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Confusions about Authorship Lead to Theological “Boxology”

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In 1830, the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “The Epistle to the Ephesians is evidently a catholic epistle, addressed to the whole of what might be called St. Paul's diocese.” This mirrors a more recent argument among scholars that the biblical book of Ephesians circulated widely in the Roman province of Asia, the western region of modern Turkey. In the first decades of Christianity's growth, Ephesus was the empire's second most important city, and Paul spent around three years there in the mid-50s AD. Most scholars believe that the letter was written several decades later. 

A high number scholars also do not believe that Paul actually wrote it. In his book, Meditations on the Letters of Paul: Exercises in Biblical Theology, Seventh-day Adventist New Testament theologian Herold Weiss writes, “After To the Hebrews the letter To the Ephesians is probably the one whose Pauline authorship is denied by most scholars.” This is due to Ephesians' content and style. Weiss continues, “Both argue for its belonging to the latter part of the first century. It has been said that in the letters of Paul the arguments move like a mountain brook, jumping and bubbling in a rapid flow. By contrast, in Ephesians the presentation moves ponderously and slowly like a river in a plain. The sentences are extremely long with numerous dependent clauses and repetitive grandeur.” 

Last week’s lesson briefly addressed this question of authorship. Primary contributor John McVay, president of Walla Walla University, notes three places that Paul is identified: at the beginning, near the middle, and toward the end. He adds, “While some scholars deny that the letter was written by Paul, it is important to note that the epistle clearly lays claim to Paul as its author. Most Christians accept, and rightly so, Paul as the author.” Mass belief can be a shaky foundation for historical accuracy. “Evangelical Christians, in particular, are uneasy about non-apostolic authorship,” writes Evangelical Luthern pastor Keith Long. “However,” he adds, “the reality is that the New Testament imparts valuable teachings on faith and life, and the impact of Jesus of Nazareth and the authorship of the texts play a relatively minor role in their overall influence.” 

This is true for Weiss as well who believes that not only the book's style, but also its content, differs from Paul's writing. Weiss states, “Rather than to have the future Parousia (the public appearance of an enthroned Christ) as its focus, it is satisfied with life within the church built on the foundation of the apostles. Paul would never agree to a foundation other than Christ.” For Weiss, “The purpose of the letter is to promote church unity. Thus, it evinces the transition of Christianity from a movement to an ecclesiastical phenomenon.” Adding to the mystery, the earliest manuscripts do not include the designation “to the Ephesians.” Coleridge’s broad sense of its catholic diocesan reach perhaps hints at this pastoral letter’s wider message. For Christians then and now, perhaps its inspiration and its content have inspiration meanings beyond the singular and historical. “It embraces every doctrine of Christianity,” wries, Coleridge. “First, those doctrines peculiar to Christianity, and then those precepts common to it with natural religion.” 

This week’s lesson slightly engages some of these larger themes. But after that, it leaps around the biblical text, oddly treating Ephesians and then Hebrews as jumping boards to prove the existence of a heavenly sanctuary. 

The constructive part of the lesson begins with the letter’s third verse, which shows how rhetorically focused the text is on centering Christ as the source of divine blessing to believers. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3, ESV). This continues through Thursday’s lesson, where additional themes like Christian unity, a divine preordained plan, and Holy Spirit-sealed salvation receive helpful discussion. Although flawed, Part II of the Teacher Comments at least provokes serious engagement with the introduction of the term “doxological theology.”

Paul wrote Ephesians 1:3–14 in a style we could call doxological theology. Theologians note that Christian theology must begin with doxology (praise) and end in doxology—indeed, must be doxology. Being among the first doxological theologians, Paul’s theology is not a cold, purely rational, schematic, and neutral development of a concept. Nor is Paul writing in this doxological way simply because of the customary epistolary style of the time. 

A partial doxological format might be a significant authorial flourish, but it certainly was not new to human writing about the divine in the Ancient Near Eastern world. In fact, praising a divine was central to a religious speech act. The Homeric hymn to Poseidon, one of the dozen Olympic gods, offers plenty of praise, singing of his dominion over the sea and rivers and his  causing of earthquakes, storms, floods and other destruction. 

I begin to sing about Poseidon, the great god, mover of the earth and fruitless sea, god of the deep who is also lord of Helicon and wide Aegae. A two-fold office the gods allotted you, O Shaker of the Earth, to be a tamer of horses and a saviour of ships! Hail, Poseidon, Holder of the Earth, dark-haired lord! O blessed one, be kindly in heart and help those who voyage in ships!

Positioning narrative, pleading, and/or instruction within a sandwich of divine praise was standard human fare. Given that almost all audiences engaged with these hymns and letters aurally, Ephesians included, its doxological repetition would have added to a worship atmosphere in ways similar to this Orphic hymn to Zeus. 

All-parent, principle and end of all, whose pow'r almighty, shakes this earthly ball;
Ev'n Nature trembles at thy mighty nod, loud-sounding, arm'd with light'ning, thund'ring God.
Source of abundance, purifying king, O various-form'd from whom all natures spring;
Propitious hear my pray'r, give blameless health, with peace divine, and necessary wealth.

There are some similarities: proclaim divine identity, praise power and cite its proof and extent, mention some benefits to human belief and obedience. Compare these to Ephesians 1:17-21 (NIV):

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 

Beyond the unsupported attempt to imply a special authorial style, the lesson goes all in on doxological theology. But a sandwich of praise might leave some hungering for more doctrinal and ethical substance. Moreover, doxological work can sound like appeasement, and its twin, apologetics. Writing theology to praise God can also mean that the lords who hold terrestrial power in church or state feel placated.

Predictably, in the Teacher Comments, after its praise of doxological theology, the lesson takes an apologetic detour. Triggered by the meaning of epouranios (above the sky or heaven), the lesson squeezes in a defense of the distinctive Seventh-day Adventist doctrine of the heavenly sanctuary. While attacking the deistic conception of a removed God, the lesson jumps from showing that God exists in human time and space to concrete language about “the throne of God.” From there it engages a simple theodicean insight about the origin of evil. 

It was against that throne in the heavenly sanctuary that Lucifer fought, accusing God of being unloving and having an unjust character and government. It was to that throne that Jesus ascended after He fully revealed and proved God’s character of love and of justice.

Is this suggesting that evil is caused by Lucifer fighting against a throne? Is there an actual throne in the heavenly sanctuary? Was there a throne in the earthly sanctuary? Does God sit on the earth and/or the heavenly ark of the covenant? Is this just some sloppy synecdoche? But now on this sudden fundamental belief jag, the lesson abandons its focus on the book of Ephesians and jumps around a string of Hebrews prooftexts (Heb. 8:1–3, NASB; see also Heb. 1:8; Heb. 4:16; Heb. 9:23–25; Heb. 12:2, 22–24) in order to suddenly clear up that great human question: In the infinite heavenly realm, from what building and furniture do divine blessings originate? 

Thus, as in his epistle to the Hebrews, and also as Daniel (Daniel 7), Solomon (2 Chronicles 6), and later John (Revelation 4 and 5), Paul directs the attention of his readers to God’s heavenly place, to His throne and heavenly sanctuary, from which God blesses His people with all the blessings He intended in His original plans of Creation and of salvation in Christ.

The title of this week’s lesson is “God’s Grand, Christ-Centered Plan.” Instead of Christology, it shoehorns in a doctrinal focus on the heavenly sanctuary, what one might call a focus on boxology. 

Ephesians offers readers an intellectually challenging chance to think about how we harmonize scripture and moral change over time. Hopefully this quarter we will seriously engage the book's statements about wife and slave submission. Until then, we have Coleridge in his Lectures on Revealed Religion from 1795: “Universal Equality is the object of the Messiah’s mission not to be procured by the tumultuous rising of an indignant multitude but this final result of an unresisting yet deeply principled Minority, which gradually absorbing kindred minds shall at last become the whole.”

Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.

Title image: Lobby card for "Go Down, Death!" 1944. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (public domain).

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