Who is Paul identifying as Lord in “Now the Lord is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3: 17)? Surely the use of a capital letter for the word spirit would suggest the Holy Spirit?
As Darby points out in the preface to his NT translation and in a footnote to Rom. 8: 9, the word spirit presents a problem regarding capitalisation. This difficulty arises from the fact that the copies of the NT books are either written entirely in Greek capitals (known as uncials) or small letters (known as cursives). Although the use of the Greek definite article can help in deciding whether the English should be spirit or Spirit, this is not so in every case. Thus each translator either gives the word as spirit or Spirit depending on his own personal judgement. It is therefore a matter of interpretation rather than just translation. One more point: there are no parentheses in Greek—they are inserted by the translator, again based on his interpretation of the text.
There are three reasons why I believe that the Holy Spirit is not meant and that the correct translation is “Now the Lord is the spirit” Firstly, if “the Lord” here is the Holy Spirit, then the statement “the Lord is the Spirit” would like saying ‘Now the Spirit is the Spirit’ and thus meaningless. Secondly, the grammar demands it. Both nouns in “Now the Lord is the Spirit” have the definite article in Greek. This is a reciprocal expression: it can either be translated as ‘Now the Lord is the Spirit’ or ‘Now the Spirit is the Lord’. However, the latter option would mean that only the Holy Spirit is Lord to the exclusion of both the Father and the Son. As one scholar has said, if Paul had wanted to state the Lordship of the Holy Spirit, the Greek would have been to de pneuma kurios estin and not the reciprocal form. Thirdly, the context of the passage is evidence against using a capital S. 2 Cor. 3 involves a number of comparisons and contrasts of which the underlying one is that of letter and spirit (see v6) flowing from the teaching as to commendatory letters in vs. 1, 2. Now there are two other occasions where Paul contrasts letter and spirit. In Rom. 2: 28, 29 he uses the word letter for what is outward and the word spirit for what is inward; in Rom. 7: 6 he uses letter for what is old and spirit for what is new. In neither case is the Holy Spirit meant by the word spirit but rather the essence or vitality of a matter. These thoughts of outward and inward, of old and new are all present in 2 Cor. 3.
Consider now the five occurrences of the word Lord in the chapter. The first is in v16: “But when it shall turn to [the] Lord, the veil is taken away”. What is the “it”? Clearly, from vs 13, 15, the heart of the children of Israel. Who is “[the] Lord”? From v14, clearly Christ—not the Holy Spirit. The second reference is in v17. If we take this as ‘Now the Lord is the spirit’, and the word Lord as meaning Christ, the question then arises—the spirit of what? In the immediate context, the Lord is the spirit of the old covenant in which the glory of Christ was veiled to Israel. In the wider context of the OT, every form and figure speaks of Him (see Luke 24: 27) though Israel could not see it. This brings us on to the third occurrence of the word Lord: there was bondage under the old covenant “but where the Spirit of [the] Lord [is, there is] liberty” (v17). Yet even here it is not exactly the Holy Spirit as such but only in relation to the Lord Jesus: ‘the Spirit of the Lord’. This expression the Spirit of the Lord is common in both OT and NT but the term the Holy Spirit only occurs subsequent to the incarnation. This is not to say that the Holy Spirit is not involved in the teaching of this chapter but He is not presented as distinct but relative to God or the Lord (see vs. 3, 17). We can consider the fourth and fifth occurrences of the word Lord together. The words in v18 “But we all …” embrace all Christians and clearly draw a contrast with Israel. “But we all, looking on the glory of the Lord”—that is Christ, not the Holy Spirit—“are transformed according to the same image from glory to glory”. How? “Even as by [the] Lord [the] Spirit”. Now while it is true that any spiritual work within us is by the Holy Spirit, that is not the sense here. The Greek preposition translated here as by is apo. Now whenever you get the phrase by the Spirit elsewhere in the NT, this preposition is never used. Why? Because its meaning is from in the sense of away from. Where then does this glory come from? Not the Holy Spirit—it is from the Lord, the Christ (see 2 Cor. 4: 3, 6). Then why is the word spirit or Spirit there? For the same reason as in v17. In both cases, if taken out of context, their meaning is obscured. However, when read in context, then the missing words that provide the sense are unconsciously supplied by the reader. Thus in v17, ‘the Lord is the spirit [of the old covenant]’, while in v18 we are transformed ‘even as from [the] Lord [the] spirit’—of what?—‘[the old covenant, the new covenant and the whole of Scripture]’.