The ingredients of the psychological certainly exist. They are among the most important and interesting features of our inner life, which includes thought patterns, personality, emotions, and individual motivations. But is their conceptual holding tank—the psychological—a real and useful category, or is it unnecessary and unhelpful for understanding humanity? Is there a distinct part of us that is not spiritual and not biological—but psychological?
What is the Psychological?
Yes, I am raising questions about the reigning trichotomist perspective—at least it reigns within Christian psychology. In contemporary Christian thought, the psychological is the convergence of (1) the old triad of thoughts-feelings-emotions (origin unknown) and (2) the Greek word for soul or psuche (psyche). The psyche has come to be known as one-third of a trichotomist view of the person—spirit and body being the other two. This position has not been the dominant view in the history of the church. Instead, it persists now, I think, for two reasons.
Trichotomy and God
The Scofield Reference Bible enhanced trichotomy’s stature and shaped a generation or two of dispensationalists, but before that was Clyde Narramore, who is the grandfather of the graduate program in psychology at Biola. He used a trichotomist formulation in the 1950’s and in his book, Psychology of Counseling (1960), which contained what he thought was the biblical rationale for the psychological enterprise.
Narramore announced the following:
- if you have a body problem, see a physician,
- if you have a soul (psychological) problem, talk with a psychologist,
- if you have a spiritual problem, talk with a pastor.
All this could appear to be an arcane and academic matter, but theology that is embraced is never merely academic. Instead, it shapes our thoughts and actions. It bears fruit. Since Narramore, the psychological has been partitioned from Scripture and its active oversight. Notice, for example, that in Narramore’s formulation the psychological is outside the domain of pastoral care and, as a result, Scripture itself. Pastors are guided by Scripture, physicians by the medical school curriculum, and psyche-specialists by the new discipline of psychology. This means that the psychological is disconnected from, or peripheral to, our connection to God. You can also find this disconnection in trichotomy’s influence on the dashes that appear in many Christian counseling texts. These identify the person as a feeling-thinking-psychological-physical-relational-spiritual being. In this formulation, God is in the spiritual, and that sector is shrinking and disconnected from the other faculties that grab our day-to-day attention. This disconnection should arouse our suspicions.
G. C. Berkouwer writes, “We may say without much fear of contradiction that the most striking thing in the Biblical portrayal of man lies in this, that it never asks attention for man in himself, but demands our fullest attention for man in his relation with God.”1 Anything that falls short of this falls short of a biblical view of the person.
We are Embodied Souls… Connected to God
There are two alternatives to the tripartite perspective. One is that we are physical beings only—body and body alone. This is the dominant view in Western culture, and it is increasingly popular among Christians. More on that another time. The other view, and one that has deep roots in the history of the church, is that we are a duality; we are embodied souls. The body is the physical, flesh-and-blood aspect of our existence and the soul encompasses all aspects of the inner person and shares its field of meaning with words such as spirit, heart, and mind.
Duplex: Spiritual Beings Clothed in Earthly Tents
We are “treasures in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7) or spiritual beings clothed in an earthly tent (2 Corinthians 5:1). This duality2 is introduced almost immediately in the Old Testament. God made man from two substances: dust and spirit (Genesis 2:7), and this distinction is woven throughout the Old and New Testaments (e.g., Job 34:14-15, Ecclesiastes 12:7, 1 Timothy 4:8).
“Although Scripture emphasizes that the true person is the whole person… In our fallen world, we must reckon with the twofold nature of persons and its counseling implications.”
Admittedly, this distinction is a bit awkward. It feels almost unnatural to consider ourselves as a duplex of tangible bodies and intangible spirits, and it should feel unnatural. But body and spirit belong together. It is only sin and death that make body and spirit divisible. Therefore, although Scripture emphasizes that the true person is the whole person—a unity of spirit and body—in our fallen world, we must reckon with the twofold nature of persons and its counseling implications.
The Inner Person Encircled By the Exterior Body
The Apostle Paul had this in mind when he wrote, “Though outwardly [physically] we are wasting away, yet inwardly [spiritually, soulish-ly] we are being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). This inward renewal he speaks of is not limited to some narrow part of him but rather his whole inner being—his mind, his heart, his spirit.
This duality view can be pictured with a circle representing our body and a heart representing our inner person.
That inner person or heart is where we find our swirling passions, desires, grief, dreams and hopes (e.g., Psalms 25:17, 45:1). It is where we set the moral course of our lives (Matthew 15:18-19). And, at its very center, it is where we maintain our spiritual allegiances. This means that the duality position avoids any partitions between God and human life. It always points us to our connection to God. Everything about our humanity is shaped by and leads us to our Creator and Redeemer. We might not always notice how our knowledge of God is so essential to us because we can suppress that truth or distort it, but everything orbits around that center.
Who do you love (Deuteronomy 6:5, 1 John 2:15)? Who do you trust (Jeremiah 17:5-8)? Who (or what) do you worship (2 Kings 17:36)? Who will you serve (Matthew 6:24)? Who do you obey (1 John 3:10)? For whose glory do you live (Romans 1:21-23)? Where is your treasure? Is it in the world or in Christ (Matthew 6:21)? To whom do you belong (John 8:44)? These questions are the most important of all, and we want our theological models to naturally guide us to them.
Dualism Applied to Ministry
This theology is a ministry workhorse, but in a brief article such as this, all I can do is suggest its potential.
Definitions get us started. The body is the tangible aspect of the person, the stuff we can touch, the “outer man”: brain, muscle, organs, bones and nerve cells. Without the body we simply would not be whole human beings (1 Corinthians 15). The unique contribution of the body to the whole person is that it is the mediator of moral action rather than the initiator. As mediator, the body is never called sinful but can be
- strong and healthy,
- physically ill and called weak (Greek: asthenia), fragile (“jars of clay”), decaying, and prone to hardships; or
- weak in the sense that it has natural desires that must constantly be met.
This category includes those abilities that are neither commanded nor prohibited in Scripture such as memory, cognitive abilities, hallucinations, fatigue, and certain emotional fluctuations. Some of these are pieces of psychiatric diagnoses and elements of the psychological, and since they reside most comfortably within the physical, we expect that they could be manipulated with physical treatments such as certain medications.
“…my interest is that we move on from any free-standing category like the psychological that is, in practice, disconnected from our relationship with the Lord.”
The inner person, also known as the heart, soul, or spirit, is the locus of moral responsiveness. It is identified as righteous or sinful. It believes or trusts. It can be called the mind, but Scripture’s emphasis is on our spiritual capacity rather than intellectual (Romans 12:2). It also directs our affections and emotions such as when we know joy, peace, and rest. We don’t expect that medication will touch us here. Physical treatments are not capable of making us sin or filling us with faith.
Let’s Get This on Our Agenda
There is so much more to say. For now, my interest is that we move on from any free-standing category like the psychological that is, in practice, disconnected from our relationship with the Lord.
To do this though, we need to revise the tripartite view of persons by taking all the contents that have been placed into the psychological category and reassigning them to either our bodies or the soul/inner person. This relocation adds to our understanding of humanity rather than subtracts. The simple duality of body and spirit, of inner and outer man, resonates more deeply with the description of persons given by Scripture and recaptures the whole person under the care and sovereignty of God.
This is a significant discussion that has very practical implications, and this brief framing of the issue is simplistic at best. My interest is to encourage this dormant discussion to be livelier.
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