I am of Flesh”
– Paul, Romans 7:14

Calvin famously opens his Institutes this way:

Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.

Much has been written expounding the boundless glories which necessarily rise when pondering what God has revealed to us concerning Himself. But I find it fascinating that Calvin should assert that true and solid wisdom consists not only in knowledge of God, but also in knowledge of ourselves. I maintain that, doubtless because the Reformed faith has a necessarily negative view of man, largely (and properly) held under the banner of “Total Depravity,” as well as a (doubtless healthy) deep skepticism of and reaction against modern psychology and Pelagian thought which portray man as essentially self-salvageable, beyond the basics of the sinfulness of man and the eternality of his soul, not much thought seems to be given to the nature of his body.

I suppose my chief evidence for this conjecture would be that most think of heaven as a strictly spiritual place, and those who do think of it in terms of a physical place where we will lead a physical existence seem rather uncertain why God would continue to confine us to our physical bodies, when escaping them would seem so much more convenient.

A year ago, I was asked to speak on the subject of “Communion with God the Holy Spirit,” and chose for my text the latter half of Romans 7 and the first half of chapter 8, which is (and was!) admittedly suicide to try to expound in a single discourse. But more difficult that that (if possible) was trying to define in some sort of meaningful, concrete way why a person actually needs to commune with the Holy Spirit. Communicating that need is even harder. Repeating abstract spiritual clichés is easy enough, but grasping and communicating the critical necessity of communion with the Holy Spirit for a believer is another matter altogether.

While pondering this massive section of text, one phrase jumped out at me, and I was convinced then, and am still, that understanding it is the key to unlocking the rich beauty of the essential ministry of the Spirit and much of this entire passage, which we will try to expound in future articles. The phrase is “I am of flesh.”

In Christian circles, the term “flesh” means something akin to “the sinful part of me.” It’s the inclination to do evil, the source of selfishness and pride. It’s the part of me that needs to go away so I’ll be perfected; it’s that part of me that hasn’t been changed yet, but I’m working on it through the power of the Spirit (sanctification, to use a more proper word), and it’ll be finally fixed up after I die. My contention however is this: When Paul says “I am of flesh,” he means it in the most natural reading: I am composed of physical matter, or “flesh.”

Simply put then, Paul is saying “I am of body.” Basic Biblical anthropology helps us understand that man is, at the least, comprised of both material and immaterial, or physical and spiritual elements. Humanity is not to be understood as a spirit trapped inside a body attempting to be free from its limitations, but spirit and body co-existing as a single living entity.

As Paul delivers his famous Romans 7 treatise on the nature of sin in the believer (for that is how I understand the passage, and will proceed with that interpretation without defending it here), the battle lies between the war of flesh and spirit. If, as I propose, “flesh” is not simply “desire to sin” but instead the actual, physical makeup of a person, then the battle against sin takes on a bit of a different dimension as we begin to understand why we sin and where it comes from, and perhaps also as we try to separate body and soul enough to understand that our soul has been redeemed and yearns to please God, while our body remains unredeemed and longs for the pleasures of sin.

One of the exercises that has been so helpful in coming to the conclusion that I have typically understated the significance of being a physical being (as opposed to a “spirit yearning to be free” or, closer to the truth, an “embodied soul”) has been to consider the nature of soul-less creatures.

Are there creatures that have no soul, and what are they like? And my answer to that is, yes, there are soul-less creatures. No, they’re not algebra professors or republicans, and yes, we can study them.

So here is another premise that I will work from: While humanity is comprised of flesh and spirit, or material and immaterial, human beings are the only creatures on earth possessing both body and soul. Angels are spirit, but have no material body; animals on the other hand are material but have no immaterial aspects (ie. a soul) to them.

If that’s true, then it occurs to me that whatever an animal does, it does without the aid, input, or use of a soul, or spirit, or any immaterial part of its nature. Consider, then:

Survival: Back in the days of the Coliseum, animals were used to kill people. But before the lions or tigers were unleashed, they were first starved. The Romans understood that hunger and aggression went hand in hand, and a well-fed lion might yawn and fall asleep rather than attack and kill. Certain animals, caught in a trap, will chew off their own leg in order to escape. In a word, the will to survive is strong, and it creates certain behaviors. And because those behaviors are found in creatures without souls, it stands to reason that in these animals anyway, they are entirely found in their material nature, since that’s the only nature they have.

Sex: We needn’t say much here – animals have sex, and sometimes go through complicated and beautiful mating rituals to get it. Sometimes it’s neither complicated nor beautiful; I think of that poor female dog I saw in Cuzco, Peru, followed by about 12 other very wild and very male dogs… certainly you know the rest of that story.

Point: the drive for sex may exist apart from a soul, and it is powerful enough to dictate certain behavior.

Emotion: We could debate the depth and complexity of emotion found in the animal kingdom, but it seems almost self-evident that emotion exists. Dogs may certainly be properly described as sometimes “excited,” “happy,” or even “guilty” when they’ve been caught doing something they’ve been trained not to do. Some animals express sorrow when a companion of theirs dies. Many animals, like bulls or certain dogs, or roosters or alligators (medula oblangata, if I recall Waterboy correctly?) express angry aggression, while other animals might be described as nervous.

This tells me that emotion is at least possible apart from a soul. And that tells me that God has created an incredible complexity within the material world which allows these creatures to experience and express emotion purely from their material nature. That is to say, a soul isn’t essential to the experience of happiness, and a creature, even a human, might be angry without the soul creating that emotion.

Personality: Interestingly, certain “personalities” can even be a part of a certain type or breed of animal. Certain breeds of dogs are notoriously and even intentionally aggressive, others are docile and friendly, some are loyal, and some are bred to hunt or herd, and they instinctively do those things, as though they were programmed to do so. And that is done without a soul. In humans, often it will be remarked that a child has his father’s sense of humor or mechanical ability, his mother’s gift for art or music, or his grandfather’s quick temper. We say things like “the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” because it can be patently obvious that the personality traits of two generations may be uncannily similar.

Certain personality traits not only “run in the family,” but may even be a general trait of a certain nationality. Germans are notorious for their engineering prowess. Italians are famous for their artistic abilities. The Finns I grew up with are generally introverted but very practical and mechanically inclined. Some races are plagued by alcoholism in distinct disproportion to other races. Jewish people seem incredibly able to succeed in business, so much so that some have proposed they harbor a sinister plot to take over the world through their financial prowess! Some nationalities are notoriously frugal, some stubborn, and some hot-headed. I have no reason to suspect that souls contains traits that are somehow passed from generation to generation, but even an amateur observer like me can ponder the soul-less world of animals and the phenomena of shared behavioral traits within a breed or species and suspect that perhaps there is something in their shared genetics which inclines certain groups of creatures to certain kinds of behaviors.

Social Standing: Remember the huge kerfuffle when the dentist from Minnesota went to Zimbabwe and shot the famous Cecil the Lion a few years ago? Cecil had a friend, who is named Jericho, (the name given by the humans, not the lions – a not-so-subtle difference between man and animal!) and there was great concern that Jericho would seek out and kill Cecil’s cubs so they’d never threaten his new-found position as the top lion of the pride. And I wonder, “what makes this lion behave this way? It seems a rather complex behavior, but the predictability of it indicates that this is behavior that is “programmed” into the physical non-spiritual nature of a male lion, and happens without making use of a soul.

Or, closer to home, I need only wander out to the coop and observe the chickens for a few moments. Some are very well kept; others have been clearly abused by the other hens. The concept of “pecking order” is so well-known that it hardly needs description. My only observation is this: programmed into the tiny little brain of a chicken is the desire to beat up on anything it can, and take a beating from anything it can’t, until every chicken in the coop knows their “spot.” And this without a soul. This sort of social behavior fascinates me, because at the least, I can deduce that it is possible for a creature to maintain something of social order or strive for dominance in their interaction with other creatures without the aid of a soul.

Summary: Whales communicate to each other, dolphins love to play around, salmon swim all over the ocean then find their way back through an incredible maze of rivers to spawn in the exact same stream they were hatched in, monarch butterflies’ migration cycle happens over the course of three generations, homing pigeons always manage to return home, squirrels store food, dogs bury bones, crocodiles open their mouths for the little birds to clean their teeth, huge flocks of thousands of birds or massive schools of fish move together as though they were one living organism, bears fatten up before winter and hibernate, beavers chew down trees and use them to build amazingly strong dams, and the list of incredibly intelligent and complex behaviors goes on and on.

And all this without the use of a soul. What does this mean? At the least it must mean that the material part of a physical creature is capable of some pretty incredible things. It means that the human body is not simply an empty sack without its spirit. It means that there is most undoubtedly a physical aspect to our emotions, our social interactions, our thoughts, our desires, and so forth.

I’m not going to draw any conclusions yet, those are coming. I merely present these as pieces of evidence that help us understand at least the potential of what it means that we are physical creatures. That is to say, we are more than a soul, and our body doesn’t count for nothing. We are not less than a soul, of course, but indeed we are more. Our bodies are not a blank slate inhabited by an all-powerful all-encompassing behavior creating soul. It seems to me that oft-times those who are particularly focused on the sinfulness of the human condition overlook the incredible complexity and power of our physical makeup and focus on the fallenness of the soul, as though the problem lie nestled in our soul and our body was irrelevant to our sinfulness. This seems to shift the focus of dealing with the problem from understanding the very natural (and natural should not be read as therefore morally neutral) and powerful impulses of our physical nature and focusing on a straightening up a sin-tainted and perhaps somewhat defective soul as the root source of our behavior. My intention is to get to that in more detail in coming articles. But next I want to consider what we can understand about the function of our bodies in relation to our souls through pondering, not animals, but people themselves. Stay tuned.