Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"In Persona Christi" in 2 Corinthians 2:10

Marcu Grodi often talks about the "Verses I never Saw" in Scripture when he was a protestant. I could make my own list, and if I did, I would have to include a passage that Fr John Fleming referred to in a homily on the weekend.

Fr John was preaching at a solem mass for the celebration of the silver anniversary of ordination of a good friend of mine, and his topic was naturally the priesthood (although, of course, being the the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, this also was included in the homily). He used a number of biblical passages to illustrate the doctrine of the priesthood. I can't just for now remember all of them, but one of them was 2 Corinthians 2:10.

In the RSV, this passage reads:
"10 Any one whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11 to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us; for we are not ignorant of his designs."
Naturally, therefore, without consulting the Greek text, this verse would not necessarily leap out at one as being about the priesthood. But Fr John pointed out that that Greek text says that St Paul forgave sins "en prosopo Christou".

"Prosopon" in Greek literally means "face". In the Trinitarian debates of the 4th Century, the Greeks used it to translate Tertullian's use of the latin term "persona" for what we now commonly refer to as "the Persons" of the Holy Trinity. Working the other way, when Jerome translated made his new Latin translation of the bible, he used "persona" to translate "prosopon" in 2 Corinthians 2:10, thus making the text read:
"10 cui autem aliquid donatis et ego nam et ego quod donavi si quid donavi propter vos in persona Christi 11 ut non circumveniamur a Satana non enim ignoramus cogitationes eius"
. In English translations, both the Douay-Rheims and the King James Bible follow suit in translating "en prosopo Christou" as "in the person of Christ."

As you can see, this certainly lends strong support to the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood (cf. CCC p1548 quoting 24 Pius XII, Mediator Dei: "Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is truly made like to the high priest and possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself (virtute ac persona ipsius Christi).)

However, let us just pause for a moment and ask: did Paul mean what we mean today when we say "in persona Christi"? You might well ask "Who can tell?", but we have more to go on than that. One interesting fact to note is that our modern use of the word "person" derives directly from the use of that latin word during the Trinitarian controversies of the 4th Century previously alluded to. Before those discussions, "persona" literally meant "a mask"; it was a word that came out of the dramatic arts, where actors used masks of the "faces" of the characters they were depicting.

This means that in the original pre-4th Century use, the latin "persona" meant roughly the same as the Greek "prosopon", namely "face". I don't know of any English translation of 2 Cor 2:10 that speaks of Paul forgiving sins "in the face of Christ", but this is literally what is meant by the passage. In Hebrew, the very common phrase "lipne adonai" literally meant to be "in the face of the Lord", that is, in his presence (as in Psalm 95:6 - where Jerome translates "ante faciem Domini"). It seemeth to this humble commentator that Paul is using the exact same Hebraism translated into Greek: "in the face of Christ" meaning "before his face" or "in his presence" - hence the RSV translation and that of most modern English bibles, Catholic and Protestant. (Nb. the one thing mitigating against this argument is that the Greek Septuagint usually translates "lipne adonai" as "enantion kuriou"/"over against or opposite the Lord" rather than the literal "en prosopo kyriou"). Interesting that Martin Luther (himself an OT and Hebrew scholar) translated the passage as "es vergeben um euretwillen vor Christi Angesicht", which is literally "before the face of Christ".

What is the upshot of all this? It is interesting that Jerome does not use the noun "persona" anywhere else in his translation of the New Testament (and only incidentally in three places in the Old Testment). I believe that by translating "prosopon" as "persona" he was very deliberately using the new meaning that the word "prosopon" had aquired in the previous century - but which it did not have prior to this nor in the time of St Paul. (Unfortunately I don't have available to me any text of the Vetus Latina used prior to the Vulgate. It would be enlightening to see how 2 Cor 2:10 was translated there.)

Does that mean that Fr Fleming was wrong in his exegesis of this passage in relation to the priesthood? No, not at all - for the doctrine is still very much there even if we translate the phrase "in the presence of Christ". For to claim to forgive sins "in the face of Christ" certainly carries the objective meaning that Paul believed himself to be forgiving sins with the full authority of Christ and acting in Christ's stead. It is the equivalent of Jesus' own promise to St Peter that "whatsoever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven", ie. if you forgive someone's sins on earth, they will be loosed in the presence of God as well. What we see in Jerome's translation, and in the later western understanding of this text in general (and it is worth noting that in his homilies on 2 Corinthians, the Eastern Church father, St John Chrysostom does not give the phrase "en prosopo Christou" the weight of "in persona Christi"), is a legitimate plumbing of the depths of Paul's statement within the life of the Church and under the guidance of the Holy Spirt, even though it is not directly apparent on the surface reading of the text.

No wonder I had missed it in the past!


At Tuesday, August 17, 2010 5:02:00 am , Anonymous Schütz said...

I think before long we will have Fr Fleming vehemently disagreeing with you here. He would say that whenever Paul did anything, he did it in his priestly office as an apostle, and not just as "Paul the Christian". I would tend to agree with John on this point. Even if you read it "for you in the presence of Christ”, the phrase is still attached to the verb "I forgive". For the sake of them, Paul is granting forgiveness in the face of Christ so that Satan is defeated. It isn't the full blown doctrine we enunciate today (Scriptural loci doctrini rarely are), but it points in that direction.

At Tuesday, August 17, 2010 8:41:00 pm , Anonymous CG said...

In the Orthodox Church confessions are usually made standing immediately before the icon of Christ, with the priest beside one. In fact the priest's opening words are usually: "Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly, and receives your confession.... Lo, his holy image is before us: and I am but a witness....."
So the penitent is very aware of confessing and being forgiven "in the face of Christ".

At Wednesday, August 18, 2010 7:10:00 am , Anonymous CG said...

[Response to Peregrinus: just a small glass will be plenty, thanks]
The precise wording of the absolution may vary with the jusrisdiction but it goes like this:
"May our Lord and God Jesus Christ, through the grace and bounty of his love towards mankind, forgive you, my child N., all your transgressions. And I, his unworthy priest, through the power given to me by him, do forgive and absolve you from all your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
For the duration of this prayer and the blessing that follows, the priest will have laid the end of his epitrahlion (Orthodox version of the stole) and his hand over the penitent's bowed head.

At Thursday, August 19, 2010 2:26:00 am , Anonymous Schütz said...

Amen to all that, Perry, especially:

(Which is why possible interpolations in the letters of Paul, which may not have been authored by Paul himself, are just as “scriptural” as the passages that Paul did write.)

The same goes for any possible distinction that may be made between "genuine" and "deutero/psuedo" Pauline passages/letters!

At Thursday, August 19, 2010 2:35:00 am , Anonymous Schütz said...

but it cannot be reduced to any method or historians best guess at the historical context.

No disagreement there either, Peter, but the use of all and any available legitimate tools is to be encouraged. Socio-Rhetorical criticism is just my present favourite. Other favourites are canonical criticism (understood as reading the text in the context of the canon) and narrative criticism (understanding how the underlying story works in the text). How about yourself?

And yes, I did get to chat with Ben WIII, and he did say he met you while in Sydney. Unfortunately the only public lecture he gave here was on preaching - which was very good, but not quite what I wanted! I was very impressed. Like Wright, he comes across as a natural popular communicator. Such a rare ability in a biblical scholar!

At Thursday, August 19, 2010 2:36:00 am , Anonymous Schütz said...

I understood that the "divine passive" is often used in sacramental pronouncements in the East, eg. "You are baptised", "You are absolved". Is this correct?

At Thursday, August 19, 2010 2:56:00 am , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

But, of course, on the other other hand, the fact that a passage is or may be an interpolation is something which may influence our reading of it, or of the text in which it is found.

At Tuesday, September 28, 2010 4:43:00 pm , Anonymous franco verbo said...

I just think that before discussing anything about the meaning of "in Persona Christi" it would be good to read Rahner on this regard. Additionally, the seven sacraments as such, were instituted by the church only after the 13th century. Before that, ONLY THREE were acknowledged: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist. There is no Biblical basis to back any of the other four. In order to believe that there is such a thing you need to be either a priest who believes in control and power, and therefore someone whose narrow view limits the "Imago Dei" to only MEN; you believe in the deceiving "Apostolic tradition of the Church" (remember that the first Apostle was Mary Magdalene); you give more value to Last Supper, when Jesus "made you a priest," and you forget about the John's narrative of the WASHING OF THE FEET, which would imply more humility and service; or else, you need to be a literalist who really believes that Adam and Eve were real figures in history; or you (as a priest) does not even know that the vestments you were for the Eucharist do not have anything to do with Jesus Christ, as it does with the Roman Empire... Come on people!!! Christianity is not about titles or dresses; I think Saint Paul just meant to say that "We are (all) the Body of Christ," and we all should perform the works of mercy in "Imago Christi" more than "In Persona Christi." NOT ONLY PRIESTS!!! AMEN


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