The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§ 3)

Now that we’ve looked at what Paul thinks about God, we’ll see what he thinks about the rest of us. Having been indoctrinated since Bible College in the old trichotomist/dichotomist debates, I’m looking forward to moving beyond. With section headings like sōma, sarx, nous, kardia, psychē, and pneuma, Dunn promises to get right down to business.

. . .

Chapter 2: God and Humankind

§ 3: Humankind

Paul’s anthropological presuppositions are even less explained than his theological presuppositions. However, his view of anthropology is woven throughout his theology. Body (sōma) in particular has an incredibly wide range of meanings. Barth overplayed the idea that “every assertion about God is simultaneously an assertion about man and vice versa” (Barth in Dunn 52), but two important points can be drawn from this idea:

  1. Paul’s theology is practical—it doesn’t rest on speculative constructs about the divine, but impacts us.
  2. Paul’s theology is relational—he’s concerned with how humans relate to God.

Paul’s anthropological views are foreign to modernity, and people have long argued whether he was more influenced by Hellenistic or Jewish categories of thought. The Greeks tended to view humans “partitively” (humans are made up of different parts such as body, soul, and spirit), while the Jews bent understood humans “aspectively” (the human unity has various aspects such as heart and soul). Instead of searching for parallels in Hellenistic and Jewish literature to decide which way Paul leaned toward, we will synthesize Paul’s thought acknowledging that there is a lot of overlap between Hellenistic and Jewish categories.

Sōma (body) is one of the two most important Pauline anthropological terms. For us, body fundamentally means corpse. This sense of “body” was around since Homer, and is found in the LXX and the non-Pauline New Testament. However, Paul never uses sōma in this sense: to refer to mere physicality. For Paul, body would be better understood as “embodiment”. The body is the means by which a person interacts with their environment. We misunderstand Paul when we reduce this category to physicality. Understanding body as “embodiment” also allows us to move more freely into concepts such as “the body of Christ”. There are three places in Pauline literature where sōma is clustered together: 1 Corinthians 6:13-20 (used 8x), 1 Corinthians 17, and 1 Corinthians 15:35-44 (9x). Redemption, for Paul, was a reembodied existence where people embodied the spirit instead of embodying a soul. Paul’s understanding of sōma is broad and we need to constantly remind ourselves that it refers to the way we interact with our environment.

Sarx (flesh) is the other most important Pauline anthropological term—as well as the most controversial due to it’s wide range of possible meanings. While scholars in the past have argued whether Paul had a more Hellenistic view of flesh as antagonistic to God or a more Hebraic view of flesh as the material body, we will determine Paul’s understanding of the term by studying his usage of it. There are three elements of confusion tied up with this category:

  1. Is sarx a realm of irredeemable evil or a power under which unregenerate humans live and redeemed humans are freed from?
  2. Is sarx the seat of sensuality which carries overtones of frailty and weakness in yielding to sin?
  3. How to we translate sarx? Most modern translations use a broad range of terms which muddy the water.

Paul’s understanding of sarx falls along a broad spectrum:

  1. The physical body.
  2. The weak physical body which cannot inherit the kingdom because of its mortality.
  3. An inadequacy contrasted with live in Christ.
  4. A moral weakness.
  5. The sphere of sin’s operations.
  6. The defective, disqualifying, and destructive force in contrast with pneuma.
  7. A source of corruption and hostility to God.
  8. When used with the preposition kata (according to), it again carries the whole spectrum of meanings.

This spectrum of meaning is, nonetheless, unified. It is important to note that flesh is not a hostile cosmic power for Paul—Paul walks the line between viewing flesh as a flaw or as something hostile to God. Flesh is also not a realm that the believer has escaped. The older view that Romans 7 testifies to Paul’s preconversion sense of moral failure should be abandoned. Paul’s problem was not the flesh itself, but confidence in it: the belief that ethnic and physical identification with Abraham’s seed was sufficient for salvation. This contrasts with the typical Reformation view that Paul’s confidence was in his good deeds that earned him favour with God. In the end, sarx should be consistently translated flesh so we can understand the unity of the term across the spectrum.

Paul is unique in his treatment of the relationship between sōma and sarx. The fact that Paul treats these as more than synonymous is the first point of distinctiveness. In Greek thought, the two were synonymous and carried the idea of a sense of imprisonment in this world. The best way to understand Paul’s usage is to see sōma and sarx in two overlapping spheres. Sōma is usually morally neutral, and sarx is usually morally negative yet they overlap at times. Paul combined Hebrew and Greek anthropology into a new synthesis. By doing this, he was able to affirm the goodness of bodiness, as well as the danger of weak fleshliness. A slightly oversimplified yet helpful way to think of this is: “‘body’ denotes a being in the world, whereas ‘flesh’ denotes a belonging to the world” (72, emphasis his).

Nous and kardia (mind and heart) are another natural anthropolgical pair in Pauline literature. These categories are not as important as sōma and sarx, neither are they as contentious. Nous is typically a Greek concept, referring to the highest part of the person while kardia is more of a Hebrew concept, referring to the core of one’s being. Nous refers to the person as a rational being, the thinking and determining “I”. Kardia, on the other hand, refers to the innermost seat of emotions, thought, and will. The heart is what experiences and motivates the person. There is both overlap and distinction between these terms in Paul.

The most infrequently used pair of anthropological terms in Pauline literature are psychē and pneuma (soul and spirit). Psychē demonstrates the contrast between Hebrew and Greek thought. In Hebrew thought, the idea of soul was essentially synonymous with the whole person. In Greek thought, the idea of soul became that part of a person which can be separated from the body and doesn’t share the body’s death. This is where the idea of the “immortality of the soul” came from. Paul is thoroughly Hebraic in his understanding of psychē. Pneuma refers to that part of the person which reponds to God’s pneuma. In fact, we’re not always sure which pneuma Paul’s talking about—ours our God’s.  These terms overlap because it is the pneuma of God that made the human a living psychē.

Paul understands people as beings who function within several dimensions, whose need to relate beyond ourselves is a very dimension of their existence.

. . .

This section of the book was as good as I had expected. Instead of slotting Pauline terminology into my contemporary framework of body/soul/spirit, I was challenged to think in Pauline terms: body as embodiment, heart as the place where decisions were made, etc. Next on to the dark side of humanity with Adam.

< § 2 God

§ 4 Adam >

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