Dichotomy vs. Trichotomy?

In the world of Christian counseling past, thinkers (philosophers, theologians, model builders) pondered whether it would be good to consider humanity in two parts (body/soul) or three parts (body/soul/spirit or psyche). These days I can’t recall anyone even raising this as an issue that competent counselors should consider. This absences does beg the question(s): Is pondering the substances of humanity not particularly needed anymore? Is it that our academic predecessors already answered the question?

I’m not sure but I lean to the first reason–most people think this isn’t particularly relevant to their work counseling others. I tend to agree with caveats. When I sit with someone, I try to consider their whole being. We can’t possibly discuss their body without considering their mind. We can’t possibly talk about spiritual matters without using the body. I can just imagine this. “Now, let’s discuss your stomach pain, but we will not consider your thoughts or your spiritual well-being in this part of the conversation…[room goes silent]”

And yet many counselors continue to function like this in implicit ways. The counseling professional who feels incompetent to talk about faith matters (or that it somehow violates ethics) may choose to ignore spiritual matters (e.g., “I deal with only the psyche and I leave faith matters to the pastor). Well-intended, but in denial of the whole person in front of them. Then there are those counselors who see themselves as only dealing with faith or spiritual matters; matters of the will. These counselors may implicitly neglect, even reject, the role of the body in counseling concerns.

We counselors need to consider whether we tend to neglect a part of the person in front of us when we ignore body or spirit issues. Thus, it can be helpful to examine our practical theology of persons. Note I didn’t answer the question in the title. There are a good many who do a fine job debunking the trichotomy position. However, a practical monism likely works better in the session–that the whole person in front of me functions as a unity that cannot nor should not be divided into pieces.


Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, Psychology

9 responses to “Dichotomy vs. Trichotomy?

  1. Phil, I think there are options other than tri or di. I like to think of it as “holistic polychotomy”! In other words, we are one holistic being, but the Bible clearly delineates various functioning capacities that work together.

    We are relational (spiirtual, social, and self-aware). We are rational (think in beliefs and images). We are volitional (we act and choose purposefully based upon various motivations). We are emotional (we respond and react internally to our external and internal world). We are physical (we are embodied holistic beings).

    When a person is sitting in front of me, I think of that person holistically (or wholistically) while also being aware of and pondering how “each area” of personal functioning relates to God’s prescription for healthy and holy living.


  2. Louie Buses

    Your previous post on PTSD and surgery results provides strong evidence for the practical answer to your question. We must see ourselves monistically or we are open to missing root causes. Therefore, we must educate ourselves as broadly as possible for the benefit of those we serve.

  3. “Then there are those counselors who see themselves as only dealing with faith or spiritual matters; matters of the will. These counselors may implicitly neglect, even reject, the role of the body in counseling concerns.”

    I am extremely dismayed at the number of Christians who, whether pastor or lay, believe this. The believe is that the mind and the spirit are one and therefore the ailments of the mind will be healed if only they will Believe.

  4. D. Stevenson

    Yet more evidence that I am weird. 😉 I have pondered dichotomy/trichotomy…, and yes, in relation to counseling. In fact, it was an issue for me just today. I asked a client about his spiritual life. Not religion or whether they go to church…, but spiritual. I found myself thinking tri-chotomy to try to explain what I meant. (pretty unsuccessfully, I’d say…., these poor counselees with their very green counselor)

    I probably started wondering about di or tri when I was trying to wrap my head around the cognitive dissonance in my own life. Depression is lack of faith…, or some spiritual issue, sin that needs confessing or something, right? (or so I’d been taught) Thus answering depression with medication must be wrong. Yet…, I was taking medication and…, it seemed that taking it was right…, and more in obedience and faith than not taking it. I probably spent about 3 years wrestling through those things. Thinking about Di and Tri was part of the mix. Yeah, yeah. Strange female. I know.

  5. D. Stevenson

    Oh…, btw, my conclusion is Hebrews 4:12 and 1 Corinthians 4:3 and 4. — However many “parts” doesn’t matter. I can’t know the line…, even in myself, let alone another.

  6. Lightbearer

    I would say that much of the difficulty would contain in how one defines “spirit.” Is is purely emotional, or cognitive, or a sense of morality and wonder, or a metaphysical presence, or any combination of the above. I’ve heard all of these explanations given at one time or another by both lay people and clergy.

    I would agree that the client’s holistic and entire worldview should be engaged in therapy, including his/her personal concepts and understanding of these issues.

  7. Tim de Groot

    Hi Phil,

    Ive been reading your blog for a while now, and am pleased to see you’ve commented on this. I’m a 30yo Christian about to start a psych degree and I feel that this is a question I need to resolve personally before I commence my studies into psych.
    The most common view, (amongst evangelical Christians in the UK and Netherlands at least), appears to be one of trichotomy. Though this in itself may not be a problem, it seems to me that the difficulty in regard to psychology lies in how to distribute various emotions and cognitions.
    I was taught, for example, that the spirit is subject one’s body and that the Soul is what is made perfect upon rebirth and is what aquires eternal life. The inferred belief here (and I am now convinced a deceptively destructive one) is that the body and the spirit are therefor mere flesh and fallen, thus cannot be relied upon.
    Though there are ofcourse many variations of these ideas and doctrines on the role of the spirit and it’s relation to the body and soul. The result is often “splitting” the “Flesh” or bad feelings and/or memories from the “Soul” or “new creation”.
    However, “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (nephesh, psuche)” (Gen. 2:7).
    He became a “soul” rather than received a “soul.”
    I know its been a long time since you wrote this post, but what do you think Phil? Biblical Nomism? 🙂

  8. Tim de Groot

    Should ofcourse have been “Monism” ! 😀

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