Book Review: The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God, Timothy G. Gombis, Ph.D.

Gombis, Timothy G., The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. 188 pp. $20.00

Timothy G. Gombis, Ph.D., associate professor of New Testament at Cedarville University has rediscovered Ephesians with a dramatic and engaging interaction with the text in his book The Drama of Ephesians. Gombis has literally reintroduced the book through a new and fresh view of this letter as a drama with cosmic battles of spiritual warfare with Christ as the victor sent by God and the church as soldier still in the trenches. Dr. Gombis has an extensive background in Ephesians, doing his Ph.D. dissertation on the notion of divine warfare within the book of Ephesians.

Summary

“Before we begin our study of Ephesians we need to ask ourselves, what in the world is Ephesians and what are we supposed to do with it” (1)? As the opening theme of the book, the reader is gradually introduced to a paradigm shift in reading Ephesians. Now this shift is not subtle, it is a very different approach to how we read Ephesians, the main activity of the book, and ultimately some of the conclusions one would come to by reading it.

Gombis begins the book orienting the reader to his interpretive approach. He has concluded that Ephesians”…often read as a doctrinal treatise, as if Paul sat down during one of his missionary journeys and composed a series of reflections on various theological topics”(14). Thus Christians have modernized our approach in its reading and extract data from the theological database we call the Bible and attempt to apply it as necessary or place it in our doctrinal buckets. Gombis proposes, understanding the Ancient Jewish worldview and certainly informed by some bit of grammatical and historical research that Ephesians should be read as “…a drama in which Paul portrays the powerful, reality-altering, cosmos-transforming acts of God in Christ to redeem God’s world and save God’s people for the glory of his name” (15).

Gombis represents to us in a much more profound way, the famous Ephesian theme of spiritual warfare not as something individuals play directly in, engaging and overcoming the cosmic spiritual powers and authorities that ultimately are acting counter to the very purpose God has created them for. Instead, he shows us how our activities collectively cannot engage them, but Christ has already conquered them. By working out or faith through good works deal the additional defeating blows to the powers of evil that are in a cosmic battle much bigger than the forces we can individually engage. And by this act overtime in love and humility living in righteousness and community establish the very church and presence of Jesus on Earth until the day Christ returns to deal the final mortal wound to the powers.

Analysis

Reading as Drama v. Reading Doctrinally

I am admittedly a bit intrigued and a proponent of reading dramatically and as narrative where the literary type is in fact narrative. What I was able to quickly grasp was the connection between the letter in its form as not merely doctrinal even though we often times pluck texts as needed out of the bucket to fulfill a doctrinal need. What the dramatic reading does for the reader and ultimately interpreter is allow them to hear the author’s authentic true voice. The reader is able to incorporate the senses in its interpretation backed by historical, cultural, and worldview context to the text come to life.

I remain somewhat agnostic about who or how to refer to particular people or entities as characters in the plot, simply because I fear a possible disconnect, a sort of vicarious belief that could ultimately negate the very intent of the interpretive form. Ultimately the rule of faith and the goal of seeking the truth of God in our reading must remain the purpose and control in our reading.

Outstanding Questions and Author’s Conclusions

Now I admit I walked away not opposed to the method of reading Ephesians as Drama. I certainly believe readers must seek to become intimately impacted by the text, seeking to hear God speak to us through the author.

What I found intriguing was the introduction of the Jewish worldview that informed the grander cosmic spiritual warfare theme that was found in the inclusio of the letter. I connected that to the interpretive style, through the text being illuminated by the historical background and also cultural influences as well as extra canonical literature that informed this conclusion. Gombis clearly anticipated the bridge between Ephesians as narrative and letter form to apocalyptical literature as something that would be hard to grasp. I fell prey to the very thing he anticipated.

Where I ultimately found the trend and voice of this work troubling was where I felt there was inadequate attention, lack of clarification or some gray areas I wish I could seek additional information on from the author.

As Gombis makes his case for dramatic interpretation he introduces by means of one’s imagination and it being transformed from the influences of the world into that of God’s kingdom held together by His spirit. He continues to show us the imagination is to be conformed to and shaped by the gospel. I agree totally! Where he lost me and I could ask him where he gets this several times was the conclusions that all of this ultimately rests on being part of the Kingdom of God, and that imagination must conclude that sweet community and peace is the pinnacle of this achievement. The point is that from that point on there seemed to be a subtle and not so subtle theme of sociological rehabilitation and not salvation of souls. I found only one small blurb regarding the idea of an eternal kingdom that salvation grants entry into. It seemed to rest heavily on repairing God’s creation through social justice and reform and be light on eternal kingdoms.

Now I know that Ephesians is not the go to book to look for eternal promises of life, judgment of souls, but understanding the book in light of the canon leaves me in particular wondering if this commentary was redemptive only in terms of Creation order by ways of community, good works, and humble victory; or was it also to include assumed judgment of souls, and eternal life in Heaven. These questions ultimately leave one question. Am I so indoctrinated to reading doctrinally that I cannot see beyond these questions? Am I missing the boat here? I don’t know, I do know that I have not questioned and sought out for more information on most books thus far in Seminary, but this one has definitely sparked an interest to seek more information and for that I am grateful and I am sure the author would appreciate that it was in fact so thought provoking.

Conclusion

As I turned the last pages of Gombis’ work, I was a bit confused, concerned and frankly just had more questions. In many circles today people are quick to brand with conclusions and verdicts of our judgment of someone before we understand their intent and other factors that go into the ink people invest in their writing. I would conclude after reading this book that in order to come to final conclusions from this reading a discussion with Dr. Gombis would be certainly preferable and if not some understanding of his presuppositions, experiences, and theological leanings would be informative.

To make a long story short though this work offers fresh approach to reading Ephesians in an otherwise ordinary world, are we sure this is God’s intent through his human authors? I cannot resolve to write the book off as hogwash, but I am not certain I am ready to adopt all of its recommendations without discussion with the author to discern where he wanted to go with it. Historically Ephesians has never been read dramatically. Historically, Christianity has not been defined as the sum total of good within the realm of evil humanity on this Earth. Acknowledging those differences I tend to lean on the side of theological conservatism, holding fast and true to the historically accurate interpretations, seeing His word as Creator-centric not creation-centric. The presentation of a new and changed hermeneutic or reading of Scripture is met with an equally heavy burden of proof to satisfy the need to justify a changed reading and ultimately a changed meaning of God’s divine word.

My conclusions and where I believe the Author is ultimately going but would love to confirm is summed in how I hear these men define Mercy Ministry:

Ministries of Mercy from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

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