Sinful Nature: A Greek Paradigm

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.

Romans 7:18 (NIV)

Sinful nature – If it’s in the Bible, it must be true, right? Unfortunately, “sinful nature” is not what it means in Greek. You might also be surprised to learn that “sinful nature” is a Greek-rooted paradigm of the Hebrew yetzer hara.

The word in Greek is actually sarx which means “flesh.” It’s quite simply the flesh that covers a body. It can pertain to animals and humans alike. Now the flesh is used in a number of ways to denote a particular limitation of man. It’s almost as if the flesh restricts our ability to properly commune with God. But there’s a lot more going on here when the translators change “flesh” to “sinful nature.”

For a great many years, there has been an ongoing debate over the translation of the Greek word sarx as “sinful nature.” However, sinful nature is a theological concept, not a linguistic one. How it is interpreted is a matter of theological paradigm, not a matter of linguistic transmission. There is a world of difference between sarx as “flesh” and sarx as “sinful nature.” Only one of these options entails a lengthy ecclesiastical history of pre-existent blame and guilt.

So how did we get here? Where did this concept of sinful nature come from? It’s a long road of Greek philosophy and Platonism, but it did originate from a Hebrew concept called the yetzer hara. Jewish theology submits that man is born with the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov – two possible opposing forces within himself. The yetzer hara is quite literally the “inclination toward evil” and the yetzer hatov is, you guessed it, the “inclination toward good.” To the Greek-minded individual, this makes all the sense in the world. An inclination toward evil is obviously one’s sinful nature. However, we need to realize this is Jewish theology, not Greek. How do the Jews understand this?

I like to refer to Ira Stone’s commentary on the Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Upright) for insight into how these play out in man’s life.

I would suggest that the yetzer ha-ra cannot be understood simply as evil in the conventional sense, based on the Rabbis’ assertion that “human beings were created with both a yetzer ha-ra and a yetzer ha-tov, and were it not for the yetzer ha-ra no man would marry, earn a living or build a house, and were it not for Torah the yetzer ha-ra would triumph over the yetzer-ha-tov in all cases.” Since the yetzer ha-ra is essential for normative human activity, i.e., those activities necessary to assure our survival in the world, we understand it to mean the material urge that compels us to survive in the world and to bend the forces of material nature to our will; it is the inclination to work for the self. Conversely, the yetzer ha-tov represents the equally innate inclination to please or to serve another. Thus, in every instance human beings are presented with a choice between the self (yetzer ha-ra) and the other (yetzer ha-tov).

Ira Stone, Mesillat Yesharim, Introduction, p xviii

I can’t say it any better, but maybe I can condense it down a bit. The yetzer ha-ra, which the Greek paradigm of modern Christianity has misconstrued as sinful nature, is actually our passion to survive in the world. It is primarily aimed at our own survival. Without holding this passion in check, which is why we have the Torah, our passion for eating may turn into gluttony. Our passion for intimacy may turn to adultery. The list can go on.

The two can, and should, live in harmony. We are not called to eradicate the yetzer hara from our lives, but rather to overcome it. When God approached Cain before Cain killed Able, God told him that the yetzer hara is crouching like a beast at the door, ready to consume him. And Cain must overcome it. This is the same for us today, and the Torah is the means by which we can overcome it.

For further information into this refreshing look at sinful nature, please read my book, Go, and Sin No More.

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