Review of Paul’s Divine Christology (Chris Tilling)

tilling

Title: Paul’s Divine Christology

Author: Chris Tilling

Bibliographic info: xii + 322

Publisher: Mohr Siebeck, 2012

Buy it at Amazon or at Mohr Siebeck

With thanks to Mohr Siebeck for the review copy!

This volume is the published version of Chris Tilling’s 2009 doctoral dissertation (the author is also a biblioblogger who blogs at this website). The thrust of this volume is explained in the introduction:

This volume enters the debate by offering a fresh way of approaching the question of Pauline Christology, in terms of the ‘divinity debate’.… Building on the works of Hurtado, Bauckham and Fee, it is the contention of this volume that affirmation of a Pauline divine-Christology is necessary.… By analyzing the data in Paul which concerns the relation between the rise Lord and believers, it will be maintained that relational data concerning Christ in Paul’s letters corresponds, as a pattern, only to the language concerning YHWH in second Temple Judaism. It is concluded that the Christ-relation is Paul’s divine-Christology expressed as relationship. (3)

After a brief introduction in the first chapter, Tilling provides us in the second chapter with the obligatory historical survey of previous research on a Pauline divine-Christology. Building off of this, Tilling then spends the third chapter interacting with Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado, and Gordon Fee; names that will be known for those with even a modicum of interest in early Christology. The fourth chapter is a brief interlude in which he discusses the question of how Paul’s Jewish-style faith in God affects our understanding of his Christology, followed by a sketch of his proposal for demonstrating that the authentic Pauline corpus does indeed exhibit a divine Christology. Tilling says:

[I]t will be maintained that this pattern of Christ-relation language in Paul is only that which a Jew used to express the relation between Israel/the individual Jew and YHWH. No other figure of any kind, apart from YHWH, was related to in the same way, with the same pattern of language, not even the various exalted human and angelic intermediary figures in the literature of Second Temple Judaism that occasionally receive worship and are described in very exalted terms. (73)

The rest of this volume is the author’s endeavor to demonstrate that the relation between the risen Lord and believers in the Pauline corpus evinces a divine-Christology. He achieves this by focusing upon the relation between the risen Lord and believers in 1 Corinthians 8.1-10.22 (chapter 5) , the significance of Christ-relation to Paul throughout his undisputed letters (chapter 6-7), and an examination of 1 Cor. 16.22 in light of Paul’s Christ-relational thought.

Chapter nine is the nice juicy part of this volume (to me at least). Up till now, Tilling has been looking at how the Yahweh-relation themes in the Old Testament can elucidate the Christ-relation in Paul. But in this chapter Tilling uses this Yahweh-relation concept as a heuristic device for examining other exalted figures in Second Temple Judaism. Why is this important? Because these figures have proven to be a thorn in the side for Hurtado and Bauckham and their work on early Christology. The texts that Tilling tackles are Sirach 44-50, the Life of Adam and Eve, and the Similitudes of Enoch (a.k.a. Parables of Enoch).

I’ve pondered before on this blog about the worship of Adam in the Life of Adam and Eve and how it can inform our understanding of the early worship of Jesus. At one point in his discussion of it Tilling says:

It should be added that this worship is done ‘in the sight of God’ (13:3), and is undertaken precisely because Adam is God’s image (13:3). Perhaps Fletcher-Louis and others are correct that worshiping Adam, here, is much the same as the relation between the idol and the god it represents in pagan worship. However, the text immediately details that the worship is done because God has ‘instructed’ it (14:1), and not to so incurs the wrath of God (15:2). It is ‘worship’ of Adam under the command and authority of God. (202)

Couldn’t the same perhaps be said about early Jesus worship? In other words, the worship of Christ is done in the sight of God and under his command and authority (see e.g. Php. 2.9-11), and the worship of Christ is undertaken precisely because Christ is God’s image (see Col. 1.15, Heb. 1.3, an Adamic interpretation of Php. 2.6-11), with the idea being that there is not necessarily any inherent divinity in Jesus just as there isn’t in Adam. Regardless, I think that the usefulness of the worship of Adam in the Life of Adam and Eve shouldn’t be overplayed and that it would be highly dubious for one to simply situate the early worship of Jesus on the basis of contemporaneous Adam worship (especially since such Adam worship is not a common thread found throughout Second Temple texts as far as I know).

Tilling then provides a thought experiment in which he tells the reader to imagine that the Apostle Paul had access to Sirach and the Life of Adam and Eve. The point of this thought experiment is to demonstrate the differences between Paul’s Christ-relation and the worship of men in those two aforementioned texts, as well as the similarities between the language about God in those texts and the language of Christ in Paul. This was a pretty useful thought experiment and Tilling demonstrates that the God-relation language in these texts contains a very similar set of interrelated themes that are also found in Paul’s Christ-relation language.

Tilling then deals with that intriguing figure in the Similitudes of Enoch known as “the Son of Man”, “the Chosen One”, the “Messiah”, and who sits on the throne of God and is worshiped. Tilling seeks to demonstrate that Paul’s Christ-relation more closely corresponds, not with the Son of Man figure in the Similitudes, but with the “Lord of Spirits” (which is the primary title of God in the Similitudes). Tilling summarizes:

Paul’s Christ-relation corresponds far more closely with the Lord-of-Spirits-relation than the ‘Son of Man’-relation, despite the occasional overlap between Paul’s Christ and the Enochic Son of Man…. But it can still be assumed with confidence that, had Paul read the Similitudes closely, he would have located his understanding of the Christ-relation in the Enochic Lord of Spirits language, in both its general shape as well as in many details. (230)

While I think that Tilling did ably reveal the similarities between the Similitudes “Lord of Spirits” and the Paul’s depiction of Jesus, I don’t think it necessarily undercuts to any great degree the correspondence between Paul’s Jesus and the Similitudes’ “Son of Man” a great deal, and I’m unsure as to how forcefully it could be used to support a fully-divine Pauline Jesus over against a very highly-exalted Pauline Jesus (I would also be very hesistant to say that Paul would locate his understanding of Christ with the Enochic Lord of Spirits rather than with the Enochic Son of Man). Also, I wasn’t sold on the (interesting) possibility that Paul may have been “developing a subversive reading of the Enochic literature that places Christ on a par with the Lord of Spirits, not the Son of Man.” (228)

In chapter ten Tilling then provides four points that should lead one to the conclusion that Paul’s Christ-relation is indeed evidence of a Pauline divine-Christology. Chapter eleven is an overall summary and conclusion, and the book then closes with an appendix and a few indices.

I was glad that Tilling avoided discussing a divine Christology in terms of “essence” and “nature” but rather focused on the relational aspect between Jesus and the believer. I agree with Tilling that Paul’s Christology is divine, yet I still don’t think this makes the issue  entirely cut and dry. What I mean is that ancient Christians and Jews cannot, and should not, be uniformly categorized as “monotheistic”, and when one looks at how divinity was understood in the Roman world –it was a concept of power/status found in a spectrum with no absolute dividing lines – then when you see the Apostle Paul using a pattern of data to describe the Christ-and-believer relationship that is quite similar to the Yahweh-and-Israel/Jew relationship in Second Temple Judaism, I think it can still leave Paul’s divine-Christology wide open for differing interpretations.

Personally, I find Tilling’s Christ-relation framework to be a much more helpful and sound model than Bauckham’s “divine identity.” This volume is a fascinating and refreshing perspective on the early Christology debate and I would definitely recommend reading it if early Christology is a subject of interest to you. While in other volumes on Christology you can find fleeting glances towards the correspondence between Paul’s Christ-and-believer relation and the Israel/Jewish relation to Yahweh, Tilling’s work provides a much fuller examination of this idea and he persuasively argues his case.

3 responses

  1. Kevin, thanks so much for this review of my book! Extremely honoured you have spent time studying it. Contains some good thoughts, so thanks! The main issue I would want to seek clarification on is this part:

    “I agree with Tilling that Paul’s Christology is divine, yet I still don’t think this makes the issue entirely cut and dry. What I mean is that ancient Christians and Jews cannot, and should not, be uniformly categorized as “monotheistic”, and when one looks at how divinity was understood in the Roman world –it was a concept of power/status found in a spectrum with no absolute dividing lines – then when you see the Apostle Paul using a pattern of data to describe the Christ-and-believer relationship that is quite similar to the Yahweh-and-Israel/Jew relationship in Second Temple Judaism, I think it can still leave Paul’s divine-Christology wide open for differing interpretations”

    If you mean Paul’s Christology was clearly divine but it could have been variously understood (by other early Christians), okay to a certain extent. Perhaps. If you mean that Paul’s own Christology is not “cut and dry” divine, I would want to push back. This is why it was important for me to clarify the nature of Paul’s “faith in God” in the book, with reference to Eric Waaler and others.

    Thanks SO much for your review. Deeply grateful!

    • I meant the former, i.e., Paul’s Christology was clearly divine but it could have been variously understood by other early Christians (though I may have been overstating when I said that it still leaves Paul’s Christology “wide open” for differing interpretations).

      P.S. It was a pleasure reading your book. Definitely one of the more interesting and innovative doctoral dissertations I’ve read! 

  2. Pingback: Recommended reading for December 7th, 2012. | Near Emmaus

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