When I was at theological college, we were still using older English versions of the Bible like the RSV for our studies. Quite often we would come across the word ‘flesh’ used in a pejorative sense. Thus, for example, in Romans 7:25 we would read, “I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”
Always we were told, however, that the Apostle didn’t really mean ‘flesh’ — there’s nothing wrong with our bodies, we were assured, and especially there’s nothing wrong with sex (the subject that usually came to mind when people talked about ‘sins of the flesh’).
Not only were we told this, but later translations came to reflect it. In the NIV84 edition, that same verse from Romans reads, “I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” The physical has disappeared, to be replaced by pscyho-spiritual.
And certainly we might make an argument for this. When Paul writes earlier about our former life “in the flesh” (v5), there is clearly a sense in which this clearly describing something other than just ‘our bodies’, since we are clearly not now ‘disembodied’ — whatever this former ‘in the flesh’ means, it clearly has a spiritual component, contrasted with our “new life of the Spirit” (v6).
Yet recently I have been wondering — though it is only speculation — whether we haven’t been too quick to discard the idea that “the flesh” means exactly that, and that there is an intrinsic connection between our bodies and sin.
Over my post-Easter break, I enjoyed reading Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos. Nagel is an atheist, but he is not (at least in this book) a career ‘believer-basher’. He doesn’t believe in any sort of god, but he doesn’t rely on ‘disproving’ religion to bolster his arguments or gee up his audience.
In Mind and Cosmos, his asks how three fundamental features of the universe — consciousness, reason and value — can be explained and understood, and he asserts strongly that since under the present ‘Darwinian-materialist’ model they can’t be, that model is “almost certainly wrong” and needs to be refined.
One of the points he makes about consciousness, however, has (I believe) important convergences with the biblical understanding. Nagel observes that consciousness is bound to matter, and that whilst it is not merely a ‘side effect’ of physical processes, it relies on those processes for its existence.
Now something else I was taught in the 1970s was that the same is basically true of us. The Bible does not encourage us to think of ourselves as ‘souls in bodies’, but as ‘living beings’. The Hebrew term we were pointed to is nephesh (eg Genesis 2:7), which can be translated ‘soul’ but which earlier has applied to every living creature (1:20,21,24,30). In other words, at the material level, human beings are just like the animals — a thought, incidentally, we find reinforced in the observations of The Preacher of Ecclesiastes:
Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit (ruach) of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth? (Ecc 3:19-21)
Observationally, The Preacher is right — who can know? And therefore the thought he expresses in v 18 is also justified: “As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals.”
In short, flesh is not just something which we inhabit, like a driver sits in a car. It is that by which we are constituted. Of course we are more than flesh — that is a point Nagel makes — but flesh is the means through which are able to ‘be’.
The way I have illustrated this in other contexts is to compare ourselves at the level of our consciousness to a tune played on a piano. What we think of as ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ is like the pianist, the piano is our ‘flesh’, and as the pianist hits the keys and the pedals, so the music flows. The music is neither ‘the piano’ nor the pianist — separate one from the other and see what happens. But neither is there music (or, to apply my illustration, a living human consciousness) without a piano.
And there is another feature to this illustration which I believe is helpful. If the piano is damaged, the tune changes. I have often applied this to people when talking about a disease like Alzheimer’s. We should not be surprised or too disturbed, I have said, to find the person is not the one we knew — the piano is damaged and the tune is not the same. But what if they got a new piano? Then the tune would come back, and even better!
(Incidentally, some of this thinking I owe to the late Professor Donald M MacKay, an outstanding communications scientist and Christian who taught at Keele University when I was there.)
Furthermore I would argue that this model finds some support in the biblical text. The distinction between man and the animals in Genesis is the connectedness of the former to God, and therefore man’s rule over the animals. But at the physical level they are one and the same (note how the blessing of 1:28 has to do duty for both man and the animals, cf 1:22). And this is emphasised by the verdict of 3:19: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” — words echoed, of course, by the Anglican funeral service.
This is further underlined, of course, by the message of the resurrection, which ought to be more prominent in our theology than tends to be the case. I have often said that the Christian hope is not that we go to heaven when we die, but that heaven is coming to earth when Christ returns. (A simplification, but it makes the point!) Take Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (1-4, NIV84)
There is a surely a sense here of being burdened not just in the body but by it. We are dwelling in this mortal body, looking forward to a heavenly one. Yet importantly this does not lead to a devaluing of the body, but an elevation of its importance:
God raised the Lord will also raise us up by his power. [...] Therefore glorify God with your body. (1 Cor 6:14, 20, ESV)
Meanwhile, however, we live in this body — this flesh — and we live in the knowledge that ‘all creation’ is groaning whilst we wait (and it waits) for “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:22-23). And that we live in this body, which is part of the fallen creation, does that not have implications for the self which is manifested in through body?
Bear in mind, we are not saying that the ‘living self’ is a helpless projection of the body. Though such ‘epiphenomenalism’ is increasingly popular, it fails to fit the evidence — let alone the testimony of Scripture. We remain creatures with reason and choice.
Nevertheless, our flesh is the stuff with which we reason and make choices — and clearly it is limited in the first regard. I have immense admiration for people who can do hard sums. I don’t mean things like long division (though that is bad enough) but rather things like working out Fermat’s Last Theorem or following Andrew Wiles’s proof. At that point I am happy to admit there are things some brains can do which mine can’t.
But if it applies in the area of reason, why not in the area of moral choice? Remember, we are not just talking about ‘the brain’ — though that is crucial. I am not just a brain on legs, I am a body, and my body is how I am manifested. This is why the biblical writers (as were others in their day) are suspicious of the appetites — of the “passions of the flesh which wage war against your soul” (1 Pet 2:11). No wonder Paul writes,
So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:26–27, ESV)
Now imagine a body which not only neither ages, nor gets ill (something we often remark on), but which suffers from no fleshly passions. Will not resisting sin be a different matter? And is this what the Apostle means when he writes in Romans 7:4, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Perhaps, after all, ‘the flesh’ really is the flesh, not because sexual sins are particularly bad (though they are, cf 1 Cor 6:18), but because we are “Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail”.
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