Monday, January 14, 2008

Submission, Jim West, and Linguistics

Earlier today I wrote a post in which I promised to counter Jim West's take on "submission" in Ephesians 5. To do so I will need to first examine what Jim said, then point out how we differ and offer my understanding of the text in question.

Jim begins his analysis of Ephesians 5.21-22 by highlighting what many if not most biblical scholars, pastors, etc have lately, i.e., that all are called to do whatever the verb
ὑποτάσσω (hupatassō) entails to one another. The result of allowing 5.21 to control the rest of this text is as follows:

This means that husbands must do so [ὑποτάσσω (hupatassō)] to their wives, children to parents, employers to employees, employees to employers (and note, I’ve replaced slave with employee in the context as more fitting culturally for the present).

Since he argues that it is only proper to say that wives should submit if one also says the husbands should, Jim suggests that "submit" is not the correct gloss for ὑποτάσσω (hupatassō) at all, instead proposing the word "cooperate." His support for this conclusion is based on the context of the passage: since ὑποτάσσω (hupatassō) "literally means ‘to stand under’ and in this context (and words are quite meaningless apart from context) doesn’t mean ‘to stand under’ as a doormat or subservient, but to stand under in cooperation." I really like Jim's last paragraph, so I will quote it in full:

The sense, then, is that wives cooperate with their husbands, husbands with their wives, employers with their employees, children with their parents because by doing so they exalt Christ to primacy and not themselves. A cooperative attitude is better than the self-serving motivation which persons are too often prone to adopt- and hence the author of Ephesians calls on believers to be cooperative rather than imperious.

In light of this last paragraph, why, you might ask, am I going to offer a counter reading to that which Jim has given us? To put it simply: I agree with Jim's conclusion but I don't agree with the method he chose to use to reach this conclusion. Thus, I want to explore the two main areas where we disagree: 1) The role of context in determining how we should translate
ὑποτάσσω (hupatassō) in Ephesians 5; and 2) The danger of reading modern theological or social concerns back onto an ancient text.

1) Regarding context and determining the meaning of words

Jim says that "
words are quite meaningless apart from context" and he is absolutely correct. A word by itself is too flexible to be defined carefully. An example from English could be the word "love." Apart from any context there is no telling what is meant by this word. It could be used to describe God's relationship to humanity, the commitment between spouses, my dedication to the Cubs, an ending to a letter, etc, etc. Apart from context "love" doesn't mean much. Note that I didn't say that it doesn't mean anything (and neither did Jim: "quite meaningless").

For a word to mean anything in any context it must have some generally agreed upon semantic range to begin with (the exception, of course, is a hapax legomenon). Thus, "love" generally means some sort of positive feelings between entities. When you plug "love" into a context this generally agreed upon semantic range is limited, nuanced, and qualified. If "love" stands between "Matt" and "fettuccine alfredo," then it is likely nuanced to mean something like "extremely prefers." But if "love" is found in reference to the relationship between my mom and my dad, then its nuance grows deeper, past "extremely prefers" to "absolutely committed to." It is important here to state my point as clearly as possible: context does not determine the meaning of words, it qualifies the generally agreed upon semantic range of words.

In the case of
ὑποτάσσω (hupatassō) in Ephesians 5:21-22, this linguistic principle is important. The context surrounding the word will indicate how and in what way we will understand what it means for a wife "to stand under" her husband as she does the Lord. We cannot rip from a word its agreed upon semantic range because of context; instead we can see that the traditional understanding of ὑποτάσσω (hupatassō) is not adequate here in Ephesians 5.

In Jim's post he seems to be setting up a straw man. He is arguing against something that is easily pushed over, namely understanding
the meaning of ὑποτάσσω (hupatassō) with reference to wives as a call to be "a doormat or subservient." This is unfortunate because the context limits the semantic range of ὑποτάσσω (hupatassō) so that it does not mean this at all! "Submitting" to the Lord is a voluntary act of love in which one puts the Lord's purposes above his/her own and it is this idea that limits, but does not change, the meaning of ὑποτάσσω (hupatassō) in our text.

To translate the word as "cooperate" does not capture the nature of the argument of the author of Ephesians. While he may well believe that we "work with" with the Lord, to translate
ὑποτάσσω (hupatassō) as "cooperate" leaves the reader to assume that the believer is on par with or a peer of the Lord, which is clearly not the case. This steals from ὑποτάσσω (hupatassō) its generally agreed upon semantic range. Instead of doing this, perhaps we should let the author of Ephesians say what he wants to say and then explain to our readers, hearers, parishioners, etc how the idea of submission is qualified by the last clause in 5.22.

We should not, however, stop at 5.22, but continue on and finish out the instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesus. In so doing we will see that husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loves the Church and as they love their own bodies. I totally agree with Jim that the picture we have here is of the wife putting her husband above herself and the husband putting the wife above himself, i.e., mutual submission. If we were to follow Jim's logic to its natural conclusion, then we should change the word "love" to "cooperate" as well, or perhaps change "submit" to "love" and be done with it.

These suggestion all, however, do damage to the text itself, which is unnecessary because a simple exegesis could show that it appears that the author had in mind putting others interests first. Again, simply because the context helps nuance the words in this way does not mean that we should change or translations. The author of Ephesians could have used other words had he so chosen (as he does in 5.33, φοβέω [phobe
ō] instead of ὑποτάσσω [hupatassō]), but since he didn't we shouldn't either.

2) Regarding the danger of reading "today" onto "back then"

I believe Jim's reasoning for wanting to read "cooperate" for
ὑποτάσσω (hupatassō) is noble. He wants to make this text "more fitting culturally for the present" (to quote him out of context!). This desire is good and is needed in the Church especially. But as good as this attitude is, it should not prevent us from reading the texts that we have as they are. To put it a different way, making a text relevant is not the purpose of exegesis, it is the purpose of application. Mixing up these two disciplines prevents the ancient texts of the Bible from saying what their authors intended them to say.

However, I agree with Jim's underlying problem with this text. It is despicable that Ephesians 5 has been misused to perpetuate outdated marital roles and disrespectful attitudes toward women in general and wives in particular. This modern problem, however, should not cause us to change what the text of Ephesians itself says. Instead the realization of the abuse of this text calls us to do the careful work of faithful exegesis and then (and only then) the equally hard task of applying this text to today's world.

In this second step we can talk about husbands and wives mutually submitting to one another, putting each other's interests first, and even cooperating with one another; but this second step should not taint the first step! Exegesis comes first! And a careful exegesis of Ephesians 5.21-22 reveals the the author of Ephesians used
ὑποτάσσω (hupatassō) whether we like it or not!

Click here to read other post that I have written on this issue.


Anonymous said...


I'll try to interact with your series of posts as best I can. Since I am teaching a course on Ephesians right now, I am particularly interested in the discussion.

I don't know if it is a problem on my end or yours, but there is a lot of awkward spacing and characters when the Greek font is used in your post. I hope I understand it every time. Also note, for some reason, a few letters are not appearing in my response as I type (e.g., the 24th letter of the alphabet does not appear on my end). Maybe it will show up on your end. Computers!?!

In this post, I have little to say with regards to the text of Ephesians. I do, however, wonder whether you've failed to understand Jim and the task of translation by insisting on the dichotomous relationship of exegesis and application. This could open up a whole other conversation, but I question whether these two things can be kept apart. To the issue at hand, if I understand Jim correctly, he offers a possible translation of hypotasso. Where does translation fit into your dichotomy? Is it the task of exegesis or application? I would say it relies on both (if I agree that they are two separate tasks in the first place). As you know, all translations are interpretations (akin to your application?). It is not clear to me what point you are making against Jim, other than his suggestion of "cooperation" was not built on careful exegesis. It might be a bit presumptuous to assume that Jim has not done the "careful work of faithful exegesis" in cooperation with (no pun intended) "the equally hard task of applying this text to today's world" in recommending "cooperation" for hypotasso. You charge us to put exegesis first. Fair enough. But translation is not exegesis alone. What if in after doing careful exegsis one concludes the best translation for "today's world" is "cooperation."

In the end, I think your post is less about Ephesians and more about hermeneutics (i.e., primacy of "objective" exegesis; secondary role of application; etc.).

Thanks for the forum for discussing these things.

J. Matthew Barnes said...


Thanks for your comments.

I guess the distinction that I am trying to draw out between exegesis and application might not be a tight as I would have liked it to be. When I originally wrote this post I was putting the task of translation on the "objective" side with exegesis, not on the "subjective" side with application.

That being said, I don't imagine that the author of Ephesians had in mind the notion of cooperation when he chose upatasso. As Jim points out, this word "means" "to stand under." Thus, to translate it as something else is not letting this ancient text say what it wants to say.

However, when you take Ephesians 5 as a whole then perhaps you could describe what the author was getting at by saying that both spouses cooperate with one another. That's a very different enterprise from changing the semantic range of a particular word to soften its impact!

I hope that brings some clarity.