constantly flip flopping like a fish on dry ground between practical Darwinism and Boasian Gnosticism. It’s the darndest thing to witness.