Hebrews 4:12, Soul vs Spirit ? What's the difference?


Hi everyone! I ran across an interesting phrase in a Bible verse, and wanted to get some information about it from others who know more than I. Hebrews 4:12 reads:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

I was interested to know what the difference between soul and spirit is? My understanding is that spirits don’t have parts (or at least God doesn’t and He is spirit), so what is this division between soul and spirit? How would the Hebrews to whom these words were written have understood the distinction?

Thanks !


All living things have a soul–from plants to animals to human beings. A soul is the unifying principle of a living thing. What human beings have is a spiritual soul (also known as a rational soul) made in the Image and Likeness of God. This means that we have an intellect for Truth (God) and a will for goodness and love (God).

All living things need something outside of themselves to continue living—and the higher the living thing is in the hierarchy of life, the greater inner activity exists within it. Plants take in oxygen, water, phosphates, minerals and sunshine. Animals are higher in the hierarchy because they can take in more of the outside world inside of themselves: with their senses they can hear, see, smell, feel and taste the outside world, and can move from sun to shade. Likewise, Man needs oxygen, water, minerals, and sunshine— and with the body’s senses brings the outside world in through sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. But unlike animals, Man can know, reason and understand the universe in which he lives and has *the power to produce ideas. *

Ideas are some of the most powerful things in the universe—it is the mind which splits the atom; whereas an atom cannot even know itself. Man is more than matter. Televisions and computers are made out of glass, plastic and metal— but there is nothing about glass, plastic or metal that can produce rational information. The information comes from without. Likewise, physical man is made out of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and trace metals. But there is nothing about oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and trace metals that can produce rational ideas. This originates from outside the physical and from within the Rational Soul. Thus we know things like “Justice” “Faith” “Hope” “Forgiveness” “Good” “Evil”. An animal does not have that capacity. Men and angels do.

In order to live you must eat—no food means no life. Life is dependent on something outside of itself to continue living. Thus all living things could be said to live under a “Law of Communion” which states “In order to live you must eat—no food means NO LIFE”. Thus the bird in the sky and the fish in the sea, and the beast in the field, and man himself is in pursuit of his daily bred in order to live. But Man is more than physical, He is spiritual; thus God gives Himself as food for Man to live. Thus Jesus said things like: I Am the Bread of Life" and *“unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you shall have not have life in you…”


I have that same question. I was told in my pastoral group that the soul and spirit were the same thing.


Well after doing a little bit more searching I’ve found some answers, though if anyone can add more **detail **or clarity I’d greatly appreciate it.
From the Catechism:

367 Sometimes the soul is distinguished from the spirit: St. Paul for instance prays that God may sanctify his people “wholly”, with “spirit and soul and body” kept sound and blameless at the Lord’s coming. The Church teaches that this distinction does not introduce a duality into the soul. “Spirit” signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God.


The explanation here from the CCC is good.

Looking again at the verse the sword pierces TO the division but does not divide it?

Adding verse 13 ESV
“And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

taking Hebrews 4:12 and the CCC 367 my thoughts are

The souls of “all creatures” do not need sanctification however…

Sanctification of the human soul is necessary. The Catholic Church teaches giving of sanctifying grace and increasing sanctifying grace of the soul through the Sacraments.

I don’t know if this is a correct explanation of what the CCC is saying and it’s not my place to explain it here however this is what I feel the verses in letter to the Hebrews and the CCC are saying.


It goes back to the Greek that the author used.

Soul (psyche) and spirit (pneuma) are distinguished in that the psyche encompasses the personality and the mind, the natural person, while the pneuma is more the immortal essence, the spiritual person.


So “mind and soul” or “mind and spirit” would be an appropriate dynamic equivalency gloss of the Greek for soul and spirit?


The difference can seem subtle, but they are there: note in the following definitions that spirit gives life to the living thing, were as the soul seems to be the life of the living thing. These are OED definitions that don’t change since the word was used as a English word. Which helps us know or understand why the translators chose the words of English they used. The same benefit when one reads scripture in Latin and refers to the Latin the Catholic Church uses. Those words and there definitions haven’t changed, even though today’s Italian language has changed over time. When it comes to the English language I find the OED is the best source.


I. 1. a. The animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life.

I. 1. The principle of life in man or animals; animate existence. Obs. (freq. in OE. in Scriptural passages).

Even when the man was made didn’t God breath into the man that the man became a living soul, and isn’t it true that God is a Spirit? Also, Jesus did he same to His disciples breathing on them and telling them to receive the Holy Spirit which would give one Life that is of God.


The question that I would put to those who teach that the spirit and the soul are identical is this: If the spirit (pneuma) and the soul (psuche) are then same, then why is being “soulish” (“psuchikos,” translated “sensual” in the D-R and “natural” or “sensual” in the KJV) considered to be a Bad Thing, while being “spiritual” (“pneumatikos,” so translated in both the KJV and the D-R) considered to be a Good Thing? See I Cor 2:14-15, James 3:15, and Jude 19.

On the evidence of Sacred Scripture I can accept that the soul and the spirit are very closely connected (perhaps even “joined at the hip”), but on that same evidence I cannot accept that they are exactly the same thing.


Perhaps one of the best explanations of the distinctions between our souls and our spirits came from Frank Sheed in his books “Theology For Beginners” and “Theology and Sanity”. Here is an excerpt from the second book:

What is man?


Ok. I’ll take your word for it that the soul and spirit are different. Maybe I’m not meant to understand the difference, that I’ll just need to take it on faith.


I can give you AN explanation of the difference that makes sense to me, but be aware that it originally came from a Protestant source, and I do not vouch for it’s veracity, only that it seems to explain the difference. According to this explanation, the spirit of man is that part of him that is God-conscious, while the soul is that part that is self-conscious. The soul (according to this explanation) processes the input from the senses (the body) and from the spirit. According to this explanation, in the struggle between the God-directed spirit and the sense-directed body, it is the soul that casts the deciding vote.

In the words of that famous Southern Gospel song, “We’ll understand it better bye and bye.” :smiley:


Modern Catholic Dictionary:

SPIRIT. That which is positively immaterial. It is pure spirit if it has no dependence on matter either for its existence or for any of its activities. God is uncreated pure Spirit; the angels are created pure spirits. The human soul is more properly called spiritual. Although it can exist independent of the body, it nevertheless in this life depends extrinsically on the body for its operations, and in the life to come retains a natural affinity for the body, with which after the resurrection it will be reunited for all eternity. (Etym. Latin spiritus, breath, life, soul, mind, spirit, power.)

SOUL. The spiritual immortal part in human beings that animates their body. Though a substance in itself, the soul is naturally ordained toward a body; separated, it is an “incomplete” substance. The soul has no parts, it is therefore simple, but it is not without accidents. The faculties are its proper accidents. Every experience adds to its accidental form. It is individually created for each person by God and infused into the body at the time of human insemination. It is moreover created in respect to the body it will inform, so that the substance of bodily features and of mental characteristics insofar as they depend on organic functions is safeguarded. As a simple and spiritual substance, the soul cannot die. Yet it is not the total human nature, since a human person is composed of body animated by the soul. In philosophy, animals and plants are also said to have souls, which operate as sensitive and vegetative principles of life. Unlike the human spirit, these souls are perishable. The rational soul contains all the powers of the two other souls and is the origin of the sensitive and vegetative functions in the human being.


Just going by the plain definition of the words used (psychēs and pneumatos), psychē - usually translated as “life” or “soul” in Bibles - denotes (as an earlier poster said) one’s mind, consciousness, sense of self or being - the inner person - while pneuma (‘breath’ or ‘wind’ or ‘spirit’ - think something like ‘vital airs’) is the immortal, inner human spirit. Psychē is the ‘organ’ of the inner self, while pneuma is the force which vitalizes that ‘organ’. It’s confusing, yes, since the distinction between them is so thin, sometimes the two words are used interchangeably.

The same (thin) distinction exists between ruaḥ (= pneuma) and nephesh (= psychē) in Hebrew BTW. In Genesis, God blows the breath (ruaḥ) of life into man, which gave him life and made him a living being or creature (nephesh).


I let Saint Thomas Aquinas explain it to us:

"It is called a soul by reason of what it possesses in common with other souls—that is, as giving life to the body; whence it is written (Gn. 2:7): “Man was made into a living soul”; that is, a soul giving life to the body. But the soul is called a spirit according to what properly belongs to itself, and not to other souls, as possessing an intellectual immaterial power."

Any way was a very good question because even Greek scholars have trouble with this.
In the Thayer’s Greek Lexicon they write under the word divide (merismos) this:
“…but it is not easy to understand what the dividing of the ‘soul’ is”

Hope this helps,

In the love Christ,


closed #16

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