Many readers of this blog will be familiar with my ongoing issue with trying to understand the Bible’s teaching about God’s power in weakness. Some of the questions I have carried have been why I should seek to grow in my skills or go to Bible college if God works through the weak. Does being educated and Western (and therefore wealthy and powerful, on a global scale) mean I am somehow an inhibitor to God’s ministry? Most answers I was given were pragmatic rather than biblical but I was keen to grapple with the issue according to what the Bible says, especially in 2 Corinthians. So when I found out we would collaborate on our Corinthians essay questions, I suggested the following: The less adequate the minister is, in and of himself or herself, the better he or she is at demonstrating that the power of the gospel comes from God’ (Sze-kar Wan) To what extent is this Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians? What are the implications of this for contemporary ministry?
The vast majority of the literature on 2 Corinthians follows the dominant paradigm of ‘power in weakness’. The big question is what the ‘weakness’ is that shows God’s power. Wan argues for inadequacy of skills. Paul claims that his competence comes from God, not him (2 Cor 3:5). This sets up a contrast: if it is clear that the minister isn’t skilled, you can only attribute their survival or their ministry to the power of God. On the surface, this appears to be the argument of 2 Corinthians except for 2 big problems:
- The accusations against Paul (his ‘inadequacies’) are not limited to skills. They include skills like his presentation and personal presence but they also include his refusal to boast or buy into the Corinthian patronage system. Some people try to get around this by suggesting that the ‘weakness’ is suffering but that doesn’t cover all of the accusations either. So you need a category that includes both skills and suffering into the equation.
- If this is Paul’s message, it does not match his method. He uses fine rhetorical skills to make his point. If he’s arguing for inadequacy, he’s doing it very adequately! Some people try to say he’s just being ironic but this doesn’t seem to square with his argument about being incompetent.
So you need a better definition of weakness than either skill inadequacy or suffering. I read Forbes who suggested that the Greek word for weakness (ἀσθενεια) had connotations of status. That gave me the idea of developing an argument based on the idea that Paul’s argument is not that God can use him even though he is incompetent but that God can use him even though he is low in status. Each of the accusations against Paul do work within this category. It works for the catalogue of hardships (like being shipwrecked, beaten, etc) too: they are so horrific to the Corinthians that they would elicit contempt for him from them. Same deal with the thorn in his flesh in Ch.12 – he shows himself to be unimpressive and lowly in their sight.
The argument crystalised for me in thinking about the jars of clay of 2 Cor 4. This is normally read as an image of fragility, partly because of the “perplexed but not in despair, etc” bit that comes after it. But I wonder whether this is how the Corinthians would have read it? Corinth was known for its bronze and ornamented jars and I think that the contrast of the clay jar is that it is not that it is breakable rather than durable but plain rather than ornate. It’s a question of status, not practicability or usefulness. If this is the case, it’s the humility of a lowly thing that God uses that emphasises his glory.
Of course, there is a connection between status and skill set but Paul uses his skills to cut against any inclination to revere him, turning notions of boasting on their head and seeking to transform the understanding of the Corinthians rather than put himself up. The long and the short of it is that I concluded that it’s OK for Christians to have strong skills. Paul has no problem using them because what highlights God’s power is not skill inadequacy but lowliness of status. And that’s what’s going on in the talk of the cross in 2 Cor 4-5. The issue is not Christ’s physical sufferings so much as the lowliness of the position that his sufferings brought. In 2 Corinthians, the focus is not on inadequate skills but on humility and lowly status. That doesn’t solve all the issues I’ve raised in the weakness series but it goes a long way to giving me some resolution.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.