Over the past couple of years, and particularly the past several months, I’ve been in the process of a fairly significant paradigm shift in the way I read the NT—particularly Paul. Though I have already made a major shift, I’m still somewhat in transition; I’m still testing my conclusions to see if they fit naturally or if they must be forced to work. The shift involves a significant challenge to the way interpretors for hundreds of years have understood Paul’s use of σάρξ.
Several factors have influenced this transition.
(1) I chose Herman Ridderbos for my Adv. NTT theologian project, whose emphasis on Heilsgeschichte has opened my eyes to the objective, historical elements of Paul’s thought that are too often read in a more existential, ahistorical (and acontextual!) way. One example: when Paul says that now is the day of salvation, he doesn’t mean this text to be used (primarily) as a appeal to teenage campers to make a decision for Christ before it’s too late; rather, he is arguing that the fulfillment of the promise of the New Covenant has dawned with the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are living in the era of salvation foretold by the OT prophets.
(2) I stumbled across an article by Walt Russell on Paul’s redemptive-historical argument in Gal 5:13–26—shortly after my Ridderbos project while working on a sermon for my pneumatology class. (If you have the TJL, you can read it here.) His contextual reading of Galatians demonstrates that Paul continues using σάρξ and πνεύμα in chapters 5 and 6 the same way he has been using them in chapters 1 through 4, i.e., redemptive-historically.
(3) My dissertation covers the issues of justification, unity, and separation in Galatians. The term σάρξ has proven to be crucial for understanding the identity and views of Paul’s opponents and his argument and appeal to the Galatians.
So what is this new understanding of σάρξ?
It seems that Paul’s argument in both Romans and Galatians is much tighter and more contextually sound when σάρξ is understood as a reference, not to the our sinful nature or the indwelling principle of sin, but to the Judaizers—particularly their emphasis on circumcision (of the σάρξ) and the Mosaic covenant. (This is far too simplistic and requires more nuancing, but will have to do for now.)
So when Paul implores the Galatians not to use their freedom as an occasion for the σάρξ, his point isn’t that freedom can be abused to do what their sinful inclinations lead them to do. He’s urging them not to use their freedom to go back into bondage by submitting to circumcision and giving into the pressure of the Judaizers to come under the Mosaic covenant.
The σάρξ and πνεύμα that are opposed to each other are not two principles inside of them; rather, they are the two communities (Judaizers and Pauline Christianity) and the two covenants (old and new). The works of the flesh aren’t so much the things that the sinful disposition produces; they are the characteristics of the Judaizing community—and of all those who insist on living under the abolished old covenant. Notice how Paul brings the Mosaic law into the discussion twice in 5:13–26.
I urge to you read Romans and Galatians and trace Paul’s use of σάρξ, temporarily setting aside your understanding of σάρξ as the indwelling principle of sin. Does not a reading that connects σάρξ to Judaism, circumcision, and the Mosaic covenant provide a more contextual reading of Paul’s argument?
For further reading:
- Ridderbos, Paul and When the Time Had Fully Come.
- Walt Russell, “The Apostle Paul’s Redemptive-Historical Argumentation in Galatians 5:13–26,” WTJ 57:2 (Fall 1995): 333–57; “Does the Christian Have “Flesh” in Gal 5:13–26?” JETS 36:2 (June 1993): 179–87.