22 June 2012

The Drama of Ephesians

I recently reviewed for Themelios the book by our brother Tim Gombis, The Drama of Ephesians:  Participating in the Triumph of God. It was a longer review than normal, substantively engaging with the main thrusts of the book, because I believe the book exhibits weaknesses that are representative of larger movements in New Testament scholarship. Below is the concluding part of the review, which identifies strengths and weaknesses. I post this on my blog because I think what I say here applies to large swaths of NT work being done.
The book has many strengths.
First, Gombis writes both clearly and engagingly. He does not write with the tortuous need to sound sophisticated that plagues so much biblical scholarship.
Second, he transparently has a heart for the welfare of the church. Interpretation of the text and practice within the community are never divorced but remain wedded at every point.
It is also refreshing, third, to continue to see the gap filled between commentaries and monographs on one side and popular-level works on the other. Gombis writes out of deep reflection on the biblical text, and he would clearly be competent to write an advanced commentary on Ephesians. Yet this book is accessible to those who lack the degrees and language proficiencies required to engage higher-level NT scholarship. One hopes for many more biblical and theological books in this genre.
Fourth, much of the content is insightful, meaningful, and elegantly expressed—for example, the repeated reminders that Jesus Christ rules the cosmos even now in spite of what our spiritually unadjusted eyes may see (e.g., p. 23), or the penetrating exposure of how consumerism works spiritually (pp. 63-66), or the discussion of the biblical-theological theme of temple (pp. 86, 88, 104-5), or the treatment of the upside-down framework of gospel triumph in which strength is located in weakness (esp. pp. 110-13, 120-24), or the cosmic significance of the spiritual warfare that takes place not in casting out demons but in quiet acts of selfless love and service (pp. 183-84).

There is much here to be embraced and passed on.
I question, however, whether Gombis ultimately succeeds in providing a convincing and well-rounded portrait of Ephesians. The reasons for this can be clumped into three categories: false dichotomies, theological imbalance, and gospel ambiguity.

First, Gombis erects false dichotomies. He begins, for example, by suggesting that previous studies of Ephesians encourage us to read the letter as "a collection of facts or theological truths" (p. 15). Such an approach, says Gombis, is misguided. We are rather to read Ephesians as "a compelling and exciting drama that communities seek to inhabit and perform. . . . God does not merely aim to inform or to provide Christians with material for an abstracted theological system that I am supposed to prune and maintain in good order" (p. 17). Leaving aside the question of whether a straw man is being erected here (how many previous studies really present Ephesians as "a collection of facts"?), Gombis establishes a dichotomy that resounds throughout the opening chapters: Ephesians is not to be mined for "abstract" (again on p. 30) doctrine but rather presents a drama in which believers are to participate. Thus, "Ephesians is not merely there to give us information. It is designed to transform us as we seek to become gospel characters" (p. 181). While Gombis includes the word "merely," implying that Ephesians does give us information, he consistently sets up his dramatic reading of Ephesians in competition with allegedly "abstract" doctrine. This feels forced and, simply, unnecessary. Can we not read Ephesians as providing transcendent doctrinal truth and as doing so through a dramatic narrative of divine conquest in Christ? Must we choose between the two? Was not Dorothy Sayers on to something when she said that the drama is the doctrine?

Second, the book is theologically imbalanced, and that on three fronts.

1. The "powers" are highlighted to the neglect of human complicity in explaining the fallenness of the world. To be sure, Gombis unearths a dimension to Ephesians that is both there and often overlooked: the role of the suprahuman powers. These powers crop up not only in Eph 6 but also, as Gombis effectively shows, throughout the letter. This insight we should gratefully receive. Yet the focus on the powers moves beyond focus to hyper-focus by consistently failing to acknowledge the role that human sin plays in the world's corruption (e.g., pp. 58, 72-73, 76, 86, 90, 134-35; though see 94). While Gombis is surely right to highlight a neglected theme, his cure seems to leave us worse off than the disease as he effectively ignores the role of "the passions of our flesh" (2:3) in corrupting this world. One would not know from this book that Ephesians shows not only that in Christ we triumph over the powers but also that in Christ "we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses" (1:7; cf. 1:13; 2:1, 3-5, 7-9; 3:18-19; 4:32; 5:1-2, 25-27). The scope of the fall, and the corresponding scope of Christ's work, lies not only outside us (the powers) but also inside us (the flesh).

2. The corporate is highlighted to the neglect of the individual. Thus "predestination" in Eph 1 has to do with corporate identity formation (pp. 76-77), gifts in Eph 4 are distributed not to individuals but to the corporate church (p. 136), and the command in Eph 5 not to get drunk but to be filled with the Spirit "is not directed at individuals" but rather " is contrasting two sorts of community performances" (p. 174). Gombis' emphasis on the corporate dimensions to Christianity is, once more, surely right and needful. Yet it is so over-pressed that at times one wonders if Ephesians has anything left to say to the individual. Such reversing of Western Christianity's pervasive individualism certainly goes along with the scholarly ethos today, and is something with which biblically minded believers can quickly empathize. But one begins to wonder if in denigrating individualism we come close to losing the individual altogether (helpful here is Gary Burnett's Paul and the Salvation of the Individual [BibInt; Leiden: Brill, 2001]).

3. The horizontal aspects to Christianity are highlighted to the neglect of the vertical (pp. 142-47). That is, the fallenness of humanity and the purpose of Christ's work are cast as disunity and corporate reconciliation, respectively, while the need for vertical reconciliation is quietly overlooked. Gombis's emphasis here is again at home in the world of current NT scholarship. One thinks of the horizontalizing impulse of the New Perspective, with its centralizing of Jew-Gentile unity among Paul's concerns. Yet while it is gloriously true that "God sent Jesus to die and raised him from the dead to create a unified church" (p. 144), when this truth is not couched explicitly in the reason Christ's work generates unity—namely, because salvation by sheer grace empties all human boasting, including that of race or class—the call to unity is rendered impotent. Horizontal reconciliation can take place no further than the degree to which vertical reconciliation is held high and cherished.

Third, and most important, is gospel ambiguity: a consistent fuzzying of what the gospel is. To be sure, the NT authors speak of the gospel in different ways, depending on contextual needs, etc. Yet one cannot help but think the NT authors themselves would feel uncomfortable with the insistent call by Gombis for Christians to perform the gospel (pp. 19, 22, 34, 57, 67, 108, 134, 153, 156, 181), to be "gospel actors" (pp. 129, 144). In pursuing "the communal action of gospel performance" (p. 143), our churches are to give "faithful performances of the gospel" (p. 168). Is this how Paul speaks of the gospel? To be sure, we are to live "in step with the truth of the gospel" (Gal 2:14). Yet one feels that Gombis is so focused on what is a major (and, indeed, necessary) result of the gospel—faithful imitation of Jesus before the world—that the gospel itself, what God has done for us in Jesus, is effectively muted. One could happily receive Gombis's work and commend it to others if this recurring call to perform the gospel were consistently connected to what has been performed for us in the gospel. But there is scant mention of the discontinuity between what Jesus has done and what we as his followers do, with virtually all focus given to the continuity between what Jesus has done and what we as his followers do (see Peter Bolt's helpful distinction between "inclusive" and "exclusive" dimensions of Christ's work in The Cross from a Distance: Atonement in Mark's Gospel [Downers Grove: IVP, 2004], pp. 70, 132, 141). Thus when Gombis speaks repeatedly of "cruciformity" as a way of life for believers, this is surely faithful to Paul and salutary for the contemporary church. But can this call land with vibrancy and health on ears that are not being equally tuned to hear of Jesus' cruciformity, in his death and resurrection, on our behalf?

Other quibbles might be mentioned. For example, Gombis gives no indication of the complexity of the question of how Christians are to engage (and change?) the culture, but simply assumes that the church is called to transform the culture (pp. 169-71). But such oversights are minor and infrequent, and are overshadowed both by the book's strengths and broader weaknesses just outlined.

Transcending all that has been said in this review is the most important truth of all, that Tim Gombis and I are on the same team working together toward the same ultimate goal: Jesus Christ glorified in his church. It is remarkably easy to forget this in intra-evangelical discussions such as this one. And Gombis' work has many commendable elements, already listed. Yet the book is so imbalanced in such fundamental ways that the losses outweigh the gains. For all that is thought-provoking and insightful, Gombis replaces the long-established with the neglected rather than supplementing the long-established with the neglected. This is unfortunate because the emphases Gombis highlights are truly there in Ephesians, they have indeed been overlooked, and they hold powerful potential to transform believers.
As a side note. When I review a book and disagree with the skeleton of the book (not the fingernails) I send a draft of the review to the author before it goes public. Makes us write differently. Especially younger ones like me, who more easily, I think, slip into attack mode and disrespect. In doing this you are not asking if they agree with the review--you are asking if you have represented them fairly, a different question. Doing this honors the reviewer, helps eliminate any snideness in tone or "gotcha's" in content, and ensures you present the author fairly. And when you write a book, you will want your reviewers to treat you in this way.

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