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Bipartite/tripartite human person

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#1 Guest_Simon Cray

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Posted 12 November 2003 - 09:47 AM

Hello everybody,

Could we discuss anthropology? I notice that some of the fathers describe human beings as "bipartite," or made of body and soul, and others describe them as "tripartite," body, soul and spirit. How do these two views relate to each other? Is one right and the other wrong?

Thank you,

#2 Richard Leigh

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Posted 12 November 2003 - 04:14 PM

Dear Simon,

Since some say "bi-" and others "tri-" it cannot be that one view, or mode of expression is true and the other false.

If we think of the universe as divided between physical and spiritual realities, then "soul" is "spiritual." If our division is between God and humanity, than, "soul" is human and "spirit" divine.

It looks to me as though the Eastern Fathers, when considering humans as tripartate, they use the term "spirit" as an attribute of "soul," and it is sometimes used interchangeably with "nous" (generaly translated "mind" but it has a more nuanced interpretation in the Fathers). This nous is "the eye of the soul."

There is a western view which takes the opposite tack, that "soul" is an attribute of "spirit," but this seems to lead away from the concept of "nous" as the soul's eye.


#3 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 13 November 2003 - 09:27 AM

Dear Simon and Richard,

Regarding bi- and tri-partite conceptions of the human person according to the Fathers, Richard's comment is certainly important: 'Since some say "bi-" and others "tri-" it cannot be that one view, or mode of expression is true and the other false'.

The matter in which the anthropology of the person is 'exegeted' or envisioned actually depends a great deal on the context of the discussion in which a particular father or group of fathers is addressing the point. Thus for the strongly ascetical writers, 'body', 'soul' and 'spirit' have different attributions than in the cosmological and anthropological reflections of the apologists, and further different still than the Trinitarian/human considerations of, say, the Cappadocians.

Among the terms, 'body' is perhaps the most straightforward in terms of providing for a clear definition. Among the fathers, it most often relates to the physical being of one's person: the sarx or flesh -- the physical, material form of the handiwork. Further, according to the majority of patristic exegesis, the body is of itself mortal and corruptible as a creation of matter. 'For from dust you have come and to dust you shall return'.

The soul and spirit are harder to define in such a conversation as this, as the terms are used differently across the fathers -- and sometimes, differently even within the writings of a single father, depending on the nature and focus of his specific conversation. Quite often, 'soul' and 'spirit' are used entirely as synonyms, most often in description of the 'animating principle' of life in the human person, as breathed into the bodily frame in Gen 2.7 ('and He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being'), and thus as the 'divine aspect' of the human composition.

However, some fathers read soul and spirit differently. Among the earliest of these is my beloved Irenaeus of Lyon. Irenaeus often does exactly what I have described above, and uses soul/spirit interchangeably, thus on numerous occasions describing a 'bi-partite' model of anthropology (offering such comments as 'man is a mixture of soul and body', and 'the human person is body and spirit'). However, there are also passages in which he distinctly distinguishes soul and spirit, claiming that the soul is that eternal, immortal animating principle in the human person which conveys the life of the spirit (and by this Irenaeus means the Holy Spirit) into man's corporeal frame -- thus man has a body, an animating soul, and a divine spirit which is actually God's Spirit infused into his own being and made the vivifying power of his life.

INXC, Matthew

#4 Guest_Jonathan Tallon

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Posted 13 November 2003 - 02:47 PM

Just a caveat - when the fathers use 'flesh' or sarx, as Matthew has indicated, they often mean the physical, material form. However, they can also use this to mean the complete human, body and soul (or body, soul and spirit if they use a tripartite scheme). This usage comes of course from scripture itself - the Word became flesh - so what a father actually means by sarx requires careful consideration of context.

Yours in Christ,


#5 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 15 November 2003 - 09:16 PM

Dear Jonathan,

Thank you for your note and further comments on the term sarx and its use in patristic writing. Indeed, that sarx ('flesh') can be taken to mean the whole human person, body and soul, is part of the 'problem' that was addressed during the Christological controversies, where some fathers took the term to mean exactly that, while others took it in contradistinction to pneuma ('spirit', 'soul') to indicate flesh or form alone -- thus the long debate over the person of Christ and His own attributes.

Context, as so often with the fathers, is everything. Posted Image

INXC, Matthew

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