Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Ephesians Road: Last words

I consider my own real point on Ephesians to have been made in the previous posts. Still, what do we make of the "Ephesians Road" way of viewing the gospel?

If you watched any of the Olympics recently, you may have noticed one thing about the figure skating routines: each routine looks much like the next routine because there are so many compulsory elements. The judges have their score cards and are waiting to see that combination jump, waiting to see the spins and check that all the mandatory parts of the routine have been completed, so that they can evaluate the question: "How does this person rate as a skater?" The score card contains all the assumptions about how to recognize a really good skater and what constitutes excellence in skating.

I got the impression, reading those summaries of Ephesians, that there was the same type of score card in hand, a score card that someone was using to evaluate: "How does this summary rate as a presentation of the good news?" That score card seemed to have its own compulsory elements, complete with assumptions about what the gospel is and what makes one gospel presentation better than another. That score card assumed that the gospel is rightly understood as a plan to deal with God's wrath and/or the punishment we have earned. Look at the sketch-style summary of the "Romans Road" that was given as the starting point:
  • You are a sinner and guilty before God (Romans 3:23).
  • Your guilt has earned you death (Romans 6:23).
  • God has a plan to save you freely through faith (Romans 5:8).
  • All you need to do is call on God (pray) and your faith will save you (Romans 10:9).
Notice how it has a place for your guilt and sin and how you deserve death. Notice how it has a place for your faith and God's plan. Did you also notice that there is not one explicit mention of Jesus? In this "gospel," Jesus is assumed as a background detail that makes the plan work, but he doesn't rank high enough to be mentioned explicitly, much less to be recognized as the cornerstone of our salvation. This summary is, in short, a blasphemous and offensive presentation of the "gospel." Then again, it was meant as the "bad old thing we're replacing", so it is possible that the author meant this as an example of a bad way to explain the gospel.

On to the summary that Dr. P. linked, written by Derek:
  • Salvation is about God’s plan for the world (Ephesians 1), including the election of Israel, the adoption of Israel as the people of God, the inclusion of Gentiles in salvation, and the uniting of all things in Messiah symbolized by the new unity of Jew and Gentile in Messiah.
  • Salvation is only by unearned favor (Ephesians 2:1-9), raising us from the dead and saving us from God’s wrath.
  • Salvation comes with a calling that must be fulfilled in the community of faith (Ephesians 2:10-22), including good works, kingdom community of mutual blessing between Jew and Gentile, and imaging God to the world.
Look at the compulsory elements being checked off on the score card: God's wrath? Check. God's plan? Check. Salvation is unearned? Check. And each camp in Christianity has its own compulsory elements on the score card. But to what extent does that score card interfere with recognizing: Ephesians ranks right up there with Romans as one of the great early presentations of the good news in its own right. Is it right to set a score card for Ephesians based on (our understanding of) Romans? Or does it get full and perfect marks on its own score card, and our job is not to grade it or even to reformat it to fit some other set of expectations, but instead to figure out what was on Paul's own mental checklist?

Do you remember the word frequency study we looked at before? We can use that as a guide to test how well any summary sticks with the author's point. Paul's letter to the Ephesians gives "love" a far more prominent place than "wrath", so that "love" is the most commonly used word after the "God" words. This summary gives explicit mention to wrath, but has no explicit mention of love. Paul's letter to the Ephesians mentions Christ more than any other key word; in this summary, the prominence of Christ (Messiah) has been reduced so that Christ is no more prominent than, say, Israel. In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, there is one explicit mention of Israel; in the short few lines of the summary, there are two.

It is easy for us to read our own assumptions about what is important into the text and miss what the author is emphasizing. We easily assign "background / filler" status to whatever doesn't meet our expectations, and may not even notice that what we skip as "background" may be something the author considers vital. That is because our score card does not have a check box for everything the author had in mind. If we want to look at Ephesians as a way to broaden our understanding of how to present the good news, we'll have to stop looking at a score card that was made for something else, and read it on its own terms.

As for Ephesians: To follow Paul's own emphasis by how often he mentions each thing, Christ is the key point. Christ is the good news.


Howard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Howard said...

"Christ is the key point. Christ is the good news".

And it really changes the nature of how we communicate and what we say, theologically, when this becomes the touchstone of what we seek to express, whatever particular issue we are speaking about - I've certainly found this to be the case of late. It's invaluable to be reminded that Jesus Christ must be all in all, especially we are seeking to 'feed' others and ourselves.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Howard

Good to see you.

You're right -- the only way we are "fed" by the words is if the words are Christ crucified, given for us.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF said...

Hmm, but you can't just go by keywords. You have to consider concepts. Here is one idea you presented that I want to challenge. You suggest that I over-emphasized Israel in my summary.

But . . . in Ephesians 1 Paul uses a distinction in pronouns (we, us . . . you also). I make a case in my blog the we, us is Israel.

In Ephesians 2, you were once far off, not a people, separated from the commonwealth of Israel, etc., but now, brought near.

Brought near to what: to God in a similar relationship as Israel.

So, you see, Paul the Israelite, has a lot of Israel in the background of Ephesians. You have to read the context.

Derek Leman

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Derek

I didn't find your comment til tonight; sorry for the slow reply.

Reading your summary, I know that Israel is very key to you. In your summary, Israel gets as much mention as Christ. My question to you is not "Does Paul mention Israel?" It's not even "Does the word 'Israel' show up in every discussion of Israel?" ('Christ' doesn't show up in every discussion of Christ.)

The question is: "Does Israel deserve as much mention as Christ?" It's not a question of whether Israel is mentioned in Paul's letter; it's a question whether in Paul's presentation Israel is really as prominent as Christ.

With Paul, Christ is the key. We can't afford to replace Christ; otherwise what is Christianity?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF