Fullness and Vagueness

Stephen Fowl
Loyola College in Maryland

In response to David Ford’s paper on Ephesians, it is probably important to get out on the table as early as possible that Ephesians has no real interest in Jews as such. The crucial issues for the author of this epistle have to do with the relationships between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile followers of Jesus. Most particularly, it is concerned with how and under what conditions Gentiles are brought into the one body of God’s people in Christ. Nevertheless, as David notes, once the church is overwhelmingly Gentile (as the church in Ephesus probably was) and much more powerful relative to Judaism, an engagement with this text that might generate the sorts of awful outcomes he mentions is certainly possible. It might be worth asking, however, if there is any evidence that such an engagement with Ephesians (especially in regard to the term pleroma) ever happened in the history of the church. If not, perhaps the very possibility of it happening is sufficient to sustain the sorts of concerns David raises.

It is interesting that David turns to the issue of pleroma as the locus for his examination. I would argue that the discourse of pleroma = in Ephesians functions in exactly the same way it does in Colossians, although the particulars of the two contexts are very different. That is, the authors of both texts locate the pleroma of God fully and totally in Christ. Further, and most importantly, Christians (both Jewish and Gentile), by virtue of their incorporation into the body of Christ, have as complete a relationship and connection to that fullness (pleroma) as can be had this side of the eschaton. Hence, in the case of Ephesians, submission to circumcision and all that stands for will not bring Gentile Ephesian Christians any closer to the pleroma of God. (“Through Christ we both [Jewish and Gentile Christians] have access, by means of the one Spirit, to the Father.” [2:18])

As David notes, this still leaves the massive question (or, perhaps, massive questions) regarding those Jews who do not acknowledge Christ. Clearly, it can be an occasion for dialogue, as David suggests. Further, while I am unquestioningly committed to the peaceableness of that dialogue, I anticipate much sharper disagreements than David does. I will close by noting briefly one particular point in David’s account of pleroma in Ephesians where I think such disagreements will occur.

In his discussion of Ephesians 1:9-10, David claims, “Christians have no privileged overview of fulfillment—in fact its vagueness and universal scope means that it constantly calls for further determinations from a wide range of interpretants.” Without question, there is an in-built “vagueness” in all eschatological explorations. It seems equally indubitable, however, that Christians believe they have a privileged perspective on the manner in which the Son will bring all things under the reign of God. As Paul and the writer of Ephesians agree, it will be within the horizon of God’s dealings with Israel, dealings which, for Christians, reach their climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Yes, both Jews and Christians can agree that the basic anagogical plot is a Jewish one, but Jews and Christians are going to display that Jewish plot in very different ways. Simply nominating the plot as Jewish may be a useful corrective for Christians, but it does not move Jews and attentive Christians any closer to reconciling the differences in the ways they tell the story of God’s dealings with Israel.

Someday we will all know fully just as we have been fully known, but it seems to me that Jews cannot expect me to give up my christological convictions about the end for the sake of dialogue any more than I can expect them to put aside skepticism and doubts about Christ. That is, our dialogue will be a dialogue into which we bring our disagreements in their fullness. I am worried that David’s account of vagueness moves towards generating dialogue based on a blurring of these very significant differences.

I learned an immense amount about Kemper from Elliot’s paper, and my questions really stem from my ignorance of these matters. First, can you say more about the relationship between Kemper’s Sabbatian (or residually Sabbatian) approach to halakhah and the more mystical view that, particularly through the Zohar, one can find hidden messianic secrets? This latter view, as you say, inclines one toward a more nomian tradition which “preserves hints that point toward the truths of the Christian faith.”

Secondly, I am intrigued by your claim towards the end that Kemper becomes a sort of messianic exegete as he was one of the few (the only) Christians with the rabbinic skills needed to display the messianic secrets hidden in the Zohar. Would you make a similar sort of claim about Paul’s reading of the law? Paul at least implicitly encourages the congregations to which he writes to interpret like he does. The musthvrion for Paul is not really esoteric in the sense the Kemper seems to think. Rather, it requires the presence of the Spirit.

Finally, how do you, as a Jew, situate yourself in relation to Kemper’s reading of the Zohar? Isn’t Kemper’s exegesis much more supercessionist than Paul’s?

Thanks to both David and Elliot for their work on our behalf.