Book Launch: Dr. Benjamin White’s ‘Pain and Paradox in 2 Corinthians’
Dr. White offers a fresh take on one of Paul’s most difficult letters
The King’s College hosted a book launch for Dr. Benjamin White’s newest book Pain and Paradox in 2 Corinthians: The Transformative Function of Strength in Weakness (Mohr Siebeck, 2021) on February 24. The book – a lightly revised version of Dr. White’s Ph.D. thesis – has been published in a respected dissertation series in his field. It offers a new paradigm for understanding 2 Corinthians. Dr. White, assistant professor of biblical studies at King’s, argues against the consensus that 2 Corinthians is an apologetic for Paul’s ministry addressed to a proud and recalcitrant Corinthian community. Instead, Dr. White argues, there is overlooked evidence in the letter that the Corinthians have been pained and, as Paul writes about his own experiences of ‘strength in weakness’, he is presenting himself as a paradigm for the community to learn how Christ transforms their pain.
Dr. White began the event by explaining his motivation for writing the book, which is centered on Paul’s revelation from the risen Jesus: “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). White first became interested in the topic as a graduate student who was visiting McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario. While trying to find the library, he had a providential encounter with Dr. Michael Knowles, a faculty member at McMaster who had just finished a book on 2 Corinthians. After hearing about White’s plans to do a Ph.D., he encouraged him to explore 2 Corinthians due to its complex and often misunderstood theology.
Intrigued by Dr. Knowles’s suggestion, Dr. White started preaching from 2 Corinthians at his church – where he was working at that time – and studying the letter on his own. Eventually, he realized that something was missing from how people usually read the letter. When he left Canada to start his Ph.D. studies under Dr. John Barclay at Durham University in Durham, England, he decided that the focus of his research would be the strength in weakness paradox in 2 Corinthians.
At the event, Dr. White explained that he has often been asked why he was interested in this topic. He thinks that a central motivation was the death of his friend in a car accident during his junior year of college. According to White, his friend’s sudden death removed some of his innocence and caused him to ask difficult questions about human suffering that left him with unsatisfying answers. During his time at Durham, he realized that Christians usually view suffering through one of two extremes: they either believe that it is always bad or always good. “Paul’s experience of strength in weakness,” White concluded, “presents the possibility of a middle way, a pathway forward that isn’t ignoring suffering but isn’t wallowing in it, either.”
After Dr. White’s opening remarks, one of his faculty assistants, Brent Buterbaugh (PPE ’22), interviewed him on the contents of the book. White explained how most scholars read 2 Corinthians as a defense of Paul’s ministry, which means Paul’s ‘strength in weakness’ is consequently seen as an apostolic experience rather than a broadly Christian one. White offers a different starting point for reading the letter by showing how the Corinthians’ ‘pain’ – mentioned most prominently in 2:1-7 – has been overlooked despite the fact that Paul’s choice of terminology in the original language signifies an extremely dangerous emotion. In antiquity, this word and Paul’s typical term for ‘weakness’ were related, which suggests that Paul is not merely defending himself with his ‘strength in weakness’ discourses. He is also consoling the Corinthians and presenting his own life as a model for transformation.
So what is the paradoxical paradigm that Paul’s life presents to believers? The paradox is that God works through human weakness to create strength. This idea is paradoxical because, as it is repeatedly presented in 2 Corinthians, it involves two opposite realities that are both true at the same time. “Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection,” Dr. White said, “You can never understand your weaknesses apart from the arrival of divine strength, and likewise the divine strength finds its natural habitation in weakness. These two things are always together, but they are never conflated and never isolated.”
After discussing some of the book’s contents, Dr. White offered reflections on the implications for Christians today. For instance, Paul’s interest in a paradox of strength in weakness should cause believers to think carefully about how they relate to suffering. “The paradoxical form of Paul’s argument allows him to say that weakness in isolation is bad,” Dr. White explained, “but weakness that is being simultaneously redeemed by Christ’s resurrection power is good.” This possibility should help people to be more accepting of their weaknesses and to not feel like they are beyond God’s reach. Dr. White believes that Paul’s paradox pushes us to live in a state of ‘hopeful realism’. You are to recognize the reality of death and suffering and to be honest about the human condition, but on the other hand, you must recognize the hope of the resurrection. This allows Christians to avoid both blind optimism and dour cynicism. “Life is not about going from success to success,” Dr. White said. “It’s about learning from failures. It’s about growing in positions of weakness. And then as you grow as a mature human being, you are to come alongside people who are having similar experiences.”
Dr. Larry Welborn of Fordham University, one of the world’s leading experts on the first Christian communities in ancient Corinth, then joined the book launch to share some reflections on Dr. White’s book. Dr. Welborn commended Dr. White’s courage and creativity in the book. He shared, “What Dr. White recognized is that woven through the fabric of 2 Corinthians is a therapeutic practice of Paul. Paul has much work to do to heal the wounds that have been opened by the conflict between Paul and the church in Corinth…. We ought not to be afraid of moments of pain and suffering in our lives, because Jesus has already been in those moments.” Dr. Welborn concluded, “I think Benjamin White’s book has a great future. It has a future not only among scholars who wrestle with the proper understanding of 2 Corinthians…it also has a future for the way that Christians relate to, and try to deal with, their emotions.”
Dr. White’s book, published in Mohr Siebeck’s ‘WUNT II’ series, is available for purchase as an ebook or in print.