Does Paul Pose a Dualism Between Flesh and Spirit?

Read in a simplistic fashion, Paul’s pitting of flesh against spirit might seem to be on the order of a gnostic denigration of the physical body and the presumption that one must shed what is corporeal so as to embrace what is spiritual. It might be presumed that flesh, for Paul, is simply the body and one in the physical body is doomed to sin and corruption. The human problem, in this understanding, is being finite, physical, and made of flesh, and the resolution of this problem is to shed the fleshly body and be raised as an incorporeal spirit. In other words, Paul might be read as embracing a form of the belief that spirit and flesh are timeless principles pitted against one another (part of the cosmos) from the beginning. Louis Martyn’s point is that Paul is a dualist but not a dualist of this sort: “Since the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ (Gal. 4:6), it is obvious that the Spirit and the Flesh – as opponents – are a pair of opposites born not of God’s creative act, but of this new-creative act in the sending of his Son and the Spirit of the Son.”[1] This is an eschatological dualism in which two ages overlap, “the present evil age” and the age commenced, not from the beginning of time, but from the apocalyptic moment of Christ’s breaking in. It is not only the Spirit but the flesh that is redefined by this moment. In fact, of the two terms it may be that “flesh” is the most misunderstood and misconstrued.

It is difficult to say anything definitive about the general usage of flesh in the Bible, as context fills in, whether the reference is to the total personality, to the emotions, or to the weak or corruptible part of man. In the Hebrew scriptures flesh appears sometimes as neutral and refers to the collective and individual creaturely existence or relationship. Though it is in creatureliness that sin takes hold, it is noteworthy that in one of the most authoritative of sources the conclusion is, “nowhere is it even probable that the flesh is in conflict with the spirit.”[2] The flesh is that place where the battle between the Holy Spirit and the spirit of iniquity takes place but the flesh or the body is not itself the problem.[3] In other words, the Hebrew scriptures are not picturing a cosmic conflict between flesh and spirit or between the corporeal and incorporeal. The body is not the prison of the soul, and the flesh need not keep man from true knowledge and experience of God. In the Midrash, Psalm 16:9 (“My flesh will dwell securely”) serves to show David as an example of one over whom the corrupting tendency of the flesh has no power. [4]

This conclusion carries over to the New Testament, where the flesh may be neutral, or may refer to a weakness or physical sickness, or it may be specifically designated as “sinful flesh.” In Mathew 16:17, “flesh and blood” denote a limitation, not in terms of mortality but as a medium by which to apprehend God. That is, even Jesus in the flesh may not be recognized due to fleshly intellectual, religious, and mystical limitations. [5]

Though the New Testament does not depict an anthropological or cosmic dualism, the peculiar role of the false teachers and the need to combat their focus on the flesh gives rise to what might be mistaken for this sort of dualism. It may be in both Galatians and Romans that Paul is mistakenly perceived as presenting a cosmic/anthropological dualism.

Flesh is depicted in Galatians as a force superior to man and might be numbered among the principalities and powers, and yet this same power is not alien to humans but belongs to them and arises from them. As the TDNT makes clear, Paul’s view is not that of the Gnostics that presumes “the divine core of man has been tragically overpowered by the sinister forces which seduce the senses” – this “is not Paul’s answer.” Paul does not pose flesh, per se, over and against the spirit as the flesh may simply denote the realm of marriage, of blood relations, or of human interaction (e.g., Col. 2:1,5). It can denote the muscular part of the body, or where one might experience disease or physiological weakness (2 Cor. 12:7; Gal. 4:13).

Too much devotion or trust in the flesh lends the flesh a power which it does not possess intrinsically. The sinful life is, by definition, oriented to the flesh or serves the flesh and this results in fleshly thinking, but being in the flesh or body is not inevitably sinful (Rom. 8:8-9). Christ specifically defeats the orientation to the flesh in the flesh and makes it possible for his followers to rid themselves of this orientation, not by getting rid of the body or flesh but by being oriented to the Spirit.[6] Paul can say the believer no longer lives in the flesh, (Rom. 7:5; 8:8f.) not because he has abandoned the body but because the sinful orientation which he marks, by the shorthand of flesh, no longer controls. He describes the believer as crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:24). This is not a literal crucifixion and the flesh that dies is not the literal corporeal body, but the principle of sin attached to the orientation to the flesh. “Paul certainly does not mean that by ascetic or mystical practices man can escape his corporeality.”[7] The believer always lives physically (ἐν σαρκί): “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses” (2 Co 10:3–4). Paul says, “I now live in the flesh” but this living is now marked not by faith in the flesh but “by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20).

The false teachers of Galatia are deploying the term flesh in a fashion that may account for the peculiar usage demonstrated in Galatians. Martyn suggests that the Galatians, prior to the arrival of the false teachers, will not have received any peculiar Jewish or Christian teaching regarding the flesh, as Paul seems not to have mentioned it in his initial evangelistic campaign or his earlier writing (e.g., there is no similar warning in I Thess. 4:1-8). The false teachers may have drawn a connection between “the impulsive Desire of the Flesh” (ἐπιθυμίαν σαρκὸς) and their suggested resolution of circumcision. Abraham, in their estimate, would have defeated the desire of the flesh by keeping the law, beginning with circumcision. So, Paul’s juxtaposition of flesh against Spirit, specifically refers to the foreskin of the penis. Their reliance on the law is literally reliance on this piece of flesh.[8]

As a result, Paul, in Galatians, has developed a unique designation for the flesh in which the “power of the flesh” stands over and against the “power of the promise” of God. The power of the flesh is intermixed with a trust in the law, which reduces in Paul’s argument to the same thing. The difference for Abraham between the “power of the flesh” and the “power of the promise” pertains primarily to the object of faith (4:21-31). In both instances the reference is to procreation and birth, but trust in the power of the flesh (the birth of Ishmael) is posed against the power that produced the birth of Isaac. In both kata sarka and kata pneuma the meaning of kata is “as a result of the power of.” The point is not that one is less bodily, less sexual, less fleshly. Both powers produce children in the same embodied manner and both directly reference the act of Abraham, but in one instance Abraham trusted the flesh and in the other instance he trusted God.[9]

The false teachers, according to Paul, are repeating the mistake of Abraham (in conceiving Ishmael) in that they are trusting in the power of the flesh in their insistence on circumcision. This is on the order of trusting in the letter of the law, and thus missing the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:6). The problem is not that the law is conveyed in letters or that the power of the flesh uses the flesh, but it is the exclusive trust in the letter of the law or the power of the flesh. “Flesh versus spirit” might be a shorthand way of depicting this conflict, but this has nothing to do with an anthropological or cosmic antagonism between body and spirit. In both instances the same body and the same mode of conception are deployed, but the dynamic of the fleshly specifically entails an abandonment of trust in the power of God, and belief in the promise trusts God in this same circumstance.  

The same dynamic is at work in Romans 7, which also may reflect a Hellenistic influence, but Paul is depicting the experience of fallen man and not every man. His is precisely not the Greek notion that νοῦς (mind, reason, understanding) can control the flesh. The impotence of the mind, its passive apprehension, is itself part of the agonistic dynamic Paul is describing. It is not a matter of the law of the mind gaining control of the law of the flesh, as both are part of the dynamic of the law of sin and death. It is not the body against the spirit that is causing the problem; in fact Paul’s pitting of his mind against the body seems to be part of the problem. He sees two laws at work: “I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7.23). The point is not that one of these laws is right and the other is wrong; the point is there is a war being waged in which the individual is the victim. As John Bertone notes, Paul’s object here is not to demarcate one form of law from the other: “The point is that this system represented something that simply did not produce life.”[10]

Paul may be thinking of a Pharisaical drive to achieve righteousness through the law as the struggle of sin he is describing. Establishing one’s own righteousness is on the same order as trusting in the power of the flesh. The problem in both Romans 7 and Galatians is that certain individuals misperceive the function of the law, imagining that it produces life. The command (Rom. 7:11) which promised life did not point to itself (as the source of life) but to God. The perception of promise of life in the law is skewed by sin so as to remove the necessity of God: “this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (Rom. 7:10-11). The correct nuance is to understand that the law keeps one in a life-giving relationship with God, but it is this relationship to God (and not with the law) that is the true source of life.

Just as the law was aimed at keeping one in relationship with God, this positive understanding can be carried over to the meaning of flesh. Where flesh “is understood in a full theological sense . . . it denotes the being of man which is determined, not by his physical substance, but by his relation to God.”[11]

The problem with the law, the problem with the flesh, and the problem with “this present evil age” reduce to the singular problem that the “elements of the cosmos” (στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου) have been made absolute and have not been understood in relationship to God. Whatever Paul might mean by these elements, it seems that the law and the flesh are counted among those things which held all people captive (Gal. 4:3). The law, the flesh, or simply the material order of creation, none of which are intrinsically sinful, enslave those who entrust themselves completely to this order. This is shown in the apocalyptic appearing of Christ which entails a “new creation” (Gal. 6:15). The old cosmic order is broken open and is being brought to an end as the new creation commences (which as Paul explains in his receiving of the Gospel is not dependent upon flesh and blood (1:16)).   

“But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:14-15).

[1] J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Yale University Press, 1997), 100.

[2] Schweizer, E., & Baumgärtel, F. (1964–). σάρξ, σαρκικός, σάρκινος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 7, p. 114). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 115.

[5] Ibid, 124.

[6] Ibid, 133-134.

[7] Ibid, 134

[8] Martyn, 293-294.

[9] Martyn, 434-435.

[10] John A. Bertone, “The Law of the Spirit”: Experience of the Spirit and Displacement of the Law in Romans 8:1-16, (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005) 180..

[11] Ibid, TDNT, 134.

Apocalyptic Epistemology

The power of faith, as Paul presents it in Galatians, is evoked by the gospel and does not depend upon something one might already have in mind or on powerful rhetorical arguments. The gospel evokes its own order of understanding as it deconstructs or breaks into the old-world order. Paul’s depiction of his death to the cosmic order so as to enter the new creation of Christ sets up a new set of opposed pairs (between enslavement and liberation or flesh and Spirit), not as in the cosmic dualisms in which the warfare was within the cosmos, but such that new creation is displacing the old cosmic order. This means law, tradition, fine sounding arguments, religion, and even ethics of the old order are finished.

The encounter with Christ is not an improvement on the present human situation. It is not simply the attainment of forgiveness or relief from guilt, nor is Christ’s death a vicarious payment for sin. In this understanding the law, the cosmos, or the old order provide an entry point into the new creation. Paul is arguing that no one has any ground left to stand on. In fact, all of these explanations of Christ, in Galatians, could be framed as part of the false gospel being taught by the teachers Paul is opposing. They want to make of the gospel a covenantal nomism, in which Christ has met the requirements of the law, so now righteousness has been obtained on the basis of keeping covenant through the law. Paul’s gospel opposes this partial gospel with the pronouncement that the malevolent grasp of the old-world order is finished. Christ has liberated from slavery through his cross. The lie is displaced by the truth as by the cross the cosmos has been crucified to me and I have been crucified to the cosmos (Gal. 2:19; 5:24; 6:14). Circumcision is nothing, Jewishness is nothing, Gentileness is nothing, gender is nothing, ethnicity is nothing, philosophy is nothing, as what is taking place is on the order of creation from nothing, but the nothing is exposed in light of the new creation: “For neither is circumcision anything nor is uncircumcision anything. What is something is the new creation” (6:14–15; Anchor Bible translation slightly modified).

This is not a dialectic between something and nothing in which the nothing gives forth to something, but it is on the order of creation ex nihilo. The nothing of circumcision, the law, and Jewishness, was formerly a basis for boasting, but now these are excluded as a basis for boasting. This cosmic order “has been crucified.” As Louis Martyn has put it, “We have in this paragraph a stunning declaration from which the word “should” is altogether absent. Paul speaks about what does and does not exist, not about what should and should not exist.”[1] The cross has rendered one world dead and buried as the new world is now commenced.

This new world order contains a new epistemology, which both in Galatians and Corinthians, is contrasted with a fleshly way of knowing: “Therefore from now on we recognize no one by the flesh; even though we have known Christ by the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, this person is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).[2]

The dead and buried fleshly epistemology might have included something like that proposed by Alexander Aphrodisiensis, which presumed that the flesh or something within it provided for the power of perception. The demand for circumcision, by the false teachers of Galatia, is clearly a dependence upon the power of the flesh. Knowing Christ by the flesh and knowing in the new creation seems to describe an all-inclusive shift, which is already counted into every possibility Paul covers on either side of circumcision and law-keeping. Law observance or non-Law observance counts for nothing in this new epistemological order. Neither counts as anything actually existing, but simply constitutes a dialectic on the order of the knowledge of good and evil. There is no end to the dialectic pairs (light/dark, good/evil, life/death) but the point is that this sort of dualism is characteristic of “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4).

The widespread notion in the ancient world, which Paul is clearly opposing in 6:15, is that the origins or the fundamental building blocks of the universe are based on opposed pairs. As Martyn notes, “He is denying real existence to an antinomy in order to show what it means to say that the old cosmos has suffered its death. He says in effect that the foundation of the cosmos has been subjected to a volcanic explosion that has scattered the pieces into new and confusing patterns.” The cosmos founded on opposed pairs (which for Paul was universal), no longer exists. “For when all of you were baptized into Christ, you put on Christ as though he were your clothing. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is no male and female; for all of you are One in Christ Jesus” (3:27–28). Those in Christ, in rightly recognizing the condition, have suffered the loss of the cosmos for the unity (the new cosmic order) found in Christ.

Of course, what is lost is not God’s good creation but an order of understanding and experience that would constitute itself in unreality and which would obscure reality. The work of the cross breaks the captive power of the old age (which might be characterized as the age in which death and law reigned). Just as creation is portrayed as a speech act in Genesis and John, the gospel of Christ is an act of that same order. This Word spoken into the world liberates in a continual movement of revelation or an ongoing speech-act. The power of darkness and death or the power of futility or a lie is defeated by the light and truth unleashed in the gospel. This is no mere encounter with new information or additional propositions layered on top of the old understanding. The power of the presence of God is unleashed, on the order of “let there be light,” as the good news of new creation (creation from nothing or resurrection) has broken into the cosmic order. The old order is exposed as a mirage, a play of shadows, and to imagine that it is approached through law, reason, or the old order, is to miss the unifying element at its center. God is calling into existence from out of that which does not exist, as in the original creation event. It is not a rescue attempt or an effort at repair. It might be thought of as completion but it is a completion that replaces an order fixed upon the immanent frame of the incomplete.

Part of recognizing the nature of the power of this word involves following Paul’s argument as to how he received it. Paul’s gospel does not depend upon anything else. It does not come by way of tradition or even by way of the apostles in Jerusalem. As Paul presents it, this gospel is counter to religion, law, human wisdom, or any precursor, and this is made evident in the manner in which it was given to him. “For I would have you know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel which was preached by me is not of human invention. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). This is important, as the false teachers want to put the gospel on a foundation of law, but Paul’s point is that the gospel is an encounter with God. To set it on another foundation is to abandon its liberating power from the forces which enslave: religion, tradition, law, ethnicity, or the orders of the cosmos.

Paul is repeating in his own words the Johannine picture: the gospel is with God and is God manifest. Paul’s gospel is not an objective report of what happened in the past; rather his gospel unleashes the Christ-event in the present. What happened in Jerusalem happened to Paul and it happened to the Galatians: “before your eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (3:1 – NASB amended from a question to a statement).  “God confronts you in the gospel,” Paul pleads, “so why would you so easily abandon it for an imitation.” The point is that Paul’s conversion and reception of the gospel is repeated wherever the gospel is preached. The encounter with the risen Christ is an experience contemporaneous with the proclamation of the gospel. That is, the Jerusalem experience is the Pauline experience is the Galatian experience. The gospel is not history, or an objective report of the past, but it is the present and continuing action of God in Christ.[3]

Hearing in faith is to pass into this effective present. It is to pass from the epistemology of the flesh (locked out of the presence/present) to the understanding of the Spirit. Paul wants to secure the Galatians in the epistemology of the Spirit: “This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? (3:2). He does not want them to be persuaded by mere rhetoric but by the very power of God, which they have known and experienced. In Martyn’s translation, Paul asks “Am I now engaged in rhetorical arguments designed to sway the crowds” (1:10). His answer is that this gospel is not normally the good news human beings have in mind, “For I did not receive it from another human being, nor was I taught it; it came to me by God’s apocalyptic revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:12). The argument of Galatians is, the gospel by definition is this sui generis apocalyptic revelation of Christ.

[1] Louis Martyn, “The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians” (Interpretation 54, no. 3 (2000): 246–66). A portion of it is quoted here:

[2] From Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, Chapter 6 is “Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages” and deals with this passage in Corinthians.

[3] Thank you, Tim, for gifting me Martyn’s commentary on Galatians. You keep providing me with and pointing me to the profoundest of materials. A nice summary and review of the commentary is available at