With Unveiled Face: St. Paul on Reading Scripture in the Light of Jesus Christ (with reference to John Behr)

In recent days I have published a number of posts on the centrality of Jesus Christ to all biblical interpretation and theology. When I speak of the centrality of Jesus Christ, I do not merely mean to say that Christ remains at the center (and thus the ultimate goal) of all that we think and say about God but, even more, he defines the totality of its area and circumference, the content and limits of the knowledge of God imposed upon us by the actual way in which God has revealed himself to us. In other words, all of our thinking and speaking about God should have a distinctively Christological shape: every thought and word about God, from first to last, must be taken captive to Christ.

I have often approached this theme from the perspective of theological/dogmatic reflection. In this post, I would like to do so from an exegetical standpoint to demonstrate that this Christologically-comprehensive way of reading Scripture and doing theology is not the product of reasoning abstracted from the authoritative witness of Scripture itself but indeed derives from it. Introducing his excellent study on the development of Christian theology from the second century onward, John Behr points us to 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6 as an example of this:

The relationship between Scripture, the Gospel and Christ is not a subject of direct reflection for Paul, as it will be in the second century… However, the dynamics of this relationship is intimated by Paul, in a complex passage which merits being cited at length:

Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendour. But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the rembrandt7Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Cor 3:12–4:6)

In this very dense passage, Paul begins to address the interconnected relationships between Moses and Christ, the Scriptures and the Gospel. According to Paul, the “same veil” that Moses placed over his own head remains to this day upon those who read “Moses”—now a text. But this veil is removed for those who have turned to the Lord and can now understand Scripture aright. That the veil was removed by Christ means that it is only in Christ that the glory of God is revealed and that we can discern the true meaning of Scripture, and that these two aspects are inseparable. The identity between Moses the man and Moses the text, whose face and meaning were hidden by the same veil, is paralleled by the identity between Christ, in whose face is revealed the glory of God, and the Gospel which proclaims this. So, behind the veil is nothing other than “the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ,” himself the image of God, though this remains “veiled” to those who reject the Gospel….

This is not to imply that the Gospel itself is, as Ricoeur claimed, simply “the rereading of an ancient Scripture.” The proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ is not straightforwardly derivable from Scripture. Rather, the death and resurrection of Christ acts as a catalyst. Because God has acted in Christ in a definitive, and unexpected, manner, making everything new, Scripture itself must be read anew. The “word of the Cross,” the preaching of “Christ crucified” may be a scandal for the Jews and folly for the Gentiles, but it alone is the “power of God” making known “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:18–25). This preaching, the kerygma, provides what Hays describes as “the eschatological apokalypsis of the Cross,” a hermeneutical lens, through which Scripture can now be refracted with “a profound new symbolic coherence.” Read in the light of what God has wrought in Christ, the Scriptures provided the terms and images, the context, within which the apostles made sense of what happened, and with which they explained it and preached it, so justifying the claim that Christ died and rose “according to the Scriptures.” It is important to note that it is Christ who is being explained through the medium of Scripture, not Scripture itself that is being exegeted; the object is not to understand the “original meaning” of an ancient text, as in modern historical-critical scholarship, but to understand Christ, who, by being explained “according to the Scriptures,” becomes the sole subject of Scripture throughout.[1]

If we pay careful attention to what Paul says in these verses, it should become clear that the apostle’s own approach to interpreting Scripture (understood as the Old Testament, but no doubt applicable as well to the New) was Christologically comprehensive in the sense outlined above. For Paul, reading Scripture apart from the illumination that it receives from the glory shining in the face of Jesus Christ is to remain under the veil that characterized the knowledge of God in the Mosaic covenant. Only in Christ is this veil removed so that when Moses is read (and the rest of Scripture, for that matter) we are able to comprehend its true meaning. If we limit ourselves to a historical-grammatical exegesis of the text (which certainly has its place), we have not truly understood Scripture, nor have we constructed a truly Christian theology. Why not? Because such an approach fails to penetrate behind the veil that only Christ can remove and apprehend the knowledge of God that only the glory of Christ can bring to light.

So here it is from the mouth of the apostle Paul himself: apart from Christ who constitutes the Alpha and the Omega of biblical interpretation and theology—its beginning and ending, its limits and its content—we cannot truly behold God who lies hidden behind a veil. To not know Christ is to know nothing; to know Christ is to know everything.


[1] John Behr, The Way to Nicaea (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), pp.25-28.