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Soul and Spirit

The same questioner that submitted the question whether or not the human soul is immortal (see Beacon Lights of last May) also asks concerning the difference, if any, of soul and spirit. This brings up a question that has often been discussed throughout the history of the Church, namely, does man consist of two distinct parts, of body and soul (dichotomy), or of three, body, soul and spirit, (tricho­tomy). Those that maintain the latter base their opinion especially upon two passages of Scripture, viz. I Thess. 5:23: “May your spirit, and soul, and body be preserved entire without blame”; and Hebrews 4:12: “The Word of God is liv­ing and active, and sharper than any two edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.” It would be impossible, within the limits of this brief essay, to enter upon a discus­sion of this question. Suffice it to say that our Reformed fathers were almost unanimous in their opinion that man con­sisted of but two distinct parts, viz., body and soul, and that soul and spirit are essentially the same.

In seeking an answer to this question “we must remember that Scripture does not give us any philosophic distinctions, but rather does the Word of God repre­sent man as a unity, and the various terms employed to indicate that unity in its diversity of activities do not neces­sarily imply the existence of different essences or of separate organs through which these are realized. In Scripture spirit and soul are interchangeably used with body for human nature in general, not as though indicating three separate entities, but as denoting a parallelism which brings out the full personality of man.” (International Standard Bible Enc. c.f. Psychology). That the terms soul and spirit are used interchangeably in Scripture is evident from the following passages of Scripture. “Why is thy spirit so sad?”—“Why art thou cast down, my soul?” (I Kings 21:5, Psalm 42:11). Here sadness and dejection are ascribed either to man’s spirit or soul. In one place we read “Jesus was troubled in spirit”; while in another we read “My soul is exceeding sorrowful” (John 13:21, Matt. 26:28). Dying is represented as the surrender of soul (Gen. 35:18; Job 11:20), but also of spirit (Psalm 31:5; 146:4). The dead are called souls (Rev. 6:9; 20:4) and also spirits (Hebrews 12:23; I Pet. 3:19). The living are des­cribed as “disturbed” or “grieved” in soul (Jgs. 10:16) “vexer” (Jgs. 16:16) “discouraged” (Num. 21:4) “weary” (Zech. 11:8); but also as in “anguish of spirit” (Ex. 6:9) “impatient in spirit” (Job 21:4) “straitened in spirit” (Mic. 2:7). The two terms are also used to­gether as parallels in such passages as (Is. 26:9) “With my soul have I desired thee in the night; yea, with my spirit within me will I seek thee early.” (Luke 1:46, 47) “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” (Phil. 1:27) “Stand fast in one spirit, with one soul (mind) striving for the faith of the gospel”.

However, even though it be true that soul and spirit are essentially the same, and that these terms are used inter­changeably in Scripture to denote the inner life of man, nevertheless they are not identical. Man is spirit, because, un­like the brute, he did not merely come forth out of the earth, but God breathed in man the breath of life (Gen. 2:7); because God gave him a spirit (Eccl. 12:7) Because even as the angels, he is spiritual, can mind heavenly things, and if need be can continue to exist apart from the body. But man is soul, because unlike the angels, he has a body, which links him to earth, and limits him, even in his higher life, to the material and sensual. Hence, man, in distinction from the animals, is not only related and adapted to the earthly and sensual, but also to the heavenly and spiritual; and in distinction from the angels he is an em­bodied spirit, standing not only in re­lation to the things heavenly and spirit­ual, but also to the things earthly and sensual. In the former sense we can speak of man as spirit, in the latter sense as soul. Not, however, in the sense of different essences, but as distinctions of the one, indivisible psychological life of man.