Rev. John T. Pless on The Second Letter to the Corinthians (PNTC)
I read this commentary not as an exegete but as a pastoral theologian who has long been intrigued by the way in which the Apostle Paul applies his teaching of the saving significance of Christ to a fractured and suffering church. Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth has found a careful and articulate commentator in Dr. Mark A. Seifrid, until recently the Ernest and Mildred Hogan Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and now professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is his pastoral theology of the cross. In it, he highlights the deep reality that his life, work, and apostolic mission are carried out under the cross. Seifrid helpfully observes:
The issue between Paul and the Corinthians, then, is the difference between faith and appearance, the difference between what the eyes can see and what the ears can hear in the apostolic proclamation of the cross. The apostle bears “the word of the cross” (I Cor 1:18), not merely in his proclamation, but in his body and life. God’s saving work takes place sub contario in the crucified Jesus, contrary to all human thought and expectations. The delivery of that work in the apostolic word takes the same form. (xxxii)
The missionary life of the Apostle is thus cruciform, as can be seen in his suffering on behalf of the Corinthians. Seifrid demonstrates that Paul’s theology of mission is a theology of the cross, in contrast to those who would lay claim to super-spirituality and seek to ground the success of the mission in their own personalities rather than in the crucified and risen Jesus.
This theme of Paul’s theology of the cross echoes throughout the commentary. For example, in Seifrid’s exposition of II Corinthians 1:19, he says that Paul’s reference to Jesus as God’s Son underscores
that God’s faithfulness and identity are bound up with the crucified and risen Jesus. The Jesus whom he proclaims as God’s Son is the crucified Christ (I Cor 1:23). God savingly reveals himself sub contario. The ‘word of the cross” (I Cor. 1:18) remains foolishness to the world — and to the Corinthians. . . . All attention is deflected away from the proclaimers to the One whom they proclaimed, whose message they bear in body and in life. (61)
Paul demonstrates that while his apostolic authority is not grounded in his person, it cannot be separated from his person and it is, moreover, confirmed in the sufferings he has experienced for the sake of Christ.
Seifrid’s reading of II Corinthians 3 is an exquisite exegetical treatment of the Pauline distinction of God’s law from His Gospel, “a distinction between demand and gift” (121). Paul is an “emissary” of this gift, the word of promise, but he knows that “only where the Law has arrived is it possible to hear the Gospel rightly” (130). Here and in many other places throughout this commentary, Seifrid exhibits his indebtedness to Luther and contemporary Luther scholar Oswald Bayer.
Seifrid describes the apostolic mission in view of justification by faith, righteousness accomplished by Christ for sinners:
It is the apostolic mission that Paul here describes as the “mission of righteousness.” He subsequently charges his opponents as being “false apostles” and in fact “emissaries of Satan” who disguise themselves as “emissaries of righteousness” (11:15). Outward appearances, which are the basis of human judgments, are always deceptive (cf. 5:12). God’s work in Christ overturns all such false estimations. Those who seem to be apostles are not. The one who seems not to be an apostle is the true apostle sent to the Corinthians. The glory of the mission of righteousness, although it is transcendent, presently remains hidden. (158)
Seifrid provides a robust treatment of justification in his commentary on 5:18-21, over and against the alternatives suggested by the so-called New Perspective on Paul. Apostolic authority rests entirely on the word of reconciliation.
Especially striking is Seifrid’s description of Paul’s understanding of sanctification:
“Being-made-holy” is not some second stage in an ordo salutis of the Christian life. Nor is sanctification a steady, upward process of growth and development. It is decidedly not a matter of self-improvement. Indeed, it does not rest on the actions, plans, or self-discipline of the Corinthians. Thank God, our growth is not given into our hands! As Paul makes clear to the Corinthians, sanctification is God’s work that believers do not themselves perform but “suffer,” as God — in his own times and ways, not theirs — drives them outside themselves to Christ, who alone remains their sanctification (I Cor. 1:30). Growth is nothing other than growth in the faith that grasps Christ and his saving work again and again in the ever-changing circumstances of life — that is, in trouble and deliverance, affliction and comfort. (8-9)
The apostolic ministry which delivers this comfort is rooted in God’s mercy (I Cor 4:1). This mercy “provides ‘the space’ in which Paul exercises his calling as apostle. ‘Mercy’ cannot be attained by discipline, strength, virtue, or works” (191). This mercy separates Paul from “missionaries” who are mere peddlers of God’s Word, and it enables him to speak the truth of the crucified Jesus. God’s mercy in Christ enlivens hope, so Seifrid notes that, “The essence of apostolic ministry is speaking in faith, doing so out of situations that contain no earthly hope” (205).
Pastors who teach and preach on stewardship will be well-served by Seifrid’s exposition of 8:1-9:15 as “The Collection as the Confession of the Gospel” (316-367). Here again we see the imprint of Oswald Bayer’s thinking on Seifrid’s understanding of the theology (and ethics) of gift. The offering, Seifrid asserts, is a way of sharing in “the koinonia of the mission” (323). This section should be read in light of Seifrid’s illuminating discussion of koinonia in his commentary on 13:11-14 (cf. 499-500).
Mark Seifrid has provided us with an excellent commentary marked by theological clarity and pastoral insight. He is a sure-footed guide to the heights and depths of the terrain of Second Corinthians, enabling those who accompany him to better appreciate this epistle as Paul’s pastoral theology of the cross.
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Rev. John T. Pless is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne where he also serves as Director of Field Education.