The Light of Christ’s Face: Redemption in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians

Br. Joseph Van House, O. Cist.

“It was not our strength that saved us, but your hand, and the light of your face” (Ps. 44:3).

In the Biblical imagination, light is a privileged representation of God’s grace. Of all the earthly realities the inspired authors use to represent divine blessing (bread from heaven, life-giving water, consuming fire, etc.), perhaps only “life” and “word” are more significant than “light.” Stretching from the prophetic anticipation “Come, house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (cf. Is 2:2-5), to Christ’s revelation, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12, cf. Lk 2:32 & OT precedents), to his commission to his disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Mt 5:14-16), the Bible’s references to “light from God” are numerous and richly variegated.

They also converge towards a single typological epicenter: the transfigured face of Christ. Jesus himself is the true meaning of grace and blessing. His face is the God-given window through which mankind receives God’s full image and likeness, through which the divine light of charity irradiates our world. The lumen Christi, then, is profoundly apt for imagining the uniquely Christian vision of grace and salvation. This proves particularly true, and particularly helpful, in the case of one vital passage unique to Saint Paul.

Saint Paul offers an extended pastoral essay on the light of Christ’s face in the third and fourth chapters of 2 Corinthians. This is a theological, image-rich passage that deserves special attention, as it serves as an interpretive guide to the more famous sections of Romans and Galatians in which Paul expresses his view of grace more abstractly. Though these passages are important in their own right, they are also difficult and easy to misconstrue. Many non-Catholic theologies have papered over the difficulties and painted Saint Paul as the great advocate of an anemic understanding of Christian grace, one in which grace is primarily the act by which God, the judge, chooses to grant faith to a sinner, which then serves as her irrevocable “get out of hell free card.” As a result of this approach to God’s blessing in Christ, one which does not appear luminously Christian, Pauline phrases like “justification by faith” have come to be regarded with suspicion in Catholic circles, and many of Paul’s most brilliant pages have been left unstudied by literate and thoughtful American Christians. Given this situation, looking to “the light of Christ’s face” in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 holds special value, for while it is not as directly “doctrinal” as passages from other letters, it offers a unique and powerful Pauline explanation of what God does for humanity by sending Christ.1

Before examining Paul’s words directly, it is important to consider the factual background of the letter as a whole. Part of the reason why the 2 Corinthians 3-4 is unusually revealing is that Paul did not write the letter to resolve a contemporary theological dispute, but to proclaim the gospel in a tortured pastoral situation. Paul himself founded the Corinthian church around AD 50; he also personally attended to its consolidation by remaining there for a full year and a half before resuming his itinerant mission. His extended presence in Corinth set a dynamic and even apocalyptic tone for the fledgling church there. During this time he worked “signs and wonders” (2 Cor 12:12), explicitly laid out the celibate ideal (cf. 1 Cor 7), and even refused to accept their money to demonstrate his earnestness for God’s glory alone. Over the years that followed, other itinerant preachers came and went, each with his own ideas, accents, and personality. The community continued to develop under the influence of these missionaries, of its own internal momentum, and of the peculiar port-city culture of secular Corinth.

Paul, meanwhile, was working in Ephesus. Within a few years, around AD 56, he had received word of enough problems in Corinth to impel him to write an instructive letter and to promise a personal visitation. A reading of this letter, 1 Corinthians, gives a clear sense of the kinds of divisions that Paul had been hearing about: liturgical and social separations between rich and poor; controversies about separation from the pagan world, about sexual morality, and about the meaning of the Resurrection; exhibitionistic, anarchic, and competitive worship; ecclesial factions based on loyalty to particular missionaries, ideas, or styles of preaching. A follow-up visit a few months later turned out to be short and painful. Paul’s presence stirred up a degree of dissension and recalcitrance that led him quickly to remove himself to Ephesus, and then to Troas in western Asia Minor, though not without a promise of return. From Asia Minor he sent them an epistle called “the tearful letter” (cf. 2 Cor 2:3-4), one which, though lost to history, finally succeeded in cutting the Corinthians to the quick. Burdened by the dark memory of their last contact, however, Paul decided to bypass Corinth during his next trip to Greece, and instead traveled straight on to Macedonia. There he found Titus, who offered welcome news of the compunction that Paul’s tearful letter had provoked (cf. 2 Cor 7:5-16). Soon, in late AD 57, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians to explain his ambivalence towards the Corinthian Christians, to persuade them of his sincere love, and to solidify their recent change of heart — all in preparation for a third visit on his final journey back to Jerusalem.2

Paul’s fatherly agony over this beloved and headstrong church is present on every page of 2 Corinthians. In chapters 3 and 4, Paul’s profound description of the gospel grounds his confrontation of two particular grievances. The first was a popular Corinthian murmur that Paul, unlike many subsequent missionaries, had offered no written credentials from another church to authenticate his mission, and therefore might not have been a true apostle. The second was an accusation of weakness: Paul, the stern and fiery letter-writer, always behaved meekly when he was in Corinth, so it was rumored that he was a coward and a manipulator, or in any case a man who lacked the eloquence, wisdom, wealth, power, resolve, or authority befitting the true father of a church so great. Paul has these two criticisms in his crosshairs throughout the remainder of the letter, probably above all because he recognizes them as the mainstays of an enduring suspicion that he was a low-grade charlatan who preyed upon the Corinthians for both glory and wealth (4:2-6, 15; 7:2; 8:21; 12:14-19).3 The blazing show of love that distinguishes 2 Corinthians originates in Paul’s need to counteract this suspicion and thus secure the godly communion that he labored to bring forth in Corinth.

In chapter three, verses one through eighteen, Paul addresses the situation theologically by introducing a contrast between the new covenant and the old. At first it seems to be the same contrast that he uses so frequently in Romans and Galatians. In those letters, however, his intention is to catechize his readers about the way that Christ has transcended the law of Moses. In 2 Corinthians, Paul is troubled by the Corinthians’ lack of insight into their faith. Thus Paul begins chapter three by comparing the Corinthians, who demand that their own spiritual father present “letters of recommendation” before they will rally around him, with those Jews who would choose God’s covenant at Sinai—where Moses received stone tablets inscribed by God’s finger—apart from the new covenant in Christ’s blood, through which God reaches into stony hearts and transforms them into living flesh. The upshot of Paul’s rhetorical parallel is a simple question: If I am the ambassador through whom God has given you your entire new life, on what basis can you deny that he sent me to you? “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation… written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:2-3).

Paul then takes his analogy further: The Corinthians are like the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai who were utterly terrified and repulsed by the prodigies that they saw there (Ex 19). Paul, in this analogy, is Moses, with whom his countrymen would not deal unless his face was veiled, unless there was something to prevent them from being directly exposed to the divine glory that transfigured him (Exodus 34:29-35). Here Paul makes a brilliant rhetorical move and insists on a key difference: Paul is a man in Christ, not a mediator of the old covenant, and as the glory of Christ is so much greater than that of Moses, it does not need literal, physical radiance as a sign; its glory is far weightier and more permanent. Paul stunningly capitalizes on the distinction between Christ and his apostles on one hand, and Moses on the other: “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor” (2 Cor 3:12-13). Paul indicates that the reason the Corinthians mistrust him is not that he is cowardly, or manipulative, or second-rate, but rather precisely that he is giving them the full gospel, refusing to conceal its inner light by ceaselessly dazzling them in superficial ways. Many of the Corinthians accuse Paul of leaving his gospel veiled and not giving them the best, but he now suggests that they are the ones who are blocking themselves off from God by seeking only what pleases them. They forget that truly beholding the glory of the Lord with unveiled face and “being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18) is far different from grasping transient human success. Locking eyes with Jesus involves yielding to the power of the Holy Spirit; becoming the everlasting child of God can easily mean spending less time on top of Mount Tabor and more down in the olive-press of Gethsemane.

Paul explains his understanding of the nature of Christian faith and ministry by further developing the analogy of divine light. In chapter four, he warns that to be without faith is to allow “the god of this world” to blind one’s intellect by placing a thick veil between the human person and the otherworldly light that would save him from perishing in darkness—that is, the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God” (v. 4), and “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (v. 6). This is a robust way of describing the way God encounters man in Jesus.

Paul anticipates some of the core insights of the Gospel of John (cf. Jn 1:1-18). He presents Christ simultaneously as the key to the meaning of creation and as the font of salvation from sin: A believer beholds in Christ’s human face the intimate glory of God—and, in some mysterious way, does so even here on earth, before the vision is consummated in heaven.4 Paul holds that this encounter with the real Jesus is in real ways coextensive with redemption itself: Neither redemption nor seeing without the “veil of unbelief” is something we receive by arbitrary decree with no earthly consequence. In chapter three, verse eighteen, Paul suggests that the entire Christian journey is a spiritual beholding of Christ’s glory—a surprising suggestion, considering the immediately preceding allusion to Moses’ visible glory—and in chapter four, verse six, he describes the beginning of our redemption as God’s decision to shine into the darkness of our hearts. Faith, then, coincides exactly with the lifting of the veil that blocks man from God on earth: Faith is the full acceptance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s influence on one’s life mediated through the person of Christ. Faith, acquittal of past sins, and transforming grace are bound together not by a mere divine whim, but because they express different aspects of walking with God in His divine light.

Saint Paul uses the image of the light of Christ’s face to recall the Corinthians to the real meaning of the faith that they embraced, and to persuade them to square their judgment of him and their ecclesiastical politicking with that faith—a faith which, if it is real requires ongoing and daily conversion to God through Jesus. This view of the gospel raises serious questions about theologies that portray Paul’s conception of grace as simply acquittal, and that consequently leave people to find their joy in the idea that they are “snow-covered dung,” to borrow Luther’s phrase.5 But Paul’s understanding of grace penetrates much deeper. The fundamental mercy of his gospel is that the crucified and risen Christ, who himself beholds the Father’s infinite glory, condescends to dwell mystically in each member of the Church, infusing their lives forever with the perfect love that animates his. While awareness of the fuller meaning of the Christian as “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), a meaning clarified by Paul’s imagery, likely will not resolve denominational debates between serious students of this giant of the early Church, it should at least encourage Catholics to recognize in Saint Paul a glorious Christian mind, one whose pages should be approached not with suspicion, but with joy and zeal—and frequency.

Brother Joseph Van House grew up in Norcross, Georgia. He is a graduate of the University of Dallas, and in August of 2004 took his first religious vows at Our Lady of Dallas Cistercian Abbey. He is studying for the priesthood.


1. [This intuition is validated by no less an authority on Saint Paul than Saint Augustine, whose best anti-Pelagian treatise, The Spirit and the Letter, uses verses from 2 Cor 3 as its touchstone.]

2. [I draw most of the chronology of this paragraph from the clear summary on pp. 514-515 and 541-544 of Raymond Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday: New York, 1996). Also, it is interesting to note that Pope Clement I’s letter to the Corinthians from about AD 90 can be read as a postscript to this saga; it seems that the Christians in this infamous Mediterranean port town continued for decades to have notorious difficulties with unity and authority. For a text, see http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1010.htm, or various printed anthologies of early Christian writings.]

3. [The Corinthians had recently received word that Paul was beginning a major campaign in his churches to raise funds in the name of the famine-stricken church of Jerusalem.]

4. [When Paul later says that we live by faith, not by sight (5:7), he is unfolding this image, not contradicting it; this image of faith as a beholding (akin to what he says about seeing “in a glass, darkly” in 1 Cor, but clearer and less metaphorical). These passages together offer us a most powerful analogy for describing the mysterious phenomenon of faith in the New Testament (see especially, e.g., Rom 4:17-25, Heb 11): faith, though provisional, is a mode of seeing, a source of profound and life-giving orientation in one’s earthly life.]

5. [This is not to deny that an undeserved remission of punishment coincides with redemption; that is obviously important to Paul, and to Christianity. What I am suggesting is that in Pauline theology “forensic” mercy is not sufficient to constitute redeeming grace, but rather that it must always be conjoined to a personal and penetrating union with Christ (a union for which theologians use a variety of terms, such as “sanctifying grace”, “divinization”, and “participation”). As a side issue, it is interesting to note that one correlate of this “insufficiency of forgiveness” for redemption could even be the fact that it is not strictly necessary – which of course harmonizes very well with the recognition that Mary had no need of forgiveness, and is simultaneously the person most fully redeemed by Christ. For a fine book-length commentary on St. Paul’s doctrine of redemption, see Lucien Cerfaux, The Christian in the Theology of St. Paul (Herder & Herder: New York, 1966).]