Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Second Corinthians, Hermeneutics, and More!

Okay, I want to know. What's going on with Second Corinthians?

It's one of my current studies, and it's got me turned inside out. If you're not currently up on this letter, here's the skinny. There are at least two big questions about 2 Corinthians:

(1) What has happened since Paul wrote 1 Corinthians? (Evidently, a lot).

(2) Is the letter we call 2 Corinthians a single letter, or is it the result of someone splicing two or more letters that Paul sent to Corinth on different occasions?

Now, you might be wondering why anyone would ask questions like that. But if you just start reading the letter, you'll see that these these two, especially the first one, jump off the page.

A good example of those sections that raise question (1) is when Paul says in 2 Cor. 2:1, "I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you." Hmmm. When was that visit? And what was so painful about it?

The most commonly-cited example of question (2) comes at the break between the end of chapter 9 and the beginning of chapter 10. Up to that point, it seems like maybe Paul has things patched up with the congregation. But then, afterwards, he's blasting a group of guys he sarcastically refers to as "super apostles" who are in reality "false apostles." Is this the same letter as chapters 1-9? It's certainly possible (and that's where I come out at this point).

A similar question comes from chapter 2 where Paul talks about a letter he'd previously sent to them: "I wrote as I did so that when I came I should not be distressed by those who ought to make me rejoice. I had confidence in all of you, that you would all share my joy. For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you" (2:3-4).

Is Paul talking about the letter we call 1 Corinthians? (the traditional answer). Or is he talking about a lost letter that was after 1st and before 2nd Corinthians? (an answer given by scholars like F. F. Bruce).

Either way, he seems to mention the same letter again in chapter 7: "Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it--I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while--yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. You became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us" (7:8-9).

Then there's a third and different question. It pertains to much more than 2 Corinthians. It's often unspoken. But it's much more important. The question is, To what extent do answers to these questions matter? Can a letter like 2 Corinthians be used as sacred Scripture for the church without our having to answer historical and literary questions about that letter?

The reason I say that this third question is more important is because it's not merely an interpretive question about 2 Corinthians. This one is what scholars call a hermenuetical question. It's about how we should approach the work of figuring out what the Bible means. How much does historical background information (much of which is and has been inaccessible to the majority of believers of the last 20 centuries) really matter?

Think of it this way: Many conservative Christians in the United States know about, and have contributed to, efforts to distribute translations of the Bible in places like China and the former Soviet Union.

Now, when a fourteen year old girl in Russia reads 2 Corinthians in her Russian Bible, does her faithful response to the messages of this ancient letter depend upon her knowledge of and answers for the questions I've been asking? Remember, the only piece of religious literature she has is her new Bible.

One response would be, If she's reading with a good level of comprehension, then the questions that I've said "jump off the page" would be noticed by her. Assuming that's the case, how important is it for her to decide something about the history behind and literary integrity of 2 Corinthians? For that matter, what does she believe about the origin and nature of the Bible? How is the Bible handled in the church she attends? Etc., etc.

My own provisional conclusion is that sometimes modern, academically-oriented approaches to Scripture have the effect of leading people to think of and to treat Scripture as a collection of historical questions and literary puzzles. This is a temptation for me. (Can you tell from the foregoing?)

I would add that academically-oriented approaches to Scripture have the effect of making knowledge about the Bible the very point of studying the Bible. This orientation (which is the stock in trade of many seminaries) is not spiritual. It's not meditative. It's not anything like that. It tends to militate against the Bible's identity as Scripture for the church.

Is that necessarily the case? No. Is that sometimes the effect? Without a doubt.

Without deciding either of the two critical questions I've mentioned above, isn't it possible for a person to read 2 Corinthians and realize that the real question is, "How does the victory of Jesus show up in the life of a Christian? What does it look like?"

Paul completely agrees with his opponents at Corinth that the Christian life is a life of victory: "But thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ" (2:14). However, just as it was for Jesus himself, so it must be for the followers of Jesus that before the final victory of resurrection (Joel O., take note) there is suffering. With the very beginning of the letter, Paul insists that "the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives" (1:5). The life of the Christian reveals the life of Jesus himself. But since Jesus was executed, it means that we Christ-ians "always carry around in our body the death of Jesus;" that we "are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake" (4:10-11). Yes, Paul is primarily talking about his own missionary existence. But I think it's fair to say that he wants his Corinthian readers to come around to this view of Christian life in general.

I've sort of come full circle and need to stop here. Thoughts? Historical reconstructions? ;-) Recommendations?


Matt said...


Can I toss a question in the mix?

Who did Jesus condemn and who did Jesus forgive?

Jesus condemned people even though they knew their doctrine well. As far as we can tell from what we have, he didn't spend the majority of his time in theological debate over minute theological stances. He spent his time making a difference in the lives of "sick" people. Jesus didn't forgive people because they had all their ducks in a row. He forgave people (especially as the two stories in the "Markan sandwich" of Mark 5:21ff) who had faith in who he was.

It seems to me we are free to differ on all sorts of doctrines as long as we get the core and unifying message of the faith right - Jesus is the Son of God and that we are drawn to him through his death, burial, and resurrection. No two people are going to agree on all the doctrines but we should all agree with this.

Can someone read 2 Corinthians without a clue of all that background and still grow from it? Yes. But what if they are taking things out of context and missing the fine tuned parts of Paul's points? They can still grow closer to God through that. The gospel writers took the OT scriptures out of context all over the place and that seemed all right.

Am I calling for a careless Christianity? Certainly not. I think where we have resources to advance our understanding we should use them. If you have a desire for knowing God you will seek him out to the extent of the resources that are available. I just think it is important to remember that Jesus didn't side with the studied because they were studied or the unstudied because they were unstudied. He sided with those who put their faith in him regardless of anything else. The gospel was intended to unite and not divide. We divide when we miss the point of what the core of the gospel really is and we distract ourselves with minutia. Don't get me wrong...I like minutia as much as the next guy! But minute and fine tuned theological issues are typically not the core of the gospel. Today you have Christians calling other Christians "apostate" based on belief in some issue most of us have never even considered or thought much about. That is just plain silly and a tremendous waste of time.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Nice words, Matt. I really liked your thoughts on the relative value of study and knowledge.

I think that God's intention is his glory, and that the goal of his commandments to us is love.

Leland V said...


A partially relevant question--Which is more valuable, a reading from Proverbs every day or a reading from the Psalms?

In past years I have heard speakers who I respect deeply recommend: (1) reading a chapter of Proverbs everyday, there are 31 chapters so you have a monthly cycle; or, (2) reading one or more of the Psalms every day with a cycle of 3-4 months to complete (thus the entire Psalter 3 or 4 times per year).

Thinking about myself, I think it reflects something about my attitude toward Scripture when I was attracted toward the former and now when I am attracted to the latter.

Does this make sense?

I agree with your comments earlier this week about Tim W's use of visuals in his sermons. In our 8 years at Otter Creek I became convinced that Tim was doing the best that I had seen in enhancement of sermons with PowerPoint (or Media Shout). Phil is great resource (technical and spiritual!). We miss being there. I have seen more than my fair share of PowerPoint in business and military presentations, and the bad examples are abundant.

Frank Bellizzi said...


Psalms or Proverbs? Tough choice. As you know, the Psalms have won out through the centuries. It's more fun to explore messianic psalms than to hear warnings to not become a sluggard. Maybe the Proverbs should be given more attention in order to balance out things?