Were Paul’s Letters Really Substitutes for his Preaching?
It’s fairly common to hear that Paul’s letters were crafted in order to communicate what he would have said were he able to be present with the communities to which he wrote. He would rather be there to speak to them face-to-face, but since that is not possible, for whatever reason, he resorted to letters. While it’s certainly true that Paul often desired to and did visit his churches in order to minister in person, I wonder more and more to what degree he really intended the letters to function as regrettable substitutes for personal presence. Two verses in 2 Corinthians drive the question.
First is 2 Corinthians 10:10, “I myself, Paul, appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ – I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away.” Paul here recognizes that his face-to-face interaction with the Corinthians is of a different character than his letters. His presence is marked by humility; his letters by boldness. He is so aware of this difference that he seeks to mitigate the typical perception of his letters as bold by declaring the gentle nature of the present appeal. The second instance comes just a few sentences later as Paul is describing what others say about him, “For they say, ‘His (Paul’s) letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (10:10). Here again Paul acknowledges that his speech is perceived differently than his written letters.
Two things. First, all this leads me to wonder whether Paul really saw his letters as substitutes for what he would say if present with the churches. If he knew that his verbal interaction with the Corinthians was distinctly different from his written correspondence, why should we think his letters record what he would have said were he present? Further, if there is something Paul really wants to say, but is concerned that his poorer ability to engage in person might negatively effect the success of his argument, then we might expect him to write a letter instead, especially if he thought his letters more rhetorically effective. Perhaps, knowing he had a rather difficult and important case to make, he preferred to use a letter instead of a personal visit in order to avoid coming off as weak and unpersuasive. Being more proficient at writing than oratory, he opted for the former. Not to say this is always the case, but it may sometimes be.
Second, in the case of 2 Corinthians 10, we may actually be hearing what Paul would say were he present with the Corinthians. Indeed, he seems to indicate that in 10:11. He intentionally reminds them that he is humble in person and goes to great lengths to help them hear his meek and gentle tone. He’s propping up the argument by appealing to the character of his personal presence. So, in this instance, he may be writing what he would have said were he present. But, it seems, this could be the exception to his normal practice. Thoughts?