how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Sinning against Christ and the argument for a divine christology

Chris Tilling has taken the trouble to reply at some length to my review of his contribution to How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature. I want to address the issues he raises, not with a view to picking a fight with him—honestly, Chris—but because the points he makes are astute and I think worth exploring further. Plus he’s annoyingly entertaining.

The main issues have to do with  my so-called “lordship narrative”, how it relates to the Pauline data, and my dubious reasons for promoting it. I’ll get on to these weighty matters in another post, but to cover myself I will say this: I do not regard the “lordship narrative” (as I understand it) and a “divine christology” as mutually incompatible, but I do not think that the current proponents of an early high christology take adequate account of how the apocalyptic narrative works, not just in Paul but in the whole of the New Testament. 

Meanwhile, here I want to deal with a particular bone of contention—1 Corinthians 8:12:

Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

Chris considers this passage in Paul’s Divine Christology (92-94) as evidence for his thesis that Paul spoke about the relation between believers and Christ in the same way that Judaism spoke about the relation between Israel and YHWH and that this “was Paul’s way of expressing a divine-Christology” (257). It’s only one passage, and to be fair to Chris his proposal in Paul’s Divine Christology is a little tentative. But he makes quite a lot of it in his response to me, and having looked at the passage again, I think I also need to amend my critique of his argument.

Chris allows that the “association of believers with Christ is… involved in the deliberation of this verse”, but he thinks that we would account better for the “relational context” of Paul’s argument if we understood it as an example of the Jewish idea that sin against another person is sin against YHWH. So Paul can make this statement only because he has transferred the YHWH-relation to Christ. He quotes Tate: “OT passages make it clear that from an early time in Israel sins against persons were believed to be sins against God….” I don’t think that the passages Tate cites back up this view.

The Old Testament background

Nathan accuses David of having “despised the word of the Lord” and doing “what is evil in his sight” when he struck down Uriah and took Bathsheba as his wife (2 Sam. 12:9). As a consequence God will “raise up evil against you out of your own house”. So when David says, “I have sinned against the Lord” (12:13), he is not saying that the sin against Uriah was actually a sin against God. Rather he means that in sinning against Uriah, etc., he has despised the word of the Lord, which Nathan has just recounted for his benefit, reminding him of the covenant promise of 2 Samuel 7:4-16:

Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. (2 Sam. 12:7–8)

Presumably this line of thought lies behind Psalm 51:4: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” But the problem here, in any case, is that nothing is said about sin against Uriah. On the contrary, David appears to discount the hurt done Uriah: “Against you, you only, have I sinned…’” It is merely an assumption that David thinks of his treatment of Uriah as sin against God alone. The story in 2 Samuel only allows us to say that David sinned against God by despising his word.

The other texts listed by Tate offer no better support for the argument. When Joseph refuses to lie with Potiphar’s wife, he exclaims, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). There is no suggestion here that Joseph would sin against God by sinning against either Potiphar or his wife: he sins against God by committing wickedness. There’s nothing peculiar in that.

Two proverbial sayings are also cited: “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker” and “Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker” (Prov. 14:31; 17:5). The logic here is that it is wrong to abuse something that God has made—it shows contempt for the maker. This is not at all an argument for the idea that sinning against a person is directly a sin against YHWH. There is a necessary mediating condition: the offence to God arises from the fact that he made the poor man.

As far as I can see there is no relevant Jewish background that would explain sin against the weaker brothers as sin against YHWH in the sort of direct sense (I’ll come to an exception in a moment) that seems to be presupposed in Chris’ argument. So we have to go back to the two New Testament passages that he mentions in Paul’s Divine Christology where we have a clear association of sinned-against believers with Christ.

The identification of Jesus with the weak

In Matthew 25:45 Jesus says to the puzzled unrighteous: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” This is a judgment of the nations for having failed to attend to the needs of the disciples whom he has sent out into the world. Similarly, the risen Jesus challenges Saul on his way to persecute believers in Damascus with the question, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14). If I say that the risen Jesus identifies himself with the persecuted disciples, I do not mean, as Chris supposes, that “the brothers are Christ in terms of a simple equation”. But Jesus clearly takes the harm done to his followers personally.

However, I am less sure now that this is what is going on in 1 Corinthians 8:12. For a start, the situation addressed has to do with internal rather than external conflict, and I think it likely that the close association of Jesus with his followers in their suffering presupposes specifically a context of persecution: it is those who suffer with Christ, who are subjected to “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword”, who will be “conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:17, 29, 35).

Secondly, the reason why “sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak” is equivalent to sinning against Christ is given in the passage. It is a sin against Christ, not because Christ stands in relation to the believer as YHWH stands in relation to Israel, but because Christ died for them: “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died” (1 Cor. 8:11).

This is actually very much like the argument of the Proverbs passages, which is what has given me pause: just as oppressing a poor man insults the God who made that poor man, so offending the weaker brother is a sin against Christ who died for that weaker brother. But this does not require an identification of Christ and God, only a situational or narrative analogy—the mediating condition is very different, making someone is not the same as dying for someone.

So I am inclined to retract my assertion that the “relational argument here identifies Christ not with YHWH but with those weak believers against whom the strong sin”. But the fundamental point remains. Paul’s argument works not because Christ is identified with YHWH but because Christ died for the believer. In other words, it works perfectly well without the presumption of a divine christology.


Excellent response, Andrew! Very well argued.