Charles A. Hauser
All Bible-believing interpreters of scripture agree that doctrine must be determined by the teaching of the Word of God, not by creeds or confessions. The creeds are helpful and widely respected, but doctrine must always be decided on the basis of what scripture clearly teaches.
Reformed theologians have consistently taught that the Bible names only two kinds of people: the saved and the unsaved. These, they hold, are equivalent to “spiritual” and “natural” people. On this view, the New Testament always classifies believers as “spiritual.” This system leaves no category for carnal believers. In this system, believers might be carnal in some aspects of their lives, but no believer can exist in a state of carnality.
This view is taught by some dispensationalists. Whether Reformed or dispensational, those who hold it consider the category of “carnal believer” to be a dangerous heresy. They see it as a soul-destroying teaching that breeds pharisaism and shallow, humanly-centered evangelism. (For an example of this thinking, see Ernest Reisinger, What Should We Think of the Carnal Christian?)
Rather than responding in kind to these charges, I would like to examine what scripture teaches about the subject of carnality. Why are Reformed interpreters so strongly opposed to this view? Are their objections supported by the text of the Bible? This essay and the next will attempt to answer these questions.
Perhaps the most important biblical text on this subject is 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:3. While this passage spans sections of two chapters, the chapter division does not introduce a change of subject. In this way it is like the teaching on separation in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, where 7:1 is the conclusion to Paul’s statement in 6:14-18. Here, 1 Corinthians 2:14 begins a thought that continues into the next chapter. The connection is shown in two ways.
First, the kago of 3:1 indicates a close connection. The word kago is a compound word formed from kai (and) and ego (I). According to Kermit Titrud (“The Function of Kai in the Greek New Testament”), kai, when compared with other conjoining particles, performs the function of union. It informs the reader that the following is to be closely united with the preceding.
Second, the two passages are connected by the use of the adjective spiritual, which occurs in both 2:15 and 3:1. Since the two occurrences appear in the same context, only a poor hermeneutic would suggest that they have different senses. Whatever spiritual means in 2:15 is what it must mean in 3:1, and vice versa. If the word speaks of a state or condition in 2:15, then it must speak of a state or condition in 3:1.
Here is the nub of the problem: in 3:1 Paul states clearly that he could not speak to the Corinthians as spiritual, but as carnal or fleshly. Even Reformed interpreters admit that the word natural in 2:14 and the word spiritual in 2:15 speak of different states or conditions. If so, then the word carnal or fleshly in 3:1 must also speak of a state or condition.
Furthermore, Paul clearly refers to these carnal individuals as believers. He says that they are infants in Christ, and he only ever uses the phrase in Christ of genuine believers. They are Christians, but rather than being mature in the faith they are spiritual infants.
So Paul is addressing believers, but the state he attributes to them is not one of spirituality. He uses two words to describe their spiritual condition. The first (sarkinos, found in 3:1) has the idea of fleshly, and Paul opposes it to the condition of being spiritual. This term refers to the state or condition of human existence, with a focus on being weak or sinful (see BDAG). According to Paul, to be fleshly in this sense is to be an infant in Christ. Like physical babies these people were unable to digest the solid food of the faith. They were limited to a milk diet.
The second term (sarkikos, found in 3:3) is related to the first, but has the basic idea of belonging to the flesh. This word is used of a level of human behavior that contrasts with the spiritual level (see BDAG). Because these people exhibited this characteristic, their lives displayed more of the characteristics of the unsaved person than of a spiritual individual. Paul names two evidences of carnality: jealousy and strife (3:3). In context, these terms relate to the attempt of the Corinthians to elevate one teacher above another (3:4-9).
Paul specifies that he is talking about the walk of the Corinthians (3:3). He frequently uses the verb walk to refer to conduct, way of life, or lifestyle. Coming from Paul, to walk is to engage in a pattern of behavior that characterizes one’s life (c.f. Eph. 5:8, among many others). Applied to the Corinthian believers, this term indicates that their pattern of life was not spiritual in nature, but fleshly or carnal.
How do Reformed interpreters respond to these verses? In his commentary on First Corinthians, Gordon Fee insists that Paul does not distinguish classes of Christians or grades of spirituality. In spite of this insistence, however, Fee makes some interesting concessions. He states that Paul seems to allow that the Corinthians are “less than truly ‘spiritual’” (119), and that Paul “pronounces the Corinthians as not spiritual at all” (122). He adds that Paul “seems to be allowing that there are ‘unspiritual’ Christians—which is both true and not true” (123). According to Fee, Paul goes on to say that he could not address the Corinthians as “spiritual” because, in fact, they were quite the opposite—“fleshly” (123).
Fee’s conclusion is that since the Corinthians had received the Spirit, Paul could not call them psychikoi (natural), even though they were acting in just the ways that psychikoi people do. Consequently, Paul shifted the terminology to sarkinos and the more biting sarkikos. He could not accuse them of not having the Spirit, since that would mean that they were unsaved. Nevertheless, he wanted to force them to recognize themselves as they truly were. Paul also used the word walk for the way these believers were living.
Fee wishes to say that not all of the Corinthian believers were fleshly. If not, what would one call them? Were some of them really spiritual spiritual, and others merely fleshly spiritual? In fact, Fee ends up very close to the view that some believers are simply carnal.
Other Reformed interpreters like Reisinger try to de-emphasize the doctrinal significance of 1 Corinthians. To him, “1 Corinthians is not primarily a doctrinal epistle. . . . It was not written . . . to lay doctrinal foundations.” But 1 Corinthians (like all scripture) is profitable for doctrine. For example, one wonders where one might find doctrinal details about the believer’s bodily resurrection if not in 1 Corinthians 15.
The biblical text seems clear enough. Some believers must be classified as carnal rather than as spiritual. We are responsible to bring our theological system into conformity with this teaching.
This essay is by Charles A. Hauser, Dean Emeritus at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Lord, Thou Hast Won
John Newton (1725–1807)
Lord, Thou hast won, at length I yield;
My heart by mighty grace compelled
Surrenders all to Thee;
Against Thy terrors long I strove,
But who can stand against Thy love?
Love conquers even me.
If Thou hadst bid Thy thunders roll,
And light’nings flash, to blast my soul,
I still had stubborn been;
But mercy has my heart subdued,
A bleeding Savior I have viewed,
And now I hate my sin.
Now, Lord, I would be Thine alone,
Come, take possession of Thine own,
For Thou hast set me free;
Released from Satan’s hard command,
See all my powers waiting stand,
To be employed by Thee.