And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. I Thessalonians 5:23 KJV

Paul lists 'spirit and soul and body' in that order, which I take to be significant and which I take to mean that the spirit ought to be considered first in such considerations.

Hebrews 4:12 KJV, makes a distinction between soul and spirit in reference to the material body :

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

Here, the immaterial soul and spirit are likened to parts of the material body, namely the functional parts of the skeleton (the joints) which allow of movement and mechanical activity; and the living tissue of that functioning mechanism (the marrow) which is the living tissue within that mechanical structure.

Thus I understand that spirit is the unique living being of existence ; that soul is a non-material construct that allows the inner spirit to engage in non-material aspects of human existence (such as activities of the mind) ; and that the material body is the living organism functioning in the substantial world through the inhalation of oxygen from the atmosphere.

Is this what Reformed Protestantism teaches or does it teach something different from what I have understood from scripture ?

  • Are you aware that the majority Reformed position is that spirit and soul are two terms referring to the same substance, and that therefore man has a two-part nature? If so, then your question is more about the intricacies of how spirit and soul are undestood within that framework? I ask because a lot of writing on these two verses is a defense of the dual nature, which you might already agree with. Feb 15, 2019 at 16:36
  • @Nathaniel I don't understand how soul and spirit can refer to the same 'substance' when we are dealing with something insubstantial.They refer to that which is immaterial but they are different items, which is why two different Greek words (psuche and pneuma) are applied. Any response regarding the Reformed Protestant position will be welcomed. I am genuinely interested.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 15, 2019 at 16:49
  • Alright – I've posted an answer that focuses more on the question of two vs. three natures. If you're interested in more elaboration on the distinctions between soul and spirit within the two-nature framework, I may be able to dig up some more, though like I said, it's not as much a point of emphasis as it is with the defenders of three natures. Feb 15, 2019 at 17:58

2 Answers 2


The majority position in Reformed theology is that man has two substantial natures – a material body and an immaterial soul – and that the words "soul" and "spirit" are best understood as both referring to the immaterial soul. Berkhof (Systematic Theology, 2.1.2) summarizes the biblical evidence this way:

Trichotomists seek support in the fact that the Bible, as they see it, recognizes two constituent parts of human nature in addition to the lower or material element, namely, the soul (Heb., nephesh; Greek, psuche) and the spirit (Heb., ruach; Greek, pneuma). But the fact that these terms are used with great frequency in Scripture does not warrant the conclusion that they designate component parts rather than different aspects of human nature. A careful study of Scripture clearly shows that it uses the words interchangeably. Both terms denote the higher or spiritual element in man, but contemplate it from different points of view.

He then discusses the way these "different points of view" are expressed:

The main Scriptural distinction is as follows: the word "spirit" designates the spiritual element in man as the principle of life and action which controls the body; while the word "soul" denominates the same element as the subject of action in man, and is therefore often used for the personal pronoun in the Old Testament [...]. In several instances it, more specifically, designates the inner life as the seat of the affections.

With respect to "soul and spirit" proof texts, he points out that other passages, like Matthew 22:37, name even more things (like heart and mind), but this doesn't prove that each is a separate substance. On 1 Thessalonians 5:23 in particular, he writes:

In I Thess. 5:23 the apostle simply desires to strengthen the statement, "And the God of peace Himself sanctify you wholly," by an epexigetical statement, in which the different aspects of man's existence are summed up, and in which he feels perfectly free to mention soul and spirit alongside of each other, because the Bible distinguishes between the two. He cannot very well have thought of them as two different substances here, because he speaks elsewhere of man as consisting of two parts, Rom. 8:10; I Cor. 5:5; 7:34; II Cor. 7:1; Eph. 2:3; Col. 2:5

And on Hebrews 4:12:

Heb. 4:12 should not be taken to mean that the word of God, penetrating to the inner man, makes a separation between his soul and his spirit, which would naturally imply that these two are different substances; but simply as declaring that it brings about a separation in both between the thoughts and intents of the heart.

Charles Hodge also defends the dual nature of man (ST, 2.2.1), and on these passages he writes:

When Paul says to the Thessalonians, “I pray God your whole spirit, and soul, and body, be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians v. 23). he only uses a periphrasis for the whole man. [...] Again, when in Heb. iv. 12, the Apostle says that the word of God pierces so as to penetrate soul and spirit, and the joints and marrow, he does not assume that soul and spirit are different substances. The joints and marrow are not different substances. They are both material; they are different forms of the same substance; and so soul and spirit are one and the same substance under different aspects or relations. (2.2.2)

Reformed Baptist Wayne Grudem makes similar arguments in his Systematic Theology, chapter 23. He sees Paul "piling up synonyms for emphasis" in 1 Thessalonians 5, and that the author of Hebrews is using multiple terms to describe the "deep inward parts of our being that are not hidden from the penetrating power of the Word of God."

Some, like John Frame, tend more toward monism than the preceding authors, saying that each of the three terms (spirit, soul, and body) "refers to the whole person from a particular perspective." With this understanding, the use of these terms in 1 Thessalonians and Hebrews is explained as follows:

Biblical writers multiply such terms so as to describe the completeness and fullness of human nature. These passages do not make precise distinctions between the terms—certainly not precise enough to define metaphysical components of human existence. Scripture typically uses "spirit" and "soul" interchangeably. (ST, 801)


In Reformed theology, the most common view is that man has two natures – body and soul. If "spirit" and "soul" are distinguished, they are seen to be aspects of a single nature that are used to emphasize different aspects of the single immaterial part of man.

  • Your citation stated both soul & spirit are the same substance.We know that human soul is created, is the spirit created too by God, is that what you mean? Feb 16, 2019 at 1:58
  • @jongricafort Some Protestants believe in traducianism, including some Calvinists. But yes, those who believe in the unmediated creation of the soul by God would say that that includes creation of the spirit. Feb 16, 2019 at 2:46

The best I've found is that while a man Is a soul, a man has a spirit. We should spend our lives training our spirit to be like the Holy Spirit. The body is the container for us now

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    Welcome! While a popular saying, I don't think this really fits with orthodox Protestant teaching. We know what is fundamental about the human nature by what Jesus took on in the incarnation. If a human is fundamentally a soul, then it would not be essential that Jesus take on a human body, but only a human soul. If a human is not fundamentally a united body-soul being, then we are given no reason why Jesus retains his body now while he is with the Father. By saying that the body is the container for us now you depart from orthodox teaching which says that our afterlife will be embodied.
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 16, 2019 at 1:43
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    Hello and welcome to the site. Please site external sources to support your answers. For this question, it asked for a reformed protestant teaching, so if you could externally verify that your answer is based on reformed protestant teaching, that would be ideal. See what makes a good supported answer. Feb 16, 2019 at 20:37

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