The Spirit is the Lord

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2 Corinthians 3:1-18

1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you?

2 You are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by all,

3 shown to be a letter of Christ administered by us, written not in ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are hearts of flesh.

4 Such confidence we have through Christ toward God.

5 Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God,

6 who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.

7 Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, was so glorious that the Israelites could not look intently at the face of Moses because of its glory that was going to fade,

8 how much more will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious?

9 For if the ministry of condemnation was glorious, the ministry of righteousness will abound much more in glory.

10 Indeed, what was endowed with glory has come to have no glory in this respect because of the glory that surpasses it.

11 For if what was going to fade was glorious, how much more will what endures be glorious.

12 Therefore, since we have such hope, we act very boldly

13 and not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites could not look intently at the cessation of what was fading.

14 Rather, their thoughts were rendered dull, for to this present day the same veil remains unlifted when they read the old covenant, because through Christ it is taken away.

15 To this day, in fact, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts,

16 but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed.

17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

18 All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Isolating snippets

The Greek phrases are taken from the Interlinear Bible.

v Person phrase
3 Jesus (God the Son Incarnate)

ἐπιστολὴ Χριστοῦ

"a letter of Christ"

3 Holy Spirit

πνεύματι θεοῦ ζῶντος

"written ... by the Spirit of the living God."

4 Jesus (God the Son Incarnate)

διὰ τοῦ Χριστοῦ πρὸς τὸν θεόν

"through the Christ toward God."

6 impersonal spirit

οὐ γράμματος ἀλλὰ πνεύματος

"a new covenant not of letter[s] but of spirit"

6 ambiguous
breath
meaning
human spirit
God the Holy Spirit

τὸ δὲ πνεῦμα ζῳοποιεῖ.

"the Spirit gives life"
"understanding spiritually gives life"
"breath gives life"
8
Holy Spirit?
spiritual realities?
spiritual ministry?
serving the spirit of the disciples?

ἡ διακονία τοῦ πνεύματος

"ministry of [the] Spirit"

16
Jesus?
God?
The Holy Spirit?

πρὸς κύριον

"to [the] Lord"

17 [?]

ὁ δὲ κύριος τὸ πνεῦμα ἐστιν

"The Lord is the Spirit"
"The Spirit is the Lord"
17
Spirit of Jesus?
Holy Spirit?

τὸ πνεῦμα κυρίου

"The Spirit of [the] Lord"

18
glory of Jesus?
glory of the Lord God?

τὴν δόξαν κυρίου

"the glory of [the] Lord"

18
God the Holy Spirit?
the spirit of Jesus?

κυρίου πνεύματος

"Spirit of the Lord"?

"spirit of the Lord"?

Msgr. Ronald Knox

Verse 17 must be read in its context. It makes no kind of difference whether we translate "The Lord is the Spirit" or "The Spirit is the Lord"; all St. Paul is doing is to assert the identity of "the Lord" mentioned in verse 16 with "the spirit" mentioned in verse 6. Jesus Christ is (not the Holy Spirit, but) himself the life-giving spirit which underlies the death-bringing letter of the law; he is, as we have seen, that fulfillment to which, under its veil, the Law obscurely pointed. And he--or, if you prefer it, the Spirit which proceeds from him--is a principle of liberty, emancipates us from the Old Law. It is given to us (verse 18) who can see Christ with no veil between, to reflect his glory as Moses did--but, unlike Moses, to reflect it with our own faces unveiled. The word "all" suggests that this applies to all Christians, but no doubt, in view of the context, St. Paul has the ministers of the Gospel chiefly in mind. St. Chrysostom is surely right in saying that we reflect Christ as in a mirror, do not merely see him as in a mirror, though the sense of the Greek verb is doubtful. When St. Paul tells us that we borrow the same likeness (i.e., that of Christ) "from glory into glory," he probably means that the glory which is in Christ gives rise to a corresponding glory in us; but his use of this turn of phrase is always baffling (cf. Rom. 1:17).

Discussion

I embarked on this study because I could not readily answer the question posed by a friend about the meaning of 2 Cor 3:17: "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom."

Before trying to sort out all of the references to "Lord" and "Spirit" in this chapter, let me note how much more refined and precise our vocabulary is than what was available to Paul circa 54-55 AD, which seems to be a reasonable guess at when this letter (or group of letters) was written. Paul probably never saw a copy of any of the gospels. He may not have had a full set of his own letters to consult. He was writing to friends who had heard him preach many times. He wrote at most a letter a year, on average.

We, on the other hand, have all 27 books of the New Testament, all arranged with numbered chapters and verses, plus the benefit of 19 centuries of the development of doctrine through the 21 councils of the Church. We have the Church's answers to questions that arose long after Paul's death. In sorting out the meaning of terms in this chapter, I am going to use language that Paul did not have at his disposal.

Line-by-line commentary

1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you?

2 You are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by all,

3 shown to be a letter of Christ administered by us, written not in ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are hearts of flesh.

Paul, empowered by God the Holy Spirit, brought the Corinthian community into being. He is angry that his community has been listening to a gospel preached by other apostles, who seem to have come to Corinth bearing letters of recommendation. Paul doesn't need any letters like that because "You are our letter, ... a letter of Christ ... written by the Spirit of the living God." I feel moderately confident in translating "the Spirit of the living God" as "God the Holy Spirit," the third Person of the Blessed Trinity.

4 Such confidence we have through Christ toward God.

I find this an awkward expression. "Christ" is shorthand for "Christ Jesus" or "Jesus the Christ." Jesus is God the Son Incarnate, one Divine Person Who possesses two natures, that of God and that of man. He is one Person of the Trinity; He is God, but He is not God the Father or God the Holy Spirit. Using this terminology to retranslate Paul into our language, we arrive at "Such confidence have we through God the Son Incarnate toward the Triune God." Or, more succinctly, "The confidence that we have in God comes to us through Jesus, true God and true man."

5 Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God,

6 who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.

The New American Bible (NAB) translates the Greek word, "pneuma, pneumatos" (Latin: "spiritus," breath or spirit), in two different senses here. What is written down is contrasted with the spirit that motivated the writing. Paul is not invoking God the Holy Spirit here, but just our ordinary distinction between a text and the meaning intended by the person who wrote the text. The intended meaning (the "spirit" of the text) must guide our interpretation of the words that were written down to express that meaning.

In the second use of "pneuma," the NAB capitalizes the English word in order to indicate that the translators understand Paul as referring to God the Holy Spirit. The Greek manuscript did not use our modern system of capitalization. Everything is written in miniscule ("small letters"), so Paul did not have our ability to clarify what we mean by the use of a capital letter when, in fact, he was using "pneuma" to refer to God the Holy Spirit. The case could be made that Paul was still thinking of the "spirit of the text" as giving life instead of the Holy Spirit, whom we now honor as "the Lord and Giver of Life" (Nicene Creed). If so, a better translation into English would be "for the letter brings death, but the spirit [in which the text was written] gives life."

7 Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, was so glorious that the Israelites could not look intently at the face of Moses because of its glory that was going to fade,

8 how much more will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious?

9 For if the ministry of condemnation was glorious, the ministry of righteousness will abound much more in glory.

10 Indeed, what was endowed with glory has come to have no glory in this respect because of the glory that surpasses it.

11 For if what was going to fade was glorious, how much more will what endures be glorious.

12 Therefore, since we have such hope, we act very boldly

13 and not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites could not look intently at the cessation of what was fading.

Verse 8 supports the translation of "the Spirit gives life" as "God the Holy Spirit gives life" when it talks about "the ministry of the Spirit" being more glorious than the gift of Torah through Moses.

A digression: I am not sure what Scriptural foundation Paul has for being so critical of Moses using a veil to hide the brightness of his face when he came down from Sinai. But I don't want to try to untangle that now.

14 Rather, their thoughts were rendered dull, for to this present day the same veil remains unlifted when they read the old covenant, because through Christ it is taken away.

Verse 14 reiterates the point made in verse 4: Christ Jesus, God the Son Incarnate, is the one who takes away the old covenant and who lifts the veil from the minds of the disciples. These two verses strongly support the view of Knox that "the Lord" mentioned in verse 17 is Jesus and not God the Holy Spirit.

15 To this day, in fact, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts,

16 but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed.

It seems that "the Lord" who lifts the veil must be God the Son Incarnate, "because through Christ it is taken away" (v. 14).

17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

"Confusion now hath made her masterpiece" ("Macbeth," II, iii).

In looking at this verse in isolation, I want to read "the Spirit" in the same sense in both places where it appears: "The Lord is God the Holy Spirit, and where God the Holy Spirit is, there is freedom." This is very appealing theologically. To arrive at that reading, however, I have to undo the argument I (and Knox) have just made on the basis of verses 4 and 14-16. I also have to suppose that Paul got lost while composing the letter, forgot what he had just said, and was saying, in effect, "What I mean by 'the Lord' in the previous sentence I just wrote is 'God the Holy Spirit,' and where God the Holy Spirit is, there is freedom." I don't think this is completely untenable, but it seems unlikely.

So now I have to try to plug in Jesus as "the Lord" in the two places that phrase appears in verse 17. "God the Son Incarnate is the spirit [that gives the right meaning to what has been written,] and where the Spirit of God the Son Incarnate is, there is freedom." Notice that I have uncapitalized the first "spirit" and capitalized the second. That is because I am committed to the idea that God the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God the Son Incarnate. But perhaps both instances should be uncapitalized to get closer to what Paul was thinking about when he composed these words: "Christ Jesus is the one who provides the proper interpretation of what has been written, and where the spirit [intended meaning, mind] of Jesus is, there is freedom."

What would be wrong is to think that God the Son Incarnate is God the Holy Spirit. That reading is ruled out by our understanding of the differences between the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.

Knox says we may change the word order when translating this verse from Greek to English. The Greek order is "The Lord the Spirit is." The person who started this whole ruckus had a translation that said, "The Spirit is the Lord." I'm not sure that changing the word order helps any in figuring out what Paul had in mind. Some Lord is being identified with some spirit (or Spirit) either way.

18 All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Oh, dear. More force-fitting is needed here. We have "the Lord" appearing in the sentence twice. I have decided that I want to read it consistently as "God the Son Incarnate." But that gives us this horror: "All of us, gazing with unvelied face on the glory of God the Son Incarnate are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from God the Son Incarnate who is the Spirit." As I indicated just above, we cannot conflate God the Son with God the Holy Spirit. They are two distinct Persons, with different identities and relationships to the Father and to each other.

One fix, of course, is to uncapitalize "pneuma": "All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of God the Son Incarnate are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from God the Son Incarnate who is the spirit." That solves the theological problem, but it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

So, I think I have to give up on using "God the Son Incarnate" to translate the two instances of "the Lord." "All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of Christ Jesus, the Lord, God the Son Incarnate, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is God the Holy Spirit." That is very satisfactory theologically, and it brings back "the Spirit of the living God" from verse 3 and "the ministry of the Spirit from verse 8.

Overloaded meanings

In verses 6 and 8, it seems as though "spirit" could be taken either naturally or theologically. Paul may well be open to both readings; they complement each other. Because we use capitals to discriminate between the interior life of a person ("spirit") and God the Holy Spirit ("Spirit"), we are forced to make a choice in translation that was not required in writing Greek.

The Bottom Line

I doubt that Paul wrote this chapter with the same kind of intense concentration with which we read it today. I do not believe that Paul intended to confuse God the Son with God the Holy Spirit, but he certainly did not distinguish them very clearly either in each and every verse in this chapter. It is possible that he wrote himself into a corner, speaking at some times of "spirit" in an impersonal sense and at other times in the theological sense of God the Holy Spirit, and did not think about the ambiguity that his readers might find in his writing.

Paul did not write this chapter to provide a systematic treatise on the relationships between the members of the Blessed Trinity nor to differentiate how God the Son acts in His Incarnation--a true human being with a true human spirit--from how God the Holy Spirit acts within God the Son's human nature. The bulk of the chapter is intended to show the difference between Paul's gospel of freedom, the essence of the New Covenant, and the limited ("veiled") understanding given to the People of God in the Old Covenant. In a worst-case scenario, we may just have to say that "The Spirit is the Lord" is a text whose meaning is not clear to us. The nature of the Trinity and the distinction between the Divine Persons is clear from a multitude of other texts. The words (the "letter") of this text must be understood by the "spirit" given elsewhere.

The second letter of Peter offers some comfort here. It says that in Paul's letters, "there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures" (3:16). In my view, 2 Cor 3:17 is one of those passages that is "hard to understand." Various orthodox readings can be given to the verse, but only at the expense of bending the logic of the chapter as I understand it today. The main point of the chapter is perfectly clear: the New Covenant far surpasses the Old Covenant. If we wish to understand the New Covenant, we must look to Jesus and allow His spirit--His Spirit--to transform us into His image.

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