SYNOPSIS OF THE CHAPTER
i. Paul asserts that he does not seek or need the praise of men, as the Judaising false apostles sought it: the fruit of his preaching is, he says, sufficient commendation.
ii. He states (ver. 6) the cause of this to be that the Apostles and other ministers of the New Testament and of the Spirit were adorned by more honour and glory than were Moses and the other ministers of the Old Testament and of the letter.
iii. He points out (ver. 13) that the Jews have still a veil over their heart in reading the Old Testament, and so do not see Christ in it; but that they will see Him when this veil shall be taken away by Christ at end of the world.
2 Cor 3:1 Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or do we need (as some do) epistles of commendation to you, or from you?
Do we begin again to commend ourselves? At the end of the Apostle had seemed to praise himself and seek the favour of the Corinthians, hence he meets here any suspicion of vain glory.
Or do we need (as some do) epistles of commendation to you, or from you? ie., written by you to commend me to others.
2 Cor 3:2 You are our epistle, written in our hearts, which is known and read by all men:
You are our epistle. You, 0 Corinthians, converted by my efforts, are to me like an epistle of commendation read and understood by all, which I can show as my credentials to whom I like. As the work recommends the workman, and the seal faithfully is represented by its image, so do you commend me as though you were a commendatory letter, sealed by yourselves. For all know what you were before your conversion—drunken, gluttonous, given up to impurity and other evil lusts. Corinth was then an emporium, as famous for its vices as its wares. But now all men see that you have been completely changed, through my preaching, into different men—temperate, chaste, meek, humble, devout, liberal. This your conversion, therefore, is my commendatory letter, i.e., the public testimony of my preaching before all people.
Written in our hearts. You have been converted by me, and indelibly written and engraven on my heart. This “epistle” was twice written by S. Paul. (1.) He wrote it actually when he instilled into the mind of the Corinthians the faith and Spirit of Christ. (2.) He wrote it and imprinted it on his own heart by his care and love of them. (3.) Christ again was inscribed on their hearts by Paul’s ministry, as if by a pen; and Christ, Himself, by Paul’s preaching, imprinted on them his faith, hope, charity, and other graces, not with ink, but by the inspiration of the Spirit of the living God, who filled their hearts with charity and all virtues.
2 Cor 3:3 Being manifested, that you are the epistle of Christ, ministered by us, and written: not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God: not in tables of stone but in the fleshly tables of the heart.
In fleshy tables of the heart. Not in hard stone, as was the law of Moses, but in a heart tender, soft, and teachable. There is an allusion to Jer 32:33. The Apostle, we should notice, makes a distinction between σάρκινος (= sarkinos = “fleshly”), used here, and οαρκικός (= sarkikoi): the first denotes the natural condition of flesh—its softness, &c.; the other that which has the vices and corruptions of flesh. Cf. Rom 7:14 and 1 Cor 3:3. Other writers, however, do not observe this distinction. Nazianzen, e.g., applies the latter of these terms to the incarnation and manhood of Christ.
2 Cor 3:4 And such confidence we have, through Christ, towards God.
And such confidence we have. The Greek word used here, denotes that confident conviction which makes the mind strive to attain some difficult end that it longs for, as though it were certain of success. Such is the confidence which is inspired into the Saints by the Holy Spirit enabling them to work miracles or other heroic works of virtue. This confidence God is wont to demand as a fitting disposition, and to give beforehand, both in him who performs and in him who receives the benefit of the miracle or other Divine gift, in order that the soul may, by this gift, expand and exalt itself, and become capable of receiving Divine power. S. Paul says in effect. “This confident persuasion that you are our epistle, written by the Spirit of the living God, we have before God through the grace of Christ; we have hope and sure confidence in God that, as He has begun, so will He finish this epistle by His Spirit.” In the second place this trust is the confidence S. Paul had before God, which enabled him to glory confidently in God of this epistle of his and of God, and of the dignity of his ministry, and of its fruit, when compared with the ministry of Moses and of other Old Testament ministers.
2 Cor 3:5 Not that we are sufficient to think any thing of ourselves, as of ourselves: but our sufficiency is from God.
Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves. To think anything that is good and is ordained to faith, grace, merit, and eternal salvation, so as to make a man an able minister of the New Testament. But if no one is able to think any such thing, he is still less able to do it. Cf. Council of Arausica (can. 7) and S. Augustine (de Prædest. Sanct. c. ii.).
1. From this passage S. Augustine lays down, in opposition to the semi-Pelagians, in which he is followed by the Schoolmen, that the will to believe and the beginning of faith and salvation, and every desire for it, come, not from free-will but from prevenient grace. Hence Beza wrongly charges the Schoolmen with teaching that the beginning of good is from ourselves, though weakly and insufficiently; for they all alike teach that the beginning of a good and holy life, of good thoughts and actions, and salvation in general is supernatural, and has its origin in the grace of God, not in nature or the goodness of our will.
2. Calvin is mistaken in inferring from this passage that there is no power in free-will which may be exerted in the works of grace, but that the whole strength and every attempt and act spring from grace. The Apostle says only that free-will is in itself insufficient, not that it has no power whatever. Just as an infirm man has a certain amount of strength, but not enough for walking, and has enough for walking if any one else help him, and give him a start and support, so too free-will is of itself insufficient for good works, but is sufficient if it be urged on, strengthened, and helped by prevenient grace.
It may be said that the sufficiency Paul speaks of here may be, as Theophylact and the Syriac render it, power, strength, or might. I answer that this is true; for the power and strength of free-will for a supernatural work, and of grace, which makes it supernatural, pleasing, to God, and worthy and meritorious of eternal life, are not from free-will, but from exciting and co-operating grace. When free-will has this, it is sufficiently able to believe freely, to love, and to work any supernatural work whatever. For free-will has for every work natural strength able to produce a free work; therefore these two causes concur here in the same work, one natural, viz., free-will, the other supernatural, viz., grace. Each, too, has its corresponding effect: the effect of grace is that it is a supernatural work, of free-will that it is free and the work of man. In the same way an infirm man is not only not strong enough, but wholly unable to walk, because it is a task beyond his strength; but he becomes able if he is given strength by a friend, or from some other source, and then he unites his own strength, however little it be, with that lent to him, and is able to walk. Still the strength that comes from without has to start him and begin his walking, and the whole force and energy with which he walks is to be found in the strength that is given him. That he tries to walk beyond his strength is not from himself but from without; but when it is once given, he puts forth his own strength and co-operates with it, and produces an effect commensurate to his efforts. In the same way free-will co-operates with exciting grace, and acts as a companion to it in every super- natural work in such way as its strength enables it.
We learn from this passage to recognise in every good work our own weakness, and to ascribe to Christ’s grace all the goodness and worth of what we do. S. Gregory (Morals, lib. xxii. c. 19), says: “Let no one think himself to have any virtue, even when he can do anything successfully; for if he be abandoned by the strength that cometh from above he will be suddenly overthrown helplessly on the very ground where he was boasting of his firm standing.” S. Augustine (contra Julian, lib. ii. c. 8) commends the refutation of the Pelagians by S. Cyprian in the words: “They trust in their strength and exclaim that the perfection of their virtue is from themselves; but you, 0 Cyprian, reply that no one in his own strength is strong, but is safe only under the merciful indulgence of God.” The Psalmist, too, says the same thing (Ps 59:9): “My strength will I guard unto Thee,” meaning that he would lay it up in safety under his ward, hoping to over-come his enemies in God’s strength and not in his own, because God is the Fount of all virtue and strength. Cf. Ezek 29:3:5, where Pharaoh is forewarned of his fate for ascribing his power and success to himself.
Again, this passage teaches us to pray to God constantly that He would direct our thoughts, and inspire us with heavenly thoughts and desires, for such are the fount and beginning of all good works. This is beautifully expressed in the Collect for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity. S.Bernard (Serm. 32 in Cantic.) says learnedly and piously: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything good as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God. When, therefore, we find evil thoughts in our heart, they are our own; if we find a good thought, it is the word of God: Our heart utters the former and hears the latter. ‘I will hear,’ it says, ‘what the Lord God will say in me, for He shall speak peace to His people.’ So, then, he speaks in us peace, righteousness, godliness; we do not think such things of ourselves, but we hear them within ourselves; but murders, adulteties, thefts, blasphemies, and such things proceed from the heart: we do not hear them, we say them,” or at all events they are suggested to us by the devil.
2 Cor 3:6 Who also hath made us fit ministers of the new testament, not in the letter but in the spirit. For the letter killeth: but the spirit quickeneth.
Not in the letter but in the spirit. I am a minister of the New Testament, but not in such a way that I bring tables of the law and of the covenant and its words, as did Moses in the Old Testament, but so that God may by my words inspire into you heavenly thoughts and desires. Cf. Augustine. (de Spirit. et Lit. c. iii.).
For the letter killeth. (1.) Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine (de Doctr. Christ. lib. iii. c. 4) explain this to be that the letter of the law convicts and condemns them to death who do not obey this letter, i.e., the precepts of the law relating to righteousness and charity. For this letter of the law enacts that whosoever breaketh the law is to die the death. (2.) S. Augustine gives another explanation. If you abuse the literal meaning, and neglect the sense of Scripture, and fall into error, as Jews and heretics do, then the letter killeth. (3.) When metaphorical sayings are taken literally (S. Augustine, ibid. c. v., vi.). (4.) When types of the new law contained in the old are understood to be still binding in their literal meaning (ibid. Cf. also Origen, contra Celsum, lib. iii.; Didymus, de Spirit. Sanct. lib. iii.). The Fathers in general frequently say that the letter, i.e., the literal meaning of the law killeth, but the spirit, i.e., the spiritual and allegorical meaning, giveth life. This is because it is not now lawful to Christians to observe the ceremonies and ritual precepts of the old law literally under penalty of death; but they are bound to do what those ceremonies allegorically signified if they wish to attain the life of grace and glory. (5.) S. Augustine again in the same place says that the letter, both of the old and new law, killeth if separated from the spirit; but that this passage refers to the old law alone, because Moses, when he gave the law, gave only the letter, but Christ gave the spirit and the letter, and from this he lays down that the law cannot be fulfilled by the strength of nature alone, but requires the grace of Christ. (6.) S. Augustine once more and Anselm say that the letter killeth by giving occasion to sin; for the law is the occasion by which concupiscence is kindled and sin produced which kills the soul. This sense and the first are the most literal.
But the Spirit quickeneth. (1.) The Spirit gives to the soul the supernatural life of grace and charity. (2.) He gives motives and strength for good works and for fulfilling the law. (3.) He guides us towards that eternal life promised by the law to them that keep it. Of this life and Spirit the Apostles were sent by Christ as ministers.