Spotting Jesus as God in 1 Corinthans 10

divine ChristologyLast 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

How Nicaea and Chalcedon Can Help you Read Your New Testament. (Or, Wesley Hill on Paul and the Trinity)

Paul and the TrinityDoing systematic theology through exegesis and exegesis using systematic categories can be a tricky business. A little knowledge of history can show us the way that sometimes our easy recourse to our inherited theological grids may have short-changed our exegesis. For instance, are NT references to the Son of God so obviously and cleanly statements of deity as many have traditionally believed or are they references to his Davidic lineage? And when Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” is he really referring to his human nature or, as most recent scholars have suggested, is it a reference to the heavenly, divine figure of Daniel 7, “One like the Son of Man”? In both cases, we see that some pressure from our inherited theological systems has forced our exegesis to miss some things. Critical evaluation has undermined some old conclusions, but happily enough, in this case, it ended up reinforcing the basic theological structure on more secure historical grounds.

In recent times, though, there’s been a movement in biblical studies towards recovering classic theological categories and doctrines for the sake of aiding historical interpretation. In his recent work Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters, Wesley Hill argues that by consciously avoiding trinitarian categories in an effort to be “historical” in their interpretation of Paul in his Jewish context, scholars have been working with one hand tied behind their backs. This is especially the case in their approach to texts regarding Christology and the doctrine of God.

Redoubling Around “High” and “Low” Christologies.

While moving away from a focus on titles like “Lord” and “Christ” in the last few years, much of the discussion has been caught up in understanding how Paul’s Christology modifies (or doesn’t) his monotheism. In other words, it assumes a view of God and the world, then tries to figure out where Paul places Jesus on the spectrum of things. Is his view of Jesus “high” or “low”? Does it “threaten” his monotheism, or is Jesus unified or differentiated or subordinated enough to protect against polytheism, modalism, or whichever danger seems more pressing to you as a scholar? Hill’s argument, insofar as I’m not destroying it, is that a retrieval of trinitarian categories like “relationality” and reading strategies like “redoublement” are helpful in moving us past some of the difficulties created by the low/high paradigm.

With the fathers like Athanasius, medievals such as Aquinas, and even recent relational theologies, Hill argues we need to understand that the identities of Father, Son, and Spirit are mutually-defining in the texts in such a way that both unity and differentiation is accounted for. God is the one who raised Jesus Christ by his Spirit (Romans 8:11), and so forth. The Father’s person is defined by his relation to the one who would become Jesus and his Spirit. Jesus is the one who has always been the Son of that Father. The Spirit is the Lord, the Spirit of God as well as the Spirit of the Son. That is who he is and always has been.

Or with the idea “redoublement”, we see that there are two non-ultimate but equally appropriate ways to consider and read texts about Jesus’ relationship to God. First, in many places we find language about what is “common” to them both,  for instance, the “form” or nature and equality that the Son shares with God (Phil. 2:6). But also, and just as important, is the differentiated relation between the two as we see that the Son whose elevation and gift of the “name that is above all names”, still ends up glorifying “God the Father” who is distinct from the Son (Phil. 2:11).

The same movement is useful in other key texts such as 1 Corinthians 8:6, where we have a clear inclusion of Jesus within the key monotheistic Shema which asserts YHWH as Lord and God against all false, non-existent lords and gods of the nations. Two options usually present themselves to the interpreter. Either keep the distinction between Jesus and God and downplay the significance of the inclusion or recognize it, but play down the very clear distinction between Jesus and God. The concept of redoublement helps us accept both the asymmetrical differentiation according to person–Jesus isn’t simply absorbed into a flat “God” identity–but also Jesus’ place on the Creator side of the Creator/creature distinction at the heart of the text.

Watson’s Chalcedonian Clarification

Hill develops all of this at length, through careful, historically-sensitive exegesis of the Greek text, dealing with historical proposals by scholars such as Hurtado, Bauckham, McGrath, and others. Parallel to Hill’s work, though, I’ve been reading through Thomas Watson’s sermons on the Westminster Catechism, A Body of Practical Divinity and was reminded of the way recovering Chalcedonian categories for New Testament interpretation helps clarify exegetical difficulties as well.

For instance, there are a number of texts in the New Testament that suggest Christ has been exalted, or that upon his resurrection and Ascension he received a new, kingly status that he didn’t possess in the past:

…concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, (Romans 1:3-4)

…Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, (Philippians 2:9)

But if the Son is eternally God, then how can he be exalted at a certain point in time after the resurrection? How can he receive a name that has always been his from all of eternity? In these texts, interpreters as far back as the first couple of centuries have found reason to see some sort of adoptionism whereby Jesus was not always God, but becomes the Son of God at a particular point in time.

Commenting on the Catechism’s section on the exaltation of Christ, Watson addresses the difficulty posed by these texts:

In what sense has God exalted Christ?

Not in respect of his Godhead, for that cannot be exalted higher than it is: as in his humiliation, the Godhead was not lower; so in his exaltation, the Godhead is not higher: but Christ is exalted as Mediator, his human nature is exalted.

In a move that parallels, complements, and possibly clarifies our retrieval of redoublement, Watson draws on the affirmation that Christ has two natures, both a human and divine one. The Son has eternally always been the Son of the Father, equal in power, glory, beauty, and divine authority. And yet, at a particular point in time he assumed–added to himself–a human nature that has not always sat on the throne of heaven, but has walked in humility and weakness as a peasant in the 1st Century. This union, the person of the Godman, the Mediator, according to Watson, is the subject of these texts speaking of the exaltation of Christ. It’s not simply the Son according to his divine nature, nor a simply human Jesus abstracted from the Son–that Jesus can’t exist. No, it is the Son in his humanity who is exalted and newly acclaimed as king upon the throne of the universe.

Of course, Hill deals with sort of thing in his work as well. Still, reading Hill alongside Watson has further reinforced the value of reading both modern and historical authors, as well as biblical and systematic theologians, as legitimate sources and models for the practice of reading Scripture. It doesn’t have to be the sort of either/or affair it sometimes becomes in certain academic contexts. a number of helpful, further insights on the reading historical texts in a

Indeed, in this work, Hill himself is a model for reading historical texts in a theologically-responsible way and reading texts theologically in a historically-responsible way. I’d highly commend his work to anyone looking to see it done right. May his tribe increase.

Soli Deo Gloria