Michael J. Gorman. Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2009. $24.00 pap. Xi + 194 pp. ISBN 978-0-8028-6265-5
While staunch defenders of the Reformation and equally outspoken proponents of the so-called new perspective on Paul garner much of the attention in Pauline studies these days, Michael Gorman, an evangelical professor of Sacred Scripture and dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, is quietly making repeated, solid contributions to this debate that combine the best of old and new looks. Already his previous works, especially Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters (Eerdmans, 2004) and Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Eerdmans, 2001), have demonstrated both his command of Paul and his ability to chart a sensible via media in the often polarized discussions of Paul’s thought.
Although Gorman’s latest book is not a large one, it is tightly packed with rich and rewarding treatments of the interconnectedness of key themes in Pauline soteriology. Gorman’s four main chapters make his case in four discrete stages. First, Philippians 2:6-11 shows that Christ’s self-emptying or kenosis reveals the character of God. Believers do not merely imitate Jesus in this self-giving but actually participate in it via their co-crucifixion with Christ and their co-resurrection with him to perfect humanity, partially realized in the present and fully in the life to come. Because this Christlikeness is also Godlikeness, and because we actually participate with Christ in this process, the concept of theosis (deification or divinization) may properly be applied to the Christian’s experience at this juncture.
Second, Galatians 2:15-21 and Romans 6:1-7:6 demonstrate “that justification is by co-crucifixion; it is participation in the covenantal and cruciform narrative identity of Christ, which is in turn the character of God; thus justification is itself theosis” (p. 2). Gorman clearly eschews any criticism of substitutionary atonement, fashionable in various branches of Pauline studies today. He simply stresses the need to encapsulate this heart of the Reformers’ emphasis in the broader frameworks in which Paul places it: justification is both forensic and participatory. Thus Galatians 2:20 makes it clear that justification is not merely the legal declaration of a sinner’s acquittal because of Christ’s imputed righteousness, but the actual death of the believer to living by the Law. Justification and sanctification, therefore, begin to merge. Through the Spirit, justified believers are of necessity morally transformed, to some degree, over time, already in this life (see esp. Rom. 6:1-6). Indeed, “in Pauline theological forensics, God’s declaration of ‘justified!’ now is a ‘performative utterance,’ an effective word that does not return void but effects transformation” (p. 101). This transformation changes our relationships with both God and believers. The double love command sums up the ethics of Paul just as much as it does explicitly for those of Jesus (Mark 12:28-33 pars.), even if it never appears in that form in so many words in the writings of the apostle to the Gentiles. And enacting divine love can never be separated from pursuing his justice, so no one need fear that this focus on love works against the struggle for justice in our world.
Third, Paul the Jew knows well God’s call to be holy as he is holy (Lev. 19:1). To be holy, therefore, is to be Godlike. But Paul stresses our recreation in the image of God, just as Christ is the perfect image of God, in righteousness and holiness (cf. Col. 3:10 and Eph. 4:24), through the power of the Spirit (see esp. 2 Cor. 3:7-4:6). As we are increasingly conformed to Christ’s moral likeness, then, our justification becomes our theosis. Little wonder, then, that Paul regularly calls us “saints” (“holy ones”) or that sanctification is a central theme particularly in 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Philippians. Nor is this merely individual growth in being like God, it is also corporate as the church becomes what it was called to be.
Finally, moving to what is conventionally distinguished as the ethical realm but which Gorman’s study argues cannot really be so separated, co-crucifixion with Christ (which equals justification, which equals holiness and therefore sanctification as well, and which equals theosis), means a commitment to non-violent living. We may as believers have to absorb violence as both Jesus and Paul did. We may stand for things with great ardor as both men did. But Paul’s murderous, Phineas-like zeal , which was transformed when he became a Christian into passionate but cruciform living, should play no role in the believer’s life. We may at times have to exclude others who will not respond to church discipline (1 Cor. 5:1-5) but it dare not involve violence. And precisely because God has guaranteed his perfectly holy wrath to be poured out on Judgment Day on those outside his community of saints who finally refuse his loving overtures, we do not have to take vengeance into our own hands.
There are a number of places where important questions remain for Gorman’s views. Given the ease with which Western readers unfamiliar with all of the historic nuances of “theosis” can assume it means becoming godlike in ways that would compromise his sovereignty and lordship, it is not at all clear how “not to use such a word “would mean seriously misrepresenting what is at the core of Paul’s theology” (p. 8). Key theological terms can always be explained in other words when the terms themselves may mislead. Gorman’s notion that “being (in the form of God)” is a causal rather than (or in addition to) a concessive participle in Philippians 2:6 seems unlikely. Romans 5:1-11 rather clearly presents reconciliation as a key result of justification, not as synonymous with it. The view that pistis Christou is a subjective genitive (“the faithfulness of Christ”), though currently fashionable, is grammatically tortuous, and Gorman’s case doesn’t depend on it anyway. Unless Gorman wishes to obliterate every distinction between believers’ theosis and Christ’s role in the Godhead, it is not enough to point to our co-crucifixion with Christ to solve the thorny debates that swirl around pacifism. What may have been necessary to atone for the sins of the world, which we cannot emulate or replicate, may not be the path to which the believer is called in every conceivable context. Romans 1:17 and 18 pair the revelation of God’s righteousness and his wrath in the framework of the New Testament’s famous “already but not yet” timetable. If believers participate, in part in the present, in the revelation of God’s righteousness they may well at times have to participate in his wrath. But Gorman’s excess, if it is that, is still far preferable to our all-too-common trigger-happy American civil religion! Many evangelicals quote Romans 13:1-7 far too glibly and without exegetical sophistication; still it is striking that Gorman does not treat it at all in his chapter on non-violence (and only once in passing elsewhere).
It would be a pity if any or all of these caveats would ward anyone off from wrestling in detail with Gorman’s proposals and from appreciating the many strengths of his main points in each chapter. It may well be that this particular combination of emphases and the language used to unpack them serves Gorman best in the context of an ecumenical institute in a largely Roman Catholic context . Other contexts may require slightly different emphases and terminology. But whenever believers of any stripe lose sight of and stray from the fundamentally cruciform lifestyle that is at the heart of true Christian practice, precisely because it is at the heart of the divine behavior disclosed in Jesus, they stray from genuine Christianity.
Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament