The words, body, soul, and spirit are commonly used in Christian language to express the totality of man — his whole being. This has led some to believe that there are actually three faculties in existence. But closer analysis suggests that these words do not refer to three planes of existence (ontology) but rather three types of desires (morality): carnal, rational, and gospel. Put another way, we use the words body, soul, and spirit metaphorically, and by convention. If we were using them literally, we would be appealing to the Gnostic idea that the body is evil and provokes base desires (lustful, selfish), while the spirit is pure and causes perfectly holy desires. This leaves the soul as the neutral, passive, cognitive power which mediates these two inputs and chooses a course of action from a method of reasoning, feeling, believing, and willing. The Freudians are neo-Gnostics in this way, believing the same thing except calling the body, soul, and spirit the id, ego, and superego.
While this trichotomous schema makes common (practical) sense, it is actually a false scenario. It fits our experiences for linguistic purposes–the separation of three types of desires–but it does not befit good theology or biological investigation.
To begin with, categorizing our desires into three labels based on their level of holiness implies the Gnostic heresy that the body is evil. But the body is not evil. If anything, the mind of man is (his soul, or heart). The body is more of the neutral ground — passive, or a vessel as Scripture says–providing biological signals of needs but being conditioned and directed by the cognitive/emotional/moral interpretations of the mind. This idea is supported in Scripture when Jesus says the heart of the man defiles him and rebukes those who say “do not eat, do not touch.” Augustine believed this too, saying that it is the lust in the flesh that is evil, not the flesh itself. Scripture says no man hates his body.
Plus, distinguishing the soul from the body (or the soul from the spirit) is a tricky thing. In Catholic writings, the soul is usually equated with the mind. Or sometimes it means the heart of man–his passions, pursuits, etc. It is what distinguishes man from beast, and carries the image of God stamped on it (as compared to the body which, like the bodies of animals, is simply God’s handiwork). This implies that the spirit is something separate–a different immaterial substance that is pure because it is not connected to the depraved body or mind of man in any way. But even this is inconsistent because sometimes in Catholic writings the spirit is said to be perverse or impure. Jesus clearly identified demonic spirits. Shouldn’t they have said perverse or demonic “souls”? So in actuality, using “spirit” or “spiritual” as a synonym for pure godliness is not categorical. Instead, spirit in the Bible is the immaterial part of man that belies his citizenship/allegiance (either to God or to Satan).
Biological evidence also clouds the distinction between body, soul, and spirit. For example, most people say the body is lustful because it drives the biological (selfish) desires to eat, sleep, copulate, etc. But is this true? Is it not, in most cases, the mind (soul) which drives the individual to eat, sleep, or copulate? Certainly the body sends signals that it is hungry, thirsty, tired, or in need of sexual gratification. But the body, like all Creation, was created good, so it is not the drives in themselves which are bad. In all cases, the mind makes the decision to do these things or not, and how, no matter what the body signals. More often than not, in peaceful Western life, our mind drives us to do things without waiting for signals from the body: we choose to eat what/when we want, sleep when we’re not tired (or stay up when we are), fulfill sexual desires when/how we want, etc. And the result is that the mind inflicts “needs” upon the body that it did not originally have. Much biological research proves it is our “brains” which are addicted to most of the things we crave: sugar, fat, salt, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, thrill, peace, etc. But is not the brain the seat of “the mind”? Does not our alterered biological state–initiated by the lust in the mind (heart, soul)–bear some innocence to our crimes? How then can we neatly separate the soul from the body?
Of course we cannot. We cannot have cognitive desires apart from the body, nor can we have bodily desires without the mind. Put another way, if we had no mind, we would not sin in the body–but if we had no body, we could not have any knowledge of sin. This strikes at the heart of the mind-body problem which has been famously worked on since Descartes’ time. The separation of mind and brain is very difficult and has been likened by cognitive psychologists to the computer science analogy of the brain being the hardware and the mind’s content being the software. This is a helpful analogy to desribe the essential difference between matter (body) and non-matter (thought)– i.e. software is made of up bits–information–which is distinct from hardware which is made of metal pieces. But the analogy breaks down when it comes to elucidating the key difference between mind and brain. Whereas the computer is dependent on the scientist to code its information, a human being somehow engenders its own information: the brain clearly supports nonmaterial thoughts that are said to be the mind, but the physical/chemical state of the brain also causes/is affected by the non-physical thoughts and emotions experienced.
Clearly, this boils down to the essence of the dichotomous view. The mind-body dichotomy is an ontological argument, not a moral or linguistic one. An ontological argument posits “what is” or “what exists.” A Christian must believe that both material and non-material things exist–the body and external world that can be perceived by the senses, and the internal world that cannot. An internal world includes both individual thoughts and emotions as well as a transcendent morality and purpose which religion aims to describe. Whereas the monist view of ontology rejects this dualism–maintaining that only what can be sensed exists–the dichotomous view accepts the reality of a non-material world. In Scripture, this is easily observed in the Creation where before any matter exists, God and His thoughts and intentions (including the moral order) exist. The immaterial world of the Spirit, then, existed indepedently of the material world which had not yet been formed. And God and his purposes still exist today–especially the higher world of morality and purpose, whether we discern or even acknowledge them.
This is the heart of the dichotomous view, and whether one uses the word soul or spirit to describe that immaterial realm is not important. What is important is the insistence of two realities, a physical one and a non-physical. But not three realities.
Why have two words then, soul and spirit? I believe if we first consider both soul and spirit as referring to the same ontological reality (the non-physical), we can then delve into possible reasons.
I have argued that the main reason is a linguistical one where we need words which refer to both the mind (will) of man and the mind (will) of God. Clearly the two are not the same, and the one wars against the other as Paul says (the flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh). The confusion comes in, though, because Paul uses the same word “spirit” to refer not to an ontological reality but to a moral one–one of the will. It would have been clearer, for philosophical reasons, to use different terms
like “selfishness lusts against godliness…” But I believe Paul uses “spirit” because of what the word implies–a will created by God, and of a higher purpose. And “flesh” similarly–not because the body is intrinsically evil but because his audience in that day equated it as synonymous with selfish desires.
There could be other reasons for distinguishing soul and spirit. Perhaps soul really does mean the essence of an individual’s identity (his beliefs, personhood) and spirit means more objectively, the eternal nature of man. But I’m not sure if that implies something negative for the enfeebled or unborn. For all the ways the terms seem to interchange in the Bible, I am not sure we could come up with strict definitions. And yet I would not want to argue that soul and spirit were exactly the same unless it could be proven so.
Still, an ontological distinction between soul and spirit is not warranted. In the beginning of Creation, for example, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. But God clearly thought, felt, and willed Creation into being at that point. Then He praised it–pronounced it good. Should Scripture not have said “the Soul” of God hovered over the waters then? Indeed, God is never said to have a soul. He is Spirit. And yet He certainly has a mind (not a brain, but mindful faculties). And emotions, and judgment. His Spirit encompasses all the rational, emotional, and volitional capacities we normally ascribe to the soul.
Other biblical evidence includes consistent physical-nonphysical dichotomies: creation of man’s body by mud, creation of his Spirit by God’s breath; death of his eternal spirit (damnation to hell), death of his body (hundreds of years later); natural birth by body, spiritual birth of our Spirit; resurrection of Jesus’ spirit, resurrection of His body; redemption of our spirits at accepting Christ, redemption of our bodies on the Last Day; baptism of our body by water, baptism of our spirit by prayer; prayer our the mind of man understands, prayer the mind of God understands; an earthly habitat here made by man’s labor, a spiritual Zion in heaven made by God’s will; a temple made for God out of tents and stones, a spiritual church not by human hands; ceremonial law for a geographical people, heart commandments for a geography-less people. The patterns goes on and on. While trichotomists are quick to point out the significance of the number three in Scripture (and they are right), the number three does not apply to ontological matters of existence except by allegorical appeal. Nor should it apply to hermeneutics as the allegorists say (a carnal or fleshly interpretation, a soulful one, and a spiritual one). When Scripture actually speaks to what ontologically exists through God’s creation, it is always in the pattern of two, not three.
In short, the soul is a convenient faculty we have created to talk about man’s rational, emotional, and volitional capacities. It is helpful to have this term distinct from the body and spirit because we know the will of man is different from the will of God, and we need some way to express that. But it is not helpful because it confuses the ontological premise of the physical and non-physical which the Bible teaches. And it makes bodies evil and spirits pure. If we are talking about soul meaning instead “mind”–the crossroads of where the cues from the physical world (including, but not limited to, the individual body) meet the cues from the supernatural realm (including the voice of the Holy Spirit)–then such talk is practical. But we ought to just say “mind” then (or “self” or “heart”) and change the discussion from Body-Soul-or-Spirit to Me-or-God. Because that is the real dichotomy in the Bible.