Everything Hinges on the Flesh

“The truth is that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen for the service of God, it is the flesh which actually renders it capable of such service.” Tertullian

Sin and salvation and the logics, theories, and worlds attached to each are centered in orientations to the flesh.  Sin takes hold in the flesh and Christ came in the flesh so as to address sin. Which raises the questions as to what the flesh might be (is it the sinful nature or does it refer simply to the physical body), what happens to the flesh at resurrection and what is its relation to Spirit? David Bentley Hart has re-raised the issue of the flesh, suggesting that resurrected bodies have no flesh and that the writers of the New Testament were, indeed, denigrating the flesh and did not hold to the notion that flesh was a designation for the “sinful nature” (the NIV rendering). As much as I might enjoy Hart’s cheekiness (“I would check the exact wording, but that would involve picking up a copy of the NIV”),[1] the entertainment value is diminished as it becomes clear his is an extreme version of the system he critiques.

Before I get to critique though, it may be helpful to attempt an appreciative word of what I think Hart may be up to. In countering N. T. Wright’s heavy focus on all things earthy and material it may be that Hart simply hopes to ground theology and understanding firmly in Spirit as a first order reality. A healthy dose of German idealism and basic Aristotelian philosophy mixed with the New Testament tells us that matter ultimately eludes understanding and that the true essence of things is in the Mind of God and is to be discovered by tracing his thought with and through the Spirit. Flesh, matter, and physicality, are not the ground of being but the Word of God is true Ground and substance. The turn to the material and empirical may have gone too far Wright and Hart, in pushing it left, is aligning himself more with German idealism rather than a naïve critical realism.  This may account for his focus: “Spirit was something subtler but also stronger, more vital, more glorious than the worldly elements of a coarse corruptible body compounded of earthly soul and material flesh.” [2] Setting aside for the moment the anachronism and dialectical contrast with spirit, the notion that soul and flesh are a compound (presumably separate entities), this is an affirmation we (or he) might wish Christians appreciated (even if it has nothing to do with common philosophical thought in the first century).  

 As James Ware points out in his not unappreciative critique, Hart is wrong in presuming that the ancient world held to a notion of spirit that would accommodate (even Hart’s) resurrection (the resurrection was shocking and unbelievable even for those who eventually believed); Hart is wrong in presuming that it is Protestants who have innovated the notion that Jesus was raised and ascended in a fleshly body (it is the overwhelming position of the early Church as Ware demonstrates); he is wrong; and he is “egregiously” wrong in presuming that Paul’s contrast between spirit and soul (in I Cor. 15) is typical of the ancients.[3]  Hart’s factual errors though, point to a more deeply rooted hermeneutical problem.

 I presume that Hart’s determined misreading is rooted in something more than a momentary lapse, but is connected to his more eloquent and less unorthodox groundings in Neoplatonism, versions of natural theology, and notions of God’s absolute impassibility. That is, Hart’s error springs from the same well he imagines has poisoned Protestant theology; he too drinks of the presumption that there is a given understanding (knowledge of God as creator and law giver) available to all persons (whose capacity for reason remains largely intact in spite of sin) and that salvation does not pertain to the source of this epistemological putrefaction. Hart’s efforts to read the New Testament in the context of contemporaneous thought and philosophy is more Protestant than the Protestants (strange for an Eastern Orthodox theologian) in that he presumes Paul and John are mostly reflecting and not critiquing the received understanding. The conceptual world of the New Testament, he claims, is not to be found in a distinctive Hebrew or Christian form of thought but intertestamental apocalyptic literature fused with Platonism informs New Testament cosmology and gives meaning to words such as “spirit, soul, and flesh.”

Hart blames Descartes for modern Protestant failures and presumes that by being steeped in knowledge of intertestamental literature, ancient cosmology, and Greek philosophical thought, he has access to what Paul really meant. Thus, “In the New Testament, ‘flesh’ does not mean ‘sinful nature or ‘humanity under judgment’ or even ‘fallen flesh.’  It just means ‘flesh,’ in the bluntly physical sense. . ..” (He goes on to say “flesh is essentially a bad condition to be in; belonging to the realm of mutability and mortality, it can form only a body of death” (and yet he maintains flesh does not mean “sinful nature,” making death a natural outworking of creation, and salvation deliverance from what God calls good and a “shedding of flesh.” All of this is so problematic as to bear no further scrutiny).)[4] When Paul describes the “body of death” and connects it to the working of the flesh he certainly does not mean that this flows naturally from what God has created or that sin is an inevitable result of creation.

Paul says that “I” “of the flesh” is “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). Not everyone is given to this condition but only those deceived by sin in regard to the law are afflicted with “the body of death.” Paul describes the “body of death” as constituting a split within the “I” with one half of the self pitted against the other in a struggle in which human agency is entirely relinquished to sin: “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (Rom. 7:17).  The flesh as descriptive of this dynamic, is not a stand-alone force (the physical body as Hart would have it) but is the combination of law, deception, sin, and an orientation toward death.

The “body of death” pits “the members of my body” against “the law of my mind” and this makes “me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (7:23-24). The body of death does its work, as the body itself, with its members, stands outside the law of the mind (that world which is presumably without extension, as with Descartes), and this constitutes the work of death. Death is not simply mortality, and the principle of the flesh is not simply the fact that one has fleshly members. The members of my body are out of control (or “I” am out of control). “Nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18) but this is not because of God’s good creation but because of sin. The precise place which sin dwells is not in “my members” alone but in the law of the mind pitted against the members of my body. The entire dynamic of mind against body (dualism) constitutes the problem.

In presuming Paul is just an extension of his time (more of the same), Hart misses the deep nature of this Pauline critique of human wisdom (inclusive of both Descartes and Hegel, as Žižek notes), such that he falls into the very dualism constitutive of this wisdom (flesh/spirit is no advance over soul/body or mind/body).

Descartes is not the innovative genius giving rise to modernism (it is modernism and not Paul that is more of the same) but Descartes succeeds in giving formulaic expression to the dualism Paul describes as inherent to human wisdom. “I think therefore I am,” (the ground of Descartes’ certainty and the point of departure of modernity) pits the law of my mind (thought without extension into my body) as separate from being (leaving no room for the biological body). The transaction works itself out in a distancing from the biological body, such that the body becomes a medium for the “soul” – the “true essence of the self.” One does not identify immediately with the physical body but it is a screen or orthopedic for the soul. This gives rise to two bodies, as the biological dimension is refused and yet the symptoms of embodiment begin to speak and intrude, such that the soul cannot recognize itself.  Paul calls this second body the flesh (sarx), as it is not the actual physical body (soma) but it is a principle or orientation which has taken on a force and significance that is out of control. Hart seems to repeat sin’s delusion in imagining a body without flesh (without itself) is salvation.

In I Corinthians 15, around which much of this controversy revolves, Paul uses a series of analogies (several employing a positive notion of “flesh”) from nature so as to enable conceiving of the resurrection as on a continuum with the fleshly body. A seed has continuity with the plant that springs from it. Though it may cease to be a seed, this same entity transforms into something else. The person that dies is the one that is raised as it is the same self, though the same self will assume a different form. Paul declares not all flesh is the same flesh. Human flesh differs from that of animals, and so too the sun, moon, and stars vary. Resurrection, it would seem, is not a departure from the created and fleshly order but an addition to it.

The “soulish body” does not become the “spiritual body” by ridding itself of flesh. Pneuma (Spirit) conveys immortality but this immortal kind of pneuma is from God. Spiritual body (σῶμα πνευματικόν) does not mean composed of nonmaterial spirit (God alone is Spirit); rather, Paul is referring to the work of the Holy Spirit. The raised body is characterized by the uninterrupted, transforming power of the Holy Spirit as there will be no frustrating of the work of the Spirit. Paul’s contrast is between the body energized by either the soul (and thus subject to death), or the risen body infused with the Holy Spirit. The body does not become the Holy Spirit but is energized and enlivened by an undisrupted divine power.

Paul has already indicated that if the Corinthians do not hold to bodily resurrection they might as well be nihilists – “eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (15:32). He has already said the soulish human (the psychikos person) does not receive the things of the spirit, because they are spiritually discerned, while the pneumatikos person discerns everything (I Cor. 2:14-15). This passage and others like it do not speak of the human soul and spirit, but contrast the human soul with the divine Spirit of God (e.g. 1 Cor 2:14-15; Jude 19).[5]  They could easily have conceived of souls or spirits going to heaven and leaving physical bodies behind (as the Gnostics will soon demonstrate). Paul says this is not good enough. One can presume the Corinthian problem is just more of the same, more identity through difference – mind against body – heaven against earth – light against dark – being over against nothingness – or spirit against flesh, but to presume Paul concurs precludes the very need for such a letter and such harsh warnings.  

While one can appreciate that prime reality is Spirit, part of realizing this essence is not to subtract matter or flesh as an obstacle to the One who conceived it but to realize the physical body is fully itself when joined to Spirit.

 As Tertullian(160-220 A.D.) puts it, “Shall that very flesh, which the Divine Creator formed with His own hands in the image of God; which He animated with His own Spirit, after the likeness of His own vital vigour; which He set over all the works of His hand, to dwell amongst, to enjoy, and to rule them; which He clothed with His sacraments and His instructions; whose purity He loves, whose mortifications He approves; whose sufferings for Himself He deems precious; — (shall that flesh, I say), so often brought near to God, not rise again? God forbid. God forbid, (I repeat), that He should abandon to everlasting destruction the labour of His own hands, the care of His own thoughts, the receptacle of His own Spirit, the queen of His creation, the inheritor of His own liberality, the priestess of His religion, the champion of His testimony, the sister of His Christ!”[6]

[1]David Bentley Hart,  “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients,” in Church Life Journal (July 26, 2018), https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-spiritual-was-more-substantial-than-the-material-for-the-ancients/

[2] My source on this paragraph is Ryan Hemmer whose incisive insight came right as I was writing this blog thus I added this paragraph. Here is the key idea for Hart and the entire quote: “Spirit,” by contrast—πνεῦμα or spiritus—was something quite different, a kind of life not bound to death or to the irrational faculties of brute nature, inherently indestructible and incorruptible, and not confined to any single cosmic sphere. It could survive anywhere, and could move with complete liberty among all the spiritual realms, as well as in the material world here below. Spirit was something subtler but also stronger, more vital, more glorious than the worldly elements of a coarse corruptible body compounded of earthly soul and material flesh.” If his focus elsewhere was on continuity and transformation of the flesh and not discontinuity, and was not factually and theologically suspect, and if he had recognized the peculiar application of Spirit by Paul, this particular passage might have had insightful elements.

[3] James P. Ware,  “The Incarnation Doesn’t End with the Resurrection,” Church Life Journal (June 21, 2019), https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-incarnation-doesnt-end-with-the-resurrection/ Ware provides extensive counter examples. One example, Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) – “They who maintain the wrong opinion say that there is no resurrection of the flesh; giving as their reason that it is impossible that what is corrupted and dissolved should be restored to the same as it had been. And besides the impossibility, they say that the salvation of the flesh is disadvantageous; and they abuse the flesh, adducing its infirmities, and declare that it only is the cause of our sins, so that if the flesh, say they, rise again, our infirmities also rise with it.” (Fragments, 2).

[4] A less generous assessment is to be found here: https://calvinistinternational.com/2018/08/09/ancients-resurrection-david-bentley-hart/

 [5] According to Ware, “This is something that never occurs in pagan literature, and is contrary to the usual collocation of “soul” and “spirit” in Jewish and Christian texts. Graeco-Roman thinkers did not use “spirit” (pneuma) in contrast with “soul” (psyche), as Hart claims. Platonists and Peripatetics used pneuma (Latin: spiritus) straightforwardly of the “breath” and “air” exhaled by the lungs. The Stoics used the word in this way as well, but they also used it of the divine spirit or pneuma that they believed pervades the universe and subsists as the soul (psyche) within each person.” 

[6] Tertullian, De Resurrectione Carnis, 8 – 9. http://www.vatican.va/spirit/documents/spirit_20000908_tertulliano_en.html?fbclid=IwAR3ov2nIWwUnB4XIg1MjL8RmRR-nrnxC97OrLEDHrjsTU44MVRS-78FhbmM Thank you for pointing me to this quote Joelle.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

2 thoughts on “Everything Hinges on the Flesh”

  1. I want to SHOUT a passionate “AMEN” to Tertullian, here!

    “Hart’s efforts to read the New Testament in the context of contemporaneous thought and philosophy is more Protestant than the Protestants (strange for an Eastern Orthodox theologian) in that he presumes Paul and John are mostly reflecting and not critiquing the received understanding.”

    I have decided that those I find who have critiqued resurrection on the left frequently think of themselves as more enlightened than the “naive fundamentalist” (and I know I say this all the time) are really, like Hart, more fundamentalist than the fundamentalists.

    Proper definitions of terms “psyche, pneuma” (nephesh, ruah), are vital, I think. I decided some time back to think of psyche/nephesh as “self or living being” (the whole) and “pneuma/ruah” as “personhood/personality” when speaking of humans and simply “person” when speaking of non-physical persons (spirits). Would you attempt to talk me out of that? The reason I ask is this makes a great deal of sense both of the creation narrative and the resurrection of the body–that God is not concerned with taking us away from this world he created but restoring every bit of it.

    1. Would not want to talk you out of it. “Spirit” may refer to something humans possess in many contexts, but in many instances in the New Testament it is clear that the Holy Spirit is the reference. That is clearly the case in I Corinthians 15.