When I started this study on Ephesians, I framed it in terms of a desire to see what it would be like to apply the ‘Integral Hermeneutic’ framework I developed a few years ago to a whole book of the Bible. And, while I definitely did this in terms of preparation, thought process, and ultimate interpretation, because of space considerations, it didn’t always ‘show’ in the individual posts.
Today, in this final post of the series, I’d like to take a bird’s-eye-view of Ephesians and be more intentional about showing how the framework worked.
The first component of the methodology is to pay attention to the subjective experience of reading. For me, in this study of Ephesians, what stood out to me were two ‘through lines’ of the language of being ‘in Christ’ and the theme of power (see here, here, here, and here). While I expected the first, the second was a little surprising. On a more negative note, I was surprised at the consistent ‘othering’ language throughout the letter and felt bogged down by the long section of moral instruction. And, of course, the household code sent off all the warning bells I expected. But even within my discomfort over those portions of the letter, I still felt the exciting, transformational spirit and intent come through. My discomfort never overwhelmed the experience or message for me. I felt strongly that Ephesians was written to make it clear to its original audience, and to us by extension, that being a Christian is not a matter of what team you cheer for or party you identify with, but involves a thoroughgoing transformation of the character and life, and this is just as much a demonstration of God’s power as anything else our sacred histories tell us about.
As I wrote way at the start of the series, in a letter the main people we encounter are the author and the audience. I began the process assuming the general scholarly consensus that Paul did not write Ephesians, but quickly realized the evidence for this claim is pretty weak and largely based on suspect assumptions. Whether or not Paul himself wrote it, the implied author is most definitely Paul and the book’s themes and means of expression are representative of the thought of his ‘undisputed’ letters. The ‘Paul’ we meet here is in prison and awaiting trial; he has come to understand his adversity as one more way he is able to testify to his encounter with the risen Christ and is writing this letter to encourage its readers in their own adversities: to be strengthened in faith, empowered to persevere, and able to understand their struggles and experiences of oppression as ways they too can testify to and live out their faith.
As for the text’s implied readers, we meet a group of predominantly Gentile, that is, non-Jewish, Christians living in and around a cosmopolitan and diverse centre that was a hub of different religious and spiritual ideas. While no specific problems are mentioned in the letter, there is a sense that some of them are wavering in their commitment, that the appeal of some of the old ways is alluring, especially in times of conflict from outside the community of faith. It seems there may also be divisions arising about the tension between unity and equality in the faith on the one hand, and their continued existence in a highly socially-stratified environment.
Who else do we encounter in the pages of Ephesians? We encounter God, who is primarily called ‘Father’ here — a Father who has, from all eternity, developed and enacted a plan to grow his family and household so that those from every nation on earth might be welcomed and adopted as his children and heirs. The Father’s plan worked out in a tremendous show of power, in which he raised Jesus from the dead and glorified him, placing him in authority over all the world’s so-called powers; he then raises up and glorifies us too, with him, and empowers us to withstand the spiritual attacks that may come our way and grow up into everything that Jesus was and is.
Finally, we encounter Jesus, called primarily ‘Christ’, or ‘God’s Anointed’, in the first half of the book, and ‘Lord’, or ‘master’ in the second. He is the one in whom all of Israel’s sacred history has been recapitulated, and all of its promises focused. He thereby becomes the prototype for the ‘new person’, particularly his humble, self-offering love, which he demonstrated and taught in his earthly life, and which came to its fullest realization in his willing self-offering on the cross. Because of his humility and love, he has been raised and glorified and sits as judge over the whole creation.
There were many questions that arose in my reading, which benefited from more ‘objective’ input, in the form of linguistics, archaeology, understanding Old Testament backgrounds and Greco-Roman history and literature, and so on. While I consulted many different commentaries, two quickly emerged as the most helpful in engaging with the kinds of questions I was asking: Klyne Snodgrass’s, for textual and theological questions, and Clinton E. Arnold’s, for historical and archaeological questions.*
What stood out to me here is just how intentional the author was in crafting the book. So many ideas were carefully woven together through all six chapters. Many odd turns of phrase in the book turned out to have precedents in the pagan religions of Asia Minor and therefore were likely meaningful to the original readers, many of whom had participated in those practices, rituals, and beliefs. My favorite two learnings, however, were in how the writer used Old Testament precedents: The reference to Psalm 68, which at first seemed irrelevant and actually a misquotation, turned out to be very appropriate to the book’s argument and faithful to the spirit of the original if not its words. And, the strong reliance on Isaiah for the imagery of the ‘whole armour of God’ was very helpful for me in reframing how I understood the purpose of these gifts and the text as a whole.
As I noted in the ‘Experience’ section, there were parts of Ephesians’ argument that made me uncomfortable. The ‘Challenge’ component of the Integral Hermeneutic framework is meant to look at just these sorts of questions: Whose story is being told? Whose is being ignored? Who ‘wins’ or ‘loses’ from what the text is saying? For these types of questions, the intentionally feminist commentary of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza was particularly useful.
The two major ways this showed up throughout the study were in the ‘othering’ language that is inherent to the kind of ‘before and after’ contrasts Paul draws on throughout the book — by most counts, there are five explicit dichotomies like this in the six chapters — and, of course, in the text’s reaffirmation of and apparent theological justification for the heavily imbalanced power structures within the Greco-Roman household. We spent a lot of time on these concerns, concluding that, no matter what we may make of these texts, we must as Christians (on solid biblical and theological grounds) do everything we can to ensure they are not used to exclude, delegitimize, or marginalize others. And in the case of the household codes, we have to ensure the focus of their application is — as completely warranted by the text itself — on the powerful transforming their relationship to power, rejecting oppressive, abusive, or coercive tactics and attitudes in favour of Christ’s humble, ‘power for’ and ‘power with’, approach that uses power to empower others.
The final step in the framework is to bring everything together in a way that is growth-oriented, ecological (in the sense of being good for those around us), and increases empathy and awareness.
The whole point of the life in Christ in Ephesians is transformation. It expects and insists that not only does being Christian mean something, but that it changes everything, from the inside out. Living in Christ is nothing short of a whole new life. Because of this focus, Ephesians contains the clearest text about personal growth in the entire New Testament (4.11-16). But this growth is not about strengthening the ego or for personal gain. It is growth in love and its aim is for all of us to reach a maturity that looks like Jesus’ humble, other- and service-oriented life. And so, the reading of Ephesians that has emerged throughout this study easily meets the criteria set out here.
At the same time, there are parts of Ephesians that have been used throughout history for the sake of excluding others, controlling behaviour, and providing religious justification for oppressive systems and relationships. We need to keep such texts and our application of them where we can see them, lest we fall into these traps that are so counter to the way of Jesus and are therefore not just ‘un-Christian’ but ‘Anti-Christian’. As Christians, our worst enemies have always been ourselves. We need to stay vigilant about this and always insist that our faith and our Scriptures transform our hearts and lives so that we do not blend in to the bland background of conventional life, but live into the full scope of Christ’s humble, other-oriented, self-offering love.
Now to the One who has the power to do well beyond anything we can ask or imagine, in accordance with the power working in us, be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen!