He anticipates and puts himself an objection which others would have urged against him, Thou vauntest thyself; and this though he had before employed so strong a corrective in the expressions, “Who is sufficient for these things?” and, “of sincerity…speak we.” (2 Cor. 2:16, 17.) Howbeit he is not satisfied with these. For such is his character. From appearing to say any thing great of himself he is far removed, and avoids it even to great superfluity and excess. And mark, I pray thee, by this instance also, the abundance of his wisdom. For a thing of woeful aspect, I mean tribulations, he so much exalted and showed to be bright and lustrous, that out of what he said the present objection rose up against him. And he does so also towards the end. For after having enumerated numberless perils, insults, straits, necessities, and as many such like things as be, he added, “We commend not ourselves, but speak as giving you occasion to glory.” (2 Cor. v. 12.) And he expresses this again with vehemence in that place, and with more of encouragement. For here the words are those of love, “Need we, as do some, epistles of commendation?” but there what he says is full of a kind of pride even, necessarily and properly so, of pride, I say, and anger. “For we commend not ourselves again,” saith he, “but speak as giving you occasion to glory;” (2 Cor. v. 12.) and, “Again, think ye that we excuse ourselves unto you? For 563 in the sight of God speak we in Christ. For I fear lest by any means when I come I should not find you such as I would, and should myself be found of you such as ye would not.” (2 Cor. 12:19, 20.) For to prevent all appearance of a wish to flatter, as though he desired honor from them, he speaketh thus, “I fear lest by any means when I come I should not find you such as I would, and should myself be found of you such as ye would not.” This however comes after many accusations 564 ; But in the beginning he speaketh not so, but p. 306 more gently. And what is it he saith? He spoke of his trials and his perils, and that every where he is conducted as in procession 565 by God in Christ, and that the whole world knoweth of these triumphs. Since then he has uttered great things of himself, he urges this objection against himself, “Are we beginning again to commend ourselves?” Now what he saith is this: Perchance some one will object, What is this, O Paul? Sayest thou these things of thyself, and exaltest thyself? To do away then with this suspicion, he saith, We desire not this, that is, to boast and exalt ourselves; yea, so far are we from needing epistles of commendation to you that ye are to us instead of an epistle. “For,” saith he,
2 Cor. 3.2. “Ye are our epistle.”
What means this, “ye are?” Did we need to be commended to others, we should have produced you before them instead of an epistle. And this he said in the former Epistle. “For the seal of mine Apostleship are ye.” (1 Cor. ix. 2.) But he doth not here say it in this manner, but in irony so as to make his question, “Do we need epistles of commendation?” more cutting. And in allusion to the false apostles, he added, “as do some, [epistles of commendation] to you, or letters of commendation from you” to others. Then because what he had said was severe, he softens it by adding, “Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, known of all,
2 Cor. 3.3. “Being made manifest that ye are an epistle of Christ.”
Here he testifieth not only to their love, but also to their good works: since they are able to show unto all men by their own virtue the high worth of their teacher, for this is the meaning of, “Ye are our epistle.”
What letters would have done to commend and gain respect for us, that ye do both as seen and heard of; for the virtue of the disciples is wont to adorn and to commend the teacher more than any letter.
2 Cor. 3.3. “Written in our hearts.”
That is, which all know; we so bear you about every where and have you in mind. As though he said, Ye are our commendation to others, for we both have you continually in our heart and proclaim to all your good works. Because then that even to others yourselves are our commendation, we need no epistles from you; but further, because we love you exceedingly, we need no commendation to you. For to those who are strangers one hath need of letters, but ye are in our mind. Yet he said not merely, “ye are [in it],” but “written in [it],” that is, ye cannot slide out of it. For just as from letters by reading, so from our heart by perceiving, all are acquainted with the love we bear you. If then the object of a letter be to certify, “such an one is my friend and let him have free intercourse [with you],” your love is sufficient to secure all this. For should we go to you, we have no need of others to commend us, seeing your love anticipateth this; and should we go to others, again we need no letters, the same love again sufficing unto us in their stead, for we carry about the epistle in our hearts.
2 Cor. 3.3. “Being made manifest that ye are an epistle of Christ.”
And having said this, he afterwards hence takes ground and occasion for a discussion on the Law. And there is another 566 aim in his here styling them His epistle. For above as commending him, he called them an epistle; but here an epistle of Christ, as having the Law of God written in them. For what things God wished to declare to all and to you, these are written in your hearts. But it was we who prepared you to receive the writing. For just as Moses hewed the stones and tables, so we, your souls. Whence he saith,
Wide as the difference between the Spirit and ink, and a stony table and a fleshy, so wide is that between these and those; consequently between themselves 567 who ministered, and him 568 who ministered to them. Yet because it was a great thing he had uttered, he therefore quickly checks himself, saying,
2 Cor. 3.4. “And such confidence have we through Christ to Godward,”
2 Cor. 3.5. “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to account any thing as from ourselves.”
See again, yet another corrective. For he possesses this virtue, humility I mean, in singular perfection. Wherefore whenever he saith any thing great of himself, he maketh all diligence to soften down extremely and by every means, what he has said. And so he does in this place also, saying, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to account any thing as from ourselves:” that is, I said not, “We have confidence,” as p. 307 though part were ours and part Gods; but I refer and ascribe the whole to Him.
“Not of the letter, but of the spirit.” See again another difference. What then? was not that Law spiritual? How then saith he, “We know that the Law is spiritual?” (Rom. vii. 14.) Spiritual indeed, but it bestowed not a spirit. For Moses bare not a spirit, but letters; but we have been entrusted with the giving of a spirit. Whence also in further completion of this [contrast,] he saith,
Yet these things he saith not absolutely 570 ; but in allusion to those who prided themselves upon the things of Judaism. And by “letter” here he meaneth the Law which punisheth them that transgress; but by “spirit” the grace which through Baptism giveth life to them who by sins were made dead. For having mentioned the difference arising from the nature of the tables, he doth not dwell upon it, but rapidly passing it by, bestows more labor upon this, which most enabled him to lay hold on his hearer from considerations of what was advantageous and easy; for, saith he, it is not laborious, and the gift it offers is greater. For if when discoursing of Christ, he puts especially forward those things which are of His lovingkindness, more than of our merit, and which are mutually connected, much greater necessity is there for his doing so when treating of the covenant. What then is the meaning of “the letter killeth?” He had said tables of stone and hearts of flesh: so far he seemed to mention no great difference. He added that the former [covenant] was written with letters or ink, but this with the Spirit. Neither did this rouse them thoroughly, He says at last what is indeed enough to give them wings 571 ; the one “killeth,” the other “giveth life.” And what doth this mean? In the Law, he that hath sin is punished; here, he that hath sins cometh and is baptized and is made righteous, and being made righteous, he liveth, being delivered from the death of sin. The Law, if it lay hold on a murderer, putteth him to death; the Gospel, if it lay hold on a murderer, enlighteneth, and giveth him life. And why do I instance a murderer? The Law laid hold on one that gathered sticks on a sabbath day, and stoned him. (Num. 15:32, 36.) This is the meaning of, “the letter killeth.” The Gospel takes hold on thousands of homicides and robbers, and baptizing delivereth them from their former vices. This is the meaning of, “the Spirit giveth life.” The former maketh its captive dead from being alive, the latter rendereth the man it hath convicted alive from being dead. For, “come unto me, ye that labor and are heavy laden,” (Matt. xi. 28.) and, He said not, I will punish you, but, “I will give you rest.” For in Baptism the sins are buried, the former things are blotted out, the man is made alive, the entire grace written upon his heart as it were a table. Consider then how high is the dignity of the Spirit, seeing that His tables are better than those former ones; seeing that even a greater thing is shown forth than the resurrection itself. For indeed, that state of death from which He delivers, is more irremediable than the former one: as much more so, as soul is of more value than the body: and this life is conferred by that, by that which the Spirit giveth. But if It be able to bestow this, much more then that which is less. For, that prophets wrought, but this they could not: for none can remit sins but God only; nor did the prophets bestow that life without the Spirit. But this is not the marvel only, that it giveth life, but that it enabled others also to do this. For He saith, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” (John xx. 22.) Wherefore? Because without the Spirit it might not be? [Yes,] but God, as showing that It is of supreme authority, and of that Kingly Essence, and hath the same power [with Himself,] saith this too. Whence also He adds, “Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained.” (John 20.23.)
[3.] Since then It hath given us life, let us remain living and not return again to the former deadness: for “Christ dieth no more; for the death that He died, He died unto sin once:” (Rom. 6:9, 10.) and He will not have us always saved by grace: for so we shall be empty of all things. Wherefore He will have us contribute something also from ourselves. Let us then contribute, and preserve to the soul its life. And what is life in a soul, learn from the body. For the body too we then affirm to live, when it moves with a healthy kind of motion; but when it lies prostrate and powerless, or its motions are disorderly, though it retain the semblance of life or motion, such a life is more grievous than any death: and should it utter nothing sane but words of the crazy, and see one object instead of another, such a man again is more pitiable than those who are dead. So also the soul when p. 308 it hath no healthiness, though it retain a semblance of life, is dead: when it doth not see gold as gold but as something great and precious; when it thinketh not of the future but crawleth upon the ground; when it doth one thing in place of another. For whence is it clear that we have a soul? Is it not from its operations? When then it doth not perform the things proper to it, is it not dead? when, for instance, it hath no care for virtue, but is rapacious and transgresseth the law; whence can I tell that thou hast a soul? Because thou walkest? But this belongs to the irrational creatures as well. Because thou eatest and drinkest? But this too belongeth to wild beasts. Well then, because thou standest upright on two feet? This convinceth me rather that thou art a beast in human form. For when thou resemblest one in all other respects, but not in its manner of erecting itself, thou dost the more disturb and terrify me; and I the more consider that which I see to be a monster. For did I see a beast speaking with the voice of a man, I should not for that reason say it was a man, but even for that very reason a beast more monstrous than a beast. Whence then can I learn that thou hast the soul of a man, when thou kickest like the ass, when thou bearest malice like the camel, when thou bitest like the bear, when thou ravenest like the wolf, when thou stealest like the fox, when thou art wily as the serpent, when thou art shameless as the dog? Whence can I learn that thou hast the soul of a man? Will ye that I show you a dead soul and a living? Let us turn the discourse back to those men of old; and, if you will, let us set before us the rich man [in the story] of Lazarus, and we shall know what is death in a soul; for he had a dead soul, and it is plain from what he did. For, of the works of the soul he did not one, but ate and drank and lived in pleasure only. Such are even now the unmerciful and cruel, for these too have a dead soul as he had. For all its warmth that floweth out of the love of our neighbor hath been spent, and it is deader than a lifeless body. But the poor man was not such, but standing on the very summit of heavenly wisdom shone out; and though wrestling with continual hunger, and not even supplied with the food that was necessary, neither so spake he aught of blasphemy against God, but endured all nobly. Now this is no trifling work of the soul; but a very high proof that it is well-strung and healthful. And when there are not these qualities, it is plainly because the soul is dead that they have perished. Or, tell me, shall we not pronounce that soul dead which the Devil falls upon, striking, biting, spurning it, yet hath it no sense of any of these things, but lieth deadened nor grieveth when being robbed of its wealth; but he even leapeth upon it, yet it remaineth unmoved, like a body when the soul is departed, nor even feeleth it? For when the fear of God is not present with strictness, such must the soul needs be, and then the dead more miserable. For the soul is not dissolved into corruption and ashes and dust, but into things of fouler odor than these, into drunkenness and anger and covetousness, into improper loves and unseasonable desires. But if thou wouldest know more exactly how foul an odor it hath, give me a soul that is pure, and then thou wilt see clearly how foul the odor of this filthy and impure one. For at present thou wilt not be able to perceive it. For so long as we are in contact habitually with a foul odor, we are not sensible of it. But when we are fed with spiritual words, then shall we be cognizant of that evil. And yet to many this seemeth of no importance 572 . And I say nothing as yet of hell; but let us, if you will, examine what is present, and how worthy of derision is he, not that practiseth, but that uttereth filthiness; how first he loadeth himself with contumely; just as one that sputtereth any filth from the mouth, so he defiles himself. For if the stream is so impure, think what must be the fountain of this filth! “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” (Matt. xii. 34.) Yet not for this alone do I grieve, but because that to some this doth not even seem to be reckoned amongst improper things. Hence the evils are all made worse, when we both sin, and do not think we even do amiss. 573
[4.] Wilt thou then learn how great an evil is filthy talking? See how the hearers blush at thy indecency. For what is viler than a filthy talker? what more infamous? For such thrust themselves into the rank of buffoons and of prostituted women, yea rather these have more shame than you. How canst thou teach a wife to be modest when by such language thou art training her to proceed unto lasciviousness? Better vent rottenness from the mouth than a filthy word. Now if thy mouth have an ill-odor, thou partakest not even of the common meats; when then thou hadst so foul a stink in thy soul, tell me, dost thou dare to partake of p. 309 mysteries? Did any one take a dirty vessel and set it upon the table, thou wouldest have beaten him with clubs and driven him out: yet God at His own table, (for His table our mouth is when filled with thanksgiving,) when thou pourest out words more disgusting than any unclean vessel, tell me, dost thou think that thou provokest not? And how is this possible? For nothing doth so exasperate the holy and pure as do such words; nothing makes men so impudent 574 and shameless as to say and listen to such; nothing doth so unstring the sinews of modesty as the flame which these kindle. God hath set perfumes in thy mouth, but thou storest up words of fouler odor than a corpse, and destroyest the soul itself and makest it incapable of motion. For when thou insultest, this is not the voice of the soul, but of anger; when thou talkest filthily, it is lewdness, and not she that spake; when thou detractest, it is envy; when thou schemest, covetousness. These are not her works, but those of the affections 575 and the diseases belonging to her. As then corruption cometh not simply of the body, but of the death and the passion which is thus in the body; so also, in truth, these things come of the passions which grow upon the soul. For if thou wilt hear a voice from a living soul, hear Paul saying, “Having food and covering, we shall be therewith content:” (1 Tim. vi. 8.) and “Godliness is great gain:” (1 Tim. 6.6.) and, “The world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” (Gal. vi. 14.) Hear Peter saying, “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have, give I thee.” (Acts iii. 6.) Hear Job giving thanks and saying, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.” (Job i. 21.) These things are the words of a living soul, of a soul discharging the functions proper to it. Thus also Jacob said, “If the Lord will give me bread to eat and raiment to put on.” (Gen. xxviii. 20.) Thus also Joseph, “How shall I do this wickedness, and sin before God?” (Gen. 39.9.) But not so that barbarian woman; but as one drunken and insane 576 , so spake she, saying, “Lie with me.” (Gen. 39.7.) These things then knowing, let us earnestly covet the living soul, let us flee the dead one, that we may also obtain the life to come; of which may all we be made partakers, through the grace and love toward men of our Lord Jesus Christ, though Whom and with Whom, to the Father, together with the Holy Ghost, be glory, might, honor, now and for ever, and world without end. Amen.
[Chrysostoms view of this verse is correct as far as it goes. But a fuller statement is that the letter kills by demanding perfect obedience which none can render, by producing the knowledge of sin and guilt, and by exasperating the soul in holding forth to it a high standard of duty which it neither can nor wishes to obey. The spirit, on the other hand, gives life by revealing a perfect and gratuitous righteousness, by exhibiting Gods love and awakening hope instead of fear, and by transforming the soul through the Holy Ghost so that it bears the image of God. The letter is equivalent to the Law; the spirit to the Gospel. The contrast is not between the Old covenant and the New, considered as successive dispensations of the one system of grace, but between the Mosaic economy as conditioning acceptance upon works (“Do this and live”), and the Christian as offering salvation to every one that believeth. C.]309:574 309:575 309:576