Responding to Recent Reviews, Part 1: Novenson, Tilling, & Key Texts

Matthew V. Novenson, Lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh, has written a brief review (roughly 600 words) of Tilling’s work in The Expository Times 124/12 (2013): 619. Novenson’s review is largely a summary of Tilling’s monograph, which accounts for about two thirds of the total word count, while the remaining third is comprised of his critique. His criticisms can be summarized as follows:

  • “Some key Pauline texts (1 Cor 16:22) are singled out for close attention, while other equally important ones (Rom 1:3-4; 9:5; Phil 2:6-11) are treated only haphazardly.”
  • “Tilling’s choice of dialogue partners is rather narrow, which renders the argument proportionately less compelling.”
  • “Tilling does not prove that Paul’s concept of the ‘Christ relation’ actually entails (rather than just suggests or is compatible with) the divinity of Christ.”

In this post I’d like to address the first point of criticism and detail why I believe Novenson has missed the point of Tilling’s work. For starters, we have to take into account Novenson’s word limit when responding to his criticisms. One would imagine that given the space Novenson would be able to elaborate on each point. Be that as it may, the criticisms themselves evince a probable misunderstanding of type of argument Tilling is making as well as suggesting a less than careful reading of Tilling’s monograph.

Novenson says that “Some key Pauline texts (1 Cor 16:22) are singled out for close attention, while other equally important ones (Rom 1:3-4; 9:5; Phil 2:6-11) are treated only haphazardly.” This statement raises a number of questions, such as, what counts as a “key” text? For what exactly is any given text “key”? Why are the texts Novenson cites considered to be of equal importance to the texts Tilling examines in detail?

Without resorting to any linguistic slight of hand, let’s agree that a “key” text is a text that is important. The question is then, important for what? Well, for the author’s argument, of course! Here I have in mind both Paul and Tilling since Tilling’s argument is based on a pattern of data that would arguably be recognized by Paul himself (see PDC, 57, 201). And this is where I think Novenson misses Tilling. There is a very particular reason that Tilling singles out 1 Corinthians 16:22 for close attention (as well as 1 Cor. 8-10) and not the texts that Novenson cites. Tilling is making an argument about the risen Lord’s relationship to believers.

The texts that Novenson cites usually factor in debates over adoptionism; titular Christology; and preexistence respectively. Romans 1:3-4 is often brought to bear in discussions of Jesus’ messianic status or whether he was “made” or “declared” God’s Son at the resurrection. While this may be an important point to explore, it’s ultimately irrelevant to the argument that Tilling is making. The same is true of Romans 9:5, which factors into the divine Christology debate for whether or not it refers to Jesus as “God” and is thus a doxology directed to Christ. Philippians 2:6-11 is a text primarily examined in reference to debates over Christ’s preexistence.

Tilling’s goal is not to show that Jesus was called God (see PDC, 21-27; 174), or that he was always the Son of God or made such at a point in time (neither proposition would have much effect on his argument), or that he personally preexisted his incarnation (Tilling finds the focus on preexistence to be based on an Aristotelian ontology, which he deems alien to Paul; see, e.g., PDC, 36-37). These lines of argument have been pursued ad infinitum by proponents and detractors of divine Christology alike. Tilling’s stated goal is to attend to a pattern of data concerning the risen Lord’s relationship to believers that has been largely neglected by advocates on both sides of the debate.

Declaring these texts to be of equal importance to 1 Corinthians 16:22 is strong evidence that Novenson thinks of the divine Christology debate along the older lines that Tilling bypasses with his relational argument. It should also be noted that Tilling’s main concern in 1 Corinthians 16:22 isn’t merely with the titular aspect of Christ being called “Lord” in Aramaic or with the devotional aspect of this being a prayer directed to the risen Lord—important as these things are—but, as Tilling says, “The significance of this prayer is not simply that it reflects a cultic devotional pattern, but that it also implies wider factors relating to the relation between risen Lord and believers, such as presence and absence, desires and loves” (PDC, 194).

So I remain convinced that Novenson has not read Tilling on Tilling’s terms. If he had then there is little reason to declare these texts to be “key” texts of “equal importance” for the relational aspect that Tilling emphasizes. In the next post I will respond to the charge that Tilling’s choice of dialogue partners is “rather narrow.” Stay tuned…



5 thoughts on “Responding to Recent Reviews, Part 1: Novenson, Tilling, & Key Texts

  1. I ought to add that I think you are right. My chapter on 1 Cor 16:22 was to demonstrate the way my approach sheds light on the divine Christology debate, and this text did it better than most. It tandemed well, I thought, with my focus on 1 Cor 8-10 at the beginning of the Pauline exegetical section.

  2. Mike: I can’t even begin to tell you how useful you’re going to find that book. It’s paradigm shifting—and I don’t mean that as a cliche—it’s true!

    Chris: My pleasure. And I agree completely about how well the focus on 1 Cor 16:22 for with the exegesis of 1 Cor 8-10. There’s so much correspondence between the two texts!

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