N.T. Wright Interprets “Flesh” for Everyone

In two recent posts, we explored the meaning of sarx (“flesh” in ESV, NRSV, and “sinful nature” in T/NIV and NLT) as used by Paul.  We even had Wayne Leman, a professional linguist and translator of Better Bibles, going back and forth with Kyle Phillilps here.

Well, I decided to consult a Paulinist on the matter at Romans 8:5-11:

But what do “fleshly”…mean?  ….[“Flesh”] is so problematic that it would be nice (as I have tried to do with some other technical language) to avoid it altogether, but I have found that doing so produces even worse tangles.  Better to learn, once and for all, that when Paul uses the word “flesh” and other similar words he does not intend us simply to think of the “physical” world, in our normal sense, as opposed to the “non-physical.”  He has other language for that.  The word we translate, here and elsewhere, as “flesh” refers to people or things who share the corruptibility and mortality of the world, and, often enough and certainly here, the rebellion of the world.  “Flesh” is a negative term.  For Paul as a Jew the created order, the physical world, was good in itself.  Only its wrong use, and its corruption and defacing, are bad.  “Flesh” highlights that wrong use, that corruption and decay.  (pp. 140-41, Romans 1-8, Paul for Everyone, emphasis mine)

According to N.T. Wright, for Paul, “flesh” is not so much about our “sinful nature.”  Rather, it is about the corruption and rebellion it evidences.

This is my interpretation of this passage from Bishop Wright.

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20 Responses to N.T. Wright Interprets “Flesh” for Everyone

  1. Tim Worley says:

    TC,
    What would this understanding of sarx imply for Christ’s humanity? In Rom. 1:8, Paul writes, that Christ was a descendant of David “according to the flesh (kata sarka).” Surely, while this highlights Jesus incarnation, and something of the limitation and weakness that accompanied it, Paul does not mean that Christ shares the corruption and decay of the world (at least I don’t think so).
    I agree with Wright that sarx implies a limitation and weakness (generally sinful and rebellious), but I’m not sure that applies in every case.

    • T.C. R says:

      Tim,

      You’re correct in your understanding. No, sarx is quite subtle, if you will. The context decides.

      Now when the context is speaking of mankind’s rebellion against God, then sarx should be understood thus.

      Regarding Rom. 1:4, yes, it’s Jesus humanity and so on.

  2. Kevin Sam says:

    I don’t really fully understand this issue of “flesh” and “sinful nature” but perhaps it’s time we come up with a new word to describe it more accurately. Maybe the Amplified Version is the way to go? It says:

    7[That is] because the mind of the flesh [with its carnal thoughts and purposes] is hostile to God, for it does not submit itself to God’s Law; indeed it cannot. 8So then those who are living the life of the flesh [catering to the appetites and impulses of their carnal nature] cannot please or satisfy God, or be acceptable to Him.

    • Tim Worley says:

      I think there’s a possible hint in Paul’s usage in Romans 8, with his contrast between “flesh” and “Spirit” (if we take Gordon Fee’s view, reflected in the TNIV, that “spirit” generally refers to the Holy Spirit, rather than the human spirit).
      Paul seems to set up the contrast as between the “merely-natural-apart-from-the-Spirit” person and the “Spirit” person. Now clearly he does not mean that (unfallen) human nature, as originally created, is inherently evil. But *perhaps* (and this is only tentative) Paul does mean that human life apart from the Spirit is the fundamental characteristic of “the flesh.”

      Might this be a key part of the fall? In choosing to live life in their own resources rather than with God, they forfeited the abiding presence of His Spirit, and were reduced to living from their own resources rather than the Spirit’s life. Thus, while Jesus was human, he was not “in the flesh” in this fundamentally Pauline sense, because he had “the Spirit without limit” (John 3:34, NLT). Now, post-Pentecost, all those of us who are in Christ are no longer in the flesh (that is, life-apart-from-the-Spirit), but in the Spirit (Rom. 8:9).

      • T.C. R says:

        Tim,

        Paul says the the “flesh” is hostile to God and cannot please God (Rom. 8:7-8). This is the nature of the “flesh,” as used by Paul. Here, according to Wright, it should be understood as “negative.”

        Now regarding the Spirit and the flesh, even after being renewed and indwelt by the Spirit, there’s still that warfare within (Rom. 7:18; Gal. 5:16-18).

        But yes, through the Spirit, we’re putting to dead the deeds of the body (Gk. soma).

        And there’s that daily transformation that continues to take place through the Spirit who lives in us (2 Cor. 3:18).

  3. T.C. R says:

    Kevin, the Amplified Version offers useful insights into this thorny “flesh.” Even N.T. Wright admits the difficulties of handling the term. 😉

  4. I think Tim is on to main point of Paul by seeing sarx (in the obvious negative usage, of course) as the “merely-natural-apart-from-the-Spirit” after the Fall situation in which we find ourselves.

    Connect this with Genesis 6 and I think you have yourself a good starting place.

  5. T.C. R says:

    Meto,

    But is it as simple as “merely-natural-apart-from-the-Spirit”? How could this be, since even now with the Spirit in every renewed believer, we still struggle with the flesh?

    But he’s on to something…

  6. Even regarding the current “warfare within” for those “renewed and indwelt by the Spirit” sarx can be understood as the “merely-natural-apart-from-the-Spirit” after the Fall situation of human beings because we have yet to experience the fullness of Spirit that comes in the age to come. Our “sarx” is tied to this age and to the basic principles found therein. Yet in the age to come we will have soma pneumatikon . . . resurrected bodies animated, empowered, and kept by the Spirit.

  7. Ooops, didn’t finish the thought . . . so in the meantime we live in a stage of redemption in which the Spirit is active in connecting us proleptically to the age to come, but we haven’t yet arrived. Thus our struggle. This is classic “now/not yet” frustration.

    • T.C. R says:

      I do agree with the “now/not yet tension” and the proleptic effect of the Spirit, making us a people of the future, in the true eschatological sense. Paul bears witness to this, not least in Romans 8:18-25.

  8. T.C. R says:

    Meto said:

    Our “sarx” is tied to this age and to the basic principles found therein. Yet in the age to come we will have soma pneumatikon . . . resurrected bodies animated, empowered, and kept by the Spirit.

    Ah! The full redemption of our bodies, ridding us completing of the presence of evil, yes, I’m with you on this one.

    Then “the fullness of the Spirit” is what will make the difference. But what text of Scripture do you hang this idea that we must await the “fullness of the Spirit”?

  9. Basically, I would align the “fullness of the Spirit” with:
    1) the prayer of Paul that “you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19)
    2) the call to be filled by the Spirit (Eph 5:18)
    3) the prayer of Paul that we may be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” which seems to happen at the return of Christ (Phil 1:10-11)
    4) the idea in 2 Corinthians 1:22 that the Father has put “his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.”
    5) My understanding of the two age scheme in general and how we live in an inbetween stage where we are still living in the present age with the new age still ahead of us, but the new age has broken in through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and session of Jesus Christ.

  10. T.C. R says:

    Meto,

    Basically, I would align the “fullness of the Spirit” with:
    1) the prayer of Paul that “you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19)
    2) the call to be filled by the Spirit (Eph 5:18)
    3) the prayer of Paul that we may be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” which seems to happen at the return of Christ (Phil 1:10-11).

    I have a problem with the proof texts above. They’re not addressing the question asked. They’re speaking to the transformation of the Spirit in us right now.

    Regarding 2 Cor. 1:22, we have an explanation in Eph. 1:13-14 and Rom. 8:23, the redemption of our bodies.

    My understanding of the two age scheme in general and how we live in an inbetween stage where we are still living in the present age with the new age still ahead of us, but the new age has broken in through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and session of Jesus Christ.

    Yes, I’m in full agreement.

    • Yes, these verses are speaking to the transformation of the Spirit in us right now, but that transformation is incomplete. And so the fullness of our transformation awaits what I consider the fullness of the Spirit (or better yet the fullness of the Triune God) being worked within us. Again I view these Scripture passages like this because of the way I understand the two age scheme overlapping. The age to come being the age characterized by the Spirit. I reason that being “filled with the fullness of God” is a process that is consummated when we have been glorified with soma pneumatikon . . . thus the “fullness of the Spirit” is the consummation when the whole self (body and soul) has been transformed by the Spirit. The call to be filled by the Spirit is basically a call to grow in this fullness. I would generally equate being filled with the fruit of righteousness with the fruit of the Spirit, which again doesn’t completely come to fruition in this present age. And yes, 2 Cor 1:22 is explained by the redemption of our bodies, but that redemption is understood as Spirit wrought redemption. We do not currently have soma pneumatikon . . . nor do we have the fullness of God made manifest in us until the fullness of this redemption takes place.
      So the phrase “fullness of the Spirit” is really meant to convey the fullness of the salvation we receive at the consummation of the kingdom.

  11. T.C. R says:

    So the phrase “fullness of the Spirit” is really meant to convey the fullness of the salvation we receive at the consummation of the kingdom.

    Meto, after looking at the arguments you marshaled above, I believe, in the end, that you’re right.

    Like iron sharpens iron… 😉

  12. Daniel says:

    Do you know the Dallas Willard’s interpretation for “flesh”?

  13. T.C. R says:

    Daniel, check the comments of one Kyle Phillips for that here. I hope that helps.

  14. Pingback: NT Wright on Paul’s use of “flesh” | God is Open

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