Yesterday, I reviewed The Drama of Ephesians by Timothy G. Gombis. He is an associate professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and has a Ph.D from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
Dr. Gombis agreed to respond to questions I submitted to him via email about his book and his academic work. I appreciated his willingness (and promptness) in sending responses to these questions, both of which appear unedited below:
1. How would you distinguish The Drama of Ephesians from other commentaries and books on Ephesians? Why drama?
The book is not really a commentary, but something more like a biblical-theological-cultural reading of Ephesians. A few things distinguish it from a traditional commentary. First, the book doesn’t merely situate the letter within a first century cultural context, examining its meaning within that setting. Many commentaries do this, and that’s an essential part of interpretation. The book situates Ephesians within the overall thrust of the Scriptural story of God’s redemption of humanity, so in that sense it might be a “canonical” reading of Ephesians. But it also recognizes that “meaning” happens when we read the biblical text within concrete communities of disciples seeking the heart and mind of God for his people and his world. So in that sense, perhaps it’s also an “ecclesial” reading. But I attempted to situate the letter within a contemporary cultural setting, letting the world of Ephesians interpret our cultural situation in order to determine how we might faithfully hear it as God’s word to our communities.
Second, I treat larger discrete sections of Ephesians rather than taking each verse or each phrase or clause. In a sense, it’s more thematic, but I tried to capture the overall thrust of the letter, knowing that detailed treatments of the text can be found in many other excellent commentaries.
I thought that “drama” was helpful when I began thinking of the sort of letter Ephesians is. It’s almost certainly a circular letter that Paul intended to circulate to a range of churches in Asia Minor (and beyond). And it was supposed to shape the life of each community that heard it and studied it and discussed it. So, the letter wasn’t supposed to be a reservoir of doctrine but a script for how gospel players were to go about living out (and living into) the fullness of the gospel. I thought that this whole framework was a helpful device to frame what Ephesians was supposed to do. When I began to explore the metaphor more fully, it opened up more possibilities than I had first imagined and I really found it useful.
2. You write about the heavenly warfare and the powers in Ephesians? How important do you believe this is for understanding Ephesians, and for the church in its life today?
Because the powers and authorities play such a major role in the argument of the letter (and in Paul’s thought, generally), it’s important to understand the role these figures played in the Jewish worldview shaped by Scripture. Now, because of how easily these figures can be sensationalized in our current American fantasy-oriented culture, we need to proceed with caution. We should not be looking for cosmic figures behind every car crash or power-outage!
In the ancient Jewish worldview, cultural corruptions, perverted ideologies, and idolatrous systems that enslaved nations were all thought to have their origins in cosmic figures that had rebelled against God. The crucial function of these figures is that in Scripture, systemic evils have intention behind them. There are large-scale corruptions in culture and in human relations and these evils and their attendant destructions all have a perverse enslaving logic behind them.
It’s not so important for us to talk about cosmic figures in our world today so long as we realize that even today we have enslaving systemic evils and corruptions that the church must discern, identify, and resist. We need to recognize the subtle ways that the church is tempted to compromise its identity and calling by God. The alternative is that the church naively assumes that culture is neutral.
A perfect example is contemporary American Christian participation in the national party political system. The system and its associated behaviors is perverted and corrupted. Christians need to realize that participation in the system draws one into the rhetoric of anger, demonization, and quests for power. If one is involved in such a system, one simply cannot practice love for one’s neighbor.
3. Can you say more about your scholarly interests and current projects on which you are working?
I am currently working on a commentary on Mark’s Gospel in the Story of God Commentary series (Zondervan). Most of my research is in Paul, so this is a bit of a departure for me, and I’ve really enjoyed it. I hope to be finished next August and it may be available sometime in 2017. I’m also exploring some more of the themes from Drama of Ephesians in a new book on Paul’s pastoral method (Eerdmans). I’m taking a look at how Paul pastored his churches given his acknowledgment of cosmic realities and given his dramatic conversion and the revolution in his thinking after seeing Jesus Christ raised and exalted by God.
4. In your book, you reference work with a congregation in Springfield, Ohio. How do you think your participation in the life of a local congregation contributes to your theological scholarship and academic teaching?
I think it’s crucial for professors and biblical scholars to be involved in the life of the church. And I don’t mean involved in speaking to varieties of churches or running big “ministry” organizations. Local congregational and parish ministry isn’t very interesting or sexy. The practices of peacemaking, reconciliation, and those associated with negotiating community life over a long period of time require that one develop wisdom and learn the ways Scripture orients and renews the life-patterns of a community. Sustained participation in a community helps one read Scripture with attention to this pursuit, and it helps biblical scholars remember that we’re most blessed when we’re involved in relationships of mutuality.
In the classroom, we’re used to speaking about Christian realities in the abstract. Living in actual community helps us remember that Christian realities simply aren’t abstract, and simplistic principles aren’t helpful for ministry practitioners who truly want to see God honored in their churches. My ministry experience has been immensely helpful in that way. It has freed me from the illusion that church life is easy and that ministry is straightforward.
5. If there is anything else you would like to say about The Drama of Ephesians or your scholarship and ministry that I’ve overlooked, that you think is important to know about you, I’d love to hear it!
Well, just the basics — I currently teach New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and I’m beginning my fifth year here. My wife, Sarah, and I have three kids. Two are in college and one is a junior in high school. We are currently involved in a ministry at our church that partners with other churches to help homeless families get into sustainable housing.