Christ in Flesh and Spirit

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Over the past 150 years or so, there has been a biblical theological development in our understanding of Paul's use of the σαρκ/πνεύμα (i.e. flesh/Spirit) distinction--specifically in relation to the Person and work of Christ. The most significant passage in this regard is Romans 1:3-4. The "ontological view," represented by Calvin, Hodge, Cranfield et al, held that Paul was merely referring to the two natures of Jesus when he wrote that Christ was "the seed of David according to the flesh" and "declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of Holiness through the resurrection of the dead." The "redemptive-historical view," represented by Warfield, Vos, Murray, Skilton, Gaffin and Ridderbos, understood Paul to be referring to two sequential stages of experience in existence--one according to the flesh (i.e. according to the old age) and the other according to the Spirit (i.e. according to the new era of the Spirit). 

In his essay, "The Christ that Paul Preached," B.B. Warfield* set out the "ontological view" of the passage when he wrote:

If we reduce what he tells us to its lowest terms it amounts just to this: Paul preached the historical Christ as the promised Messiah and as the very Son of God. But he declares Christ to be the promised Messiah and the very Son of God in language so pregnant, so packed with implications, as to carry us into the heart of the great problem of the two-natured person of Christ. The exact terms in which he describes Christ as the promised Messiah and the very Son of God are these: "Who became of the seed of David according to the flesh, who was marked out as the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead." This in brief is the account which Paul gives of the historical Christ whom he preached.

In his defense of the "ontological" view, Warfield stressed the truth about the two natures united together in the one Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. While this was representative of the way in which most older theologians read the passage, Warfield also saw a "redemptive-historical" shift in the juxtaposition of the language used in vv. 3 and 4. He went on to explain that he saw something of a redemptive-historical teaching in the passage as well:

Of course there is a temporal succession suggested in the declarations of the two clauses. They so far give us not only a description of the historical Christ, but the life-history of the Christ that Paul preached. Jesus Christ became of the seed of David at His birth and by His birth. He was marked out as the Son of God in power only at His resurrection and by His resurrection. But it was not to indicate this temporal succession that Paul sets the two declarations side by side. It emerges merely as the incidental, or we may say even the accidental, result of their collocation. The relation in which Paul sets the two declarations to one another is a logical rather than a temporal one: it is the relation of climax. His purpose is to exalt Jesus Christ. He wishes to say the great things about Him. And the two greatest things he has to say about Him in His historical manifestation are these - that He became of the seed of David according to the flesh, that He was marked out as the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead.1

Geerhardus Vos explained the "redemptive-historical view" when he wrote:

...As to the one He was "from the seed of David," as to the other He was "out of resurrection from the dead." The resurrection (both of Jesus and believers) is therefore--according to Paul--the entering upon a new phase of sonship characterized by the possession and exercise of unique supernatural power. That this should apply to Christ's body alone, or to the exertion by Chris of somatic power on the bodies of believers alone, while not here expressly denied, is in itself highly implausible. The above interpretation does not, of course, imply that Paul denied the supernatural conception of Jesus by the Spirit. Precisely because speaking of the pneuma-state in the absolute eschatological sense, he could disregard here the previous Spirit-birth and the Spirit-endowment at the baptism.2

Following Vos' exegesis, the late John Murray also held that Romans 1:3-4 was teaching two progressive stages in the redemptive-historical experience of Jesus. He helpfully explained what the shift in the two stages of experience meant for Jesus--and for believers in union with Christ--when he wrote:

Just as "according to the flesh" in verse 3 defines the phase which came to be through being born of the seed of David, so "according to the Spirit of holiness" characterizes the phase which came to be through the resurrection...

...The only conclusion is that Christ is now by reason of the resurrection so endowed with and in control of the Holy Spirit that, without any confusion of the distinct persons, Christ is identified with the Spirit and is called "the Lord of the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18). Thus, when we come back to the expression "according to the Spirit of holiness", our inference is that it refers to that stage of pneumatic endowment upon which Jesus entered through his resurrection. The text, furthermore, expressly relates "Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness" with "the resurrection from the dead" and the appointment can be none other than that which came to be by the resurrection. The thought of verse 4 would then be that the lordship in which he was instated by the resurrection is one all-pervasively conditioned by pneumatic powers. The relative weakness of his pre-resurrection state, reflected on in verse 3, is contrasted with the triumphant power exhibited in his post-resurrection lordship. What is contrasted is not a phase in which Jesus is not the Son of God and another in which he is. He is the incarnate Son of God in both states, humiliation and exaltation, and to regard him as the Son of God in both states belongs to the essence of Paul's gospel as the gospel of God. But the pre-resurrection and post-resurrection states are compared and contrasted, and the contrast hinges on the investiture with power by which the latter is characterized.3

John Skilton, in his outstanding 1996 WTJ article "A Glance At Some Old Problems in First Peter," appealed to the importance of adopting the redemptive-historical view of Romans 1:3-4 and arriving at a similar conclusion on the difficult exegesis of 1 Peter 3:18-20:

Readers of the NT have been puzzled at times by statements that seem to indicate that our Lord has become something that he already had been before. For example, in Matt 28:18, Jesus says: "All power has been given unto me in heaven and on earth." The reader asks, "Did he not have all power previously?" In Acts 2:36, Peter says: "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made that same Jesus whom you have crucified both Lord and Christ." One inquires, "Was not Jesus both Lord and Christ already?" Other verses raise similar questions. The answer to these questions will be found in a right understanding of 1 Pet 3:18. At the close of that verse Peter writes: θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκὶ ζῳοποιηθεὶς δὲ πνεύματι....Flesh and spirit represent two spheres 
of existence or two successive conditions of Christ's human nature... 

 ...Marked off in 1 Pet 3:18, as in Rom 1:3-4, would be two successive stages in our Lord's messianic work. These different stages are reflected also in such verses as Matt 28:18 and Acts 2:36...The second stage, introduced by the resurrection, was "one all-pervasively conditioned by pneumatic powers." The πνεύματι in 1 Pet 3:18 accordingly refers not only to the resurrection, but also to the state of power that followed it.4

While the "ontological view" falls entirely within the realm of the analogy of Scripture and analogy of faith, it does not do full justice to the exegetical construct of Romans 1:3-4. Much more satisfying is the explanation provided by Warfield, Vos, Murray, Skilton, Gaffin and Ridderbos. Understanding the σαρκ/πνεύμα (i.e. flesh/Spirit) distinction in redemptive history helps us understand more of what we have as believers living in the new age (i.e. the age of the Spirit) waiting for the consummation of that age when Christ comes in His glory.   

1. B. B. Warfield, "The Christ that Paul Preached," in The Person and Work of Christ (ed. Samuel G. Craig; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1950), 73-90. 

2. Geerhards Vos The Pauline Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1961) n. 10 pp. 155-156. For a continued treatment of this passage see Vos' chapter, "The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Concept of the Spirit" in the Princeton Seminary Biblical and Theological Studies p. 228ff. 

3. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) 6. 

Posted June 28, 2016 @ 8:05 AM by Nick Batzig
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