Ben White is an up-and-coming young scholar at The King’s College in New York City who has just published his study of 2 Corinthians with Mohr Siebeck. In the following interview, we talk about the premise of his book, Pain and Paradox in 2 Corinthians: The Transformative Function of Strength in Weakness, and its value for the academy and the church.
What’s your academic and ministry background?
The last few years have been busy as I’ve pursued both academic and ministry experience – sometimes simultaneously. In 2019, I completed the Ph.D. at Durham University under the supervision of John Barclay. While in Durham, I was a resident tutor at St. John’s College where I mentored students and provided after-hours pastoral care.
Prior to Durham, I did two years of pastoral ministry near Toronto, Ontario.
I’m now a faculty member at The King’s College in New York City. When I started at King’s, I had lived in three countries in four years. But my professional life is slowing down a bit now. I’m entering my third year of doing the same thing in the same country.
What was your experience like working under John Barclay at Durham?
Fantastic! After I made the decision to study with John, I reached out to a potential supervisor at Oxford to let him know of my decision. He replied that, given the opportunity to study Paul anywhere in the UK, he would have made the same choice! It was certainly a good experience for me. John is an incredible scholar who is attentive to his students and really helps you to work out the details of your argument. He is also incredibly kind and models a rare combination of academic rigor and compassionate humanity which is sorely needed in the academy. John has been a role model for me.
How have previous studies understood the Corinthian community in 2 Corinthians?
Interpreters still debate certain things – such as the identity of Paul’s opponents – but there is a consensus that the Corinthians are beginning to reject Paul’s authority and question his credentials as an apostle. In other words, the Corinthians are mostly rebels. They’re criticizing Paul due to his poor appearance and speech (e.g., 2 Cor 10:10). This viewpoint, which anchors what I call the “apologetic paradigm,” has achieved the benefit of the doubt. Many commentaries do not critically discuss it. They assume it.
As a result, when interpreters turn to the material itself, they usually read it in a way that emphasizes the “apologetic” elements of Paul’s argument. 2 Corinthians becomes Paul’s intellectual and rhetorical tirade against those who challenge his apostolic ministry. This means that the climax of the material – the strength-in-weakness paradox – is often understood as a self-referential, apostolic experience with little benefit to the community other than potentially persuading them that Paul is a legitimate apostle.
In your published PhD thesis, Pain and Paradox in 2 Corinthians: The Transformative Function of Strength in Weakness, you argue that the Corinthian community is a “pained” community rather than merely “rebels” who are hostile to Paul. What contextual and methodological factors led you to that conclusion?
This is a big question and there is so much that I need to say! As I note at the beginning of the book, I study Paul with the conviction that his letters are kerygmatic. He offers a gospel that is a “word on target” for a particular community. Frankly, I felt that current readings of 2 Corinthians underestimate both Paul and the Corinthians in this regard. The idea that Paul talks so much about his weaknesses for the purpose of defense or exposition does not easily fit how I – or many others – understand Paul. In other words, I was seeing a hermeneutical imbalance in the field. I also had a prima facie case that the material offers a proclamation which goes beyond a defense or exposition.
For instance, Paul notes that the Corinthians are “suffering” (2 Cor 1:6-7) and he says on multiple occasions that he is writing for their “upbuilding” (e.g., 1 Cor 10:8). He even states that he is not purely defending himself (2 Cor 12:19). Of course, interpreters cannot ignore that last verse, so they often say that Paul is being ironic. In other words, they understand the “upbuilding” to be Paul’s apology – he builds up the community by, for the most part, rebuking them. I was convinced that there was another layer, that Paul was speaking more directly and deeply to the community than previously thought.
In light of all this, I went looking for more clues about what was happening in Corinth.
I found that a key support for the current paradigm is the notion that the Corinthians’ pain created by Paul’s previous visit and letter (2 Cor 2:1-7) had ceased quickly (2 Cor 7:5-16). Building upon the work of Larry Welborn – who laments the lack of attention given to pain (λύπη) in Corinth – I offer a word study which shows that λύπη was what we might call an “omnibus” term. It has different types that produce a variety of psychological states. Given several contextual factors, I conclude that Paul is identifying different kinds of pain in 2 Cor 2:1-7 and 2 Cor 7:5-16. The “godly pain” that ceased quickly (2 Cor 7:8-9) is a limited sense of remorse. There are other pains of bitterness, despair, and relational heartbreak that still exist within Corinth (2 Cor 2:1-7). My hypothesis, then, is that the Corinthians’ pains are ongoing as Paul pens each part of 2 Corinthians. I also offer evidence that this “pain” is delicately noted by Paul throughout the material.
My position on the background to 2 Corinthians opens three main lines of argument that I pursue throughout the book:
- Given the mixture of pain and rebellion in Corinth, the Corinthians are stuck within a polarity of strength or weakness. The community wants to evacuate their pains and restore their honor by attacking Paul for his weaknesses (i.e., their pains fuel rebellion). This means that Paul must toggle between confronting the Corinthians’ “strength” and consoling their “weakness.” Therefore, Paul’s changing tone – the central issue in debates about the literary integrity of 2 Corinthians – is not evidence of multiple letters addressing unique situations (and later stitched together); instead, it is indicative of Paul’s singular response to a more complex situation than previously envisioned. 2 Corinthians is a unity precisely in its disparate argumentation.
- On a theological level, Paul counters the Corinthians’ polarity of strength or weakness with his paradox of strength in weakness. However, the existence of pains in Corinth requires that one re-think the function of this paradox and appreciate the intricacy of Paul’s paradoxical argumentation. Far from a mere defense, I argue that Paul’s autobiographical discourses are paradigms in which the community learns how their pains can be transformed, creating new emotions, behaviors, and actions – even reconciliation with Paul. I distinguish this “transformative” view of strength in weakness from prevailing “ontological” and “revelatory” views of the paradox which are discussed in continental scholarship.
- All of this culminates in a fresh understanding of the purpose of 2 Corinthians. Paul is not primarily nor generally defending himself. The letter has the overlooked pastoral purpose of transforming the Corinthians in their pains through knowledge – and hopefully experience – of the strength in weakness paradox. Therefore, it is misleading to say that 2 Corinthians is an “apology.”
Tell us more about the significance of the “strength in weakness” theme for the letter. How does your study look differently at that theme?
The strength in weakness paradox is the climax of 2 Corinthians. Yet, surprisingly, the paradox is often misunderstood. There is a tendency – dating at least as far back as the debates between Luther and Erasmus – to see “paradox” as a mostly useless, unintelligible category. The apologetic paradigm exploits this tendency. Some of its leading interpreters conclude that the paradox is an equivocation, that they need to get ‘behind’ it to understand what it “really means.” In short, it is tempting for interpreters to think it is a rhetorical maneuver that has little to no useful theological content. Even among those who treat the paradox as a paradox, their conceptual framework for paradox – if they discuss it – is arguably insufficient for robust interpretation.
My reading of the background, where the Corinthians are having polarized experiences of strength or weakness, presses one to see the utility of Paul’s strength in weakness argument. I understand the paradox to be deeply Christological, derived from the risen Jesus’s own interpretation of his death and resurrection (2 Cor 12:9). I utilize an overlooked article by Karl Plank – a scholar of literature with interests in Paul – to develop a “grammar of paradox” that can guide interpreters alongside some theological considerations. Without getting into the technicalities, I define the strength in weakness paradox not merely as a contrast or even a co-existence but two opposed realities that are simultaneously true and mutually qualify one another. In other words, strength is inseparably bound to weakness and vice versa. This allows Paul to argue that the Corinthians’ pains contribute productively to their life “in Christ” without being inherently redemptive. From there, I go on to develop the “transformative” nature of the paradox for a whole host of things in the lives of Paul and the Corinthians from new emotions to countercultural behaviors.
What is the pastoral significance of Paul’s response to the Corinthians in this letter, and how can pastors today utilize your conclusions about the letter to better minister to their flocks?
There is so much to say here! To pastors, I would say that my research underlines how our leadership literature and pastor manuals can fail us. I’m afraid that too many Christian leaders have adopted or assumed an understanding of authority that is unhealthy and looks nothing like Paul’s mantra that he is strong in weakness. We need to remember that leaders show their strength – and remind us of our crucified and resurrected Lord – precisely in their humility, service, graciousness, and transparency.
On the other hand, it is no good to swing the pendulum in the other direction. I cannot tell you the number of times that I have heard Christian leaders say that Paul thinks suffering is good. Even if they do not say this, they can imply it with their language. In fact, I think there is a growing tendency – both in the church and the academy – to reject a lot of leadership platitudes and give redemptive power to weakness and vulnerability. But Paul never stood for that. He says that, when he suffers, the God of Jesus Christ is simultaneously supplying power in his weakness (e.g., 2 Cor 12:7-10). Weakness only becomes productive for the Christian life – for humility, for love – not in isolation, but because our lives are participating in the life of the crucified and resurrected Lord who qualifies our weakness with his strength. Paul shows that weakness is useful without making it inherently redemptive. This is the difference between Pauline Christianity and various forms of masochism which appear to make sense of Paul but do not quite get there – and sometimes dangerously so! Nietzsche was right to critique Christianity’s love of weakness, but I think this tendency has crept into the tradition both in isolation from Paul and though a misreading of him. Paul doesn’t love weakness, and neither did the earliest Christians. They proclaimed power in weakness.
What’s next for you in terms of writing, teaching, and ministry in New York City?
I’m working on a popular-level book that explores what it would mean for the church to adopt a “strength in weakness” stance in our public witness. The culture wars are over – at least, they should be – and I think we need to draw inspiration from the earliest Christians and how they built a compelling movement in the Roman world as a network of marginalized, misunderstood, and outnumbered communities.
I also have a visiting scholar appointment at Princeton Theological Seminary for 2021-2022, which has allowed me to begin the groundwork for my next academic book. I’m planning to write on the theological substructure of the Pauline corpus. There are so many takes on Paul that are theologically static even though Paul’s project is inherently hermeneutical, dynamic, and flexible. I want to understand what is coherent about Paul’s work without falling into the trap of creating a criteriological “center” for his theology. But that will require a re-working of how we think about his letters and how we approach his theological contribution.
Beyond this, I’m excited for a return to fully in-person instruction at King’s and the gradual re-opening of New York City. Let’s hope that it lasts!
Ben White is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at The King’s College, New York City. His book Pain and Paradox in 2 Corinthians: The Transformative Function of Strength in Weakness is available from Mohr Siebeck.