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We all are being transformed into the same image—a correction (of sorts)

In the previous piece on being transformed into the image of Christ, I included 1 Corinthians 3:18 in a wider pattern in Paul whereby conformity to the image of Christ means specifically sharing in his suffering and resurrection:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding (or reflecting) the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory, as from the Lord, the Spirit.

This view needs modifying (after a fashion).

The theme is certainly in the background. 2 Corinthians 2:12-6:13 is a sustained defence of the scandalous and problematic character of the apostles’ ministry: it is through their weakness and suffering that the church is built up and Christ is glorified; and they will receive a heavenly dwelling if the earthly tent is destroyed (5:1-5).

All the way through “we” refers not to believers in general but to the apostles. So for example, Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 is not that “we believers” have been given the task of reconciling the world to God, but that “we apostles” have been given the task of reconciling the Corinthian church to God.

But when he says “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” (2 Cor 3:18 ESV), he would appear to have widened the scope his argument to include the Corinthians. This would lend weight to the traditional view: whatever is meant by “being transformed into the same image” would apply to all Christians.

Volker Rabens pointed this out to me on Facebook and directed me to an essay he has written: “Pneuma and the Beholding of God: Reading Paul in the Context of Philonic Mystical Traditions”. This is what he says about “we all”, though the contrast he makes is with Paul’s conversion experience rather than the ministry of the apostles as a group:

Paul includes all believers as the recipients of the effects of the new covenant ministry (ἡμεῖς δὲ πάντες). (316)

Anyway, having reconsidered the passage at Volker’s prompting, I think I got it wrong—but perhaps not quite in the way that he suggests.

This is how Paul develops his argument:

  • The apostles are ministers of a new covenant, “not of the letter but of the Spirit” (3:6).
  • The old covenant came with such a glory that the Israelites could not look on Moses’ face.
  • The ministry of the Spirit, however, exceeds the glory of the old covenant (3:7-11).
  • Therefore the apostles 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” (3:13).
  • The minds of the Israelites were hardened. Therefore, there is also a veil over their hearts (3:14-15).
  • When Jews turn to Christ, the veil over their hearts is removed (3:16).

So when Paul then says, “we all, with unveiled face…”, he would appear to mean “we Jews who have all turned to the Lord…”.

The statement does not include converts from paganism, who never read the old covenant and whose faces were never veiled (cf. 3:14). It does not, therefore, embrace the whole Corinthian community. It does not apply to all Christians.

From here, however, we can go in two directions.

We could take it that he means all Jews who have turned to the Lord, but it’s difficult to see what the point would be in this context. The general distinction between Jews and Gentiles plays no part in his argument.

The alternative would be to suppose that this is still part of the narrative about the Jewish apostles and the contrast with Moses: Moses was the minister of the old covenant, the apostles have been made “competent to be ministers of a new covenant” (3:6).

Paul is quite explicit about the contrast: “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face…” (3:12–13). The apostles correspond to Moses.

The force of the “all” would then be that whereas Moses alone reflected the glory of the old covenant, all the Jewish apostles, whose faces are no longer veiled, reflect the glory of the new covenant, which is the glory of Christ—and this is the basis on which they make their appeal to the recalcitrant believers in Corinth.

It is then, specifically, this group that is being transformed (metamorphoumetha) “into the same image, from glory to glory”.

The phrase “from glory to glory” (apo doxēs eis doxan) would refer specifically to this shift from the old covenant to the new. The apostles are being changed from the limited and fading glory of the old covenant to the surpassing and permanent glory of the new covenant. They are progressively—not least through their suffering—reflecting the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

The emphasis on the “same” image (tēn autēn eikona) would reinforce the point that the whole group of Jewish apostles now reflects the glory of the new covenant in contrast to Moses.

So the correction is this. Being transformed into the same image in this argument has to do not with the apostles’ imitation of Jesus’ suffering and vindication, as in the wider apocalyptic pattern, but with the transition from the old covenant to the new.

Comments

I think Rabens is right here. Its probably referring to all believers here. Seems like a stretch to limit it to only the Jewish apostles, and if you continue to follow this argument through to its logical conclusion, it would basically limit the resurrection only to the Jewish apostles as well in that passage. But maybe you hold to that. Still Romans 8:28-30 is saying something very similar and seems to be referring to all believers. In 2 Cor 5:17-18 he uses “new creation” language for “anyone” who is in Christ. In 6:14-18 he states that believers are now God’s dwelling/Temple, and that we cleanse ourselves of defilement in the act of “bringing holiness to completion”. Romans 9:23-24 explicitly states gentiles were “prepared in advance *for glory*”. Christ is the perfect image of God according to Paul, and it follows very reasonably that if we have that same Spirit of God/Christ indwelling us, convicting us, teaching us, etc., helping us to be obedient and be more like Christ, that we are being conformed into that same image. I see no reason to drive a wedge between all believers and the apostles here.

Alex, my response to this would be that you are neglecting the argumentative contexts.

1. I don’t think we can dismiss the fact that “we all” refers to a group of people from whom the veil which represented the hardening of the Jewish mind has been removed. This must exclude Gentile Christians.

2. I don’t think the resurrection is in view in 2 Corinthians 3:18. The glory is that of the new covenant in Christ, of which the Jewish apostles are ministers. Analogous to Moses, they reflect that glory.

3. Romans 8:28-30 is a different argument. Here Paul is saying that those who suffer with Christ for the sake of the gospel will eventually be vindicated and glorified. He does not have in mind all Christians but specifically those who are “heirs of Christ”—those who suffer with him and who will be glorified with him (Rom. 8:17).

4. The argument in 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 is also different. There is no reason why he should not be saying both that the Jewish apostles reflect the glory of the new covenant and that all who are in Christ are “new creation”.

5. Likewise, I don’t think we can simply conflate “glory” in Romans 9:23-24 with “glory” in 2 Corinthians 3:18. In the Romans passage “glory” refers to the recognition that the Jewish-Gentile church will have at the parousia, when Jesus is confessed as Lord by the nations. It is not the glory of the new covenant, contrasted with the lesser glory of the old covenant.

It does seem that Paul in going back to the idea of humans being created in God’s image. If humans were created to be image bearers but fell short, then it would make sense that Jesus, the greatest prophet, is held up as the one who actually lived as the perfect image bearer. So if we obey as Christ obeys, then we bear Yahweh’s image in a way that brings him glory.

That is an a priori theological argument. It may or may not be correct. But the question is whether it is what Paul is saying in this passage. He is not arguing about salvation in general terms. He is arguing about the nature of the apostles’ ministry.

In any case, I’ve changed my mind again. See: “2 Corinthians 3:18: back to where I started”.

Yes, but I think it’s Paul’s a priori theological argument.

You can’t restrict the meaning the way you are wanting to unless you can show that Paul consistently uses “conform” in this way.

You are going to have to use exegetical gymnastics to show that Romans 8:29 is only referring to Jewish apostles.

There’s no need to assume that the same language always has the same meaning in different contexts. It’s quite reasonable to conclude that transformation into the image means one thing in one context and something else in another.

Having said that, I have now reverted to my original view that “transformed into the image (of Christ”) in 2 Corinthians 3:18 and “conformed to the image of his Son” in Romans 8:29 convey much the same idea: the conformity of suffering believers to the pattern of Jesus’ suffering and vindication.

The main difference between the two passages lies in the scope of the group under consideration.

In Romans Paul is not talking about the apostles. He has in mind all Christians who suffer with Christ and for the sake of Christ—and one can imagine the church in Rome earnestly re-reading this letter during the program under Nero 10 years later.

The argument in 2 Corinthians 3, however, is narrower. It is a defence of the apostles, and he develops the thought in such a way as to suggest that “we all” contrasts the group of Jewish apostles, whose minds are no longer veiled as they were under the old covenant, with the singular Moses.

This does not contradict the broader argument of Romans 8. The Jewish apostles are a subset of all those who are “fellow heirs with Christ”. It’s simply that Paul is making a different, more specific point.

Well, I guess I have no problem with that explanation. (I thought you were arguing that even in Romans Paul was specifically referring to the apostles being conformed to the image of Christ.)

But I don’t see that any of this negates the usage of this phrase today. Yes, the specifics of suffering and trials vary from age to age, but remaining faithful and obedient throughout suffering and trials as Christ did would seem to apply to all followers of Yahweh at all times.

So I would hope Christians would answer the question “Who is being transformed into the image of Christ?” with “me.” :)

I think that if we wish to use the phrase today, we need deliberately to shift the focus away from Christ as apocalyptic paradigm to Christ as ideal of new humanity in a new creation. That seems to me a reasonable inference, but I don’t think it’s a course that the New Testament takes—right up to the end, Jesus is the lamb who was slain. The apocalyptic narrative remains in control.

I suggest that in Romans 8:16-17 Paul actually distinguishes between the whole group of believers as “heirs of God” and a sub-group of believers who are “heirs of Christ” because they share in his sufferings. These are no generic human sufferings. They are the afflictions that come specifically because of loyalty to the mission of proclaiming the coming reign of God in the period before the parousia. Why not respect that distinction?

The problem if we generalise Paul’s argument is that we both obscure the narrative and diminish the extreme character of the hostility and violence that the early church sporadically faced.

Andrew, thanks a lot for your clarification. You are right that Paul talks about his apostolic experience in 2 Corinthians 3:18. However, as I have argued in my article (and more fully in my monograph The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul, 174–203), in verse 18 Paul is no longer focused on his ministry (or his own conversion experience, as I have argued against F. Philip) but looks at the broader results of it.

Already in v. 16, Paul is using a more general formulation (“when someone turns to the Lord”, ἡνίκα δὲ ἐὰν ἐπιστρέψῃ πρὸς κύριον) which is not limited to Jewish believers (although that is the immediate context), as we can see from 4:3–6. With “we all” (ἡμεῖς δὲ πάντες) in v. 18 his focus is widened to all believers. You would need to show that with such an encompassing formulation Paul can elsewhere refer to an exclusive, select group that, significantly, includes only a small group of his readers but excludes most of them.

Your strongest argument for the limitation of the transformation into Christ to Jewish believers is that it is only this group that was veiled. However, to my mind this limited interpretation is contradicted by the context where the concept of being veiled/blinded is extended to the proclamation of the gospel to perishing unbelievers (on the notion of “unbelievers” in 2 Corinthians, see also my discussion here).

4:2 …by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 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. 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (NRS).

I have more to say on this parallel to 3:18 in my monograph which I have linked for you above.

So, I think you would need to explain to us from Paulus’s theology why transformation into Christ should be something that is reserved for Jewish converts, something that Gentile Christians are excluded from. I guess you are not wanting to say that the parallel concept of participation in Christ (discussed in my article) is also reserved to Jewish Christians.

Thanks, Volker. I still need to read your article properly, but here goes anyway…

Already in v. 16, Paul is using a more general formulation (“when someone turns to the Lord”, ἡνίκα δὲ ἐὰν ἐπιστρέψῃ πρὸς κύριον) which is not limited to Jewish believers (although that is the immediate context), as we can see from 4:3–6.

But the contrast in verse 16 seems pretty clear: whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their (the Jews’) hearts, but when a person turns to the Lord, the veil is lifted. This can only be a statement about the Jewish experience. It is not “anyone” who turns to the Lord but the Jew. You have made it look like a “more general formulation” by dropping the reference to the veil being removed. (I’ll get to 4:3-6 in a moment.)

Since the general distinction between Jew and Gentile plays no part in the argument in this letter, it seems that we have to restrict the reference to the Jewish apostles, to whom “we” refers all the way through this passage.

You would need to show that with such an encompassing formulation Paul can elsewhere refer to an exclusive, select group that, significantly, includes only a small group of his readers but excludes most of them.

It’s only “such an encompassing formulation” if we disregard the context. As I suggested, “we all” could be explained by the contrast with the singular Moses—or perhaps with the singular “Lord”. The point would be similar to Romans 8:29: Jesus is not the only one to suffer and be born from the dead; others are being conformed to his image; he is the firstborn among many brethren.

Besides, I am not saying that the phrase “includes only a small group of his readers but excludes most of them”. It does not include his readers at all; it refers to the Jewish apostles who are servants of the new covenant into which the Corinthians have entered.

It’s perhaps not the best example, but speaking to the men of Israel on the day of Pentecost, Peter says, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all (πάντες ἡμεῖς) are witnesses” (Acts 2:32). He doesn’t mean that everyone in the audience witnessed the resurrection. He means the apostles, on behalf of whom he speaks. That would be exactly parallel to Paul’s “we Jewish apostles, our faces now unveiled… are being transformed into the same image”.

However, to my mind this limited interpretation is contradicted by the context where the concept of being veiled/blinded is extended to the proclamation of the gospel to perishing unbelievers…

On the face of it, this is a serious obstacle to my interpretation. Paul writes:

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. (2 Cor. 4:3–4)

But at this point the argument has clearly moved on. In 4:1-2 Paul insists that he has acted towards the Corinthians honestly and transparently: “we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God”. The apostles are servants of the Corinthians for Jesus’ sake (4:5).

It is not the minds of the unbelievers that are veiled, as it was in the case of the Jews, but the gospel. Their blindness is attributed to the “god of this age”. We are in a different argument.

So it seems to me that there is no justification for re-reading 3:14-18 in the light of the later argument about the unbelievers.

The distinction between the story of the Jewish apostles and the story of the Corinthians remains operative. The Jewish apostles, now with unveiled face, being transformed into the image of the crucified and exalted Lord, carrying in the body the dying of Jesus, etc., proclaim a gospel that is not always accepted by the Gentiles, whose minds have been blinded by the god of this world.

So, in verse 16 Paul says that Jews who turn to Christ are unveiled (on this we agree), but all of these are not part of those all who stand with unveiled face and are transformed (verse 18)? I don’t think this shift is evident in the flow of the text (verse 17 makes a[nother] general statement that is not limited to any specific group) or agrees with what Paul says elsewhere about participation in Christ.

Yes, the problem is that I was confusing unveiled hearts with unveiled faces. But I think this actually helps my argument.