Body, Soul & Spirit: An Alternate View

2 December 2011, 06:00



If you spend much time listening to Bill Gothard, it doesn’t take long for him to bring up one of his favorite beliefs: Body, Soul, & Spirit. Bill claims human beings are comprised of these three elements and each element serves a distinct function. This approach is technically called trichotomy in systematic theology terms.

Over and over, Gothard keeps coming back to this trichotomist view as a basis for how humans work in relation to the world around them. Through most of his material, Gothard assumes this view as fact. However, is it? Does the Bible support the idea that we are three parts? Body, Soul, & Spirit? I believe that when one looks at the scriptural data, Gothard’s view is largely lacking in evidence.

In this article, I intend to demonstrate that the Bible uses the words “spirit” and “soul” interchangeably. Bottom line: if these two words are merely two ways of saying the same thing, then how can Gothard separate them? (Or worse, fabricate definitions and functions for each of them and then construct a system of Christian growth largely dependent upon them?) I would commend five arguments in favor

1. Scripture Uses “Soul” and “Spirit” Interchangeably.

In John 12:27, Jesus said, “Now is my soul troubled.” One chapter later, in a similar context, Jesus was “troubled in spirit” (John 13:21). Similarly, Mary says in Luke 1:46–47, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” This is a prime example of Hebrew parallelism – when two different words are used to mean the same thing (simply for poetical reasons). Why is it 1 Peter 3:19 describes those in the afterlife as “spirits” while Revelation 6:9 calls them “souls”?

 2. At Death, Scripture Says Either That the “Soul” Departs or the “Spirit” Departs.

The Bible is comfortable describing the experience of death as either the “soul” departing or the “spirit” departing. It never mentions both departing in a single passage – showing that they didn’t view them separately and that it really didn’t matter which word the biblical author used. When Rachel died, Scripture says, “Her soul was departing (for she died)” (Gen. 35:18). Other verses using “soul” include: 1 Kings 17:21, Isa. 53:12, and Luke 12:20. On the other hand, David prays, in words later quoted by Jesus on the cross, “Into your hand I commit my spirit” (Ps. 31:5 and Luke 23:46). Other verses using “spirit” include: Eccl. 12:7, John 19:30, and Acts 7:59.

3. Man Is Usually Said to Be Two Parts, “Body and Soul” or “Body and Spirit.”

Jesus told us not to fear those who “kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” (Matt. 10:28). In this context, “soul” clearly means that part of us which exists after death. Jesus doesn’t mention a spirit anywhere in this context. Either, He forgot or He simply assumes that “soul” and “spirit” are the same thing. Paul makes a similar statement, picturing humans as two parts: physical and non-physical. He wants the church to hand over a wayward believer to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Other examples of this two part system include: James 2:26, 1 Cor. 7:34, and 2 Corinthians 7:1.

 4. The “Soul” Can Sin or the “Spirit” Can Sin.

Bill Gothard teaches that the soul is comprised of our mind, will, and emotions. As such, he has no problem stating that the soul can sin – and this is confirmed in the scriptures (1 Peter 1:22 &Rev. 18:14). But Bill also teaches that our spirit is dead until we are saved and at that point, our spirit becomes alive and is the means by which we hear God’s promptings. The underlying idea is the spirit is more pure and less tainted by sin – if at all. However, Paul has no problem stating that there is sin in our spirits: “Every defilement of body and spirit” (2 Cor. 7:1). He also mentions the woman who is concerned with how to be holy “in body and spirit” (1 Cor. 7:34). Other verses stating the same idea include: Deut. 2:30, Ps. 78:8, Prov. 16:18, Eccl. 7:8, Isa. 29:24, Dan. 5:20). Proverbs 16:32 approves of one “who rules his spirit”. This signifies that our spirits are not just the part of us which communes with God and is thus, pure. No, we must control its desires and bring it under God’s control. This makes sense if the Bible treats the soul and the spirit synonymously.

5. Everything That the Soul Is Said to Do, the Spirit Is Also Said to Do, and Vice Versa.

Gothard claims a distinction between soul and spirit – with each part having a unique function. However, scripture does not support the separation of these functions. Thinking, feeling, and deciding things are not said to be done by our souls only. Our spirits can also experience emotions, for example, as when Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him” (Acts 17:16), or when Jesus was “troubled in spirit” (John 13:21). Another function which Gothard claims to be a function of the soul, thinking or knowing, is also said to be done by our spirits in the scriptures. Mark 2:8 speaks of Jesus “perceiving [Gk. epiginōskō, ‘knowing’] in his spirit”. Romans 8:16 says that the Holy Spirit “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God”. How can we know that we know without some form of thinking? (Which Gothard attributes to the soul, yet Paul attributes to the Spirit?)

On the other hand, Gothard claims that our spirits are what relate to God most directly. But the Scriptures constantly attribute spiritual activity to the soul as well. “Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” (Ps. 103:1). “Praise the LORD, O my soul!” (Ps. 146:1). “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). For other examples, see: Ps. 25:1, Ps. 62:1, 1 Sam. 1:15, Deut. 6:5, Ps. 42:1, 2, Ps. 42:5, Ps. 35:9, Ps. 119:20, Ps. 119:167.


I hope that this initial survey has been helpful and has urged you to call into question Gothard’s Body, Soul, & Spirit trichotomy. Here’s my point, if Gothard gets it wrong on this, what about all the other teachings he bases upon this trichotomy?

Click here to read Part Two: Body, Soul & Spirit

The content of this article was based primarily on the work of Wayne Grudem. I would encourage you to purchase a copy of his Systematic Theology for your own reference on this and many other subjects concerning the Christian Faith.
All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.


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