Monday, November 27, 2006

Augustine Shifts 1

Now that I'm 40, I want to make this decade count as a scholar. I've piddled with topics here and there. It looks like my dissertation will be published with Cambridge on Hebrews. I'm in the proposal writing stage of what I hope will be my next book on a generally scholarly level.

So I need to get a little focused. In short, I may only post here once a week, usually on Mondays (sometimes sneaking it in on Sunday). Of course if the Spirit moves, I doubt I'll stop myself.

For the next few Mondays, I thought I'd mention a few shifts in our understanding of Paul that Augustine has contributed to us. The first--a shift from speaking of our flesh as the foothold of sin over us to the idea that we have a sinful nature.

The NIV regularly translates the Greek word flesh as "sinful nature." It is one of many, many rabbit trails of the NIV, in my opinion. For Paul the starting point for understanding flesh is, well, skin. There is a natural glide in his arguments in Romans from the flesh to our mortal bodies and our physical members.

"Do not let sin continue to reign in your mortal body" (6:12).

"nor continue to present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin" (6:13).

"for when we were in the flesh..." (6:5)

As usual, the good old NIV obscures Paul's logic.

At the same time, flesh easily becomes a metaphor for the part of us that sin holds power over. So just as we can die with Christ (and yet still be physically alive), we can get out of our flesh (even though we're still in our skin). "Those who are in the flesh are not able to please God" (8:8).

Paul can speak about sin dwelling in my flesh (7:18). But we should not take this as a statement of literal nature. Why? First, because flesh is not intrinsically sinful--Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh (8:3). Now it's not that Jesus' flesh was any different from ours literally. Sin just didn't have power over his flesh as it does ours. Secondly, because Paul indicates we can get out of this flesh in 8:8.

So what rabbit trails has Augustine sent us down in this instance. Questions of eradication or suppression are immediately seen to be arguments over a metaphor taken too literally. But eradication comes closest to what Paul does with the metaphor.

Is the sin nature passed down genetically? Is this why Jesus was born of a virgin? Paul knows nothing of these questions. It seems more likely that we should connect Paul's statement that the creation was subjected to futility (8:20) to this discussion. The entire creation is enslaved, and our physical bodies are a part of that creation. Sin is thus a power that holds over the physical realm in general, one for which Spirit is an antidote.

I think we should see this same general way of thinking behind Paul's enigmatic comments about the elements in Galatians 4:9: "now that you have known God (or rather are known by God) how are you turning again to the weak and impoverished elements, which you wish to serve again anew?" Colossians will develop this strange way of thinking that equates keeping certain parts of the Jewish law with enslavement to sin.

So we have no reason to think that the virgin birth had anything to do with Christ not having a sin nature. It's one of several rabbit trails of church history brought to you by Augustine.

9 comments:

James Petticrew said...

Welcome to middle age! I have very mixed views on Augustine, a lot of what he said on love and community I find very helpful but what has occured in the church because of his teaching on the 'flesh' in my view has been very damaging. He also laid the theological foundations for the persecution of fellow believers by the State on behalf of the church and that is one road I really wish we had never gone down

Ken Schenck said...

For the good side of Augustine, see Keith Drury's most recent postings!

Scott David Hendricks said...

It may have been helpful, in my mind, if you would have explicated more specifically what doctrine Augustine taught which has encumbered the church with its understanding of 'the flesh'; perhaps even with a few illuminating quotes from passages of Augustine. (Or perhaps this is too demanding for a blog posting; if so, I am sorry for this comment.)

Brett Burrowes said...

Greetings from a fellow Durhamite. Your topic today touches upon the heart of my Ph. D. dissertation, which is primarily about sin, Law, Spirit, and Christ in Romans 7-8. I agree with you that Augustine has led the church down multiple rabbit trails, especially his views of sin and human nature. Since I wrote more than fifty pages about this topic, it is difficult to summarize in a posting.

Basically I argue that sin is an invasive enslaving spirit that indwells the human body (see Rom 8:15; 7:17, 20; Eph 2:2), whereas Augustine views sin as a corruption or deterioration or wounding of the body from its original pristine state. Augustine's view derives more from a Neo-platonic hierarchy from non-being to perfect being and sin as a fall down the hierarchy toward non-being. In addition, Augustine's hostility toward his former Manichaeism led him to oppose any suggestion that sin was a power or spirit indwelling the human body.

I have also argued (most recently at SBL this year) that Paul portrays sin as a disease, understanding disease as an affliction of the body which tends to lead to death. In the ancient world there were three major views on the cause of disease: spirit-invasion, deterioration of the body in part or as a whole, and imbalance of liquids or humors in the body. Augustine's view of sin fits the second view, whereas Paul's language fits the language of spirit-invasion and warfare. I believe that Paul's view has much in common with the two spirits conception found at Qumran and other early Jewish and Christian documents.

All this to say that I do not think Paul viewed sin as a part of human nature as such or even as a part of the unresurrected body or flesh. My view of sanctification is perhaps closer to a Keswick than a Wesleyan eradicationist view, though I overlap with both. the usurper spirit of sin continues to indwell the body of the believer, but may be overcome completely in the life of the believer by the indwelling Spirit of Christ.

Brett Burrowes

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Brett--that was wonderful. When were you at Durham, and what session of SBL did you give your paper for? Will you get your diss. published? Who was your advisor?

Steph said...

oh, you're just a youngin' yet.

Brett Burrowes said...

Ken,
I was at Durham after you were there, from 1997 to 2004. I went the part time route and spent one to two months a year in Durham. My advisor was Loren Stuckenbruck, but technically Jimmy was my supervisor for one semester, though I never met with him. I gave the paper, "Sin, Disease, and Spirit-Possession in Romans 7" in the Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Christianity Consultation (S19-32). I am going to get my dissertation published and am debating whether or not to split it into two books, since I have added much since I finished the Ph.D. I am thinking of two books: "The Subversion of Torah by the Spirit of Sin" (on Romans 1:18-3:20 and 7:7-25 primarily) and "Christ the Living Law: The Transformation of Torah from Letter to Spirit of Christ" (on Romans 1 and Romans 8 primarily). If you are interested I could send you the portion of my disseration on sin.

Ken Schenck said...

I'm very interested and promise to reference you! :-)

Jeffrey Crawford said...

What do you mean, "wanting to make the next decade count as a scholar?" I believe you already have that title WELL in hand. Thanks for all of the wonderful insights, inspiration throughout a very quick eight weeks!!