Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Drama of Ephesians

Timothy G. Gombis. The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010. 188 pages. 978-0-8308-2720-6. $20 (paper).

Timothy G. Gombis, associate professor of New Testament at Cedarville University, offers a scholarly but accessible narrative reading of Ephesians. Chapter 1 organizes the approach to be taken in the book. Rather than mining Ephesians for data in the organization of a systematic theology, the letter is to be read as a script to be embodied. Gombis draws together an eclectic array of interpretive strategies, which include: (1) the functional approach apocalyptic; (2) the narrative structuring influence of the divine warfare motif; and (3) a reading posture of cultural criticism. When combined produce a reading of Ephesians that emphasizes the importance of embodying the life of the Christ-crucified.

Chapter 2 introduces the cosmic characters in Ephesians, described primarily as the powers and authorities. Gombis does not see these as human figures but as “supra-human cosmic rulers” (p. 48). Those who seek to embody the message of Ephesians are to name these powers by discerning cultural corruptions and resisting them by cultivating alternative practices consistent with the pattern of Christ’s life. Chapter 3 discusses the identity-forming implications of 1:3–14, here Gombis draws from current social-scientific studies in recognizing the way the text seeks to transform the cognitive processes of its hearers. This chapter discerns the tension in the dialectic between previous identities and newness in Christ, and suggests that a renewed, gospel-shaped imagination is necessary in order to faithfully embody the drama of new life in Christ.

Gombis claims, in chapter 4, that 1:2—2:22 is structured around the divine warfare motif, and that the church gathered as a temple functions as a monument to God’s triumph of the powers of evil. This victory creates a new humanity, one in which ethnic identities are no longer fundamental, though individual distinctiveness is not lost (p. 103). Chapter 5 covers 3:1–14, here Paul is offered as a group prototype for the way to embody the value that God’s power is revealed in weakness. The Apostle Paul’s persona is drawn on in order to re-socialize these Christ-followers into a new symbolic universe, away from the honor and shame Roman culture, and towards an alternative series of gospel performances that are both “cruciform and subversive” (p. 125).

Chapter 6 describes the church’s identity and task (i.e., its mission) as see in 3:14—4:16. In these verses the church is the locus of God’s victory over the powers, and the agent for making God’s cosmic victory evident. This crucial part in God’s drama is led by Pastors and church leaders, who perform Christ’s life among faith communities. Chapter 7 describes the way Ephesians envisions the Christ-movement to be involved in divine warfare. Here, the motif introduced earlier comes to the fore as the church is positioned as a divine warrior, a community that faithfully embodies the life of Jesus. Finally, the conclusion draws together the implications of the study.

Though, secondary literature and detailed argument was kept to a minimum, I remain unconvinced with regard to the following: (1) Gombis assumes a non-variegated Jewish apocalyptic worldview (cf. Koch and Beker); (2) he too quickly dismisses the likelihood that human authorities are in view, especially with Gombis’ focus on paying attention to the results of actions of the powers and authorities. He quotes 1 Cor 2:6-8 and 15:24–26 to support his contention for cosmic rulers, but the former passage is more likely human rulers, and two different words for “authorities” are used in the two passages (p. 45, but see p. 88). Paul’s apocalyptic is more concrete in its orientation; (3) if national identities are not lost, but are not to be one’s focus (p. 80), what exactly is the status of historic Israel in the newly defined people of God (p. 77; cf. Rom 11:29). (4) It is not clear what happens to the Jewish identity of Christ-followers within this new symbolic universe. Furthermore, if there is such a radical newness in Christ (p. 79), it is not clear how anything from old creation could survive such a transformation (p. 80). It is often not evident if Gombis is speaking of the philosophical question of identity, i.e., the consistency of the self over time (Gilbert Ryle), and the psychological question of “who I am” (Erik Erikson)? These are not unrelated, but there is a danger of equivocation here. Furthermore, the focus does seem to be on personal identity, while it seems that Ephesians is primarily interested in issues of social identity (Henri Tajfel). Gombis’ claims for the one new humanity in Christ overlooks that the result of his interpretation would reify majority culture. The one new humanity is defined in the context of existing identities, not to their exclusion. Though Gombis seeks to navigate the difficult language of Eph 2:15, he does not go far enough. He suggests the problem was “the distinction-making function of the law” (p. 102). It is more likely that what is in view here are the additions or expansions to the law that had caused intergroup problems.

With those critiques aside, Gombis has produced a plausible reading of Ephesians, one that draws on the resources of socio-narrative criticism. His approach to Christ-movement identity would be classified as universalistic but without the obliteration of existing social identities–a middle of the road approach in this ongoing debate. Minna Shkul's Reading Ephesians provides an important counter-approach and an alternative identity-formation reading of Ephesians. My SBL Annual meeting paper for 2011 in San Fransisco will deal with the implications of Shkul's work for gentile identity in Christ. It will be offered in the Disputed Paulines section.