The Necessity of Trichotomy for Ethics in the 21st Century

Major ethical dilemmas have come up in every era of humanity. This has not changed nor will it change as long as mankind is here, and sin nature is present. Fortunately, for the Christian, we have a book that equips us with the tools necessary to train our conscience to be effective in the midst of moral decay. This book of course is the Bible. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 gives us this reassurance that the Bible equips us for ethics; the ability to do good, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Because all of the Bible is inspired by God it follows that all of Scripture is necessary to produce a good ethic in the sight of God. While this is undoubtably true, there are certain doctrines that rise to the top of every era and it seems to me that trichotomy is one that is rising to the top in our day and age. 

Trichotomy is simply the belief that man is made up of three parts — body, soul, and spirit. This doctrine is rooted in the teaching that man is made in the image of God and that the God of the Bible is a triune God. 

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Gen. 1:26-27)

Mankind being made in the image of God not only have a special place in creation and intrinsically more value than the rest of creation, we also reflect our Creator by having these three parts make up a whole. The Godhead is made up in three persons and we can see this concept throughout Scripture. From the Baptism of Christ “And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, ‘You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.’” (Luke 3:22); to the call of Isaiah “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: ‘Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’” (Isaiah 6:8); to the Great Commission “”Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) we can see the three persons in the Godhead. 

Mankind isn’t exactly three persons in one as we understand the Trinity, but we are three parts in one reflecting the image of a Three in One. Scripture also clearly spells out that mankind is made up of three parts. 

Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

1 Thessalonians 5:23 Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The clear teaching of Scripture is that mankind has a body, soul, and spirit. Not all Christians hold to the trichotomy view, some hold to a dichotomy view. This is the view that mankind is made up of two parts namely, material and immaterial. While this approach is simplistic and may pass the test for Occam’s razor it falls short of consistently holding a literal interpretation of Scripture. In past eras this might not have held large implications or any noticeable ones when it came to ethics, but I believe those days are long gone. The 21st century brings some unique dilemmas that I believe push the doctrine of trichotomy into the spotlight. 

Artificial Intelligence and Ethics

A.I. is something that is unique to ethics today as it represents, at the very least, a desire to insert an immaterial part (intelligence) into a machine. This may sound like silly science fiction, but it is an idea that is taking off through the rise of humanism and specifically transhumanism. As weird as it sounds A.I. already has literally become a religion with a church where the founder believes A.I. will one day become some sort of “godhead”. Robots are also transforming religions by becoming religious leaders

For now, Mindar [A robot] is not AI-powered. It just recites the same preprogrammed sermon about the Heart Sutra over and over. But the robot’s creators say they plan to give it machine-learning capabilities that’ll enable it to tailor feedback to worshippers’ specific spiritual and ethical problems.[i]

Robots are changing other religions, too. In 2017, Indians rolled out a robot that performs the Hindu aarti ritual, which involves moving a light round and round in front of a deity. That same year, in honor of the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary, Germany’s Protestant Church created a robot called BlessU-2. It gave preprogrammed blessings to over 10,000 people.[ii]

Some of the robots used for religious purposes are A.I. powered and some are not but it is clear that A.I. is something that Christians will have to wrestle with concerning ethics moving forward. Consider one of the more advanced A.I. robots, Sophia. Sophia can recognize human faces, emotional expressions, and gestures. The robot sometimes uses a fully A.I. autonomous mode of operation and sometimes the A.I. is mixed with preprogramed human-generated words. Sophia is also a citizen and an ambassador for the UN.[iii]

The advancements in science will bring up some interesting moral dilemmas that Christians will have to think through. Do we need to make a ministry to reach A.I. robots? If the technology advances far enough would it be ethical to move our consciousness into an artificial body? What should be the Christian’s interaction with A.I.? Is it right to recognize any kind of personhood in an A.I.? All of these questions can become confusing to answer if we merely recognize mankind in the light of dichotomy, material and immaterial, because there is a genuine case to be made that A.I. legitimately could have both. If we align ourselves with the clear teaching of Scripture that man is not merely immaterial and material, but is a body, soul, and a spirit; we can work through these difficult ethical dilemmas with the understanding that mankind has an eternally valuable part that was bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus Christ.

The ethical questions that the 21st century brings highlight our need for the doctrine of trichotomy and the recognition that mankind alone was made in the image of God.


[i] https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/9/9/20851753/ai-religion-robot-priest-mindar-buddhism-christianity

[ii] https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/9/9/20851753/ai-religion-robot-priest-mindar-buddhism-christianity

[iii] https://www.hansonrobotics.com/sophia/

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