Paradigm Shift—Paul’s Use of Σάρξ

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:

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6 Responses to Paradigm Shift—Paul’s Use of Σάρξ

  1. Nathanael November 17, 2006 at 6:07 pm #

    For more info on this, you should check out the monograph by Walt Russell, “The Flesh-Spirit Conflict in Galatians,” as well as his JETS article, “Insights from Postmodernism’s Emphasis on Interpretive Communities in the Interpretation of Romans 7.” Both are excellent and deal with this point in greater detail.

  2. Phil Gons November 24, 2006 at 9:18 am #

    Thanks, Nathanael. I’ll definitely have to check those out.

  3. Mike Aubrey May 2, 2007 at 1:10 am #

    Phil, you’re completely right! This is actually something struck me this past month writing a survey paper for my senior seminar paper. It was a hard paper to write because I had to survey a theme through a corpus in only eight pages…not much space…

    If you want, you can read it here, particularly page five of the pdf.

  4. Phil Gons May 2, 2007 at 5:42 pm #

    Thanks for sharing, Mike. Some helpful thoughts, even if brief.

  5. Paul Gibbs January 15, 2008 at 11:43 am #

    Interesting! Several years ago I detected this thread in Paul as well and was delighted to discover Russell’s work. Reading the terms as polar codes for opposing communities does help to roll things together with greater unity. However, in the last year I have been dissuaded by this hypothesis. Looking closely at Paul’s usage of the terms in each passage (rather than at the terms from the broad perspective), I have (reluctantly) had to allow the terms more anthropological or ethical significance; and, when you start doing that, I think Russell’s package starts breaking up. I also have misgivings about Russell’s methodology. Silva (Russell’s mentor at WTS) joyfully endorses Russell’s work and adopts a similar stand in his book on Galatians. I’d be interested in hearing if you have had any more thoughts on this subject since posting this in 2006—I still want this theory to work.

  6. Phil Gons January 19, 2008 at 1:49 am #

    Thanks for your note, Paul. I’m not totally persuaded by Russell’s communal reading of the texts. I’m still working through the issues—though not much recently. However, I don’t think the traditional view (i.e., flesh as in immaterial, indwelling principle of sin) and Russell’s view are the only two options. Even if σάρξ and πνεῦμα don’t refer to communities, I think there is some strong evidence for seeing them as referring to the two covenants—old and new. σάρξ clearly refers to circumcision in several places (e.g., Gal 6:12). By extension it seems to refer to the Judaistic emphasis on the Mosaic law. The way Paul uses Spirit and flesh and works of the law and hearing with faith in chiastic juxtaposition seems to suggest that law and flesh are very closely related (cf. Gal 3:2–3). Later he contrasts Spirit with law (5:18, 22–23). I’m still inclined to see the works of the flesh as referring to the manifestations of living like Judaizers under the old, obsolete Mosaic covenant.