The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God

Written by Timothy G. Gombis Reviewed By Dane Ortlund

“This book presents Ephesians as a drama, a gospel script that invites performances by communities of God's people,” writes Tim Gombis, NT professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, as he opens his reading of one of Paul's most beloved yet least studied letters (p. 9). That opening sentence summarizes the book well. After a preface that sets the stage for what is to come and explains some of the personal background from which Gombis writes, the first of seven chapters argues that Ephesians should not be read as a doctrinal treatise but rather as a drama, a narrative of cosmic proportions recounting what God has done in Christ and how we are invited to participate in this narrative. Chapter 2 focuses on “the powers,” the supernatural forces at work in the cosmos. Gombis helpfully traces the Jewish background to Paul's convictions about the powers and then explains what the powers are according to NT usage, namely, “suprahuman cosmic powers that are in rebellion against God and his purposes for creation” (p. 44). Chapter 3 calls for a healthy imagination in the Christian life, one that enables believers to rightly inhabit this story in which they have been caught up. Drawing once more on the notion of Ephesians as a “drama,” Gombis says, “Ephesians calls its readers to become certain kinds of characters in order to participate rightly in the drama—in order to perform faithfully the script that is Ephesians” (p. 62). This chapter includes helpful discussions of union with Christ and the imago Dei.

Chapter 4 zeroes in on Eph 1:20-2:22 to argue that this passage narrates God's victorious divine warfare in Jesus, who has been seated as Lord over the cosmos, creating the church and uniting humanity. Chapter 5 moves on to 3:1-13. Gombis asserts that this passage illustrates how “the gospel drama” should “be performed” (p. 108). He emphasizes the way this portion of Ephesians deconstructs contemporary triumphalistic intuitions in the church by showing that God works in power through human weakness, not human strength. Paul's life is thus one of “cruciformity” (NT students will think of Michael Gorman's work at this point): “Just as Jesus did, Paul gives himself for the sake of others, performing faithfully his role in the gospel drama of God's triumph over the powers” (p. 125). The focus of chapter 6 is 3:14-4:16, which explains how God empowers the church by providing “producers, directors and performance coaches so that the church faithfully inhabits and performs the gospel drama” (p. 134). Chapter 7 seeks to encourage “faithful corporate performances of Jesus on earth” (p. 160) by outlining what real spiritual warfare looks like. Authentic spiritual warfare is not “defiant chest thumping” but “humble, cruciform faithfulness as we perform Jesus for the good of the world” (p. 156). A brief conclusion synthesizes the study (pp. 181-84).

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.

Dane Ortlund

Dane Ortlund
Wheaton, Illinois, USA

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