Doctrine of Man (Part 4)

October 07, 2013     Time: 00:21:43

In our lectures, we have been talking about Paul’s anthropological terms. The principal one that we have been looking at so far is his term soma which means literally “body.” But we saw last time that some mid-20th century theologians, under the influence of materialism and existentialism, treat the word soma to mean not the physical body but the self – the individual, or “I” – and this will enable, as I said, the existentialist theologian to say that he believes in the bodily – the somatic – resurrection of Jesus and ourselves while in fact denying that the corpse of Jesus ever was reanimated. It is just that Jesus’ self or person lives on and our self or person might live on but unconnected with the physical body.

What I did not mention is that, for the materialist, it has quite a different implication than for the existentialist. For the materialist, because he equates the body with the self, that means that he will actually argue in favor of the resurrection because he will think that apart from the resurrection of the body the self cannot survive death. Therefore, what he is led to deny is not the resurrection but the intermediate state between death and resurrection. For the materialist, when we die we are extinguished – we cease to exist. Then, at the end of the world, when God raises the dead he reconstitutes the physical body and so the self comes back into existence again. But it means that those who have, so to speak, fallen asleep in Christ have perished as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. There is no intermediate state for the materialist.

I think you can see that there are different and serious theological implications from the position that would equate the soma not with the body but with the self or the self with the body. Last time we saw that the principal argument that is used for this is a weak one. Paul will use the word “body” or soma interchangeably with personal pronouns like “you” or “we.” But that doesn’t mean that these have the same meaning any more than when someone says “She slapped his face” or “She slapped him” that “face” means the same thing as “him” or that they are somehow synonymous terms. Rather, the term “body” can serve to restrict the meaning of the pronoun to emphasize the physical aspect of it. We looked at those passages in Paul’s letters where he uses interchangeably personal pronouns and the word “body” and in every case you will remember we saw that in fact the emphasis was upon the physical body.

Paul’s uses of the word soma elsewhere are equally physical. Let’s look at some of these.

In 1 Corinthians 7:4 Paul writes, “For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does.” Clearly, the word “body” is being used here in reference to the physical body because the emphasis is on sexual relations and how these are to be conducted in marriage. Similarly, in Romans 1:24 we have a similar emphasis upon sexuality and hence physicality. Paul says, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves” and he describes the sexual practices that these degenerate persons engaged in.

The same is true in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.[1] Paul writes,

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two shall become one flesh.” But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

Here the emphasis upon sexual purity and the union of two persons in sexual intercourse makes it quite clear that he is talking about the physical body when he uses the word soma.

Also, in Romans 12:1-2 Paul says,

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Here Paul envisions the presentation to God of our physical bodies as living sacrifices and then the transformation of our minds. So both the physical life and the mental life are to be consecrated to God. This is a passage that is dualistic in nature – mind and body.

1 Corinthians 9:27 Paul says, “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Here he is thinking of the physical aspect of his life and keeping that physical aspect in check and under discipline. The context with the athletic metaphors of boxing and running, I think, also serve to show that the physical part of the human life is what Paul has in mind here.

1 Corinthians 13:3 Paul says, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Here he seems to contemplate martyrdom or giving his physical body up to be destroyed. Certainly the self or the “I” is not something that can be burned up so Paul is talking here about his physical body again.

Philippians 1:20, “as it is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” Here, again, is the contemplation of martyrdom – whether he will live or die, whether the body will be physically killed or whether he will live on seems to be the thing that Paul is speaking of. He is talking about remaining in this life versus dying. So in verse 1:24 he says, “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” There he uses the word “flesh” in a morally neutral sense to indicate the physical presence in this world.[2]

Finally, in Romans 8:11 Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.” The use of the adjective “mortal” shows that he is speaking here of our physical bodies. Just as Christ was raised from the dead, so God will give life to our mortal bodies when we are raised from the dead.

So I think it is evident that when you look at how Paul uses the term soma that he is talking about the physical body. Let me quote from Gundry’s conclusion. Much of this study is based upon Robert Gundry’s fine book Soma in Biblical Theology. Gundry summarizes by saying,

The soma denotes the physical body, roughly synonymous with ‘flesh’ in the neutral sense. It forms that part of man in and through which he lives and acts in the world. It becomes the base of operations for sin in the unbeliever, for the Holy Spirit in the believer. Barring prior occurrence of the Parousia, the soma will die. That is the lingering effect of sin even in the believer. But it will also be resurrected. That is its ultimate end, a major proof of its worth and necessity to wholeness of human being, and the reason for its sanctification now.[3]

I think the importance of Gundry’s conclusion cannot be overemphasized. For far too long, 20th century theology has been told that when Paul uses the word soma he is not referring to the body but is referring to the self, the ego, the “I” of a human person. But Gundry’s study, like a dash of cold water in the face, brings us back to the authentic consciousness of a 1st century Jewish person. The notion of the soma as the “I” or the self is a perversion of its biblical meaning into virtually its opposite – namely, a symbol for the immaterial part of man. Robert Jewett, who is a New Testament theologian, says “Bultmann has turned soma into its virtual opposite: a symbol for that structure of individual existence which is essentially non-physical.”[4] Gundry concludes that existentialist treatments of soma like Bultmann’s have actually been a positive impediment to a correct exegesis of Pauline thought, particularly 1 Corinthians 15, on the resurrection and has sacrificed an accurate understanding of New Testament theology for a philosophical fashion that is already passé.[5]


Question: I would think the Old Testament verse about “in an honorable man’s house there are many vessels and if you take out the things of those vessels that were not good” is comparing the same thing as soma – a body.

Answer: Many times in Scripture I can think of other references. The metaphor for the body is that of a vessel. Like Paul says, we have this treasure in earthen vessels[6] or Peter says to bestow honor on your wife as the weaker vessel[7]. He is thinking there of her physical body – she is physically weaker than you are, not that she is weak morally or intellectually or in some other respect. He is referring to the body. So yes that would be a biblical metaphor for the body.

I’ve already briefly said something about the word sarx which is the word Paul uses for the “flesh.” Sarx means “flesh.” Theologians who are familiar with the word sarx know that in the New Testament “the flesh” is often used as a term metaphorically for the evil proclivity which is in human beings.[8] It is not referring to the physical stuff of our body. The Scripture does not teach that our bodies are evil because they are material.[9] But the flesh will often be used in the Scriptures to represent fallen human nature. So this touches a very sensitive nerve within theology because in Germany, at least, where I studied, the Creed affirms “I believe in the resurrection of the fleisch (the flesh).” In English, we say “I believe in the resurrection of the body” but in German it affirms “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh” or the “fleisch” and theologians are rightly nervous about any sort of affirmation that the flesh in the sense of this evil fallen principle within human nature will be the object of the resurrection. But because of that they are prone to overlook the fact that Paul often uses the word sarx in a morally neutral sense to just mean basically organic stuff – the material out of which a living thing is made – the physical flesh or the body; essentially meat, if you will. In this morally neutral sense, to affirm the resurrection of the flesh is unobjectionable; it just means the resurrection of the physical body. Look at 1 Corinthians 15:35-41 for Paul’s disquisition upon the nature of the resurrection. Paul, imagining some Corinthian opponent of his doctrine, says,

But some one will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

Here Paul uses some analogies to explain the notion of the resurrection of the body. The first analogy is that it is like a seed. The body is planted in the ground as it is buried and then, just as a plant that is quite different will come from this seed, so the resurrection body that comes from the earthly body that is sown is vastly different from a supernatural body endowed with powers and abilities that this earthly body doesn’t have. His third analogy is from celestial and terrestrial bodies. The stars and the sun and the moon all have a different luminosity, which is what the word glory refers to here. Just as these different bodies have different luminosities so the resurrection body will differ from the earthly body in being more honorable and more glorious than the body that is sown.

But the second analogy is the one that we want to focus on here and that is from the different kinds of flesh. Paul is clearly using the word here in a morally neutral sense – biological flesh, if you will. He says there is one kind of flesh in men, there is another one in animals, another one in birds, and another one in fish. So here he is using the word flesh in a very morally neutral sense to basically mean “meat” or the organic stuff of which a living thing is made. Jewett, in his commentary on this passage, draws attention to the “striking departure from the technical ‘flesh’ category and an appropriation of traditional Judaic use of sarx as interchangeable with soma.”[10] So in this passage, Paul is not using the word sarx in this theological sense of fallen human nature.[11] Rather, it is basically used as a synonym for body – the sort of bodies that are in the biological realm. In this physical sense, the idea of the resurrection of the flesh is quite unobjectionable. The resurrection body will be a physical body though vastly different from this corruptible, mortal, dishonorable, and weak body that we presently possess, but a body nevertheless.


Question: (off mic) Is the rest of the New Testament consistent with this?

Answer: Paul is the principal author that we need to look at with regard to these terms. I can’t think of any place else in the New Testament where the words “flesh” and “body” would be used in any different sense than what we have described here. But certainly Paul’s letters are where you have the real theological reflection on these words that needs to be understood.

The third term that we want to draw attention to is the term psuche which means “soul.” We will talk about Paul’s use of this anthropological term next time.[12]


[1] 4:51

[2] 9:53

[3] Robert H. Gundry, soma in Biblical Theology: With Emphasis on Pauline Anthropology, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 50.

[4] Robert Jewett, Paul's Anthropological Terms: A Study of Their Use in Conflict Settings (AGAJY 10; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1971), p. 211.

[5] Gundry, soma in Biblical Theology, p. 167.

[6] cf. 2 Corinthians 4:7

[7] cf. 1 Peter 3:7, KJV

[8] 15:13

[9] Such a teaching was espoused by the early Gnostics and is considered heretical by orthodox Christianity.

[10] Jewett, Paul's Anthropological Terms, p. 454.

[11] 20:15

[12] Total Running Time: 21:43 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)