Sunday, May 16, 2010

Interview with Lynn Cohick on Ephesians

Below I talk to Lynn Cohick (Wheaton College) about her newly published commentary on Ephesians in the New Covenant Commentary Series.

1. What is your take on the provenance and purpose of Ephesians?

a. provenance: although “to the Ephesians” is not found in some ancient manuscripts, I argue that the apostle Paul is the author and is writing to believers who lived in Ephesus and the towns orbiting Ephesus. Relative to the overall size of the commentary, I spend a fair bit of time reviewing the authorship arguments so that the reader might draw their own informed conclusion.

b. Paul’s purpose in writing Ephesians (while imprisoned in Rome) is not as easily discerned as, say, his reasons for writing to the Corinthians or the Thessalonians. However, his burden to challenge the Ephesians to act on their new life in Christ, as well as his concern that the churches embrace fully the unity that is theirs in Christ, rings from its pages.

2. What is the central message of Ephesians?

Ephesians’ message is two-fold: it presents God’s mysterious, marvelous plan of reconciling all people to himself through the Son and empowered by the Holy Spirit, and it elaborates on how such a plan should be and can be experienced in the Church.

3. How do you interpret the household code of Ephesians 5?

The short answer is: very carefully J. Actually I spend quite a bit of time in the commentary establishing Paul’s comments in context, looking at the assumptions of the honor/shame culture and its beliefs of social and gender hierarchy. I suggest that the gospel message weakens the foundations of this hierarchy. For example, I highlight the revolutionary move made by Paul (and also Peter in 1 Peter 2) in addressing slaves directly – this was not done in Greco-Roman writings. Moreover, Paul challenges slave owners with the knowledge that God shows no favoritism, and thus will not look upon them more highly because they have a more exalted social status. So while Paul does not suggest directly the abolition of slavery, he describes the responsibilities of the owner in such a way that if lived out fully in the gospel, would cause the demise of the institution of slavery.

In Paul’s day, wives were viewed as inferior to their husbands, and thus they should properly submit to them. Submission implied an inferior social status. I should note parenthetically that everyone, man or woman was to submit to another person, for example their patron, or a government representative. Thus a male slave or a freedman submitted to his female owner or patroness. So in and of itself, submission was something everyone did at some level; the key was to make sure that you were submitting properly to the proper person.

Thus Paul’s injunction for wives to submit to their husbands was par for the course; what is astounding is Paul’s suggestion that husbands love their wives. We do not see this expressed prescriptively in Greco-Roman or Jewish literature, although we do see endearing epitaphs written by husbands about their deceased wives. Even more, I suggest (following G. Dawes, 1998) that Paul hints at reciprocity when he states that a husband should see his wife as his own body. Is the reverse also true, that a wife should see her husband’s body as her own? If so, then mutuality in marriage seems to be the direction Paul is heading. A further pointer in this direction is Paul’s insistence on “the two become one flesh.” The mystery of the oneness of Christ and his church is seen here, but Paul also insists in 2:14 that in Christ the Jew and Gentile also become one. The gospel breaks down the dividing walls of social hierarchy and division; the two entities remain distinct, but united as social equals in Christ.

4. What should we make of the references to "spiritual warfare" in Ephesians 6?

Answering this question presupposes other questions, including what was Paul’s view of the spiritual world, and do we need to embrace that view (if it is different than our own). Today it is popular, and not without warrant, to interpret the concept of spiritual warfare in terms of multinational corporations and globalized economies. Such modern entities are related to the imperial structure of the Roman Empire of Paul’s day. This position is helpful in alerting modern readers to aspects of evil that transcend personal sins, and help the church today address materialism, racism, and political corruption. However, such a position can lead to a vision of the church as a new, independent incarnation of Christ, rather than understanding the church as the body whose necessary head is Christ. Additionally, this position tends to see the armor of God as equipping the church for offensive warfare; however, Paul’s language in my reading suggests a defensive posture. Finally, this position tends to minimize the individual’s responsibility in taking up his/her armor. While it is certainly true that Paul stresses the church community throughout Ephesians (and many other letters), he also focuses on each individual’s responsibility to walk in those good works God has prepared, and to put on the new self (4:24).

5. What can Christians gain by reading and studying Ephesians today?

Often the western Christian leans towards individualism – Ephesians stresses our corporate identity in Christ. Coupled with this is a robust portrayal of the power that the unified Body of Christ presents to the world (as well as to the spiritual powers and principalities). Paul emphasizes that God in His wisdom has established a new people empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Additionally, Ephesians pulls together what often has been pushed apart, namely one’s salvation and subsequent life of faith and good deeds. Paul stresses God’s grace is calling believers, not for the sake of their souls alone, but because He has work for them to do in living the gospel light in a dark world. Paul connects theology and ethics, for the goal of theology is an upright life overflowing with wisdom and charity.

6. What is your favourite part of Ephesians?

This is like asking which of my children do I like the best – unfair question! I enjoy the exuberance of Paul’s language, the beauty with which he described God’s love in redeeming believers through Christ. I like the soaring vision of what believers can rightfully claim as their birthright in Christ, and the possibility laid out of great joy and godly freedom in Christ, walking in the Spirit.

7. What other works like commentaries or monographs on Ephesians did you find useful?

Peter T O’Brien’s commentary in the Pillar NT series (Eerdmans, 1999) as well as Harold Hoehner’s commentary (Baker Academic, 2002) were quite useful.

Two works were very helpful in sorting through authorship issues: Terry Wilder’s work on pseudepigraphy and pseudonymity (University Press of America, 2004) and Kent Clarke’s essay “The Problem of Pseudonymity in Biblical Literature and Its Implications for Canon Formation (The Canon Debate, edited by Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, 2002)

Useful for understanding Paul’s imprisonment were Richard J. Cassidy’s Paul in Chains (Crossroads, 2001), Brian Rapske’s The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody (Eerdmans, 1994) and Craig Wansink’s Chained in Christ (Sheffield Academic, 1996).

8. What projects are you working on in the future?

I am currently working on a Philippians commentary for a new Zondervan series, Regula Fidei. And I will be co-authoring with one of my colleagues at Wheaton College a book on Christian women in the second through sixth centuries.


Justin Dodson said...

I recently started another go around in Ephesians, so I will have to check this out. However, I have to say that the most influential and fresh writing that I have seen came from Timothy G. Gombis, The Triumph of God in Christ: Divine Warfare in the Argument of Ephesians, Ph.D. thesis, University of St. Andrews, 2005. His argument ties together the book unlike anyone I have read yet. But thanks for adding another referral to the list!

Sean said...

Hey Mike, what's your take on the provenance of Ephesians? I'm wondering if it wasn't written in Ephesus for Ephesians when Paul was imprisoned there. That could possibly explain the lack of mss traditions of "To the Ephesians". Thoughts?

Paul said...

Very much appreciate Cohick's work.
"The gospel breaks down the dividing walls of social hierarchy and division; the two entities remain distinct, but united as social equals in Christ" is priceless!

I wonder if she's read Phil Payne on Ephesians? See my reviews of his latest.

Michael F. Bird said...

Sean, Lynn and I went back and forth on this one, and I'm in favour of an Ephesian provenance for Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and Philippians!

Rich Griese said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Frederik Mulder said...

Hi everyone,

I'm glad to see that NT Wright has some support in the USA when it comes to the authorship of Ephesians..

Frederik Mulder

Sandi said...

Terrific interview. Thanks for posting.