(2 Cor. 2:4) What is the “sorrowful letter” (c.f. 2 Cor. 7:8)?

CLAIM: Evangelical scholarship is divided as to whether there was a lost letter (often called the “sorrowful letter”) in between 1 and 2 Corinthians. Paul writes, “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears” (2 Cor. 2:4), and later he writes, “For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it—for I see that that letter caused you sorrow” (2 Cor. 7:8). When Paul refers to an earlier letter, is he referring to a lost letter, or is he referring to 1 Corinthians?

RESPONSE: We shouldn’t have an axe to grind in this discussion, because the Bible specifically refers to non-inspired books that are now lost (Josh. 10:13). For instance, in 1 Corinthians 5:9, Paul wrote, “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people.” Everyone agrees that Paul had a letter exchange before 1 Corinthians that is now lost. Therefore, some evangelical scholars claim that a missing letter before 2 Corinthians is another case of a lost letter.

That being said, this is not the view of this author. I believe that 1 Corinthians is the “sorrowful letter” that Paul refers to in these passages. I hold this view for a number of reasons:

First, 1 Corinthians is a highly disciplinary letter, where Paul aggressively rebukes the church in Corinth for their licentious attitude and behavior. This would fit with why this letter caused them so much sorrow (2 Cor. 7:8).

Second, Paul refers to a man disciplined out of the church in both letters (1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 2:5-8).

Third, if we have an extant letter that fits the message of 2 Corinthians, we shouldn’t posit additional letters. Ockham’s’ Razor states that we shouldn’t multiply causes beyond necessity.

Therefore, for these reasons, I find it unnecessary to believe in a missing letter between 1 and 2 Corinthians.

In response to this perspective, let’s consider some of the counterarguments offered for a missing letter in between 1 and 2 Corinthians:[1]

ARGUMENT #1: Paul claims that the sorrowful letter was specifically written for this man caught in sin (2 Cor. 2:6, 9). This isn’t true of 1 Corinthians, which deals with a variety of issues—not just this.

Paul never says that the sorrowful letter only dealt with the man caught in sin in the passages stated above. He merely mentions that his previous letter included this. Therefore, 1 Corinthians still fits the bill.

ARGUMENT #2: Paul personally forgives this man (2 Cor. 2:10). Why would Paul personally offer to forgive a man he had never met, who was guilty of incest?

This passage can be read in one of two ways:

First, Paul is saying that he is supportive of the decision of the church to forgive this man. Paul seems to be saying that his forgiveness is conditional on their forgiveness (“But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also”). Therefore, Paul is saying that he is fine with the Corinthians receiving this man back into fellowship after being removed (1 Cor. 5:1-13). Since Paul was so adamant on removing this man originally (1 Cor. 5:3), the church may have been worried about accepting him back into fellowship without Paul’s permission. Instead of being controlling on this issue, Paul is saying that he trusts their judgment.

Second, Paul is saying that he is forgiving this man, because the man has hurt him by hurting the church. Modern readers might only be assuming that Paul never met this man, but why should we assume this? Paul planted the church in Corinth, and he was familiar with many people in the church. It’s more than likely that Paul knew who this person was, and he was extending forgiveness to this man personally. As a loving pastor, Paul was personally affected by how this man’s sin affected his church. Therefore, Paul could be saying that he is forgiving this man and letting him back into fellowship, because he has found repentance.

ARGUMENT #3: Paul implies that he wrote this “sorrowful letter” instead of visiting the Corinthians (2 Cor. 1:23; 2:1, 3). However, in 1 Corinthians, he states that he was coming to visit them (1 Cor. 4:18, 19; 11:34; 16:2, 3, 5–7).

Paul did write 1 Corinthians instead of coming to visit the church in Corinth. However, after he wrote it, he later visited. This is not a contradictory account; it is a complementary account. I see no reason to think that both of these statements cannot both be simultaneously true.

[1] Arguments for this view were taken from Harris, M. J. (1976). 2 Corinthians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 10: Romans Through Galatians (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (310). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.