Ephesians and Colossians

Charles H. Talbert Baker Academic, Grand Rapids November 1, 2007
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This volume is the first in the new Paideia commentary series. Among other goals this series seeks to comment on the New Testament in a way that not only informs readers of the meaning of the text but also hopes to help readers shape “theological convictions and moral habits” (p. ix). Talbert’s approach is excellent. He acknowledges that to understand Ephesians (and by implication, the entire New Testament) it is important to determine as much as possible the context in which the letters were written. Talbert asks, How would the original readers have heard these books? (pp. 15–17).

Talbert’s introduction includes valuable information. He highlights the importance of unity in the Roman world and its effect on these books (pp. 17–18). His section on authorship is detailed and includes a helpful discussion of various types of authorship in the ancient world. Talbert’s conclusion is that these two epistles were not written by Paul but probably by a disciple of his (p. 11). Although Talbert’s discussion is interesting and presents various options, he does not interact with any serious arguments in favor of Pauline authorship. Thus this section can be read as a good representative of the non-Pauline authorship position. However, to balance the approach here one should consult another volume for arguments in favor of authenticity (such as Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002]). Talbert does not narrow down the date other than to suggest a range between the late 50s and the end of the first century. The most valuable section in the introduction is Talbert’s discussion of benefaction (pp. 20–25). Here he describes an important aspect of the Roman world. He suggests that Ephesians presents God as the benefactor of the believer (pp. 24–25). This helps emphasize God as the initiator and humans as responders to Him. Talbert goes beyond the Roman system when he suggests that “when humans respond rightly, it is only because God has enabled them to do so” (p. 24). This is a positive use of background material which establishes a foundation for the epistle. Also benefaction helps illuminate texts such as Ephesians 2:8–9 (pp. 63–69).

After the introduction Talbert discusses each rhetorical unit in three parts. First, “introductory matters” is a brief section covering issues that orient the reader to the passage. Second, in “tracing the train of thought” the text is specifically commented on. This is not a verse-by-verse exposition as such; instead it discusses the meaning of the text by commenting on it as it occurs. Thus the entire book is discussed as Talbert develops the meaning of the text. Although it would have been helpful to have the passage at the beginning of each section, the Scripture portions are in bold type so that it is easy to identify what is text and what is comment. Third, the section “theological issues” discusses theology that arises from the biblical text. This often ventures into practical areas and topics of systematic theology. Also the volume includes many helpful sidebars, which often contain outlines or highlight specific topics. 

Concerning Ephesians 5:7–14 Talbert concludes that the author is either exposing believers’ sin or confronting nonbelievers. He feels both options are possible (pp. 127–28). Talbert could have spent more time on 5:18–21. Here he merely states verse 18 with little comment and assumes the participles that follow in verses 19–21 (“speaking to one another, singing,” etc.) are “results” of being filled with the Spirit (pp. 128–30). In Colossians 1:15 “firstborn” refers to “priority of status,” not “priority of time” (p. 187). In Colossians 1:24 he suggests a number of options and concludes that what Paul meant by “I am completing what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” refers to Paul’s apostolic mission, not any insufficiency in Christ’s sacrifice (pp. 200–202). Also of note is his discussion of “worship of angels” (pp. 218–20).

Talbert’s discussion of the household code in Ephesians 5:22–6:9 is interesting. Sensitive to modern concerns that argue that these verses are a blueprint for successful Christian marriage or that reject them as unhelpful for today, he suggests by drawing on ancient codes that they refer to the household as a business and function more like a modern business’s organization chart. Galatians 3:27–28 is the ideal for family (and broader) relationships. The household codes are about family business (pp. 149–57; this is in the “theological issues” section following the discussion of the text; see also his much briefer treatment of Colossians 3:18–4:1; pp. 231–35). This solution is interesting and worth considering. However, much of Talbert’s concern would be relieved if he made a stronger connection between this passage and Ephesians 5:15–21. Relationships need to be controlled by the Holy Spirit. This will make them stand out against the norm of society.

Concerning slavery and women, Talbert makes a hermeneutical move that makes a distinction between what Christians did in the short term and what they do in the long term. In the short term, they (i.e., ancient Christians) are pragmatic and do not wish to do violence to the social order. However, Christians, especially women and slaves, have a new self-understanding, and this allows them to function in their circumstances. Domination and slavery are a result of the Fall, and Christ is about redemption and restoration. As Christian consciousness matures, situations based on the Fall will be changed. Today slavery is abandoned in most places, and women are in the process of being recognized as equal (pp. 153–57). This hermeneutic is interesting, but it is not helpful. It seems controlled by modern interests. There are ways of approaching the text in light of its original context that see equality and freedom without resorting to what seems to be an abandonment of the text’s original intention. Much work needs to be done in this area, and Talbert’s contribution should further the discussion.

Though many may find the discussions in the “theological issues” section helpful, in some places the author seems to read theology back into the text. For example he includes an interesting section on election, foreknowledge, and predestination, in which he discusses views of theologians such as Calvin and Arminius. When Paul used these terms, it is unlikely that he had theological development in mind, and Talbert does not suggest that he did. However, if one emphasizes Talbert’s theology section, there is a danger that one may miss Paul’s meaning as it would have been originally understood. This can be overcome by reading both the “tracing the train of thought” and the “theological issues” sections on specific passages, keeping in mind that certain matters among the theological issues should not be read as interpretive options for the passage but as theological developments based on the text.

The volume concludes with a detailed bibliography (pp. 249–69) and three indexes (subject, modern authors, and Scripture/ancient references (pp. 270–96). However, Talbert deals effectively with many major issues and gives a clear interpretation of the text. If this volume is representative of commentaries in the Paideia series, the forthcoming volumes promise to be helpful tools for interpreting the New Testament.

—Joseph D. Fantin

April 1, 2010
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2010 vol. 167 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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