Last year I had the privilege of studying 1 Corinthians with my college students, or, as I like to call it, “The Book of Very Hard Sermons.” Among the most difficult and rich texts to preach from is chapter 10, where Paul is wrapping up a lengthy discussion about whether church members ought to grab a bite to eat with their pagan neighbors at the local temples. While I knew the passage had fascinating and challenging implications for issues like the sacraments (10:1-5, 14-22), temptation (10:6-13), other religions (10:14-22), and Christian liberty (10:23-32), I hadn’t fully grasped their relevance for the issue of Christology in the New Testament.
Enter Chris Tilling’s fantastic, recent work Paul’s Divine Christology. For those of you who have been reading lately, Christology has come up a bit this year, both in relation to Crispin Fletcher-Louis’ recent Jesus Monotheism and Wesley Hill’s Paul and the Trinity. Both figures have been contributing to the recent discussion initiated by Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, and others around the way the New Testament authors viewed Christ as central to the “divine identity.” While Fletcher-Louis’ and Hill’s contribution have been quite stimulating, I’m so glad to have found Tilling’s work because he adds a helpful, quite expansive dimension to conversation.
To recap, Hurtado has argued that it’s clear on the basis of the “pattern of devotion”, prayer, worship, etc. witnessed in the New Testament, that Jesus Christ was worshipped as God. Bauckham has argued that Jesus is included in the divine identity in the New Testament because he is depicted as having the relationship to the world (creator, redeemer, etc) that Jewish monotheism only reserved for God. Much of the debate around their thesis then becomes an issue of whether or not you can spot similar devotional patterns of worship, or a fuzziness in monotheistic theology of 2nd Temple Jewish texts, with various intermediaries. Tilling argues that one missing dimension in the discussion is a focus on the way that Paul explicitly depicts the believer’s relationship to Christ in the same fashion that the Old Testament does that between and God.
Tilling points out, as many others have, that the distinctive feature of Jewish monotheism wasn’t primarily a metaphysic, but a covenantal relation. YWHW is Israel’s God and Israel is YHWH’s people. That’s the heart of the 10 Commandments, the covenant as a whole, and the chief confession of the people of God in the OT, the Shema (plus a verse):
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
This “relational monotheism”, the sort of relationship that has love, fidelity, devotion, and jealousy as correlates, is what it means for Israel to worship one God. So, alongside all the key texts that link Christ with statements of pre-existence, deity, creative power, and so forth, Tilling says we’ve missed the heart (or at least a key dimension) to Paul’s very divine Christology if we don’t analyze the believer’s relationship with Christ as part of the evidence.
It’s not for nothing, then, that he begins his case by using 1 Corinthians 8:1-7 to kick off his study. It contains the key verse, 8:6, in which Paul splits up the Shema to include Jesus in the confession of Israel’s God:
For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Corinthians 8:5-6)
While other scholars have noted the importance of those verses (and spilled a great deal of ink doing so), Tilling points out that really, the whole section of 1 Corinthians 8-10 is framed in terms of the proper worship, love, and knowledge of God (8:1-3). Paul is challenging the Corinthian believer’s appeal to freedom and knowledge to eat idol meat, to consider the implication it has for their relationship with Christ in ways that are only suited for Israel’s God. What is need is a “relational hermeneutic” (87), to properly see the way Paul’s argument progresses.
Now, I can’t summarize or reproduce his argument here, in full, but I did want to highlight a few exegetical nuggets on along these lines.
First, there’s the rather curious line about the way going to eat Temple meat and wounding your brother’s conscience is a “sin against Christ” (8:12). At first, it seems like the point is that by sinning against your brother, you’re sinning against Christ, because you’re sinning against the body of Christ. But Tilling points out (among a number of other things), that if that’s what Paul meant, he could have said so explicitly as he does elsewhere (1 Corinthians 10:9, 22). Instead, it seems appropriate the read the relationship more directly as an example of Paul treating Christ as God. Much as David confesses that his sin with Bathsheba against Uriah is directly against God (Ps. 51), Paul’s “simple and natural reflex” was to see this sin against a brother as directly against Christ (94).
Jumping ahead to chapter 10, in his warning against idolatry, Paul cites a gnarly string of Old Testament narratives where YHWH judges the Israelites, ‘our ancestors’ in the faith (10:1-5), for various sins such as idolatry, sexual immorality, grumbling, testing the Lord, etc (10:6-10). What’s fascinating about these texts where Paul says, “we must not sorely test Christ, as some of them did” (10:9), is that here, “Paul…associates the relation between Israel and YHWH in the Pentateuchal narratives with the relation between the risen Lord and believers in Corinth” (96).
Continuing on, the same relation can be seen in Paul’s warnings about drinking from the cup of Christ and the cup of demons (10:14-22). In these verses, Paul is explicitly identifying eating meat in the pagan temples with idolatry and urging them to stay away from it (10:14). Why? Because even if there is no real “god” behind it, these meals are still communion meals, acts of “participation.” It’s an act of devotion that in the Old Testament was reserved for the Israelite and YHWH in the feasts and Temple cult. And yet, here we have Paul speaking not of the cup of “God”, but instead warning:
You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:21)
Just as the Israelites were not supposed to provoke God by worshipping other gods, Christians should not “provoke the Lord to jealousy” (10:22), by trying to have it both ways. “Koinonia with respect to Christ…becomes the expression of covenant loyalty, of monotheistic loyalty without idolatry” (100).
Again, I’ve barely scratched the surface of Tilling’s argument (I’m only halfway through the book), but as the kids say, “what has been seen cannot be unseen.” Indeed, once you get a grip on Tilling’s basic argument, it becomes rather intuitive to begin to see it all over the place in Paul. And it seems that’s rather the point. Paul’s divine Christology is not only an affair of key, isolated proof-texts (as helpful as some of those are), but rather form the warp and woof of his whole thought.
Soli Deo Gloria