The Letter and the Spirit
2 Corinthians 3:6
Who also has made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills…

It does not appear that St. Paul had in mind the different senses in which Scripture can now be read. Such distinctions as the literal, the allegorical, and the mystical belong to modern times. The apostle is contrasting the Old Testament with the New. The older revelation consisted of exact directions for the guidance of life and conduct. The new revelation consists of principles and examples by the help and application of which a man may guide his own conduct. But, while this distinction is carefully noted, it should be observed that, in the older revelation, there was both letter and spirit, and devout souls recognized and lived in the light of the inner principles, the spiritual truth which precise injunctions did but illustrate. F. W. Robertson says, "It was the business of Moses to teach maxims, and not principles; rules for ceremonial, and not a spirit of life. And these things - rules, ceremonials, maxims, law - are what the apostle calls here the letter. Thus, for instance, truth is a principle springing out of the inward life; but Moses only gave the rule: 'Thou shalt not forswear thyself.' It is impossible not to see how plainly inadequate this rule is to all that truth requires; for he who scarcely avoided perjury may have kept nevertheless to the letter of the Law! Again, love is a principle; but Moses said simply, 'Thou shalt not kill, nor steal, nor injure.' Again, meekness and subduedness before God, - these are of the Spirit; but Moses merely commanded fasts. It was in consequence of the superiority of the teaching of principles over a mere teaching of maxims that the ministry of the letter was considered as nothing." "The difference between the old covenant and the new was that the former prescribed, the latter inspired; the former gave written precepts, the latter the power to fulfil them; the former laid down the rules, the latter brought man's heart into the condition in which such rules became a part of his nature." In an educational point of view the letter must come first, the child must have precise direction of his conduct, and only through this will he be helped to grasp principles, and apply them himself to his conduct and duties. So that we must not undervalue the letter, but give it a proper place as a stepping stone to higher and better things. The distinction between the letter and the spirit may be illustrated in a variety of spheres.

I. IN THE EARLY MOSAIC RECORDS. The imaginative and the historical records of the first ages. Perplexities and difficulties abound when we force literal meanings. The first principles of morals and religion come to view when we read the spirit of them.

II. IN THE JUDAIC RELIGIOUS SYSTEM. That does seem to be a round of formal injunctions, covering all the various family, social, and religious relations of the people, and yet our Lord taught us, in his sermon on the mount, to find spiritual principles within it. He showed that the spirit of hate underlay the sin of murder, and the spirit of purity assured the maintenance of right marriage relations.

III. IN THE TEACHINGS OF THE PROPHETS. It was almost the one essential thing in their work that they were to set free the spirit of the older revelation, which was in danger of being overcrushed by the letter of commandment and ceremonial rule. It may even be shown that, in the prophets, there was a tendency to undervalue the letter, in the earnestness of their effort to get a right value set on the spirit of obedience.

IV. IN THE LIFE AND GOSPEL OF THE LORD JESUS. Illustrate by our Lord's parables, and by his teaching as in John 6:63.

V. IN THE APOSTOLIC MINISTRY. Especially illustrated in St. Paul's teachings respecting the relation of the Judaic and Christian systems, and equally illustrated in St. John's revelation of the inner and mystical meanings of the Christian truth and requirements. Conclude by showing how this distinction is still applicable to modern religious teaching.

1. The "letter" is needed. In some stages of religious experience and attainment precise directions are the best helps.

2. The mere "letter" may still be exaggerated, so as to become a mischievous bondage.

3. The true teacher uses the formal "letter" only to carry the "spirit." But the higher teaching of the very spirit of Christianity demands from the teacher a very marked and cultured spirituality, or spiritual insight. - R.T.

Parallel Verses
KJV: 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.

WEB: who also made us sufficient as servants of a new covenant; not of the letter, but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

The Letter and the Spirit
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