QUESTION: Are human two-part beings (spirit and body), or three-part beings (spirit, and soul, and body)?
ANSWER: This has long been debated. I have always taken a tripartite position, though there actually may be a way in which both views are correct, depending on how you look at it. Some of what is below is, I believe, indisputably biblical. But, admittedly, I also venture into the area of the theoretical. I think the ideas are logical, and possible, but cannot be dogmatic about them.
The words for spirit (ruwach in Hebrew, and pneuma in Greek) are found many times in the Bible, as are the words for soul (nephesh in Hebrew, and psuche in Greek). The Hebrew and Greek words have a greater variety of meanings than soul and spirit do in English, allowing for different uses. For example, both ruwach and pneuma can mean wind or breath, as well as spirit. And there are times when they seem to be used generally or interchangeably, to represent the immaterial part of man.
However, there are several Scriptures which suggest a distinction between the soul and the spirit. In his letter to the Thessalonian Christians, Paul prays, "May the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it" (I Thess. 5:23-24).
Unlike the NKJV (above) which omits the word "and" between spirit and soul, it is there in the Greek original: "your spirit and soul and body.” Interestingly, the original KJV of 1611 retained the double “and,” so why it was dropped from the modern revision I'm not sure.
There is great specificity in that description–your whole (entire, complete) spirit and soul and body. It will not do, I believe, to say the Apostle is simply throwing a bunch of words together to emphasize that he's speaking of the entire being. If we believe in verbal, plenary inspiration, each word is important.
A similar thing is done in the Great Commission, in dealing with the Persons of the Trinity. It is not, "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each Person is given His unique place: "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19, italics mine). There can be no mistaking the distinct identity and equal importance of each One.
Kenneth Wuest's Expanded Translation of the Thessalonian passage has: "May the God of peace Himself consecrate you, every part of each one of you, to His worship and service, and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved in their entirety blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The uniqueness of the soul and the spirit is indicated in other texts as well. Hebrews 4:12 tells us, "the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit." That is, it is able to identify and distinguish between spiritual needs on the one hand, and psychological (mental/emotional) needs on the other.
Without question, there is a material part of man, and an invisible, immaterial part, those two. Or, to put it more precisely, man is body and man is spirit, a physical being and a spirit being. This, in itself, is quite unique. The angels are exclusively spirit beings, though they can take on a physical appearance when they choose to. Animals do not, as far as we know, have an eternal spirit. Only man is both body and spirit.
We come, then, to the way in which man can be seen as both a two-part and a three-part being. Yes, we are both material and immaterial beings, body and spirit. But I would argue that we have a soul as well. A simple way to distinguish the three is to say:
¤ Through our spirits we have God consciousness
¤ Through our souls we have self consciousness
¤ Through our bodies we have world consciousness (by our senses)
Picture the spirit and the body as two circles. If we bring them together so that they partly overlap, in the area of overlap we have a possible way to portray the place of the third aspect of our being, the soul. My view is that the soul is the psychological part of us, involving our intellect, emotions and will. But if that is so, how then is it connected to the spirit?
Consider what happens at death, when the spirit leaves the body? Does the soul disappear or cease to exist? Or, to put it another way, are our eternal spirits unable to think, feel or decide? That would be nonsense. But what if the mind is more than a physical organ inside our skulls. Is it possible we have a mind as well as a brain? The answer, it seems to me, is that the mind is to the spirit as the brain is to the body. The brain is a physical organ, capable of directing the physical body. But the mind is an eternal entity, more related to the spirit. The two are integrated in us, but are not the same thing.
To see the distinction, it's helpful to view the difference between the unregenerate and born again person. The Bible tells us that the unsaved person is spiritually "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1, 5). Not that the spirit is extinct–since it is eternal. But it is utterly alienated from God, insensitive to God, and powerless to respond appropriately to Him (Rom. 3:11). That means the unsaved person (the "natural" man) is soul-directed, not God directed (I Cor. 2:14). "These are sensual [psuchikos or soulish] persons...not having the Spirit" (Jude 1:19).
But what happens with the new birth? We are given new spiritual life, the life of the Spirit, who comes to indwell us (Jn. 6:63; I Cor. 6:19). Through Him, and by His illumination of the Word of God, our thinking is transformed (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23), and we gain "the mind [or understanding] of Christ" (I Cor. 2:16; Phil. 2:5). It's not that our physical brain ceases to function or stops gathering data through our senses. But it is further equipped and enabled to function in a new dimension.
In addition to the input from our physical senses, we now are able to view life from God's point of view, and are empowered respond to it accordingly. When we die, the body (including the brain) perishes, but the transformed mind, finally perfected (I Jn. 3:2), continues to exist as a part of our eternal spirits.
Some of the above is admittedly theorizing beyond the scope of what Scripture reveals, or what it reveals only dimly. It may not satisfy those who are convinced otherwise. But I've tried to show a legitimate way in which both the two-part and three-part views of man can be integrated, and both be correct.