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.