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2 Corinthians 3:6 (KJ21) "who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament — not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life."

Is Paul referring to the Hebrew Bible as a whole, or specifically to the 'Law', or to the 'ceremonial law', or to the 'ten commandments'?

What is the 'letter that killeth'?

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I noticed the open bounty... but I also noticed you already accepted an answer. Were you looking for something more / different than Mark Edward's answer? – Jas 3.1 Dec 13 '13 at 2:02
@Jas 3.1 Possibly yes, more input would be interesting. – John Unsworth Dec 16 '13 at 19:30
up vote 7 down vote accepted

In the preceding and following verses, Paul talks about something 'written with ink', '[written] on tablets of stone', 'the letter', 'the ministry of death, carved on tablets of stone', 'the ministry of condemnation', and 'the old covenant / Moses' which has a 'veil'.

These are all in contrast to '[written] with the spirit of the living God', '[written] on tablets of human hearts', 'the new covenant', 'the spirit', 'the ministry of the spirit', 'the ministry of righteousness', and 'Jesus' who removes that 'veil'.

Contextually, it looks like when Paul speaks of 'the letter' in contrast to 'the spirit', he is talking about 'the Law' as a whole; not the books of the Hebrew scriptures, not the ten commandments, not the ceremonial commandments, but the entire 'old covenant' system. This is reinforced by his connection of the 'new covenant' in verse 6 with writing on 'human hearts' in verse 3. This is an obvious reference to Jeremiah 31, where God says he will make a 'new covenant' that is unlike the (old) covenant he made with Israel during the exodus.

He nuances it differently per epistle, but what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3 is comparable to what he writes in Romans 7-8, or Galatians 3-5. The Law (though not evil) brings condemnation of death on those who sin, but Jesus brings life through the spirit. The old covenant, and the new covenant. These three passages have a noticeable overlap in content: death from the Law, life from the spirit/faith/Jesus, being heirs with Jesus, and a glory to be revealed/unveiled.

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So the law (letter) kills by exposing our need for mercy in Christ. When the law came I died. – John Unsworth Dec 10 '13 at 19:49

I propose that "the letter of the law" is meant to indicate any [finite] approximation of Law, whereas "the spirit of the law" is meant to indicate Law itself—how things actually work, down to the smallest detail. We read in Romans 10:4,

For Christ is the telos of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

The translations of telos are several; I recommend How is Christ the ``End of the Law''? for an in-depth study of this verse. I take this verse to indicate that Christ is the full version of what any written law can only be a shadow. The Torah law was not bad, but it was not complete. It was meant to teach the spirit of the law and sometimes did; Ps 51 makes this very clear. "for you desire truth in the inward being"—if this doesn't foreshadow the New Covenant, I don't know what does!

Based off of Deut 17:11 and 30:12, the Jews came up with the Not in Heaven doctrine, which stated that God would no longer speak new law, or correct extant interpretation of law. From there on out, it was up to the legal experts to figure out what the law said. There are echoes of this idea in Chapter I, Section VI of the WCF, often known as "The Sufficiency of Scripture". In his What's Wrong with Protestant Theology?, Jon Mark Ruthven argues that God never meant for his children to be cut off from him by a book and legal experts. To be cut off from God is to spiritually die; the letter of the law is the thing that is left when God is nowhere to be seen or heard.

Jesus' appearance was an explicit denunciation of Not in Heaven. Much of the Sermon on the Mount can be seen as a shift from appearance to heart—or from letter of the law to spirit of the law. It's not that the spirit could not be found in Torah—we saw that King David knew of it—but the spirit either grows or dies, and it had largely died by the time Jesus was born. Not only did Jesus teach about the spirit of the law, he became spirit:

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Cor 15:45)

The world was created through Jesus (Jn 1:1-4, Col 1:16), is upheld by Jesus (Heb 1:1-3, Col 1:15-17), and is nourished by Jesus (Jn 15:1-17). When we cut ourselves off from Jesus, we have dead letters which kill, for they point out our problems without offering healing and reconciling power (contrast Mt 23:1-5 with Gal 6:1-5).

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Let us consider this in context. We know that Paul was not anti-Torah, but rather pro-Torah (Rom 2:13, Rom 3:27-31, Rom 7:12, 1 Corin 7:19, etc). Also, terms such as "Ceremonial Law" are not Biblical, but rather just an invention of man. Rather, the letter that Paul is speaking of here is not ink on a page or chiselings in rock. Verses 2 and 3 of this chapter tell us what the "letter" is. Paul defines it himself.

2 Corinthians 3:1-3 The Scriptures 1998+ (1) Are we to begin to recommend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? (2) You are our letter, having been written in our hearts, known and read by all men, (3) making it obvious that you are a letter of Messiah, served by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living Elohim, not on tablets of stone but on fleshly tablets of the heart.

So the letter that Paul was speaking about was the recommendation or proof of their authority/apostleship. Some would expect a written letter to prove that they were who they said to be. Paul is telling the Corinthians that THEY are his letter, his proof of apostleship. Paul tells them that his letter was written by the Spirit.

So we see here that Paul is not saying that the Torah kills. Quite the contrary. Paul continues to uphold and support the Torah in his writings. The "letter that kills" here that Paul is talking about is the dogmatic, bureaucratic reliance upon the authority of man rather than the authority of the Spirit of the Almighty.

Remember, use scripture to define scripture.

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Your description of the earlier passage is reasonable enough but that it connects to the usage of "letter" in the latter verse is rather unconvincing. Words can mean different things in different context: pair a word up with a different one and it can easily refer to something completely different even in the same sentence, much less in a separate one. – Caleb Dec 10 '13 at 8:45
"Letter of the law" has specific consultations in English different from "letter of recommendation" if those have been properly translate it is likely because the Greek construct have similar different meanings. Without an examination of the original language and any possible idiomatic usages, I don't think the assertions you make here are to be believed. – Caleb Dec 10 '13 at 8:45

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