By Daniel Malakowsky
"Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world..." ~ Ephesians 1:4a
Some of the great gifts of the Reformation were the translation of the sacred scriptures into the vernacular of the day and the empowerment of the laity through emphasizing the priesthood of all believers. The Gospel had once more been placed in accessible ways for all to embrace. The unfortunate consequences of this though are well described by Alister McGrath in his book, Christianity's Dangerous Idea:
"The fundamental difficulty that the Reformation faced: the absence of any authoritative interpreter of scripture that could give ruling on contested matters of biblical interpretation. The question was not simply whether Luther or Zwingli was right: it was whether the emerging Protestant movement possessed the means to resolve such questions of biblical interpretation."
What this means, and what McGrath is here highlighting, is that in the Reformation a church was emerging that was becoming increasingly detached from its authoritative moorings and a vacuum was created in terms of who and how that role would be filled.
Why do I bring that up in a series of blogs on Paul's vision of unity in the epistle of Ephesians? To understand that is to understand the way in which the centuries since that unleashing of both renewal and division known as the Reformation have been impacted by new and innovative ways of approaching scripture. While mainline Protestantism viewed itself in continuity with the past, it was a selective continuity usually embracing those who supported the theological tendencies of its founders and leaders. More radical forms of the Reformation tended to embrace a view of themselves as restorationist and not reformers, and thus there was no continuity to be had with the past. In summary then, this movement to reform opened the door for the church, especially the church in the West, to be shaped and influenced by rapid transitions in culture and intellectual thought in the subsequent centuries.
Fast forward and you will find that a theology of the priesthood of all believers lends itself to more democratic forms of polity and governance. Isolationist histories can then be written and while everyone lives in a world that holds congruence with its past, individuals could view a world in which that no longer mattered. Eventually as culture and church continued to emphasize the individual it become the only thing that mattered. By the time you reach the 19th century and the Second Great Awakening you can hear the boisterous chant of the individual through the decree of 'no creed but the Bible.' What this really equates to is the ability of the individual to view themselves as autonomous from the community where it is just me, God and my bible. All this is to say that we have been shaped by our cultural history of individualism and our isolationist tendencies. This has and continues to influence our reading of Paul and thus our understanding of what we are reading.
One of the great passages in all of scripture is Ephesians 1:3-14, 202 power packed words coalescing into a single sentence in the Greek. Much emphasis has been made though of this passage and what it speaks to in terms of individual election. While not denying the truths of those conversations and avoiding the convoluted debates surrounding them, too often this individualism is triumphed over the corporate and communal nature of election that Paul is holding front and center to begin this epistle. It is impossible to find any pronoun or verb in this passage that speaks of an individual, only the plural forms of such words that emphasize the communal nature of the Gospel. It is not 'my adoption' or 'my inheritance' that Paul is speaking of, but that of 'ours.' We miss the fact that Paul, as a Jew, is speaking to a church composed of majority Gentile population, and using language of inclusion and belonging. It is 'we' who have redemption through the blood of Jesus, and who have been blessed together as God has made known the mystery of will with the purpose of uniting all things. To read Ephesians then, is to read it corporately and communally, recognizing that the great gift and power that is in it is in the power of Christ to bring union to God and thus communion with one another. This is not to lose the individual, as all communities are only such as individuals come together, but to help the individual find their identity and purpose in the triune God revealed in Christ and the great 'us' that is adopted into him.
We must be reminded that Paul was most likely writing this from prison for living out the nature of the very truths he is inviting us into (ref. Acts 21:27-29), sharing his covenantal belonging in Christ with a Gentile. The great mystery of the Gospel is not for Paul a hyper individualism with a predetermined view of election, but how the corporate nature of election in Christ was unfolding in the church. In approaching Paul and understanding his vision of unity it is imperative to recognize that Paul, again a first century Jew, is now using the language of covenant and belonging with Gentiles in the church only through the love and power of Christ in the resurrection. We must move beyond our conditioned individualism and join the great 'us' that Paul is calling forth in Christ.
“My people are my community, which is both the small community, those who live together, and the larger community which surrounds it and for which it is there. ‘My people’ are those who are written in my flesh as I am in theirs. Whether we are near each other or far away, my brothers and sisters remain written within me.” ~ Jean Vanier