Bill Long 12/20/04
Biblical Uses of Ecphonesis
If I ended the previous mini-essay with the ecphonesis of judgment, I will begin here with the ecphonesis of despair and gratitude.
2. Ecphonesis of despair, ecphonesis of gratitude. It would be useful if someone would examine the language of the Apostle Paul from the perspective of his use of rhetorical devices. Of course we can go back to Rudolf Bultmann's classic 1910 study of the "Cynic-Stoic Diatribe" as a basis for Paul's literary method in general in Romans, but I mean that someone ought to do a fine systematic analysis of the way that Paul employs rhetorical devices to further his message. In my dissertation I studied the way that Luke's crafting of Paul's defense speeches in Acts might be illumined by the help of ancient rhetorical theory, but I never looked in detail at the way that Paul's language and epistolary structure contributes to a powerful rhetorical performance.
2a. Of Despair. Well, let's do a little of that here. In Romans 7, Paul is seemingly retreating from the bold tones of justification by faith (ch.5) and union with Christ (ch.6) to discuss lingering feelings of conflict within. The "life in Christ," so to speak, is anythiing other than a smooth life of gradually-increasing calm and realization of truth. In Romans 7 he speaks of the conflict within because of the claim of two competing masters: "the delight in the law of God" and "another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Rom. 7:22-23)." Law of God vs. Law of Sin. 15 Rounds. For the World Heavyweight Championship.
In the context of this war within, Paul breaks out into ecphonesis. "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death (7:24)?" He feels the weight of his incapacity to order his life consistently with the truth he has experienced and bursts out in a fit of self-loathing and despair. It is as if he is saying, 'Look at all that God has done for me; the gifts with which He has equipped me; the message that I am privileged to carry to the ends of the earth; the people under my charge; the opportunities that are before me, and what do I do? I have conflict within, desires that conflict with the truth of the message, inclinations toward death when I bear the message of life, evil claims on my heart when I would embrace the good.'
Paul's cry is the cry of any who are both wed to this world and to a transcendent reality. The heart soars because it has seen something great and beautiful and life-giving. For example, a few days before his death Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke almost prophetically of the virtues of longevity but then he said that he realized that longevity might not be his lot. Finally, he broke into ecphonesis and in a rising crescendo voice, quoted the classic lines from Julia Ward Howe, penned during the Civil War, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
But that soaring optimism and hope, that gilded promise of freeedom and new life, is seemingly vitiated by the tethered realities of earth. We are bound to our bodies; we get sick and die; we suffer sleeplessness and jealousy; we do things that don't fulfill the lives of other people. We are instruments of death as well as life. This combined reality led Paul to erupt in his ecphonesis of despair.
2b. Of Gratitude. After rehearsing the conflict within, Paul uses another ecphonesis to bring his thought to a conclusion: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (7:25)!" Note that gratitude doesn't come first; despair does. Gratitude is the second word because he realizes, fundamentally, that he cannot sort it all out here in this life, and has to leave that to someone else--God. Paul is basically an activist, a person who will use all his energy to plant churches and spread his interpretation of the Gospel of Christ. He doesn't have a lot of time to "sit and think about it." Yet, he is a remarkably passionate thinker. The inner self erupts in line after line of his works. He will get to the end of a mystery, an inexplicable thing in his mind, and speak his gratitude to God.
The next mini-essay will explore another example of ecphonesis.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long