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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Some Thoughts on Ed Welch, Jay Adams, and "The Flesh"

I'm teaching through the book of Romans for the first time this year, and have reached Chapter 7, so I went back and revisited an article by Ed Welch that I had read many years ago about Paul's use of the term "flesh" (Greek sarx).  In the article Welch criticizes Jay Adams' understanding of that term, and by extension his whole approach to counseling.  You can find the article here.

I didn't follow up and read any other discussions about the article or the issues, but just had a few thoughts to share after considering Welch's. 

First, it seems that Welch and Adams, or at least their followers, have polarized as a result of this and other disagreements, and I think that is unfortunate because they are both right about many things.  For instance, Adams' definition of "flesh" as "the body wrongly habituated" helpfully reminds us of the clear scriptural fact that the physical body plays an important role in our sinful behavior.  This simply cannot be denied when you look at Paul's language in Romans 7, where the use of terms like "body" and "members" make it impossible to eliminate the physical from his meaning.  In other words, "the flesh" or "living according to the flesh" clearly has something to do with the physical body.  But on the other hand, Welch is right in pointing out that to locate the flesh only in the physical body is a mistake of interpretation that can lead to problems in counseling method.  And Welch is particularly helpful in pointing out harmful tendencies in counseling that is too behavioristic (though I question whether such problems arise primarily from Adams' view of the flesh, as Welch implies).

The tendencies to err on the side of "behaviorism" are probably more due to the personality, experience, and giftedness of the counselor himself, as are the tendencies to err on the side of "heartism," which is the mistake of focusing too exclusively on what is happening internally and not providing enough practical help for the putting off and putting on of new behavior (which in a cyclical fashion actually affects the heart itself, according to Matthew 6:21 and other passages).

Speaking of personality, experience, and giftedness, it seems to me that Welch and Adams are different in all of those, by God's sovereign providence, and that's another reason they as well as their followers should be learning from each other rather than polarizing against one another (see 1 Corinthians 12). 

Another thought I have after reading Welch's article is that his alternative definition of sarx is at least as problematic, and maybe more so, than the one he's criticizing.  He actually proposes that in Romans 7:14-25 may be speaking of a past experience, even though Paul uses the present tense consistently in the passage, deliberately switching from the past tense he used in the preceding autobiographical section.  And Welch's idea that "the flesh" refers to a Jewish community ideal is as novel as the view he criticizes for being too novel.  It is also proven wrong by the fact that Paul says "in my flesh" rather than "in the flesh" in verse 18, and speaks of it being at work "in my members" (twice in verse 23).

I think Welch's best contribution to the meaning of sarx is when he says that we don't have to locate it somewhere inside of us (or outside of us, for that matter).  I agree with this, because I think "the flesh" is not a material thing but a spiritual principle that we can "walk in" or "live according to" when we listen to the lies of the devil and trust them rather than God's Word.  It's hard to reduce such a principle to a brief definition, as commentators immemorial have found, but my best shot at this time, to play off the main subject of this article, would be to say that the flesh is "the heart and body wrongly habituated," or "the principle of sin that remains influential in both our hearts and our bodies."

Like I said, I think that Welch and Adams are both right in many ways, and that they and their followers can learn from one another.  And we all need to do so, because "the flesh" ensures that we all will continue to be wrong in many ways, and therefore in constant need of that continued learning.