Because of some of Paul’s wording in 2 Corinthians, and perhaps an allusion in 1 Corinthians, some have conjectured that he must have made a hasty and unpleasant visit to Corinth sometime before arriving in Macedonia, probably while still in Ephesus after writing 1 Corinthians, and that following this visit he perhaps even wrote a “severe letter” that has not been preserved for us:
Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant, but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power. What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod or with love and a spirit of gentleness?
1 Corinthians 4:18-21
But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I came no more (Greek οὐκέτι = literally “not yet”) to Corinth. (See the KJV; this may mean simply that in order to spare them Paul put off his coming to Corinth. For in the previous verses he is defending his change in plans to not come to Corinth first, and here states plainly, calling God as his witness, that the reason he did in fact not come was to spare them). Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm. But I determined this for my own sake, that I would not come to you in sorrow again. (Here the natural sense of our English translation is that Paul had previously made an unrecorded sorrowful visit which he would not repeat doing again. However, the Greek may also with as much force mean, especially in the context, that his first visit when he established the church was a mutually pleasant one, full of the joy of redemption and salvation, and he did not wish at this time to come to them again seeing that it would result in mutual sorrow). For if I cause you sorrow, who then makes me glad but the one whom I made sorrowful? And this is the very thing I wrote you (in 1 Corinthians, say 4:18-21 above as well as 5:1-6:11? or in some “severe letter” now lost?), lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from those who ought to make me rejoice; having confidence in you all, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not that you should be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you.
2 Corinthians 1:23-2:4
For though I caused you sorrow by my letter (again, does he refer to 1 Corinthians, or an unpreserved “severe letter”?), I do not regret it; though I did regret it—for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while—I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, in order that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter. So although I wrote to you it was not for the sake of the offender, nor for the sake of the one offended, but that your earnestness on our behalf might be made known to you in the sight of God.
2 Corinthians 7:8-12
Here for this third time I am ready (or prepared) to come to you… (Does he mean by this that this is now the third time he will have actually made a visit to the Corinthians, or that this is the third time he has prepared to come to them? Remember that Paul had originally intended to visit the Corinthian church before going to Macedonia where he was now, and they took offense when he did not.)
2 Corinthians 12:14
This is the third time I am coming to you. (Again, was this to be his third actual visit, or just the third time he had intended on coming to them?) I have previously said when present (or “as if I were present”; see KJV) the second time, and though now absent I say in advance to those who have sinned in the past and to all the rest as well, that if (or “when”, “whenever”, as the Greek conjunction ἐάν may also be translated; see 1 Cor 16:10, 2 Cor 3:16, 1 Jn 2:28, 3:2) I come again, I will not spare anyone. (Again, the Greek, like our NASB English translation, is ambiguous: the second time may refer to a second unrecorded visit where he was physically present, or it may refer to his second upcoming visit when he will be physically present. The more natural sense based solely on the grammar is the former, but cf. also 1 Cor 5:3-5 where Paul uses the same language and considered himself to be spiritually present with them!)
2 Corinthians 13:1-2
Whereas the “natural sense” of these words in our English translations would tend to favor that Paul did make 3 actual visits to Corinth, the problem with a third physical visit is trying to reconcile it to the known Acts and Corinthian record. For again, he makes clear in 1 Corinthians 16:5 while still in Ephesus that he would not come to them in Corinth before going to Macedonia—which intention Luke confirms in Acts 19:21. He then defends this decision in 2 Corinthians 1:15ff because it was a change in his original plans. If in fact Paul did make a “painful visit” after writing 1 Corinthians, then such would have been an additional change to his original change in plans, making his defense in 2 Cor 1:15ff illogical. For as he points out in 1:23 it was precisely to spare them that he did change his plans and didn’t come. It follows then that such a “painful visit” must not have occurred between his writing of 1 and 2 Corinthians. And yet, again, if we accept what seems to be the natural sense of his words in 2:1 upon which the whole theory is derived (“I determined … that I would not come to you in sorrow again”) it would appear that the supposed “painful visit” must have occurred in response to an escalation of the events Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians—a contradiction. For this reason some maintain that such a visit must have occurred before Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. And yet, it is 2 Corinthians alone that allows us to conjecture such a visit while Paul’s references in 1 Corinthians to a former visit refer most naturally to his original stay and not a more recent “painful visit”:
And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
We should also notice that if Paul had in fact made some third visit to Corinth, it would had to have been during his three year stay in Ephesus. However, the Acts record makes clear that during this time he was thoroughly occupied with the work there in Asia:
And he entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the multitude, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. And this took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
And having sent into Macedonia two of those who ministered to him, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.
“Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.
Also, during at least some fairly significant portion of this time the Corinthians were themselves being suitably cared for by the very capable Apollos. And indeed, it may forcefully be argued that it was precisely because Paul had not made another trip to Corinth during those three years that the divisions were allowed to arise which prompted Paul to write 1 Corinthians.
Finally, concerning an additional “severe letter” from the apostle, we should note that Paul’s words giving rise to this conjecture may equally refer to the content of 1 Corinthians (cf. again 1 Cor 4:18-20, as well as 3:1-4, 10:1-13, 11:17-34, etc… How much more “severe” could Paul have been, while at the same time writing “out of much affliction and anguish of heart” and “with many tears”, 2 Cor 2:4?). Also, it would be very odd if such a letter did in fact exist for the Corinthian church to not preserve it, especially if—according to the theory—those letters it did preserve made reference to it, and especially when those it did preserve were uncomplimentary to them as well.
For these reasons we conclude that the conjectured “painful visit” and “severe letter” are untenable, and that the records lend themselves best to be understood simply by Paul’s two visits to Corinth described in the Acts record, and the two letters preserved to us as 1 and 2 Corinthians.