A Distinction in Gordon Clark’s View of Man

There is an important distinction to understand in Gordon Clark’s view of man. That is, for Clark, while humans are a combination of body and soul, man (i.e. “person”) is merely soul.

The first of these two points — that humans are a combination of body and soul — is called “dichotomy.” This is to distinguish it from the “trichotomy” of body, soul, and spirit held by some Arminian dispensationalists.

That Clark held to dichotomy is clear in such statements he made such as:

“A kindly old gentleman—he was personally a lovely character—used to argue that man was composed of three things, body, soul, and spirit. (Genesis 2:7 shows that there were just two, not three components.)” – Gordon H. Clark, Peter Speaks Today, 1967, p. 22.

“The second and greater error in trichotomy is that it ignores the one place in the Bible where the composition of man is explicitly described. The account of creation in Genesis clearly imposes a dichotomy. God formed man’s body out of the earth and breathed his spirit into the body. There are precisely two components.” – Gordon H. Clark, The Pastoral Epistles, p. 152.

While Clark then held to a certain form of dichotomy, he yet believed that “man is soul.” That these two statements are not at odds, but are easily reconcilable is the contention of this article.

That Clark held that “man is soul” is clear in a number of places in his writings. Starting then with his unpublished systematic theology (Introduction to Theology, Chapter 9 – “Eschatology”, circa 1977) he writes:

Since a person himself, Paul, Calvin, you and I, or better, since the souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory, “while” their bodies … rest in their graves till the resurrection,” it follows that the man himself, far from being an instance of organic chemistry, is not even a combination of soul and body, but is strictly the soul. Thomas Aquinas followed Aristotle too closely in the definition of the soul as “the form as an organic body.” Aquinas tried to avoid the denial of immortality inherent in Aristotle’s definition, but avoidance is difficult. Some other theologians or apologetes, even if they are not Thomists, argue that man is a unity, and that there is no duality of soul and body. Well, if man is the soul, he is a unity. But if we follow Augustine a man is no more a unity of soul and body than a carpenter is a unity of hand and hammer. For Augustine and what other theory so well accommodates the Biblical data on the intermediate state? – the soul is the person and the body is its instrument. So also Charles Hodge: “The soul is the self, the Ego, of which the body is the organ” [instrument] (Vol III, p 725). Also, “the body [is] not a necessary condition of [the soul’s] consciousness or activity.” (p. 726).

Then in an audio recording (“Questions and Answers,” Audiotape, Minute 35, Winter Theological Institute, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, Feb. 2-4, 1976.) a dialogue is recorded:

Dr. Wilson Benson: We have determined, I believe, that man is the image of God. And I’m wondering if man is body or soul or whether man is body and soul. And if man is made in the image of God and man is body and soul, how can the image be in one part and not the other part?

Dr. Clark: “The account in Genesis says that God formed the body of Adam out of the dust of the ground, then he breathed into his nostrils the breath or spirit of life, and that combination was called a living soul. Since the clay of the earth is not the image of God, and since there is only one other element that goes into the makeup of man, it’s that other element that is the image of God, namely God’s breath. So that man is his spirit.

And greater length Clark writes in The Biblical Doctrine of Man (1984):

Some contemporary theologians, on the whole quite orthodox, insist that man is a unity, not a duality; hence they conclude that he is not his soul, but the combination of soul and body.

Before discussing such a view, one should realize that the New Testament terminology, though a development from the Old, is not precisely the same. Genesis explicitly describes the soul as the combination of the earthly clay and divine breath, and calls man a living soul. The language in the preceding paragraph takes soul to be something quite distinct from the body, and this in general is the New Testament usage. While the Old Testament often uses soul and spirit synonymously, the New Testament, especially when the adjectival forms of the word occur, imposes on them a moral distinction. Soulish carries an evil connotation (compare 1 Corinthians 2:14, 15:44, Jude 19). On the other hand, spiritual no longer denotes the human spirit, but the influence of the Holy Ghost (compare 1 Corinthians 2:11-16 and 15:42-47; Colossians 1:9, I Peter 2:5).

With this Scriptural background in mind, one may return to the question, not whether man is a unity, but what sort of unity man is. A parallel case should help. Salt is a sort of unity too, being a chemical combination of sodium and chlorine. So also the compound man is not the soul. Here of course soul does not reproduce the usage of nephesh in Genesis 2:7. It is a New Testament usage and is the common usage of our present century. Now to show man himself is not the combination, but is precisely the soul, mind, or spirit, one may appeal to II Corinthians 12:2, which says that on one occasion Paul did not know whether or not he was in the body or out of the body. Quite obviously the he cannot be the body, for he, Paul, could be either in the body or out of it. And if man is the soul, we have a more perfect unity than a chemical compound of sodium and chlorine. One may also quote II Corinthians 5:1, “For we know that if our earthly home of the tabernacle be destroyed we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Similarly Philippians 1:21 ff. Says, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain … for I am faced with two choices, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for this is far better …” Both of these verses show that a person can exist apart from the body. The body is not the person; it is a place in which the soul dwells. The home eternal in the heavens is not the soul, for our souls are not eternal. By God’s grace they are everlasting, but eternality would be a denial of their creation. What Paul is saying is that if the soul’s present residence is to be destroyed, we need not worry because in our Father’s house there are many mansions, and Christ has ascended to prepare them for the arrival of our souls. Or to change the figure, the present body, as Augustine said, is an instrument which the soul uses. It is the latter that is the image and the person. (p. 9-10)

Given then Clark’s view of man as soul, what are we to make of the combination of body and soul? If the soul is the person, what is the soul plus a body? Clark continues in The Biblical Doctrine of Man:

Up to this point emphasis has been put on man’s soul or mind, for surely this is the basic truth about man’s nature. However, man also has a body. An earlier page mentioned some theologians who, in the interest of man’s unity, somewhat made man a compound like NaCl. This, I hold, is not the Biblical view, but of course man does have a body and what the Bible says on the subject must not be ignored. In fact, some theologians, instead of considering man in his present compound state as body and soul, advocate a threefold division. They say that man is three-fold, like H2S04. He is a compound of body, soul, and spirit. The theological terminology for these two views is dichotomy and trichotomy. (p. 33)

The point to notice here [in Genesis 2:7] is that God constructed man out of two elements: the dust of the ground and his own breath. The combination is the nephesh. A parallel illustration may be of help. Suppose, under proper laboratory conditions, I mix some sodium with some chlorine and the mixture becomes salt. Salt is not one of the elements: it is the name of the compound. So also in Genesis. God took some clay, breathed his spirit into it, and the combination was a living soul. In the Old Testament the term soul designates the combination as a whole, not just one of the components. (p. 37)

According to Clark then, in the Old Testament, nephesh (translated as soul or living soul) is the combination of the material and immaterial components; the body and the “soul/spirit.” But it is the immaterial “soul/spirit” that Clark calls the “New Testament usage and the common usage in the present century” of the term soul. That is, “soul” is the immaterial, not the combined material and immaterial of the nephesh. This distinction of two definitions of “soul” helps to explain what otherwise might appear to be a contradiction in Clark’s view.

While Clark says that “God constructed man out of two elements” he had previous described man as just soul. The solution to this apparent contradiction, is not only to understand the difference between the OT and NT use of “soul” but to understand also Clark’s different uses of “man.” When discussing dichotomy “man” refers to the “human” or “human nature,” and when discussing the nature of “man” himself the reference is to “person.” Clear definitions make for clear theology. “Man” is ambiguous. “Human” and “person” are more precise terms.

To summarize then, “man” is a soul/spirit/person. But the Old Testament “man,” which is called soul/nephesh is referring to the combination, the human nature. A human is the combination of a soul and body, but a person can exist apart from the body as a soul.

3 thoughts on “A Distinction in Gordon Clark’s View of Man”

  1. Brains don’t think and we are not our bodies. I like this example from Clark:

    … Moses was not permitted to enter the promised land because of a sin he had committed. “He went up from the plains of Moab…to the top of Pisgah…. So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab…and he [the Lord] buried him…but no man knows of his sepulchre unto this day” (Deuteronomy 34:1-6). In the course of a century his brain decomposed, and after fourteen centuries there could have been very little left of his body. Nevertheless, Moses kept on thinking without brains or body, for on the Mount of Transfiguration Moses held a theological conversation concerning the doctrine of the Atonement with a refulgent Jesus, who may not have been using his brains, either (Luke 9:29-31).

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  3. “To summarize then, ‘man’ is a soul/spirit/person.”

    I believe Clark seriously erred in equating “person” (self or ego) with “soul/spirit” (nature). A distinction must be maintained between unique personhood and common nature. God is three “persons” (Father, Son, Spirit) and one “nature” (divine). Jesus is one “person” (Son) and two “natures” (divine and human). The second “person” of the Godhead assumed a “reasonable soul and body” in the Incarnation (to use the words of the Chalcedonian Creed); He did not assume a unique human “person.” In other words, the human “soul” that Jesus assumed was “anhypostasia” or impersonal. Thus, a clear distinction between “person” and “soul/spirit” must be maintained if we are to remain biblical and orthodox in our theology. Unfortunately, this is something that Clark did not do.

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