2010.12.38. Williamson, Ephesians

Peter S. Williamson, Ephesians
Reviewed by Markus Lang


  1. Corrected Version

    As the author of “Ephesians” in the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture I feel some sympathy for my reviewer, Markus Lang. Why would the RBL assign a self-described European liberal Protestant academic to review a Catholic commentary aimed at pastoral ministers and laity in the American Catholic Church?

    To Lang’s credit, he accurately describes the purpose, structure, and features of the series and manages to appreciate some things about it despite his disagreements with Catholicism.

    On a few points, however, Lang’s unfamiliarity with or animus against Catholic teaching and practice leads him to misread what I say.

    1) He interprets me as recommending the excommunication of everyone with “known immoral lifestyle (148).” What I actually say is that “people whose immoral lifestyles are known in the community should not receive communion,” citing the provision of canon law that states this. In the Catholic Church this is a very different matter than excommunication.

    2) He says that I tell the “na├»ve story of a lesbian woman who became a Christian and quit her homosexuality just because ‘Jesus didn’t like it’ (144)." The text clearly indicates that it was her “lifestyle” that she changed, without commenting on the matter of her sexual orientation.

    3) He says that I interpret all the vices of Eph 5:3ff as pertaining exclusively to sexual immorality, although the text clearly states that pleonexia, may refer to greed or covetousness (139) and includes a sidebar on “The Bible on Wealth and Greed” (140)

    Lang’s chief objection to the book “Ephesians” is that it is “conservative,” using the word no less than six times (and “right-wing” once). Unless the field of discourse in which labels such as conservative and liberal, right-wing and left-wing, is explicitly defined, these terms do not belong in scholarly discourse. Such labels function as rhetorical weapons for slamming someone one disagrees with. They conceal an implicit “centrist” position or perhaps a tacit agreement between author and readers regarding “what side we’re on.” Furthermore, the range can easily slip from one field to another (history, theology, politics).

    If “conservative” is used to describe “tending to accept traditional views on biblical authorship and history” I accept the label. Having witnessed many changes in scholarly opinion since my undergraduate days forty years ago, I am cautious about embracing skeptical or “minimalist” positions like those I have seen reversed in the past.

    Within Catholicism, however, I deny that the commentary “Ephesians” represents a “conservative” position; it is merely Catholic. The points that bother Lang in my reading of Ephesians—traditional Christian sexual mores, apostolic succession, Mariology, belief in the existence of the devil and the continuing value of exorcism, respect for the Magisterium and the Catechism, esteem for papal teaching, a canonical hermeneutic in light of tradition—are simply Catholic positions!

    It is true that Catholic dissenters and non-Catholics reject various of these elements, but that doesn’t render these positions merely “conservative” Catholic opinion.

    Contrary to the impression left by the review, the commentary’s warm attitudes toward Protestants and Orthodox Christians (63-68, 111-112, 118-119), toward Jews (83-84), toward the charismatic dimension of Christian life (43-44, 124, 150-153), and toward equipping the laity for ministry (117-119), if anything, distinguish it from works oriented to “certain conservative circles in American Catholicism.”

    The thoughtful reader will ask, by what implicit “centrist outlook” are Catholic beliefs to be considered “extremely conservative” and “right-wing”? The unstated presupposition of Lang’s critique would seem to be contemporary post-Enlightenment secular orthodoxy.

    In an interconfessional journal such as the RBL, the presupposition of Catholic faith hardly seems a just basis for faulting a pastoral commentary aimed at the Catholic faith community.

  2. This response raises an important question: what is the relationship between "interconfessional" (Williamson's response) and "historical criticism" (Lang's review)?

    To be specific, Lang also characterised himself religiously as "Protestant." As Lang implies, it is--at best--difficult to mix these discourses.


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