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.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

A Reflection on Chris Tilling's Appendix

In my review of Chris Tilling’s Paul’s Divine Christology, I wrote that ‘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.’ On Facebook, Chris asked me to clarify the clause ‘current presuppositions about the value of modern concepts of relationality’. I found it difficult to do this, because what I thought had been a relatively perceptive comment succinctly expressed confused even its originator! So, lesson one: When offering a critique of someone’s work, do make sure you know what the critique is! It’s not that I didn’t know what my critique was – and is – but a few carefully selected words may be insufficient to make it.

Once Chris asked me to clarify my concerns on the ‘relationality’ front, I realised that I needed to push for more clarity from Chris himself about that concept. On Facebook, I suggested that if Chris’s use of relational concepts was conflated with (certain) modern understandings of relationality, then there’s a chance that his concept of the God/Christ-relation could well be subjected to sustained criticism. This may not be as sharp a critique as I supposed a week ago when I wrote my review, but I still think it’s a valid point.

But why do I think that this conflation of the God/Christ-relation with modern understandings of relationality is a potential problem for Chris? I think a lot of it is due to Chris’s appendix (of his book, not his body), where he looks at how his thesis – where he argues that the Christ-relation ‘is Paul’s divine-Christology expressed as relationship’ (PDC, p. 244, emphasis original) – opens ‘mutually enlightening lines of communication’ (PDC, p. 258) between New Testament and theological studies. To help me articulate my critique a little better, I thought it prudent to return to Chris’s appendix and see why I began to form it.

Chris argues that Paul’s Christ-relation helps us to see how history and theology can dialogue with each other; I’ve already reflected on this point here. But he goes on to explore what this might look like in practice by engaging ‘certain contemporary theological proposals’ (PDC, p. 263). Re-reading the relevant section of the appendix, I have to say that I’m not sure Chris has done much more than to point out the common ground between Paul’s Christ-relation, trinitarian theology, and theological anthropology – perhaps less than his language of engagement suggests. J├╝rgen Moltmann, Stanley Grenz, Nicholas Lash, John Zizioulas, and Catherine Mowry LaCugna are all referenced as those championing in one way or another the importance of the concept of relationality in the doctrine of the Trinity, and in the God–world relation. Having listed these names, Chris states that the Christ-relation has ‘a number of suggestive connection points with modern theological discourse’ (PDC, p. 264). These are:

[i] ‘the mode of Paul’s Christology language and the late modern turn to relationality’ (PDC, p. 264). Here, Chris is heavily influenced by the work of LeRon Shults, who notes the rise and current prevalence of the language of relationality across disciplines. Shults observes that many of our assumptions about Christ have been formulated through engagement with ancient sources and are no longer supported by modern science. This isn’t to say that modern Christological formulations have to be supported by science as such – that way, Dawkins lies – but given that the concept to relationality is so dominant and is supported by modern scientific discoveries, then there is no reason why such formulations shouldn’t be crafted by attending to these modern concepts of relationality rather than by continuing to draft them with an eye on the static substances of yesteryear. (Chris is very critical of Gordon Fee throughout Paul’s Divine Christology for focussing on the pre-existence of Christ and thus for making too sharp a distinction between his person and work. Such arguments, Chris argues, emerge from Fee’s presupposition of an Aristotelian ontology, which privileges being or essence over relation.) Shults seeks an understanding of Christ’s identity that resonates with the concept of relationality so ably demonstrated across disciplines in today’s intellectual climate. Chris agrees, observing that ‘a focus on relationality helps to engage biblical intuitions with modern concerns’ (PDC, p. 265). Thus Paul’s relational Christology can dialogue with these modern concerns and ensure that a canonical voice is heard.

[ii] ‘the link between revelation and relationship’ (PDC, p. 266). Taking his cue from LaCugna, T.F. Torrance, and Zizioulas, Chris recognises that however people might frame God’s intra-trinitarian relationships, what we do know of God is because God has revealed Godself to humanity, and that our knowledge of God is primarily because we are in relationship with God. This long-accepted theological idea resonates with Paul’s Christ-relation, which stresses the importance of the relation between the risen Lord and believers. Chris argues that the formulation of Christology should start not ‘from above’, not ‘from below’, not even ‘from the Christ-event’, but ‘in relationship with Christ.’ (PDC, p. 268, emphasis original).

[iii] the ‘relational mode of expression in Paul means one must question preoccupation with the “Person” of Christ, as if this must denote Christ, the individual, distinct from his relations.’ (PDC, p. 268, emphasis original). It’s a brief point, but Chris is concerned that Christology is articulated from a recognition that Christ’s relationship with others is not something accidental to his person. Once more, Fee’s preoccupation with Christ’s pre-existence is lightly scorned, but the wider point is made. (That said, if Fee does focus too much on Christ’s pre-existence, presumably the pre-existent Christ is in relation to the Father and the Spirit.)

[iv] that ‘Paul’s Christ-relation was very often the language of doxology’ (PDC, p. 269). I don’t feel I need to explain this any further, other than to emphasise that Chris seems conscious that if [iii] above is to hold, then [iv] is its natural ecclesiological expression.

My critique of Chris on the concept of relationality is shaped by [i] and [iii] above. I have no doubt that however exclusive this might sound, one can only know God through relationship with God (so [ii] above); and this entails [iv], as such knowledge of God is seldom attained individually, but mostly through the ecclesial community appropriately identified as the body of Christ. However, [i] and [iii] do leave me with a concern that the concept[s?] of relationality Chris apparently accepts at these points are potentially hostage to the vicissitudes of scholarship and in turn could lessen the impact, or even nullify, the importance of the Christ-relation Chris identifies in Paul. Otherwise put, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if future scientific discoveries begin to require a revised form of Aristotelian ontology, or something else entirely [i]. The same applies to [iii]: at the moment, we recognise the grain, or the sack of grain, of truth in Zizioulas et al., but further reflection may yield an entirely different way of approaching relationality. At one point (PDC, p. 74), Chris cautions against over-defining ‘relation’, but I dare say he might need to offer a more detailed definition of ‘relation’ than the simple dictionary definition he employs (PDC, p. 73), because the Christ-relation – outlined as:

– Paul’s ultimate goals and motivations
– his explicit Christ-devotion language
– the passionate nature of this Christ-devotion
– the language Paul contrasted with this devotion
– the presence and activity of the risen Lord
– but also the absence of Christ, and thus the Lord’s presence through the Spirit
– the communications between the risen Lord and believers
– and the various ways Christ was characterised and the depiction of the scope of his lordship (PDC, p. 255)

– is very different in shape from the sort of relationality Shults in particular conceives. And so, as mentioned above, I suspect that the concept of relation does need sharper definition.

And this leads me to a final point, one inspired in part by Bill Heroman in the aforementioned Facebook conversation: How far should the Christ-relation be informed not by an understanding, however detailed, of a general concept of relationality, but by the concept of covenant as displayed in the Old Testament? Or, in other words, how far is the Christ-relation actually implied by, and explicated from within, an Old Testament covenantal framework? In the Facebook conversation, Heroman asked whether or not covenantal nomism qualified as a form of relationality with God; and while, on reflection, I do not think a direct line can be drawn from covenantal nomism to the Christ-relation, I do think that more needs to be said about the relation between the covenant and the Christ-relation, if only because most, if not all, of the elements that define the Christ-relation (see the quotation above) can be said also to define the Old Testament God-relation with Yhwh (and this, of course, complements Chris’s idea that for Paul, the Christ-relation echoes this Yhwh-relation). So I’m now thinking that not only could Chris’s thesis be jeopardised by potential changes in our understanding of relationality (my original critique), but that the most obvious way to safeguard against this is for Chris to secure the Christ-relation within a covenantal framework. Moreover, if a covenantally-grounded Christ-relation is the way forward, then I suggest that this not only allows for a canonical voice to be heard in interdisciplinary conversations about relationality, but for that voice to be primary in those conversations. Our relationships need to be defined and shaped by Christ in order to flourish; and, more widely, we need to consider anew what the impact of the Christ-relation could have on our understanding of the world. Granted, Paul’s Divine Christology is not concerned with these points, but it’s to Chris’s credit that they arise naturally from his appendix.


1 comment:

  1. I can't speak for Chris' monograph. But as someone fairly abreast of the theology field, there has been a significant amount of work in systematics questioning the dominance of the relational or social models of the Trinity. Thus, Barth's criticisms of "persons" language has been brought to the fore again, but especially the work of Lewis Ayres in patristics has been immensely important in questioning the whole Zizioulas, Moltmann, Gunton, etc. dominance in the latter half of the 20th century (and the anti-West / pro-East attitude associated with it). Probably the most forceful critique of the relational models for the Trinity has come from Stephen Holmes of St. Andrews in The Quest for the Trinity, published last year. John Webster, now at St. Andrews as well, has also done some work criticizing the relational model, namely from the angle of revitalizing theological discourse on the divine perfections of God's aseity. Bruce McCormack at Princeton has also issued strong denunciations of social trinitarianism, while disagreeing with Webster on the divine perfections.

    In other words, the "relational" moment has already passed in systematic theology; or, at least, it has been severely mitigated.


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