The Pneumatology of Watchman Nee (Part 3: Distinctives–Tripartite View of the Self)

The following excerpt is from the author’s academic paper “The Impact Of Watchman Nee’s Pneumatology.”

Watchman Nee held to a tripartite view of the self, also termed “trichotomy.”[1] That is to say, Nee believed that each person held three distinct aspects of being. The person possesses a soul, a spirit, and a body. Whereas the body is understood to be the person’s physical body, Nee argues that “the Bible never confuses spirit and soul as though they are the same. Not only are they different in terms; their very natures differ from one another.”[2] For Nee, the spiritual aspect of the person is the eternal part of the person. Nee notes that “The spirit is the noblest part of man and occupies the innermost area of his being.”[3] The body is obviously understood to be the person’s physical body. Nee understood the soul to act as a mediator between the spirit and body. Nee believed that before the fall, man’s soul (which consists of the mind, will, and emotions) was controlled by the spirit. After the fall, fleshly desires direct the human soul. Thus, Nee argues that the “soul is the pivot of the entire being, because man’s volition belongs to it. It is only when the soul is willing to assume a humble position that the spirit can ever manage the whole man.”[4] Are there Scriptural reasons to believe that a person is a tripartite being?

The Scripture references spirit, soul, and body in various locations. However, most trichotomists, like Nee, stress two particular Scriptures. First, the writer of Hebrews states that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Christian dualists, who hold that the soul and spirit are part of the same essence, argue that “this apparent contrast between the soul and spirit to be a figure of speech describing the power of the Word of God…it can, as it were, divide the indivisible.”[5] What of the other biblical reference often purported by trichotomists?[6]

Second, Paul’s petition for the Thessalonians is referenced where Paul prays, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). The trichotomist will claim that the spirit and soul are divided, thus they must be separate entities within the human construct. Again, Geisler offers a rebuttal claiming that the text “refers to all these dimensions as being part of one whole [sic].”[7] What does one make of Nee’s claims?

On the one hand, a person must acknowledge the differences listed in the aforementioned texts. It does not appear that the division of soul and spirit can easily be cast off as mere figures of speech. But on the other hand, many difficulties arise when the soul and spirit are separated to extreme measures. For instance, if the soul represents the mind and the spirit represents the eternal nature of the person, would the person remain conscious in the intermediate state?[8] What happened to Jesus after giving up his spirit (John 19:30)? Did the soulish part of Jesus’ existence become non-existent between the time of his death and resurrection?

This paper holds that it is best to consider the person’s immaterial being (soul/spirit) as one entity, but holding separate functions. The spirit serves to function as the immaterial portion of the person that communes with God, whereas the soul is the immaterial portion of the person that holds the mind, will, and emotions. Nee is correct to note that the mind must be transformed by the Spirit of God. However, such an admonition does not necessitate an extreme tripartite view. Perhaps Geisler in correct in noting that human beings are “three in direction: They have self-consciousness, world-consciousness, and God-consciousness.”[9] This paper agrees with Geisler’s view as the theory eliminates the problems that stem from extreme tripartism, yet still notes the distinctives of the spirit and soul within the metaphysical aspect of the person.

Copyright. January 26th, 2016. Brian Chilton.


 Adeney, D. “Nee, Watchman,” Who’s Who in Christian History. Edited by J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort. Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1992.

Erling, Bernhard. “Story of Watchman Nee.” Lutheran Quarterly 28, 2 (May 1976): 140-155. Accessed November 20, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Geisler, Norman L. Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will. Third Edition. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010.

_______________. Systematic Theology: In One Volume. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011.

Hui, Archie. “The Pneumatology of Watchman Nee: a New Testament Perspective.” The Evangelical Quarterly 76, 1 (January 2004): 3-29. Accessed November 20, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Lee, Joseph Tse-Hei. “Watchman Nee and the Little Flock movement in Maoist China.” Church History 74, 1 (March 2005): 68-96. Accessed November 20, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Nee, Watchman. Sit, Walk, Stand. Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 1977.

_____________. The Normal Christian Life. Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1980.

_____________. The Spiritual Man: In Three Volumes. New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., 1968.

Tennent, Timothy C. Theology in the Context of World Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.


[1] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 727.


[2] Nee, The Spiritual Man, Vol. 1, 21.


[3] Ibid., 27.


[4] Ibid., 28.


[5] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 735.


[6] Tripartism and trichotomy are used interchangeably in this portion of the paper.


[7] Ibid.


[8] Here, the intermediate state refers to the period of time between death and the resurrection.


[9] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 740.


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