Lynn Cohick on Ephesians

Lynn Cohick on Ephesians July 10, 2020

Here is my interview with Lynn Cohick about her forthcoming Ephesians commentary in the NICNT series (Eerdmans) which is due for release in November 2020.

You published your first commentary on Ephesians back in 2013 (for the NCCS), you’re about to publish a more extensive commentary in 2020 (for the NICNT series). What have you learned about Ephesians in that time?

In the time since I wrote my NCCS commentary, I had more time to explore ways to approach the ancient institution of slavery and to read more on the reality of children’s lives in the Greco-Roman world. I have had time to think more broadly about the household codes in chapters 5-6. I was able to integrate this information with my longstanding interest in women in the ancient world, including their daily lives and what marriage looked like. I also benefited from new theories on authorship in the ancient world and new perspectives on letter-writing that contributed to my conclusion that Paul authored Ephesians.

Because this commentary is longer, I had more space to reflect theologically on Paul’s language of Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and I found that fruitful as I exegeted. I was struck anew at the breathtaking love of the Triune God towards creation, including humanity. I wish I had more time to reflect on creation care as part of Paul’s interest in the cosmos. I think more will be done with Ephesians on this topic in the near future, which is a good thing.

Is Ephesians 1 a Calvinist playground or is there something else going on?

As an Arminian, I did not feel I was in foreign territory when reading Ephesians. The concern with “predestination” in Eph 1 focuses on God’s salvation plan achieved in Christ, and not on an individual’s personal destiny. Paul explains that the goals of holiness and blamelessness are gained in Christ, and this was God’s plan all along, before the foundations of the world. Paul has a cosmic perspective, if you will, that the Triune God intends to bring unity to the universe in Christ (1:10). Paul reads the prophet Isaiah as seeing a bit of this in the latter’s prophecy that those who are far will be brought near (2:13, 17).

F.F. Bruce called Ephesians the “quintessence of Paulinism.” Agree or disagree? Comment?

I am in agreement with Bruce that Ephesians is an embodiment or epitome of Paul’s thought, I’m not sure I would say it is the epitome of Paul’s thought. I don’t know that any letter could claim that prize, because all Paul’s letters are occasional documents, and thus are not intended to be a summa theologica. The recurring themes in Paul’s letters are found here, such as his focus on being “in Christ,” and God’s grace freely and generously extended to all, Jew and gentile alike. The importance of the church, Christ’s body, and our own holiness – these too ring throughout his letters.

Among the vast secondary literature on Ephesians, what did you find helpful?

John Barclay’s magisterial work Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015) was a tremendous help to me as I pondered Paul’s focus on grace in Eph 2. His insight that Paul’s gospel spoke of God’s “unconditioned” gift/grace, that was not “unconditional” (said positively, it is reciprocal). This was valuable in that it brought together Paul’s claim that salvation is by God’s grace, not human works, and his expectation that believers live holy lives and do good works in relationship with God (2:8–10). God grants his grace/gift to those who are unworthy, and he expects a relationship to follow, as the person is now “in Christ” and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Ironically, Barclay only has a few lines on Ephesians in this book, but I found his argument tremendously beneficial for my own analysis.

I also found Wesley Hill’s Paul and the Trinity (Eerdmans, 2015) very useful as I tried to understand Paul’s language about God. In this case as well, Hill does not focus on Ephesians, but his questions and insights were so constructive to me as I pondered Paul’s language and themes in Ephesians.

N.T. Wright said that if Ephesians rather than Galatians had been the favourite book of the Reformation, the history of the European church might have been different. Agree or disagree? Comment?

I resonate with Wright’s comment, in several ways. First, I think Paul’s emphasis on church unity might have helped moderate the splintering of the Western church. I believe the Reformers valued unity, but the theological debates about proper communion and baptism, because these practices were a tangible display of church unity,  created forces that separated groups. I am deeply committed to the belief in the priesthood of all believers, and I think Ephesians helpfully locates that within the living body of Christ, one which is inter-dependent as all grow to maturity. Perhaps Paul’s strong urging of unity in Ephesians (and also Philippians) might have generated creative thinking on how to manage the theological debates without splintering the church. Second, Paul’s emphasis on believers’ current situation as being raised and seated with Christ balances the focus on Christ’s cross, by reminding believers it is Christ’s cross and resurrection and ascension that secures our own salvation and future bodily resurrection. Third, I think Paul’s generous call to peace in Christ, both Jew and gentile, might have staunched the rabid anti-Judaism that grew in the medieval church and continued into the twenty-first century. Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians were interpreted and applied in ways that supported attacks on Jews; perhaps an emphasis on Ephesians would have corrected that interpretive path. Fourth, Paul invokes the Holy Spirit in every chapter, which can be an important corrective for churches who only pay lip service to the third Person of the Trinity.

Is there a single verse or section that you think summarizes Ephesians?

This is a hard one, but I would say the first sentence, after the greetings. This sentence is twelve verses long in Greek (1:3-14)! It captures Paul’s confident joy in God’s ultimate victory, and this is a posture that Paul desires believers to share. Paul’s confidence is not shaken even though he is imprisoned. Believers can be confident because we are “in Christ” and are sealed with the Holy Spirit.  These verses also capture Paul’s conviction that God’s salvation plan in Christ will fix what is wrong with the cosmos by achieving unity in Christ, which includes ultimate victory over all forces of evil and darkness.

What do we do today with the household codes? Should we strive to literally obey them, do we gloss over them as bad attempts to Christianize pagan social ethics, what do we do?

We should obey Scripture – of course! The question is, what is Paul asking? This is where the term “literal” comes into play. We cannot literally obey the Scripture that has protocols for slavery, because slavery is outlawed (although I realize slavery still happens, as in the human sex trafficking trade).  We implicitly recognize that Paul does not insist that societies have slavery; rather, he  addresses a need in his society, namely how the church should treat its members who are slave and owners. We must figure out what he wants in terms of human interaction and character/virtue, and then apply that in our context. My take-away from the section on slavery is that Paul’s statement – God shows no favoritism – cuts to the heart of domination and abusive relationships. Slavery was built on domination, on use of force, on intimidation. None of that is acceptable to God, for he sees everyone as having equal worth.

Pagan social ethics was hierarchical, with one rule for the socially superior, the wealthy, the dominant, and a lack of social standing for the have-nots. Thus a female slave owner was over her male slaves, and in this case, ownership trumps gender. Because of the highly stratified, complex social hierarchy that was the Roman world, everyone needed to submit to someone else, and the key was making sure you did that properly. Today, we see “submit” as a negative, but that was not entirely the case in the ancient world. So when Paul asks that all believers “submit to each other” (5:21) he desires that they respect each other as fellow believers, not based on whatever social worth society happened to grant the believer. A husband loving his wife in a self-sacrificial manner as Christ did the church was revolutionary to the wider gentile world. Paul invites mutuality and reciprocity into the marriage, as the husband sees the wife as if she was his own body. Implied here is that the wife sees her husband as if he was her own body too. Paul makes this thought explicit in 1 Cor 7:1–4, as he notes that the husband does not have authority over his own body, but his wife does. Once we realize the sort of mutual, self-sacrificial love that should characterize marriage, and realize that everyone at this time submitted to someone as part of the culture’s way to honor others, we can look with fresh eyes at that contentious passage which says literally in Greek: “wives to your husbands as to the Lord” (5:22). The astute reader will note that I forgot the verb, but actually it is Paul who leaves out the verb, or said more accurately, assumed the verb from the previous verse, which asks that all believers submit to each other out of reverence/awe of Christ. I have lots to say about this and the noun “head” in the commentary, too much to discuss here – this is my plug to get the book!

Is there a healthy way to think about spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6?

One way to keep the exegetical train on the tracks is to NOT start in Eph 6, but to recognize that Paul speaks about spiritual forces throughout the letter. These early comments shape what he says in the final chapter. Thus in chapter 1 we learn that all powers are under Christ’s rule, now and forever. In chapter 2 we learn that currently there is a spirit ruling this age of disobedience, but this one has no dominion over those in Christ, because of God’s grace. This grace is so powerful and wonderful that Paul runs out of words to describe it, as shown in his prayer in chapter 3. And Paul is clear in chapters 4 and 5 that believers are not bound to the present world with its deceitful practices, for we have put off our old self and have put on a new self that is in Christ. Thus when we finally get to chapter 6, we are waiting for Paul to give us orders on how to deal with the current spiritual realities. His answer is to stand fast, to stand your ground against deception, evil enticements, unloving thoughts and actions, especially towards other believers. We need not fear the evil powers, but we must respect their power and recognize that our puny human efforts are worthless to cope with them. Notice that the armor is not something we forge. It is God’s truth, righteousness, faithfulness, and salvation that protects us as we await the Lord’s return.

 Why should students be eager to take exegetical classes on Ephesians? (FYI, Ridley students can take an on-line course featuring Prof. Cohick teaching on Philippians and Ephesians!).

Thanks for the shout-out, Mike! Ephesians offers so many things to its readers. For those who want to explore Paul’s understanding of the Triune God, there is much to work with. For those who want to tackle the crisis of social justice in our world, Ephesians addresses the ways evil permeates our world, and how we can engage it. For those who desire to explore human social networks, then and now, the focus on Jew/gentile and the household codes are a great resource.

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