on Ephesians and the Center of Paul’s Theology

We’ve all been trained to think the bulk of Paul’s theology is found in Romans, when actually….


consider the following:

The Christian church—at least in the West, and especially Protestants—has read Paul through the lens of Romans.  We have historically regarded this letter as the center of Paul’s theology.

I don’t think this is right.  Inasmuch as we can speak of a “center” of Paul’s theology and insofar as any extant NT letter represents that, I think Ephesians is a better candidate.  Among other reasons, here are just a few:

First, Romans is situational while Ephesians isn’t.  Paul argues as he does in Romans because he’s trying to resolve a conflict.  Many of his statements are directed to that end, and when they’re taken out of their communicative context and transformed into abstract theological principles, they give a distorted picture of Paul’s theology.

Ephesians, on the other hand, isn’t situational.  It’s probably a circular letter that Paul intended to be read to a range of churches in Asia Minor, informing them of what God has done in Christ and how they can participate in that.  Because Paul writes to give multiple Christian communities a broad understanding, we can say that Ephesians represents Paul’s basic gospel proclamation (i.e., Paul’s “theology”).

Well there is more and it is certainly a provocative post.  I like it!  Let me know what you think.  🙂


on Spiritual Gifts

spiritual-giftsAndrew Ferris has posted an updated interview he had with Ken Berding on his 2006 book What Are Spiritual Gifts?: Rethinking the Conventional View (Kregel) that I think is well worth your time to read and consider.  Especially in light of Tim Gombis’ recent post, Disnefying Spiritual Gifts.

What Berding does and Gombis too, is take the whole longstanding notion of what spiritual “gifts” are and turns it on its head!  Traditionally and probably also because of our highly individualistic culture in the West we tend to view view the “gifts” in terms of the individual and in terms of abilities. what can an individual person do with the gifting or abilities the Holy Spirit has given him or her: teach, pastor, faith, knowledge, healing, serving, etc.

Berding re-thinks this conventional view – he turns it on its head.  Instead of a spiritual abilities view it is about ministry – a spiritually empowered ministry.  Consider the following from the interview:

Could you summarize some of the reasons you think the spiritual ministries approach is correct—as opposed to the special abilities approach?

Yes, let me limit my response to ten reasons. If you want to see these explained more fully kenneth_berding(along with other key arguments), you will need to take a look at the book. But these will get you started.

1. Many people assume that the Greek word charisma means special ability. This is a misunderstanding of how words work and confuses the discussion.

2. Paul’s central concern in Ephesians 4, Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 12-14—the “spiritual gifts passages”—is that every believer fulfills his or her role in building up the community of faith. That’s what he’s writing about; that’s what he cares about. The Corinthians, not Paul, were the ones who were interested in special abilities.

3. Paul doesn’t use any ability concepts in his extended metaphor of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. His illustration is all about the roles—or the ministries—of the various members of the body.

4. The actual activities that Paul lists in Ephesians 4, Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 12 can all be described as ministries, but they cannot all be described as abilities.

5. The idea of ministry assignments is a common thread that weaves its way through Paul’s letters. The theme of special abilities is not an important theme in his writings.

6. In approximately 80 percent of Paul’s one hundred or so lists, he places a word or phrase that indicates the nature of the list in the immediate context. There are such indicators in all four of Paul’s lists. This is significant because indicators such as the words appointed, functions, and equipping instruct us that we must read these lists as ministries.

7. When Paul uses the words grace and given together, he’s discussing ministry assignments—either his own or those of others—in the immediate context. This combination appears in two of the three chapters that include ministry lists.

8. Paul talks in detail about his own ministry assignments and suggests that, just as he had received ministry, all believers have also received ministry assignments.

9. The spiritual-abilities view suggests that service should flow out of our strengths; Paul says that sometimes—though not always—we’re called to minister out of weakness. The weakness theme in Paul’s letters does not work with the idea of spiritual gifts as strengths.

10. Neither Paul nor any other New Testament author ever encourages people to try to discover their special abilities; nor is there any example of any New Testament character who embarked on such a quest.

There you have it.  You can read on to learn more but I think this is a much needed paradigm shift in thinking about the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of both the believer and the believing community, the People of God.  I am not sure where Berding stands on the issue but I see this as a highly egalitarian view not just of the gifts (keeps individuals from being elevated over others) but of ministry in general.  It really does put service back into the purpose and intent of the ministries of the Spirit.  Helps to downplay the “disnefying of gifts” to take this view.  This is good stuff!

Ephesians and the Drama of God

The other day I learned of Stephen E. Fowl’s recent contribution to the New Testament Library Commentary set, Ephesians: A Commentary.  I tweeted about it and asked if any one knew much about it since it was so new and I hadn’t seen any reviews.  Chris Tilling said to be sure to get it as Stephen is the real deal.   A little while later that day, a friend blessed me with a copy (Thank You!) and I can already tell it is going to be good and one you are going want to get your hands on!!   Dr. Fowl is a leading scholar on the theological interpretation of Scripture and he incorporates that into this work on Ephesians!  Michael J. Gorman calls it a “truly theological commentary.”

Well, for me at least, how do I know it is going to be good?  🙂  Feast upon this short snippet summarizing Ephesians chapter 1:

Following the opening greeting, Paul offers a blessing to the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” On the one hand, this directs praise to God and invites the Ephesians to likewise praise God. Moreover, this blessing also allows Paul to narrate God’s drama of salvation, a drama that was initiated before the foundation of the world and that reaches its climax as everything is brought to its proper end in Christ. This drama is cosmic in its scope and consequences.  In addition, God has graciously incorporated the Ephesians into this drama.  Indeed, the presence of the Spirit in the Ephesians’ midst confirms their incorporation into God’s drama of salvation (1:3–14).

This leads Paul to offer a prayer on the Ephesians’ behalf. The hope of this prayer is that the Ephesians will come to understand the significance of God’s drama of salvation and Christ’s particular place in this drama (1:15–23).

I love it!  Paul is narrating the great drama of God’s redeeming work in Christ to redeem all creation and especially to include us in that process!  A story that reaches back to the very beginnings of time and space!  A story that each one of us, who is “in Christ,” has a part in (he later talks about how Eph 2 tells more of our incorporation in to the great drama of God in Christ!)  A story that each one of us lives out in the different contexts of our own lives and situations and circumstances!

Yeah, this is gonna be a good one!  🙂


just ordered

thanks to the graciousness of a few folks I was able to use a couple gift cards (the rest will be for Debbie).   So I decided on the following:

Harold Hoehner’s Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker Academic, 2002).   This was a big chunk of the bill but I just could not go on not having it anymore.   Probably the only other commentary on Ephesians that I’ll be interested in from here out is the one by Clint Arnold in the Zondervan set.  So, for now it is Hoehner, Theilman, Gombis on Ephesians.

Patrick Miller’s The Ten Commandments: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church (WJK, 2009).  I first learned of Miller’s work when I had classes at the Fuller Seminary branch in Seattle on a class on the Psalms.  I like his stuff and wanted to get this work since the Ten Commandments have such widespread influence in how we understand our relationship with God, with others and with the Scriptures in general.

Christopher W. Morgan, et al., Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Zondevan, 2004).  With Hell being the “hot” topic at the moment (pun intended) I wanted something I could read up on for myself (though at the moment I am caught between the traditional (everlasting ongoing never ending punishment forever and forever) view and the conditional immortality (that eternal destruction (death) is ultimate and eternal “life” is granted only to believers) view (for which I will later have to consider reading Edwad Fudge’s book The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment).

So that was my order!

Book Review: The Drama of Ephesians

It’s with a heartfelt thanks to Adrianna Wright of IVP that I write this review of Timothy Gombis’ book The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God (IVP, 2010).  This book has been a real transformational book for me (maybe it has deal the deal for me) – I have been in process for some time now in coming to see and understand the whole of Scripture, and especially the New Testament, as not just doctrine or sets of propositional truths (these are there) – but as (and even more so) narrative or story.  Within this story there is a key theme: redemption.

The Scriptures are the narration – the drama, if you will – of God’s redemptive acts in salvation history. Through these redemptive acts in history God invites us to participate in them, even performing them  along with him, to be co-actors in the story of redemption, what Gombis will call “the great drama of redemption.”  God is inviting us to live out his purposes for redeeming humanity and the creation through our participating with him in his triumph over the powers and authorities of this present evil age, whom he defeated in and through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So, then, Gombis sees Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (Yes, he believes Paul wrote it) not as a doctrinal/polemical treatise but as drama.  He writes in part:

There is nothing wrong with people coming to Scripture with the aim of doing what it says – if only we had more of that!  My objection to this general approach to Bible interpretation is that we are not rightly reading Ephesians if we view it as a collection of facts or theological truths that need to be extracted, removed from their contexts and arranged in to a doctrinal system in another setting [e.g., a systematic theology].  Ephesians is not a doctrinal treatise in the scholastic sense of the term.  It is, rather, a drama in which Paul portrays the powerful, reality-altering cosmos-transforming acts of God in Christ to redeem God’s world and save God’s people for the glory of his name.  A narrative approach to Paul’s letter, therefore, is far more appropriate that a scientific approach. (15)

…and a lot more inviting approach!  This matches Gombis’ aim for the book:

My aim is to discern the ways of God with his people. This book reads Ephesians asking, How does God intend for the gospel dynamics in Ephesians to overtake our lives and our world and to redeem them for his glory and for the good of his beautiful but broken world?…. my ultimate hope is that Ephesians will move into our lives and reorder everything with gospel hope and resurrection power (10-11).

So, given the approach to reading Ephesians as the drama of God’s triumph over the powers Gombis starts by seeing Ephesians 6:10-18 not as a lesson about how to protect oneself from the devil but as a lens through which the rest of the letter is written (and not to the individual believer but to the entire gathered church) – God has defeated the powers and authorities of this present evil age – praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms – so therefore – as the redeemed people of God stand firm together against the powers though they are ultimately defeated continue to try to subvert God’s plans and keep the world in a broken corrupted state!  (btw: Gombis argues Paul is not thinking here of the outfit of a Roman Legion but of the divine warrior as described throughout the OT and especially Isaiah 59:15-19, where else would he quote from right?  :-))

Additionally, he calls us to live out (perform) the role of the divine warrior (working to overcome oppression and injustice – and the effects of “the powers” in this world through subversive (Holy) living) in our own cultures not by winning but by losing – by living in humility and weakness (recognizing our faults and limitations and our total dependency on God) and in cruciformity to Jesus Christ, who himself did not win by winning but by losing, through his death on the cross.

Also, through the drama lens, passages such as Ephesians 2:1-10 become not doctrinal treatises explaining how people get saved but rather a narrative exposition of the outcome of God’s triumph (defeat) over the powers and his bringing us into the story to participate with him in the redemptive drama to redeem creation and make a people for himself and to the glory of his own name!

Passages such as Ephesians Chpts 3-5 are not just rules and things not to do in the Christian life and standards by which to judge others – but parts of the script for us to live out redemptively (even improvisationally) in our relationships with each other that by in large are ways we go about “truthing in love” or instead of speaking the truth in love (which get way too abused), living out in love as we participate in the triumph of God over the powers and in redeeming the world to the way it was intended to be.

Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, Teachers, then, are not offices to exert power and control per se, but servant roles (spiritual giftings) people play in helping the communities of faith live out the redemptive purposes of God in their lives – they are like coaches and directors who are helping the people play out their roles as God’s redeemed people in their own specific situations (improvising the script (Scripture)) and even within the community of faith itself – rooting and cheering each other on or bring direction and correction to better live out their roles and participate in God’s triumph over the powers.

Follow?  🙂  See yet how it works?  It’s really a wonderful approach.

This is not the ordinary commentary but a good supplement to the commentary (the trees) to help see the broader picture (the forest) of God’s plan for redemption of all creation.  We need both approaches.

This is a book every pastor, teacher, and or Christian NEEDS to pick up and read – one I would say is a great pastoral theology and one of my best read books of 2010!


Suggested Reading to further investigate this theme:

I want to continue developing this idea of the drama/story of redemption so I might be reading though Richard Hay’s book Conversion of the Imagination (Eerdmans) soon (which I have) and am thinking I will be picking up Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine (WJK) and perhaps Bartholomew and Goheen’s The Drama of Scripture: Finding our Place in the Biblical Story (Baker).

Any other books you have read that touch on this theme?

Timothy Gombis on the role of Pastors

If I had read the following from Timothy Gombis’ book The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God when Robert interviewed me over on the Near Emmaus blog, I would have put this quote in there!  lol!  He writes regarding leaders in the church:

….God has given leaders to the church in order to direct its performances of of God’s triumph.  Pastors are to guide their commuities to be churches of reconciliation and unity.  Pastors and church leaders are to resist following cultural fads.  And pastors are to help churches grow up into ever more skillful communal performances of Jesus on earth.  They are to help churches “truth in love.”  pg 134.

Use this amazon link, and get the book, you NEED it!  lol!  (plus I get credit if you buy it through my link).

An interview with author Timothy Gombis

Matthew Montonini has yet another great interview with an NT Scholar – this time with Tim Gombis who recently wrote The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God (IVP, 2010).    Here is an excerpt:

2. Your main goal in this book is to perform ‘a dramatic reading’ of Ephesians (9). Could you explain how this differs from the typical way Ephesians is mined for doctrinal truths in order to produce a coherent theological system?

Christians sometimes fall into the habit of reading the Bible as a resource for something else—something outside of the Bible, like a doctrinal system. So, we see Paul mention justification in Galatians 2 or Romans 3 and we call to mind our doctrine of justification and note mentally that these passages are ones that can be utilized when speaking of that doctrine. Any part of Scripture, then, becomes a collection of bits of data to be taken elsewhere and arranged along with loads of other bits to create something else.

But we seldom imagine that there are narratival and theologically rich trajectories in Scripture, even in Paul’s letters. We need to learn to read “across” the text to determine these trajectories and then immerse ourselves in them to see how the gospel that Paul articulates to churches in Rome or Asia Minor might rebuke, redeem, and transform us. It’s a far more compelling exercise to find ourselves as characters in these gospel narratives, trying on different roles and gaining wisdom for creative Christian action in the world.


9. After reading this volume, I realize two things immediately. One, pastors and leaders need to engage your volume in order for the message of Ephesians to be captured within their faith communities. Second, this is a book that needs to be read more than once, as there are many profound and practical insights of which the reader needs to be reminded.

What is your hope for this volume?

I hope the book sheds light on Paul’s cosmic vision of God’s redemptive mission and how communities are empowered to participate in that. I hope that it expands the horizons of readers’ imaginations so that they see that God’s salvation is huge—cosmic in scope. At the same time, it is embodied and performed in the simplest acts of humility and self-giving love. God’s resurrection power is overwhelming and overpowering, but we get in on it when we reconcile, forgive, transform strangers into friends, and love one another in the name of Jesus.

Go. Get. This. Book!  Enjoy!   In agreement with Mike Bird, “this could be one of the best books on Ephesians since Markus Barth’s The Broken Wall.”  Well, I never read that book but this is an exciting one for sure – I am in the middle of reading it and it is good!

New book on Ephesians – USPS edition

Remember the posts I did on Theilman’s new work out on Ephesians?  Well, Adrianna Wright of IVP saw my post and let me know she was sending me a copy of Timothy Gombis’ new book The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God (IVP, 2010).  I was happily obliged to receive it!

It came on Saturday but I didn’t have the chance to post about it til now, nor have I had much time to even skim it – but it does look pretty interesting.  To be sure, it is not a commentary but more of a work from a thematic approach which I am fine with as I think these kinds of works do well to complement commentaries and such.

In fact I did notice in the preface that Gombis wants it to be a work that can bridge the gap between acadamia and the general non academic audience (Gombis earned his PhD at the University of St Andrews under the supervision of Bruce Longenecker).  I like that approach because it was written for the church and not for some echo chamber of academic scholars.  I know that sounds harsh but I think that some works can be like that when more often the academy needs to put out works that reflect solid academic scholarship but is accessible to the general audience.  This is as it should be, no?

Well, here is a description from the publisher:

Timothy Gombis has rediscovered Ephesians as a deeply dramatic text that follows the narrative arc of the triumph of God in Christ. Here Paul invites the church to celebrate and participate in this divine victory over the powers of this present age. In Gombis’s dramatic reading of Ephesians we are drawn into a theological and cultural engagement with this epochal story of redemption.

Additionally, he offers a new way of interpreting Ephesisans (from an author Q&A that came with the book):

Rather than reading Paul through traditional theological categories, The Drama of Ephesians reads the letter through the ending which is saturated with warfare imagery and rhetoric.  Rather than seeing this as some sort of rhetorically powerful tacked-on ending, it actually sets the interpretive trajectory for the entire letter and brings Paul’s argument to light.

Well now, this should be pretty interesting don’tcha think?  lol!  It different that is.  Many of us have seen it from a “Sit, Walk, Stand” approach but I think Gombis may be on to something here so it should be a fun read!


Go here to see an interview with the author!


some great questions on Ephesians

from Theilman’s introduction to the Ephesians (his new commentary in the BECNT series is just out).  In his introduction Theilman writes regarding the literary aspects of the letter:

Second, Ephesians is full of grammatical and lexical ambiguities that affect the meaning of the text. Does Paul pray in 1:17 that God will give his readers a wise spirit or that he will give them God’s Spirit, who in turn will give them wisdom? In 1:18, does he pray that God will give his readers a wise spirit or the Spirit? In 1:23, does the church fill up the one who fills all things, or is it full of the one who fills all things? Does it fill up the one who is entirely filled, or is it full of the one who is entirely filled? Why does Paul begin the sentence after 1:23 with “and” when it has no clear connection to what precedes it (2:1)? When Paul says that his readers once walked “according to the Ruler of the realm of the air, of the spirit of the one now at work among the sons of disobedience” (2:2), does he refer to a hierarchy of spiritual enemies, or does he elaborately describe one of these enemies (presumably the devil)? When he says that Christ “tore down the middle wall of the partition, the enmity in his flesh” (2:14), do the terms “middle wall,” “partition,” and “enmity” all refer to the same object? Did Christ destroy them “in his flesh,” or was the enmity Christ tore down somehow located “in his flesh”? In 2:21, does “every building” hold together in Christ, or does “the whole building” hold together in him? Does Paul command his readers to be rooted and grounded in love in 3:17, or does he say that they have been rooted and grounded in love? The letter’s final sentence pronounces a blessing on those who love Christ “in incorruption” (6:24), but what could this phrase mean?


I don’t know about you but those sure are some thought provoking questions!   Any thoughts all you who have the answers?  🙂