Chris Tilling: Paul, Christ, and Narrative Time

The authors of Christ and the Created Order have noted the fact that, although Jesus Christ is in every way central to the Christian faith, christology is usually poorly represented in the science-faith discussion. The New Testament describes a cosmic Christ, who is not only the key to the unfolding new creation through his death, resurrection and glorification, but is also the source and purpose of the old creation - the world that science studies.*

The reviewers here (Daniel Deen and Jon Garvey) endorse this need for a more christological approach. As ever though, the devil is in the detail, and we seek in these chapter reviews to bring our own insights to bear on the views offered in the book.

Chris Tilling provides a thought provoking chapter grappling with the concept of time and how it may affect the narrative structure of the biblical text. Tilling’s specific target is N.T. Wright, while the general target is the relationship between different narrative structures (e.g., telic vs epiphanic) and the biblical text. While the specific debate between Tilling and Wright in Pauline studies is beyond the pay grade of this philosopher, I couldn’t help notice a few elements from the general argument that may be of interest to PeacefulScience readers in relation to various conversations here at the forum.

It is safe to say that N.T. Wright is one of the foremost theologians of the 21st century. His work is one of those rare cases demanding professional and lay audience engagement on a regular basis. However, as one rises to prominence in a field it is altogether too easy to color the entire field from one’s own hard won perspectives. Tilling claims Wright suffers from such an availability bias in allowing his telic narrative structure to drive his understanding of Paul to the detriment of what the texts themselves report. A “telic narrative” is to be opposed to an “epiphanic narrative” in that the former establishes a directional meta-narrative interpreting all scriptural passages in light of the narrative while the former readjusts the meta-narrative in light of textual discoveries/epiphanies. Crudely, the directionality of narrative time is important to the telic narrative. Understanding a narrative results from grasping the entire telic structure of the story: beginning, middle, and end. Epiphanic narratives are those where some sort of central event, once revealed, provides the required insight to understand other aspects of the narrative. Perhaps more crudely, telic moves from narrative to text while epiphanic moves from text to narrative.

In the case of Tilling’s specific argument, he defends the notion that Wright has let his telic proclivities bias his reading of Paul. Wright’s hermeneutical method is forcing textual discoveries to fit into a narrative that the text does not necessarily support. This is a problem of telic narratives as they front load key truths about the narrative into the beginning from which the rest of the narrative must flow chronologically. Tilling’s critique focuses around the fact that textual references concerning Jesus and Paul do not seem too concerned with a standard notion of time. Jesus and Paul seem to talk about standard notions of time—past, present, future—as happening all at once.

Tilling quotes Robert Jenson,

“Time, as we see it framing biblical narrative, is neither linear nor cyclical but perhaps more like a helix, and what it spirals around is the risen Christ” (p. 161).

Or to really get your brain flexing and perplexing, Tilling quotes from his colleague Lincoln Harvey,

“As the first of God’s works, God summons the world into existence by speaking ‘Jesus’ and the Son and the Spirit thereby, in obedience to the Father, establish and perfect a time and a place for the coming Son of God, or—to shatter the metaphysics!— the act of creation happens within the womb of Mary ” (p. 166).

If time is not used consistently in a strict chronological fashion in the text, why would we force such a restriction on the textual narrative? Is it really more probable that Paul was speaking from within his Jewish telic narrative or challenging that narrative with his epiphany of Jesus? Tilling answers in terms of the latter, suggesting that Wright has been too influenced by narrative theory versus textual facts.

I could not help but notice how this methodological disagreement between Wright and Tilling is indicative of a lot of methodological differences in the sciences. Philosophically, Wright and Tilling are struggling with the question of the relationship between theory and facts. Perhaps, most famously in the philosophy of biology, a similar question of scientific narrative structure is raised by Stephen J. Gould in his oft-anthologized article, “Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme.” There the adaptationist narrative was pointed out to color the biological facts. Natural selection served a telic function, a theoretical given, that was made to incorporate into a larger narrative all recalcitrant biological facts resulting in many “just so” adaptationist stories. Gould worked from an epiphanic mindset, looking at a larger set of biological data (non-adaptive biological form, random fixation of alleles, multiple adaptive peaks, etc…) to motivate a stranger narrative of evolutionary biology than previously allowed. Theory and facts intertwine in strange and beautiful ways.

In what ways might it be proper to disentangle the relationship between theory and facts?

In what way might this ambiguity between theory/facts and narrative/text help with the current struggles between PeacefulScience and Discovery Institute/I.D.?

A further point of interest to me is the different fundamental philosophical mindsets of Wright and Tilling. I will grant that I do not know enough of their collective work to make a firm judgment, but I (perhaps my own availability bias!) get a sense from this chapter that Wright is metaphysically inclined while Tilling is epistemologically inclined. Which came first, metaphysics or epistemology is a bit of the chicken and egg problem for philosophy. Metaphysics is logically prior, but that was something that we learned… Or is it that we only learned because the universe is such that it has a particular metaphysical structure… Or… remain blissfully ignorant of such questions and enjoy life on the front porch with a bourbon. Regardless, it is understood that the two work together, but depending on where one focuses their energies, different questions and answers emerge. It seems something similar may be happening between narrative structure and the linguistic data between Wright and Tilling.

Wright, despite spending an enormous amount of energy understanding the cultural context of Paul then elevates the narrative structure to a sort of metaphysical structure controlling the text itself. Any recalcitrant data, such as the odd phrasings of time, are ignored or made to fit the narrative/metaphysical structure. Tilling and the epiphanic narrative demands more circumspect narrative claims as any new discovery in the text might lead to the reorganizing of the narrative itself. Wright and Tilling’s approaches represent a textual chicken and egg problem sometimes referred to as the hermeneutical circle.

Is it possible to break the circles of metaphysics/epistemology and narrative/text? Or is it possible, as I understand Tilling to suggest in the chapter, that the two provide checks as to the other?

Again, in light of certain events here at PeacefulScience, I wonder what sort of issues the metaphysical/epistemological and narrative/text feedback loops might mean for PeacefulScience and the Discovery Institute/I.D.?

1 Like

Well that is an interesting question. What do you think? I observe they have a narrative, and I have a different narrative. They seem beffudled that I’m niether playing the role in thier narrative marked out for me, not am I adopting their narrative. This seems to be as much the source of conflict as and disagreement about the science. In fact it might be even more the source of disagreement that the facts and theory.

As they see it, it seems, I’m supposed to play the biased TE scientists that is unfair to them, and they respond by dismissing me with cause. Excpet I’m not playing that role. I’m reclaiming the term design, affirming my many agreements with them, and giving them a fair hearing. They don’t seem to like this. I’m in a bind because I’m convinced it is the right thing to do. So my actions unsettle their narrative, and tell a different story than that which they are prepared, and we see conflict.

@Philosurfer what do you think? How would work through this?

(In light of the book of course :wink: )