Ephesians, not Romans, Represents Paul’s Theology

I’ve been claiming that Romans is a pastoral letter from Paul written to resolve a developing conflict in the Roman church (or, network of house churches).  Paul’s arguments, therefore, are directed to that end—to bring about unity among all those in Christ, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

This letter is often regarded, however, as Paul’s systematic theology.  Near the end of his apostolic career, on this scenario, Paul sits down to write his magnum opus—his fullest statement of the gospel.  Here’s how he regards all humanity under judgment, the justification of the ungodly by grace through faith, the mechanics of sanctification, how election works, and how Christians ought to behave themselves.

The Christian church—at least in the West, and especially Protestants—has read Paul through the lens of Romans.  We have historically regarded this letter as the center of Paul’s theology.

I don’t think this is right.  Inasmuch as we can speak of a “center” of Paul’s theology and insofar as any extant NT letter represents that, I think Ephesians is a better candidate.  Among other reasons, here are just a few:

First, Romans is situational while Ephesians isn’t.  Paul argues as he does in Romans because he’s trying to resolve a conflict.  Many of his statements are directed to that end, and when they’re taken out of their communicative context and transformed into abstract theological principles, they give a distorted picture of Paul’s theology.

Ephesians, on the other hand, isn’t situational.  It’s probably a circular letter that Paul intended to be read to a range of churches in Asia Minor, informing them of what God has done in Christ and how they can participate in that.  Because Paul writes to give multiple Christian communities a broad understanding, we can say that Ephesians represents Paul’s basic gospel proclamation (i.e., Paul’s “theology”).

Second, and along that line, the argumentative trajectory of Romans isn’t replicated in any other NT letter.  That is, when Paul writes to other churches, he doesn’t reproduce the shape of his presentation in Romans.  Galatians is somewhat similar because of a similar situation, but even here, there are significant differences in what he says.

The basic shape of Ephesians, on the other hand, is replicated in Colossians.  Now, most NT scholars have argued that these letters are post-Pauline productions and likely copied from each other, so I know I’m assuming that both are authentically Pauline.  One could just as easily argue, however, that Ephesians represents Paul’s fundamental proclamation—his basic “theology.”  When he writes a letter of welcome and introduction to the Colossians—a church he didn’t found and hasn’t visited—he articulates his basic understanding of the faith.  And this, of course, is nearly identical to Ephesians.

Third, when Luke, Paul’s ministry colleague, sketches Paul’s proclamation, he has him repeatedly proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, and current reign as cosmic lord.  I’ve argued elsewhere that this is precisely what drives Paul’s argument in Ephesians, with Eph. 1:19-23 as the thesis statement.

As I said, I’m making some assumptions about authorship here, and much more must be said to settle things conclusively, but I think a better case can be made that Ephesians, not Romans, represents Paul’s understanding of the gospel.  I’m not alone on this limb, by the way—N. T. Wright and Luke Timothy Johnson have made similar suggestions.

23 thoughts on “Ephesians, not Romans, Represents Paul’s Theology

  1. Graham Ware

    Certainly an interesting idea. But I am not convinced we can call Eph. 1:19-23 a thesis statement as 15-23 is Paul proclaiming his prayer for the recipients (he does the same in 3:14ff). Most would prefer to suggest 1:11-14 or 2:1-10 to be more thesis-like. But I’m certainly with you

  2. deeplygrateful

    The idea that we can “mine deeper” into Paul’s theology in Romans over Ephesians may also come from the fact that Romans is a longer letter. It is humbling to think of how often God uses us (those who teach and preach the Bible) even though our hermeneutic can have unseen flaws.

    thanks for the thought provoking post!

  3. Bobby Nemeth

    After reading Phillip Esler’s commentary on Romans I have come over to this view. I was inclined view Ephesians as the center because of its tract nature but could never prove it. However, after I read your work on Ephesians for a sermon I preached for All Saints Day that I truly found the center of Pauline theology to be Ephesians. Thanks for the work, it was helpful in the pulpit.

  4. Sean

    Hi Tim, I was just wondering if those lectures you gave on Ephesians were available anywhere? You mentioned once that they might be.
    Thanks, Sean.

  5. Greg Johnston

    “I’m not alone on this limb, by the way—N. T. Wright and Luke Timothy Johnson have made similar suggestions.”
    So has Rikki Watts in his NT Foundations course lectures. Hope it’s a strong limb.

  6. Jamey Miller

    Excellent post. I have a fellow elder at the church here in Fort Worth and we’ve been threatening to write a new gospel “tract” using Ephesians. Your post is deepening that challenge. 🙂 Thanks Tim.

  7. Glenn E. Davis

    I believe that Ephesians is situational. The purpose of the letter is to give comfort and security to those new believers who have just been delivered from occult practices. Acts 19:17-20 gives us the background to the founding of the Ephesian church: new converts break with pagan practices and burned their silver “curse” scrolls. These scrolls were designed to speak “curses” over your enemies, and even friends, in order to manipulate events in your favor. To fully understand the effect of Artemis worship and its demonic stranglehold over the cities’ population I suggest reading Clinton’s Arnold’s *Ephesians: Power and Magic.* Also, Arnold has some discussion of the Ephesian “magical” worldview in the introduction of his commentary found in the Zondervan Commentary on the N.T. series (ZECNT).

    Converts who come out of the occult experience overwhelming fear of the demonic oppression returning and making their lives worse than before their conversion. Paul addresses their fears by reminding them that they are secure in Christ (chapter one), the grace of God is sufficient for their salvation (two), God’s love is greater than their fears (three) spiritual maturity is possible in Christ (four), the gospel has implications in the way the are to live (five), and the cross empowers the church to win in spiritual warfare (six).

    In Ephesians, Paul wants wants the church to understand that Jesus is above and more powerful than any demonic forces that could or had plagued them (1:21-23). “Paul piles up ‘power words’ to express the immeasurable greatness of God’s power, working, and great might toward believers. Power over supernatural forces through magic and the occult was a great concern in ancient Ephesus (Acts 19:19), but the power of the living God in Christ trumps all competing authorities (Acts 19:20).” [The ESV Study Bible]

    Thanks for the discussion, I do believe that Paul’s emphasis on the church in Ephesians is a much needed corrective to the heightened individualism of American believers.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Glenn. Clint Arnold did loads to put the ‘powers’ back on everyone’s radar with his work, but I disagree that the letter is situational and that it’s written with that purpose. The background that he suggests is possible, but not necessary, and there’s an absence of indications in the letter that make it the most likely background. E.g., there aren’t any exhortations about not fearing the powers. Further, it’s unlikely that the letter was written to Ephesus. According to Acts, Paul spent more time in that city than anywhere else (3 years), and knew the Ephesian church better than any other. Yet, Ephesians is his least personal letter. I think it’s most likely a circular letter written to churches in Asia Minor–including Ephesus.

      Just to say, I totally appreciate Clint’s work, and agree that the powers are central to Paul’s presentation. But I take a slightly different approach regarding the argument and purpose of the letter.

  8. Joe Rutherford

    My aproach to Bible study is to accept all the books of the Bible as important for our learning of the truth. Romans was situational. The situation was and is that the gospel must be proclaimed throughout the whole world. Ephesians is for the very same purpose. All the other books of the Bible work together for the proclamation of the truth as well. Of course we usually can only handle spoonfuls at a time. Some only milk. My advice to anyone who is a full time follower of the Lord Jesus Christ is to always trust Him. Know that He loves you with awesome intensity beyond our ability to fully express. The only thing He will not tolerate is to be ignored. As long as we seek for Him with all our heart, He will lead us in the holy path of truth and grant that we will be in His kingdom forever. He knew the hearts of all people. He knew the heart of man was evil. He would go to the cross so we could come to Him and be born of the water and of the Spirit. Then with His shed blood and being born of God, we would be in His kingdom and have the power to serve Him unto the end. To God be all the glory and may all who love Jesus Christ be filled with grace unto the utmost and know all His word.

  9. Matt

    In Romans itself, it seems to get missed a lot but Paul’s first proclamation of the gospel is not 3:22-25, but in the first 7 verses of the letter.

    1. timgombis

      No doubt, Matt. That’s one unfortunate result of the over-systematized reading of Romans–we read it unlike every other Pauline letter, leaving out what Paul says at the beginning.

  10. Pingback: on Ephesians and the Center of Paul’s Theology | συνεσταύρωμαι: living the crucified life

  11. Bill Heroman

    Yes, Tim. Absolutely yes. Well said, and well done.

    You gave three reasons for your thesis, which are wonderful btw, but I’m wondering how many reasons you’ve detected as to how and why Romans developed its standard prominence. I mean, other than western protestants finding so much political ammunition, which you did sortof suggest. XD

    Are there multiple reasons for Romans’ pseudo-prominence?

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  13. Pingback: Timothy Gombis on Paul’s Letter to the Romans | Imagine with Scripture

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