“In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” ( 2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV)
As a fairly new Christian, I was taught that the little ‘g’ was supposed to indicate a false god, while an uppercase ‘G’ indicated that the text was talking about the God of the Bible. While this is an easy way to tell the difference in most cases, it isn’t always the case. There is a majority consensus among scholars and laymen alike that the “god of this world/age” must refer to Satan. But there wasn’t a consensus in early church history, which is where we will turn first.
Patristic Understanding of 2 Corinthians 4:4
There were several prominent views regarding this passage, but we will focus on four of them.
View 1: Yahweh is that one that blinds but is not the “god of this age” that the passage refers to.
View 2: It can apply to either Yahweh or the Devil.
View 3: “the god of this age” is the devil.
View 4: “the god of this age” is Yahweh.
All four of these views can find refuge in the early Church.
View 1 has the support of Irenaeus, who in his work Against Heresies[i] argues that the Apostle Paul occasionally would arrange words against the natural grammatical sequence, it is believed he argued this way to offset any Marcionite interpretation of such passages.
John Chrysostom also held this view. He argues in his 8th Homily[ii] that Yahweh does blind people, but only after he has permitted a certain amount of suffering. The historical context to consider regarding his response is that Chrysostom was responding to both Maricionism and Manicheanism.
Augustine was another proponent of view 1. He starts off by charging the Manicheans with dualism, Augustine’s response to Faustus[iii] was that Yahweh is the one who blinds, as Faustus insisted that 2 Corinthians 4:4 referred to the devil.
Pelagius[iv] is the only big name that is clearly advocating for View 2. He states that in one sense, it can be the devil because the devil rules over unbelievers. On the other hand, It can refer to Yahweh because he is reacting to the unbelief of the people (punishing them for not believing.)
Origen argues[v] that the “the god of this world” blinds the minds of unbelievers for retribution. Essentially, Satan is doing God’s dirty work. He identifies clearly that the “prince of this world” referred to in John 16:11 is the same being referred to in 2 Corinthians 4:4.
Tertullian also held this view, his argument was in response to Maricon[vi] and he found the idea that 2 Corinthians 4:4 referred to Yahweh as not fit for the creator but rather identified him with the being of Ephesians 2:2.
The fourth view finds support in several figures in church history, such as Hippolytus, Ambrosiaster, Didymus The Blind, etc. but the person I want to focus on is Cyril of Jerusalem.
Cyril sees no issue with 2 Corinthians 4:4 being applied to Yaweh and insists contra the gnostics that the God of the OT and the God of the NT are the same and they both blind people in the way the scripture describes. He even goes so far as to attribute the actions to Jesus.[vii]
Now that we have covered a little bit of how this passage has been interpreted in church history, let’s move on to more modern interpretations of 2 Corinthians 4:4.
Modern Arguments for and against Yahweh as “the god of this age”
It seems to be the plain reading that the “god of this age” is referring to Satan.[viii] Shillington, dripping with sarcasm states “Imagine Paul as a missionary preaching that the God of his gospel blinds the minds of those for whom that gospel is intended.”[ix]
It should be noted before we continue that Shillington’s comment is a strawman argument. Typically, when someone believes that the “god of this age” is Yahweh, they’re saying that God blinds the unbelievers minds who were never intended to get the gospel, not that God is having this internal struggle of begging to save and blinding to damn.
There is an interesting discussion regarding the use of Beliai, the apocalyptic god. This in my opinion is the strongest argument against the position that 2 Corinthians 4:4 is referring to Yahweh. You can read more about this argument here. [x]
Three points are brought up in favor of this interpretation by Dr. Donald E. Hartley, who states:
“If 2 Cor 4:4 refers to the devil/Satan, it would be the only place in Scripture
where he is referred to as ‘the god.’ In contrast, Satan, the Serpent, and even Belial seem
to be Paul’s preference in 2 Corinthians.72 This view also requires that Yahweh use this
‘god’ as an instrumental agent of blinding. But this interpretation introduces an
unnecessary intermediary as well as assumes that blindness is transformative and judicial
(retribution) rather than deprivational and non-judicial. If congenital hard-heartedness is
held and divine hardening is construed as a circumlocution for withholding
regeneration, then it would be difficult to sustain this view. It appears unlikely that Paul
would use oJ qeo/ß in this sense without a great deal of confusion.
THE JOHANNINE EXPRESSION IS NOT EQUIVALENT WITH PAUL
The Johannine expression should be treated differently for five reasons: (1) John
uses a‡rcwn not qeo/ß. (2) John uses ko/smoß rather than ai˙w¿n. (3) There is no mention of
blinding in John as it relates to the “ruler/prince of this world.” On the contrary, John
depicts blindness as both congenital and an effect of a divine act (John 9:35-41; 12:38-
41).73 (4) It requires one to define Paul by John rather than Paul by Paul. (5) Paul
elsewhere refers to the devil/Satan using the same term a‡rcwn as John (Eph 2:2b) and
this strongly argues against taking 2 Cor 4:4 as referring to the devil/Satan or at least
shifts the burden of proof significantly. Paul may very well use oJ qeo/ß because he is
referring to Yahweh not the devil/Satan. Although the references to Belial and his
domain are indeed parallel with the Johannine expression and some of Paul’s too, it
may not be legitimate to equate these with the phrase in question.
THE ALLUSION IS TO ISAIAH 6:9-10
Isaiah 6:9-10 is the backdrop for 2 Cor 4:4 and here Yahweh is the actor. He
hardens (‘fattens’), blinds, and deafens, not the devil/Satan (not even instrumentally).
Paul states in verse 3 that the Gospel is hid to those who are lost (state) and then
develops this in terms of the divine intent in verse 4 (purpose). This is very similar to the modus operandi of Isa 6:9-10 and its traditional trajectories.”
Hartley offers many more arguments for the position, I encourage you to read the entirety of his work.[xi] (For my Calvinist audience, Hartley is Dr. James White approved.
Conclusion and Implication
In this overview, I sought to present the historical background and the modern views on how to interpret 2 Corinthians 4:4. Though I do hold to a view, I have sought to represent each position with honesty and sought for the best arguments I could find. The implication if 2 Corinthians 4:4 is talking about Yahweh is that Calvinists may have a stronger argument for unconditional election. More importantly, we ought to seek what Paul actually means and what scripture actually says.
[i] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.7 1-2 (Can be read for free here)
[ii] Chrysostom, Homily 8 on 2 Corinthians (Can be read for free here)
[iii] Augustine, Contra Faustus 21.1-2 (Can be read for free here)
[iv] Pelagius, Commentary on 2 Corinthians cited in Gerald Bray, ed., 1–2 Corinthians, ACCS, ed. Thomas C. Oden, vol. 7 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999) pg. 228.
[v] Origen, Commentary on John 11.14 (Can be read for free here)
[vi] Tertullian, Against Maricon 5.11 (Can be read for free here)
[vii] Cyril of Jerusalem First Catechetical Lecture 6.28-29 (Can be read for free here)
[viii] Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 126.
[ix] V. George Shillington, 2 Corinthians, Believers Church Bible Commentary, ed. Williard M. Swartley (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1998), 92
[x] 2 Corinthians 4:4: A Case for Yahweh as the ‘God of this Age.’ Donald E. Hartley, Ph.D. The 57th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society Valley Forge, PA 16–18 November 2005