I’ll return to posting on being “known by God” on Thursdays each week. Starting today I plan on offering a substantial exploration each Tuesday of another noteworthy theological theme, the meaning of which—in my opinion—is widely misunderstood on both popular and academic levels. I refer to the “flesh/Spirit” contrast which frequently appears throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Perhaps the most (in)famous occurrence of this puzzling, arcane pairing is found in Galatians 5:16-17. In the ESV it is rendered quite literally as follows:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these [i.e. flesh & Spirit] are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
More than one renowned theological system has confidently staked momentous anthropological convictions (i.e. what is the nature of fallen human nature?) on peculiar interpretations of “flesh”. Some of you will no doubt be aware of the controversial rendering of “flesh” (sarx in the Greek) by the NIV in Galatians 5 and Romans 7-8 as “sinful nature”—a suspect, lamentable move the NIV makes over 20 times in the New Testament. Moreover, not only is the actual translation of sarx contended for, but even the basic rationale behind the sharp criticism heaped upon “flesh” by more than one biblicial author is, alas, not at all self-evident.
To make matters even more complicated, biblical scholars have endlessly disputed what Paul, in particular, was trying to get at by setting flesh and Spirit (or spirit; pneuma in the Greek) against one another in so many diverse contexts. Having journeyed into a number of commentaries and biblical studies for insight, I have personally come across at least a dozen (!) distinct positions on the meaning of the flesh/Spirit contrast. Indeed, it is fair to say that the only thing that New Testament scholars have been able to come to any significant agreement upon here is the extraordinary difficulty of simply ascertaining the precise identity of “flesh” (sarx) in Paul’s thinking. Here’s a sampling:
“The hallmark of Paul’s use of sarx is its complexity.” (Richard Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology, p. 106)
“The most difficult and complicated aspect of the Pauline psychology is his doctrine of sarx. The difficulty arises both because of the complexity of Paul’s use of the word, and because of one usage that is characteristic of Paul but that is rarely found elsewhere; and this peculiarly Pauline doctrine of the flesh has been subject to various interpretations.” (George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, p. 509)
“It is one of the puzzles of Galatians, as indeed of all Paul’s letters, that the same term sarx, which can have such negative connotations, can also be used in a variety of expressions with what appear to be quite innocent meanings.” (John Barclay, Obeying The Truth: Paul’s Ethics in Galatians, p. 181)
“[‘Flesh’] is also the most controversial term. This is principally because of the range of usage, since it seems to span from the innocuous sense of the physical material of the body to the sense of ‘flesh’ as a force hostile to God. The simple question which has generated immense discussion is how the one term can encompass such a range…The differing views on such questions have caused more confusion on this subject than in almost any other area of Paul’s theology.” (James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 62)
Over a number of forthcoming posts, I want to look one-by-one at those portions of Scripture where the flesh/Spirit contrast is present, interacting along the way with a variety of interpretations I find lacking for some reason or another. Eventually I’ll get around to offering my own. At that point—and, of course, this will only work if I manage to persuade you!—I’ll finally turn to look at a number of important biblical themes (the identity of Jesus, how God defines His people, justification, the nature of faith, the pursuit of holiness, etc.) through the lenses of the flesh/Spirit contrast to see what unexpected light it may shed for us. Simply told, it is my conviction that a proper understanding of the flesh/Spirit contrast provides an inlet into the very essence of a Christ-centered spirituality. Grasp this, and you will have gained a glimpse into what brings delight to the heart of God when he looks upon the people who respond to Him rightly. Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself! Until then, can I suggest that you take a few moments to acquaint yourself with these (admittedly infrequent) occurrences of the flesh/Spirit contrast in the OT–too often overlooked in a discussion that has tended to isolate Paul from his Jewish cultural & intellectual milieu–in preparation for the discussion still ahead? Next time I’ll highlight some of the major interpretations, as well as the New Testament data.
Genesis 6:3—“Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.”
Isaiah 31:1-3—“Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD! And yet he is wise and brings disaster; he does not call back his words, but will arise against the house of the evildoers and against the helpers of those who work iniquity. The Egyptians are man, and not God, and their horses are flesh, and not spirit. When the LORD stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and he who is helped will fall, and they will all perish together.”
Ezekiel 36:26-28—“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” (cf. Ezekiel 11:19-20)
Joel 2:28-29—“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” (cf. Acts 2:17)