In the midst of his great discussion about the relationship between the believer and God in Romans 8, Paul introduces a word which occurs only in this chapter in the New Testament. It is the noun phronēma (vv. 6(2x), 7, 27). The cognate verb phroneō, in contrast, occurs many times (once in Matthew, Mark and Acts and the remainder in Paul’s correspondence) and means “think, hold an opinion; set one’s mind on; develop an attitude based on careful thought” (BDAG, 1065-66). In Matthew and Mark it only occurs in the stinging rebuke delivered by Jesus to Peter: “you do not have in mind(phroneis) the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Mark 8:33). Both terms etymologically derive from the noun phrēn which means “the process of careful consideration, thinking, understanding” (BDAG, 1065).
The ending of the noun phronēma, i.e. –ma, occurs in Koine Greek as a way to derive nouns from verbs, specifying “the result of the action for the most part” (Blass-Debrunner-Funk, section 109(2), page 59). So in the case of phronēma it would express “the result of thinking, holding an opinion; setting one’s mind on; developing an attitude with careful thought.” Thus we find it used to describe a person’s mindset or disposition, understanding about a matter, a studied perspective, or an attitude of some kind — determined, opinionated, etc.
When Paul first uses this term in Romans 6, he employs it as part of the contrast between a life controlled by “human sinful nature, i.e. the flesh” describing an unbeliever, and a life controlled by the Holy Spirit, i.e. a believer. The former generates death and the latter offers life (8:6). He then notes that the phronēma of the human sinful nature (sarx) is hateful to or hostile to God (8:7). Finally he declares that God knows the phronēma of the Spirit (8:27). However, he introduces this usage by employing the cognate verb in 8:5 where he affirms that “those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on (phronousin) what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit (have their minds set on [Paul does not repeat the verb in the second clause]) what the Spirit desires” (NIV).
The noun phronēma has a long history in Greek literature, so Paul is not coining a new term here. It has little exposure in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (only in 2 Maccabees 7:21; 13:9). Rather a cognate noun phronēsis has much more usage, occurring in stories about Solomon (1 Kings 3-10) and Daniel (1-5) and generally in the Wisdom literature (Job, Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach). It renders Hebrew terms describing understanding or wisdom. According to 1 Kings 5:9 Yahweh gave Solomon “discernment (phronēsis) and very great wisdom (sophia) and volume of mind like the sand that is by the sea” (translation of the Greek text). A similar pattern of usage occurs with the adjective phronimos. According to Wisdom of Solomon 6:24 “a sensible (phronimos) king is the stability of a people.”
The usage of phronēma in 2 Maccabees illustrates well its essential meaning. The writer describes the perspective of a mother whose seven sons are tortured and killed in one day because of their loyalty to the Jewish law (7:21). He describes her encouragement to her sons as “filled with noble spirit/disposition (phronēmati).” The capacity of this term to be used negatively occurs in 2 Macc.13:9. The author describes Antiochus Eupater as “the king who had become barbarous in his thinking (tois…phronēmasin),” using this to explain his attempts to attack the Jewish nation and the temple. It describes understanding that shapes perspective and disposition, but in this case with potentially devastating results for God’s people.
Philo uses this noun extensively, particularly to describe Jewish leaders such as Abraham, Joseph and Moses, as types of people who act with noble understanding and spirited-disposition because of their knowledge of God, despite their circumstances. Moses, for example, even though he was slated to become lord of Egypt (in Philo’s perspective), rejected this position because of the harsh treatment of the Israelites and “his own nobility of soul and magnanimity of spirit (phronēmatos)” (Moses I, 149). Moses’ defense of Jethro’s daughter at the well “argues a spirit (phronēmatos) of no petty kind” (Moses I, 51). “Spirit” in these contexts would equate with our expression “disposition, perspective, attitude” generated and influenced by certain knowledge.
The Hellenistic Jewish historian Josephus, writing towards the end of the first century A.D., describes Moses in these terms: “for grandeur of intellect (phronēmatos) and contempt of toils he was the noblest Hebrew of them all” (Antiquities 2.229), as God himself predicted. Moses is “divine in beauty and noble in disposition (phronēmati)” (Antiquities 2.232). (Josephus has much to say about Herod the Great. When Herod demands his subjects to swear their loyalty by oath, Josephus says that some Jewish people “showed some spirit (phronēmatos) and objected to compulsion” (Antiquities 15.369), but he got rid of them. When Casar confirms Herod as king over Palestine, he claims “I entertain the most brilliant hopes for your high spirit (phronēmatos)” (Jewish Wars I.391). Josephus describes one of his peers as “a democrat and filled with a disposition (phronēmatos eleutheriou) committed to freedom” (Jewish War IV.358). Alexander is said to have surpassed Hyrcanus “in capacity and courage (phronēmati)” (Jewish War I.120). Sometimes people act “to humiliate their [Judeans] pride (ta phronēmata” (Jewish War II.337).
These many and various examples show again the range of meaning that his term has in the writings of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries, as well as earlier Greek authors. The basic sense seems to be an understanding or perspective which shapes attitude. Such an attitude may exhibit pride, courage, commitment to God, ambition, etc. So we come back to Paul’s use of phronēma in Romans 6. The cognate verb in v. 5 suggests that non-believers have their opinions and perspectives shaped by sinful human nature (the flesh) and their disposition and attitudes reflect this. Conversely those who commit to Jesus have their opinions and perspectives shaped by the Holy Spirit and their dispositions and attitudes reflect this. According to v. 6. the disposition or mindset that results from influence of sinful human nature is deadly; conversely the disposition or mindset that results from the influence of the Spirit generates life and peace. Paul offers his explanation in v. 7: the disposition or mindset influenced by sinful human nature is hostile or hateful towards God because it will not submit to the God’s law and lacks the capacity to do this. So here we find a disposition or mindset that proudly and determindely rejects God’s authority.