Reviewed by George Carraway
This book is a revised version of Chris Tilling’s dissertation, completed in 2009. In this well-written and well-considered presentation, Tilling argues the view that Paul’s letters contain a divine Christology. Others have argued similarly, of course, but Tilling develops his argument based on relationship language in the letter that suggests Paul understands his relationship with Christ in a way at least similar to his relationship with YHWH. The argument, summarized by the author, is that Paul’s divine Christology is “the Christ relation expressed with the unique God-relational pattern of data by which Second Temple Judaism expressed the transcendent uniqueness of God” (p. 244). Essentially, Tilling understands his relationship approach as a more comprehensive way to approach Pauline Christology.
After a brief introduction in which he sets forth a helpful summary of the development of the argument in his book, Tilling turns to a summary of the history of scholarship in Pauline divine Christology. The reader might be surprised here to find that the author reserves his most detailed critique, not for authors who have argued against divine Christology in Paul, but for Gordon Fee, Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham, all of whom have argued generally that divine Christology can be found in Paul. As becomes clear from his argument, though, Tilling finds the arguments of those authors defective in various ways and in fact suggests that relationship language is actually the only irrefutable argument for Pauline divine Christology. His bold statement in the conclusion of chapter 10 that it would require the “exegetical resolve of King Canute-ian tenacity to attempt to stand against the evidence,” expresses his view of his argument well. Indeed, one can hardly do anything but capitulate to the point (p. 252).
The thrust of Tilling’s argument occurs in chapters 5-8, perhaps especially chapter 5. Tilling’s emphasis is on exegetical study of Paul’s actual writings, which Tilling rightly asserts has not yet been properly grasped. He also prefers more emphasis on reading Paul’s divine Christology within both the language of NT studies and the church. One must ultimately make statements about Christology within communal and contemporary Christian life (p. 3-4). Tilling does recognize Fee’s attempt at exegetical consideration of the Pauline texts, but finds Fee’s work “Aristotelian and unPauline metaphysics” (p. 5), particularly regarding pre-existence as a defining Christological category. Tilling does not ignore historical study of first century extra-biblical texts, but his emphasis is clearly on reading Paul, which is refreshing in a scholarly climate in which the tilt of scholarly study shows a decided leaning toward historical study at the cost sometimes of reading the text as it exists today.
Chapters 5-8 follow his stated approach. Those chapters occupy nearly half the total content of the book, as one might expect, and offer detailed discussion of relationship language in Paul’s letters that are widely accepted as authentic. Chapter 5 is a detailed discussion of 1 Corinthians 8:1-10:22, a text that includes passages that, of course, are widely discussed in Pauline Christology. The argument there is that Paul did express faith in one God and that Paul expressed faith commitment to the one God over against idolatry and that he also spoke of the relation between the risen Lord and believers over against idolatry. This Christ relationship is framed in themes and concepts that in Jewish Scripture describe the relationship between Israel and YHWH over against idolatry (p.76).
Chapter 6, the longest chapter of the book, surveys the Christ relationship as it appears in all of the so-called authentic letters of Paul. Tilling acknowledges this chapter demands the most from the readers, and the reading can be a bit tedious, but there is reward for the reader in terms of the argument Tilling advances. The chapter is a broad survey, which results in less than detailed exegetical discussion of the passages, so more work may be suggested to support the exegetical conclusions as the author sometimes allows himself to suggest conclusions that even he recognizes are at best arguable. Still, his purpose was to survey the material and not to become overly atomistic in his argument. Tilling does offer a convincing argument and his point is made. In chapter 7 Tilling argues that Paul would recognize the pattern of data Tilling has accumulated as a pattern and that the material presented in chapter 6 is not just incidental, but central to Paul’s thought. Chapter 8, significantly briefer, is a discussion of 1 Corinthians 16:22.
Chapter 9 is a discussion of Jewish relationship language as it is used in extra-biblical literature in regard to figures other than God. Tilling deals with the figure Simon son of Onias in Siriah 50, Adam in Life of Adam and Eve and Enoch in the Similitudes of Enoch. The conclusion is that some lofty language may impact arguments about whether worship was reserved only for God in Second Temple Judaism, but the sort of relational language that is used by Paul regarding the risen Lord is not applied to those figures. An example of the argument is that the relationship language is used in the Similitudes regarding the Lord of Spirits, but not for Enoch. Tilling makes his case convincingly, but it is here that perhaps some unease with finality of the argument might occur. One is tempted to ask here whether relationship language is the sole indicator of divinity, whether or not that term is adequate, or do other factors, such as sovereignty, judgment and involvement with creation also contribute to an impression of deity?
In chapter 10, Tilling considers his argument within the Christology debate and deals with some arguments against finding divine Christology within Paul. Chapter 11 is a summary and conclusion of his argument, and that is followed by a helpful appendix in which Tilling attempts to bridge the so-called ditch between biblical studies and systematic theology.
In general, it can be said that Tilling has made his case in a convincing fashion. It does appear that one can find evidence of divine Christology in Paul based upon the similar use of language regarding YHWH and regarding Christ. Tilling displays what appears to be a bit of distaste for scholars who wish to speak of the person of Christ and especially of his pre-existence. Tilling is willing to say no more, it seems, than that Christ is divine. He follows Bauckham’s definition to say a divine Christology places Christ (p.1-2) “on the divine side of the line which monotheism must draw between God and creatures.” While that definition may be adequate to make clear what is meant by divinity, and while relationship language may be sufficient to establish divinity, one wonders whether Paul would recognize that as an adequate description of his language about Christ. Tilling often refers to the risen Lord, is that not a statement about Jesus’ person? What precisely did Paul mean when he referred to Jesus as Lord? Surely Tilling is correct to assert relationship as an important part of what it means to be Lord, but is that all? Or did Paul have in mind loftier language regarding sovereignty and even creation? In addition, one might wonder what we should understand regarding the relationship between the risen Lord and YHWH. There is also the question of whether the appearance of relationship language, or the lack of such language, is sufficient to distinguish between Christ as divine and other figures thought by some to have been revered in First Temple extra-biblical literature. Tilling is careful to consider only those letters that are widely considered authentic, but that excludes from his consideration the language in Ephesians in which the highly exalted Christ is clearly differentiated from all other beings that might fall into divine categories. Finally, while Tilling avoids the difficulty by avoiding questions about Christ’s person, the issue in monotheism (taking into account all the problems with that word) exists for all who would assert Jesus as divine, but not God. How does such a divine figure fit into a monotheistic view?
In spite of the above questions, Tilling’s work is well done and is a must read for anyone inquiring into the nature of Paul’s Christological thought. It can take its place alongside other works that call attention to the similarity of Paul’s language about Christ to the language he uses for YHWH (such as works regarding the use of OT YHWH texts in reference to Christ). Even if it is not quite the final word on the way best to think of Pauline divine Christology, it remains a helpful contribution to the discussion.
Liberty University Online
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