Oft quoted, and always from the King James Version for effect, is 2 Corinthians 3:6. There Paul writes: “The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” This verse is usually cited in support of Spirit led ministries, over against those that prioritise theology and study. Because the letter kills, so the logic goes, we should not overemphasise detailed teaching or a focus on the Bible. For many, Paul’s statement liberates Christian believers from lifeless, dull, and bookish expressions of faith into the exciting and novel. Lively and Spirit led ministries have put the “letter” away, embracing the life-giving work of the Spirit. But is this really the distinction Paul is making?
Because the letter kills, so the logic goes, we should not focus on the Bible.
To answer that question we must relocate and interpret 2 Corinthians 3:6 within its context. For the Bible can be used to say almost anything if we abandon careful exegesis. As an example, Psalm 14:1 says, “There is no God.” Yet even an elementary reading recognises that what the psalmist says before and after this statement must shape our interpretation. The same applies to any and every text. Once we do this we can better discern what Paul means, when he says: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
What Is This Letter, Which Kills?
For starters we must examine what Paul means by “the letter.” If we look at the next verse, Paul refers to letters carved in stone along with Moses (2 Corinthians 3:7). A few verses prior, he mentions the tablets of stone (2 Corinthians 3:3). Thus it’s unlikely that “the letter” is a broad reference to the Bible, or the theology derived from it. Paul is not calling doctrine lifeless, in contrast with the unencumbered ministry of the Spirit. He is calling people away from the “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:9). Paul’s contrast is between the law, which leads to death, and the new covenant God made in Christ.
Ironically, to identify the letter that kills, Paul wrote a letter making a theological argument.
Tellingly, I’m not aware of any Christian leaders who are bold enough to claim that Paul’s ministry lacked the Spirit. Yet that is a charge many level against contemporary ministries and Christian traditions that are Bible and theology heavy. So we must ask: What were the marks of Paul’s apostolic and Spirit-filled ministry? Sure, he preached and planted churches, but a major aspect of his ministry was writing detailed and dense theology. We possess these in the form of his epistles, such as 2 Corinthians and Romans. Ironically, to identify and overturn the ministry of death—the letter that kills—Paul wrote a letter making a theological argument.
Thus, to corral 2 Corinthians 3:6 into an argument against careful theological enquiry, doctrinal preaching, or teaching that takes its lead from the Bible, horribly misunderstands Paul’s argument. Funnily enough, it also reads Paul in a way that refutes Paul.
Paul Pursued the Spirit and Prized Doctrine
Interestingly, when it comes to readings of the “letter kills” that this article is challenging, the chorus line of Ecclesiastes 1:9 rings true: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Appeals to 2 Corinthians 3:6, against doctrinal clarity and theologically weighty teaching, can at the very least be traced back to the 16th century. In his Institutes, John Calvin writes: “Those who, having forsaken Scripture, imagine some way or other of reaching God, ought to be thought of as not so much gripped by error as carried away with frenzy.”
Similarly to yesterday’s article at TGC Africa, Calvin calls on those leaning into the “Spirit gives life while the letter kills” to ask which spirit is at work (1 John 4:1). Because the apostles and early church didn’t despise God’s written word. They also wrote theology and prized precise doctrine. As it became more widely available, believers copied and studied the New Testament writings, viewing them as an extension and culmination of the Old Testament.
The early church didn’t despise God’s written word. They also wrote theology and prized precise doctrine.
In the next chapter of this epistle, Paul writes: “We have denounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). Note Paul’s points of reference: “God’s word” and “truth.” Nothing here suggests we discard or move on from scripture. Nor does Paul distinguish between the Bible and Spirit, which brings us to one final point.
Beware Turning the Spirit Against Himself
To read 2 Corinthians 3:6 in a way that even remotely casts shade on the biblical text, drives a wedge between the inspired scriptures and the Holy Spirit. Yet Jesus teaches that the Spirit’s ministry is less the forging of new doctrines or practises than it is the restatement and filling in of content for the gospel of grace (John 16:13). Therefore, instead of perceiving a tension between the Bible and Holy Spirit, Calvin writes: “We ought zealously to apply ourselves to read…Scripture if indeed we want to receive any gain and benefit from the Spirit of God.”
There’s no significant distinction between the work of the Spirit and scripture—not according to Jesus or Paul.
Those who refer to the Bible as the letter that kills while claiming the Spirit gives life are taking away with one hand what they suppose to give with the other. Worse, they must either claim that the Bible is not inspired by the Spirit or that the Spirit contradicts himself in the Bible.
Preachers, ministries, and churches that claim to be “Spirit-filled” without a serious commitment to the Bible are mistaken at best and fraudulent at worst. For there is no significant distinction between the work of the Spirit and the Bible—not according to Jesus, Paul, and countless believers since.
The Spirit Works Through Scripture
In conclusion, consider 2 Corinthians 3:8. Paul refers to his own ministry as the ministry of the Spirit. As we saw, Paul’s contrast is between the gospel preached in the new covenant and the law. Yet the apostolic ministry was considerably linked with theological writing and teaching doctrine. We’ve seen this above. The letter that kills is not weighty and technical preaching. It is not an overemphasis on the Bible. Rather, as Calvin writes, “The Holy Spirit so inheres in his truth, which he expresses in Scripture, that only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the word does the Holy Spirit show forth his power.” The Spirit gives life through rather than apart from the Bible.