2 Corinthians is another superb volume in the “Reformation Commentary on Scripture” series edited by Scott M. Manetsch. 2 Corinthians is an important letter of Paul’s and it is treated here with thoroughness. The biblical text is given along with generous excerpts from a large number of Reformation-era commentators which form the text of the book. Manetsch indicates that Reformation commentators on 2 Corinthians “praise the lofty and important matters that it treats, the beauty of the gospel it presents, and the intimate picture of Paul’s life and ministry that it portrays” (1). Throughout the book, these elements surface, enhancing our appreciation for this letter and for the ways it was interpreted during the Reformation.
Reformation commentators are notable for their directness, as exemplified by the Lutheran pastor Cyriacus Spangenberg. Commenting on Paul’s deadly peril in Asia (Paul writes that he felt like he had received “the sentence of death” and could rely only on God who “raises the dead” [2 Cor. 1:9]), Spangenberg writes:
“As God daily helps people out of captivity, sickness, and other danger, it is a picture of the future raising of the dead, and God wants to remind us by these things that we are to believe firmly that as he helps us out of daily danger, in the same way he will also certainly raise us from the dead. . . . Now because God can raise the dead in every danger we put our confidence fully in him” (23–24).
These words were spoken in a sermon, and one can imagine the strong sense of faith and confidence this exposition of Paul’s words instilled in Spangenberg’s congregation.
Reformation commentators’ emphasis on 2 Corinthians as a source of sound doctrine is shown by the German Reformed pastor and theologian Wolfgang Musculus. When it came to Paul justifying his “boasting” about proclaiming Jesus Christ (1:12-14), Musculus’ commentary focuses on the essence of Paul’s message: that Christ is both divine and human, and that the administration of our salvation depends on Christ’s dual nature (32). These basics of Christology and soteriology were important for Musculus to communicate since they are so central to Christian faith. Paul stood on the trustworthiness of his message, which readers of 2 Corinthians must also hear and comprehend. According to Musculus, “Christians proclaim Jesus Christ is the Son of God, affirming what is true, namely, that he is both the true Christ and the true Son of God” (33). This affirmation forms the core of Paul’s “gospel,” and Musculus wanted to be sure his readers understood its importance.
Other important commentators cited include Martin Luther who is quoted a number of times throughout this book. Luther’s characteristically blunt language and passionate concern for the Gospel as lived by ordinary Christian people are on clear display. In a famous passage from 2 Corinthians (4:7-18), Paul speaks of God’s power as “this treasure in jars of clay” and shows that despite being “afflicted in every way,” he was “not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.”
Reflecting on this passage, Luther saw that the people to whom he was preaching also had to fight against the Devil: “If our dear God were not guarding us through his angels and we were able to see the devil’s cunning, conspiring, and lying, we should die of the sight of it alone, so many are the cannon and guns he has ranged against us. But God prevents them from striking us” (116). Luther’s central point is that “our Lord God looks on for a while and puts us in a tight place, so that we may learn from our own experience that the small, weak, miserable Word is stronger than the devil and the gates of hell.” He continues: “So let us suffer what comes upon us and thus we shall learn that God will stand by us to guard and shield us against this enemy and all his adherents” (116-117). This is “vintage” Luther!
John Calvin also appears frequently in this volume, as one would expect, since Calvin wrote a commentary on 2 Corinthians (in French in 1547 and in Latin in 1548). We see Calvin engaging the biblical text, sometimes affirming interpretations that had come before him. At other times, he is critical of his forebears, as when he rejects Origen’s allegorical interpretation of 2 Cor. 3:6 (“For the letter kills…”). This led Calvin to write that “many of the ancients recklessly played with the sacred Word of God, as if it were a ball to be tossed to and fro” (79).
But Calvin could also be very personal in presenting the meaning of texts that speak directly to Christian faith and experience. In discussing 2 Cor. 5:1-5, where Paul speaks of the “earthly tent” of this life being “destroyed,” to be replaced with “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens,” Calvin highlights one of Paul’s key theological moves: Even as he notes “the miserable condition of men and women in this life,” Paul still emphasizes “the supreme and perfect blessedness that awaits believers in heaven after death.” For Paul, at least on Calvin’s reading, “it is not enough to recognize the miseries of this life unless we become aware of the happiness and glory of the future life” (136).
Theodore Beza is cited in the volume to advance another key point of Reformation teaching. God rewards the person who does “good works,” and not the “works” themselves (150). Beza illustrates the desires of commentators throughout this volume to draw theological teachings from the biblical texts. These are in accord with varying Reformation emphases. So this volume provides both exegetical insights from Reformers as well as theological perspectives to which their interpretations of the biblical texts lead.
Along the way, strong expressions of personal Christian faith arise as when the Anglican exegete John Trapp quotes Peter Martyr Vermigli while he lay dying: “My body is weak; my mind is well—well for the present, and it will be better hereafter.” Trapp’s gloss: “This is the godly person’s motto” (131).
The richness of 2 Corinthians is admirably conveyed in this fine contribution to the outstanding Reformation Commentary on Scripture series, and both biblical scholars and interested lay readers will benefit from this book.
Donald K. McKim is an independent scholar.
Donald K. McKim
Date Of Review:
January 27, 2023
Scott M. Manetsch (PhD, University of Arizona) is professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the associate general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture and the author of Calvin's Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609.
Reading Religion Newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and receive updates on new books, new reviews, and more.
You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never share or sell your e-mail address.