Stephen Fowl’s Commentary on Ephesians (Review)

I would be surprised if the name Stephen Fowl was unfamiliar to you. He is a highly esteemed New Testament scholar, a pioneer in the area of theological interpretation of Scripture, and an all-around nice guy. A few years ago, when I was working on some research on Philippians, I sat down to have lunch with Fowl at SBL and he struck me as such a humble, warm person.

Also, his Philippians commentary (Two Horizons) is one of the best theological commentaries on a Pauline letter in existence. It is exquisitely focused on Paul’s dynamic theology and Fowl manages to sidestep pointless discussion of minutia that plagues many dull commentaries.

Well, I was very excited to work through Fowl’s latest commentary, this time on Ephesians – for the WJK “New Testament Library” series (2012). I enjoyed reading this commentary very much, especially because I am completing my own commentary on Colossians which obviously has a lot in common with Ephesians. Fowl is what I like to call a “no-nonsense” commentator. He refuses to speculate about backgrounds, connections, allusions, etc… He simply wants to understand the literary and theological flow of the text. He also desires to think about the theological implications of the text. That is commendable.

I was a bit surprised at the brevity of the commentary. I am sure he was given some flexibility in this regard. Note that Cousar’s work on Philippians in this series is 120 pages (for 4 chapters of Philippians). Sumney’s volume on Colossians is a much larger 344 pages. Fowl has written about 250 pages, which (because Ephesians is 2 chapters longer than either Philippians or Colossians) would put it closer to Cousar’s level of discussion and interaction. This was a bit disappointing for me. I had very high expectations for Fowl “bringing the theological heat,” which takes space. There are a good many commentaries on Ephesians out there. Fowl himself relied much and dialogued often with Lincoln, Best, Hoehner, and Aquinas. There were few times, though, when I felt that he offered anything particularly new to the discussion. Certainly he did offer occasional fresh insights, and I will highlight them below, but I had slightly higher hopes.

Again, let me say, there is no deficiency in the commentary. He treats all the expected subjects with wisdom and eloquence. I just did not feel he made the kind of contribution to scholarship with this commentary on Ephesians that he did on Philippians.

Introduction

In 30 pp., Fowl’s introduction is succinct. He discusses the outline and flow of Ephesians, the potential aid of consulting Acts, authorship matters, and the recipients and occasion. I hoped for a preview of key themes, but that was not crucial.

On authorship, you might not be surprised to learn that Fowl does not find this a very critical matter: “Given the ends for which Christians engage Scripture theologically, the issue of authorship is not particularly relevant. Ephesians plays the role it does in the life and worship of Christian because it is part of the canon, not because it is written by Paul or not written by Paul. The text is canonical, Paul is not” (9).

Now, that does not mean that Fowl throws out any interest in the author’s rhetorical concerns. He (helpfully) distinguished between a texts “communicative intention” and an author’s “motives.” He believes the text will divulge the former, but the latter is inaccessible to readers.

Still, I am not convinced that Christians, members of the church, are not interested in who wrote the text and why. Fowl (and others) appeal to patristic writers and how they were not so concerned with the authority of the author, but rather the text’s own voice. I think that there is definitely evidence for both. Also, I just don’t think we can say that Paul himself wasn’t canonized. Insofar as his own words and writings were canonized, this inscribes a part of Paul – after all, it came from his mind. You can’t get around the fact that commentators (from the early church to the present) regularly try to think Paul’s thoughts with him. He is not a talking head. He is a man who lived at one time in one place who wrote these words once to one (or a few) communities. While the church came to find his words relevant and applicable to all, that does not de-Paul[ize] these texts.

Look at Chrysostom. He is always thinking (with regard to Colossians), for example, how unique this letter is and how passionate it is because Paul is in chains. If Chrysostom came to learn that it wasn’t the imprisoned Paul, after all, who wrote this but someone later on who was not in prison, Chrysostom would not just shrug his shoulders and say, “oh well.” He would be irate! His whole approach to Colossians would collapse. [Sit down and read his commentary on Colossians and you will see what I mean]

Now, Fowl is right that there are a good many texts where we do not know who the author was (especially in the OT). True. But that does not mean we cannot work from the author when we DO have that author. Again, read patristic commentaries (especially of the Antiochene exegetical tradition). When they know who the (purported) author was- they run with it!

At the end of the day, Fowl does not ignore the question of authorship. He explores it with a good amount of critical interest, but simply concludes: “I genuinely do not know whether or not Paul wrote Ephesians” (28). He is open to Pauline authorship, but a firm answer is beyond confirmation. Both sides of the debate make compelling arguments. For simplicity, he refers to the author as Paul and the recipients as Ephesians (28). I think this is much more sensible that those scholars who hold to Ephesians being pseudonymous and then reading into the text all kinds of fanciful motives and theological concerns “in the name of Paul.”

I missed, in the introduction, any dialogue with Arnold and others on the subject of magic. He treats Ephesians as more of a broader explication of his theology. Ephesians is occasional, but we don’t know what kind of specific occasion prompted it, argues Fowl. Rather, he ties the themes of Ephesians to life in our own world.

Despite our desire to know more, we have little to go on when it comes to understanding what specific occasion might have led Paul to write Ephesians. At the same time, one can imagine that, in a world deeply interested in spiritual things and in a religiously pluralistic environment, Christians might have been tempted to supplemenet their faith in Christ in ways that would lead someone such as Paul to assert that God’s plan is to bring all things to their proper end in Christ, who is both source and locus of all spiritual fullness. (30)

Commentary Notes

1:1-2 – when it comes to the superscription “to the Ephesians,” many  of you know the manuscript evidence is unclear as to whether this is original to the letter or not. However, I was fascinated by Fowl’s note of Tertullian’s comment. “Of what consequence are the titles, since in writing to a certain church the apostle did in fact write to all?” (See Marc. 5.17). Recently, Ken Bailey made the (cogent) argument that while Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, for example, as an occasional letter to respond to various problems in Corinth, he wrote it in such a way as to make it relevant theologically to other churches.

1:3 “Although the ‘heavenly realms’ have yet to be fully subjected to Christ’s rule, it appears that this is ‘the place’ where matters of the utmost significance happen. The one in control of the heavenly places is the one ultimately exercises dominion over the earth” (p. 38).

1:15-16 “On the one hand it seems right to say that Paul does not presume a doctrine of the Trinity here. On the other hand, Paul’s language here and elsewhere strikingly places Christ and the Spirit within the identity of the one God of Israel without any qualms and without any clear way of resolving the tension such language places on the singularity of Israel’s God. Rather than think of later Trinitarian doctrine as the imposition of an alien and rigid Greek metaphysical system on the biblical text, Christians should understand that later Trinitarian doctrine can be seen as providing a scripturally regulated way of ordering and resolving the tensions that the language of Scripture generates but does not directly resolve.” (57)

2:14-18 Fowl acknowledges that scholars have expended much energy trying to figure out what this “Wall of Hostility” refers to – is it the temple or the Torah? Fowl thinks it is too much to find a metaphorical source. He reads it as a simple metaphor. It is interesting, though, that part of the rejection of the temple metaphor is about historical plausibility.

It seems unlikely, however, that Ephesian Gentile Christians would have known this wall, especially if the epistle is written after 70CE” (90).

However, I got the impression in his introduction that historical-contextual matters are not determinable and perhaps even unnecessary. Here, though, he seems quite confident in reconstructing the education and background of the original readers (in Ephesus, nonetheless!). The point I am trying to make is that when scholars make a case that determining the original author and context doesn’t matter, they often can’t help but make assumptions and default to assumptions about historical context.

3:12 – Fowl refuses to take a position on the ever-thorny issue of pistis Christou.

In the case of Eph 3:12, very little hangs on making a sharp distinction between these two options. Both are possible, both fit the larger context, both convey theological truth, and both can be understood here.” (113)

In many ways, I agree with Fowl. Neither side of the debate seems totally wrong or totally right. Why, oh why, did you make this so confusing, Paul (and/or someone else writing just like Paul with the same ambiguities)!!! At the end of the day, I don’t think it can be both at the same time, but I do think it may be insoluble.

4:11 On the “gifts” that Christ gives, Fowl argues very persuasively that Paul was not saying that Christ gave gifts to individuals of certain offices. Rather, he gave apostle (and evangelists and pastors and teachers) to the church as gifts. The recipients of the “gifts” are not the individuals endowed with an office-gifts. The receiver is the church.

In Ephesians the emphasis is not on the individuals or groups who receive “apostleship” as gift. Rather, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are themselves the gifts given by the ascended Christ through the Spirit. (140)

6:10-20 When it comes to the “whole armor of God,” Fowl argues that the armor is not one of the military attacker, but the defender. Christians are not supposed to lunge and conquer, but they are to be strong in their stance and defense. Thus, Fowl does not buy into arguments that Paul is tapping into “Divine Warrior” motifs.

What about the “sword of the Spirit” – the one weapon this warrior wields? Fowl explains that “it is a weapon for fighting at close quarters; in such a context, it would be difficult or impossible to distinguish the aggressor from the defendant” (208). Fowl is right that it means something more like a dagger (though see Josephus Vita 1.293). However, it was used as an offensive weapon as much as a defensive weapon (see Syb.Or. 3.689). I think Fowl’s wider concern is to make sure Paul is not represented as a military revolutionist, encouraging Christians to be aggressors. However, it is still easy to get this impression from Jesus’ own idea of the church storming the gates of Hades (Matt 16:18). That does not promote physical violence, but Paul himself does depict believers as soldiers who are in hot pursuit, leading the charge against the enemy (2 Cor 10) – it is just that Christians do not use weapons of flesh, but the spiritual tools of the Gospel. Similarly, in the Revelation, the witnesses take up war, but in self-sacrifice and in service of the slain lamb (Rev 7:14).

Conclusion

Again, this is a solid reading of Ephesians overall from a master-exegete. I only wish it were more detailed and thorough! One will see many similarities and much agreement with Best and Lincoln. I particularly like Fowl’s regular attention to Thomas Aquinas. I don’t often think to turn to Aquinas, so this is a fresh perspective. Fowl is also very interested in the theme of unity as it is generated by Ephesians and has an important word for the Church today. It is not that debate and dialogue should be swept under the carpet. Rather, Fowl argues, unity should be seen in and through dialogue and debate, not as an alternative.

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