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Monday, April 8, 2013

"Ephesians" (Stephen E. Fowl)

TITLE: Ephesians: A Commentary (New Testament Library)
AUTHOR: Stephen E. Fowl
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012, (280 pages).

Another commentary on Ephesians? After all, we already have lots of them in the Christian books market. The ancient Church fathers like Chrysostom, Ignatius, and others have expounded on it. Reformers and post Reformers like John Calvin, John Wesley, have written volumes on it. Likewise, modern commentators like FF Bruce, Peter O'Brien, Harold Hoehner, Charles Hodge, and others have also given their contributions too. There are so many out there that sometimes, we need a commentary on these commentaries! This is what Fowl has brilliantly done. Not only has he given a general survey of some of the commentaries out there, he has also given good food for thought about commentaries. For instance, he identifies correctly that approaches to writing commentaries differ widely. Some tend to be overly "straightforward" without adequate attention to the nuances of contexts and culture. Others swing to the other end, of being too opinionated that their own views dangerously obscure what the texts are trying to say. Fowl gives high marks to commentators like Hoehner, Lincoln, and Best as being the top of the heap of commentaries. The following presents Fowl's conviction about what a good commentary is.

"A commentary may indicate how specific passages, in connection with other passages and in the light of larger convictions about God and world, cohere with and regulate one another, thus helping Christians speak about their faith and practice with greater precision and clarity. My hope is that this commentary will do all of these things when and as it is appropriate to do so."(2)
Seeking to offer the commentary more as a conversational starter, Fowl spends time working through the core arguments of Ephesians, the outline of the whole epistle, authorial intent, authorship and theological implications, the life of Paul, historical references, styles, audiences, themes, exegetical discoveries, and the connection of Ephesians with other books such as Acts, Colossians and others. More importantly, Fowl wants to help readers interpret Ephesians as accurately as possible, to appreciate the letter as holistic as possible, and to bring to life the applications as truly as possible.

The main body of the commentary comprises of 15 sections. Though Ephesians have 6 conventional chapters altogether, we know that the original letter is not in terms of chapters or verses, but in the form of a personal letter. Fowl bases his sectioning on thought and flow of themes. As he writes, he places several personal takes on the verses, often in the light of different interpretations, prefer to take an agnostic approach. For example, in Ephesians 1:23, in response to the energy other commentators put to clarify or to remove any ambiguity of the text by giving clearly delineated explanations of what the text means, Fowl is comfortable in letting the ambiguities remain believing that it is a more fruitful approach. As long as the various theological views do not contradict major doctrines or beliefs, and each speaks truthfully about God, there is no need to be too caught up on making a stand for any one strong view.

Fowl also links widely to the other letters of Paul, connecting the desires of the flesh in Ephesians 2 with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 6. Bringing in scholarship from other sources, Fowl makes it convenient for readers to compare the different interpretations for themselves so that they can make their own judgment.  
A good commentary allows readers to know what is said by the biblical writers, and what is said by the commentators themselves. This commentary is good in that sense, as it manifests that proverbial "guide by the side" rather than the dictatorial "sage on the stage." What I find most helpful is the way Fowl bridges the ancient with the modern, like the way he suggests modern applications of the text like how a Christian who is free can live freely in the world. The key point is that we are free (in Christ). Any life lived outside of Christ is bondage. We are reminded of our former lives as Gentiles without faith to our new lives in Christ. Moving from Ephesians 2 to 3, Fowl makes this useful observation that the letter progresses from the description of the spiritual "state" of believers, to personal sharing of what Paul is going through himself. It makes this letter very personal and deeply candid about Paul's life. It shows the heart of Paul for the cause of Christ, namely the Church of God. He then homes in on the theme of unity in Ephesians 4.

Fowl notes the common distinction of Ephesians 1-3 as "doctrinal" or "indicative," while Ephesians 4-6 as "moral instruction" or "imperative." Such distinctions are not cast in concrete, simply because the transition from Ephesians 3 to 4 are more connected than disparate. The key thought is that while the distinction is not unhelpful, it is profitable to remain open to other interpretations. One way is to see it in the light of grace and as gift to the Church. Whether it is an instruction, an observation, or a command, in the light of grace, it will be a delight to obey. Ephesians 5 continues the theme of holy living, and here, Fowl is in agreement with most commentators, that it is full of instructions for Christians on how to live well. In fact, Fowl goes farther to assert the emphasis of Ephesians 5 in terms of walking in wisdom in the world, in the home, and in the church. These things are to be continued strongly in the Lord through Ephesians 6. 

I like this commentary for the way Fowl remains agnostic about any one way of interpretation. He leaves room for other views. He provides ample scholarship to whet the appetites of the theologically astute. He offers suggestions for readers on how best to apply the text in the modern world. He explains the exegetical aspects appropriately without letting readers become bogged down by the weight of the analyses and technical details. I admit that at times, I feel more comfortable if Fowl has been more emphatic about his own stand. It makes it much easier for me to know where he stand in a more affirmative way, instead of simply taking an open approach that does not give readers much grip. In a nutshell, if readers are looking for something that is dogmatic, they will be disappointed. For scholars and researchers, this is a great commentary to work with.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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