Review: The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God

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Did  you know that God is the most high but not  alone on the cosmic stage? It so declares Timothy Gombis in his book, The Drama of Ephesians. What Gombis has done is to take his doctoral thesis and novelize it and in doing so brings to light some modern thoughts in monotheism studies which, at least for him sets the stage for a radically different interpretation of Ephesians which is cosmic in scope.

His second chapter calls us to remember that the Jewish worldview at the time included cosmic actors on the supernatural stage and asks not to forget them in the great drama which is Ephesians. After a brief tour through the thought world that Paul inhabits, Gombis moves into a discussion on a modern take on these powers. On 49-57, Gombis launches into a needless and seemingly out of place explanation of modern powers. I say needless because it seems out of place in a scholarly assessment of Ephesians and a better way to read it, however, he does remind us through this action that he is a Christian scholar and theologian, with the adjective of the two positions being the most important. He is careful to point out that we are not to directly engage these spiritual powers (pg49) although he does follow in Yoder’s footsteps and sees the Church as confronting the results of their influence. In this, he seeks to connect first, before he explains Ephesians in detail, the story to the modern reader. Do we still face unnamed powers and authorities? He contends yes, and cautions us not to go further than Paul (not to be adventurous, he writes) in confronting these powers but to simply recognize that the supernatural is still at play.

Gombis is low on Christology (although throughout the book, Christ is still Lord and still sent from the Father (p89), at least in content as his vision of Christ is somewhat muted (as it necessarily must be in a book such as this), but what he does for (Protestant) Ecclesiology is powerful (see his section on the Church as Divine Warrior, p157-158). He takes Ephesians and dramatizes it (p19), setting what would normally be a stiff commentary into an easily readable format. Gombis does what others should – he takes his doctoral thesis from his work at St. Andrews and shows that all of that time was not wasted and applies it to practical theology. He novelizes his doctoral work to make it available and useful to the Church at large. In other words, his first concern is for the church of Jesus Christ and her mission in the world. He simply wants to make use of his talents towards that goal. What’s more, is that he sees the Church as the single most important force in the world for God. As he reiterates several times, the Church serves as the source in which Christ liberates the world (p90). His cross was the start of the new age, and the Church is pushing the world towards that goal.

His central thesis, that of the supernatural being a cosmic battlefield, is one not foreign to either the Scripture or to modern biblical studies. We see it in Job, Genesis (especially the first Creation account which is explained further in Job and Psalms), and especially developed during the so-called intertestamental period (which fed Paul’s thought world, p36) where in the supernatural realm was a scene of battles between lower deities. He takes this and applies the divine warfare motif to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (he maintains Pauline authorship) and while not labeling the ‘powers’ notes how Paul instructs the Church to rescue the perishing. In this, a new community is built upon the victory won by Christ who was sent by the Most High God to finally free humanity from the bondage to these powers (p40). It is interesting, then, his take on these powers (who he insists that we simply do not fight against) and how they play into our Church. From the need to have larger than life images of pastors and churches (‘triumphalism, p119) to our (American) notion that we are a religious nation and that the Grace of God can be shed abroad not by the Spirit but by man-made laws (he calls us to resist these cultural challenges and fears, p125, and to give up all control in these issues to God). For him, political systems, financial systems, and even identifiable sociological preconceptions are ‘powers’ in the Pauline sense, and it is these powers which Christ is waging war against through the Church, a church which meets these challenges by being the dramatized community of believers that Paul called it to be.

Gombis has written a book with several facets which highlights the importance – the equal importance to such books as Romans – of Ephesians. There is the commentary feature which takes passages and shows their interconnectedness where he argues against modern thought that Ephesians is not merely a set of theological reflections, but a cohesive book with a central theological goal. Further, there is the running commentary on this commentary wherein he applies his theological exploration to practical theological application. In this, he tackles not only what the powers mean to us today in examples such as poverty and government bureaucracy (as a Government bureaucrat, I found this true) but what the passages in Ephesians teaches us about dealing with those powers. Further, there is the simmering call to be the Church of Jesus Christ as Paul saw it (p113), as Paul preached it, and as Paul lived it (p11). But, what I found the most interesting is that Dr. Gombis was able to transform what to many, most likely, would be a boring doctoral thesis into a readily applicable tool for the Church at large, even if you don’t accept that the ancient world and the modern world interact daily with the ‘powers.’

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Be sure to check out Brian’s review as well!

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Post By Joel Watts (10,085 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

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4 thoughts on Review: The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God

  1. Joel – this is a good review. I guess I am in a situation right now personally where the whole book really spoke to me on a number of levels so I didn’t see anything out of place – one thing I’d like to offer is with regard to this comment:

    For him, political systems, financial systems, and even identifiable sociological preconceptions are ‘powers’ in the Pauline sense, and it is these powers which Christ is waging war against through the Church

    I think for Gombis, these things are not themselves the powers but things corrupted by the powers – he is using them to show that while humanity may have good intentions (i.e., helping the poor) the powers are constantly seeking to keep human inistitutions corrupted (in frustration) in an effort to subvert God’s ultimate purposes – thus things like the welfare system starting out with good intentions then becoming a burden to the poor – thus the call to live as the Divine Warrior seeking to overcome the corrupting efforts of the powers through our own forms of subversive living or “truthing in love” – see yet how it works? :-)

    • Let me clarify – For me, I identified those things with the powers as one might the ancient Assyrians with their gods. I agree with you that Gombis is saying that our good intentions are often corrupted by these powers, but I was trying to not the systems which are created, which the powers inhibit.

      I loved the book – and frankly, without sounding hokey, it brings into sharp focus the situation in Korea and the Ivory Coast.

      A powerfully wonderful book!

  2. Joel, I added to my CBD wishlist. Its likely to be bought and read. Good review. BTW, you don’t happen to have a spare thousand around do ya? I could then order all my wislist. lol

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