Apocalyptic Dualism or Covenant Theology?

According to Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still in Thinking Through Paul: A Survey of His Life, Letters, and Theology, the apostle Paul places the solution to their dilemma “within a rigorous apocalyptic framework. (p. 96)”[1] In this volume, Longenecker and Still envision two “systems” which Paul describes to his Galatian audience. One system is that of the flesh. The fleshly system is that which wars against the Spiritual system of Christ’s love.[2] They write:

If Paul’s solution to the Galatians’ dilemma is about self-giving love, that solution is also placed within a rigorous apocalyptic framework. Paul imagines a battle raging between two “systems” (we might say) in competition to regulate the cosmos.[3]

They then note the other system as being love.[4] Moreover, this love, or self-giving, is the solution to this dilemma of the Galatians, which is really just an extrapolation of this broader, cosmic fight between the flesh and love. While Longenecker and Still envision two competing systems, it is the contention of this article that the flesh and love dichotomy they originally suggested is better seen as a flesh/Spirit distinction. The flesh is currently set against the Spirit. Paul writes:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:16-24).[5]

Longenecker and Still use Galatians 5:17 to justify their classification of the fleshly “system,” yet they relegate the second system to that of a self-giving love. This appears to be a disproportionate view of the Scriptural data. The word, “Spirit” is used to denote the antithesis to the flesh, at least in the near context. But what Paul means by flesh does not indicate some cosmic force against which the forces of righteousness fight. These are more nuanced and myopic realities existing within the lives of each believer. There is a microcosmic tension within the life of the local church and the lives of individual church members. This is easily seen when Paul lists the deeds of the flesh in contrast to the fruits of the Spirit. All of these traits, attributes or dispositions are organic to particular realities or circumstances tied to individual congregations or persons.

It is the covenantal status of a particular person that determines whether or not this spiritual tension exists. A person in covenant with God through Adam will not walk in the Spirit, and indeed cannot (Rom. 8:7, 8). But a person in covenant with God through the new Adam, Christ, is enabled to walk in the Spirit and indeed will. This covenantal nature of the passage is made clear when Paul’s allusions to the Old Covenant (i.e. circumcision) are referenced in relation to the new creation made available only in and through Christ.[6] Corresponding to the Old and New Covenants there is the old and new man; the old man is dying as the new man grows and is sanctified in Christ Jesus by the Spirit of perfection. Only if the covenantal language is silenced in this book do the flesh and the Spirit become two competing systems.[7]

Footnotes:

[1] The Galatians were losing sight of the true gospel. Paul, therefore, is seeking to correct their understanding of their new lives in Christ Jesus––particularly in light of Christ’s work and its implications for our living.
[2] Longenecker & Still, Thinking Through Paul: A Survey of His Life, Letters, and Theology, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2014) 96-97.
[3] Ibid. 96.
[4] Ibid. 97.
[5] New American Standard Bible, Galatians 5:16-24
[6] The covenantal tone of the book is blatantly obvious in light of Paul’s allegory in Galatians 4 as well as Galatians 3 with Paul’s repeated emphasis upon Abraham and the law.
[7] I shy away from thinking in terms of this type of dualism particularly because of the implications it would have on theology proper as it relates to God’s eternal plan of redemption.