Is There a Difference Between Soul and Spirit?

Is There a Difference Between Soul and Spirit?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, July 2, 2010 at 3:01pm

QUESTION: Can you explain to me the difference between soul and spirit? I know the word “soul” is used in different ways, and means life or living being; and I know we have a spirit by means of which we relate to God (in prayer, worship, etc.). I know that they are connected but are not the same—so what is the difference?

ANSWER: It is important first of all to distinguish between the WORDS “soul” (Heb. nephesh; Grk. psyche) and “spirit” (Heb. ruach; Grk. pneuma) on the one hand, and the metaphysical ENTITY or aspect of human nature to which these words apply, on the other hand.

In both the OT and the NT the words translated “soul”—nephesh and psyche—have three major connotations, only ONE of which refers to the spiritual side of our metaphysical nature. In some contexts these words refer to the whole person or individual or self, and not to just one part of his or her nature. An OT example is Gen. 2:7, which says that God’s breathing into the nostrils of the clay figure was the means by which the latter became a living “nephesh,” namely, a living individual or living person. The reference here is not to just one part of the person, but to the person as such. A NT example is Rom. 13:1, which says that every “psyche” must be subject to governing authorities. Here the word applies to the whole person, not to any one part of the person.

A second connotation of the words usually translated “soul”—nephesh and psyche—is the characteristic or attribute of LIFE as such as possessed by any living individual. This does not refer to the person as such, nor to any metaphysical part of the person; but to the life or livingness present in that person (or animal). See Lev. 17:14; Matt. 6:25; John 10:11; 15:13.

The third connotation of these words is that the nephesh or psyche is an aspect of man’s metaphysical nature, or part of the stuff out of which we are made. It applies to our SPIRITUAL nature, as distinct from our PHYSICAL nature. E.g., Ps. 63:1 says, “My soul [nephesh] thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you” (ESV); see Ps. 84:2. This meaning is clearly seen in Matt. 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul [psyche]. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul [psyche] and body in hell.” Rev. 6:9 speaks of the souls [psyche] of martyrs who exist without their bodies in the angelic heaven in the presence of God.

Note carefully: neither of the first two connotations is relevant to our question here. We must be aware of them, however; and we must be careful to discern when these connotations are present so that we do not apply such verses to the metaphysical question. Many false theological conclusions have been drawn by applying texts where nephesh or psyche refers to the PERSON rather than to the SPIRITUAL PART of the person.

Now the question is this: what is the relation between that part of our nature called the SOUL in this third sense, and the part of our nature called the SPIRIT (e.g., Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59; 1 Cor. 2:11; Heb. 12:23)? Here is the bottom line: THEY ARE THE SAME THING; THERE IS NO DISTINCTION BETWEEN THEM. Human beings are made of TWO kinds of metaphysical stuff: physical and spiritual. The former is called “body,” “flesh,” and “outer man”; the latter is called “spirit,” “soul,” “heart,” and “inner man.” The soul IS the spirit. This view of man is called (anthropological) dualism, and sometimes dichotomy. It is the Biblical view.

It is commonly believed, though, that man is three parts (trichotomy), with the soul and the spirit being distinguished. I have concluded that this is false. The Bible overwhelmingly speaks of human beings as composed of two parts (see “The Faith Once for All,” 138-140), and the same spiritual activities are applied to our spiritual nature whether it is called “soul” or “spirit.” I.e., where “soul” and “spirit” are referring to a part of man’s nature, they are synonymous and interchangeable. For example, both terms are used to refer to that part of man that survives death, i.e., the disembodied element in the intermediate state: soul (Matt. 10:28; Rev. 6:9; 20:4), spirit (Heb. 12:23). Both terms are used for that part of man that departs at the moment of death: soul (Gen. 35:18; 1 Kgs. 17:21), spirit (Ps. 31:5; Luke 8:55; 23:46; Acts 7:59; Jas. 2:26).

This interchangeability is also seen in the fact that the highest spiritual activities of man are experienced by both the soul and the spirit (see John Murray, “Writings,” II:25-27). This is significant because for most trichotomists, man’s spirit is supposed to be THE seat of God-consciousness and spiritual experience (such as prayer and worship), with the soul being the seat of baser passions. But this distinction is not found in the Bible. For example, religious sorrow or spiritual grief is attributed to Jesus’ spirit (Mark 8:12; John 11:33; 13:21) and his soul (Matt. 26:38; John 12:27). See Ps. 77:2-3. Also, in poetic parallelism Mary expresses spiritual joy and praise to God in both her soul and spirit (Luke 1:46-47). Contrary to the lower position trichotomy usually gives to the soul, the Bible pictures it as the subject of the highest exercises of devotion toward God. “At night my soul longs for You, indeed, my spirit within me seeks You diligently” (Isa. 26:9). In Phil. 1:27 Paul exhorts us to stand firm in one spirit and strive together with one soul (psyche). Love for God, the highest virtue, comes from the soul (Mark 12:30). Hope is an anchor for the soul (Heb. 6:19). We should obey God’s will from the soul (psyche, Eph. 6:6).

John Laidlaw says that such passages as these “render it impossible to hold that ‘spirit’ can mean exclusively or mainly the Godward side of man’s inner nature, and ‘soul’ the rational or earthward. The terms are parallel, or practically equivalent, expressions for the inner life as contrasted with the outer or bodily life” (“The Biblical Doctrine of Man,” 90).

But what about the biblical passages that seem to teach trichotomy? These are actually very few (mainly Gen. 2:7; 1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 4:12), and may be readily understood in harmony with dualism (see “The Faith Once for All,” 141-142).

In recent theological discussion, the difference between dichotomy and trichotomy does not receive much attention, and I do not make a big deal of it since not much is at stake here. The biggest problem is that some people waste a lot of time combing Scripture for a perceived distinction between soul and spirit, and trying to apply this distinction to all sorts of human activities. The much bigger issue is the distinction between dichotomy or DUALISM on the one hand, and anthropological MONISM on the other. The tendency today, even among many evangelicals, is to deny the existence of a true spiritual aspect in human beings and to limit us to body only. This is a really serious false doctrine and must be vigorously opposed.

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