A Review of ‘The Second Letter to the Corinthians’ by Mark Seifrid
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 favorite Pauline letter, if one is allowed to have favorites 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-realized 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.
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