Transfiguration of Our Lord (Year B)

Hope throws itself, or throws the one who hopes, against divisive theology that has been quite popular

rusty sign that says Listen
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February 11, 2024

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

A preliminary remark: “Unbelievers” in 2 Corinthians 2:4 is a misleading translation of apistoi, giving an impression of Paul as an unfeeling dogmatist. This is especially the case in the context of today’s political and cultural polarization. While the term apistoi had an active connotation (mistrustful, incredulous, suspicious), the passive meaning (not to be trusted, faithless, shifty, unreliable)1 fits better with the polemical context of 2 Corinthians.

In this letter, Paul is at war with the self-important super-apostles (2 Corinthians 11:5 and throughout chapters 10–13), a ridiculing name for rival missionaries whose moral severity, authoritarianism, and desire to lord it over the church proved attractive to some persons in Corinth. These rivals to Paul are the apistoi. Paul alludes to them in 2 Corinthians 4:5: “We do not preach ourselves as … Lord.”2 But they did. Ironically, the translation “unbelievers,” with its implied opposite “believers,” puts in Paul’s mouth the divisiveness that the super-apostles manipulated to establish their power over the church in Corinth, to Paul’s consternation.

It must be said: 2 Corinthians 4:3–6 is difficult to understand. Part of this difficulty is that 4:1–6 summarizes one of the most challenging sections in all of Pauline literature (2:14–3:18) and, simultaneously, makes a transition to an equal tour de force (4:7–6:10) culminating in Paul’s impassioned plea for forgiveness and reconciliation (6:11–13). There is a lot going on in 4:3–6, where ideas/emotions/experiences of the sacred expose the triumphal hatred aimed by “those in the know” against the other (the Jew, the foreigner, the migrant, the poor, the not-my-people).

Hating “unbelievers” has plagued Christianity, or worse, has defined Christianity, since its inception. No doubt, such hatred will soon be repeated throughout the land when preachers of the gospel, thinking it a fine representation of Paul’s mind, pour down words like these from the pulpit: “There is a great divide between us Christians and unbelievers. Satan rules in the hearts of those who do not believe in Jesus Christ. They have been blinded. The true God, the God of glory and might, rules in the heart of believers and enlightens them so that they can see what God sees and know the world as God knows it.” In the rest of this essay, a fragment of 2 Corinthians 4:3–6 will be thrown against this flood of divisive words.

Here is the fragment: the glory (doxa) of God in the face of Christ. What if doxa also (although not instead) meant “hope”? Indeed, doxa did mean “hope” in Paul’s Greek, the language he shared with millions of others. Elpis is a well-attested synonym of doxa.3 So run with “hope” for a moment. It won’t be easy, because hope throws itself, or throws the one who hopes, against the divisive theology that has been quite popular in the history of Christianity and that pictures God ruling over a world split between believers and unbelievers.

Hope is a paradox, a logical impossibility that contradicts the self whether the self is human or divine. Hope’s impossibility is its possibility. Hope is not optimism. Hope hopes against itself (Romans 4:18). Hope hopes for what is not present and not seen (Romans 8:24–25), for when the hoped-for thing is seen, hope itself evaporates. Even God’s relation to creation is a matter of hope (Romans 8:20).

Now plug hope’s self-contradiction into the glory (doxa) of God in the face of Christ. Warning: You now might discover your inner blasphemer: God’s doxa/hope mixes with God’s doxa/light/beauty/splendor. Hope pollutes the light, disperses the glory, and smears the splendor. And more, in the murkiness of hope the beating heart of the unbeliever is indistinguishable from the beating heart of the believer. We see nothing as we walk in pistis. Hope frees us from knowing so we can feel the other’s pulse, their life.

A step further: What if this unthinkable mixture of hope and beauty/light/splendor does not attach itself to God as if it were God’s possession but, as Paul writes, rests on the face of Christ? A face is what it is not only by its gaze but also by its being looked upon. Where does theological thinking go when it confesses that a face is double in nature, looking and looked upon? I am the object of the gaze of the one who is simultaneously the object of my gaze.

This simultaneity means my gaze changes the other just as the other’s facial expressions change me. Mutual gazing means unplanned and endlessly open metamorphosis, the infinite deferral both of knowing the other and of being known by the other. This mutual gaze amounts to an absolute prohibition against dividing the world into believers and unbelievers, and even of thinking of the church as a community of believers in the first place.

Instead, for Paul the church is an event of not knowing even as we desire to know ourselves, others, God, you name it. This backing away from certainty but never backing away from the other is the heart of the argument in 2 Corinthians 2:14–3:18. In 3:16, Moses looks God in the face as God gazes at Moses, although the New Revised Standard Version updated edition obscures the Greek text in which he, Moses (not the vague “one” but he, Moses) turns and faces God.

Long story short: To preach on the glory/hope of God on the face of Christ is to throw Paul’s words into the world, words that have divided the world into believers and unbelievers, winners and losers, citizens and migrants, the innocent and the condemned. To preach in this way, with or without words, is to repeat the summation of 2 Corinthians 3 in 3:18. In that single verse Paul brought home to his readers the heartbeat of the church. Gazing into one another’s face, any other’s face, is the life, the beating heart, of the church.


  1. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones, eds., Greek-English Lexicon (New York: Clarendon, 1961), in reference to the term apistos.
  2. My emphasis. See also 2:15–16 and 6:14–18.
  3. LSJ Lexicon, in reference to the term doxa.