This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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The accusation of trichotomism

The paradigm we have set before ourselves is, as we have said, tripartite: that man is body, soul, and spirit. From even a cursory reading of New Testament texts alongside the various commentaries of major Church Fathers, such a view seems self-evident and coincides with the structural anthropology proposed by other major traditions, namely Hinduism and Islam, and coincides with Plato and Aristotle’s doctrine. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church has been wary of what is now called ‘trichotomism’ and has condemned as heretical any view that ‘cuts man in three’ and would deny that man is, rather, just body and soul.

This is a very complicated question, and to really unravel it would involve examining the controversies that led to these statements as well as the actual teachings of those accused of teaching this ‘trichotomism’. However, the simplest answer is that there is such a thing as ‘trichotomism’ that corresponds to something more like Gnosticism, and which attributes to man multiple principles and sets him against himself, and what the Church is ultimately trying to vouchsafe is the fact of man’s unity as a being. Since it is taught that ‘the soul is the form of the body’, this amounts to saying that the soul is the principle of unity, and so if we allowed for two souls we would have two principles of unity, and this would be destructive.

The first Council of Constantinople (870AD) stated:

“While the Old and the New Testament teach that man has only one reasonable and intellective soul, and while all of the Fathers and God-inspired doctors of the Church affirm the same doctrine, some, heeding perverse intentions, have come to such a degree of impiety as to imprudently teach that man has two souls.”[1]

And in 1312 the Council of Vienne issued the following:

“[W]e reprove as erroneous and opposed to the truth of the Catholic faith every doctrine and every thesis rashly affirming that the substance of the rational and intellective soul is not truly and by itself the form of the human body, or placing such in doubt…let whoever will nevertheless dare to obstinately affirm, defend, or support that the rational or intellective soul is not by itself and essentially the form of the human body, be considered as a heretic.”

It is important, when reading these statements, to take them for what they say and not to retroactively attribute to them the opinions of later theologians. For example, there is no mention whatsoever of the distinction in man between body, soul, and spirit, nor is the work ‘trichotomism’ used in the original texts. The intent is obviously very narrow. The term trichotomism is in fact a term coined much later, and these older texts are occasionally appropriated by these later theologians in order to reinforce a point that it is not at all clear they themselves intended to make.

At any rate, the anthropology we have begun constructing and will continue to develop in no way contests the statements put forth by the councils in the form of a body-soul dualism, since this is merely a different way of saying the same thing.

Suffice it to say that whatever is not ‘the body’, or whatever in man does not belong strictly to the corporeal world, can be called the soul, and this is what occurs, not only in Church documents, but in the New Testament itself as well as early fathers such as Augustine. But, when distinctions of nature and function are to be made, we will find that the very same authors do not hesitate to enunciate the tripartite structure of the human being.

Thus, it seems that certain theologians intend either to ignore large swaths of doctrine, or else they wish to present Scripture and the Fathers as ambiguous, contradictory, and careless in their terms.

The truth is that there are various ways of delineating the spiritual anthropology of man and, depending on the context and emphasis, sometimes a ‘consolidated dualism’ is more practical, while elsewhere, as we have already said, it is necessary to make more precise distinctions.


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