Why the Trinity is a Bad Argument for Trichotomy

Attempts to glean from Scripture what it means to be human has brought about two prominent views.  Dichotomy, which sees that man was created with two aspects of our nature, body and soul, and that soul and spirit are both Biblical terms given to explain our spiritual nature.  The other is Trichotomy, which holds that man was created body, soul, and spirit, with soul and spirit being two distinct parts of our nature. I recently heard someone argue for Trichotomy saying that to be created in God’s image we must have three parts to our nature because God is Triune.  In this post I am going to point out why arguing for Trichotomy using the Trinity is just a bad argument.

Trichotomy and Heresy

Before jumping into the problems with assuming a tripartite nature of man because of the Trinity we must first see the historical issues surrounding Trichotomy.   The distinction made by the Trichotomist regarding soul and spirit is that the “soul is our intellect, will, and emotions, while the spirit is our God-consciousness.”[1] This distinction was central to the heresy of Apollinarianism which was condemned in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople.  Apollinarius was reacting to the heretics promoting Arianism, and in his opposition of Arianism he ended up overplaying his defense of the divine nature of Christ, resulting in a denial of a part of His human nature.

In Philip Schaff’s collected work of the early church fathers we’re given the essence of Gregory of Nazianzen’s summary of Apollinarianism in the introduction to Gregory’s Letters, Division I.

“Apollinarius… declares that the Son of God was from all eternity clothed with a human body, and not from the time of His conception only by the Blessed Virgin; but that this humanity of God is without human mind (Soul), the place of which was supplied by the Godhead of the Only-begotten.”

If the soul is the seat of the human intellect, will, and emotions Apollinarius and his followers were denying that Christ had a total human nature, and the “mind of Christ” was not human, but divine.  Trichotomy, with a splash of heresy, is required for this theological system to make any sense. Gregory of Nazianzen pointed out the heretical nature of this view.

“…(Apollinarius) assumes that that Man who came down from above is without a mind, but that the Godhead of the Only-begotten fulfills the function of mind, and is the third part of this human composite, inasmuch as soul (Spirit in modern terms in the context of this argument) and body are in it on its human side, but not mind (Soul in modern terms in the context of this argument), the place of which is taken by God the Word.” [2]

It’s easy to see why this was condemned.  It is important to note at this point that some church historians contest that Apollinarius was unfairly vilified for the teaching of his students, but that is a post for another day.  Trichotomy was so closely tied in with heresy that it isn’t a popular view even to this day. Trichotomy was presupposed by Apollinarius and his followers because it was required for their view of Christ, but what happens when we presuppose Trichotomy because we are made in the image of God?

Trichotomy, the Imago Dei, and the Trinity

We are told in Scripture that man was created Imago Dei, or in the image of God (Gen. 1:27, 5:1-2, 9:6) and that it was very good (Gen 1:31).  In being made in God’s image we must know there are limitations in our creaturely state when compared to the Divine. Even pre-fall we were not created to be omnipresent, or omniscient, but even in our limitations, we were made in His image nonetheless.                                               

It has been taught that for mankind to be made in the image of God humanity must contain some aspect of the Trinity.  This is true in many ways, we are relational after all, but to say we must have three distinct aspects of our nature, because of the Trinity, would be a step too far.  If we were to say that our nature is threefold simply holding to our being made in His image we would have to work back the interactions between body, soul, and spirit to the Trinity.  This inevitably leads to another heresy, Trinitarian in nature, Modalism.

Matt Slick of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministries succinctly explains what Modalism is.

“…Modalism states that God is a single person who, throughout biblical history, has revealed Himself in three modes or forms. Thus, God is a single person who first manifested himself in the mode of the Father in Old Testament times. At the incarnation, the mode was the Son; and after Jesus’ ascension, the mode is the Holy Spirit. These modes are consecutive and never simultaneous… Modalism denies the distinctiveness of the three persons in the Trinity even though it retains the divinity of Christ.”

Modalism is almost always the result of analogous attempts at explaining the Trinity.  A popular example of this is the water analogy. People say that water can be in three forms, solid, liquid, and gas.  And they will then say this applies to the Trinity, God is Father, Son, and Spirit. The problem with that analogy is that solid water, gaseous water, and liquid water are all just different modes of water, not distinct.  This would be like saying the Spirit is just a different manifestation of God, the same as Father and Son, not a distinct person within the Godhead.

To say that our being created body, soul, and spirit because of the Trinity logically leads to each member of the Trinity not being distinct persons one in essence, but three manifestations of one being.  There is no distinct “personhood” between the parts of human nature as there has always been among the members of the Godhead [3]. A man is the same man both in body and soul. The body is not distinct from the soul if it were the body could possibly be sinless while the soul could be pure or vice versa.  This is refuted in James 1:14-15, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death”.

King David had a desire to commit adultery, this internal, spiritual desire manifested in the physical act (2 Sam. 11).  He sinned in his being, body, and soul, the sin was committed by the entirety of his nature, not just one part of him distinct from another.  Some may argue there are differences when working back to the Trinity, but if that is the case then the requirement for a threeness in our nature isn’t founded on the ontological trinity but rather the number three.

Being made in the image of God is not the properties of our essence but moral and rational functionality [4]. All we are is derived from God, but not all we are is in God.  He is simple we are physical, we change while He is immutable, we are bound to time and space He is eternal and infinite. We are made in His image and to construct a theological framework of trichotomy based solely on what God is undermines the essence of the Triune God because we are not God.   The Trinity is a bad argument for Trichotomy because it assumes we share more with God than we actually do.

Bibliography

1 Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, (NJ: P & R Publishing, 2013), 801
2 Fathers, Church. The Complete Works of the Church Fathers: Amazon.com. Kindle Edition.
3 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 242.
4 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Lexington, KY: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016), 187-188.

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