Responding to Andrew Perriman’s critique (long post warning!)
As much as I would like to, I don’t have the time to respond to all reviews of my arguments as they are reflected in How God Became Jesus and Paul’s Divine Christology. But I thought, as a one of, I’d spend time reflecting on Andrew Perriman’s critiques in his blog post “Chris Tilling aims a relational christology at Bart Ehrman”. I do this because Andrew is a friend from whom I have learnt much, I enjoy his books, and I resonate with many of his claims. Plus, he’s annoyingly handsome. So I thought it worthwhile to scrape together the following points in response to that blog. As it takes more time, often, to write shorter pieces, I’ll simply hammer out my arguments without regard for word-limit!
A pdf of the following can be downloaded here.
A) At the heart of Andrew’s complaint is that my approach pays insufficient attention to what he dubs the “lordship narrative”, that I make claims that run counter to this “narrative”. As he sums up at the end: “[Tilling] gives insufficient attention to narrative dynamics—to the apocalyptic narrative by which the lordship of Jesus is determined ...The lordship narrative identifies Jesus with faithful ‘Israel’, not with YHWH”
B) He then makes a number of comments about material in 1 Corinthians 8-10. I list what I consider to be the most discussion worthy:
1. “[T]he affirmation that for Paul and his readers Jesus is kyrios does not explain how or why he has that status. Notwithstanding the confessional character of the verse, it’s a mistake to read it in isolation, apart from the apocalyptic narrative which everywhere in the New Testament accounts for Jesus’ lordship”
2. “I disagree with Tilling that in the argument against idolatry in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 Paul makes the relation between believers and Christ directly analogous to the relation between Israel and YHWH”.
3. So the analogy is “between participation in the saving experience of the exodus and participation in the saving experience of Jesus’ death and resurrection”.
4. On 1 Cor 8:12: “The relational argument here identifies Christ not with YHWH but with those weak believers against whom the strong sin”
On the issues tied up in A) I offer the following points.
i) Andrew’s “lordship narrative” is insufficiently informed by the phenomenon of Paul’s own letters. The evidence in almost every chapter of every Pauline letter is that a pattern of data is apparent in which Paul speaks of the relation to the risen Lord in ways analogous only to the relationship between Israel and YHWH. By separating this “lordship narrative” away from that evidence is to not allow the Pauline data to detail what the “lordship narrative” consists of. Andrew divides what Paul can keep together (accepting for a moment Andrew is correct about his particular account of the “lordship narrative”, which I would indeed challenge, but that is another post).
ii) This is why Andrew is, I think, wrong to claim that my argument tries to answer questions the “lordship narrative” does not answer. This is the case, I suggest, only if this “lordship narrative” loses connection to the Pauline data and becomes an artificial construct.
iii) I thus insist that the data I have discussed in terms of the Christ-relation and the God-relation is not an anachronistic projection back into these texts. I am, on the contrary, attempting to key into the nature of Paul’s “way of knowing” – this is why “epistemology” and “relational monotheism” are also historical explanatory conditions. My concern is that a “lordship narrative”, as Andrew appears to portray it, does not account for these issues well (see his point 3 above, which imports a curious distinction discordant with these explanatory conditions). Indeed, Andrew’s account seems to imply that dogmatic christological concerns are anachronistic to Paul. But this is true only if one assumes an anachronistic account of what Christology is, which seems to be implicit in his construal of the “lordship narrative”. In other words, Andrew is the one guilty of anachronism.
iv) He argues that the “lordship narrative identifies Jesus with faithful ‘Israel’, not with YHWH”. But where does this account of Paul’s data come from? I suggest it problematically involves the heavy-handed imposition of a “wider narrative”, the appropriateness and explanatory power of which are heavily debated in scholarly circles and are by no means assured. Andrew is reading Paul, as Tom Wright does, in light of the story of Israel. Fine. But the problem with this type of reading is that one can end up saying “Paul said this, but he really meant this” too frequently (I critique Andrew for doing just this in my Paul’s Divine Christology). It treats Paul’s language as synecdochic and in so doing these “narrative readings” often end up making themes within Paul’s own letters peripheral, slaves to that supposed “wider narrative” which, let us not forget, Paul never articulates (on this, see the wonderful collection of essays in Narrative Dynamics in Paul: A Critical Assessment, edited by B.W. Longenecker, Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 2002).
v) Now before I am misunderstood, I tend to agree that the “wider narrative” has a role to play, but the only way to adjudicate the plausibility of these various schemes is the extent to which they explain the Pauline data. To understand Paul, Paul’s own words and the themes in Paul’s letters must stay at the centre. I claim I have done this. Has Andrew? I let the reader adjudicate.
vi) This is to say that I would tend to agree with Andrew that Christ is sometimes portrayed in terms of “faithful Israel” by Paul, but certainly not so as to effectively delete the import of the reams of Pauline data which must not be ignored, data I partly summarise in HGBJ and detail in PDC. Given the relational nature of knowing and the import of this kind of monotheism, this Pauline language is of great theological import that cannot be swept away in the name of an insufficiently inductive “narrative”.
Turning to his various points under B), it seems to me I need to clarify what I am claiming and how. This is natural enough, and is the best part of such interaction: being forced to articulate oneself more clearly, or at least so that I am better understood.
1. Of course, the “how” and “why” questions are crucial, and I’m interested in them myself. I did not deal with both questions in PDC, only the “how”, but the “why” question will be dealt with in a forthcoming volume I am tentatively entitling Causing Christology. A key point I will insist on: both can only be rightly answered when the Pauline pattern of data is kept firmly in mind. And I am not persuaded Andrew does this. He then adds that “it’s a mistake to read [1 Cor 8:6] in isolation, apart from the apocalyptic narrative which everywhere in the New Testament accounts for Jesus’ lordship”. I would add that it is an even greater mistake to read 1 Cor 8:6 in isolation from 1 Cor 8-10, and ultimately Andrew ends up doing just that. I should note, my reading is not dependent on a Shema reading of just 8:6, which, by the way, I see no reason to doubt. But if the majority of scholars change their mind on this, the rest of my thesis stands. My approach is most importantly based on 8:1-3 and how this is then run through the entire argument to at least 10:22.
2. Andrew disagrees “that in the argument against idolatry in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 Paul makes the relation between believers and Christ directly analogous to the relation between Israel and YHWH”. Clarification is needed here. I state in my thesis that the nature of the comparison is one of analogy and that they are not exactly the same. But, given the massive overlap of themes by which 2nd Temple Judaism relationally distinguished the transcendent uniqueness of God, Paul’s (relational) epistemology in 8:1-3, the deliberate emplotment of the Christ—Christ-follower-relation in terms of the YHWH—Israel-relation via intertexts etc., I see no reason to back away from my conclusion on the basis of these chapters in 1 Cor. Furthermore, there are dozens of other passages, noted in HGBJ and discussed at length in PDC which add support to my construal. My analysis of 1 Cor 8-10, in PDC, was the springboard to the sea of relevant texts in the following (largest) chapter of the book, where I analyse language across the letters, and the amount of supporting texts is large, to say the least. Until someone can show me a different way of reading all of these, I see no reason to doubt my conclusions. A wave of the narrative wand does not make them go away, especially when that narrative is insufficiently informed by those texts.
3. The claim that “the analogy is between participation in the saving experience of the exodus and participation in the saving experience of Jesus’ death and resurrection” needs to be exegetically justified, and for Andrew’s case also over against my construal. I would be happy to admit that there is sometimes an analogy of “saving experience”, but certainly not to the exclusion of the abundance of material I analyse in my own work.
4. On 1 Cor 8:12 he claims that “[t]he relational argument here identifies Christ not with YHWH but with those weak believers against whom the strong sin”. I have already analysed various interpretative options in PDC, but here I simply note: a) Contra Andrew’s implication, Christ and the “brothers” are not here strictly “identified”, i.e., it does not say that the brothers are Christ in terms of a simple equation. Rather, the text states that sin against the “brothers” means sinning against Christ. b) The point, then, is to explain how Paul can so closely associate Christ with the “brothers” that sin against one is sin against the other. This is the point of my argument, and to this end I, among other things, recall that “from an early time in Israel sins against persons were believed to be sins against God... see 2 Sam 12:9, 10, 13; Gen 39:9; Prov 14:31; 17:5”, as noted by Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51–100 (Waco: Word, 1990), 17. Likewise, YHWH is the one against whom David sins, and YHWH “alone” (“σοὶ μόνῳ ἥμαρτον” Ps 50:6 LXX). Yet this no more identifies YHWH as Bathsheba or Uriah in Psalm 51, but the logic helps us to understand Paul’s link in 1 Cor 8:12. c) Therefore, my thesis certainly does not require that Christ not be associated with the brothers! Indeed, it requires it! d) I then remember the wider structure of 1 Cor 8-10, the programmatic first three verses of 1 Cor 8, and the various other explicit links between the Christ-relation and the YHWH-relation, and this potential dynamic of 8:12 becomes relevant.
It remains for me to note three things. i) my arguments relating to divine Christology do not attempt to explain everything about Paul. My focus has remained restricted to matters directly related to the Pauline divine Christology debate. In light of the above, I do not yet see how the matters Andrew raises impinge on my wider argumentation at all.
I am delighted that he has taken the time to comment on my work, but ii) I am concerned that his own particular theological passions, legitimate as some of them are, are too often artificially pushed through the texts. In so doing, Paul’s own language is side-lined and thereby disjointed. It seems everything needs to be about Andrew’s narrative and his particular vision of eschatology which, it should be noted, the vast majority of scholars have not accepted.
So I must ask, iii) are there deeper reasons for his pushback? What motivates his concerns? This could be part of the explanation: I remember a parable he used in his nice little book, Otherways, also online here. He stated that:
“Scripture is like a forest. As people explore the forest, they tend after a while to follow the paths that others have taken, simply because it’s easier … An emerging theology is learning to ask whether these paths are really the best way of getting to know the forest. We recognize that the paths are not original to the forest, they are man-made … It would be nice, in a way, if we could leave the forest alone for a while, let the undergrowth regrow, let the old paths disappear, and then start again, so that we come to know the forest for the first time”
Does Andrew consider a “divine Christology” the kind of “old path” that needs to disappear so that we can start again? Is Andrew’s pushback based on the suspicion that a divine Christology is the kind of dogmatic theology his narrative approach allegedly steps behind? There is something precious in the spirit of the parable, but it also smacks of the kind of naïve hyper-protestant idealism, with its rejection of “tradition” as the problem, that I encounter most often among conservative evangelicals. This is to say that there are serious problems, here, not least as it pertains to the development of the biblical canon within the emerging creedal orthodoxy of the church.