Sunday, 1 July 2012

Human Nature and Destiny According to St Paul

This paper is in three parts, the first acknowledging the difficulty of the task required by my title, the second to recall the main facts about Paul’s anthropological language, and the third to look for an answer in terms of genealogy. 

The difficulty of the task 

Speaking of the concept of ‘spirit’, pneuma, central in Paul’s account of the nature and destiny of the Christian, Henri de Lubac (Theology in History, 1996, p.129) concludes that for Paul what par excellence makes a human being, ‘what constitutes man in his worth among the beings of this world, much more, what makes him a being superior to the world, would be an element that, rather than being ‘of man’, would be ‘in man’. There is, it seems to us, in this Pauline pneuma the same kind of ambiguity, notional because real, as in the divine ‘image’ or divine ‘breath’ of creation, such as Christian tradition interprets them. From one author to another, and sometimes in the same author, the same ambiguity will give place to oscillations, which will not go, however, to the point of compromising, before a rather recent date, the idea of a tripartite anthropology. We conclude, with a recent interpreter, that the Pauline concept of pneuma is a concept 'of which our modern anthropologies absolutely cannot take account'’. 

E.P.Sanders, in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, argues that Paul’s thought does not move from plight to solution but from solution to plight. It is not as if we know what human nature and destiny require and then come to see that Christ and His salvation meets their requirements. It is rather than having come to faith in Christ and His salvation we see what human nature and destiny require. So Sanders writes that Paul’s anthropology is only the implication of his theology, Christology and soteriology (p.446). In a Wednesday audience just before Christmas Benedict XVI spoke in this way about Paul’s understanding of original sin. It is in the light of grace, the ‘much more’ of Romans 5.12-21, that we come to understand what original sin means. Sanders speaks of the need for a new ‘category of perception’ or even ‘category of reality’, between naive cosmology / transference on one side and revised self-understanding on the other, a category which he says he does not have but which he believes Paul does (p.523), a category of perception / reality that holds together ‘covenantal nomism’ and ‘participationist eschatology’ (which are the categories into which ‘protestant’ and ’catholic’ interpretations of Paul might be thought to fall). There is no one source for Paul’s view of the human dilemma, Sanders concludes, except perhaps the death and resurrection of Jesus on which his gospel, his theology, is based. 

Philippians 2.12-13 neatly focuses the difficulty of the task: ‘ work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for (gar, ‘because’) God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’. So what do we want to talk about in talking about human nature and destiny? Or, more precisely, who do we need to talk about in talking about human nature and destiny? 

What Are We Talking About? Paul’s Anthropological Language 

An obvious place to begin if we stay with the ‘what’ question is 1 Thessalonians 5.23, ‘may the God of grace himself sanctify you wholly, and may your spirit (pneuma) and soul (psyche) and body (soma) be kept sound and blameless, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Paul’s prayer is that God might sanctify them entirely, ‘holistically’ we might say, and rightly so since the Greek is holoteleis, and he spells this out by wishing them a sound (another use of ‘holistic’), and blameless, spirit, soul and body. Here is a tripartite divi­sion of the human person.  Is not this perhaps the basis for Paul’s account of human nature?

This text has been received in a number of ways.

One is to regard it as a throwaway comment, a loose use of language, not a technical description of human nature and so not to be insisted upon in any way, a division of human nature that can safely be ignored.

A second response has been to say that this text needs to be taken seriously and that in doing so Paul needs to be saved from ‘Platonism’. Famously, Plato proposed what looks like a ‘tripartite anthropology’ in his Republic and the fear is that this text might owe more to Hellenistic traditions (regarded as a bad thing) than to biblical understanding. Even a cursory glance back at the Republic shows that Plato’s tripartite division is not at all the same as Paul’s (the charioteer and his two horses, reason, desire and assertiveness, compared with spirit, soul and body), that it is closer to psychology than to anthropology in the sense in which we are using it. But Origen’s use of 1 Thessalonians 5.23 in terms of Platonist philosophy made this second response seem obligatory to some.

A third response is to say that the verse needs to be taken seriously but that here pneuma needs to be explained (meaning, actually, explained away). This is in order that the later, more common, dualistic understanding of human nature as soul and body is not disturbed by this verse. Scholasticism seems to require this, Cartesianism seems to require it, some of the Church’s solemn teachings on the soul seem to require it, an account of human nature in terms of body and soul simply.

Henri de Lubac, in the work already referred to (‘Tripartite Anthropology’, found in Theology in History, 1996, pp.117-200), takes this verse seriously, traces the history of its interpretation in the responses already noted, argues for the biblical origins of this division of spirit, soul and body, and shows its theological significance – this verse leads us into Paul’s accounts of creation, Spirit and grace and cannot itself be understood without those accounts.

There is only one other NT text that seems to support this tripartite division of the human being. Hebrews 4.12 speaks of the Word of God dividing soul [psyche] from spirit [pneuma] as it divides joints from marrow, judging the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

For many reasons, some already referred to, exegetes have tended not to allow the simple conclusion, from these texts, that this is the Christian or even the Pauline anthropology. Furthermore this tripartite division was never really taken up by subsequent tradition as that anthropology, though de Lubac’s work is an important critique of this failure. Much more common, as we know, was the two-fold di­vision of the human being into body and soul.

A further difficulty is that neither this tripartite one nor any other is used so consistently by Saint Paul that we can call it his account of human nature. Throughout his writings he divides the human being in various ways speaking not only of body, soul and spirit but also of ‘flesh’ (sarx), ‘mind’ (nous) and ‘heart’ (kardia). With each such term, he speaks not of a part or faculty or aspect of human nature but rather of the human being (or humanity generally) from a particular point of view. He never speaks of the human being ‘as such’ or ‘in herself’ but always in relation to God and to the world’s history and to Christ’s work and at one or an­other stage of the history of salvation. So there are always a number of criteria operat­ing. It is not enough to say that Paul thinks in terms of a number of parts or aspects or levels or activities in the human being, but of the whole person from a variety of overlapping perspectives.

He speaks, for example, of the ‘old man’ and the ‘new man’ [Colossians 3.9-10], a distinction that has its roots in Jewish eschatology, and of the ‘outer man’ and the ‘inner man’ [Romans 7.22], a distinction that is said to be hellenistic in origin (and so closer to later understandings of body and soul). The outer man refers to the perishable body and the inner man to the rational nature. The old man refers to the human being under the power of sin and the new man to the human being saved by grace. At times Paul identifies the ‘new man’ with the ‘inner man’ [2 Corinthians 4.16b; Ephesians 3.16]. He contrasts the decisions and aspirations of his ‘true’ or ‘inmost’ self with the demands of a ‘law at work in my members’ [Romans 7]. He uses yet another Jewish distinction in speaking of the ‘first Adam’ and the ‘final Adam’, referring in the first place to Adam and Christ but also implicitly to humanity under sin and humanity under grace.

A fundamental distinction for Paul is the contrast between life according to the ‘flesh’ and life according to the ‘spirit’. No matter how often the point is made this distinction tends to be misunderstood (and, in fairness, there are texts in Paul that support this misunderstanding). Paul is not saying that the human body is bad and on the side of sin and that the human ‘spirit’ is good and on the side of God. By ‘flesh’ he means the whole person living under the power of sin and by ‘spirit’ he means the whole person living under the power of grace.

In places Paul is even content to speak of the human being in terms of ‘body’ and ‘soul’ [1 Corinthians 5.3; 7.34; 2 Corinthians 12.2-3]. Body may simply mean the physical body or it may take on the sense of ‘flesh’, either in the sense of vul­nerability and frailty, or even of the human being without God and subject to sin. With the term ‘soul’ Paul refers to the living being at what we might call the earthly and natu­ral level, to such qualities as vitality, consciousness, intelligence and volition [1 Thessalonians 2.8; Philippians 2.30; 2 Corinthians 12.15; Romans 11.3; 16.4]. Life on this level is ‘psychic’ and not yet ‘spiritual’ [1 Corinthians 2.14].

At times Paul identifies spirit with ‘mind’ [nous], with the qualities of knowl­edge and will which make human beings apt for relationship with God, so that the Spirit of God may be received as the principle of new life within us, bear­ing witness with out spirit that we are children of God [Romans 8.16]. In Paul’s use of it, ‘mind’ designates the human being as a knowing and judging subject with a capacity for intelligent understanding, planning and decision [1 Corinthians 1.10; 2.16; Romans 14.5]. His use of ‘mind’ links with his use of ‘heart’, the latter term denoting the more responsive and emotional reac­tions of the intelligent and planning self. The heart loves, grieves, plans, lusts, suffers, doubts and believes, is hardened and impenitent but can be strength­ened. The ‘heart’, in turn, links with yet another Pauline term, ‘conscience’, the faculty of moral judgment in the human being [Romans 2.15].

Who Are We Talking About? An Answer From Genealogy
What if Paul’s understanding of human nature and destiny is more readily accessible in terms of the ‘who’ question than of the ‘what’ question? In other words that instead of asking ‘what are we and how are we made up’, we ask ‘who are we, where have we come from and where are we going’. Here I concentrate on the first part of the Letter to the Romans, the work that comes closest to giving us a systematic account of Paul’s gospel.
In Romans 1-8 there are three accounts of the origins of human history, 1.18-23, 5.12-21 and 7.7-13, described by A.Feuillet as ‘narrative maps’ that describe the human predicament in a number of ways. That this narrative approach can be further characterized as genealogical is my own suggestion and it arises from noticing that in Romans 1-8 Jesus Christ is described as son of God, son of Adam, son of Abraham, and son of David.
Let me say a bit more about genealogy. The best-known genealogy in the New Testament is that of Jesus given in Matthew 1.1-17. This tells how Jesus is the son of Abraham, son of David, and son of Mary and Joseph, fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian captivity, and fourteen from the Babylonian captivity to Jesus Christ.
But there is also a genealogy of Jesus given by Luke, immediately after Jesus’ baptism (3.23-38). This one works backwards, saying he was the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, who was the son (eventually) of David, the son of Abraham, the son of Adam, the son of God. Jesus is described in the opening verses of Romans as ‘descended from David according to the flesh’ and ‘designated Son of God by his resurrection from the dead’ (Romans 1.3,4). He is a son of Abraham, the promised ‘seed’ of Abraham, a fact that is crucial to the theological histories of Romans and Galatians, and he is the son of Adam, even the second or last Adam, a fact that is central not only in Romans but also in the letters to the Corinthians.
I am suggesting that another way of approaching the question of human nature and destiny in Paul is to look at these narrative maps in Romans 1-8 and the genealogical history found there. In what these chapters say about the family of Adam, of Abraham and of David and the relationship of that family to another, heavenly, family, the Father, the Son and the Spirit, we find a rich theological answer to the questions ‘who are we, where have we come from, and where are we going?’
The first narrative map, Romans 1.18-23, tells of the need of all people for the righteousness revealed by God in the gospel. This is not a matter of law and its observance or non-observance but of faith and its justifying power. The key figure in the resolution of the difficulties to which this map testifies is Abraham who believed God and was thereby reckoned as righteous (Romans 3.21-5.11). Everybody knows how central Abraham’s faith is to Paul’s reflections in Romans and Galatians. He is faithful, even ‘our father in faith’, and so becomes a model of the faithful one, his son or seed, Jesus Christ (Galatians 3.16).
But there are two other aspects of Abraham’s story that are important for Paul. One is that Abraham had a son, Isaac, whom he loved and whom he was asked to sacrifice. But God spared the son of Abraham while acknowledging the faith Abraham showed in being prepared to be obedient even to the point of death. Abraham and Isaac become types then of another Father and Son, the Eternal Father and his Son, Jesus, whom the Father did not spare, instead giving him up for us all. This last comment comes in the great climax to these chapters in Romans 8.32.
A further aspect of Abraham’s faith that is central to this story is that he believes that God can even raise the dead. There are some hints that this faith is seen even in Abraham’s acceptance that in spite of his great age (‘one as good as dead’: Hebrews 11.12) he will have a son. We see Abraham’s faith in a God who raises the dead also in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac: ‘he considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead’ (Hebrews 11.19). But it is present from the beginning of Abraham’s relationship with God when he is told that he is to be the father of many nations ‘in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (Romans 4.17).
The second narrative map, Romans 5.12-21, contrasts the situation of humanity in Adam with our situation in Christ. As by one man’s disobedience many came to experience sin and death so – and not just so but ‘much more’ – by one man’s obedience many come to experience grace and life. The power of sin, death and law, strengthening from Adam to Moses and beyond is undone by the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. So this narrative history opens onto an account of baptism. Our old self has died, nay been crucified, with him. We have been brought from death to life, no longer under law but under grace. This re-creation of Adam is brought about by the second or last Adam, Jesus, the son of Adam.
The third narrative map, Romans 7.7-13, seems more psychological than anthropological or historical. It describes an inner conflict that agitates and hinders human fulfillment: ‘I do not understand my own actions’, Paul says (7.15), ‘wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ (7.24). The answer to his question is ‘thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (7.25). For Paul Jesus is the Son of God and his death and resurrection is the source of the Spirit. Romans 7 belongs with Romans 8, that great symphony of life in the Spirit which is only fully appreciated in its contrast with Romans 7, a darker composition reminding us of what life in the flesh involves. In Romans 7 we find many of the concepts of Paul’s anthropology: law, sin, flesh, inmost self, members, mind, death, life. Romans 8 presents the contrast: human nature is set free by the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death (8.2). It may seem that Romans 7-8 invites us to return to a dualistic anthropology in terms of flesh and spirit but the philosophical and psychological categories need now to be understood always in relation to the historical and – I have suggested – genealogical narratives we find in these chapters.
So what happens through these chapters? We are given three narrative maps, stories about the human situation that tell about the weakness of our nature and the difficulty of our plight. This is not a diagnosis apart from the message of the gospel but something illuminated by the gospel and understood properly only in its light. What we are taught is that we belong to the family of Adam and of Abraham, of Moses and of David. This family has won the loving attention and saving intervention of another ‘family’, the Father, the Son and the Spirit. In the course of these chapters God is revealed as a Father (3.21-5.11) who did not spare his own Son through whose death and resurrection (5.12-7.6) the Spirit is at work adopting us and making us to be children of God (8). This is our genealogy also. Who am I? Who are you? As human creatures we belong to the first family, that of Adam and Abraham, and as believers we belong now also to the second family, that of the Father, the Son and the Spirit.
Paul’s understanding of human destiny is not so much a question of God adding something to our nature, as it is God taking us into a new milieu, to be with Christ and to be in Christ. This cannot happen without the transformation of our being and our capacities but it is not that we find a place for God in our world (‘the solution to our problems’) but that God makes a place for us in His world (‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’). The principle of Christian action is the Spirit/spirit for ‘the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Romans 8.16).
The destiny of the human being for Paul is Christ, to be in Christ, to be Christ, Christ living in us. Another way of putting this is to speak of freedom: ‘for freedom Christ has set us free’ (Galatians 5.1); ‘now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life’ (Romans 8.21).
There is much else that could be said. Romans 9-11 consider Jesus as the son of David and the particular question of the failure of Judaism as a whole to believe in Jesus as the Christ. Romans 12-16 carry the reflection further, to the new Israel, the Christian community and various aspects of its sacramental and moral life. Already in Romans 7 there is a (neglected?) reference to the body of Christ. We have died to the law through the body of Christ so that we may belong to another, to that same Christ who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God (Romans 7.4). For Paul, human nature has been made ready for this marriage through the righteousness of God, the faithfulness of Jesus and the grace of the Spirit. The ‘flesh’ that is problematic is replaced by the ‘body’ that enables communion and fruitfulness. For Paul our nature’s fulfillment is in presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, and our destiny is to enter into the spiritual worship of genuine love (Romans 12.1,9).

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