No Property of the Church: Eph 1:15-23

Well, with my theology work all going elsewhere (or nowhere yet), I seem to be in full-on Biblioblog mode lately. And today is no exception. Having run the translation for Ephesians 1:15-23 for Ascension, I'd like to comment on it, and that's something that readily lends itself to blogging. So I'll start by giving you my translation of the text, and we'll jump into it from there:
"Because of this, having heard about your trust in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of the saints, I also do not stop giving thanks on your behalf, making mention of you at my prayer meetings, so that the god of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, shall give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in His recognition, the eyes of your heart being enlightened so that you see what is the hope of God's calling, the wealth of the glory of God's inheritance among the saints, and the sheer hyperbolic magnitude of God's power for us who trust, according to the activity of God's mighty strength, which has been active in Christ since God raised him from the dead and seated him at God's own right hand in the realms above the sky—above every leader and authority and power and lordship, above every name that is given, not only in this age but in the one to come—and subordinated everything under his feet, and gave him as head over all things in/to/for the assembly, which is his body, the complement of the one who fulfills everything in all times."
This is a fun text, especially in that its excellent Greek often makes for very poor English. In the Greek, this is all one long sentence, which is how I've given it to you. And "one long sentence" is really just a thing we say, having added our own punctuation to it, when all it means is that nothing here breaks from carrying forward the main idea. In this way, a good, high-level Greek sentence is like a good English paragraph.

It's no exaggeration, therefore, to say that there's a lot going on in this sentence. And not all of it is, I feel, adequately captured by the NRSV. (Or the NIV, or the ESV, or the NET, ...) So, rather than dive into one critical issue, I'm going to walk through the passage bit by bit. Along the way, we'll find more reasons to distrust the "objective genitive," as well as some heavy historical questions about what the Church has assumed from this passage. Come on along!

Backing Up Slightly

First things first, and the first thing is context. (The first thing is always context!) I won't bother you with an extended meditation on why this isn't written by Paul. I've already explained how Colossians is a high-quality post-Pauline pastiche made for the sake of the author's own community, set as though Paul wrote it to someone else so that the real audience might actually listen to it. Where Colossians is built from scratch out of the Pauline letters as we have them, whoever composed Ephesians would seem to have had Colossians in front of them.

But the really important context here is what comes before the "because of this ..." opening. Many prominent translations take this dia touto and combine it with the participial phrase that comes next, "having heard ...," to imply that it is because the speaker has heard of the audience's faith and love that he therefore gives thanks and prays.

Which isn't quite what the Greek says. There's a little word that comes between these two things in the Greek, and it's important. This word, kagō, is a combination of the words kai, "and," and egō, "I." It means "I also" ... do whatever the verb in the sentence says I do. It's the subject of this part of the sentence. The participial phrase "having heard ..." is stuck between kagō and the verbs it belongs to. This phrase describes the conditions in which "I also" give thanks and pray—not the reason why "I also" do those things.

So we need to know what "Because of this ..." is pointing to, and for that we need to go back in the text. Not back very far, of course. Two verses is enough. The audience, having come to believe in Christ because of the gospel, was marked or branded with—possibly "sealed by," because such marks are often made in the wax of a seal, to prove that the thing so sealed has not been tampered with—"the promised Holy Spirit." Of course, the author doesn't have a high pneumatology; this "Holy Spirit" is only the guarantee, the token, the "down payment," a sign that God can be trusted to deliver the goods that are really the object of the promise. Those goods are the "inheritance," which is their eligibility to be redeemed as part of God's own people. This spirit is, more literally, the holy spirit of promise—which is useful when we realize that the author will also pray for the audience to be given the spirit of wisdom and of revelation.

So, going into verse 15, we have to know that the cause here is that the audience is already part of the in-group, having presumably accepted baptism. Because they do in fact trust in Christ, and so have received the spirit of promise that guarantees their inheritance, the author, after having become aware of this fact, therefore performs the following actions.

Thanksgiving and Remembrance

So we come to the main verbs of the sentence. Or verbal constructions, anyways. The primary action is that the author does not stop, if we're just looking at the verb. There is no end of his thanksgiving, which is the standard eucharistō appearing as a participle. The author is unendingly grateful for them, again because of the fact that they have come to trust in Christ, and so become part of the same people of God in which he was before them, and so are now eligible for the same promised inheritance. But huper humōn here isn't just an expression that he feels happy "about" them. This is prayer with a purpose.

In being so endlessly grateful, the author's primary action is making mneian, which could be translated as "remembrance," or simply "mention" as I have done above. But it seems here to carry the sense of "reminder." The author is reminding God about them. And where he does this is ambiguous. We could say, as many translations do, that it is simply in his prayers. That he simply mentions them directly to God. But the word here, proseuchē, is also used to describe what we might call synagogues or churches. They are prayer meetings. In places where there is a regular prayer meeting, appropriate buildings often spring up to house it, but the thing they house is the community that meets to pray in that place. And in Greek they were called proseuchai for that reason. So there's a good chance that the audience hears this and knows that, as we say today, "people are praying for them." But for what? What's the purpose of this prayer?

Divine Enlightenment

The author's intention covers the rest of the sentence, and it's twofold. He reminds God (and his prayer circles) of the audience in order that they should receive further spiritual gifts, first; and second, in order that receiving that spirit of wisdom and revelation, they may therefore receive knowledge about God.

The audience already has received from God the spirit of promise, and therefore the promise that they will inherit God's redemption. And the spirit of wisdom and revelation likewise does what it says on the tin: conveys wisdom and revelation. And as the clause goes here, the author reminds God of them in prayer so that God should give this spirit to them ... and then we have a problem:
Greek: ... en epignōsei autou
NRSV: "... as you come to know him"
NIV: "... so that you may know him better"
ESV: "... in the knowledge of him"
NET: "... in your growing knowledge of him"
The NIV turns a simple dative phrase into a purpose clause, which seems unwarranted. The NRSV and NET both attempt to make the noun epignōsis into an imperfect-tense verb of which the audience is the subject. The ESV is the only one that remotely knows its job here, and all it's done is repeat what can be found in the King James. That translation only raises the question of objective or subjective genitive—objective knowledge of God, or God's own subjective knowledge.

Of course, epignōsis isn't simply "knowledge." If gnōsis is cognition, epignōsis is recognition. Acknowledgement. And it seems perfectly reasonable to leave the audience as an object here. They've already recognized God. The author reminds God of them so that God might recognize them, and in that recognition give to them the spirit of wisdom and revelation. Making it "God's recognition" lines up perfectly with the rest of the author's uses of the genitive autou in this passage: "God's calling," "God's inheritance," "God's power," "God's strength," "God's right hand," "his feet," and "his body." Not a one of them is objective.

Resulting Knowledge

Still, it is objective knowledge of God that results. (Barth would be so pleased; God is the one who reveals, and what God reveals is Godself.) And this cargo of which the audience is to take delivery fills out the entire rest of the sentence. It is the author's intention that, when God gives them the spirit of of wisdom and revelation, the following things will be revealed to them:
  • The hope of God's calling;
  • The wealth of the glory of God's inheritance among the saints;and
  • The sheer hyperbolic magnitude of God's power for us who trust.
The first two may be self-explanatory, or at least common knowledge covered by prior exposition. But the last part, God's power for the faithful, warrants its own expansion. What is God's power for us? What does it look like?

It looks like the actions of the Father for Jesus. And I'm going to get preachy for a moment here, because what that power looks like is left open for assumptions. God raised him from the dead—and the church has long believed that we will be raised likewise. God enthroned him above every form of worldly power, authority, and nobility—and the church has long believed that God will so enthrone God's people with him. God has radically subjected all things to him, placing them beneath him, worthy of the bottoms of his feet—and the church has long believed that God will so deprecate all other things in our favor. God made him the head, literally the thing that rests on top of one's neck—and the church has long taken that as justification for its own hierarchical ideas.

But God made us his body, in which all things are subject to the head. It is Christ in whom that power is active, not us. Christ is God's power for us, and not we for anyone else. We are the plērōma, which means fullness, but in an object sense. Anything that ends in -ma is the resulting object of its cognate verb. A plērōma is what results from doing the action of the verb plēroō: filling. Filling literally to the top, because that's what full means, and so also completing, or metaphorically full-filling: bringing something to its end. A plērōma is what results from a filler filling something. And that is the power of God at work for us.

And it is Christ—it is God—who (ful)fills all things, ta panta, in all times, en pasin. And that's a tricky phrase in its own right. Most of the time we simply gloss "all in all." There's no specifics. But by the implications of case, we can at least say that ta panta is the "what," the thing being (ful)filled. I think it's reasonable to gloss en pasin as a dative of time, but it could just as easily be a dative of place. The dative often deals with points in time and space, and so when we have the noun "all" declined in this way, we're dealing with every single such point.

This, ultimately, is what we are given to know of God's power for us. We are merely the complement of that power, the resulting object: those whom God fulfills, in our given times and places and situations. God's power has been at work in Christ since the resurrection, and it is a power that cannot possibly be overstated. Unimaginably huge. Whatever the church has assumed on the basis of God's actions, God's true power for us is greater. Not power that God gives us, mind you. Not some power God has lying around to give to us. Not an objective divine power for us to wield, but God's own subjective power, of which we are the objects.

And the sovereignty God has given to Christ is likewise therefore not our sovereignty. It is only the demonstration of the character of the one who is sovereign over us. As God goes about fulfilling all things in all times and places, God does so with the character shown in Christ, who was vindicated against us by being raised from the death to which we subjected him. And so we call him Lord, and subject ourselves to him, and pattern our trust in God on Jesus Christ.


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