Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Nouns and Pronouns

Pronouns are noun-substitutes. They save us from cluttering up our sentences with unnecessary repetition. A long string of names can be easily replaced with a four-letter pronoun like “they”, saving all kinds of space.

I’m not telling you anything new here. We learn this in grade school.

Pronoun Plusses and Minuses

But pronouns also save us from sounding stiff and awkward. Consider this sentence, constructed without pronouns: “Paul said Paul was going to Paul’s place of employment, where Paul would do what Paul usually does.” Not exactly top-drawer prose, is it? Not particularly inviting. A whole novel written like that would drive me away faster than Cormac McCarthy’s refusal to use quotation marks.

Sometimes pronouns pose a problem for readers. A writer may use them ambiguously. They may appear so far from the noun they are replacing that the reader has to scan back to figure out who or what is meant by them. A pronoun is only as useful as the ease with which we can associate it with the correct noun.

English has something like 100 pronouns. Today, I’m basically interested in two: “we” and “you”. We find them all over 2 Corinthians. As with all of scripture, getting something useful out of this book depends in large part on our ability to associate each instance of “we” and “you” with the correct antecedent noun. If we get that wrong, we will not understand very much.

Finding Ourselves in the Text

Readers of the Bible tend to like to find ourselves in the text. Possibly it’s related to the same impulse that makes us take selfies and post Instagram shots of a plateful of food we are about to eat. But with the word of God, we encounter a problem that doesn’t exist to the same extent when we read other literature, and that is this: in our eagerness to find something meaningful to take away for ourselves, we may take away promises, hopes and expectations to which we are not entitled, or that might only belong to us conditionally. Worse, we may come away from a passage with fears or concerns God never intended us to fret about, and which have nothing to do with us (I’m thinking of Hebrews 6, but there are other examples).

An abundance of pronouns makes that mistake easier, and in 2 Corinthians, there are plenty: in my ESV, for example, the word “we” occurs 191 times, while the word “you” occurs 243 times. (There are also plenty of instances of “it”, “us”, “our”, “your”, “yours” and so on, but let’s keep it simple. If we get the “we” and “you” right, most of the rest fall into place pretty easily.)

Making Associations

Now, I don’t want to overstate the problem: many associations between noun and subsequent pronouns are perfectly obvious. Often the antecedent noun is right there in the same sentence. But sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it is sentences, paragraphs or pages back, leaving the less-attentive reader with ample opportunity for a spectrum of possible misreadings of the text which range from temporary, minor confusion to major doctrinal error ... and, remember, we are only talking about two pronouns so far. There are hundreds more in 2 Corinthians. Replacing them all with the correct antecedents would make the text unnatural and virtually unreadable. But with so many pronouns, we have more than a little room for error if we do not pay careful attention to what we are reading. I’ve heard (and made) a few doozies.

2 Corinthians begins with this: “Paul ... and Timothy ... to the church that is in Corinth.” If we keep this in mind, a lot of the uses of “we” will sort themselves out.

Romans vs. 2 Corinthians

If simply looking back to the introduction seems way too obvious, bear in mind that finding the relevant antecedent noun or noun phrase is nowhere near so cut and dried in other Pauline letters. For example, the book of Romans is an absolute smorgasbord of pronoun association. Sometimes “we” means Paul. Sometimes it means both Paul and the original reader. Sometimes “we” means all Christians, and sometimes only strong Christians. Sometimes it means all Jews, or even all human beings. Context determines how we understand each of these references in Romans, and whether or not we can legitimately apply them to our own lives in any direct way. We will not want to be grabbing instances of “we” that relate to, say, Jewish judgment, will we?

However, in 2 Corinthians, a book which is much more personal than Romans, and is primarily a defense of Paul’s apostleship, “we”, far more often than not, is Paul and Timothy in their roles as itinerant ministers of the gospel, while “you” refers to the Christians in Corinth, and not necessarily any particular individual who might come along and pick the letter up at a later date. This association of “we” with the apostolic delegation to Corinth is not 100%, as context will show — there are a couple of times Paul uses it more inclusively — but it is definitely the case for the majority of the book.

Contrasting Pronouns

This becomes most obvious in the passages that explicitly contrast “we”, “us” and “our” with “you” and “your”. There are many of these in 2 Corinthians. For example:
“If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.”
Or in another instance:
“For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.”
Thus, if the reader is looking to “find himself” in much of the text of 2 Corinthians, he is going to first need to choose a side. In the strictest sense, of course, he is not there at all, being neither a first century minister of the gospel nor a first century Gentile churchgoer.

But even at the level of application rather than interpretation, it is worth thinking about whether our Christian lives are more like that of the apostle Paul, Timothy and Silvanus in their itinerant service and teaching ministry, or whether our Christian lives are more like the average member of the church in Corinth, to whom these correctives are addressed. For some of us, it may be a little bit of each. But the contrast Paul draws repeatedly between “we” and “you” requires the reader to give some thought to his or her own maturity in Christ. How is our daily walk? Are we generally occupied with building up others in the faith, or are we pretty much always on the receiving end of the good things that come from being in Christ? Are we characteristically laboring for Christ, or do our Christian lives consist of not much more than critiquing the content and delivery of the teaching we have received, and speculating about the motives and spirituality of our teachers?

A Few Familiar Passages

Here are a few familiar passages from 2 Corinthians that are often applied to Christians in general. If you look closely at them, I believe you may agree with me that some of these really speak primarily about Paul and Timothy and their ilk in their capacity as ministers of the word of God. For brevity’s sake, let’s call them shepherds. Others genuinely address all believers, their sheep. As you read these familiar passages, ask yourself whether the “we” in view is really primarily related to apostolic ministry (and by extension today, perhaps, to church planters and Bible teachers), or whether what is being said was intended to address all believers in a more general way. Is the verse primarily saying something about shepherds, about sheep, or about everyone?

I have highlighted the pronouns to help emphasize the occasional contrast.

Example 1:
“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.”
Here the “we” seems to be shepherds. Paul is contrasting his and Timothy’s methods with those of other teachers, and pointing out the rightness of their approach to service. In this context at least, the extent to which a believer is “the fragrance of death to death” or “the aroma of Christ to God” is the extent to which he is out there preaching and teaching, and doing so accurately and without the prospect of financial reward. It is difficult to escape that the two ideas are tied together. An overt, verbal testimony is required in order to produce that which is a pleasing aroma to God and a not-so-pleasing aroma to the world.

That is not to disparage the testimonial value of living a godly life, but “lifestyle evangelism” is simply not the subject here.

Example 2:
“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
In this second case, the “we” is all believers, both shepherds and sheep. Perhaps Paul starts with the shepherd in view, but by “we all” (and yes, the “all” is there in Greek) he is definitely making a statement about all who are in Christ. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. This is true regardless of maturity and the role in which a believer finds himself.

Example 3:
“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”
Here once again the “we” doing the proclaiming is specifically the shepherd. The last line quoted makes it obvious: “with ourselves as your servants.” That’s not to say the average believer does not proclaim Jesus Christ in his or her own way, and that’s not to say we cannot learn by applying these passages to ourselves. If Paul did not practice cunning or tamper with God’s word, then certainly we should never presume to do so.

Example 4:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.”
Again, I think the “we” is those ministering, though we may all compare our mortal vessels to jars of clay with good reason. The letter suggests the Corinthian Christians were experiencing a measure of hostility from their neighbors, but words like “afflicted” and “persecuted” really apply first and foremost to the apostle and his co-workers. The contrast is most obvious in the statement “death is at work in us, but life in you.”

Example 5:
“Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.”
There’s no compelling reason to think the “we”, “our” and “us” of the second paragraph refers to a larger group than the “we” of the first paragraph, which is directly and repeatedly contrasted with the “you” of believing Corinth. Thus, when Paul is speaking of “light momentary affliction” and an “eternal weight of glory”, it is primarily the affliction of the ministering shepherd he has in mind.

I hate to be robbed of a truly touching and beautiful passage (especially one that I have happily misapplied many times), or have its relevance to me diminished in any way, but I have to confess I can’t remember the last time I was genuinely afflicted in the service of Christ, even momentarily. That is not to say that the average, fairly comfortable Western believer cannot contemplate any measure of glory at all in eternity. But it is to say that our coming glory may well be proportionate to our willingness to put ourselves on the line for the sake of Christ in this life. “If we endure, we will also reign with him.”

Interpretation and Application

An interesting exercise, no? I want to make it clear that I’m not saying these passages about the implications and consequences of apostolic service and Christian ministry have no relevance to the average believer. On the contrary, they ought to be tremendously motivating when we realize there is nothing keeping the average pew-sitting Christian today from being a sold-out servant of Christ, whatever his or her gift may be. “By this time you ought to be teachers,” says the writer to the Hebrews.

To the extent that each of us determinedly takes the message of the gospel to the world or works at building up our fellow Christians in the word of God, we are doing the sort of thing Paul was doing, even if we cannot all do it full-time, and even if we do not have the same ability to express ourselves verbally or in writing.

But that is something we get from 2 Corinthians by application. Paul’s letter does not address us directly, and we should not expect it to. To decide which portions of the book might have some application to our own lives, we all need to ask ourselves the question “Am I more like his ‘we’ or more like his ‘you’?”

But in order to do that, we first have to be able to distinguish between the two subsets of believers.

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