Eph. 1:22-23

“And [God] has put all things under [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” (Eph. 1:22-23).

I have quoted above from the NRSV. What I am interested in is the translation of the phrase “head over all things for the Church.” The Greek text reads as follows: κεφαλὴν ὑπὲρ πάντα τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ. How to interpret the dative phrase τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ?

The NRSV translates it as if Christ’s headship over all things is somehow directed at the Church. Perhaps this is a way of interpreting it as a so-called “dative of interest.” There is something similar in English. In English we can say, for example, “Write me a letter of recommendation.” The “me” in this sentence is kind of like a dative, and the idea is that the writing of the letter is in my interest, it is done for me somehow. In the case of the verse above, then, Paul might be understood as saying that Christ’s exaltation over all things is for the benefit of His Church.

This is not an implausible reading. We have already seen in the entire first chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians that God acts in Christ for the benefit of His chosen people. All the spiritual blessings we receive from Christ — adoption, redemption, forgiveness, and the rest — are certainly for our benefit. And we receive those gifts from God through Christ, precisely through the fact that Christ is resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven. As Peter says in Acts 2, it is from His ascended position that Christ pours out the Holy Spirit on those who receive this gift. Being ascended into heaven, above every rule and authority, it becomes impossible for anyone to impede Christ’s work by detaining Him or killing Him, as they did while He was still on Earth. So it is not implausible to suppose that God made Christ head over everything for the benefit of His Church.

But there are also other possible readings of the dative phrase. One such reading is that Christ is head over all things through the Church. This would interpret τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ instrumentally, as a dative of means. On this reading, Christ rules over all things through the mediation of the Church, by which He accomplishes His will on earth. This is also a plausible reading and supported contextually by the fact that the Church is called the body of Christ. It is through our bodies that we exercise dominion over our environments, the command beginning in the head, so to speak, and proceeding through the body into the outer world. In the same way, we might say that Christ exercises His dominion over the world through the mediation of the Church, which accomplishes His will as His body when she obeys His commands and propagates His teachings.

Although both readings are justified, I am partial to the second reading. (This is assuming that it is a legitimate interpretation of the dative case in this instance. I am not an expert in koinê Greek, so I could be mistaken.) I think it is plausible in light of the metaphor of the Church as Christ’s body, which would seem out of place or at least not immediately, obviously relevant if the dative is read as a dative of interest, following the NRSV.

Taking the second reading for granted in what follows, let us now consider what it might mean to say that the Church is the fullness of Him who fills all in all. Remember that Paul earlier said that God’s intention is to bring all things to unity in Christ. The Church is the fullness of Christ, which means that Christ is present in the Church in a special way that is not true of His presence outside the Church. God’s purpose is to bring all things into the unity with Christ that exists in the Church, and He does this by means of the Church, which is the body of Christ. Through the Church, Christ draws all people to Himself (cf. John 12:32) and fills all things. The fullness that exists in the Church spreads out and begins to grow as more and more sinners are converted to Christ and are united to Him through the Holy Spirit.

In a future post, I would like to address the question of Christian self-understanding and identity on the basis of this verse.

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  1. Pingback: Eph. 1:22-23 (II) – fides quaerens intellectum

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