This article is part of the Distinctive Theology series.
A Letter Like No Other
The overarching theological message of 2 Corinthians is this: in the new realm that was inaugurated when Jesus ascended and the Spirit descended, life and ministry are flipped upside down such that God’s strength interlocks not with human strength and sufficiency but with human weakness and pain.
That summary has two basic parts: (1) we today live in the dawning new realm that the Old Testament anticipated, the new creation that was expected to come at the end of history; and (2) the basic pattern for joy and growth in this new realm is paradoxical, as life comes through death, strength through weakness, comfort through affliction, and so on—as was the pattern of Christ himself.
There is nothing in the Bible quite like 2 Corinthians. The message of the Bible and of each of its sixty-six books is centrally theological—that is, revealing of God and his ways with humanity. The Bible also has rich historical and literary qualities, but these serve the more basic theological message. This is particularly noticeable in the letters of Paul. “The preaching and teaching of Paul,” Geerhardus Vos says in his opening sentence of an essay outlining Paul’s theology, “possess more than any other New Testament body of truth a theological character.”1
Summarizing the Theology of 2 Corinthians
Above I identified the theology of 2 Corinthians:
In the new realm that was inaugurated when Jesus ascended and the Spirit descended, life and ministry are flipped upside down such that God’s strength interlocks not with human strength and sufficiency but with human weakness and pain.
The two primary emphases are inaugurated eschatology and strength through weakness. Inaugurated eschatology is, we could say, the stage on which 2 Corinthians is played out, and strength through weakness the costume. The former (inaugurated eschatology) is the broader context or framing, and the latter (strength through weakness) the
But beyond these two macro-themes to 2 Corinthians are other vital building blocks, without which these two themes disintegrate. Some of these are explicit in the above theological summary (Jesus, the Spirit, pain), while others are more implicit but remain important themes for 2 Corinthians as a whole (Satan, friendship, heaven).
I am seeking to be ruthlessly focused on 2 Corinthians itself, letting it stand forth in all its distinctiveness. Themes that are important to Paul’s theology broadly understood but minimally on display in 2 Corinthians can be considered lightly or not at all when pointing out what is distinct. For example, right at the heart of Paul’s theology, taking Acts and his thirteen epistles all into view with a wide-angle lens, is the notion of grace, rightly put front and center in John Barclay’s groundbreaking 2015 monograph,2 as well as in other studies.3 Yet grace as “incongruous” gift (to use Barclay’s adjective) is virtually nowhere in sight in 2 Corinthians—at least as it is popularly understood, as God’s gratuitous goodness to people. Paul certainly uses the word charis, the standard Pauline term for “grace,” but in this letter it normally denotes some kind of gracious human activity (horizontally), not divine gift (vertically).4 Thus Frank Thielman’s proposal of the “center” of Paul’s theology as “God’s graciousness toward his weak and sinful creatures,”5 while about as good as any, does not sit particularly comfortably with 2 Corinthians. I take Richard Gaffin’s proposal for a center to Paul’s theology as more broadly encompassing of the particular message of 2 Corinthians: “The center of his theology is the death and resurrection of Christ in their eschatological significance.”6
The basic pattern for joy and growth in this new realm is paradoxical, as life comes through death, strength through weakness, comfort through affliction, and so on.
A second example of an otherwise major Pauline concept that does not figure prominently in 2 Corinthians is the notorious matter of the “law” in Paul and how he understands the Mosaic code to function in the life of the believer in the new covenant era. While any treatment of Paul’s theology as a whole must grapple with Paul and the law (the two editors of the present series having provided two of the best7), not a single instance of nomos occurs in 2 Corinthians. Paul does reflect at length on the distinctive differences between the old covenant and the new covenant in 2 Corinthians 3, but even there the focus is not on the “law” specifically (i.e., Mosaic code) but rather the passing glory of the old realm and the inaugurated glory of the new realm. Questions of the ongoing relevance of the Mosaic code for today’s Christians, then, while pressing in terms of Pauline theology generally, do not naturally present themselves from a study of 2 Corinthians specifically.
These two otherwise central Pauline themes of “grace” and “law” are but two examples of the way we must allow 2 Corinthians to speak on its own terms and not read broader Pauline concerns into it, if we are to let the distinctive contribution of this unique epistle shine forth clearly.
If otherwise vital Pauline notions such as “grace” and “law” are nowhere near the heart of Paul’s concerns in 2 Corinthians, what is the heart or center or core burden of this letter? There is more than one equally valid perspective on this, so we should avoid any forced or narrowly dogmatic answer to this question. But we must note the pervasive presence in 2 Corinthians of notions associated with the dawning of the latter-day eschaton. One way to make this point is in Douglas Moo’s comprehensive treatment of Paul’s theology. He identifies “five basic ‘umbrella’ blessings”8 of this new aeon: new covenant, the Spirit, new creation, salvation, and life.9 Strikingly, all five are conspicuously present in 2 Corinthians. Indeed, 2 Corinthians is probably the best option for the Pauline letter that most robustly brings together these five new realm blessings most consistently.
- Geerhardus Vos, “The Theology of Paul,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Collected Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. R. B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 355.
- See especially Luther’s “Heidelberg Disputation (1518),” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 14–25.
- John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015).
- E.g., Jonathan A. Linebaugh, The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2022), though the focus throughout is more narrowly Romans and Galatians. Moo begins his synthesizing discussion of Paul’s theology with an exploration of “grace.” Douglas J. Moo, A Theology of Paul and His Letters: The Gift of the New Realm in Christ, BTNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2021), 377–78.
- E.g., 2 Cor. 1:15; 8:4, 6, 7, 19.
- Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 232.
- Richard B. Gaffin Jr., By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 29.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998); Brian Rosner, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God, NSBT 31 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013).
- Moo, A Theology of Paul and His Letters, 464.
This article is adapted from Ministry in the New Realm: A Theology of 2 Corinthians by Dane C. Ortlund.
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