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.


The primary human problem is not, as John Calvin portrayed it, the wrath of God. It is not as Anselm pictured it, that God’s honor is impugned by the breaking of the law. The biblical focus is not on future punishment in Gehenna nor is it that some necessary punishment is required to satisfy or propitiate God. Neither God nor his wrath, nor his punishment, nor his righteousness, nor his law is the problem. God is not the problem. Sin and evil are the problem, but the confusion concerning law, righteousness, punishment, etc., is in how each of these relate to the definition of this primary problem. We all recognize the destructiveness, violence, and harm we call evil but what is this thing at its root and how does the work of Christ address this root problem?

Paul sums up the biblical depiction of the anatomy of sin as the reign of death (Ro 5:14).  However, even to say that death is the primary problem may miss that sin and death cannot be equated – though they are aligned. The emphasis should fall upon the reign of death – the orientation to death included in its “reign.” As Paul subsequently explains, “sin reigned in death” (5:21), so that the reign of death is inclusive of the response to this primary limit. Human mortality, the limits of life, the biological destiny of the body, is not the problem, but the human response to death is the problem. The reign of death (inclusive of the human response) may manifest as political, social, or interpersonal. It may be experienced as the antagonism between the sexes, between races, or tribes, or religions. Or it may be experienced as between the individual and God or the corporate body and God. But again, the manifestation of the problem is not the thing itself.

It is difficult to describe a negative – the negating power of death which we come to embody – which may be why consequences of the problem so often stand-in for the problem itself. The absence of peace (violence), the absence of life (death), the absence of love (hatred), the absence of relationship (alienation), has its punishing effect but to imagine this punishment or wrath is a destiny, a primary attribute of God, or an ontological condition of the universe is to miss the secondary quality of sin and evil. The possibility of the parasite of evil is to be found in the goodness it perverts, the life it destroys, the peace it violates, and the grace it refuses. 

Maybe this negativity is easiest to grasp and recognize at the corporate level. It is on the order of the image of the idol – that which is essentially nothing invested with supreme importance. The idol marks the spot where nothing would be transformed into an absolute something and yet it is also the point of absolute frustration and desire. The idol never gives up its secrets, never makes immanent the promised transcendence, but it stands as an impossibility to achieve what is desired.

Many things can serve in place of the idol: money in the modern economy is a purely imaginary value as it signifies no actually existing entity and yet it marks the supreme value in capitalism; nationalism requires continual human sacrifice so as to ensure freedom and to lend it final substance; modern democracy or even pop culture distills the acclamation of the crowd into a glory or “power” which is a palpable (non) existence and ultimate reality. Each object is not an actually existing thing and yet it marks the final goal, the ultimate value, or what people “live” to attain. This living death holds out its impossible object of desire as the true source of life, substance, or existence. Maybe this is easy to understand, and in the understanding, there is already the recognition that this negativity is a delusion – this proposed “knowledge of good and evil” never gives the god-like life it promises.

What is more difficult is our personal and individual participation in this structure.  The ultimate incomprehension must pertain to how the object of desire can be one’s own image (the self-image and the idolatrous image are the same Hebrew word). This interior logic reverberates and confounds so that it is no easy task to describe how the pursuit of self (saving one’s life) is actually the loss of life, but this is the theme of the New Testament.

Usually, Paul will pair the negative with its positive element, so that we understand alienation through reconciliation, hostility through peace, etc. In Romans 7, however, Paul sustains a prolonged description of the dynamic of sin without appeal to its opposite. The negative force, from within this sinful perspective, bodies forth in an unreality, an un-birth, an “essence” which is the place between two antagonistic laws or two parts of the self. These two laws, one centered in the mind and the other centered in the body, create the struggle which causes Paul to cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7.24).

This wretched ego (“I”) arises with a lack of self-consciousness and only becomes gradually cognitively aware as part of a negative process (there are no cognitive verbs in 7:8-11). The ego makes its appearance only in coming up against, or in resistance to, the law, but this law is not an externally imposed force. Subjectivity arises as subjection to a force within, so that it is not mere subjection to an exterior authority. It is self-subjection, such that one part of the self stands opposed to another part of the self, so that the struggle for existence is from out of a not yet existent reality.

In the Freudian picture, the ego emerges from and continues to be partially situated in the id (the place of drives and the unconscious), which may be a complicated way to say the ego is an imaginary construct – a fiction. But it is a fiction which one would make true; it is an imaginary entity one would give birth to. The subject takes itself as an object and this object needs to be established, needs to be brought to life, or given substance. The self as object must be brought into oneness as there is a failure to completely be the self. Self-difference or self-objectification must be overcome, yet this self-antagonism is the very definition of self-experience.

All of this simply articulates the feeling of incapacity inherent to the ego. The self is its own symptom, the primary mental illness in being human.  As in Genesis 3, the ego becomes an articulate consciousness only as the center of fear and shame, as if it is loss and death incarnate. Alienation not only marks the ego; the ego is this alienation. It is a purely negative entity – an absence which would be made present.

One way of approaching this negativity is by recognizing the impossibility put upon the self in the prohibition of desire in Romans 7:7. The command not to covet seems to allude to the tenth commandment of the Decalogue, but the question is why Paul shortens it so that the objects of desire named in the Law are absent? The original commandment has a fairly exhaustive list of things that are not to be desired, but desire itself is not forbidden. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exod. 20.17).  But as Paul pictures his discovery of the commandment, he comes upon it too late. “You shall not desire” causes what it forbids.

Paul formulates v. 7 in such a way that both the prohibition in the Garden and the Law of Sinai are echoed but these laws are not inherently problematic. They do not necessarily generate their own transgression. Yet in Paul’s description, sin and law (at 7:7) have already been fused in an obscene or perverse desire. As he puts it, desire is the force of sin as it takes control: “sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind” (7:8).

Paul’s shorter version of the command lends itself to being readily applied to two alternative distortions of the law, in pursuit of either good (zeal for the law) or evil (transgressive desire), but these two generate their opposite – and this is Paul’s point. The more zeal the more desire and the more desire the more zeal. One can try to gain life through the commandment (zeal for the law) but one’s zealous desire is already a transgression.

Forbidden desire literally isolates the letter of the law or a portion of the command (which Paul explains elsewhere is death dealing). It is as if “Kill” is isolated from “Thou shall not.” Covetousness is isolated from particular objects and from the intent of the law. Sinful desire reduces the law, voided of its context and purpose, to a deadly letter which prompts the transgression it would forbid. Where the law is sin (7:7), sin will establish the law (7.23).

Doing evil is a means of establishing the good, and doing the good is realized only in its identity with evil – “evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good” (7:21). Paul recognizes throughout that he cannot actually split his mind from his body as he is this mind/body. Nonetheless, one who embodies this law is split in an agonizing struggle of law keeping and transgression: “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (7:19). Paul depicts subservience to this law as a war in which the law of the body is a separate entity or “another law waging war against the law of my mind” (7:.21) as the law divides and pits the self against the self.

The mind/body split is an instance of the inherent antagonism of any dualism. The mind does not and cannot exist apart from the body and the body cannot exist apart from the mind, nor can there be an absolute incomparable difference or there would be no point of comparison. Just as (in the knowledge of good and evil) the evil must inhere in the good and the good in the evil, so too the law of the mind and the law of the body must be an interwoven opposition. The opposed pairs are necessary to one another, so that one side of the pair is in the service of the other.

The imagery is not of possessing (though to embody or possess the law may describe the desire) but of being possessed by a force that kills (ἀπέκτεινεν) and deceives (ἐξηπάτησέν). Paul describes the process as one of being reduced to a cadaver; this alien force found an opportunity or opening (ἀφoρμν) and “came upon me” (λαβoῦσα), reducing him to a site of production (κατειργάσατο) for desire and death. The law of sin has colonized “my members” (7:23), and Paul (“I”) is at war with himself in a losing battle. “Sin came alive” as an animate force displacing the “I” and “I died.”

Paul has already provided the solution to the problem in Romans 6. To die with Christ in baptism is to be joined to Christ and it is to reorient oneself to death and the law. The likeness or form of Christ in his incarnation mediates or makes possible a “joining to” which defeats the death dealing attempt to be joined to the law or to be joined within the self. The idea of being joined or “united with him” is of being “knit together” or being made to “grow together” or to unite as in fusing or healing a wound or to “plant along with/together.” This being “united with his likeness” ends the alienation characterizing sin.

Here the gap is closed between subject/object (the image or likeness of the idol) as there is no gap between the subject and the image of Christ. The alienation is overcome in this likeness or participation in the form or likeness of Christ. The gap within, the gap with God, and the objectifying gap with the world is healed. To die with Christ is to be joined to a form which will bring about a conformity without alienation or objectification. The form of the subject in Christ displaces the form of the subject under the law. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (8.2).

There is a suspension of the alienation of the law and a reorientation to death: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8.1). Paul proclaims victory over the forces of evil that work through the force of law and sin’s deception.  The “condemnation” (katάkrima) or the curse (Rom. 5.16-18; Gal. 3.10; Deut. 27.26) is suspended as the orientation to death is displaced by life.

In Paul’s description, sin may be abundant but grace is “super-abundant” (Ro 5:20). “If by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many” (5:15). The reality of God and his grace (his gift of life, peace, and unified wholeness) has the final word.

This is the work of atonement.

The Pleasure of Hurting Others Through the Law

In psychoanalysis there is a technical term for someone who is incapable of questioning the law and whose entire effort is aimed at establishing the law. This sort of individual disavows any inadequacy or the notion of anything lacking in the law and wants to ensure that the law is fulfilled or completed.  Completing or establishing the law may involve her own or other’s transgression which results in punishment.  It is precisely through punishment that the law is “felt” to be established and that pleasure is derived.  This pleasure is found in the fact that “the Law is doing it” so that the immediate suffering/pleasure is the assurance the Law is being served/serviced. Children torn from their mother’s breast, wailing at the border, are a living proof that the border laws are effectively established. The Law knows no tolerance as zero tolerance serves to define the sharp and absolute edge of this autonomous god-like force. Continue reading “The Pleasure of Hurting Others Through the Law”