Is Trichotomy a theological threat?


I posted the following comment to a post titled “Trichotomy–A Beachhead for Gnostic Influences” at The Riddleblog today at about 9:30 a.m. (U.S. Eastern Time):

James Montgomery Boice advocated the trichotomist position in Foundations of the Christian Faith,” revised in one volume, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 151-153, and 201-204. On 204 he showed the implications of trichotomy for his doctrine of man when he wrote: “When Adam sinned, the spirit died instantly, with the result that all men and women since are born with what we may call dead spirits. The soul began to die. In that area the contagion may be said to be spreading, with the result that we are increasingly captivated by sin. The remaining part of human nature, the body, dies last.” As I see it, that was about the extent of trichotomism’s impact on his theology. I don’t find it sending him off into the kinds of unbiblical views you cited in other trichotomists.I am personally unconvinced by his arguments, and find myself in agreement with reasons given by Berkhof and others for assuming the dichotomist position. However, Boice obviously did not see any similarity
between trichotomy and gnosticism, for he wrote, “There is an ongoing debate between those who believe in a three-part construction of our being and those who believe that man can properly be considered on only two levels. The debate need not overly concern us.” (151) He went on to posit that it was merely a question of whether the immaterial part of man could be further distinguished between soul and spirit, and thus a technical matter. I believe he was well aware of the contemporary aberrations of Chafer, Smith, Ryrie, etc., but he didn’t think they were connected to trichotomism.

Furthermore, I have not detected any evidence that Boice succumbed to the primary concern you raise when you write: “For if we are essentially spirit rather than flesh, as the trichotomists propose, then, in effect, we establish the same kind of dualistic hierarchy associated with classic Gnosticism, in which the spirit is exalted above both soul and body.” Not only do I not see any gnostic dualism in Boice’s writings, but I don’t see him proposing that “we are essentially spirit rather than flesh.” That idea does not seem to be inherent in trichotomism, even though one may find it among various trichotomists.

Again, I am not a trichotomist. But all this keeps me from seeing how it is true that, “Whether we intend to do so or not, we have opened the door wide to the essence of Gnosticism, namely, that matter is evil and spirit is good. If we adopt the trichotomist understanding of human nature, we inevitably set up the same dualistic conception of reality in which the Gnostic impulse thrives…” I suppose we could say that Boice was simply an exception to the general rule, but I think it would be better if we could find more explicit connections between trichotomy and dualism in the writings of trichotomist authors whose thinking has actually accomodated dualism before tainting all trichotomists with even the suspicion of gnostic influences.

On the surface, at least, dichotomy, which is itself an apparent dualism (body and soul/spirit) would seem just as susceptible (perhaps more so) to gnostic dualistic affinities as trichotomy. If anything, it seems to me that trichotomy should be more susceptible to some sort of trialism (see http://www.philosophyprofessor.com/philosophies/trialism.php on this subject) than dualism.

In any case, I personally do not see how dichotomy immunizes one’s theology against this threat. You yourself assert out that the dichotomist Ryrie did not avoid it, because it found its way into his theology through the “back door” of his “carnal Christian” doctrine.

Thus I remain, until persuaded otherwise, a happy dichotomist who does not sense the need to look askance at all his trichotomist brethren.

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