Mind vs. Flesh in Paul’s Epistles

Paul writes of the struggle between his mind and his flesh even going so far as to say that when he sins, he doesn’t want to sin, and that actually “…it is no longer I who do it but sin [and the flesh]…” (Rom 7:20). Is Paul advocating a mind-matter dualism where mind/spirit is good and matter/body/flesh is evil? Does this have roots in Platonism or Zoroastrianism? In Thales to Dewey, Clark speaks to this on page 159.

The first of these possibilities depends on interpreting Paul’s account of the struggle between the flesh and the spirit in terms of a dualism of matter and spirit. This dualism may be ultimate as in the case of Zoroastrianism where two eternal principles account for the universe, or the dualism may be derived from some earlier unitary state as was usual in Gnosticism. The idea that matter or body is inherently evil and the spirit inherently good led to two contrasting types of conduct: Since the body is evil, one must live an ascetic life and mortify the deeds of the body; or since an inherently evil body cannot be sanctified, and since an inherently good spirit cannot become impure, one need not worry what his body does. Paul has never been accused of licentiousness, but he has often been misunderstood as teaching asceticism. That this is not Paul’s theory and that his theology was not so derived can be shown by several evidences.

Above, Clark has given two types of matter-spirit dualism. Zoroastrianism teaches that matter and spirit are two eternal principles. They are “ultimate;” presumably meaning that they are part of the most basic substances in the universe. You can’t have one without the other. Gnosticism teaches that body is inherently evil and matter inherently good. Clark continues:

Obviously there is no ultimate dualism in Paul. One triune God is the sovereign principle of all. The Gnostic form of a derived dualism of body and spirit is also foreign to Paul’s thought. Undoubtedly he describes a moral struggle: Nearly every ethical writer does. The essential point is to identify the two antagonists. Plato said desire and reason; the dualist, body and spirit; Paul, flesh and spirit. By careless reading, the word flesh, which Paul uses in a derogatory sense, can be mistaken for body, but a little attention to Paul’s remarks makes it clear that he means, not body, but the sinful human nature inherited from Adam. Note that in the beginning God created man, male and female, and pronounced his creation very good. He commanded our first parents to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the Earth. This is inconsistent with the theory that matter or body is inherently evil. When Adam fell, it was the result of a rebellious will, and not because he had a body.

Paul clearly does not advocate the Zoroastrian “ultimate” dualism. So Clark goes on to treat the Gnostic form. The first difference between Gnostic dualism and Pauline dualism is that Paul’s “flesh” does not equate to the Gnostic “body”. Paul is talking about a “sinful human nature” which is not purely bodily, but is at least partially spiritual; as shown by the biblical teaching that Adam’s fall was a result of his rebellious will, not merely a rebellious body.

Secondly, the existence of evil spirits shows that spirits are not necessarily good; and the resurrection of the body, particularly of believers, is inconsistent with the theory that matter is inherently evil.

The 2nd argument is that there are evil spirits in Paul’s theology. If spirit was good, then there could not be such.

Thirdly, when Paul lists the evil works of the flesh, adultery and lasciviousness might possibly be taken as sins of the body, but idolatry, hatred, wrath, heresies, and envy are surely psychical rather than corporeal. Note, too, that Paul attributes to some heretics at Colossae a “fleshly mind” (Colossians 2:18).

Thirdly, Paul speaks of mental sins. These do not fit with a theory that mind is good.

Surely no one could see in this phrase an Epicurean theory of a material or corporeal spirit; and even if this perverse idea were accepted, it would ruin dualism. Nor is the fleshly mind to be understood in terms of sensuality and lasciviousness. These heretics, on the contrary, were ascetics. They were guilty, not of fornication or gluttony, but of voluntary humility, of worshiping angels, of neglecting or punishing the body, and of living by the evil maxim, “Touch not, taste not, handle not.” Paul was no ascetic. He knew how to be abased and how to abound. The stringency of his example and precepts is not motivated by a desire to free a divine soul from a bodily tomb, much less by the idea that pain is good and pleasure evil. Rather, Paul was engaged in a race, to win which required him to lay aside every weight as well as the sin which so easily besets. Willing to suffer stonings and stripes for the name of Christ, he never practiced self-flagellation, and a Simeon Stylites would have provoked his hearty condemnation.

Here, Clark points out that Paul preached against asceticism; one of the natural consequences of accepting Gnostic dualism. Clark has previously argued that Paul and the Gnostics do not share a common dualistic understanding of the world. Lest it be thought that the differences are minor, Clark now points out that the resulting implications to “ethics” are different between the two theories. Gnosticism tended to asceticism or licentiousness. Paul’s tended to neither. In fact, both asceticism and licentiousness were seen by Paul as enabling the flesh.

The quotes above were taken from:
Gordon H. Clark. Thales to Dewey: A History of Philosophy (Kindle Locations 3318-3328). The Trinity Foundation. Kindle Edition.

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