About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Paul's Divine Christology: A Review

Chris Tilling, Paul’s Divine Christology. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2, 323 (Mohr Siebeck: Tübingen, 2012)

With N.T. Wright’s highly anticipated Paul and the Faithfulness of God due out very soon, it would be wise to remember that other monographs on the apostle to the Gentiles continue to be published. Of these, Chris Tilling’s Paul’s Divine Christology is arguably one of the most important, with genuine potential to influence future conversations about the divinity (or otherwise) of Jesus Christ for the better. Tilling confidently advocates that Paul did indeed regard Jesus as divine, and devotes a significant amount of space to examining pertinent material in each of the undisputed letters to make his case. In many, if not most, respects, Tilling convinces.

Governing Tilling’s approach are two questions. The first is this: ‘How does Paul’s Jewish-style faith in God affect our understanding of his Christology?’ (p. 6). Tilling notes that many Old Testament scholars and theologies sketch an understanding of God in relational terms; that is, God as depicted in the Old Testament is not some abstract, omnicompetent deity such as that presupposed by Enlightenment thinkers (and, arguably, present-day cultured despisers such as Richard Dawkins). Instead, Israel’s God is precisely that: Israel’s God, and Israel is called to enter into covenantal relations with this God and no other. Thus monotheism, a statement about divine ontology, is not the point. What counts is the people’s relationship with Yhwh. On this account, Tilling argues, the uniqueness of Israel’s God has to be expressed relationally, and this framework of relationality, which Tilling labels the God-relation, is the appropriate context for understanding the emergence of Christology in the early church.

Tilling’s second question is: ‘Where, if at all, is there evidence in the Pauline corpus for (or against) a divine-Christology?’ (p. 6). Whereas the majority of studies of Paul’s Christology focus on particular texts in depth, Tilling’s approach is to gather as much information as possible from Paul’s (undisputed) letters and develop a series of categories within which he can analyse Paul’s views on Christ. Opening his case, Tilling carefully explores 1 Corinthians 8–10, looking specifically at how Paul presents the believer’s relation to Christ, the risen Lord. In 1 Corinthians 8:1-6, for example, Tilling notes that here the so-called Christ-relation unfolds in the context of idolatry and commitment to the one God of Israel. The κύριος of 8:6, which refers to Jesus, is Paul’s reworking of Christ into the Shema, indicating that Israel’s relationship with Yhwh now has to include Christ. This is not a new observation, of course; but Tilling goes on to point out that Paul, in effect, reinterprets both the Old Testament in the light of the knowledge of Christ (and ‘knowledge’ here – and, indeed, in 1 Cor. 8:1-3 – surely testifies to a loving relationship rather than mere information) and the man Jesus of Nazareth in the light of a certain reading of the Old Testament. What Tilling is promoting, it seems to me, is a form of divine identity Christology, where the relation between the risen Jesus and his followers runs parallel to and is shaped by the Old Testament relation between Yhwh and Israel. Effectively, what the Old Testament says about God, Paul says about Jesus. Moreover, if Tilling is suggesting a form of divine identity Christology, then it is far broader in scope than anything suggested before:

It will now be seen that this relation [between the risen Lord and believers] manifests itself, in Paul’s undisputed letters, in various ways. It will be maintained that it is reflected in Paul’s Christ-shaped aims, goals and motivations, in a variety of direct devotional language and practices, in the passionate nature of this devotion, in what Paul contrasts with this devotion, in the presence and activity of the risen Lord, yet also in the absence of this Lord, in communication between the risen Christ and believers, and in the nature and character of his risen lordship. (p. 105; cf. p. 255).

Thus chapter six of Tilling’s thesis contains much helpful discussion about how each of these eight themes permeates Paul’s (undisputed) letters, on the whole demonstrating that a divine identity Christology, broadly conceived, is an appropriate way to collate the relevant data from Paul. Whereas the Old Testament employed God-relation language, Paul uses Christ-relation language in the same way. In fact, it is the term relation that holds the key to unlocking Paul’s Christology, for Tilling argues that the ‘Christ-relation is Paul’s divine-Christology expressed as relationship.’ (p. 201, emphasis original). Tilling’s approach here is also useful, for he has read through the letters and classified the collected data into suitable, sometimes overlapping, categories. No doubt some will dispute Tilling’s specific categories, preferring to file the data in other ways, but I have no reason to disagree with his general approach: ‘To understand Paul’s Christology, to Paul’s letters we will repeatedly go.’ (p. 6). The achievement here is that by attending to Paul’s letters as a whole, Tilling is able to draw wider conclusions on Paul’s Christology than would be possible by focussing on all-too familiar texts such as Philippians 2:5-11.

Importantly for Tilling, the aforementioned eight themes constitute a specific pattern of data, which prevents other figures in the literature of Second Temple Judaism from being considered divine in the same way as Paul conceives Christ. Thus Tilling challenges those who believe that Paul’s Christology developed ostensibly from the apparent worship and devotion offered to, say, Simon the High Priest in Sirach 50. While there are possible overlaps in concepts or similarities of language, Tilling argues that if the Christ-relation pattern of data in Paul really does mimic the God-relation pattern of data in the Old Testament, then supposed influences from Second Temple literature will be useful only in so far as they evince the God-relation itself. As Tilling himself observes when discussing Sirach 44–50, ‘if one is searching for the best parallels for understanding the appropriate pattern of Christ-devotion language in Paul, one will indeed find it in the relational language in Sirach 44–50, but as it concerns God, not the ancestors or Simon.’ (p. 201, emphasis original). For Paul, Tilling implies, it is the Christological appropriation of the Old Testament’s God-relation that is all-important, not various other contemporary beliefs of the time.

Paul’s Divine Christology is a stimulating read, and Tilling proves himself to be a scholar of some ability. He offers a helpful summary of previous scholarship on divine Christology, and engages well with a range of positions. While he is sympathetic towards their projects, Tilling finds it necessary to critique Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, and (especially) Gordon Fee. Tilling also includes an appendix that seeks to bring together biblical, historical, and theological studies, which argues, among other things, that the Christ-relation pattern of data makes it possible not to divide the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. A great strength of the overall thesis is that Tilling repeatedly persuades his readers to consider the proper Christological referent of a given text (e.g. Romans 14:4 or 1 Corinthians 3:5), when, for example, κύριος refers to ‘Jesus’ and not ‘God’. This means that a text such as 1 Corinthians 16:7 could feasibly be paraphrased as ‘I hope to spend some time with you, if Jesus permits.’ In my view, and to continue this example, recognising when instances of ὁ κύριος are genuine references to Jesus is a step towards a radical Christology that takes seriously the reality of the risen, incarnate Lord.

There are minor frustrations. First, some of Tilling’s early statements or definitions are arguably not as clear as later occurrences. His critique of Fee’s Pauline Christology (pp. 35–52), for example, is enriched first by reading the later discussion of Christological language (pp. 264–270). Secondly, chapter six, where Tilling analyses the details of Paul’s letters, could have been divided further into subsections to aid comprehension and referencing, even though the additional white space would have added to the overall length of the book in terms of physical pages. Thirdly, a few of Tilling’s arguments are unnecessary: the brief discussion of the Spirit’s mediation of Christ’s presence is surely no more than a restatement of Calvin’s position on the Lord’s Supper, or of many Eucharistic liturgies; and Tilling’s thought experiment (pp. 204–206) is surely not needed to elucidate the issues surrounding the possible relation of Paul’s Christology to certain Second Temple texts. Fourthly, and finally, I cannot help but think that Tilling’s position may be too dependent on current presuppositions about the value of modern concepts of relationality, and so be open to more sustained critique should concepts other than these become fashionable in the future.

These minor comments aside, Paul’s Divine Christology, and especially Tilling’s methodology and conclusions, are worthy of serious attention, and anyone dealing with Paul’s Christology or Christology in general ought to read this fine study.

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