The following text has been revised. See footnotes for changes.
Arlen L. Chitwood asserts that after the crucifixion, Jesus’ spirit ascended to the Father, his body was placed in the earth, and his soul descended to the place of the dead, maintaining that Jesus was temporarily divided, seemingly into three persons [1. The last part, “seemingly into three persons,” constitutes part of the revision, inserted to clarify the objection] (Salvation of the Soul). This position confounds the scripture and the historic church creeds. He consequently asserts that Jesus had two ascensions and that Jesus can be divided into persons [2. The phrase, “into persons,” is part of the revision]. This conception of Christ is supported neither in scripture nor the tenets of orthodox Christianity. As such, Chitwood displays heretical tendencies in his published work.[3. This last sentence was revised to emphasize his tendency toward heresy; this revision was not intended to soften the objection though.]
He writes, “At this time Jesus yielded up His spirit, which went back into the presence of His Father in heaven (Luke 23:46; cf. Eccl. 12:7; Acts 7:59); His soul went into Hades, the place of the dead, housed inside the earth at this time (Acts 2:27); and His body was removed from the Cross and placed in Joseph of Arimathaea’s tomb (Matt. 27:57-61)” (p. 4, Salvation of the Soul).
First, his analysis of the terms, “body,” “spirit,” and “soul” are derived from a single passage in scripture, 1 Thess. 5:23, which he enlarges beyond the intended meaning. He argues that Paul means to say that humans have three separate parts, which are saved separately, ignoring that Paul frequently uses “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably, and that in most instances, he refers to humans simply as “body and spirit” (cf. 1 Cor. 7:34 & 15:44; 2 Cor. 7:1; also, James 2:26). Chitwood further ignores that Paul always speaks of humans as whole beings, consisting of parts, but nevertheless being whole. “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.”[4. This passage has some minor revisions in wording]
As regards the view that Christ was divided, seemingly into three persons, Chitwood’s citations do not affirm that position.[5. The words, “seemingly into three persons,” are part of the revision.]
Jesus’ words in Luke 23:46 should not be interpreted materialistically. When Christ exclaims, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” we do not understand that Jesus was placed literally in the Father’s “hands,” for God does not have a physical form. Rather, we understand this expression idiomatically. The same holds true for the second part of the exclamation: “I commit my spirit.” His utterance more precisely refers to his dying, not that his spirit-part (or person) ascended to the Father.[6. The words, “(or person)”, were added in the revision.]
Further, Jesus states explicitly that he did not immediately ascend to the Father. Speaking to Mary Magdalene, he says, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). And Luke relates that Jesus did not ascend until the disciples met in Jerusalem, after his several appearances. One cannot conclude that Jesus’ spirit ascended to the Father, then descended, and ascended again.
Chitwood errs when he says the Greek terms for spirit and soul are distinct, for the authors of the New Testament use these words interchangeably, i.e. synonymously. Consider Jesus’ own words in Luke 24:39. Here, he uses “spirit” to indicate a non-material being, a ghost. That Jesus has a material body, however, does not mean he does not have a non-material aspect (soul/spirit). Following Chitwood’s strict interpretation of these terms, one might conclude that Jesus had no spirit. No, these terms must be understood in their context.
Chitwood states correctly that Jesus was buried and that he descended (Matt. 27:57-61 and Acts 2:27), but he does not adequately explain how his material aspect (his body) was separated from his non-material aspect (spirit/soul). Certainly, the texts do not say that three aspects of Christ were separated into three persons. That is invention.[7. The original paragraph read: Chitwood states correctly that Jesus was buried and that he descended (Matt. 27:57-61 and Acts 2:27), but nothing in scripture suggests his body was separated from his non-material aspect (spirit/soul). The texts Chitwood cites do not say that three aspects of Christ were separated. That is invention.]
That Chitwood must piece together passages from several places to make his point confounds his position. He does not adequately defend the claim that a “threefold separation persisted until the soul and spirit re-entered the body at the time Christ was raised from the dead” (ibid.).[8. Some minor revisions.]
Egregiously, his stance contradicts the historic creeds of the church, which maintain one, complete ascension, not two. The Nicene Creed offers this construction: “He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father.” Note that Christ’s ascension occurs after the resurrection, not prior to it.
Based on an analysis of scripture and the creeds, I conclude that Chitwood’s “separation” theology is heretical, deserving censure.
The situation is further aggravated by his claim that Jesus is not only a member of the Trinity, but that he is a trinity himself. “Thus, God, Elohim, is a trinity; Jesus, Elohim manifested in the flesh, is likewise a trinity; and man, created in the ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ of Elohim, can only be a trinity as well,” asserts Chitwood (ibid.). Scripture never presents the Persons of the Trinity as being trinities themselves; this is heretical. (Mathematically this would lead to nine persons of the Godhead, which recalls the ancient heresy of some forms of Gnosticism.)
Chitwood arrives at this point through faulty reasoning. Since man is tripartite, he argues, having three distinct and separate parts, and since the Word became flesh, therefore the Word must have three distinct and separate parts. Only, Chitwood does not establish that man has three separate parts, despite his proof text (1 Thess. 5:23). Nor does he establish that the persons of the Trinity are themselves trinities (he provides no scriptural reference, only conjecture). He also fails to understand that the terms “trinity” and “tripartite” are not synonyms. Trinity refers to the three persons of the Godhead, who are one. Tripartite, which is not a noun, but an adjective, describes the arrangement of three separate parts which come together — their separateness is maintained, as in three nations forming a tripartite agreement. To say that, as man is tripartite, God is tripartite, is to argue that there are three, separate gods, which I do not think Chitwood intends to say. This is just bad reasoning.
Chitwood so violates the tenets of orthodox Christianity as to render his positions on the Trinity heretical.