My Body, My Enemy?

The second reading for the Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Romans 8:9, 11-13, speaks of the Spirit-Flesh antithesis, yet  it is difficult not to see the specter of Mind-Body dualism hovering over the passage, which always winds up as bad news for the body. The passage as found in the lectionary is as follows:

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.


The first questions have to do with the relationship between Flesh and Spirit? What is meant by Flesh? What is meant by Spirit? Does Spirit refer to the same reality in every verse? And how is the “body,” mentioned in both verses 11 and 13, to be understood with reference to both Flesh and Spirit? Is Body the equivalent of Flesh?

Apart from these questions, a number of other questions arise due to the selection of the verses themselves. Context matters with every passage of Scripture, though it can matter in some cases more than others, and there are almost limitless contexts into which one can place a passage, such as social, cultural, political, and even psychological, as examples. In terms of the text itself, there is the unity of Scripture as a whole, the New Testament in general, the corpus of Paul’s letters, some of which may not have been written by Paul, the letter to the Romans as a whole, chapter 8 in the context of chapters 4-8, chapter 8 as a whole, and the immediate surrounding verses from which the passage is drawn. If we take the immediate surrounding verses as our context, there is in this case a verse omitted.

This verse, 8:10, reads “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” If this verse equates the Body as the bearer of sin and death and the Spirit as the giver of life, where is the Flesh?  Why is the Body death? Is the Body the equivalent of the Flesh? Before answering any of these questions, let’s offer a little more context, with verses 8:14-17:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

When I read this passage, especially verse 14, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God,” God’s Spirit seems to define the whole person as a follower of God, while a “spirit of slavery” (8:15) defines a person by fear, but also as one who is not by definition a member of the family, not adopted into God’s family, not a child of God. Indeed the whole of this section speaks to the Spirit as a familial identification, the mark of the inheritor of the things of God, which finally is glorification.

And this is a worthwhile point to begin to answer some of the questions which I have been asking. The problems which seem to rest in this passage as a whole, or even the shorter lectionary reading, is the cleaving of the body from the soul or mind, and the creation of a separated person. Lucien Cerfaux, in The Christian in the Theology of St. Paul (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967) places the questions and problems in the context of Paul’s thought as a whole:

The Greek conceives of the spirit as immaterial and incorporeal; the result of a “spiritualist” philosophy has been to define a dualism which opposes mind to senses, spirit to matter. For St. Paul the idea of the Spirit is primarily “religious,” and he sees the Spirit as a fundamental quality of God. The “spiritual” man is the man who attains contact with God through his participation in God’s Spirit. In this anthropology there is no reason why one should not speak of spiritualization of the body, or of a spiritual body. This means simply that the humans being, body and soul as we should call it, has passed from the sphere of the natural life to that of participating in the divine qualities. (181-82)

If the Spirit is primarily a “religious” reality and a quality of God, that which transforms the Christian and prepares her for the world to come, as transformation and glorification of the whole person, then Flesh is that which opposes the Spirit and leads the whole person away from the things of God. In that sense, Flesh might be seen as the human will turned away from God. This makes sense, both Spirit and Flesh are orientations of the whole person turned either toward or away from God, but why does the body seem to be the locale of sin, not the will which acts in concert with the body?

In verse 11, Paul says that “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” In this case the Spirit is “indwelling” and gives life to the whole body. This seems to fit well with Cerfaux’s sense that Spirit is the life-giving force of the whole person, including the body, while Flesh is the life-destroying force of the whole person, including the body. Does this same logic apply to verse 10, “but if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness,” and verse 13, “but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live”? In these two verses we have a body dead because of sin and the body whose deeds seem to be defined by sin. It seems that in verse 10, Paul utilizes the reverse image of "indwelling" Spirit, that of “indwelling” sin, which the Spirit conquers and so gives life to a body that apart from Christ would remain dead.

Verse 13 does, however, seem to equate the body with deeds of sin and this, to my mind, is shorthand for the orientation of the Flesh which opposes God. It is dangerous shorthand, though, and I do wish Paul had used “Flesh” here, because the tendency throughout Christian history to see the body as enemy, whether influenced by Greek philosophy or other sources, always remains, even if bubbling slightly below the surface. True, even in verse 13 it is the Spirit of God, of Christ which dwells in us, which banishes the “deeds” of the body and it is the whole person which is a child of God, that which will be transformed not by virtue of a specific physical birth or reality, but by virtue of God's Spirit poured out on us. Sin which is our enemy not our bodies. Sin must be fought with our whole beings and so, too, must the notion that our bodies are our enemies. We are called to be whole people living in the Spirit.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


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7 years 6 months ago
I do believe that in the Patristics and Pauline letters, "flesh" meant vices, not corporality - after all, dualism was a heresy the Church has always fought against, (which means it was always a dangerous error lurking within the Church community). Thus to lay at Paul or theearly Church's feet some sort of 'body is bad, soul is good' doctrine is to confuse a later Gnostic heresy with the original nuanced position.

Do we not talk about "the world, the flesh and the devil" as threats to our virtue? The Church doesn't condemn "the world" - that's code for "society, pop culture, other people (thus, vanity, pride, etc.). The flesh is code for all our disordered appetites which lead us astray, not the fact that we are corporeal beings! And the devil...well, I'm sure you believe in the existence of intelligent and malicious noncorporeal persons as the phenomenon of possession (and exorcism) is well understood.

But caution - as in the 2nd century, so too today, people claim to "not understand" and use that pretense of ignorance to 'fill in the blanks" with their theory - such as a purported dualism in Catholicism whereby they can champeon the value of corporality as opposed to some fleshless "spiritual piety" with the unspoken subtext being that their particularly favored vices (sex) are seen as a boon and their spiritual baggage (like guilt!) is seen as not just wrong but unhealthy to be disposed of in the pursuit of some sort of "corporeal centric", appetite pleasing "lifestyle" that seems far more real than ghosts or spirits.

And they waltz right out of the Church, missing the nuance, the 'both/and' while believing the myths of "big bad old Catholicism preaching an either/or, impossible to live ethos".

7 years 6 months ago
And yet, the anything goes because the body is good logic is the reining thought of our zeitgheist! How many times have we been told that X was 'born that way' and therefore whatever action, habit, proclivity or desire X happens to have, by golly, it's not just a human right, it's got to be perfectly healthy, and wonderful too. And if we disagree, we're bigots, haters, mean spirited AND passe, doomed to the dust bin of history because the 'wave of the future' is with whatever is popular today.

The Good News as preached by Paul (and hopefully by us today too) is nuanced, sophisticated, complex.... not either/or - but both/and. We're both "flesh and spirit". "Flesh" is both governed by natural AND supernatural laws. Grace presupposes and builds on nature.... that's why we can experience a civil war within ourselves, why it's possible to be tempted...and yet know better. To give in to cravings that feel so good, so 'right'...and yet feel guilty once we've scratched that itch... realizing that the feelings were deceptions.

The problem is really due to two main factors: one, the tendency of most people towards glib, superficial analysis...we take the pop-pysch or pop-cultural, lowest common denominator approach with the most serious issues of our day and then wonder why we tie ourselves into logical knots (all because of failures of distinction, discernment, defining of terms, etc.) and secondly, because we tend to highlight the purely natural and ignore or pooh pooh all the data of divine grace proving that another possibility always exists (like a lifetime of lovingly chaste monogamy for example!)

The former always takes admitted ignorance of "what the church teaches" as the launch pad to arrive at anti-Catholic conclusions. The latter always takes a presupposition that grace can't possibly exist as the launch pad to triumphanty declare that such and such a life (of virtue ) to be "impossible" - hence the need for us to negotiate a peace treaty or terms of surrender with whatever vice is the new overlord of our society.

The Christian of course has just two things to reply with - the cross of our own suffering and the hope of God's miracles working through us (or on the occasion our example may create) that have always shown how what's "natural" is not the last word nor what's "historically inevitable because the powers that be are too big to fail".


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