According to Western liturgical tradition, today is Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnival, or (if you’re Polish or simply fond of giant jelly donuts) Paczki Day. It marks one last day for liturgical Christians to revel in the “pleasures of the flesh” before they descend into the fasting and spiritual discipline that mark the penitential season of Lent.
But is “the flesh” inherently sinful? In this post, J. Patout Burns examines the way in which four early Christian writers each wrestled with this question as they sought to interpret one tricky passage in Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
Dr. Burns is editor of the forthcoming volume on Romans in the Church’s Bible series, which brings to life the rich classical tradition of biblical interpretation found in the writings of early and medieval Christian commentators.
* * *
In Romans 7:14-25, Paul describes himself as a divided person. He wants to do what he recognizes as good but he ends up doing the evil he hates. He delights in the law of God but is held captive by a law of sin that is still found in his “members.”
Early Christian writers gave different explanations of this passage. They all agreed that since recognizing and loving the good was an effect of God’s grace, Paul must have been speaking about himself as a Christian and about the conflict as one that Christians endured: their conversion to Christ, it was understood, did not remove their tendency to evil when it moved them toward good.
Origen of Alexandria (died 254) postulated that Paul was not speaking about himself at the time he wrote the letter. Instead, Origen argued, Paul had assumed the persona of a recent convert to Christianity, a person who was still battling habits of sin that had been developed over years. The result was that decisions for the good were hard to implement. The problem was not in the body but in the will itself. The faithful, therefore, should, according to Origen, be persistent in their effort but patient with their failures as they overcome their prior addictions and build up good habits. Most importantly, they must rely on the grace of Christ.
Ambrosiaster, a priest serving in the church at Rome in the last quarter of the fourth century, agreed with Origen that Paul was speaking as a Christian. He, however, identified the “sin” in the members as the temptations that the devil is able to raise in the body made mortal through the sin of Adam. The mind, guided by the teaching of Christ, argued Ambrosiaster, continues to battle the lusts arising in mortality — the desires for things that the body needs to maintain itself and the human race. The devil, he believed, uses these desires in the flesh to make sinful suggestions arise in the minds of Christians, but the rational mind, with the help of the Holy Spirit, resists these suggestions. The body, damaged by sin, gives the devil a way of tempting the mind and will but is not, according to Ambrosister, in itself evil.
John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople at the beginning of the fifth century, joined others in insisting that the flesh was not evil nor did it wage war on the will. Flesh, he claimed, is inferior to and weaker than the soul; thus, the problem Paul described arose from the weakness of the will itself, not the resistance of the body.
Augustine, who died in 430 as bishop of Hippo in what is now eastern Algeria, initially argued that Paul was speaking about himself before his conversion. Later, however, he argued that Paul was speaking in the name of Christians in general. The “good” that Paul (and all Christians) could not accomplish was to eradicate all evil desires that are present in the person as a result of prior sin. Christians, Augustine said, should oppose their evil desires even as they remain unable to eradicate them completely. According to Augustine’s understanding, the grace of God, by which sin is resisted, will provide full and complete liberation only in the resurrection, and in the meantime, the Holy Spirit strengthens the Christian. The inner conflict itself, he said, points to a continuing need for God’s support.
Each of these authors refused to name the flesh evil and the spirit good. Some recognized that mortality gave rise to desires that the devil could use to assault the person’s free will. All insisted that God’s grace enlightened and strengthened the Christian for the conflict and promised liberation in the future resurrection.