Dr. George Guthrie recently published a commentary on 2 Corinthians for the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series (Baker, 2015). It is an excellent commentary, well-researched, articulately written, and deeply theological. Guthrie did me the honor of answering some questions about 2 Corinthians and his research.
NKG: Aside from Galatians, there is no other letter of Paul where “opponents” seem so heavily to blame for the problems in the church. How do you understand who these troublemakers are?
GHG: Broadly speaking, I think the opponents probably fit in two categories. First, there exists a vocal, local minority in the church who are opposing Paul (see 2:6). I think the fact that Paul addresses not only the church in Corinth proper, but also “throughout Achaia” (1:1) has been under-estimated in its impact on the opposition’s make-up. Paul probably is not dealing with a nice, uniform group who all meet together each week. He is dealing with house churches spread throughout a region. Some of these had “gone off the rails” so to speak.
Second, there were interlopers who had come to Corinth and presented themselves as alternate “apostles.” They certainly were agitating locals disgruntled with Paul’s leadership. As Paul alludes to these false apostles, he deals with issues like, a) how do you know a true apostle, b) remuneration for ministry, and c) ministerial behavior and integrity. The false teachers minister on the basis of human standards (5:16; 11:18), distort God’s Word (4:2) and offer thoughts “raised up in opposition to knowledge about God” (10:4-5). They preach another Jesus, a different spirit, a different gospel (11:3-4). Further, they treat the Corinthians harshly (11:20). The false teachers seem to preach for pay (2:17), accepting patronage from rich benefactors and presenting themselves as superior public speakers.
I identify these interlopers as Jewish-Christian ministers working under strong influences of the sophist tradition. The sophists were professional educators and traveling speakers who got paid for their services. At times they embraced philosophical relativism, placing more emphasis on the glory and profit of winning arguments than on proclaiming truth. One scholar describes a sophist as, “a virtuoso rhetor with a big public reputation.”
The emphases reflected in 2 Corinthians on public appearance, social status, powerful oratory, words of worldly “wisdom” (1·12), an emphasis on style over content, pay for speaking, boasting about achievements, public applause, competition, and their abuse of those who listened to them, all match characteristics of the sophist movement. I think they were playing off of secular leadership values in Corinth and causing a lot of problems for Paul.
NKG: Can you summarize (as briefly as you can!) how Paul uses and understands the Old Testament in 2 Corinthians? There is much debate over his negativity towards the old covenant in chapter three. What is the nature of his concern with the old covenant? How is the “new” superior?
GHG: Generally, Paul uses quotations of the OT—and notice that we don’t have a quotation until 6:2!—simply to reinforce a point he wishes to make. This is the case, for instance at 6:2, 8:15, 9:9, 10:17, and 13:1. The conflated quotations at 6:16b-18 are a bit more complex, reinforcing, exhorting, and encouraging in a lovely string of texts.
The new covenant allusions at 3:3,6 and the wonderfully complex unpacking of Exod. 34 we find at 3:7-18 are something different. Here Paul does a bit of biblical theology that is closely attentive to the LXX, his Greek translation of the OT. I don’t think this passage primarily is about a negative posture towards the old covenant per se (though the abrogation of that institution is assumed), but rather has to do with the superiority of new covenant ministry over against another form of ministry. In short, new covenant ministry is superior because it gives life (3:6), has more glory both in terms of degree and extent (not just for the “minister of the glowing face” but for everyone in the new covenant; 3:9-11,18), and involves for all members of the new covenant a freedom of knowing the Lord face-to-face in a transforming relationship (3:17-18). Paul may be using this biblical reflection to address the culturally conditioned “ministry of glory” offered by the false teachers in Corinth; so he would be offering a biblical solution for a cultural problem—the proposed exaltation of the “minister of the glowing face.” The apostle would in effect be saying, “the measure of a ministry is not the so-called ‘glory’ gained by a minister but whether those to whom we minister shine with the glory of God!”
NKG: After all that work on a major commentary, you obviously learned a lot, but sometimes more study leads to more questions. What are a few “big questions” about 2 Corinthians that still remain unresolved and that you continue to struggle with?
GHG: I have plenty of questions and look forward to studying this book for the rest of my life!! For example, having said all of the above about the opponents, I still have questions (perhaps unanswerable!) about the exact nature of the opponents in Corinth. Did they have Judaizing tendencies (some, of course, say “yes”)? What exactly were they teaching that “sounded” like the Christian message but was not? What was the nature of their abuse of the Corinthians? What happened to them once Paul got to town (after all, Romans suggests that the Corinthians came through with the contribution for Jerusalem!)? Second, I am not completely satisfied with the ambiguity of the tribulation in Asia (1:8-11), nor that of the “thorny” issue of 12:6-9. I would like to know more, but of course we are limited by the boundaries of the text!
NKG: What are a few of the most important lessons that 2 Corinthians has to teach to Christian leaders today?
GHG: There are so many. I have thought about writing a book entitled, “Awe-full Ministry,” based on the principles for ministry from 2 Corinthians and looking at both authentic Christian ministry and its dark counterfeit. Among the lessons we can learn from Paul: 1) a pattern of ministry integrity and how to communicate when we are misunderstood or misrepresented; 2) suffering as normal and strategic for authentic Christian ministry; 3) how to stand and preach the humanity-dividing gospel in the face of opposition; 4) how to commend our ministries in spiritually and biblically appropriate ways; 5) how to embrace weakness as a key for ministry effectiveness; and 6) how to use skills gained from the culture in subverting cultural values! These are just a few lessons we can learn from 2 Corinthians.
NKG: Do you mind sharing what you are devoting your writing time to now that the commentary is done?
GHG: Certainly. At present I am working on the Philippians volume for the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series. After that, Lord willing, I will begin to work on a volume, also for Zondervan, on the theology of Hebrews.
Thanks very much, Nijay, for inviting me to do the interview!