In 2 Cor 3:6 Paul draws a strong contrast between letter and spirit/breath:

NIV 2 Cor 3:6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit (breath); for the letter kills, but the Spirit (breath) gives life.

Whereas in 2 Tim 3:16 he sees them as being complementary:

New International Version 2 Tim 3:16 All Scripture (writings) is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

Does this constitute a contradiction or are they actually complementary?


2 Answers 2


If we can speak about the contradiction between the two passages, the essence of it would be in that the second quotation (2 Tim 3:16) makes the very text of the Holy Writing a product, so to say, of the breath and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, whereas the first quotation (2 Cor 3:6) warns about not following the text, for it may "kill", while "Spirit" will vivify, so how can something which comes from the Spirit (the text) kill at the same time?

But this contradiction is only apparent and not essential at all: the first quotation does not say that, for example, the 10 commandments are not inspired by the Spirit, but that if they are not read by the aid of the same Spirit, even they may become harmful. For instance, if a man fulfills a letter of the commandment "you shall not commit adultery" and just does not go to other women, and yet not paying enough attention to his wife and not cultivating conjugal love, he still essentially commits adultery, but since the letter of the commandment is fulfilled, he does not notice it and thus the letter of commandment "kills" the possibility of development of the conjugal love in fear and service of God.

Thus, to see the essence of any written utterance one should consult, so to say, and interact with the same Spirit, through whom this utterance was inspired, with full participation of one's conscience and intellectual-cognitive powers, for only so it is possible to interact with the Spirit. Now, the intensity of the presence of the Spirit became unimaginably greater for humanity after the Pentecost, for Jesus, as He promised, sent the Spirit to His disciples as "another Comforter" (John 14:16) ("another" with a reference to Himself, for He was Comforter of His disciples while being with them, but now another Comforter equal to Him would guide them to conversion of both Jews and gentiles), thus the text of the OT should be now read in the light of this new intensive presence.

That is why, Jesus does not change the commandments of the OT, but to fulfill (πληρῶσαι) which means to bring them to perfection, that is to say interpret them with the new profundity and depth of the spiritual understanding: thus, "you shall not kill" is now elevated into its spiritual significance "hatred is already killing" (for hatred is a motivational foundation of actual killing and in a sense itself an actual killing of somebody in one's heart and soul), or "you shall not commit adultery" becomes now "you shall not look with a lustful eye at anybody" (which again deals not with action but with its fundament, a motivation and inner disposition).

And the same deepening about everything said in the Old Testament, for the Spirit who knows all depths of God (1 Cor. 2:10) the epistemological equality denoting here also the ontological equality. Moreover, also the New Testament should be read by synergic interaction with Spirit, for without it one may actually castrate oneself and not perceive a profound metaphor in the Matt. 19:12.

This deepening of understanding is so wonderful in the history of Christian theology when fathers give very profound, paradoxical interpretations of the Scriptures, St Augustine in his "De doctrina christiana" even conjectures that Christian interpreters would understand and interpret the inspired utterances of prophets at a more profound level than understood by the prophets themselves, for the Spirit in a dynamical process reveals to them, the Christian theologians, more than He revealed to the prophets hundred and thousand years before the advent of Jesus. And more than that, it can be already spiritually hazardous and damaging to read the OT and extract guiding spiritual lessons from it without seeing the text of the OT in the light of the perfect revelation of the New Testament, it is like a real soldier turns to wooden swords of children who play war, for the OT is only a prepaedeutic for the New Testament (Gal.3:24). Thus, St. Basil, for instance, urges beginner Christians first to read deeply the New Testament and hone their consciences in its light, and only then turn to the Old Testament without spiritual peril.

  • +1 Thanks, Levan. You have an insightful and pleasant turn of phrase.
    – enegue
    Sep 6, 2017 at 11:51
  • So the OT scriptures are God-breathed and profitable, able to make one wise and give one life but only if you bring NT spirit/breath into them from elsewhere? Why does Paul say that the letter kills if the writings are God-breathed? Jesus also says that his words are spirit/breath and life: Weymouth New Testament It is the spirit which gives Life. The flesh confers no benefit whatever. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and are Life.
    – Ruminator
    Sep 6, 2017 at 13:16
  • Yes, the OT is inspired by the same Spirit that descended in the Pentecost, but since the intensity of His presence and action in humans is immeasurably greater after this event, then also the older inspired texts can be seen in the light of this novel and unprecedented intensity. Yes, writings are God-breathed, but unless are read by the same breath of Spirit, they also can be brutally misinterpreted and lead to error and "death" in a figurative sense, not physical, but a more dangerous one - spiritual. To die is better than to interpret Scripture without Spirit and, e.g. burn heretics. Sep 6, 2017 at 15:48
  • Thus, there is a substance of a text and there is an adverbial aspect of how those texts are read. If the adverbial aspect is not enlightened by the Spirit, then a spiritual disaster will happen and fanatics will sprout through misguided interpretations. The OT must be read in the light of the NT, of course, for the NT is full revelation of God's will, OT - preparation to it with some glimpses. Sep 6, 2017 at 15:52
  • @LevanGigineishvili For the sake of those who found your answer so helpful I'm marking it as an answer. Thanks.
    – Ruminator
    Sep 6, 2017 at 23:13

If Scripture is indeed inspired, as Saint Paul teaches, then its letters, like our bodies, possess a certain spirit, bereft of which, the text becomes as lifeless as a corpse. In Matthew 22:31-32, Mark 12:26-27, and Luke 20:37-38, for instance, we see Christ offering a spiritual, rather than a strictly literal interpretation of a well-known biblical phrase.

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