The Flesh/Spirit Distinction in Pauline Theology
One of the most important, and yet most difficult, elements of Pauline theology is the Apostle’s use of the flesh/Spirit (σὰρξ/πνεῦμα) antithesis. The antithetical construct is preeminently found in Romans and Galatians, and can really only be understood in its fullest significance when viewed through the lens of both the Historia and the Ordo Salutis.Throughout church history, an emphasis on the latter aspect has held center stage in sermons and expositions, where the war between the flesh and the Spirit has been emphasized in the realm of the Christian life. Such a reading has been called the existential or experiential approach. It has sometimes been referred to as the anthropological interpretation–as it would also certainly be right to call it the applicatory approach. A prima facia reading, lends to the idea that this is the chief meaning of Paul’s use of the σὰρξ /πνεῦμα contrast; but is it the only way that Paul employs it? Many modern theologians tend to adopt a redemptive-historical (Historia Salutis) understanding of the antithesis–insisting that Paul unfolds an “old age/new age” redemptive-historical use of the “flesh/Spirit” antithesis. Among the proponents of this view are Herman Ridderbos and Meredith Kline. Building on the work of Ridderbos, Walter Russel sought to more fully explain and develop the redemptive-historical interpretation in his article “The Apostle Paul’s Redemptive Historical Argumentation in Galatians 5:13-26.” So how does one choose between the older “existential” (or experiential) interpretation vs. the redemptive-historical interpretation? Does one have to choose between one or the other? Or do both, in some way, hold a relationship to one another in the Pauline corpus? In order to answer these questions we must give consideration to the Pauline use of the contrast.
In order to come to any sort of settled position with regard to this discussion we must begin with definitions. Since Ridderbos is, in many respects, treated as the father of this redemptive-historical interpretation of the σαρκός/πνεῦμα antithesis, it is fitting that we give consideration to his explanation of Paul’s redemptive-historical use of this framework. He wrote:
In Paul flesh…is not primarily an existential notion, but a redemptive-historical one. Flesh is the mode of existence of man and the world before the fullness of the times appeared. Flesh is man and world in the powers of darkness. And opposing this is the Spirit, the Pneuma, not first and foremost as an individual experience, not even in the first place as an individual reversal, but as a new way of existence which became present time with the coming of Christ. Thus Paul can say in Romans 8:9: “But ye are not in the flesh but in the Spirit.” This being in the Spirit is not a mystical, but an eschatological, redemptive-historical category. It means: You are no longer in the power of the old aeon; you have passed into the new one, you are under a different authority.
At this point, questions may be raised with regard to Ridderbos’ precise language concerning the flesh and the fulness of the times (a phrase that clearly has biblical precedent, see Gal. 4:4). Limiting of the use of the word flesh to the historical period prior to the incarnation might seem somewhat reductionistic and overly simplistic. In fact, such a construct may do damage to the Christological nature of covenantal history. For instance, one may be tempted to conclude that the Spirit of Christ was not active in the lives of the saints under the Old Covenant. Such a view would fly squarely against the testimony of Scripture. Even in a strongly redemptive-historical book like Galatians, we are told that Abraham had the Spirit. The blessing of Abraham was, in large part, understood to be the reception of the Spirit. Certainly the blessing of Abraham was the imputed righteousness of Christ by faith alone– but this faith is the product of the saving influence of the promised Spirit. If this language is taken as referring to the age of fallenness as marked by the period of time prior to the incarnation, there could certainly be grounds for accepting it; but as it stands it is a less than helpful generalization.
Perhaps, as Russel suggests, something of a refining of Ridderbos’ redemptive-historical explanation is needed. Russel attempts to do so by suggesting that σὰρξ appears in the book of Galatians in three spheres: the ethnic, the temporal cultic, and the ethical result. Granting the legitimacy of the last two aspects, we must insist on a more elastic understanding of the flesh that includes (1) everything bound up in the present evil age, (2) with the temporal form of religion as most fully expressed in the now obsolete nature of the preparatory elements of the Mosaic Law, and (3) with the ethical sphere in which men live contrary to the will of God. In this way, the flesh would not be limited to the redemptive historical era prior to the coming of Christ in the fulness of time, rather it is the entire period of this fallen world until the consummation. Surely the age of the Spirit is the age that manifested itself in the fullness of time when Christ entered the world, fulfilled the Covenant conditions, secured salvation, rose to newness of life, ushered into the new creation and poured out the life giving Spirit at Pentecost.
In seeking to defend a redemptive-historical view of flesh and Spirit, Russel explains:
An interpretation of the flesh/Spirit antithesis in light of redemption history is not as unlikely as one may first think if we recognize the centrality of the redemptive-historical framework in Paul’s theology. Paul expresses this framework by numerous perspectives or metaphors through which he views the historical progress of redemption. For example, the following are suggestive of the pervasiveness of this framework: from the first Adam to the last Adam (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:20-28), from childhood to adulthood inthe developmental periods of God’s children (Gal 3:23-4:7), from the Abrahamic to Mosaic covenants in the covenantal development (Gal 3:15-22), from the present age to the age-to-come (Gal 1:4; Rom 12:1-2), from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col 2:13-14), from mystery to co-heirs regarding the Gentile inclusion (Eph 3:1-13), and from the natural body to the spiritual body (1 Cor 15:35-58). Paul’s use of the σὰρξ/πνεῦμα perspective as a redemptive-historical lens is even more pervasive than any of the above schemas (e.g., Galatians 3-6; Romans 7-8; Phil 3:3-4; 1 Cor 3:1-3; etc.). However, the interpretation of this schema as parts of persons rather than modes of existence has muddled Paul’s historical emphasis and contributed to an existential and dehistoricizing understanding of the apostle.
In the book of Galatians, Paul places “works of the law” under the heading of “flesh” (see Gal. 5:18), a word which in its characteristic Pauline usage denotes human nature in its falleness apart from the regenerating grace and sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. Works of the law fall into this category because they deceive a person into thinking he can be justified before God by His own strength and religious endeavors. In this sense, the idea of flesh as a redemptive historical category goes back prior to the Mosaic economy to the Adamic administration. All men are in Adam by nature. This is synonymous with being in the flesh. To be in Christ is one and the same with being in the Spirit. This is to say that the Adam/Christ contrast parallels the flesh/Spirit contrast. Sinclair Ferguson writes:
It is now widely recognized that in Paul’s writings the antithesis between flesh and S/spirit reflects a supra-individual dimension. The characteristic of life in the flesh includes self-absorption, self-reliance an indulgence, dependance on outward ceremony and ritual instead of inward spiritual reality, and clinging to the shadow instead of to Christ (Gal. 3:3; 5:19-21).
This is, in fact, but the breathing out of an atmosphere of spiritual pollution which has been earlier breathed in. The flesh is an entire world of existence. It stands along side Adam and the present aeon as a fragmented world order. To be “in the flesh” is contrasted with being “in the Spirit” in a way that is clearly parallel to and interconnected with the contrast between being in Adam and being in Christ, belonging to the present aeon and belonging to the new eschatological age inaugurated by the triumph of Christ and the gift of the Spirit (Rom. 5:12; 8:27).
Prior to union with Christ, those in Adam are “in” and live “according to the flesh.” Now in Christ they “in the Spirit” and live “according to the Spirit.” Paul pointedly says that Christian believers are not in the flesh (en sarki) but in the Spirit (en pneumati) (Rom. 8:9). The antithesis is radical and complete.
The book of Galatians holds a place of supreme importance in this discussion for two very obvious reasons. First, the apostle is dealing with the issue of Judaizers insisting on a “fleshly ordinance” (i.e. circumcision) for justification. This “fleshly ordinance” belonged to the old age of the Mosaic economy–with all of its earthly and typical cultic ordinances. In redemptive-history these belonged to the Covenant of Grace, and God’s plan of redemption in Christ. They pointed past themselves to the coming Savior. But, when they were taken out of their redemptive context and were trusted in as a way of salvation–they became a stumbling block to the self-righteous. They were, in one very real sense, perfect ordinances to reflect fleshly religion if they were not submitted to the gracious purposes of God in giving them. The fleshly ordinances pointed to the heavenly Savior, but they also became of stumbling-block to the unbelieving Jews on account of their temporal and typical nature. As Geerhardus Vos noted:
Something of this bitter taste of transitoriness enters even into the Old Testament consciousness of salvation…Paul means to say, that in receiving the glory, and losing it, and hiding its loss, [Moses] served the symbolic function of illustrating, in the first place, the glory of the Old Covenant, in the second place its transitoriness, and in the third place the ignorance of Israel in regard to what was taking place. The chief point of ignorance of the people related to the eclipse and abrogation their institutions would suffer. But the symbolism permits of being generalized, so as to include all the limitations of self-knowledge and self-understanding under which the Old Covenant labored. As a matter of fact Paul immediately afterwards extends it to Israel’s entire reading of the law, that is, to Israel’s self-interpretation and Scripture-interpretation on a large scale. Ignorance as to the end would easily produce ignorance or imperfect understanding with reference to the whole order of things under which the people were living. Everything temporal and provisional, especially if it does not know itself as such, is apt to wear a veil. It often lacks the faculty of discriminating between what is higher and lower in its composition. Things that are ends and things that are mere means to an end are not always clearly separated. Every preparatory stage in the history of redemption can fully understand itself only in the light of that which fulfills it. The veil of the Old Covenant is lifted only in Christ.
It is in this sense that we can say that the Torah became–though it was not originally given by God to be–the perfect form of “fleshly religion” when extrapolated from its Christological context. The divinely constructed typical and preparatory rites, when taken into the hand of the earthly-minded religious zealots, became a perfected form of earthly religion. This is the nature of what Paul is dealing with in Galatians. The Judaizers were insisting on the “fleshly sign” (and every subsequent legal prescription) for acceptance with God. It was an attempt to obtain the promise of God by human effort in the context of the revealed law of God. Just as Ishmael was born “according to the flesh” (i.e. by Abraham’s human effort to fulfill the promise of God), so too the Judaizers were enslaved under a “fleshly” way of life. Paul draws out the weakness and unprofitableness of the law of God in this context and likens it to the enslaving nature of pagan religion. In essence, the apostle’s argument is that whether you were putting yourself under the God-ordained rules and regulations for justification or under the self-imposed rules and regulations of pagan cultic practices you were actually enslaving yourself to the “elemental principle of the world” (For a basic development of this idea see this post). A redemptive-historical understanding of flesh in this sense may be understood to be a shorthand for the fallen world system (i.e. the present evil age, Gal. 1:6) with all of its forms and rituals. The flesh–though not exclusively referring to Judaism–nevertheless, did not excluded those who were seeking justification by the “works of the law.” In Paul, the “works of the law” and the “flesh” are sometimes used synonymously. Russel proposes this aspect as being the temporal dimension of the σὰρξ/πνεῦμα opposition. He writes:
σὰρξ and πνεῦμα now oppose each other temporally: σὰρξ represents an earlier, preparatory, and now inferior era of redemptive history because of its linkage to Torah (3:19-4:11). To advocate living κατὰ τῆς σαρκός as the Judaizers were doing (e.g., 4:23, 29) is to advocate an anachronistic set of standards, namely, living according to the rule of the σὰρξ instead of according to the rule of the πνεῦμα. Such an anachronistic rule negates the eschatological effects of Christ’s crucifixion (1:4; 2:19-21; 3:1; 6:12-16). His crucifixion negated σὰρξ (6:15) and its power over Christians (5:24).
Secondly, the book of Galatians has the lengthiest explanation of the ethical dimension, namely, “the works of the flesh” and “the fruits of the Spirit.” Though the redemptive-historical dimension under-girds the ethical, the ethical stands out preeminently as the battle between virtue and vices in the Christian. As Martin Luther once wrote, “The Christian is simultaneously a sinner and a saint.” There is an opposition that exists in the life of the believers, in which he or she moves from the desires of the old man to the desires of the new in a constant, continual conflict. Though some may chalk this up as being spiritual schizophrenia, it is rather the reality of believers living in the already of the eschaton. Until we are with Christ, we live in the sphere of the flesh, though we are in the Spirit. It is incumbent upon the saints to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the flesh that is ever present with them. The flesh and the Spirit cannot live together in an armistice. Rather, the believer has died with Christ to the power of the flesh, and therefore is under the dominion of the Spirit. According to Ridderbos, the Pauline teaching concerning life “after the flesh,” in Gal. 5:16-18, does not refer to some redemptive-historical mode of existence in the strictest sense, rather it is “the life which becomes dominant when freedom in Christ is either denied or abused.” This statement alone shows that Ridderbos was willing to make the shift from the redemptive-historical to the applicatory categories. In a sense, it may be best articulated as “a mutual informing” of the two positions. We often fall into the trap of making two things that are not contradictory in and of themselves “mutually exclusive.” This is a common error, and one that we should always ask ourselves if we are doing.
While more work must be done with regard to this all-important subject, it is abundantly clear that the σὰρξ/πνεῦμα antithesis hold a primary place in Pauline theology. Whatever view we may adopt, may we grow in our understanding of its significance for our spiritual life.
Rev. Nicholas T. Batzig is an associate editor at Ligonier Ministries and an assistant pastor at Wayside PCA on Signal Mountain, TN. He served as the organizing pastor of New Covenant PCA in Richmond Hill, GA.