The Great Divide: Letter vs Spirit (Part1)

Disclaimer and caveat: I am speaking of “spiritual things” – this inherently means I am speaking of something that is elusive (marked not only by disclosure – but also by hiddenness and mystery) – something that can’t quite be “pinned down” and systematized! “The Spirit blows wherever it pleases – you hear it its sound – but you do not know where it came from or where it is going” –

I am proposing that there are two fundamental and opposing approaches to Scripture: (by “approach” I mean your assumptions and presuppositions about the nature of Scripture – and how is it to “function” in your life?)

Paul frames this for us in 2 Corinthians 3 – in sum:
“The letter kills but – the Spirit gives Life”

But what does Paul mean by “the letter”?

He takes the Ten Commandments (“tables of stone”) – and the larger context of the Pentateuch (e.g., “when Moses is read…”) and sets them in opposition (or perhaps a better word is “contrast”) to “the Spirit”


Paul sets the 10 commandments in opposition/contrast to the Spirit – And, the view that the “ceremonial law” alone is done away with in the New Covenant just isn’t true!

The “Letter(s)” here are from the very “finger” of God, written on the stone tablets.

Let’s put them in contrast:
The “Letter”:
•A ministry of death
•Fading in glory
•External and static
•Written – reading words
•Inclined towards rule-keeping
•The pursuit of “certainty”
•View God as unchanging
•Can be systematized

The “Spirit”:
•A ministry of Life
•Growing in glory
•Internal and dynamic
•Image – gazing on Jesus’ “face”
•Inclined towards Love
•Embraces enigma/mystery
•View God as “the Living God”
•Cannot be captured or contained

Let me close this (part 1) with my favorite quote from C.S. Lewis:

Yet it is, perhaps, idle to speak here of spirit and letter. There is almost no “letter” in the words of Jesus. Taken by a literalist, He will always prove the most elusive of teachers. Systems cannot keep up with that darting illumination. No net less wide than a man’s whole heart, nor less fine of mesh than love, will hold the sacred Fish. – Reflection on the Psalms (the chapter called “Scripture”)

2 thoughts on “The Great Divide: Letter vs Spirit (Part1)

  1. It seems to me that the matter-spirit distinction lies at the heart of the Gospel message. It appears to me that every one of Christ’s parables is intended to draw his hearers out of their ham-fisted literal-mindedness, which is to say, out of the letter and into the spirit. I immediately think of Nicodemus’s stumbling over the question of “how can a man be born again…?” in the beginning of John, or the other Pharisees failing to grasp the significance of the word “temple.” Indeed there are dozens of examples of just this disconnect. Christ always speaks from the spirit and those around him struggle to understand him except by the letter. I have contemplated this question before and even come to the conclusion that it is precisely the distinction between those whose perception was bound to the letter and those whose was freed to enter the spirit that accounts for the emergence of Christianity out of Judaism. As I’m sure you know, Jesus announced himself to be the Christ but never claimed to be something other than a Jew: “I can to fulfill the law and not to abolish it.” In any case, perhaps I may be permitted to share links to two reflections I have made on this subject, to anyone who has interest:

    Blessings to you and all of your readers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am honored and thrilled that you would take the time to leave a (predictably!) insightful comment, Max!
      Thanks for this and the rich resources you have linked – I will certainly take every advantage of these as I prepare for “part 2” of this series.

      Richest Blessings to you!


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