John Kilgallen, «The Strivings of the Flesh (Galatians 5,17)», Vol. 80 (1999) 113-114
Galatians 5,17 can be read in such wise that 17d is related directly, not to 17c, but to 17a; in this scheme 17b and 17c are a parenthesis. By this syntactical adjustment, what was often a puzzling reading, that the struggle between flesh and spirit leaves a Christian unable to do the good he desires, is resolved. The Pauline warning is not to let the flesh have its way (16), for the flesh strives (17a) so that what you do want to do, these things you do not do.
Long-standing is the problem of the relationship between the four syntactical members of Galatians 5,17: the flesh against the spirit; the spirit against the flesh; antithetical to each other, so that (with the result that) "you do not do what you want"1. The problem of this verse can be briefly put: are we to understand that the struggle of flesh against spirit (17a) and spirit against flesh (17b), for they truly oppose each other (17c), ends in our not doing what we want to do? Are we to conclude that the two elements, at war with each other, leave us unable to do good? Has not the Christian gained a position through union with Christ and the Holy Spirit which would enable him to do good? Or should we simply admit that the flesh checks the spirit, and the Christian is left, according to 17d, powerless to do good?2. What good then is accomplished by faith in Christ?
Solutions abound which are exegetical-theological in nature. I would like to approach the problem from a narrower perspective, that of syntax.
The problem of the relationship of the four elements which make up v. 17 can be resolved by reading the interrelationships differently from the usual manner. These four elements in Greek are as divided as follows:
a h( ga_r sa_rc e)piqumei= kata_ tou= pneu/matoj
b to_ de_ pneu=ma kata_ th=j sarko/j
c tau=ta ga_r a)llh/loij a)nti/keitai
d i#na mh_ a$ e)a_n qe/lhte tau=ta poih=te.
Ordinarily, 17d is read as the conclusion of at least 17a and 17b, if not also of 17c. The problem we are concerned with is created by reading that both the flesh and the spirit are so antagonistic to each other that (purpose or result) the Christian cannot do what he wants.
Another way of reading this verse is to consider 17d to be the result or purpose only of 17a; thus: "For the flesh struggles against the spirit¼so that (with the result that) what you wish to do, these things you do not". That is to say, 17b is to be considered a parenthetical comment3 which affirms again the struggle by noting that the spirit struggles against the flesh. Verse 17c, with its ga/r, goes along with 17b, to explain that 17b is true because the two elements, flesh and spirit, are indeed opposed to each