Monday, August 22, 2005

New stages--in more ways than one

Well, summer is over as far as the Wilder family is concerned. Despite at least one son's gallant attempt to delay its onset by refusing to think or talk about it ("No, Dad, I don't know my teachers' names; school hasn't started yet!"), the school year began today.

On this one I'm with my youngest daughter..., for whom the beginning of school has been the latest countdown in her life (following the grandest countdown of them all, her birthday in July). I'm glad school is here! It means a return to routine, not least family breakfast and devotion time before we all head off into our days. It's good to have the family all back together again and settled in for the fall.

School begins for me in another way as well this week. The University of Virginia begins classes on Wednesday and that means that Center for Christian Study ministry will soon be in full swing. Indeed, it's really already begun. Our Move-In Day luncheon was on Saturday, so the building was packed with hundreds of first-year students with parents and family. Drew Trotter begins his film lecture series tonight (2001: A Space Odyssey) and both the Graduate and Darden Christian Fellowships have their opening picnics. So we're off and running!

But let me pause long enough to say a few more words about Romans 1 and 8, a bit of an extended aside in my ongoing discussion of Russell Moore's book, The Kingdom of Christ. Moore notes that a consensus is emerging among evangelical scholars with respect to the kingdom of God, a consensus which has huge implications for how we understand both our present and our future.

In short, the kingdom of God has already arrived in Christ and will, at his second coming, fully arrive in the holistic restoration of our bodies and creation that his resurrection already anticipates. In this discussion of Romans 1 and 8 I'm trying to put a little flesh (pardon the pun) on the bare bones framework I've been summarizing from Moore.

By way of reminder, here's a summary of the contrast we've been discussing from Romans 1:3-4:

Son (of God).............................Son of God
From the seed of David..........From the resurrection of the dead
According to the flesh.............According to the Spirit of holiness

I've argued that the sonship ("Son of God") in view here does not refer to Jesus being the second person of the Trinity, the eternally begotten Son of the Father (though he certainly is). In this passage the title "Son of God" seems to refer to Jesus' human kingship (that's what "son of God" meant in the relevant OT passages, especially 2 Samuel 7:14 and Ps 2), the very kind of kingship we'll enjoy with him when he returns (see my earlier discussion on the meaning of "son[s] of God" in Romans 8).

In other words, Jesus was already an heir to a throne by reason of natural birth ("son from the seed of David"); surprisingly, he came into that inheritance by reason of his resurrection, at which point he sat at the right hand of God and received full human rule over the universe. This is not at all to deny that Jesus was and always had been fully divine; it is simply to say that what was new from the time of his resurrection was his distinctively human rulership over all things. And it is that human rulership which we hope, as those united with him, to share!

This brings us then to the flesh/Spirit contrast in Jesus and in us. For Jesus there was a transition from flesh to Spirit, a transition from a normal human existence marked by birth into the line of David to a glorified existence capable of cosmic rulership at the right hand of God. Romans 8 suggests that a similar transition from flesh to Spirit is supposed to take place--indeed, has already begun to take place!--within us (those who have been united with Christ) as well.

It is important, first of all, to note (once again) that the contrast between flesh and Spirit is not a contrast between the human and divine natures or, for that matter, between the material and the non-material. It isn't so much a contrast between two natures or realms as it is a contrast between two different ages or times.

So there's the age of the flesh, as it were, and the age of the Spirit. The new age has already begun in Christ, who has already entered the age of the Spirit. Most of the rest of the world continues living in the age of the flesh, as if nothing had happened. Believers are, by definition, those who have already entered into the age of the Spirit (or had it enter into them) and are leaving the age of the flesh behind.

So how do we know that "flesh" and "Spirit" have to do with ages and times (or even stages) and not with different natures (human and divine, material and non-material)? Mainly from the way in which the Spirit is identified with that fundamental mark of the new age: resurrection! In Romans 1:4 the Spirit-anointing of Jesus as the king/son of God in power takes place at the time of his resurrection from the dead.

Likewise, believers are assured in Romans 8 that "if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you" (v.11). The Spirit thus plays the same role in our lives and bodies as it did in Jesus' human life and body.

The same idea is present a little later in Romans 8 when Paul refers to our participation in the coming restoration of creation, by the agency of the Holy Spirit: "...we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (v.23). Here again the Spirit is identified with our coming resurrection, though admittedly it is already present in us, beginning the inward work of transformation which anticipates and guarantees the future outward completion of that work.

Once the role of the Spirit in the coming restoration is understood--what Gerhaardus Vos called "the eschatological conception of the Spirit"--, then it makes sense to use "Spirit" as a kind of shorthand for this coming age. One's mind is meant to go back to all the prophecies in the Old Testament where the Spirit is the hallmark of the coming age (Joel 3, Ezek 11:19; 36:27, etc.). By way of contrast, then, the "flesh" comes to stand for this present age, marked as it is by weakness and perishability and, indeed, sin.

The question, then, for believers is whether they intend to live according to the age of the Spirit, which has begun--quite literally in the resurrected Christ--or whether they intend to deny their assumed union with him by living in the 'old-fashioned' manner, according to the flesh. It is in this way that "flesh" and "Spirit" begin to have ethical implications in the present.

But I've said enough for today. Next time I'll comment on the ethical implications of the flesh/Spirit contrast. This is, after all, one of the ways in which this whole understanding of the kingdom of God bears on the present.

Then I hope to return, at least for a little bit, to Moore's book...

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At 5:23 PM, Blogger Mark Traphagen said...

Seminary doesn't resume for us until the Thursday after Labor Day. We feel like such slackers...but we're lovin' it!

Bill, your insights here are doing so much to relieve the uneasiness I always felt about the usual flesh/spirit interpretations. Good stuff...keep it coming!

At 11:27 PM, Blogger Hunter said...

Hey Bill :)

I'm enjoying reading what you've been posting here; I hope to get to know you better this year through the Trinity Fellows Program.

--Grace and Peace--

- Hunter Chorey

At 7:47 AM, Anonymous Jim Schmidt said...


Your post today sheds light on why I feel such dullness when I am not walking in the Spirit in my day as referenced to living in the age of the Spirit or in the "old fashioned" age of the flesh. Your comments to start you and the family with devotion is encouragement to keep this truth in mind from morning to night. We will all stand before His throne and praise Him; then and now!

Thanks for the post!

At 9:08 AM, Anonymous Caleb said...


Great explanation on flesh and spirit distinctions. How far does this understanding go in the New Testament? We've talked about this before, but for clarification, does this understanding of spirit and flesh also apply in the numerous passages where Paul talks about warring with the flesh, etc. etc. - seemingly referring to sin? Obviously we don't want to take a gnostic interpretation of that and mistakenly call the material world evil and the spiritual world good -- but how should we understand it? Is Paul using the flesh to refer to the pre-Ressurection, pre-kingdom state of affairs, and the spirit to refer to the present-now-kingdom?

At 12:19 PM, Blogger B-Wildered said...

With respect to meaning of "flesh" in Paul, Richard Gaffin sums it up well: "The hallmark of Paul's use of sarx ["flesh"] is its complexity" (R&R, 106). He goes on, though, to distinguish three basic meanings, as follows.

In the first place, flesh does sometimes refer to materiality. Gal 4:13 is a good example: "You (Galatians) know that it was because of a bodily ailment (literally, a 'weakness of the flesh') that I preached the gospel to you at first."

In the second place, flesh "can mean the whole person, man in his entirety." Gaffin cites Rom 3:20, Gal 2:16, and 1 Cor 1:29 here and appeals to the OT background. However, even here (for reasons I'll go into only if you ask :), I think flesh takes on more of the third meaning Gaffin delineates.

And here is that third meaning, straight from Gaffin: "A third, even broader meaning, virtually overlooked until recently, is the most prominent in Paul. It has what is best described as an atmospheric quality. The term refers to the sphere of human existence, man's environment, the natural, earthly order with all that is characteristic of human life and necessary for its maintenance. It brings into view a comprehensive state of affairs, a world order. Pointedly, and this is basic to the whole of Paul's theology, sarx ["flesh"] in this sense is intensionally {sic} synonymous with aion ["age"], to be precise, this (old) age (houtos ho aion)."

And many times, though Gaffin doesn't say it right here, flesh is virtually equated with sin, because we live in a fallen world and our human existence is so bound up with sin at this point.

So, to answer Caleb's question directly, yes, flesh does often refer to the age before Christ and Spirit does often point to that age inaugurated during the ministry of Jesus and, climactically, at his resurrection from the dead.

Amazingly, as Jim points out, we are called on a daily basis to live in that new age. But I'll say more about the existential aspect of this new age in my next post.

At 10:51 PM, Blogger Mark Traphagen said...

Jim's comment made me reflect back to the way you presented your most recent post, Bill. You talked about this living in the new age of the Spirit in the context of living life in your family. If we begin to understand where you're going with this, it should recharge our lives in Christ. Every day, every moment, we have the opportunity to pull a little of the Eschaton back into our own time. What could be more exciting than that?

And having had a class with Dr. Gaffin, it is impossible for me to read something he wrote without throwing in a good measure of " might say...or to put it another way...not to put too fine a point on could be said..." Dear Dr. G. never, ever, says anything just one way...which is a delight if you're trying to take notes!


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