The gospel of the suffering apostle
EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, Mark Seifrid, Mildred and Ernest Hogan Professor of New Testament Interpretation, discusses his new commentary, The Second Letter to the Corinthians, with Towers writer Andrew J.W. Smith. Read also a review of Seifrid’s book here.
AJWS: Second Corinthians tends not to garner the same popular attention among evangelicals as Romans, Ephesians, or even 1 Corinthians. What makes 2 Corinthians important in the Christian canon?
MS: Because the Corinthian correspondence is so tightly bound up with the particular problems of that church, it seems a bit alien to us. Certain passages from these letters, especially 1 Corinthians, appear more frequently in our preaching and teaching because they deal with questions that remain immediately relevant for us. Second Corinthians deals with the root issue that lies behind both letters: the question of the legitimization of an apostle. In a certain, obvious sense, we do not have to deal with that issue. Persons claiming apostolic authority don’t normally show up in our churches. Or if they do, we already know what to do with them! In other ways, however, this question remains highly relevant. An apostle displays the marks of God’s saving work in Christ within the world, the gospel in action. The life of an apostle is nothing other than the life of the Christian written large. As I suggest in the commentary, the Corinthians sense this truth. It is for this reason they are uncomfortable with Paul, who lacked the sort of preaching skills they sought. The Corinthians, who had already resisted Paul’s authority, had come to embrace other apostolic claimants, who had arrived with the charisma, rhetoric, display of power, and claims of remarkable experiences that Paul lacked. We don’t have to decide among competing apostolic claims in the immediate sense that the Corinthians did. We are called, however, to discern what is apostolic and what is not. While I was preparing the commentary, the significance of affirming Paul as apostle struck me profoundly. The gospel did not come to us from Paul, but it came to us through him (along with the other true apostles, of course). It makes a world of difference that we have the gospel through this suffering apostle. He is able to speak a word of comfort to us in our troubles that his comfortable opponents could never speak. In varying measures and in varying ways, a measure of suffering and difficulty is given to each of us so that we may share in the true comfort and salvation that has been given to us in Christ. Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians draws us away from a false estimation of power and success, as they are measured by influence, numbers, and other visible standards.
AJWS: Paul repeatedly focuses on his own suffering and weakness as strong evidence that his apostleship is legitimate. What can the church today learn from this?
MS: Paul is forced to speak more fully and directly about his suffering and weakness in 2 Corinthians than he does elsewhere because it has become an open issue between him and the church. The question at stake relates to what the marks of an apostle are supposed to be. An apostle is one who is especially “of Christ.” What does the presence of the indwelling Christ look like in the world? The opponents offered powerful preaching (at least as far as the tastes of the Corinthians were concerned), signs and wonders, and claims to visions. But the gospel has its own rhetoric, and works its own wonders in its own ways. God works his saving purposes only under the form of the opposite: power is hidden within weakness, wealth within poverty, life within death, and so on. That is true first of all in Christ, who, according to Paul, is the crucified one who lives. As Christ’s apostle, Paul is given over to death again and again so that the life of Jesus might be manifest in him. He is thrust into trouble and then delivered, and on and on goes his life. Between death and life, he speaks in faith, announcing the gospel, not only with his mouth but also with his body and life. It is important to see that Paul is not speaking about a general truth, as if weakness could at all times be turned into a strength, or poverty into wealth, or that human beings might somehow take tragedy and make it meaningful. That would be a misunderstanding of Paul’s message. We are not called to wallow in our weaknesses, or to attempt to use weakness as a tool to achieve power. Paul’s message about suffering and weakness is determined by Christ, and “localized.” The exchange between death and life, weakness and power, sin and righteousness takes place in Christ and in Christ alone. It does not lie in our hands or within our judgment.
Although we certainly have tasks to which we are called, and labor in which we are to engage, the Christian life, like that of the apostle, is fundamentally passive. We are acted upon by God in Christ. We are to “suffer” God’s work in us. True suffering is never chosen. It comes to us unsought, unwanted. In a sense, the whole of Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians can be summed up in the last lines of the Sunday School song, “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know”: “we are weak, but he is strong.” That was Christ’s message to Paul. That is Paul’s message to the Corinthians, and through them to us.
AJWS: In the commentary, you downplay the likelihood that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7) is a kind of chronic physical malady — whether an eye problem or some sort of sexual temptation. What is the thorn, and how does it function within his larger point about his suffering as an apostle?
MS: It is significant, I think, that Paul does not tell us precisely what the “thorn in the flesh” was. The details are irrelevant. What is significant is his experience of constant suffering. Precisely because he describes his suffering only in metaphor as a “thorn,” his experience has become a comfort to countless Christians through the centuries. Paul’s point (or, rather, Christ’s point to him) is that power finds its perfection in weakness. That is the opposite of what the Corinthians thought. They imagined that power is present in order to remove weakness, and that power is present in power. But Christ tells Paul, “my grace is sufficient for you.” Paul is called to live in a relationship of communication with Christ, in which he remains weak so that Christ’s power may “encamp” upon him. He is made strong, but the strength never becomes his own. He cast upon Christ. It is Christ’s power, and decidedly not that of Paul that is displayed in him. That is the essence of the apostolic life, of the Christian life, and of salvation itself. “Little ones (that’s us!) to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong.” The incarnate Christ himself was crucified in weakness, but lives even now by the power of God.
AJWS: There’s been a lot of speculation among other commentators regarding Paul’s Corinthian opponents, both their identity and their exact arguments. What’s the danger of a maximalist “mirror-reading” of 2 Corinthians, and of Pauline literature in general?
MS: “Mirror-reading” Paul’s opponents from his statements concerning them in his letters is a necessary part of interpretation. We know about Paul’s opponents only from that which he says about them. Reconstruction of the historical setting and context requires that we “mirror-read” Paul’s letters in order to get a picture of his adversaries. But we should exercise considerable caution in such reconstructions. We must listen to the text very carefully. In that sense, a “minimalist” mirror-reading is to be preferred. There are at least two dangers inherent to any “mirror-reading.” First, we bear in mind that what we find in Paul’s letters are his characterizations of the adversaries. We have to be careful about attributing those characteristics to them directly. Thus, for example, Paul tells the Corinthians that others have come to them “preaching another Jesus.” Did the opponents know that they were preaching “another Jesus?” Or did they imagine that they were offering the real Jesus, but doing so better than Paul did? It is a bit strained to try and reconstruct what sort of Christology the opponents might have presented. The second danger is to read into the letter the adversaries that we find in other letters of Paul, as if the same sort of opponents appeared everywhere. Some have argued that Paul faces advocates of Judaizing as he has done elsewhere. Others have argued that the opponents were some sort of Jewish-Hellenistic “divine-men” who offered a developed theology concerning participation in divine power. The opponents are clearly Jewish. And their thought is clearly Hellenistic. But neither one of these constructions fits Paul’s argument in the letter.
AJWS: What’s the most difficult part about writing a commentary?
MS: Listening to the text is the most difficult part of writing a commentary, or any interpretation of Scripture. Listening, listening, and listening again. There is a fourfold responsibility here. First, to let the text speak in all its particularity and detail, even (or especially) where it challenges our thinking. Second, not to lose the forest for the trees. We have to be able to synthesize, to gain a perspective on the whole of what the text is saying. Third — and here many New Testament scholars fail — we have to be aware of what we are saying with respect to the Christian tradition, with respect to what Christians have believed, taught, and confessed before us. Fourth, we have to remember that we are writing for others. Their needs and concerns must be in our minds. Someone has described preaching as being placed between the upper and lower millstones of the Word of God and the congregation, and attempting to come through the grinding. Writing a commentary is something like that.