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? I suggest that what we know as the psychological is an expression of our bodies and spirits.

What Is the Psychological?

Yes, I am raising the trichotomist perspective again. It was popularized by Clyde Narramore in the late 1950s when he 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.

The problem here is that Scripture does not identify separate psychological problems that are divorced from our bodies and spirits.

I raise this question about the psychological because it is a category that tends to be 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. This means the psychological is disconnected from, or peripheral to, our connection to God. This disconnection should arouse our suspicions. Berkouwer writes, "We may say without 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. In sum, we consist of spiritual and physical substances that coexist and belong together, though they are separable by death. This duality is in view when the Apostle Paul writes,

Though outwardly [physically] we are wasting away, yet inwardly [spiritually, soulish-ly] we are being renewed day by day. (2 Cor 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.

Not this:

peace icon

But this:

heart love icon

The heart is where we find our swirling passions, desires, grief, dreams, and hopes. It is where we set the moral course of our lives. And it is where we maintain our spiritual allegiances: Are we for the true God, or do we claim independence or neutrality? In other words, this duality perspective 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.

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 freestanding category like the psychological that is, in practice, functionally disconnected from our relationship with the Lord.

To do this, though, we need to reject the trichotomy view of persons and take all the contents that have been placed into the psychological category and reassign them to either our bodies or the soul/inner person. This relocation adds to our understanding of humanity rather than subtracts from. 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.

1 Quoted from Man: The Image of God, p.195; also see Gundry, Soma in Biblical Theology