Friday, January 21, 2011

Frank Thielman Interview on Ephesians Commentary

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Frank Thielman, Presbyterian Professor of Divinity: New Testament at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University. Thielman, a well-known Pauline scholar,
has written these titles: The NIV Application Commentary: Philippians, Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach, From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians and Romans, The Law and the New Testament: The Question of Continuity, and Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach. The latest volume to add to this impressive resume is Ephesians for the Baker Exegetical Commentary Series (BECNT).

One will not be disappointed with Thielman's thoroughness. He pays particular attention to grammatical, lexical issues and displays a deep awareness of the ancient world, particularly Greco-Roman backgrounds. So without further ado, on to the interview!

1) Could you explain your process of writing this commentary? Did you do your own translating, exegesis first, and then consult the secondary literature?
I suppose that everyone who writes a commentary has his or her own way of doing it, and it probably varies a bit depending on the type of commentary one is writing.  Since I have taught the Greek text of Ephesians every year for a number of years to students at Beeson Divinity School, I usually started commentary work on a particular passage with some basic exegetical decisions already in place.  As I worked on each new passage, I tried to think through my own exegetical decisions in conversation with the great commentators from the past, including some from the early church.  I tried to find a balance between respecting the way the debate over each major exegetical problem has been framed in the past and not being bound by the standard interpretive options.  I did not want to be novel but to interpret the text faithfully.  So, I tried to keep in mind at each exegetical turn that somewhere in the seventeen centuries of extant commentary on the letter, a number of commentators had probably already hit upon the right interpretation of any given text.  At the same time, advances have been made in recent years in lexicography, linguistics, and the understanding of ancient Greco-Roman culture, and it seemed important to allow this new information to correct the interpretive traditions where necessary.
2) Ephesians has had some wonderful commentaries written over the years (e.g. Best, Lincoln, O'Brien, and Hoehner). How did  you avoid writing a commentary on these and other commentaries?
I tried to do my own work on the text by staying in constant touch with the standard Greek lexica, the ancient primary sources, and secondary literature from the field of ancient Greco-Roman history and culture.  I then tried to bring what I had learned from this sort of work into conversation with other commentaries.  The great commentators you mentioned were certainly helpful, but I was surprised to discover how useful the late nineteenth and early twentieth century commentators on the Greek text turned out to be.  Ellicott, Eadie, Abbott, and Robinson were often insightful both on matters of Greek syntax and on theological issues.
3) One of the approaches I appreciated about your commentary was the use of the Thesaurus Linguae Gracae (TLG). Talk about some of the rewards and challenges of using this resource for  your work on Ephesians.
The TLG was helpful in two ways.  First, it made looking up references in the primary sources very easy.  A reference in Liddell, Scott, Jones, for example, to the use of a word in the fragmentary writings of an obscure first century B.C. Stoic author could be checked quickly in context.  Second, the TLG allowed me to investigate the use of words beyond the information that the standard lexica provided.  I could do my own lexicographical work on a rare form like the word ἐλαχιστότερος (in 3:8) and sometimes discover important uses of the term that the standard lexica did not mention.
4. The theme of ‘new creation’ is a prominent one in the Pauline Letters (e.g. Galatians 6.15; Romans 8.18-22; 2 Corinthians 5.14-21) but perhaps nowhere more than Ephesians. Could you discuss how this theme functions in this particular letter and what role it plays in defining Jew-Gentile relations?
The theme of a new creation is important in Ephesians, but it is expressed in subtle ways, and the emphasis falls on a particular element of the new creation---the unity of the universe under the headship of Christ. The phrase “new creation” never appears, but the idea is present in places such as 2:10 where God is pictured as an artisan, much as he is in Genesis 2:7 where he fashions the first human being from the earth. In 2:10 Paul tells us that one of the purposes for which we were “created” was to do the good works that God had already prepared for us. Similarly, in 4:24 (also in an ethical context) Paul tells his readers to put on “the new human being created after the pattern of God,” a phrase that sounds like Genesis 1:27, where God creates humankind in his own image. Paul is interested in Ephesians in a particular aspect of the new creation, the unity of all God’s creation under the headship of Christ. “The God who created all things” intends for the church to show his “beautifully complex wisdom” to the “rulers and authorities in heavenly places” (3:9–10) by means of its unity, particularly the unity in Christ of Gentiles and Jews who have believed the gospel (2:14–18).

Eventually all things will take their proper place in this renewed universe (1:9–10). The demonic powers will be conquered and beneath Christ’s feet (1:20–23). These demonic powers will also be underneath the feet of believers, who are seated together with Christ in the heavenly dimension (2:6). The church will be a united “temple” where God’s Spirit will dwell (2:22). God will show the overwhelming abundance of his grace and kindness to his people as age gives way to age (2:7). The ethical teaching in the letter focuses on the practical measures that Christians can take to demonstrate this unity with one another in the present and so, in the present, be an illustration of what the world will one day look like when God is finished uniting all things in Christ (1:9–10).

5. Talk a bit about the vertical and horizontal relationships that inform Ephesians 2, and how these relationships inform both the soteriological and ecclesiological aspects of the believing community.

Ephesians 2 is one of the most powerful passages in the letter.  I think Paul intends for the chapter to illustrate how God has made “the surpassing greatness of his power” effective “for us who believe” (1:19).  It does this, as Harold Hoehner brought out in his commentary, by showing how God’s power affects people at both the individual and the social level.  In 2:1–10 Paul describes how the individual believer moves from rebellion against God (2:1–2a) and from domination by the heavenly powers that are in rebellion against God (2:2b–3) to someone who has been released from the power of the devil by the overwhelmingly generous mercy and grace of God (2:4–10).  In 2:11–22 Paul then starts over, but now from the perspective of the people of God, the church.  The plight of his readers is now described in corporate terms---they were alienated from God’s people and from all the blessings that come to those who belong to God’s people, and now they have been united to God’s people in Christ.  Here in 2:11–22 the horizontal dimension of salvation (we are saved to live in community with others, especially those from whom we were formerly alienated) and the vertical dimension (we are saved into a relationship with God) receives special emphasis.
6. Could you discuss the varied ways in which prayer plays an important part in Ephesians and the practical approaches that can be implemented within the life of a believer and his/hers faith community?

Ephesians is steeped in prayer and urges its readers to pray. Paul begins the letter with three kinds of prayers. In 1:3–14, he utters a long benedictory prayer in which he praises God for all that he has done for those who are in Christ. It is one of the longest sentences in the New Testament, and its “run-on” character I think reveals its spontaneity. It is certainly structured, but it has the feel less of a carefully pondered literary composition than of something delivered orally in the presence of Paul’s secretary, perhaps writing furiously! This gives way in 1:15–23 to thanksgiving and intercessory prayer reports, again uttered in a “run-on” style that may mean they are less “reports” on how Paul prays than actual prayers. Paul also seems to begin to pray for his readers in 3:1 but then digresses on the nature of his ministry and does not complete his prayer until 3:14–21. Here again, we find lengthy sentences that seem to arise from genuine prayer uttered in the presence of the secretary taking down the letter. I think we can imagine Paul literally dropping to his knees in prayer (3:14) at this point in the dictation.

Throughout this first part of the letter, then, Paul has demonstrated how important prayer is to him, and this gives a certain weight to the admonition to his readers at the end of the letter to pray all sorts of prayers, in every season (6:18–20). These prayers are Spirit enabled (cf. Romans 8:26), and should be both general (for all the saints) and specific (in this case, for Paul as he faces legal proceedings).

There is much here from which believers today can learn: prayer is of critical importance; we should pray frequently; we should not worry too much about the precise wording of our prayers; our prayers should not be confined to ourselves or our own group of believers; they should, nevertheless, not be too general. Also, just as Paul asked for prayer in his own difficult situation, we should remember in prayer believers who are persecuted in various ways for their commitment to Christ and their determination to proclaim the gospel.

7. In a day and age where many commentaries exist on Ephesians, what is your hope concerning your contribution to this particular genre?

My hope is that this commentary will function something like a bus that brings a group of backpackers to the foot of a majestic mountain.  I hope that I can just swing the bus doors open so that my passengers can disembark and experience the mountain’s beauty, quickly forgetting about the bus itself as it disappears in the distance.  Ephesians is a beautiful text, but, more importantly, it is God’s word, and its message has the power to transform the lives of those who read it so that they believe and live out the gospel.  If in any way my commentary can bring readers to Ephesians and drop them off there to experience the transforming power of this part of God’s word, I will be profoundly grateful.

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