In various places, Paul develops a strong contrast between the Spirit and the flesh (sarx) – see Galatians 5 and elsewhere (Rom.8:3-17, Phil. 3:3).
May I humbly suggest that most Christian interpretation of what Paul means here is just flat out mistaken.
And may I also suggest that such a view has damaging pastoral and theological implications (of which more below).
I was taught, and maybe you have been too, that this refers to an internal spiritual conflict within the Christian between our ‘sinful nature’ (literally sarx = ‘flesh) which is warring against our new ‘spiritual nature’. In effect, in this view, Christians have two natures – the old and the new, which exist alongside each other within us for as long as we live.
We have constantly to choose to live to our higher ‘spiritual nature’ over our lower ‘fleshly nature’.
This is what Luther taught: ‘there be two contrary captains in you, the Spirit and the flesh’ – and innumerable commentators have followed his lead ever since.
For some this leads to a pretty pessimistic and limited view of the Christian life as a virtually equal struggle between two natures; flesh and Spirit.
Usually this is tied to an interpretation of Romans 7 as Paul describing the ongoing battle of the Christian life in these terms:
14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am!
Now, you can easily see how this link can be made. Romans 7 does describe in graphic terms an inner angst of two competing inclinations. But I’m with Gordon Fee and many others, in finding this completely at odds with Paul’s theology of the Christian life.
There are various interpretations of Rom 7:14-24: one asks whether Paul is speaking in the third person as a faithful Jew under the law – yet the law does not have the power to overcome sin? But however you cut it, the idea that Christians have a ‘flesh’ nature and a ‘spiritual’ nature co-existing and giving shape to their life ‘in Christ’ is profoundly wrong-headed.
What is being described in Romans 7 is a conflict that Christ delivers believers from - not one that faith in Jesus leads believers into! So verse 24b-25
Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
In Romans (and Galatians), Paul is not thinking in narrow introspective categories of some sort of existential inner crisis that remains unresolved for the believer. This completely misses how he talks about the acts of the ‘flesh’ in wholly negative terms:
Life according to the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21 describes a life in total opposition to life in the Spirit. Such life will NOT inherit the kingdom of God and leads to destruction (Gal.6:8, cf Rom.8:13).
So, sorry brother Martin, that’s pretty hard to square with ‘flesh’ life being a normal expected part of a Christian’s identity!
Take Romans 8:5-8 and Paul’s discussion of life kata sarxa (according to the flesh) and life kata pneuma (according to the Spirit). Rather than this somehow talking about two inner natures in every Christian, Paul is contrasting two utterly incompatible ways of life. Life according to the flesh cannot please God (Rom.8:8) and is a life hostile to God (8:6).
Far from continuing to have an inner ‘flesh nature’, for the believer, the flesh has been crucified. It is dead (Gal 6:14).
To understand the Christian life as an endless inner (and virtually equal) duel between Spirit and Flesh drastically undermines Paul’s confidence and expectation of the transforming power and presence of the Spirit in a Christian’s life.
It also, wrongly, portrays Christian identity in almost schizophrenic terms.
If you’ve got this far, some questions :
How have you interpreted and understood flesh versus Spirit in your own life? What have you been taught in church?
And if flesh does not equal an ‘inner nature’ within believers, does this somehow suggest that the Christian life should be without struggle and difficulty? In other words, does rejecting Luther’s view lead us into some sort of unreal hyper-spirituality that is doomed to drive us to guilt and failure when we continue to sin? (For sin we will).
And just maybe you are asking if Luther was wrong, what then was Paul talking about in his flesh / Spirit contrast? Come back for the next post! [Don't you love these cliffhangers?]
Today someone kindly sent us some photos in the post from years back. (How nice to get a letter with a handwritten note as well!) This coincided with my backing up of photos from computer onto a spare hard-disk – they take up a crazy amount of space now. These are just the digital ones – let alone older photos (and slides!) in boxes in the attic that one day I’d like to digitise.
This got me thinking about photographs – their purpose and meaning. Why do we so deeply value them? I’d hate to lose them that’s for sure. They would be one of the first things I’d want to rescue if the house was burning down (guess I should have them backed up on the cloud!)
In the not so very distant past, you had to think carefully about camera use – processing film was expensive and slow. You only took pictures of special occasions or places – or hired in experts. Now, with Facebook, Instragram – and videos on YouTube – images have just become another means of self-expression and instant communication; an immediate and convenient way to document our lives in graphic detail.
I don’t do Facebook, but the other day my daughter was showing me photos that she is tagged in by Facebook friends; very useful and fun, but also a public record that a person has little or no control over what goes up there.
A while back Instagram was bought by Facebook for a nifty $1 billion - see here for 10 good reasons why. If reason 5 is true, or even mostly true (and since I don’t do Facebook can’t really comment) that ‘most people are on Facebook to look at other people’s photos’ this raises the question of why are so obsessed with pictures?
Like many pieces of technology, I think that photographs are neutral in themselves but can be used in positive or negative ways.
Some negatives (wee pun there ;) )
From the ubiquitous ‘selfie’, to being at a gig the other night in the Olympia in Dublin and having constantly try to see past the (insert suitable adjective here) people in front with hands raised high holding smart phones videoing the concert, there’s ample evidence that we love a bit of photographic narcissism.
At the receiving end, didn’t the Queen comment the other week about seeing nothing but a sea of smart phones pointing at her when she looks out into a crowd? Or someone who got married recently told me that when she came down the aisle, rather than seeing the smiling eye of friends and family, all she saw was camera lens and phones. Has the screen has become a means of mediating life itself? Have we become almost unable to experience life without feeling we have to record, and therefore somehow own it?
2. A false source of identity? Does our apparently limitless fascination with images of ourselves and those we love and like, act as a way of self-validation and affirmation? We create a carefully constructed profile on Facebook or LinkedIn or wherever. We project an idealised image of ourselves to the world. From a Christian perspective, self-worth, identity, purpose and meaning are found outside ourselves; not in a partially real imagined self, but, as Paul would put it, ‘in Christ’. There is no need (or ability) to pretend with God – he knows our true selves, and gives himself in sacrificial love precisely because he knows what we are really like – sinners in need of his grace and forgiveness.
Some Positives: photos and eschatological hope
A photograph freezes time; it captures a moment. Looking at the image later brings back the moment, the person, the experience, the feeling. Getting those photos in the post took us back to a completely different life from our current one. That’s what I love about photos – over time they compile a narrative of your life and the lives of others around you. They record (sometimes painfully) old friendships now gone for one reason or the other, but also sweet moments of joy. And as you get older, they act as a reminder of the brevity and preciousness of life. They remind us, I think, of a deep instinct or desire, that life matters. We desire significance and meaning and relationship for the very reason that God has made us that way.
Macbeth, that cheerful fella, may have said this
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
But Christians cannot agree: for the believer life is going somewhere. This life, which we document so thoroughly these days, is not an end in itself. It is a narrative and journey that Christians can live with hope, not because of something we have done or achieved (whether captured as an image or not), but because of what God has done in Christ.
Put it this way – none of the very best experiences you have captured on camera will be able to match what comes next ….
Comments, as ever, welcome.
On hearing of the death yesterday of Ian Paisley, I went back and re-read the chapter I wrote on Paisleyism in my book Evangelicalism and National Identity in Ulster 1921-98. [I see it is a bargain at £132.50!]
The title of the chapter was ‘”Ourselves Alone”: Paisleyism and the Politics of Purity’. It feels like it was written in a previous lifetime and sparked some thoughts below.
Tributes pouring in for the ‘big man’ have pretty well all revolved around two things: the wit, humour and warmth of the man in person; and the fact of his finally, and remarkably, doing the ‘right thing’ and participating in power-sharing with Sinn Fein.
There is of course no little irony that this move – coupled with his bonhomie relationship with Martin McGuinness – eventually cost him the leadership of the party he founded. For it was Paisley who, from the late 60s onwards, dispatched one Unionist leader after another for ‘betraying’ the cause of Ulster by doing some sort of deal with the British or the Irish Nationalists. Finally the ultimate outsider ended up centre-stage and did what he had vitriolically attacked those leaders for doing – dealing with the reality of some sort of power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland.
His later alienation from the DUP, and relative estrangement from the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster which he also founded, seemed to have left him feeling bitter and betrayed. That last interview he did on the BBC with Eamon Mallie seemed to surprise many people who, making assumptions about his joking around with McGuinness, jumped to the attractive conclusion that Paisley had suddenly become an avuncular liberal who had left behind those problematic and divisive religious and political convictions.
I don’t think I would revise too much of what I said back in 2003. His was a personal and political identity forged in conflict; given shape and content by separation from the impure Other. The Other included the mother of all harlots Rome, ‘liberal’ (!) Irish Presbyterians, the WCC, Methodists, Baptists, the British, the Irish Govt, Irish nationalism, Irish Republicanism, weak Unionists, even the Orange Order, and, towards the end, fellow DUP leaders like Peter Robinson who turned, Brutus-like, on their leader.
Paisley’s sense of persecuted righteous prophet was there in that BBC interview. His career was built on personalized politics. In 2003 I looked at some of his rhetoric and concluded that by it
Paisley establishes that hostility to him is equivalent, not only to hostility to Christ, but to biblical truth, the values of the Reformation, and Ulster’s place within the United Kingdom. The power of ideology lies not only in its connection of contemporary political events with dramatic spiritual battles, but in its fusion of traditional Ulster siege mythology with Paisley’s own destiny and actions. He has personalized the Ulster unionist myth of the persecuted faithful. In a sense, his whole politico-religious career has been a conscious re-enactment of the past. (179)
The remarkable success of Paisleyism, I argued, was built primarily on it being a particular form of nationalism that was organized around a theological core of deeply held evangelical beliefs. The result was an innovative cocktail of fundamentalism and an intense localised form of nationalism. There is no room for doubt, complexity and shades of opinion within a nationalist myth. This was why, in a BBC vox pop after his death, ordinary Protestants, one after another, primarily talked of him as a great leader / defender of Ulster etc. The breadth of his support was political and nationalistic rather than being based on his faithfulness to the Reformation solas.
At the end of the chapter I wrote that Paisleyism would lose its coherence and potency without the threat of imminent betrayal. I think this has happened. Paisleyism had gone as a movement well before yesterday. The DUP continues to struggle out of the shadow of the big man and chart its way in a new power-sharing era. A key to the future in the North will be how successful it can be in leaving behind the ‘politics of holiness’ – as well as how successful Sinn Fein can be on the other side of leaving behind its own toxic nationalist myths.
Comments, as ever, welcome
This post is inspired by Jaybercrow’s recent rare 6-monthly post about the bleak inheriting the earth.
I watched True Detective with the rest of the family a while back – well we all watched it at different stages, sometimes together, and talked about it later: such is modern consumption of media! I’ve been meaning to blog about it since then but something has stopped me – something Jaybercrow put his finger on. There is a fairly vague spoiler ahead btw.
It is exceptionally powerful television. The desolate cinematography perfectly captures the sense of menace within lost backwaters of southern Louisiana in which cops Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaghey hunt a serial killer over 17 years. The foreboding soundtrack sets the scene for what follows - check out Far from any Road by the Handsome Family so see what I mean.
The plot isn’t unfamiliar: ritualistic murder, corruption, bad religion and politics. But what the writer, Nic Pizzolattto, managed to achieve brilliantly, is telling of the story of the compelling and complex relationship between Harrelson’s ‘Marty’ Hart and McConaghey’s ‘Rust’ Cohle.
Both actors give, I think, perhaps the best performances of their careers. Cohle’s relentless nihilism against family-man Marty’s flagrant hypocrisy sets up a narrative that shapes the whole series. That is, just below the surface of our apparently advanced ‘civilisation’ is a dark dark world: a world of violence, abuse, fear and horror in which the powerful take advantage of the weak with impunity. That darkness embraces individuals, the law, the church, the powerful, drug-dealers as well as obvious victims – murdered prostitutes and children.
Every major character is deeply flawed. But it is McConaghey’s Cohle who, alone, sees the world as it truly is. No-one can live with such searing ‘prophetic’ honesty – he can hardly live with himself.
And so the story under the story is whether there is any hope for McConaghey. And therefore is there any hope for any of us? That question is sort of answered in the last episode – of which a little more in a moment.
What’s so compelling about such a bleak tale? Well, its truth for one. ISIS? Indiscriminate killing by Drones? Child abuse covered up in Rotherham? In Ireland? A world in which the weak and vulnerable are ruthlessly exploited by the powerful with impunity. The sin and hypocrisy in my heart – and dare I say in yours. Law and politics, when working well, will never deliver utopia. At best, they will put boundaries on the depravity of the human heart and we fool ourselves if we believe otherwise.
Dwelling in such unremitting darkness feels true to life: it captures the reality of a globally twisted world that perhaps we now know far too much about. News about the darkness assaults our senses every day. It is compelling to watch someone like Rust Cohle face the darkness head on, with no illusions or sentimentality.
And it’s here that my ambiguity about watching True Detective comes from: there is such little light in TV series like these that they leave you in the dark. I’m thinking of other superbly made series like The Sopranos and the (Scandinavian) film / book series like Girl with a Dragon Tatoo, both of which I hugely ‘enjoyed’.
I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that there is a little shaft of light at the end of True Detective. But, for me anyway, it was unconvincing: the darkness had been so well drawn that the light felt contrived and out-of-place.
The gospel of Jesus Christ shares the truth that ‘Rust’ Cohle sees. Like him, it is not remotely sentimental or optimistic. Like him, it is unflinchingly realistic about human nature and the injustice and sin that is woven into all areas of life. But True Detective’s gospel struggles to get out of the darkness that is has so brilliantly described. It lurches, unconvincingly towards an illogical optimism.
Put it this way: Christian hope does not rest with you or me – or with ‘Rust’ Cohle or with any individual seeing life in a new way. Such hope is transitory, individualistic and ephemeral. But Christian hope is based on what God has done in history. It is not ‘cheap hope’ – but a deep hope that rests entirely on God’s victory over sin, evil and death at the cross and resurrection of his Son. It is only in God’s redemptive work that there is hope of the healing of this beautiful yet tragic world in which you and I live:
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:55-58)
As academic terms begin, all students should drink deeply of the punctilious wisdom of her ‘inner stickler’!
It’s probably just me getting older rather than the result of any objective study, but my impression is that punctuation standards are in decline. Is it a fruit of the texting generation? I don’t know. But here are some of my pet punctuation peeves regarding the poor abused apostrophe when reading student work:
1.It’s and its
This is the big daddy of punctuation confusion. As Truss puts it,
To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses such feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler.
This is very simple to get right.
It’s = “it is” or “it has”. “It’s a long way to Tipperary.” NOT “Its a lovely day today.”
Its = any other use apart from “it is” or “it has”. “The table has lost its shine.” NOT “Welcome to the British Library, it’s services and catalogues.” (BL pamphlet, quoted by Truss).
Truss refers to the Law of Conservation of the Apostrophe.
For every apostrophe omitted from an it’s, there is an extra one put into an its. Thus the number of apostrophes in circulation remains constant, even if this means we have double reason to go and bang our heads against a wall.
2. God’s and gods
Teaching at a theological college rather unsurprisingly means that God gets talked about a lot. Now, as far as I know, Christians are monotheists who believe in one God, but you would begin to doubt this reading some essays. For example, God’s love becomes Gods love. If the Law of Conservation of the Apostrophe is correct, then a lot of apostrophes are being used where they shouldn’t for they are sure being saved when it comes to a possessive characteristic of God. On occasions, I have resorted to making comments about trinitarian orthodoxy, tritheism and such things, but most often have to restrain myself.
3. whose and who’s / we’re and were and other forms of illiteracy
Truss gives some cringe-worthy examples
“… giving the full name and title of the person who’s details are given in Section 02.” (UK Passport form).
“Your 21 Today!” (birthday card)
4. Confusion over the singular and plural use of the apostrophe
Truss lists some amusing mistakes:
Pupil’s entrance (on a very selective school, presumably)
Adult Learner’s Week (lucky him)
Member’s May Ball (but with whom will the member dance?)
Pansy’s ready (is she?)
Cyclist’s only (his only what?)
Please replace the trolley’s (the trolley’s what?)
I confess to being somewhat chastened reading Truss on the proper use of the apostrophe in dates. For years I’ve been self-righteously correcting 1980’s to 1980s. However, things are not quite as simple and obvious as I thought. Until fairly recently, it was the convention to write 1980’s and (unusually for Americans who love cutting out every possible letter from perfectly good words like neighbour and honour) it still stands in the USA (see The New York Times). But we aren’t in America and the accepted convention is now 1980s, so I stand by with pen in hand.
Truss calls for a rising up of apostrophe vigilantes to get out on the streets, determined to save the little mark from extinction and equipped with the following:
stickers cut in a variety of sizes, both plain (for sticking over unwanted apostrophes) and coloured (for inserting where apostrophes are needed)
tin of paint with big brush
strong medication for personality disorder
I guess a gun is inconsistent with being a pacifist – but surely on extreme occasions cannot a just war for the apostrophe be required? Or at the very least, can students please use spell and grammar check on their wordprocessors? (Yes, I know it’s probably Microsoft, but it’s better than nothing).
Now I’ve confessed to my inner grammar fascism, have you any pet punctuation peeves to share?
In this final chapter of The Christian Consumer Laura Hartman turns her attention to how God’s ultimate purpose for the created world can shape consumption in the here and now.
Two Christian practices embody eschatological hope Sabbath keeping and Eucharist.
In the discussion she brings in Marva Dawn (who we had the privilege of hosting during an IBI Summer Institute some years ago – a wonderful theologian and godly woman of faith). She talks about the Sabbath as a ‘weekly eschatological party’ that anticipates ‘the future, eternal consummation of Joy.’ Sabbath keeping can lead to new habits of consumption.
- humility to put human agendas and frantic economic activity in their proper place. Rest from the gods of commerce.
- trusting in God’s provision and resisting the idolatry inherent in our consumption. For Dawn this works out as a simple daily lifestyle of lessened consumption, with a sense of celebration on the Sabbath. A rejoicing in community.
- For other Christians, Sabbath keeping is tied to justice as we imagine a better world. Jesus and doing good on the Sabbath comes to mind here. Hartman quotes Catholic, Lutheran and others in Sabbath keeping as far more than personal rest and renewal, but as a template or vision of social justice.
Eucharist for many Christians is associated with fasting and simplicity – the ‘meal’ itself is minimal, full of spiritual significance rather than an abundance of food. Yet it is also a feast, associated with the agape meals of the first Christians. Joy, hope and meaning come through participation in minimal physical consumption. A ‘savoured consumption’ or ‘sensuous asceticism’.
This is a sacrament God’s grace by which believers are united in Christ. It is backward looking to Christ’s death, but it also looks forward to Christ’s return and ‘a glimpse of a redeemed world’.
It offers a present experience of a future reality – a healed world of equality and peace in the presence of Christ. Hartman suggests, rightly I think, that this most fundamental Christian activity has profound implications for the way we consume:
- sharing food together
- a community equality, recipients of God’s bounteous grace
- deeper spiritual truth and hope beyond the mere material here and now
- Christ-like lives of self-denial and self-sacrifice in the service of others
- consumption that enriches and blesses rather than consumption which enslaves and destroys
Hartman has looked at four lenses of consumption from a Christian perspective
1. Avoiding Sin
2. To Embrace Creation
3. Love of neighbour
4. To Envision the Future
She concludes the book that at the heart of consumerism is a distorted view of human nature that sells the lie that we are what we own . A Christian view of consumption offers a different anthropology.
- we are prone to sin but are called to renounce it
- we can delight in creation
- we are neighbours who are called to love others
- we are citizens of the new creation who are called to align our lives with the kingdom of God.
This is a right and constructive theological response. Hartman is reminding us that (as in all things of course!) we need to think theologically about the world around us. There are no simple solutions to hyper-consumerism, but Christians are called to a way of wisdom and discernment framed by the richness and depth of Christian revelation and tradition.
As she says, we do not face this challenge empty-handed.
We can consume both Christianly and well.