“He Is Our Peace”: The Letter to the Ephesians and the Theology of Fulfilment — A Dialogue with Peter Ochs

David F. Ford
Cambridge University

This paper is an engagement with an old text and a new text for a specific context. The old text is the Letter to the Ephesians, which has fascinated me for years. The new text is Peirce, Pragmatism and the Logic of Scripture by Peter Ochs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). The context is the Society for Scriptural Reasoning, which is one of the readerships Ochs had in mind when writing his book. I am not competent to judge Ochs’ reading of Peirce, but his book is also about the logic of scripture. It therefore invites a review in the form of testing its capacity to help in interpreting a scriptural text, and that particularly suits the SSR. This is very much an initial exploration of Ochs’ none-too-easy book, and it is a relief to know that Ochs himself might well be at our meeting to correct what I write here. As it is too early to have weighed (or even to have understood adequately) much of what Ochs says, my aim is to try to enter a little into the significance of his book by using it to redescribe and interpret theologically a more familiar text, in this case the Letter to the Ephesians.

1. Introducing Ochs

First I will give a minimal introduction to some of Ochs’ ideas which will be used later in this paper:

The main thrust of Ochs’ argument is to show how Peirce offers a “pragmatic reading” of the modern Cartesian-Kantian philosophical tradition so as to correct and redefine it, especially through engagement with the experimental methods of the natural sciences. One key feature of Peirce’s correction is to show how that tradition’s claims to discontinuity with the past were part of a misconstrual of transcendental philosophy’s own nature and significance. In fact, Peirce and Ochs claim, the Cartesian-Kantian tradition is better seen as a correction of features of the tradition of medieval scholastic (and earlier) philosophy, and both traditions are to be understood in relation to “common sense.” The common sense of any community needs to be open to correction, but it also contains many “indubitable beliefs” on which people act and in which it is wiser to trust rather than indulge in a Cartesian principle of radical doubt. Efforts at correction should be stimulated by “real doubts”— avoiding, for example, a foundationalist attempt to meet every “paper doubt.”

Failing to do justice to the tradition or community of which they are part is one aspect of a broader Cartesian-Kantian failing. This is the tendency to describe judgements, statements of fact and propositions in dyadic, subject-predicate terms rather than in a triadic logic of relations (Ochs, Peirce, Pragmatism, and the Logic of Scripture, 254ff). An important implication of this is that there is a “third grade of clearness” in the meaning of a conception, beyond Cartesian “clarity” and “distinctness”. The third grade conceives “the practical effects which the object of a conception would have” (Ibid., 36, Ochs quoting Peirce), what Peirce calls the conception’s “interpretant”, and it includes attending to when, where, how and by whom it is received. There is here no rejection of clarity and distinctness, but a correction and supplementing of them in a way which especially insists on the significance of discourse, symbolic action and dialogue, as well as community, tradition and common sense. Many key concepts cannot be clarified in the abstract: they await further determination as they are applied or communicated in a specific context.

This leads to the helpful idea of “vagueness,” which refers to a meaning which is neither determinately specific nor indeterminately general, but rather only discloses its meaning by way of some interpretant (Ibid., 37). Since “vague entities define one another dialogically” (Ibid. 211), and some concepts are “irremediably vague” (Ibid., 226) (including indubitable beliefs and many other concepts concerning metaphysics, values and theology), there can be no undergirding foundationalism: “a logic of vagueness is at the same time a logic of dialogue” (Ibid.).

Part of that dialogue in a tradition is its constant attempt to deal with its own problems, sufferings, contradictions, “burdensome” elements, doubts and incompletenesses. “Pragmatic reading” responds to problems in the “plain sense” of the texts of a tradition by drawing on the resources of the tradition itself in order to correct or redefine it for particular readers in particular situations, taking their “common sense” both seriously and critically. Ochs describes how Peirce himself did this as he corrected and redefined his earlier “pragmatism” in his later “pragmaticism”. He also shows how the logic of dialogue can (and, where the issues at stake are as embracing as those in philosophy and theology, should) lead beyond the boundaries of one tradition and bring different communities of readers into conversation.

In his final chapter Ochs promotes this by addressing various communities of pragmatic philosophers as well as Rabbinic and Christian pragmatic interpreters of scripture. He sees Rabbinic and Christian pragmatists agreeing on the need for a critique of modernist philosophy using a scriptural corrective and also on the need for “a reformational reading of scripture” which rereads “scriptural texts as vague symbols of rules of conduct that are defined only in specific contexts of action within respective communities of readers”(Ibid., 310f). He then urges that both communities of scriptural pragmatists need to be in dialogue with each other, and concludes with guidelines for such a dialogue.

What follows is an attempt to see what happens when a Christian interpreter of the Letter to the Ephesians tries to grapple with the problems and vaguenesses of that letter before a Society of scriptural reasoners who are mostly Christian but who also include Rabbinic interpreters, a Muslim respondent and others.

2. The Problem

“[T]he pragmatic meaning of a conception is the sum total of its practical consequences for the long run of experience…” (Ibid., 113). How might that maxim relate to the quotation from the Letter to the Ephesians in my title? The whole verse is: “For he is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one, and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (2.14). The reference is to Jews and Gentiles, and in view of “the long run of experience” over nearly two thousand years it must constitute a major problem for the interpretation of Ephesians today. If pragmatic scriptural reading aims to read “in response to human suffering” and “with a community of readers for the sake of changing the practical and communal conditions of suffering” (Ibid., 313), then in view of the terrible history of Christian persecution of Jews there is a need for correction of Christian conceptions of Jews. The constructive question is whether there might be a valid and strong reading of Ephesians that not only resists Christian hostility to Jews but even allows the communities today to be of mutual blessing. How might this tradition not only correct itself but even surpass itself with the aid of a pragmatic reading of Ephesians?

How might Ephesians have contributed to that terrible history? Its plain sense lends itself to a realised eschatology in which Jews and Gentiles are made one in the church. It is a short step to a supercessionism which sees no further role in history for the Jewish people outside the church, or at best regards Judaism as a negative shadow of Christianity. The strong emphasis on fulfillment in Ephesians reinforces this. If one links the universal scope of 1.10 (“… a plan for the fullness of time [oikonomian tou pleromatos ton kairon], to gather up all things in him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth”) with the ecclesial triumphalism of 1.22-3 (“and he [God] has put all things under his [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all [to pleroma tou ta panta en pasin pleroumenou]”), then one can understand how Jews could easily be written out of history, with all sorts of appalling consequences when Gentiles became dominant in the church and the balance of power between Judaism and Christianity shifted in favor of the latter. Much more could be said about this, but the main point is simple: using the language of peace and unity (with differences unified within the church), Ephesians focuses in the church the fulfillment of God’s oikonomia, and runs the danger (which has been fulfilled over and over again) of the continuing Jewish community being regarded as outside or opposed to God’s oikonomia and therefore to be distanced, disrespected or even eliminated.

3. Resources for Correction in the Plain Sense of Ephesians

Might the plain sense of Ephesians itself resist this danger? Are there materials for the correction of this tendency of the tradition? The most obvious resistance comes in the ethics of Ephesians. It is an ethic of non-coercive communication, of speaking the truth in love (4.15), of “all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (4.2). If such speech and action were to characterise relations with those outside as well as inside the community then, whatever the beliefs about Jews in relation to God’s oikonomia, there would be respect, communication and peace. The root of this resistance within Ephesians is in who Jesus Christ is believed to be. All the uniting, fulfilling and peacemaking is seen as being done through Christ’s embodiment of love, gentleness, patience and giving up self for others without limit (cf. 4.31, 5.1-2).

It is also worth remembering the probable context into which the letter was written: a small, vulnerable church in a thriving, pluralist city of about a quarter of a million people where there were a great many more Jews than Christians. The letter shows that this church clearly needed great encouragement and a strengthening of its identity, and what was appropriate then and there might not be so in another situation.

Yet none of that is good enough. It might expose how much Christian treatment of Jews has been unethical by Christian standards, and it might contextualise the rhetoric of Ephesians so that its statements cannot simply be turned into general guidelines from which all sorts of new conclusions can be drawn directly in new situations; but it fails to tackle the issue of the prominence of Jews and Gentiles in the letter, in which peace between them is made central to the musterion of the Gospel, and it ignores the basic theological issue of supercessionism. How might this be faced?

First, it is to be noted that Ephesians itself can be read as correcting and redefining the Pauline Christian tradition. It is generally seen as dependent on the Letter to the Colossians (out of 2,411 words in Ephesians, 26.5% are paralleled in Colossians, once with 29 consecutive words repeated verbatim), so it is especially interesting to note where the two diverge. Among the notable divergences are the two themes of my title. Ephesians develops the Colossians themes of the church as the body of Christ and of “peace through the blood of his [Christ’s] cross” into an explicit focus on peace between Jews and Gentiles in the church. And the Colossians theme of pleroma (the fullness of God dwelling in Christ – 1.19, 2.9) is maintained and intensified in its cosmic scope and its relation to Christian living, and developed explicitly in relation to “the fullness of time” (1.10), the church, and love in the community (3.14-21).

There are many directions the discussion of this could take—deeper into the comparison and contrast of Ephesians and Colossians; backwards, especially to Paul in his Letter to the Romans; forwards to later Christian writers; and backwards, forwards and sideways into Jewish and Hellenistic contexts. But for present purposes it is enough to try to identify with a broad brush the significance of what Ephesians has done. It has intensified the universality of its conception of fulfillment (frequent use of “all”, “all things”, “everyone”) at the same time as intensifying the particularity of the community’s musterion, defined as: “… that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (3.6). This particularity is reinforced in Ephesians through far more use of the Septuagint than in Colossians. It is crucial to note the sort of unity described between Jews and Gentiles: the Gentiles are given the privilege of sharing a Jewish heritage. This heritage is the unsurpassable horizon of the church. That is where Ephesians leaves the matter: the conjunction of, on the one hand, a universalizing soteriology of abundant reconciliation, peace and love, to be completed in “the fullness of time,” with, on the other hand, a small community in which the musterion of unity between Jews and Gentiles was a reality. The two dimensions are embraced by Jesus Christ, as the one in whom all things are gathered, and the Holy Spirit, as “the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (1.14).

After all that, the massive problem remains: what about those of “God’s own people” who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ in the way the author does?

4. Pleroma in Ephesians: A Pragmatic Reading

In Ochs’ terms, I have identified “something burdensome in the plain sense” (Ochs, 6.) of Ephesians. This now stimulates me to suggest what he calls a midrashic, or pragmatic interpretation. As he says, such a reading is to be judged by how well it resolves the given problem “for a given community of interpreters” (Ibid., 7.) —- in my case, the Society for Scriptural Reasoning at the end of a century marked by the Shoah. What might be the “non-evident meaning” (Ibid., 6.) of Ephesians on this matter in line with the leading tendencies of the letter?

In this case, the problem is not mainly in what Ephesians says explicitly. It lies more in its “pragmatic meaning” in the millennia that followed—though in fact for many Christians the problematic reading has been read as the plain sense and has shaped their “common sense.” Ochs might say that the “irremediably vague” concept of pleroma was later given overprecise (“errantly clear”) pragmatic definitions whose decisive supercessionism ruled out any continuing positive role of Jews in God’s oikonomia, with disastrous implications. An appropriate response to this is to offer a better (in Ochs’ terms, a more valid and stronger) pragmatic definition of pleroma.

What might that be? Since this paper is meant to be a stimulus to discussion rather than a full treatment of the subject, I will only sketch some of the elements of a possible pragmatic reading. They will be in the form of questions and notes focused as commentary on particular verses in which the noun or verb form of pleroma appears:

[With all wisdom and insight God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (4.1 Ephesians 1.9-10)

How is this gathering up to be envisaged? If it is done with wisdom, love and gentleness, aiming at what seems inconceivable when we look at the fragmentations, divisions, wounds and enmities of the world, then we have to imagine boundaries of selves and communities as radically transformed. If the horizon of their Jewish heritage is unsurpassable for Christians, and if, for both Jews and Christians, practical orientation towards an utterly good “fullness of time” has the status of an “indubitable belief”, which is “irremediably vague”, then the implications of a logic of vagueness being “at the same time a logic of dialogue” (Ibid., p.226) must mean that there is a dialogical imperative here. Christians have no privileged overview of fulfillment—in fact the “vagueness” and universal scope of fulfillment mean that it constantly calls for further determinations from a wide range of interpretants. So the pragmatic reading of these verses will lead into a range of respectful dialogues (not just between Jews and Christians, but with Muslims, atheists, etc.) as well as into all sorts of other activities that “gathering up all things” might require – the arts, scholarship, the sciences, economics, politics and so on. And part of the vagueness is allowing for transformative surprises (Response 1):

And [God] has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (4.2 Ephesians 1.22-3)

If 1.10 makes clear that the fullness has yet to be completed, then the nature of the eschatological community is a fascinating question. How does it relate to present Christian and Jewish and other communities? Eugene Rogers, following on from George Lindbeck’s contention that both the church and Israel should be regarded as types, not of Christ, but of “the people of God in fellowship with God at the end of time,” (Eugene F. Rogers, Jr., “Supplementing Barth on Jews and Gender: Identifying God by Anagogy and the Spirit,” Modern Theology, Vol. 14, No. 1 [January 1998], 63) makes a convincing case for the contribution of an “anagogical” interpretation of scripture, reading it in the light of the eschatological community. His own anagogical reading (which is strikingly “pragmatic” in Ochs’ terms) is in line with Ephesians: the basic plot is a Jewish one oriented towards consummation, with Gentile redemption a sub-plot. God’s faithfulness to the covenant with Israel is permanent. There “are not two stories, much less two covenants, but two ways the Spirit excites gratitude for the blessings of Abraham in the readers of the Bible, who in this too can become sources of mutual blessing” (Rogers, “Supplementing Barth,” 64). And it is worth remembering that there are many other Gentiles besides Christians (Response 4):

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine … (4.3 Ephesians 3.18-20)

God is the most important consideration of all in relation to pleroma . This prayer acknowledges that, it denies that Christians or others have an overview of the meaning of plerom; in Ochs’ terms the text is “an ultimately vague sign of the God whose activities correct it and clarify its meaning” (Ochs, op. cit. 287. Cf. the continuation of this passage: “By the logic of pragmatism, a vague sign ‘reserves for some other sign or experience the function of completing [its] determination’ (5.505). Therefore, if God is the object of an ultimately vague sign, then whatever defines this sign would also be vague, and only God would complete the determination of the sign of God.”) The meaning of “fullness” has to take into account the infinite dynamic abundance of a God of love, fulfilling prayers in ways we could never have imagined. The God identified here questions many of the terms and presuppositions in which Christian supercessionism has been expressed – concerning linearity, binary oppositions, completeness, closure, the boundaries of communities, election, and salvation (Response 5; Response 8):

… until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature [eis helikias tou pleromatos] of Christ. (4.4 Ephesians 4.13)

Ephesians Chapters 4-6 is about some of the communal, personal and institutional practices which are involved in pragmatically interpreting pleroma. The idea of “learning Christ” is used (4.20), and that conjures up a vast, complex learning process (including much “unlearning”), involving exchanges with individuals, communities and disciplines who are part of the “gathering together” of 1.10, and shaping habits accordingly (Response 5):

Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled [plerousthe] with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (4.5 Ephesians 5.18-20)

Ephesians is saturated with praise and prayer, and this imperative about the shaping of ordinary life is vital for working out practically the implications of pleroma. The logic of praise as perfecting what is perfect, the logic of thanks as completing what is completed, and the similar logic of blessing: it is these, learnt and practiced daily over centuries, that need to inform understanding of and participation in pleroma. (For a reading of Ephesians which takes these verses as its hermeneutical key, see David F. Ford, Self and Salvation: Being Transformed [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, November 1998], Chapter 5, “Communicating God”s Abundance: A Singing Self”; Response 6).

But since these dynamics can, as those centuries demonstrate, also go so terribly wrong, it is salutary to try to learn disciplines of reading which encourage facing up to the burdens, failings, errors, sufferings, and remediable or irremediable vaguenesses occasioned by interpretations of scripture. One of the great strengths of Ochs’ approach is that it both encourages a tradition to find within itself the resources for its own correction and redefinition, and also to “believe that, through the mediation of particular community members, communities of scriptural reading may themselves enter into dialogues that strengthen each community’s practices of reading by complementing and clarifying them” (Ochs, op. cit., 314). The attempt to fulfill this double programme is at the heart of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning. This paper makes some tentative points (far more concerned with the first than the second part of the programme) and I look forward to much correction, redefinition, complementing and clarification in Orlando.