Saturday, April 7, 2012

Review of Clinton Arnold's Ephesians ZECNT Commentary

Clinton E. Arnold. Ephesians. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 10. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. 538. ISBN 978-0-310-24373-1. $36.99 (hardcover).

Clinton E. Arnold’s exegetically focused commentary contends that Ephesians, rather than being primarily an occasional letter, or alternately a theological treatise, the two default positions for Ephesians commentators, is more precisely written for the purposes of identity formation within the Christ-movement in Ephesus and Asia Minor. Paul, whom Arnold sees as the author, seeks to make salient an “in Christ” identity for both Jews and gentiles as they struggle against the powers of darkness, while also calling them to a life of purity and holiness in the midst of a culture diametrically opposed to this type of lifestyle and identity transformation (p. 45). This approach to Ephesians gives coherence to Arnold’s commentary and provides a direct communication path for those preaching this letter today. His awareness of contemporary research provides an up-to-date assembling of recent developments in Ephesians scholarship; particularly noteworthy is the way he builds on the fine work of Timothy Gombis (pp. 179, 250, 252-53, 350-51, 371).

Those familiar with the ZECNT series will find a similar structural approach to the text, which is to be expected since Arnold is also the general editor for the series. The commentary is divided into preachable units and each chapter contains the following: literary context, main idea, translation (integrated with a clausal diagram), structure, exegetical outline, explanation of the text, and theology in application. This framework reinforces the purpose of the series to provide that which is necessary for proper engagement with the Greek text in the context of preaching. Though sometimes Arnold can only assert the findings of key syntactical or grammatical decisions without sufficient substantiation (see esp. 2:11-22; 5:21-33), his exegetical instincts are often correct and his previous monographs on Ephesians (and Colossians) provide extensive argumentation for many of these exegetical claims. This raises an essential point; Arnold’s commentary, while an important part of a pastor’s sermon preparation, requires further dialogue partners. For exegetical argumentation from a traditional commentary, Thielman’s Ephesians in the BECNT series is quite helpful, and from an identity formation standpoint, Snodgrass’s Ephesians in the NIVAC series provides an excellent counterpoint for many of the identity discussions.

Arnold briefly addresses key exegetical difficulties that pastors and teachers would come across in exposition and his extensive application of theology sections provide excellent examples for how to make these often abstract exegetical details more concrete. His cultural context excursuses spread throughout the commentary provide relevant information often inaccessible to busy pastors (e.g., pp. 419-22 on slavery). From an identity formational standpoint, Arnold’s approach to Christian identity would be described as universalistic, the dominant position in the contemporary debate. He sees substantial discontinuity between creation and new creation, and often dismisses the significance of existing cultural identities within the argument of the letter. For example, he spends an inordinate amount of time showing that the Ephesian Haustafel in 5:21-33 has a Christological basis and has no continuity with Roman house codes; however, when it comes to 6:1-9 he seems to allow for some continuity (pp. 357-58, 425). It would seem that Paul could just as likely be arguing for the transformation of existing cultural scripts, rather than the constructions of a household motif de novo. The implication of Arnold’s argument in 5:21-33 is that existing cultural identities are irrelevant within the Christ-movement, an inference also drawn from his universalistic understanding of the “one new man” in 2:11-22 (p. 159). However, Ephesians can also be understood from a particularistic standpoint, one in which existing identities, though transformed in Christ, may continue to be relevant, at least for missional purposes. The latter point Arnold specifically rejects with regard to the Haustafel (p. 370). This is not the appropriate venue to argue this point, only to suggest that there is an alternative identity-forming reading that could be made, taking into consideration Paul’s rule in all the churches that each is to remain in his or her calling with God (1 Cor 7:17-24). With this reservation noted, Arnold provides exactly what the series calls for, a volume that seeks to gather in one place the necessary components for critical engagement with the Greek text so that teaching and preaching can be more effective.

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