“In Persona Christi” in 2 Corinthians 2:10

Marcu Grodi often talks about the “Verses I never Saw” in Scripture when he was a protestant. I could make my own list, and if I did, I would have to include a passage that Fr John Fleming referred to in a homily on the weekend.

Fr John was preaching at a solem mass for the celebration of the silver anniversary of ordination of a good friend of mine, and his topic was naturally the priesthood (although, of course, being the the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, this also was included in the homily). He used a number of biblical passages to illustrate the doctrine of the priesthood. I can’t just for now remember all of them, but one of them was 2 Corinthians 2:10.

In the RSV, this passage reads:

“10 Any one whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11 to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us; for we are not ignorant of his designs.”

Naturally, therefore, without consulting the Greek text, this verse would not necessarily leap out at one as being about the priesthood. But Fr John pointed out that that Greek text says that St Paul forgave sins “en prosopo Christou”.

“Prosopon” in Greek literally means “face”. In the Trinitarian debates of the 4th Century, the Greeks used it to translate Tertullian’s use of the latin term “persona” for what we now commonly refer to as “the Persons” of the Holy Trinity. Working the other way, when Jerome translated made his new Latin translation of the bible, he used “persona” to translate “prosopon” in 2 Corinthians 2:10, thus making the text read:

“10 cui autem aliquid donatis et ego nam et ego quod donavi si quid donavi propter vos in persona Christi 11 ut non circumveniamur a Satana non enim ignoramus cogitationes eius”

. In English translations, both the Douay-Rheims and the King James Bible follow suit in translating “en prosopo Christou” as “in the person of Christ.”

As you can see, this certainly lends strong support to the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood (cf. CCC p1548 quoting 24 Pius XII, Mediator Dei: “Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is truly made like to the high priest and possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself (virtute ac persona ipsius Christi).)

However, let us just pause for a moment and ask: did Paul mean what we mean today when we say “in persona Christi”? You might well ask “Who can tell?”, but we have more to go on than that. One interesting fact to note is that our modern use of the word “person” derives directly from the use of that latin word during the Trinitarian controversies of the 4th Century previously alluded to. Before those discussions, “persona” literally meant “a mask”; it was a word that came out of the dramatic arts, where actors used masks of the “faces” of the characters they were depicting.

This means that in the original pre-4th Century use, the latin “persona” meant roughly the same as the Greek “prosopon”, namely “face”. I don’t know of any English translation of 2 Cor 2:10 that speaks of Paul forgiving sins “in the face of Christ”, but this is literally what is meant by the passage. In Hebrew, the very common phrase “lipne adonai” literally meant to be “in the face of the Lord”, that is, in his presence (as in Psalm 95:6 – where Jerome translates “ante faciem Domini”). It seemeth to this humble commentator that Paul is using the exact same Hebraism translated into Greek: “in the face of Christ” meaning “before his face” or “in his presence” – hence the RSV translation and that of most modern English bibles, Catholic and Protestant. (Nb. the one thing mitigating against this argument is that the Greek Septuagint usually translates “lipne adonai” as “enantion kuriou”/”over against or opposite the Lord” rather than the literal “en prosopo kyriou”). Interesting that Martin Luther (himself an OT and Hebrew scholar) translated the passage as “es vergeben um euretwillen vor Christi Angesicht“, which is literally “before the face of Christ”.

What is the upshot of all this? It is interesting that Jerome does not use the noun “persona” anywhere else in his translation of the New Testament (and only incidentally in three places in the Old Testment). I believe that by translating “prosopon” as “persona” he was very deliberately using the new meaning that the word “prosopon” had aquired in the previous century – but which it did not have prior to this nor in the time of St Paul. (Unfortunately I don’t have available to me any text of the Vetus Latina used prior to the Vulgate. It would be enlightening to see how 2 Cor 2:10 was translated there.)

Does that mean that Fr Fleming was wrong in his exegesis of this passage in relation to the priesthood? No, not at all – for the doctrine is still very much there even if we translate the phrase “in the presence of Christ”. For to claim to forgive sins “in the face of Christ” certainly carries the objective meaning that Paul believed himself to be forgiving sins with the full authority of Christ and acting in Christ’s stead. It is the equivalent of Jesus’ own promise to St Peter that “whatsoever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”, ie. if you forgive someone’s sins on earth, they will be loosed in the presence of God as well. What we see in Jerome’s translation, and in the later western understanding of this text in general (and it is worth noting that in his homilies on 2 Corinthians, the Eastern Church father, St John Chrysostom does not give the phrase “en prosopo Christou” the weight of “in persona Christi”), is a legitimate plumbing of the depths of Paul’s statement within the life of the Church and under the guidance of the Holy Spirt, even though it is not directly apparent on the surface reading of the text.

No wonder I had missed it in the past!

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16 Comments

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16 responses to ““In Persona Christi” in 2 Corinthians 2:10

  1. Peregrinus

    Mmmm.

    Interesting.

    I think we need to put 2 Cor 2:10 in context, though. Pretty much the whole of the first two chapters of 2 Cor consists of Paul writing very frankly (in the good sense of “frankly”) about a major bust-up which has evidently occurred between him and the Church of Corinth. He doesn’t go into any details about the cause of the row, or the course it took – presumably his audience knew all that – but instead he reflects on how he feels about it (he feels conflicted) and what can be learned from it.

    So when Paul talks about “forgiving” in 2 Cor 2 I don’t immediately think of Paul in his (proto)-priestly character ministering sacramental reconciliation to people who have confessed their sins. I think of Paul the Christian forgiving Christians in Corinth who have misbehaved towards him, just as (he acknowledges) they have forgiven him and/or they have been forgiven by their own community. Indeed he seems to say that his act of forgiveness is a response to theirs (“Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive”.)

    That’s not to say that this passage has no relevance to the theology of sacramental reconciliation; it certainly does, in particular where it discusses the communal nature of sin and its effects (my sin degrades us all) and its corrosive nature.

    My – tentative – reading would be that “for your sake in the presence/face of Christ – refers not to Paul and his act of forgiveness, but rather to the forgiven, the Church at Corinth (the NAB has “for you in the presence of Christ” here), or possibly to both the forgiver and the forgiven. I think Paul is warning against division in the church. Having come together in the presence of Christ (indeed, to be the presence of Christ) the church has as added responsibility to avoid sinful divisions since, through such divisions, the church may be “taken advantage of by Satan”.

    • I think before long we will have Fr Fleming vehemently disagreeing with you here. He would say that whenever Paul did anything, he did it in his priestly office as an apostle, and not just as “Paul the Christian”. I would tend to agree with John on this point. Even if you read it “for you in the presence of Christ”, the phrase is still attached to the verb “I forgive”. For the sake of them, Paul is granting forgiveness in the face of Christ so that Satan is defeated. It isn’t the full blown doctrine we enunciate today (Scriptural loci doctrini rarely are), but it points in that direction.

      • Peregrinus

        By that argument, though, if Paul ever expresses himself to forgive anyone for anything, can’t he be cited in support of a particular priestly authority to forgive? Isn’t that circular, or assuming the conclusion, or something like that?

        I’m not saying that the text can’t be read as claiming a particular significance for “apostolic forgiveness”; like a good deal of Paul – like a good deal of scripture – it’s not a one-dimensional text. I do think it is significant, though, that Paul’s forgiveness proceeds from and is a consequence of the forgiveness already expressed by the (Corinthian) church at large, and also that Paul’s object in forgiving is not to benefit the penitent (now that I come to think of it, there is nothing in the passage to suggest that the forgiven person is, in fact, penitent) but to benefit the church at large.

        I struggle to read Paul as saying that his forgiveness has some proto-sacramental quality that the forgiveness of the church at Corinth lacks. Rather, I think he is saying that, if the church at Corinth has forgiven the persons who caused all the trouble, he won’t perpetuate divisions by withholding his forgiveness from those persons because the church stands “in the face of Christ” and if it is damaged by dissensions it is vulnerable to Satan.

        Of course the implication is that the forgiveness of the Corinthian church needs to be “completed” by the forgiveness of Paul as well. This could be because of Paul’s apostolic character, but more prosaically it could also be because Paul was one of the persons wronged in whatever it was that happened.

        • CG

          In the Orthodox Church confessions are usually made standing immediately before the icon of Christ, with the priest beside one. In fact the priest’s opening words are usually: “Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly, and receives your confession…. Lo, his holy image is before us: and I am but a witness…..”
          So the penitent is very aware of confessing and being forgiven “in the face of Christ”.

          • Thanks, Clare, for that point. That really does put a different “face” on the discussion! And points out why it is important not to cut off any possible meanings in the Greek text by latching on to a particular translation.

            I think this is your first comment on the SCE blog, so welcome to the commentator’s table! Someone please pass the port bottle to Clare?

          • Peregrinus

            Here you go!

            [Passes decanter of port.]

            I’ve heard of this tradition of Eastern Christianity, and I must say it appeals enormously to me. I wonder, though, what the view is when it comes to the pronunciation of absolution? I presume the priest [i]does[/i] pronounce absolution, and in doing that he can’t really be said to be “but a witness”, can he?

        • Just as a point of hermeneutics, Perry, I would point out that it is important to uphold two “poles” in our approach not only to Paul but to the scriptures in general:

          1) There is the question of the so called
          “literal meaning” of the text, that is, the exegesis of the text in terms of its historical context. In particular, I find useful here the approach known as “socio-rhetorical” criticism.

          2) There are the other levels of the meaning of the text (cf. the Catechism 115ff), the s0-called “spiritual” meanings. This is when the text is taken as a text in itself and read within the community of the Church and hence with all the tragectories of meanings that it is possible to find in the text when one “thinks with the Church”.

          Given such an hermeneutical approach, it is both possible to investigate “what Paul was saying” in the original context but also not to lose sight of what Paul actually wrote. If he was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which is what the Church teaches, then we need to allow for the fact that the spiritual meaning of the text can extend beyond and therefore not be limited to “what Paul was saying”.

          Having said all that, I believe it is vitally important that the “spiritual” meanings of the text not be allowed to float free of the “literal” meaning. It is in the creative tension of the two levels of meaning that we hear the Spirit speaking to the Church. In all my teaching on the letters of St Paul therefore, I make sure that first we at least make the attempt to discover as best as we can “what St Paul really said” (to borrow N.T. Wright’s phrase) and then to place this in the context of the faith of the Church.

          • Peregrinus

            Sure. And, while it may be necessary and helpful to understand what Paul writes here in its context as something written to repair/clean up after a particular row between him and the church at Corinth, we have to remember that this is scripture. It wasn’t Paul who canonised this text as scripture; it was the church. And it did so because of its perception – inspired, we believe, by the Spirit – that the text had a significance and relevance which goes beyond the purely particular and local row that Paul was seeking to heal.

            I don’t see Paul’s writing of the text and the church’s subsequent canonisation of it as two separate events, still less as two opposed events. Rather they are both part of a layered process by which this scripture is given to us, and it is the entire process which is moved by the inspiration of the Spirit. And, in the end, what is given to us is not Paul’s intention or Paul’s meaning, but the text. (Which is why possible interpolations in the letters of Paul, which may not have been authored by Paul himself, are just as “scriptural” as the passages that Paul did write.)

            Coming back to where we started, with the phrase en prosopo Christou; I don’t have a problem with the fact that it can plausibly be read in more than one way, and I don’t think we have to identify one way as “right” and all others as “wrong”. We can read en prosopo Christou as meaning either “in the sight of Christ” or “in the character of Christ”, and furthermore we can read it as pertaining to Paul’s action in forgiving, or as pertaining to the assembly of the church of Corinth. That creates a “matrix” of possible readings, all of which are found in the text and any of which we can reflect on and learn from. I agree, knowing the particular reading that Paul (probably) intended is interesting. Our reflections and interpretations may well be influenced by the consideration that Paul probably did intend this but may not have intended that. But Paul’s intention is not the be-all and end-all of the text.

            The point for me, though, is that we don’t reflect and interpret this scripture individually. Or rather, in so far as we do that individually, we do it mainly to contribute to the collective discourse of reflection and interpretation in which we engage as a church. In the end, it’s not enough to read scripture; we have to live it. And we do that together, as a community.

            • Amen to all that, Perry, especially:

              (Which is why possible interpolations in the letters of Paul, which may not have been authored by Paul himself, are just as “scriptural” as the passages that Paul did write.)

              The same goes for any possible distinction that may be made between “genuine” and “deutero/psuedo” Pauline passages/letters!

              • Peregrinus

                But, of course, on the other other hand, the fact that a passage is or may be an interpolation is something which may influence our reading of it, or of the text in which it is found.

          • Peter

            “There is the question of the so called
            “literal meaning” of the text, that is, the exegesis of the text in terms of its historical context. In particular, I find useful here the approach known as “socio-rhetorical” criticism.”

            Grrr. The “Literal sense” is properly defined as “The meaning of the words (discovered by exegesis.)” Yes, modern critical methods are useful in discerning what the author intended us to understand but it cannot be reduced to any method or historians best guess at the historical context.

            Speaking of modern critical methods, David, did you catch Ben W when he visited Melbourne recently? I cornered him for a question or two when he was in Sydney and would love to share notes.

            • but it cannot be reduced to any method or historians best guess at the historical context.

              No disagreement there either, Peter, but the use of all and any available legitimate tools is to be encouraged. Socio-Rhetorical criticism is just my present favourite. Other favourites are canonical criticism (understood as reading the text in the context of the canon) and narrative criticism (understanding how the underlying story works in the text). How about yourself?

              And yes, I did get to chat with Ben WIII, and he did say he met you while in Sydney. Unfortunately the only public lecture he gave here was on preaching – which was very good, but not quite what I wanted! I was very impressed. Like Wright, he comes across as a natural popular communicator. Such a rare ability in a biblical scholar!

  2. CG

    [Response to Peregrinus: just a small glass will be plenty, thanks]
    The precise wording of the absolution may vary with the jusrisdiction but it goes like this:
    “May our Lord and God Jesus Christ, through the grace and bounty of his love towards mankind, forgive you, my child N., all your transgressions. And I, his unworthy priest, through the power given to me by him, do forgive and absolve you from all your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
    For the duration of this prayer and the blessing that follows, the priest will have laid the end of his epitrahlion (Orthodox version of the stole) and his hand over the penitent’s bowed head.

    • I understood that the “divine passive” is often used in sacramental pronouncements in the East, eg. “You are baptised”, “You are absolved”. Is this correct?

  3. David,
    This is an interesting post but I must ask why you “didn’t see this verse as a Protestant'” and why, presumably, you think it is so problematic for a “Protestant”? (Btw, shouldn’t we just jettison that term altogether apart from its historical usage in connection with the Second Diet of Spires?) .
    But the first question is, does it apply to the ordained ministry in that way (even allowing for the fact that it is Paul the Apostle speaking)? I did a quick check of Lutheran resources at hand and indeed, it is not cited in the confessions or by Lutheran divines as one of the sedes doctrinae for the office of the ministry, but it is cited obliquely in reference to the power of the keys being exercised in the Christian congregation. So, Lutheran exegetes would seem to have read the text in more or less the same way that Pere does.
    But if, for arguments’ sake, one did apply it to the ordained ministry, that would not be a problem for the Lutheran doctrine, which as you must know, very much sees the minister as acting “in the stead and place of Christ” {Apol. Arts VII & VIII, 28}, or in other words “in persona Christi”… “Whoever hears you hears me”!
    But if, again for arguments’ sake, one regarded this text as having reference to Paul’s apostolic office and hence subsequently to the office of the ministry generally, one would still be hard-pressed, as you seem to admit in response to Pere, to draw the whole Roman sacerdotal ministry out of it and the other relevant texts.

    • Large trees grow from small seeds, Pastor Mark!

      There is nothing that you say that I disagree with. The reason I “missed” this text as having reference to the “in persona Christi” doctrine of the priesthood is precisely for the reason that you point out – it was hardly ever used as a loci doctrini for such in Lutheran systematics.

      Nevertheless, you will note that I referred to Luther’s translation of the passage, which accords with the Lutheran doctrine of the ministry very well. And I did discover a reference to this passage and to this doctrine in the LCA’s discussion document on ordination of women (http://www.lca.org.au/resources/cticr/cticr03pastorsfathers.pdf) in relation to the “Roman doctrine”.

      Were you yourself ever aware of this passage ever being used to support the “in persona Christi” doctrine prior to reading this post?