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A Review of The Second Letter to the Corinthians. By Mark Seifrid.

Feb 28, 2015

Eerdmans, 2014.

Let me begin with a brief confession. In earlier days I found a little discomfort and a lack of interest in Second Corinthians. But a PhD thesis majoring on suffering resulted in me coming to greatly admire and appreciate this vital epistle, and it is now perhaps my favourite Pauline letter, if one is allowed to have favourites about such things.

It deals not only with issues about suffering and affliction in a number of key passages, but it is a great refutation of various errors found not just in Corinth but in sections of the church today, including a misplaced triumphalism and a dangerous over-realised eschatology.

There have been a number of helpful commentaries on this letter from those in the conservative/evangelical camp over the past few decades, but not so much in the past few years. Some of these include: R. P. Martin (WBC, 1986); Linda Belleville (IVPNTC, 1996); Paul Barnett (NICNT, 1997); David Garland (NAC, 1999); Scott Hafemann (NIVAC, 2000); and Murray Harris (NIGTC, 2005).

If one wanted to throw another older volume into the mix, such as the commentary by Victor Paul Furnish (AB, 1884), I would not mind that inclusion. And one could also mention the 2-volume contribution in the ICC series by Margaret Thrall (1994-2000) – but since I do not have that work, I cannot properly speak to it.

Mention can also be made of the 750 page addition by George Guthrie to the BECNT series – but that does not appear for another 2 months yet. So my point remains that not much of substance has appeared in the past dozen years from the above-mentioned theological perspective, except for Harris.

Thus it is great to see Seifrid’s volume join the list of solid commentaries on this epistle. His commentary is the 15th volume (covering 20 New Testament books) in the excellent Pillar New Testament Commentary series, which is under the careful editorship of D. A. Carson.

Seifrid is of course a conservative Lutheran, and his Lutheranism certainly shows at so many points throughout his commentary. Indeed, it shows even in who he cites the most often. While he has made it clear that he prefers to comment on the text rather than on other commentators, those who do get a good run from him include Luther, Bonhoeffer and Bayer.

Some features are simply underdone, compared to so many other commentaries. His introduction for example runs to no more than 13 pages. His bibliography is almost as lengthy, at 8 pages. But the commentary itself is over 500 pages, and is certainly a valuable contribution to our understanding of this book.

As is often the case, the eager reader will first turn to the significant portions, favourite sections, or contentious and hotly debated passages of the biblical book to get a quick overview of how the commentator is to be assessed. Thus if we look at a section like Paul’s discussion of the ‘letter’ and the ‘spirit’ in chapter 3, we find that Seifrid gives us a good overview of interpretative issues.

He has a lengthy excursus on this, and examines in detail the approaches of Richard Hays, Scott Hafemann, and Margaret Mitchell. After weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of their positions, he goes on to argue that the obscurity of Paul’s language to the Corinthians is not due to their lack of intelligence or complete ignorance of Scripture, but is based on their unbelief, and their unwillingness to follow him/Christ.

The Corinthian’s real problem is theological, not hermeneutical, and their inability to properly understand the cross and all that it entails is leading to their problems. A good part of this epistle is of course challenging their faulty understanding of not just the cross, but the Christian life, the credentials of an Apostle, and so on.

As to the famous mystery of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” and God’s grace concerning it in chapter 12, Seifrid rightly sides with many when he says we simply do not know precisely what this thorn was: “But in the end, only God knows”.

However he offers some helpful reflections here. Paul was “a poor Stoic: he did not seek mere self-contentment or the power to persevere”. Instead Paul protests: “He petitions the Lord three times that ‘the thorn’ might be removed from him, just as Jesus resisted the cross three times in the garden. Paul’s action, like that of Jesus, sets a pattern: Christians are protestors against death – except at the point at which they, like Jesus, must accept it.”

Seifrid is not afraid to go against the current. On the meaning of not being “unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14) he says he is not with the majority of interpreters, arguing instead that Paul’s admonition “is not a general statement against association with unbelievers or pagan idolaters…. It is specifically directed against his adversaries in Corinth.”

As I mentioned, Seifrid’s Lutheranism comes through his commentary at numerous points. Of course any commentator must acknowledge that their exegesis and hermeneutics cannot escape some theological presuppositions. That said, this is indeed a valuable contribution not just to understanding the second letter to the Corinthians, but to more fully understanding Paul and his theology.

(Available in Australia at Koorong Books.)

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9 Responses to A Review of The Second Letter to the Corinthians. By Mark Seifrid.

  • On the subject of being unequalled yoked, might political nous, or even being aware of the signs of the times in that sense be considered?
    I recently viewed one of the online Christian dating sites where denominational and political aspirations are declared. All denominations, except, interestingly, Jehovah’s Witness can be found there, although, having recently seen a copy of the New World Translation by the JW’s, it seems to rank them as outsiders in many ways, including ‘Christian’ dating circles.
    On this site, there’s space to comment on whether you are aware of the work of the Holy Spirit in your life or even to declare for the Trinity. There’s also a box where you may declare your political interests. Many decline to do so, with some choosing the pre-arranged reply, “I just pay the fine.”
    These are grounds for consideration in terms of being unequally yoked and in this respect, I respectfully differ from Seifrid’s position.

  • Thanks Russell. Yes many would likely disagree on that one. But in a few short pages he makes a good defence of his position. But the principle about who we might or might not marry, etc., still remains. He is just arguing for what he sees as the specific referent here.

  • Agreed. Seifrid’s reflection on Paul’s resistance of death is interesting. It appears that Paul, like Jesus, went through a process according to the revelation that he records in Scripture. Going to be with the Lord, rather than stay here, etc. is a different reflection to praying for his thorn to be removed, etc. I can relate to being “a poor Stoic”. Preparing to cross over the Jordan or however one may wish to express it is wise, because as is noted, Jesus did. We can be tested in our acceptance as perhaps even Enoch was when invited. The grace of God is truly amazing.

  • I have read somewhere that the ‘thorn in the flesh’ refers back to the Pentateuch and refers to enemies\ persecution and is not related to a mysterious illness. This would line up with Seifrids take on being unequally yoked.? However, the discussion about the famous ‘thorn in the flesh ‘, will probably continue until the the Lord returns .

  • Thanks Gerald. Yes persecution is also a real possibility. But as I say, we cannot know for certain simply because Paul did not tell us what he was specifically referring to.

  • Saying Paul was a Stoic is overstating it. Fairly obviously he was relating Stoically because he was speaking with Greeks.

    Paul’s main purpose was communicating the Gospel. If he had meant “yoked together” as only marriage he would have said marriage but he clearly meant a more general principle.

    It simply was not in Paul’s nature to be obfuscational. When he said “thorn in the flesh” that is exactly what he was trying to communicate – probably what we now know as a pinched nerve type problem which shows itself as a sharp, localized pain. This became an issue of anxiety to him (which may have been part of the problem) because he was trying to establish his authority in a location where the people had accepted authority based on signs and wonders – largely perhaps because of their stoic culture.

    Why he did not receive an immediate healing could be for any number of reasons but I believe his continued ministry is evidence he probably did eventually receive a healing.

    The only time Paul’s writing really became complex and convoluted was when he was relating to Jewish theologians. They may seem obscure to many but that is because we don’t appreciate where the Jews’ thinking was.

  • I think saying Paul was poor is overstating it too. Clearly as a Jewish, Roman citizen and a Pharisee he was reasonably high up in the echelons of Jewish society. He clearly had enough time on his hands to go around persecuting the church and holding people’s garments while they stoned Stephen to death. He would have no reason to mention his own income but gratefully acknowledging the monetary support of others was appropriate in the epistles. While claiming, quite rightly, that his work evangelizing was worthy of monetary support he also made it clear that he was able to look after himself.

  • Thanks Michael, but if you actually read carefully what Seifrid was saying, you will see he said just the opposite – that Paul was no Stoic.

  • Thanks again Michael. But I am afraid you are the winner of today’s “top mis-reader” award. You have missed it entirely. When Seifrid says Paul was a “poor Stoic” he of course means he was a lousy Stoic – that is, he was no Stoic at all, as his very next sentence makes perfectly clear. You may need to read things more slowly and carefully in the future!

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