The Spirit of this Letter

And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Cor. 3:4-6)

holy terrorPaul’s contrast here between the Spirit and the letter which kills has given rise to a host of curious interpretations throughout Christian history.  It has become a favorite of antinomians and enthusiasts old and new, it has often been used as a justification for a spiritualizing interpretation of given text, beyond the mere “letter of the Law” to the spirit of the Law. Or, rather, to pit one’s own leading by the Holy Spirit against the mere letters of inspired Scripture. From properly theological discussions, the phrase then passes into idiomatic usages and comes up in debates about hermeneutics in general, the spirit v. the letter of Constitutional law, and so forth. And that’s how most of us hear it today.

Of course, in its own context of the discussion in 2 Corinthians, the contrast is primarily one of covenants not hermeneutics. The Law, the Torah, the letter and the ministry associated with it is one of death because, even though it is good and glorious, by it there is only condemnation. Paul is a minister of the new covenant, though, which is that of the Spirit who gives life in Christ. As a secondary issue, hermeneutics does come up towards the end of the passage. There we read that the Israelites of the day cannot properly read the Law, they have a veil over their eyes to shield them from the glory. But it is only when one turns to the Lord, in the Spirit, that the veil is removed from our eyes when we read the old covenant to see it for what it truly is.

With that I clear, I wanted to briefly turn attention to an intriguing comment by Terry Eagleton on the spirit v. letter dichotomy in his work Holy Terror. He has been expositing the purpose of the Law as educational, good, “holy”, and yet limited. It is a work of love to “train us up in its habits and protocols”, and yet it generates unintended consequences such as guilt, provocation to sin, and so forth.

The law’s education in the ways of love is bound to backfire, which is why the law is a curse. This is partly because to encode the law in writing opens up the possibility of turning it into a fetish, as Shylock makes a fetish of his bond [Merchant of Venice]. He does so because as an oppressed Jew he needs his scrupulously worded contract for his protection, and would be foolish to rely on the hermeneutical vagaries of the Venetian Christian Establishment.

It may be the spirit of the law which counts, but there is no spirit without a letter, no signified without a material signifier. The spirit of the law is an effect of the signifier, not a substitute for it. It is a matter of the creative interpretation of letters, not the spontaneous diving of something lurking bodiless behind them. Otherwise the spirit of the law could included pretty well any arbitrary implication which sprang to mind, which would be to make a mockery of the law. This ‘spirit’ of the law must be the spirit of this letter. It is not a question of ditching the letter for the spirit, but of grasping the letter of the law as spirit and meaning, rather than, say, as some numinous icon in its own right–some totem or mantra which has merely to be magically chanted or brandished to have its effect. (37-38)

Now, as a straightforward interpretation of that particular verse in Paul, it tends to be working with the problem posed in popular idiomatic sense. But even there, Eagleton is instructive. Yes, there can be fetishistic, legalistic ways of interpreting and applying the letter. Jesus makes this critique of the Pharisees often and we’ve all seen it in the worst sort of fundamentalistic interpretation. (Think Jehovah’s Witnesses forgoing all celebrations of holidays and birthdays because Ecclesiastes says, “the day of death than the day of birth”).

All the same, his critique of the enthusiast interpretation is worth repeating, “This ‘spirit’ of the law must be the spirit of this letter.” The spirit must not be used as an excuse for turning the letter into a wax nose. Indeed, we can only try to discern that spirit from those particular letters: “the spirit of the law is an effect of the signifier, not a substitute for it.” Discerning the spirit of Hamlet can only happen when we attend to the text of Hamlet.

Of course, Eagleton is speaking of the “spirit” in the non-theological sense of the term when he says this, but I think it also points us in the direction of a Reformation hermeneutic of “Word and Spirit,” where the one is never separated from the other, nor should they be pitted against each other. For with Scripture, we see that the letter, the signifier of the Law is actually an effect of the Spirit of Christ. But we can only know the Spirit of Christ truly if we attend to the letters which are his revelatory work.

In other words, there can ultimately be no appeal to the Spirit beyond or against this letter of Scripture precisely because he is the Spirit of this letter.

Soli Deo Gloria