Bibliotheca Sacra 154 (January-March 1997) 61-79.
Copyright © 1997 by
2 CORINTHIANS 3:1-11
Randall C. Gleason
Paul's remarks in 2 Corinthians 3:1-11 have captured the
interest of biblical scholars in several ways. Beginning with
Origen and continuing through the Middle Ages, many theolo-
gians justified going beyond the plain meaning of the "letter" of
Scripture to its allegorical "spiritual" message by appealing to
Paul's words, "For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor.
3:6).1 Although in different fashion, some modern scholars per-
sist in establishing their hermeneutical methodology on this key
biblical basis for hermeneutics" is in the letter/spirit contrast in 2
Corinthians 3 because of its "demand for interpretation at the in-
stigation of the Spirit."2 Steinmetz calls for a return to the me-
dieval theory of levels of meaning because the text truly "contains
both letter and spirit."3 More recently Hays advocates a reader
Randall C. Gleason is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Interna-
1 For a thorough history of the interpretation of 2 Corinthians 3:6 to support an
allegorical hermeneutic by the Alexandrian school contrary to Antiochene under-
standing of it as a contrast between the Mosaic Law and the Holy Spirit, see
Bernardin Schneider, "The Meaning of
Spirit,' " Catholic Biblical Quarterly 15 (1953): 166–68, 170, 182–83; and E. F. Sut-
cliffe, "Jerome," in
The Cambridge History of the Bible, 3
bridge University Press, 1969), 2:89–90. For a discussion of the use of this passage
in late medieval exegesis, see Karlfried Froehlich, "`Always to Keep the Literal
Sense in Holy Scripture Means to Kill One's Soul': The State of Biblical
Hermeneutics at the Beginning of the Fifteenth Century," in Literary Uses of Ty-
pology from the Late Middle Ages to the Present, ed. Earl Miner (
2 Peter Richardson, "Spirit and Letter: A Foundation for Hermeneutics," Evan-
gelical Quarterly 45 (1973): 208-9.
3 David C. Steinmetz, "The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis," Theology Today
36 (April 1980): 37–38.
62 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January–March 1997
response hermeneutic based on 2 Corinthians 3.4 Is a hermeneu-
tical method the issue behind Paul's letter/spirit contrast?
Contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3 between the Old and New
Covenants have also attracted attention regarding the role of the
Mosaic Law in the life of the Christian. Ryrie emphasizes that 2
Corinthians 3:7–11 teaches the end of the Ten Commandments,
since they "are a ministration of death" and, therefore are "in no
uncertain terms . . . done away (v. 11)."5 Theonomists reject this
claim. Bahnsen argues,
The fact that the letter kills but the Spirit enlivens (2 Cor. 3:6) in
no way discredits or stigmatizes the law.... The law exposes sin
and demands death, but it was not designed to kill. The law came
in glory (2 Cor. 3:7); not it, but our sin falls short of God's glory
(Rom. 3:23). The surpassing glory of the new covenant is that it
brings with it the spiritual power to comply with the glorious law
What do Paul's distinctions between the Old and New Covenants
in 2 Corinthians 3 reveal about the relevance of the Old Testa-
ment Law for Christians today?
Allusions in 2 Corinthians 3 to the Old Testament promise of
a New Covenant (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:22–32) raise the ques-
tion of how the Old and New Covenants differ in the way they en-
able believers to live in obedience to God.
implicitly contrasts not only the New Covenant with the Old but
also the heart of stone, representing the hardened will of man in
opposition to God, with the fleshly heart, representing the docile
and obedient new heart of the New Covenant."7 Do Paul's cove-
nantal contrasts imply that New Testament believers have a
sanctificational advantage over Old Testament believers?
These issues will be addressed through this brief exposition of
the covenantal contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1–11 in view of the
4 Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scriptures in the Letters of Paul
Sloan Jr., "2 Corinthians 2:14–4:6 and ‘New Covenant Hermeneutics’—A Response
to Richard Hays," Bulletin for Biblical Research 5 (1995): 129–54.
5 Charles C. Ryrie, "The End of the Law," Bibliotheca Sacra 124 (July–September
L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian
rian and Reformed, 1977), 171–72 (italics his). Bahnsen explains that Christian re-
constructionists or theonomists advocate "the normativity of the law of God in
Christian ethics today (cf. 2 Tim. 3:15–17), maintaining that the Old Testament
standing commandments have not been abrogated (cf. Matt. 5:17–19) even in matters
of crime and punishment (cf. 1 Tim, 1:8–10; Heb. 2:2)."
7 Thomas E.
Corinthians II,15–III,18," Novum Testamentum 24 (1982): 61.
Paul's Covenantal Contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1-11 63
historical background and argument of the epistle. Attention will
focus on the contrast between the letter and the spirit in verse 6.
THE BACKGROUND OF 2 CORINTHIANS
concern for his third visit to
for the letter of 2 Corinthians. While in
greatly comforted by the arrival of Titus with the news that the
Corinthians had responded to his "tearful letter" (2 Cor. 2:4) with
godly sorrow (7:9–10) and had demonstrated their loyalty to Paul
by disciplining an offending brother (7:12). However, there were
criticisms about Paul's change of itinerary to
fore he visited
of being indecisive in a manner inappropriate for an apostle
Therefore, as Paul anticipated his third visit to
(12:14; 13:1), he wanted to clear up these grievances by informing
them why he changed his original plans (1:15-17, 23; 2:12-13).
He explained that his delay was to give them time to prepare their
offering (8:6; 9:4) and to resolve their own problems (12:20-21), so
that when he came they all could be joyful (2:2-3) and avoid the
severe discipline of his apostolic authority (13:1-2, 10).
Paul's opponents in 2 Corinthians were attacking his per-
sonal character in order to discredit his ministry before the
Corinthians. They said he lacked the proper credentials (3:1) of a
genuine apostle (11:5; 12:11-12), charged him with walking
"according to the flesh" (10:2), and accused him of inflated speech
(10:10) and demeaning himself by working (11:7). Paul identi-
fied these individuals as "false apostles" and "deceitful workers"
who were passing themselves off within the Corinthian church as
true apostles (11:13). He denounced them for "peddling the word of
God" (2:17) and promoting themselves with "letters of commen-
dation" (3:1). Who were these "false apostles" who were deter-
mined to destroy Paul's reputation? Few questions in New Tes-
tament studies have been more vigorously disputed. They were
not the same as those he encountered in 1 Corinthians, for there
Paul directed his polemics against those who fostered dissension
inside the church through their emphasis on worldly wisdom, lib-
erty, and tongues. But in 2 Corinthians he confronted Jews (11:22)
from outside the church who sought to discredit his apostolic au-
thority.8 Although 2 Corinthians has traces of the earlier "Christ"
party (2 Cor. 10:7; 11:3-4), the four factions mentioned in 1
Corinthians (1:12) are no longer in focus in 2 Corinthians.
8 The fact that they needed letters of commendation (3:1) and that Paul accused
them of having invaded another man's territory (10:13-16) clearly indicates that
they had come to
64 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 1997
Some have viewed Paul's opponents as Jewish Gnostics who
were enthusiasts with ecstatic temperaments and libertine
ethics.9 However, in 2 Corinthians the issues between Paul and
his adversaries are not wisdom, spiritual gifts, and libertinism
as they were in 1 Corinthians but rather the nature of Paul's apos-
tolic authority. This change makes it highly unlikely that they
were Gnostic-pneumatics.10 Furthermore this view fails to ex-
plain either their insistence on letters of recommendation or their
concern for titles revered by the early Christian community (e.g.,
"apostle"). Both would seem unlikely for Gnostics who cared little
about either tradition or authority.11 Georgi proposes that Paul's
rivals in 2 Corinthians were Hellenistic Jews who traveled as
itinerant missionaries and claimed, as servants of Christ (i.e.,
"divine men"), to be spokesmen for God in the tradition of
Moses.12 He claims their chief characteristic as "divine men"
was the working of miracles (13:3). However, 2 Corinthians fails
to mention their miraculous works. And, as Harris points out,
"letters of commendation would hardly be necessary for such
wonder-workers whose deeds were their credentials?"
Paul's opponents have traditionally been viewed as Judaizers
(11:13) and true Jews (11:22) while asserting that Paul was nei-
ther.14 As "servants of righteousness" (11:15) they were insisting
on the Law, and as "servants of Christ" (11:23) they were claim-
ing their teaching was nearer to that of Jesus Himself.15 How-
9 Rudolf Bultmann, The Second Letter to the Corinthians, trans. Roy A. Har-
risville (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985), 146-47; and Walter Schmithals, Gnosticism
Frank E. Gaebelein, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 10:313; F. F. Bruce, 1
and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 173.
11 Dieter Georgi, The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians (
Fortress, 1986), 5.
12 Ibid., 229. See also Gerhard Friedrich, "Die Gegner des Paulus im 2 Korinther-
brief," in Abraham, unser Vater, ed. Otto Betz, Martin Hengel, and Peter Schmidt
(Leiden: Brill, 1963), 181-215; and Colin Kruse, The Second Epistle of Paul to the
Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 46-48.
13 Harris, "2 Corinthians," 313.
14 See C. K. Barrett, Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (New
From Triumphalism to Maturity: an Exposition of 2 Corinthians 10-13 (Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1984), 16-26; Harris, "2 Corinthians," 312-13; and Alfred Plummer,
A Critical and
Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of
Corinthians (Edinburgh: Clark, 1915), xxxvi-xli.
15 Among those who hold to this view, some like Plummer maintain that these Ju-
daizers did not have the approval of the Twelve but rather were commended by
Paul's Covenantal Contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1-11. 65
ever, this view has come under attack because of Paul's silence on
circumcision, which the Judaizers in
5:1-4). Furthermore it fails to explain how the legalism of the Ju-
daizers could find support within the Corinthian church known
for boasting of its freedom (cf. 1 Cor. 6:12; 8:9; 10:23). In spite of
these objections the view that these opponents were Palestinian
who sought to bring the Corinthian believers under the
saic Law seems preferable. According to Harris their Pales-
tinian roots "may be inferred from the term Hebraioi (2 Cor.
11:22; cf. Phil. 3:5), which refers to Jews of Palestinian descent,
especially those whose linguistic and cultural heritage was
Palestinian, and perhaps from a claim they may have made to
have known Christ personally (cf. 5:16)."16
Also in favor of this view is their claim that they were de-
scendants of Abraham (11:22), Paul's claim that their "gospel"
differed from his (11:4; cf. Gal. 1:6-9), and Paul's emphasis on
the New Covenant (3:6-9), which implies that they were wanting
to bring the Corinthians under the "old" Mosaic Covenant.
Though they may not have been the same as the Judaizers in
any attempt "to impose Jewish practices upon Gentiles as condi-
tions either for salvation or for the enjoyment of Christian fel-
lowship," as Harris aptly concludes, means Paul's opposition can
be "appropriately labeled Judaizing."17 Their discovery on ar-
immoral practices (12:21) would have intensified their desire to
oppose Paul because to them his teaching would seem to promote
licentious behavior. This would have further confirmed their de-
termination to promote the morality of the Law of Moses in order
to curb the impurity in the Corinthian church.
Their reception by the Corinthian church can be understood
as the "Christ" party, whom they as "servants of Christ" (10:7;
those Jewish Christians in
the gospel (Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epis-
tle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, xxxviii.). Others like Baur maintain that they
were official delegates from the
Twelve, especially Peter, and that they advocated the precedence of Jewish tradi-
tion and the authority of
Paul the Apostle, trans. A. Menzies, 2d ed., 2 vols. (
1875-76). Plummer's view is more likely due to the fact that Paul did not utter a
single word against the
16 Harris, "2 Corinthians," 313.
66 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January–March 1997
11:3–4, 23) fostered and perpetuated. Their depreciation of Paul's
apostolic authority and insistence on the Mosaic Law would also
have been welcomed by the "Cephas" party (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:22; 9:5),
who extolled Peter as the foremost of the apostles and who like Pe-
ter may have been inclined to conform to the Jewish Law (Gal.
2:11–14). Also they would have been impressed by the commenda-
tion letters from
In summary, Paul's contrast between the Old and New
Covenants in 2 Corinthians 3:1-11 should be understood in view
of Judaizers from
saic dispensation to discredit Paul's message and ministry in the
eyes of the Corinthian church.
THE ARGUMENT OF 2 CORINTHIANS 3:1–11
A key to understanding 2 Corinthians 3:1–11 lies in its connec-
tion with 2:15–16. There Paul explained that the ultimate impact
of the minister of the gospel includes both salvation for those who
believe and death for those who reject his message. The mention
of these weighty responsibilities caused the apostle to exclaim,
"Who is adequate for these things?" (2:16b). In other words, "Who
is sufficiently competent to preach the gospel which may prove
fatal to those who hear it?"19 Paul's contrast between "we" and
"many" in 2:17 indicates that his question has two groups in
view: himself and his coworkers, and his opponents in
Elsewhere in the epistle Paul indicated that these Judaizers oppos-
ing his ministry were asserting their competence for the min-
istry through "letters of commendation" (3:1) as "servants of
Christ" (10:7; 11:23) and as "descendants of Abraham" (11:22).
18 Their letters of commendation probably did not come from the "pillars" of the
dorse their Judaizing program. Rather they came from the Pharisaic wing within
the church who wished to make the law as binding as the gospel (Acts 15:5, 24). Yet
Paul's opponents probably still appealed to the authority of the Twelve without
their authorization. Harris suggests this was because they "were unable to distin-
guish between the law-abiding conduct of the Twelve and legalistic teaching" (Har-
ris, "2 Corinthians," 334). Since the apostles continued to observe the Law, the Ju-
daizers mistakenly assumed that legalism was an essential part of the gospel.
19 The word "adequate"
New Testament, nine of which are found in Paul's writings. Four of these occur in
2:14-3:18, which indicates the significance of this word in the immediate context. It
is used of persons to mean "competent, qualified, able" in the sense of being
"worthy" (Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-En-
glish Lexicon of the New Testamant and Other Early Christian Literature, 2d ed.,
rev. F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker [
Press, 1979], 374), and in business matters it expressed the thought of "sufficient in
ability" (James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek
Testament [1930; reprint,
Paul's Covenantal Contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1-11 67
Contrary to the claims of his Judaizing opponents, Paul set
out in chapter 3 to establish his ability and sufficiency to minis-
ter. He began his apostolic defense in verses 1–3 by claiming that
his competence as a minister of the gospel is evidenced by nothing
less than the Corinthians themselves. They were his "letter of
commendation" (v. 2). Throughout the rest of the chapter (vv. 4–
18) he argued for his "adequacy" based on a series of contrasts.
These contrasts must be understood in light of the fact that the
Corinthians were struggling between Paul's definition of ade-
quacy and the Judaizers' adequacy. Paul concluded that the be-
liever's adequacy should be only in God (v. 5). But the major fo-
cus of his argument was his contrast between the Old and New
Covenants. This includes an extended exposition of what it
means to be a servant of the New Covenant by contrasting his
"New Covenant" ministry (v. 6) with the Judaizers' "Old Cove-
nant" ministry (v. 14). Paul pointed to these contrasts to show the
superior nature of his New Covenant ministry in its divine
origin, its life-giving power, and its surpassing glory.
AN EXPOSITION OF THE CONTRASTS
IN 2 CORINTHIANS 3:1–11
Paul was aware that his opponents might twist his affirmation of
sincerity in 2:17 to be self-commendation. So he defended him-
self by referring to their use of letters of commendation to estab-
lish their own credibility among the Corinthians (3:1). He was
not disapproving of such letters, for they were a customary means
of providing credentials in the first century and he himself used
letters to commend others (e.g., Rom. 16:1; 1 Cor. 16:10–11; Phil.
2:19–24). Rather he asserted he was in no need of official letters
because the Corinthians themselves were letters read by every-
one. "To bring another letter would amount to a personal insult to
the Corinthians; it certainly would ignore the past and present
work of Christ in their hearts. They themselves were Paul's tes-
timonial, guaranteeing his apostolic status and authority."20 In
verse 2 Paul referred to the Corinthians as "our letter" (h[ e]pistolh>
h[mw?n), and he likened them to the letters of commendation carried
by the false apostles. However, lest anyone think he produced the
"letter," he referred in verse 3 to the Corinthians as a "letter of
Christ," thereby indicating that Christ was the author.21 Paul was
20 Harris, "2 Corinthians," 334.
21 Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of St.
Paul to the Corinthians, 81.
68 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 1997
the messenger by whom the letter was "delivered" (diakonhqei?sa)
or perhaps the amanuensis by whom it was "inscribed."22 In ei-
ther case the fact that the changes in the lives of the Corinthians
were effected by the Holy Spirit indicated Paul's ministry was
empowered by God, and it provided irrefutable evidence that
Paul's "adequacy" was superior to that of his opponents.
WRITTEN NOT WITH INK, BUT WITH THE SPIRIT (v. 3)
Paul's statement that the "letter of Christ" was "written not with
ink, but with the Spirit of the living God" has been interpreted sev-
eral ways. Hughes and Plummer take this expression to mean
that, as Christ's epistle, the Corinthians were not written with
"perishable ink" but with the Spirit of God, "whose writing is dy-
namic and permanent."23 This emphasizes the contrast between
what is temporary and permanent. Reference to ink brings to
mind the perishable materials, such as papyrus, on which ink
was used. They would eventually decay. Harris, however, takes
this phrase to indicate the letter was of divine rather than human
origin.24 Harris's view fits with verses 4-5, which stress that the
believer's adequacy comes from God alone. Possibly both mean-
ings were intended by Paul because the issues of the permanence
of his ministry and the divine source of his adequacy appear
throughout the rest of the passage. In any case the evidence for
Paul's adequacy overshadowed the letters of his opponents.
NOT TABLETS OF STONE, BUT TABLETS OF FLESHLY HEARTS (v. 3)
At the end of verse 3 Paul continued the thought of writing by com-
paring the Corinthians to the stone tablets carried by Moses down
letter were superior to the letters brought by the Judaizers and also
to the tablets brought down from Sinai.25 "Tablets of stone" refers
to Exodus 31:18 where Moses spoke of two tablets on which the Ten
Commandments were "written by the finger of God." Paul's ref-
erence to "tablets of fleshly hearts" combines the thoughts of two
New Covenant passages in the Old Testament. From Jeremiah
31:31-33 he alluded to the promise that the Lord will write His
Law "on their hearts," and from Ezekiel 36:26 (cf. 11:19) Paul
22 Kruse, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, 90.
23 Philip E. Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (
Eerdmans, 1962), 89; Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Sec-
ond Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 81.
24 Harris, "2 Corinthians," 334.
25 Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of St.
Paul to the Corinthians, 82.
Paul's Covenantal Contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1–11 69
spoke of God's promise to "remove the heart of stone" and give Is-
rael "a heart of flesh." Combining the "writing" of Jeremiah with
the "stone" and "flesh" of Ezekiel, Paul formed an expression
with both ideas—"tablets of fleshly hearts." This expression is
therefore an undeniable allusion to the New Covenant. Paul had
in mind the contrast between the giving of the Mosaic Covenant
on Mount Sinai and the establishing of the New Covenant prophe-
sied by Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
The meaning of Paul's expressions "tablets of stone" and the
"tablets of fleshly hearts" is found in both Old Testament pas-
sages to which they point. In Jeremiah 31:31–33 the prophet ex-
plained that the New Covenant, in contrast to the written code of
the Mosaic Covenant, would internalize the Law within their
hearts. "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will
write it" (Jer. 31:33). God promised to make His Law an instinc-
tive part of the nature of His people.
The core of the new covenant is God's gift of a new heart (Ezek.
36:25–27). Herein lies the sufficient motivation for obeying God's
law. Basic to obedience is inner knowledge of God's will coupled
with an enablement to perform it. . . . Since the inward dynamic
was absent in the old covenant, it would not be effective. There
must be an inner force, a new power.26
The idea of spiritual enablement is confirmed by God's
promise through Ezekiel to "put My Spirit within you and cause
you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My
ordinances" (36:27). On the exchange of hearts in Ezekiel 36:26,
Keil states, "The heart of stone has no susceptibility to the impres-
sions of the word," whereas "the heart of flesh is a tender heart,
susceptible to the drawing of the divine grace."27
The heart includes the mind as well as the emotions; it is in fact
the seat of the personality, the inmost nature of man. The spirit
is the impulse which drives the man and regulates his desires, his
thoughts and his conduct. Both of these will be replaced and re-
newed; the heart that is stubborn, rebellious and insensitive (a
heart of stone) by one that is soft, impressionable and responsive
(a heart of flesh), and the spirit of disobedience by the Spirit of
God. . . . The implanting of God's Spirit within them will trans-
form their motives and empower them to live according to God's
statutes and judgments.28
26 Charles L. Feinberg, "Jeremiah," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 6
27 C. F. Kell and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (
Eerdmans, n.d.), 9:153.
28 John B. Taylor, Ezekiel: An Introduction and Commentary
InterVarsity, 1969), 232 (italics his).
70 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 1997
This granting of "a heart of flesh" is nothing less than the
moral transformation of a person's inner nature. The Old
Covenant failed to produce obedience because it was external and
was opposed by the internal, sinful nature within. God deter-
mined to correct this situation by internalizing His Law and
making it a part of the inward nature of His people. Therefore
this internal change of nature guaranteed through the New
failed to do in the past.
Paul's allusion to God's enabling power associated with the
New Covenant further demonstrates the adequacy of his ministry
over that of his opponents. Since they were relying on obedience to
the Old Covenant, they based their adequacy on an external legal
code and consequent lack of sufficient ability to serve and obey
God. Paul indicated that his adequacy was superior because it
was based on the internalization of the Law according to the New
Covenant, which provided a change of the inner nature, includ-
ing both the desire and the ability to obey God.
THE LETTER KILLS, BUT THE SPIRIT GIVES LIFE (v. 6)
Answering the question raised in 2:16, "Who is adequate for these
things?" Paul said, "Our adequacy is from God, who also made us
adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the
Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (3:5-6).
Paul first described the adequacy of his ministry over that of
his Judaizing opponents by stressing that his adequacy origi-
nated from God rather than himself. Then he highlighted the dif-
ferences between ministries operating under the Old and New
Covenants by adding, "For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives
life." Paul's antithesis between letter (gra<mmatoj) and spirit
(pneu?ma) has been explained in various ways. The following
paragraphs discuss the five most common views.
The literal and spiritual senses. This view is commonly as-
sociated with Origen and the Alexandrian school, who viewed the
"letter" of 2 Corinthians 3:6 as the literal sense of Scripture and
the "spirit" as the deeper, spiritual meaning of the sacred text.29
Origen felt that the literal sense contained "stumbling blocks"
(e.g., logical difficulties, impossibilities, fictitious historical
events, and others). God placed these elements in Scripture to
29 Illustrating from the writings of Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and
Cyril of Alexandria, Schneider carefully documents the consistent interpretation
of this passage by the Alexandrian school ("The Meaning of St. Paul's Antithesis
‘The Letter and Spirit,’" 166-68, 170, 182-83). This was also the view of Jerome
(Sutcliffe, "Jerome," 2:89-90).
Paul's Covenantal Contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1–11 71
point the interpreter "to the need for a deeper understanding"
which he could only "reach by giving careful attention to context,
wording, and parallels."30 So the literal sense was considered in-
ferior and even misleading. Origen desired to unlock the mean-
ing of the hidden spiritual sense of Scripture, which he regarded
as more relevant to the spiritual life of the believer. This view
was followed during the Middle Ages by a number of medieval
interpreters, including the famed Scholastic theologian Peter
Abelard.31 However, most modern interpreters reject it for sev-
eral reasons.32 First, "spirit" (pneu?ma) is never used elsewhere in
the New Testament to refer to the deeper meaning of the text.33
Second, the context excludes the possibility of this interpretation
because pneu?ma is used throughout chapter 3 to refer to the Holy
Spirit as He carries out the promises of the New Covenant (3:3, 8,
17-18). Third, to interpret Paul's antithesis as proof for an alle-
gorical method misses the argument of the passage as a defense of
his ministry against Palestinian Judaizers seeking to reestab-
lish the Mosaic Law.
The text as written and the Spirit as interpreter. This view is
commonly known as the "hermeneutical" interpretation because
it says the contrast between "letter" and "spirit" refers to the dis-
tinction between the written text and its interpretive key, the Holy
Spirit. Advocating this view, Barth states, "For in 2 Cor. 3 every-
thing depends on the fact that without this work of the Spirit
Scripture is veiled, however great its glory may be and whatever
Corinthians 3 by claiming that "Paul is emphasizing almost
solely the role of the Spirit as unveiler" and "in so doing he is
willing to separate rather sharply—more sharply perhaps than
most of us would be comfortable with—the gramma on which he
bases his message from the pneuma who unveils it."35 Richard-
son concludes that part of Paul's purpose in 2 Corinthians 3 "is to
give a foundation for hermeneutics in the life of the Church at
30 Karlfried Froehlich, Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church (Philadel-
phia: Fortress, 1984), 18.
31 Schneider, "The Meaning of
32 One modern scholar who affirmed the medieval interpretation is E. B. Allo,
33 Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
and Other Early Christian Literature, 674-75.
34 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1.2., ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (New
72 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 1997
cal" view by appealing to Paul's account of Moses in Exodus 34
where he described the lifting of the veil when he turned "to the
Lord" (2 Cor. 3:16). Since "the Lord is the Spirit" (v. 17), the impli-
cation is that the Spirit is needed to comprehend the meaning of
Paul's letter/spirit antithesis is unlikely. First, "it fails to ac-
count for the radical antithesis between" letter and spirit by por-
traying them not as "opposites but related to one another positively
as text and interpreter."36 Second, though "Paul does claim that a
veil lies upon the reading of the Old Covenant," it is "a veil of
hard-heartedness which hides not the meaning of the Bible, but
the glory of God."37 It seems preferable to say that the veil does not
hide the meaning of the text but rather obscures its effective appli-
cation to one's life and the willingness to accept it (1 Cor. 2:14).
This is confirmed by the fact that once the veil is lifted, personal
transformation results from the believer beholding the glory of
the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18). Third, this interpretation fails to relate this
passage to Paul's argument against the Judaizers.
The legalistic misuse of the Law and the Holy Spirit. Those
who hold to this interpretation maintain that the "letter" signifies
the legalistic misuse of the Law as a means of meriting salva-
tion.38 The Jewish distortion of the true intention of the Law is
contrasted with the "spirit," which signifies the proper under-
standing and use of the Law by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Seeking to support this view that "letter" signifies the Law as
distorted and misused,
"Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law
will condemn you who break the law through the letter [gra<mmatoj]
and circumcision. For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor
is circumcision something external and in the flesh. Rather, he
is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is circumcision
of the heart by the Spirit not by the letter [e]n preu<mati ou] gra<mmati].
approval is not from men but from God" (
tion). He asserts that when Paul accused the Jews (Rom. 2:27) of
breaking "the law through the letter and circumcision," he was
38 See Barrett, Second Corinthians, 113; C. E. B. Cranfield, "
Scottish Journal of Theology 17 (March 1964): 57-60; Victor Paul Furnish, II
Corinthians, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984), 200-201; Kruse, The
Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, 92-93; Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians,
Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1986), 55; and
Sufficient for These Things?" 65.
Paul's Covenantal Contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1-11 73
distinguishing the "letter" as the Law misunderstood as a means
to merit salvation from the "Law" as properly understood.39 How-
ever, the context of Romans 2 does not support this distinction.
Paul has denounced here the open failure to observe what the
law by any reading demands; and the Jewish transgressor of the
law dia grammatos kai peritomes [though the letter and circumci-
sion] is contrasted, not with the man who understands the true
nature of the law or circumcision, but with the Gentile who ob-
serves the righteous demands of the law though he possesses nei-
ther the books of the law (cf. v. 14) nor circumcision (vv. 26f.).
Hence, in this verse at least, "letter" is an abbreviated way of re-
ferring, not to a perverted understanding of the commands of God,
but simply to their possession in written form. . . . [The] negative
ring to the words dia grammatos kai peritomes . . . is due to the
fact that it is only the possession of the scrolls of the law, and
only physical circumcision, which the Jew in question can claim in
his favor, . . . while he lacks the righteous observance to which
possession of the "letter" obligates. . . . [Thus] the fault lies in
what he lacks, not in what he possesses.40
Cranfield, meanwhile, builds his argument for the
"legalistic" meaning of letter by referring to Romans 7:6. He
contends that Paul's contrast between the "newness of the Spirit"
and the "oldness of the letter"
does not oppose the law itself to the Spirit; for only a few verses
later (7:14) Paul says that the law is "spiritual." The contrast is
rather between the old way of the legalistic misunderstanding
and misuse of the law, in which one was left with the letter
bereft of the Spirit, and the new way of the right understanding
and use of the law by the power of the Spirit.41
According to the context of Romans 7, however, "letter" would
be better understood as referring to the true demands of the Ten
Commandments as indicated by mention of the tenth command-
ment, "You shall not
and good" Mosaic Law (v. 12), not the legalistic misuse of it,
which provides "sin" the opportunity to incite man to "covet" (v.
8). In this way the "letter" as the Old Testament Law resulted in
placing people in bondage to sin and death (8:2). Westerholm
aptly concludes that Romans 7:6
does not speak of the misunderstanding of the legalist, but of the
sin which inevitably results when man "in the flesh" is confronted
by the demands of God. Hence, serving God by the "letter" should
40 Stephen Westerholm, "Letter and Spirit: The Foundation of Pauline Ethics,"
New Testament Studies 30 (1984): 234-35 (italics his).
74 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA /January-March 1997
refer, not to the attempt to establish one's own righteousness,
but to man's obligation under the old dispensation to carry out
the concrete commands of the law of God—a situation which in
fact led to obvious sin and death.42
In addition, this view cannot be supported from the context of 2
Corinthians 3. Rather than alluding to a perversion of the Law,
Paul's reference to the ministry of death "engraved on stone"
(3:7) would more naturally refer to the Ten Commandments in-
scribed on stone tablets. And the references to a "ministry"
(diakoni<a) and a "covenant" (diaqh<kh) of which Moses was the
administrator (vv. 7, 14) would seem to rule out the possibility that
Paul was speaking of the Law as misinterpreted and distorted. If
he did have a perversion of the Law in mind, he would hardly
have attributed to it a degree of "glory" (v. 9). Paul would never
have spoken of the ministry of the "letter" in these terms if he
meant it was a distortion of the true intent of the Law.43
Outward conformity versus inward obedience to the Mosaic
Law. Advocating this view, Hughes states, "The distinction here,
then, between the letter and the spirit indicates the difference be-
tween the law as externally written at Sinai on tablets of stone
and the same law as written internally in the heart of the Chris-
tian believer."44 One distinguishing characteristic of this view is
that Paul's antithesis is not understood as suggesting the end of
the Mosaic Law.45 Thus the change from the Old Covenant to the
New Covenant does not entail a change in the Law but rather a
change in the believer's ability to obey the Law. The contrast is
made between Old Testament saints who were able to obey the
Law only outwardly and New Testament believers who are now
enabled "to conform inwardly, in spirit, as well as outwardly, in
letter, to the demands of the law."48 Another feature of this view is
that "spirit" is understood as a reference not to the Holy Spirit but
41 Cranfield, "
42 Westerholm, "Letter and Spirit," 238.
42 This is consistent with Paul's use of gra<mata in 2 Timothy 3:15, where it
clearly refers to the Old Testament Law properly understood.
44 Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 100 (italics his).
45 In a similar way Kaiser argues that Paul's antithesis there is between "two ways
of serving the Law of God," namely, outward versus inward obedience. He does this
in order to maintain that the "weightier matters of the Law" continue for Chris-
tians, who can observe them "inwardly" (Walter C. Kaiser Jr., "The Weightier and
Lighter Matters of the Law: Moses, Jesus, and Paul," in Current Issues in Biblical
and Patristic Interpretation, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne [
46 Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 101.
Paul's Covenantal Contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1-11 75
to the internal conformity to the Mosaic Law. It is not surprising
that this is the position adopted by some theonomists who insist on
the New Testament believers' ongoing obligation to the details of
the Mosaic Law.47
Though 2 Corinthians 3 does emphasize the inward dynamic
of the New Covenant, which internalizes God's Law by writing it
on the heart, this view does not adequately account for the fact that
the Law of the Mosaic Covenant, which "had glory" at one time,
now "has no glory on account of the glory [of the New Covenant]
that surpasses it" (3:10). Furthermore the words "new" (kaino<j)
and "old" (palaio<j), which modify "covenant" in verses 6 and 14,
contrast the completely new and better from the old and obsolete.48
Although some of the stipulations for enjoying the blessings of
both covenants may be similar (e.g., the Ten Commandments
are repeated in the New Testament, with the exception of Sabbath-
keeping), this does not imply that all the stipulations for one
should be expected of the other (Mark 7:18-19). Since they are
different covenants, it would be better to distinguish their
covenantal stipulations in terms of the "law of Moses" and the
"law of Christ" (1 Cor. 9:21). Also, to equate the "spirit" with in-
ternal conformity to the Mosaic Law contradicts the consistent
usage of pneu?ma throughout 2 Corinthians 3 as an obvious refer-
ence to the Holy Spirit (vv. 3, 8, 17-18).
The Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Those who advo-
cate this view maintain that Paul's antithesis is a contrast be-
tween the basic characteristics of the Old and New Covenants.49
They understand that Paul used "letter" to signify living by the
Law under the Old Covenant and "spirit" to denote living by the
Holy Spirit under the New Covenant. Many reject this interpreta-
tion because to say that the Law of the Old Covenant "kills" gives
a radically negative assessment of the Sinai Covenant mediated
47 See Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 171-73.
48 This can be seen in Jesus' use of the words in His parables about the patching
of the old and new garments and the old and new wineskins (Matt. 9:16-17; Mark
2:21-22; Luke 5:36-37). In these parables Jesus taught that the old ways of the Old
Testament were obsolete in light of the new program He introduced. Paul used the
words in the same way to show the opposition between the old and new (Rom. 6:6;
mutually exclusive. See Heinrich Seesemann, "palaio<j," in Theological Dictionary
of the New Testament, 5 (1967):719.
49 Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 190-91; Harris, "2 Corinthians," 335; Herman Rid-
derbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard De Witt (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 218-19; R. V. G. Tasker, The Second Epistle of Paul to the
Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 62-63; and Stephen Westerholm, Is-
rael's Law and the Church's Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 212-13.
76 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1997
by Moses. It is felt that this approach contradicts Paul's state-
ments that the "law is holy . . . and righteous and good" (Rom.
7:12) and the "law is spiritual" (v. 14). However, viewing Paul's
antithesis as a covenantal contrast between life under the Law
and life by the Spirit seems to satisfy the demands of the context
for the following reasons.
First, the purpose of the entire paragraph (2 Cor. 3:1–11) is to
contrast the New and the Old Covenants. On one side Paul pre-
sented the "Old Covenant" (v. 14) as "engraved" (v. 7) on "tablets
of stone" (v. 3) and as "the ministry of death" (v. 7) and "con-
demnation" (v. 9) mediated through "Moses" (v. 7), whose glory
"fades away" (v. 11). On the other side he presented the "New
Covenant" (v. 6) as "written . . . on tablets of human hearts" (v. 3)
and as "the ministry of the Spirit" (v. 8) and "righteousness" (v.
9) mediated "through Christ" (v. 4), whose glory "remains" (v.
11). Therefore to insert a new concept such as "legalism" or "the
Spirit as interpreter" into the passage would be foreign to the ar-
gument and violate the context.
Second, the "letter" (gra<mmatoj) cannot refer to "legalism" be-
cause Paul tied its meaning specifically to the Ten Command-
ments within the Mosaic Covenant. In verse 7 he identified the
"letter" as "engraved on stones," which could refer only to the ten
laws written on the stone tablets Moses carried down from Mount
Sinai. This is confirmed by the parallel passage in Romans 7:6–
8 where the tenth commandment, "You shall not covet," is given
as an example of the "letter." Also only the Law of the Sinai
Covenant was delivered by Moses (2 Cor. 3:7).50 This corresponds
to Paul's use of gra<mmata in 2 Timothy 3:15, where the proper use of
the Old Testament is in view.
Third, viewing the "letter" as a ministry of death (2 Cor. 3:7)
and condemnation (v. 9) which "kills" corresponds well with
what Paul wrote about the function of the Law in Romans 7:5–10.
There he picked up his argument back in 5:20, "The Law came in
that the transgression might increase." He explained how this
principle works by saying that the "sinful passions" are brought
out "by the Law" and eventually result in "death" within the
"members of our body" (7:5). However, to prevent anyone from
concluding that the Law is sinful (v. 7) Paul explained three
valuable functions of the Law. First, the Law reveals sin; for
apart from the Law a person would have no knowledge of sin (v.
50 Later Paul used "Moses" as a metonymy for the "letter" that was read to the
Israelites (3:15). This could only be a reference to the Mosaic Law of the Old
Paul's Covenantal Contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1-11 77
7). Second, the Law provokes sin (v. 8). This further explains how
the Law reveals sin. The sinful nature or sin principle is lifeless
(dead) until the Law provokes it to commit acts of disobedience,
thereby becoming "utterly sinful" (v. 13). Only then can sin
clearly be recognized for what it is. This is confirmed elsewhere
in 4:15, "Where there is no law, neither is there violation" (cf.
5:13). Third, the Law judges sin (7:8-40), resulting in death for
the sinner because sin is deceitful (v. 11) and causes death (v. 13).
In this way a ministry based on the Law of the Mosaic Covenant is
described in 2 Corinthians 3 as "the letter" which "kills" by
bringing "death" and "condemnation." It "kills" because it de-
clares what God demands without giving sufficient power to ful-
fill it, and then pronounces the death sentence on all those who
Fourth, the statement "the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6) is best
understood as referring to the transformation of life by the Holy
Spirit according to the New Covenant, as promised in Ezekiel
36:26-27. This is even more clearly seen in the Lord's promise,
"And I will put My Spirit within you, and you will come to life"
(Ezek. 37:14). This New Covenant promise concludes the vision
of the dry bones (vv. 1-14). After providing a fitting description of
the hopeless condition of the Jewish exiles in
presents the physical renewal of the bones with flesh and skin
through the preaching of Ezekiel. But when the bones receive
breath (vv. 9-10), this clearly portrays the spiritual renewal of the
people by the Spirit. It is this aspect of the New Covenant that Paul
had in mind when he declared, "The Spirit gives life" (2 Cor.
3:6). This meaning is further confirmed by Paul's concluding
statement, "But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mir-
ror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same im-
age from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit" (v. 18).
Paul's point is that adequacy to minister is not determined by
outward conformity to Jewish Law, as the Judaizers were claim-
ing. To the contrary, the New Covenant provides a more adequate
ministry by energizing the believer through the transforming
work of the Holy Spirit to be inwardly conformed not to the Mosaic
Law but to "the glory of the Lord." Paul mentioned this life-giving
work of the Holy Spirit in other places in 2 Corinthians (e.g., 1:22;
4:10-12; 5:5, 15).
FADING GLORY VERSUS SURPASSING GLORY (vv. 7-11)
Paul's exposition of the New Covenant in contrast to the Old Cove-
nant ends with a discussion of the degree and nature of the "glo-
ry" related to each covenant. In this section Paul acknowledged
78 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA/ January—March 1997
the Old Covenant as glorious but fading away, and replaced by the
more glorious ministry of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:9–10). To stress its
temporary nature, three times (vv. 7, 11, 13) Paul referred to the
glory (do<ca) of the Old Covenant as fading (katargou<menon).51 The
word katarge<w means "to render something inoperative";52 there-
fore in this context the word indicates that the Old Covenant had
only a temporary function. "In this whole context [katagou<menon]
signifies the passing glory of the Old Covenant in general, not the
fading way of the shining on Moses' face."53 Since Paul referred
to the Old Covenant as being "engraved on stones" (v. 7), this
would necessarily include the Ten Commandments as part of the
Old Covenant (Exod. 34:28). Therefore, since the Old Covenant
no longer has glory because the glory of the New Covenant has
surpassed it (2 Cor, 3:10), the Ten Commandments have also
"faded away" (v. 11) and no longer function as stipulations of
blessing through the Old Covenant for believers today. The end of
the Law as a way of life is also indicated by the fading glory ex-
pressed in verse 13. Paul was saying that his adequacy as an
apostle and minister was based not on the temporary glory of the
Mosaic Covenant, which had already faded away, but on the sur-
passing glory of the New Covenant, which had replaced the for-
mer covenant. By showing the end of the Law system, Paul dealt a
devastating blow to the Judaizers who were basing the alleged su-
periority of their ministry on the Old Covenant.
In 2 Corinthians Paul sought to defend his ministry from the ac-
cusation of the Judaizing "false apostles" who had infiltrated the
Corinthian church. In 3:1–11 Paul set forth a series of contrasts
between the Old Covenant on which the Judaizers based their
ministry and the New Covenant on which he based his ministry.
The thrust of these covenantal contrasts is that the New Covenant
provides divine enablement and has replaced the Old Covenant.
In this way Paul firmly established the superiority of his apostolic
ministry over that of his Judaizing opponents.
Several theological implications may be gleaned from this
study. First, the use of this passage to justify a particular herme-
51 Homer A.
(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 60.
New Testament Theology, 4 vols., 1:73.
53 Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 219, n. 28.
Paul's Covenantal Contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1-11 79
neutical perspective concerning either a deeper spiritual mean-
ing of the text or to view the Holy Spirit as the divine interpreter
cannot be supported by the text. (Of course the Holy Spirit is in-
volved in the interpretation of Scripture,54 but that is not the point
Paul was making in 2 Corinthians 3:6). These interpretations ig-
nore the argument of Paul's apostolic defense and fail to compre-
hend his covenantal contrasts as a polemic against the Judaizing
Second, the use of this passage to
advocate the end of the
saic Law for Christians fits well with Paul's argument against
the Judaizers. They were attempting to place the Corinthians un-
der bondage to the covenantal stipulations of the Mosaic Cove-
nant. Paul's discussion of the fading glory of the Old Covenant
was designed to show that those stipulations were temporary and
were replaced by the New Covenant. To ignore this fact as some
do is to assume erroneously like the Judaizers that Gentiles need
to observe part or all of the Law. Such an assumption violates the
temporary function of the Mosaic Law within the framework of a
covenant established between God and the nation
Third, this study highlights the distinction under the Old and
New Covenants related to sanctification. The Old Covenant was
a "ministry of death" because it declared the will of God without
providing the power to fulfill it, and then pronounced the death
sentence on all those who broke it. The New Covenant is identi-
fied as "the ministry of the Spirit" and "of righteousness" because
it provides not only the enablement to become conformed to the
image of Christ but also the willingness to obey His will. This
places New Testament believers in a position far superior to Old
Testament saints regarding sanctification. Paul exhorted his
readers not to go back to life under an inferior covenant since
what they have under the New Covenant is far better. Rather they
should celebrate the glory of life in the Spirit under the New
54 See, for example, Roy B. Zuck, Teaching with Spiritual Power (1963; reprint,
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