In our Flesh, Full of The Spirit

As we’ve been going through Galatians for a couple weeks now, I’ve found Paul’s use of “flesh” throughout the book of Galatians quite perplexing.

He uses “flesh” in opposition to “the Spirit” throughout Galatians in a way that lead me to deeper inquiries into how Jewish and Gentile bodies appear in Galatians.  In the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish people bore the physical mark of their covenant with God through the circumcision of the foreskin of the penis.  This began with Abraham and was one of the signs, if not the sign, of embodied covenant with God.  When Paul blasts the circumcision faction and the people who are pushing for Gentile adherence to the whole of the Mosaic law, he is in clear opposition of any required physical marking for those Gentiles who received the Spirit of God, isn’t he?  Pressing deeper into this question reveals another crucial question:  Is new life in the Spirit more bodily than it was before the Spirit was poured out or less bodily? More practically, if I’m a Gentile, I’ve received the Spirit, but how do I live in my body in the Spirit?

I’m not a Greek scholar like Charlie, so I can’t weigh in with what greek words Paul is using for flesh, but while preparing for an upcoming sermon on Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah in the book of Genesis, I found a helpful commentator that pierced to the heart of some of my questions about living in the Spirit as embodied creatures.

On the one hand, swirling about us are reading strategies on Pauline dualisms that tempt us to what R.R. Reno calls a “functional Gnosticism.”[1]  This gnostic turn is understandable given the transformation taking place in Jewish believers as the Gentiles come in.  Something new is afoot.  However, Reno states,

The gnostic view interprets these changes in ontological or metaphysical terms…It involves being translated from space and time to an altogether different and higher spiritual existence, one free from the limitations of the body.  Jesus saves…because he provides the transformative injection of new spiritual substance that motors our lives upward and away from the physical and towards the purely spiritual.[2]

It’s easy to read Paul’s distinctions as a gesture in this gnostic direction, away from the body towards the Spirit.  Indeed, Reno argues,

Modern Christianity has tended toward a functional gnosticism in which the divine plan is understood as a progressive universalizing and spiritualizing of religion.  What began as the calling of one man [Abraham] that was sealed in his circumcision gives way to a true, inward, and spiritual form of piety…Surely the priority of the Spirit tells us that the rituals of the church and its dogmatic principles are the residual forms of Jewish legalism.  Didn’t Jesus come to bring freedom, not slavery?  Thus, not only should circumcision be rejected, but we should jettison all that it represents: the ‘marking’ of Christians by obligatory confessions of faith, by required rituals such as baptism, by claims that divine authority is located in particular persons or particular texts.  So the modern man or woman influenced by the functional gnosticism of our age concludes that it makes as much sense to draw our spiritual aspirations down into the limitations of an old man in Rome or the writings of first-century followers of Jesus as to invest our spiritual futures in circumcision of the penis.  Both are hopelessly worldly, enfleshed foci for what should be a universal and spiritual faith.[3]

I’ll take the risk of saying that when most people who identify as progressives hear Galatians read aloud with Paul’s emphasis on the Spirit, they hear the Scripture through the filter of “functional Gnosticism” (as Reno means it) without realizing there’s a filter in their eyes and ears. The problem with this is that the filter itself is rarely interrogated and held up beside what Paul actually is saying about bodies in the letter to the Galatians.

Paul is making the argument that our bodies matter more, in light of the New Covenant, not less.  There’s no leap from pure flesh to pure spirit. If we think in terms of binaries when interpreting Paul’s dichotomies, our interpretation will go in the wrong direction.

Rather, it seems more in line with what the New Testament teaches in the life of Jesus of Nazareth that the destination of humanity is embodied, rather than some kind of disembodied spirituality.  If being placed and found in Jesus is our real future, then we must interpret Paul’s arguments to point in this particular direction (Jesus’s life in our bodies through the Spirit) rather than some universalizing, generic spirituality accessible to all that has nothing to do with Israel’s particular witness to the God of love.

Reno’s insights are crucially helpful.  He argues

We have a future promised in Christ, and it is the same future promised to Abraham…Circumcision is unnecessary not because it is too physical, too focused on the body, too fleshly.  Circumcision is set aside by Paul because it is not fleshly enough.  As a sign of covenant membership, he argues, circumcision divides the followers of Christ into two camps [Jew & Gentile, Male & Female]. In contrast, he envisions a single household of God, one marked by a love that brings unity in the flesh, the undivided fellowship of the church.[4]

Ultimately, Reno’s argument, which I’ve drawn heavily on, draws from Paul’s own words in Galatians 6, which we haven’t got to yet in our Bible Study.  Paul affirms, “Henceforth let no [person] trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”[5]

Paul, in following Jesus’s Spirit in the body, has borne punishment and beatings for following the Spirit.  Reno writes,

The Pauline economy of salvation is clear.  The circumcision of Abraham begins a divine invasion of our flesh, an invasion [intensified and] completed in Christ and in which we participate when we follow Jesus in our flesh.  Nothing could be further from the gnostic dream.[6]

What do you think?  Is Reno right?  If so, how do we identify as progressives without leaving the physical realities of Israel, Jesus, and our Spirit filled bodies behind?  Is being progressive better understood as an intensification of embodied faith?


[1] R.R. Reno, Genesis: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010), 176.

[2] Ibid., 175

[3] Ibid., 176.

[4] Ibid., 178.

[5] Galatians 6:17 (Revised Standard Version).

[6] Reno, Genesis, 178.

One Comment

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  1. One thing that adds to the confusion on this topic is Paul’s use of both law (νομός) and flesh (σάρξ) as near synonyms. As Western evangelicals, we have been trained that both of these are bad. But Paul’s use of these words are pointed and nuanced. The same word for flesh (σάρξ) used by Paul to describe his ailing body in Gal. 4 and in Romans 7. Paul’s argument seems to be more nuanced than this traditionally held understanding of law and flesh. Both the law, and the flesh, are not bad, but are rather not as good, or complete as faith and Spirit. Circumcision of the flesh is not enough anymore seems to be a good way of understanding Paul, particularly in Galatians 3 and 4. Romans 4 is an example of where Paul makes a similar argument about the incompleteness or insufficient nature of the idea that the law, and through it circumcision, brings justification or shalom.


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