Part two: Shining with Resurrection Light
In his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, N. T. Wright comments on this passage and 2 Corinthians in general, from the perspective of the Resurrection. He notes a shift in that perspective from 1 Corinthians to 2 Corinthians. “But whereas in 1 Corinthians the movement is primarily towards the future, straining towards the resurrection and discovering what needs to be done in the present to anticipate it,” he writes, “in 2 Corinthians the movement is primarily towards the present, discovering in the powerful resurrection of Jesus and the promised resurrection for all his people the secret of facing suffering and pain here and now” (page 300).
Wright reminds us that when Paul uses the “new covenant” language in 2 Corinthians 3:4-6, he is taking us back to Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. God’s new covenant is not written on stone tablets like the first covenant. Rather it is, as the prophets promise, written on human hearts. Those hearts are not made of stone themselves but are rather the soft hearts of flesh.
The first covenant, the “ministry in service of death” as he describes it in 2 Corinthians 3:7, was “chiseled in letters on stone tablets.” The new covenant is written by the Spirit on human hearts – on the hearts of the Corinthian Christians. Paul tells them in verse three that they are “a letter of Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (NRSV).
So, Paul is a minister of the New Covenant. That covenant has a different kind of glory, a glory unlike that on the face of Moses as he received and transmitted the first covenant. It’s not that the first covenant had no glory but rather than the New Covenant outshines the first in its brilliance. Paul’s argument, Wright suggests, “is that his ministry has ‘glory’ even though it does not look like it.”
It is not like the glory of Moses’ ministry because it “involves life rather than death, justification rather than condemnation, permanence rather than transitoriness” (page 304). That glory is the reflection of the Messiah who is both crucified and risen. That glory shines in and through the Jesus follower in life-altering ways. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror,” Paul writes in 3:18, “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
The word Paul uses for “transformed” here is the same as Mark uses to describe the change in appearance the disciples witnessed on the Mount of Transfiguration. That’s another reason why I think it is best to read the text beginning at 3:17 in our worship services. These verses offer a powerful and enthralling description of what we should expect in our lives as Jesus followers. We should expect transformation, or as Wright notes, New Creation from the same Spirit who wrought Creation in the beginning.
“The god who said ‘let light shine out of darkness,” Wright proposes, in other words, the Genesis god, God the creator – has shone in our hearts, [Paul] says, to give ‘the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus the Messiah.” It’s to clear to Paul and to us that some cannot (or will not) see this glory because they have been blinded by “the god of this world.” But, Wright notes, that is no fault of Paul or Paul’s gospel. Instead, it is a failure of vision on the part of those who cling to appearance rather than reality.
The Transfiguration is a far more important event and text in the Eastern Church than it is in the West. This is because of the Eastern emphasis on salvation as “theosis,” which can be translated as “deification” or “divinization.” The classic statement of this doctrine comes from Athanasius in his treatise on the Incarnation. Athanasius, almost in a throwaway line near the end of the book notes that “God became human in order that humans might become gods.” The Western Church has an allergic reaction to that idea since it might lead to either the idolatry of the human or some sort of collapse in the distinction between the Creator and the created.
Yet, we can find this notion in Paul’s conversation about our transformation and glorification. On the Mountain of Transfiguration, Eastern theologians tell us, we can see the humanity of Christ radiant with divine glory. And we can see the divinity of Christ shining through his humanity without defacing or destroying it. In fact, the glimpse we get on the mountain is not merely of glory. Rather, in this Eastern line of thought, what the disciples see is the fulfillment of the Image of God – a revelation of how God intended humans to exist from the moment of Creation. The Transfiguration reveals, therefore, not a detour but our destiny in Christ.
This understanding of the Transfiguration is not far from the thought of Martin Luther, even though that strand of Luther’s theology has often been discounted, ignored, or even rejected as an aberration. I have become a “fan” of the work of the Finnish school of Luther studies led by Dr. Tuomo Mannermaa. His work, and that of his colleagues, is brought to us in large part in the translations and expositions offered by Dr. Kirsi Stjerna. I would recommend that readers consider studying Mannermaa’s work – particularly his book, Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification.
We Lutherans know God’s justifying grace as a declarative reality – that God declares us in right relationship with God for the sake of Christ. The Holy Spirit invites us to accept and embrace that declarative reality and to actively trust in that reality by the Spirit’s power. But Luther has more in mind when it comes to justification. In particular, Luther often talks about the “wonderful exchange” – that Christ takes our bondage to sin, death, and the Devil, and gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Mannermaa demonstrates, in Stjerna’s words, that “Luther can talk about righteousness as a human being becoming one with God through a real exchange of attributes between the sinner and Christ” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Locations 113-114). Justification is not just a change in “legal” status (the declarative understanding). Rather, justification is a change in our being human, our ontological makeup and experience (the performative understanding).
Mannermaa argues that Luther’s understanding of justification has much in common with the Eastern Church’s doctrine of theosis. Stjerna suggests that Mannermaa “argues for and centers on Luther’s radical insight about justification being a godly act of divinization that changes a person’s relationship with God ontologically. Arguing in light of the Orthodox teaching of theosis,” she continues, “Mannermaa proves through systematic reading of Luther that the idea of divinization, which happens because of Christ and in faith, is at the heart of Luther’s theology” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Locations 153-155).
What are the benefits of life with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit? In his catechisms and elsewhere, Luther uses the language of “benefits” to talk about what justification produces in the life of the believer. It’s a grand thing to know that we have been declared righteous and that at the last day we shall have our sins set aside for the sake of Christ. My internship supervisor’s wife often teased him by saying, “Your reward will be in heaven, honey.” He would tease in return, “Yes, but I want it now.”
Paul says, if Mannermaa is correct, that we get it both ways. Not only are we declared righteous by God’s favor, Mannermaa says, we are made righteous by God’s gift. This helps us to make sense of Paul’s imagery at the end of 2 Corinthians 3, that we are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Salvation is not only a legal declaration, Mannermaa argues. “Salvation is,” he concludes, participation in the person of Christ” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Location 319).
It is certainly not the case that Christ followers are immediately transformed into the full divine image. If we follow Paul’s argument further in 2 Corinthians, we shall see that we carry this treasure in the clay jars of our humanity. Even though that is the case, however, if anyone is in Christ, there is New Creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). The One who shines light in the darkness shines that light into our hearts and through our lives. “Faith communicates the divine attributes to the human being,” Mannermaa writes, “because Christ himself, who is a divine person, is present in faith” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Location 393).
I find this perspective exciting and energizing for at least two reasons. The first reason is the hope for real transformation in this life here and now rather than the formalism of forensic justification. I long to be and strive to be a “contemplative theologian of the cross.” Union with Christ is not a metaphor but rather an actual thing that I can expect to have concrete impact on who and what and how I am in the here and now.
The second reason is that this transformation is unlimited and unending. We can expect in the New Life to continue being transformed from glory into glory. We cannot exhaust God’s gracious and creative potential for us and for all of Creation in the cross and resurrection of Christ. We will never say to God, as Rowan Williams notes, “Oh, now you’re repeating yourself.” Our transformation is and will be never-ending.
I won’t try to unpack all of Mannermaa’s work here. But I hope the reader might consider pursuing this line of thought and research if it is new to you. And I pray that you will find it as refreshing and encouraging as I do.
References and Resources
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Levin, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). London, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Mannermaa, Tuomo, and Stjerna, Kirsi Irmeli. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.