“Causes Us to Triumph” vs “Triumphs Over Us”

There’s some difference of opinion on how 2 Cor 2.14 should be translated:

  • “Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ” (KJV)
  • “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ” (NASB)
  • “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession” (ESV)

The KJV, NASB and ESV all communicate that God leads a triumph parade that we participate in. Since they seem to agree pretty well, that means that the difference of opinion lies with someone else. It does – me.

The grammar of this phrase is nearly identical to a phrase in Col 2.15: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (KJV and NASB also translate the key phrase “triumphing over them.”) In both verses, a form the verb θριαμβεύω has an accusative object. In 2 Cor 2.14, the object is “us” (Paul and the Corinthians); in Col 2.15, the object is “them” (the evil powers opposing and accusing believers). In both verses, God is the one triumphing, and he triumphs in Christ.

Even though the grammar corresponds precisely, the translators chose to go opposite directions with their interpretation. Triumph + Christians = shared processional march as Christ’s victorious armies through the city; however, triumph + evil powers = dragged through the streets as captives in humiliation.

The interpretation of “triumph” in Col. 2.15 is not open for debate: Paul was certainly not rejoicing that God would lead the forces of evil in a parade of shared conquest. That brings us to 2 Cor 2.14: either [a] it should be translated “triumphs over us in Christ” (or more picturesquely: “leads us like captives in his triumph parade in Christ”) or [b] both interpretations are valid, even though they are opposite in meaning.

I checked BDAG on θριαμβεύω. It offers six definitions of this word:

  1. lead in a triumphal procession, with accusative “someone” as captive
  2. to lead in triumph, in imagery of Roman generals leading their troops in triumph
  3. cause to triumph
  4. triumph over
  5. expose to shame
  6. display, publicize, make known

Definitions 1, 4, 5, and 6 all fit the Col 2.15 negative meaning very well. Do definitions 2 and 3 support the positive translation in 2 Cor 2.14? The authors don’t think so. They note that 2 (to lead in triumph) has “no lexical support” and 3 (cause to triumph) “remains unexampled in Greek usage.” Basically, they acknowledge that some people have chosen to translate 2 Cor 2.14 as “leads us in triumphal procession,” but that there’s really no support for that translation in actual Greek usage of the word._ _

TDNT’s entry on θριαμβεύω doesn’t even mention the option of translating 2 Cor 2.14 as a shared parade. It actually prefers the negative translation option: “Paul describes himself as one of these prisoners. But he regards it as a grace that in his fetters he can accompany God always and everywhere.”

My first reaction on noticing the shared grammatical pattern between these two verses was to translate them the same way: God leads us / powers as captives in his parade of triumph in Christ. BDAG and TDNT confirm that θριαμβεύω means “to lead as a captive” and that there is no support for translating it “lead as a co-victor.”_ _

If 2 Cor 2.14 should be translated “Thanks be to God, who always leads us as slaves in his triumphal procession in Christ,” what does that mean for understanding the passage? I’d argue that it actually makes a lot more sense in context than the “shared parade” interpretation. Paul is about to spend the next few chapters of 2 Corinthians downplaying himself and his ministry. He’s not interested in self-commendation (2 Co 3.1), his ministry is a gift of mercy (2 Co 4.1), he is a clay pot full of God’s treasure (2 Co 4.7), he is always being given over to death (2 Co 4.11-12), he is wasting away and afflicted (2 Co 4.16-17), and he is groaning for heaven (2 Co 5.2). Honestly, it’d be a little startling to brag about sharing in Christ’s triumph, then spend 3-4 chapters talking about nothing but struggles.

Granted, you could respond that Paul is pointing out the big heavenly reality – triumph – as a way to endure the difficulties of earth. Paul certainly does do that in other places, but not here. He’s not trying to encourage the Corinthians about enduring difficulties: his humility and affliction comments are almost exclusively focused on himself as he defends his ministry. He’s also not spending half of their letter giving himself a pep-talk: his whole point is that he’s not on center stage (God is).

It seems best to take 2 Co 2.14 as a statement that fits with all the other words and phrases of humiliation and lowness that Paul uses in this letter. The essence of the TDNT quotation above really sums it up well. Paul claims to be a captive in God’s triumphal parade: even that captivity is grace because it means being with God and demonstrating his victory to all onlookers.