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  • Not Applicable to Believers?The Aims and Basis of Paul's "I" in 2 Corinthians 10-13
  • Dustin W. Ellington

And he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Very gladly then will I boast in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong.

(2 Cor 12:9, 10b)

A scan of scholars' perspectives on these words of Paul reveals a recurring denial of their applicability to his readers. Remarkably for the series in which he writes, the NIV Application Commentary, Scott Hafemann is reluctant to affirm that these words apply to the apostle's readers, then or now.1 In regard to Paul's expression, "For when I am weak, then I am strong" (12:10b), Margaret Thrall asserts: "[H]e is not here concerned with the application to all believers of his own claim to be strong in conditions of weakness."2 Concerning 12:9-10, Gerald O'Collins discards the notion "that in the midst of such autobiographical reflections Paul throws in a principle about the life of Christians as such."3 Furthermore, Brian J. Dodd, in his book devoted to interpreting Paul's "I," states, "Paul's conduct is at issue in 2 Corinthians and cannot be held up as an example when it must be defended."4 [End Page 325]

Those who deny that Paul's extensive use of his personal example in 2 Corinthians 10-13 applies to his readers do so for two main reasons. Many believe that the apostle deals only with the immediate situation of defending himself. Others, on ideological and exegetical grounds, maintain that Paul speaks about experiences that are exceptional to him as an apostle. For instance, Hafemann holds that the apostle believed his unique, mediatory role as a revealer of the gospel set his sufferings apart from the experience of ordinary believers.5

In their study of 2 Corinthians 10-13, scholars tend to focus on Paul's self-defense and on those who oppose him. They typically miss clues in the text that reveal his other concerns. It is true that Paul defends himself in 2 Corinthians 10-13. He does not say, "Imitate me," as he does twice in 1 Corinthians. However, it is unrealistic and overly simplistic to reduce Paul's communication to one theme or one aim when he wrote to address a situation as complex as that of the church in Corinth. Stanley Stowers has observed, "Some rhetoricians openly admitted that the categories [of rhetoric] were somewhat artificial and tended to overlap."6

If we sift through 2 Corinthians 10-13 in search of Paul's rhetorical objectives, we discover important evidence that his goals were broader than self-defense; indeed, they were multiple and overlapping.7 To quote one of many passages that [End Page 326] we will consider below, Paul says, "Do you think that all this time we have been defending ourselves to you? Before God we speak in Christ. Everything, beloved, is for building you up" (12:19). The evidence demonstrates that Paul speaks about himself for the sake of his pastoral task, to build up the Corinthians (cf. 10:8; 13:10). Even while he defends himself, Paul urges the community to introspection and self-correction regarding their view of power and weakness in Christian life and ministry.

In addition to examining these chapters in search of Paul's aims, we can probe the basis of what he says about himself: is it a foundation that is unique to him as an apostle or one that he shares with other believers? We will find that the apostle roots his "I" in Christ, who, as Paul says, "was crucified in weakness but lives by the power of God." He continues: "We are weak in him, but we will live by God's power" (2 Cor 13:4). The terms that surround and describe Paul's example—power, weakness, grace, and other participatory expressions—are not ones that he relegates to himself alone or to apostles alone.8 They are true for all who are in Christ.

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