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Book Review: Inhabiting the Cruciform God

This book review was previously published at Jesus Creed

Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul's Narrative Soteriology is a very provocative work from the pen of Michael Gorman. Over the span of the book he unpacks two major ideas, justification by co-crucifixion (JCC) and that cruciformity is theosis (becoming like God).

In his introduction, Gorman presents his main claim, that cruciformity is theoformity (2) and alerts us to the path that he will take in support. Along the way he begins to lay the groundwork by stressing the importance of ‘participation in Christ’ for Paul (3-7) and giving it a new twist. ‘For Paul, to be one with Christ is to be one with God; to be like Christ is to be like God; to be in Christ is to be in God’ (4). At the end of the introduction, Gorman gives his full definition of theosis, ‘Theosis is transformative participation in the kenotic, cruciform character of God through Spirit-enabled conformity to the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected/glorified Christ’ (7).

The first main chapter is a detailed analysis of Philippians 2:6-11, the hymn that Gorman calls, ‘Paul’s master story’ (12). He makes a key observation when discussing verses 6-8, noting an ‘although x, not y, but z,’ pattern. Although Jesus was God (in status) he did not exploit that status, instead he emptied and humbled himself (11, 16-20). The next move Gorman makes is very interesting. He analyzes the Greek word, hyparch┼Źn, translated ‘although,’ and concludes that while lexically ‘although’ seems to be the best translation, it also carries ‘because’ as part of its meaning (20-25). Thus, the pattern Gorman identified earlier, ‘although x, not y, but z can also be rendered, ‘because x, not y, but z.’ Because Jesus was God he did not use his status for his own advantage, but emptied and humbled himself. Jesus’ emptying and humiliation, including his death on the cross, revealed what it means for Jesus to be God. It was the way in which Jesus most truly and fully exercised what it meant for him to be equal with God, turning the normal notion of divinity on its head (25). Gorman claims, that, far from being an emptying of divinity, the incarnation and the cross show us that the core attribute of God is humble self-giving. Another important claim of Gorman’s is the popular one, that Paul expresses his gospel in counter-imperial terms, that calling Jesus ‘Lord’ was in direct opposition to Caesar’s claim to be ‘Lord.’(12, 15).

Towards the end of the chapter, Gorman provides some reflections on the theological implications of his conclusions. Key for him is that theology and ethics are inseparable. Our union with God will cause us to reflect his cruciform character in the way we relate to the world, and not as isolated individuals but as the collective people of God. Gorman claims that this will cause us to reject the normal means to power, and to recognize that the normal god of civil religion, combining power and patriotism, is an idol (32-33). True power is power in weakness (34). We most fully conform to the image of God when we too are counter-imperial, being humble in a world, ‘where power is manifested in self-assertion, acquisition, and domination’ (37).

In the second chapter, which is more than a third of the book, Gorman provides us with his understanding of the doctrine of justification. He names his proposal justification by co-crucifixion (JCC). The doctrine of justification has been a source of contention throughout the last several centuries. Gorman attributes this in part because some have, ‘become enamored with cheap justification…justification without justice, faith without love, declaration without transformation’ (41). Gorman sets out to correct this. Part of the source of the problem is that many see two distinct soteriological models in Paul; one a juridicial model, and the other participationist (42). Before moving into this detailed analysis, on pages 45 through 47 he provides us with a summary of his methodology:

· We must let Paul, himself, define his key theological terms

· We need to connect the dots of Paul’s thinking, even if he didn’t

· While Paul’s writings may be filled with antithesis, we have to avoid making false either/ors

· We need to recognize the experiential character of Paul’s theology

· We should try to balance careful exegesis of the text while still attending to the bigger picture.

Working from this methodology, Gorman defines justification as, ‘the establishment or restoration of right covenantal relations – fidelity to God and love for neighbor – with certain hope of acquittal/vindication on the day of judgment’ (53 – emphasis his). Thus, for Gorman, justification is theological, covenantal, juridicial, and eschatological (54). The just are those who are vindicated as being part of God’s covenant people, being in Christ (54). Gorman defends a strong covenantal understanding of justification by appealing to Romans 5:1-11 and 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 and concludes that, for Paul, justification:

· Has Christ’s death as its objective basis

· Requires a subjective response, namely pistis or faith

· Has substantive content which include reconciliation, participation, and transformation (56-57)

In the next section Gorman tackles the meaning of pistis. Like a growing number of scholars, Gorman understands pistis Christou as subjective genitive, meaning ‘the faithfulness of Christ’ rather than as an objective genitive, ‘faith in Christ.’ As an example, Gorman translates Galatians 2:20 as, ‘and it is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I know live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me by giving himself for me’ (60). This distinction is very significant as it opens up a covenantal understanding of justification. ‘Christ’s death on the cross…was a unified act of vertical and horizontal covenant fulfillment, of love for God and for neighbor’ (61). Thus Christ’s death is not substitutionary only; it’s a covenantal act that expresses love through an act of faithfulness (62).

Gorman moves on, then, to tackle a key passage for his understanding of justification, Galatians 2:15-21. The key question related to this text, is how 2:19-20 fits into the flow of 2:15-21. He believes that Paul is redefining justification, that we are justified not by law keeping but by faith, by co-crucifixion (64-69). Our justification is not wrought by us and it is participatory. Co-crucifixion is not a one-time act, either, it is an ongoing death that allows us to live for God, which means that our justification is not forensic only; it is also transformative. We enter the covenant by co-crucifixion, and we stay in the covenant by co-crucifixion (70-72).

There’s one additional distinction that we should make. Gorman does not see us proleptically on the cross when Jesus died. Rather, ‘it is the resurrected crucified Christ with whom believers are initially and continually crucified’ (71 – emphasis his). Here he ties this material back to chapter one. Since Christ is by nature cruciform, indwelling him means being continually cruciform ourselves.

The other passage that Gorman deals with at length in this chapter is Romans 6:1-7:6. Typically scholars have seen Romans 5-8 as discussing the consequences of justification. Not so Gorman; he thinks that Paul is defining justification in these chapters (73). Much of what Gorman goes on to do in the ensuing pages is to rehash and further develop material similar to what we have previously discussed. At the end of the section he does draw out one important implication of his view: baptism, justification, and sanctification are coterminous (79).

In the remaining portion of the chapter Gorman fleshes out his concept of faith, situates his proposal within the current debates surrounding justification and offers some practical reflections. One point of interest is that he expands the typical Protestant understanding of faith to include faithfulness toward God. To be faithful toward God includes trust and also love for others (79-80). Gorman clarifies, though, that, ‘this interpretation of faith is not about merit, or “salvation by works,” but about what actually constitutes participation in Christ’s loving and faithful death’ (80). Additionally, Gorman rejects the doctrine of imputation as a legal fiction and sees texts used to support imputation as participatory rather than transactional (82-83). In his conclusion he states that he sees justification as a performative utterance, ‘an effective word that does not return void but effects transformation’ (101).

In chapter 3, Gorman discusses holiness. There are two major grounds for Gorman’s understanding of holiness. One is that the crucifixion reveals the cruciform character of God and the second is that we are called to be holy through our co-crucifixion with Christ (106). Thus holiness is about theosis, which is cruciform in nature. Gorman notices that Paul was preoccupied with holiness and he believes this is so because Paul did not see justification and sanctification as being separate as most Protestants do (107-111). ‘Holiness is not a supplement to justification but its actualization’ (111), and it is the work of the Spirit to bring about holiness in us (114-118). A key point that Gorman makes throughout the book is that Christianity is communal. We are united in Christ together. Thus since holiness is cruciformity, it is not a solo pursuit. ‘Cruciform holiness is inherently other centered and communal’ (126). Gorman closes the chapter by challenging us that, as we live a cruciform existence that is by definition countercultural, among other things our sex lives and political lives should look radically different than those of the world (126). Sex and politics should be all about self-giving, not exercises in power (127-128).

The last main chapter deals with a major objection that some might have. Can theosis incorporate violence and make it sacred violence (129)? Unfortunately, that has been attempted far too often in the history of the church. Gorman takes an interesting angle in the way he deals with the problem. He looks at the conversion of Paul. Before his conversion, Paul was a violent religious zealot as a Jew (130-137). It was the way he pursued the holiness of Israel, a la Phineas (134-137). After Paul’s conversion, he renounced his former violent ways, because he saw that God’s work on the cross was a work of love in which he died for his enemies rather than killing them (143-145). At this point, though, the objection still may remain that the cross was still a violent event and we have all of this language referring to God’s judgment and his wrath in Paul’s letters. Here Gorman provides a helpful qualification, that while God’s cruciform character ‘does in fact express the divine identity it does not exhaust it’ (158 – emphasis his). God can and will judge his enemies, but is not a role that we can take on.

In his concluding chapter, Gorman addresses eschatology and makes some concluding observations. Philippians 2 shows that the Christ story is two stage, humiliation and exultation (167). Our theosis is similarly two stage; ‘Full and total participation in the glory of God still awaits us’ (167). On the other hand, we still, through the Spirit, participate in and experience the power of the life of the risen Christ in part here and now (167). Gorman closes the book by giving us, with some hesitation, his final conclusion, ‘theosis is the center of Paul’s theology’ (171).

There are several bases on which to praise Inhabiting the Cruciform God. One of Gorman’s biggest strengths is his ability to synthesize. While I do not know if I am convinced that theosis is the center of Paul’s theology, the question of which is one of the thorniest issues in Pauline scholarship, I do think that his suggestion has a major strength in that it ties together both the doctrinal and ethical sections of Paul’s letters. It even provides an avenue for incorporating, in a significant manner, a letter such as Philemon into a discussion of Pauline theology.

Additionally, I think he’s barking up the right tree in attempting to hold together both participationist and juridicial sotereological models. Too much theology has emphasized one to the detriment of the other. Any way forward in the debates surrounding justification must make sense of both categories.

I also appreciated Gorman’s eye for the practical. The first chapter, discussing Philippians 2:6-11 in particular was very helpful. It opened up my understanding of the character of God by showing that at his core God is self giving. I appreciated how he then took time to open up some of the practical implications of his suggested reading of the Philippians passage. He has an eye to the church and wants to see people be cruciform like God is cruciform. It is always refreshing to see top rate scholarship combined with deep concern for God’s people.

There was one main element of Gorman’s argument concerning Galatians 2:15-21, which is one of the main hinges of the book, that I found less than convincing and thus that needs to be defended more thoroughly. The question is whether or not it is correct to claim that we are justified by co-crucifixion. I pause on this point because it is so crucial to his overall argument. For, Gorman then uses this idea in a very neat equation. We are justified by faith and we are justified by co-crucifixion, ergo faith is co-crucifixion. From there he redefines pistis to mean ‘faithfulness’ instead of the more traditional rendering, ‘faith.’ I think that there may be other ways of understanding how 2:19-20 work without downplaying their role in Paul’s overall argument. It may equally be that Paul was using the term ‘righteousness/justification’ in 2:19-20 in an ethical sense, where in the prior verses he used them in a judicial sense. Then Paul’s use of ‘righteousness/justification’ in vs. 21 could be understood as being used to incorporate both meanings of righteousness (see e.g., Longenecker’s commentary 94-95). Thus it may not be totally accurate to equate faith and co-crucifixion, they may be two distinct aspects of a larger reality, where the latter flows out of the former. With that said, Gorman’s reading is possible and very well may be correct; I just think that given the novelty of his position and how critical this element is to the overall argument of the book that it could have been discussed at greater length. If he’s correct here, though, it would be a monumental leap forward in our understanding of Pauline soteriology.

On top of my question as to whether or not we are justified by co-crucifixion, I have one theological concern with this redefinition. From a reformed perspective this seems to emphasize our role in justification a bit too strongly. While he does try to distance himself from the charge of promoting justification by faith and works, I’m not sure if he is successful. Obviously one’s theological framework is not the final arbiter. I merely mention this for the benefit of those readers who too work out of a reformed framework as I do. Additionally, this view leads to a fusion of justification and sanctification that may be, in my opinion, unnecessary.

I also wish that Gorman had discussed at greater length why he does not hold to the doctrine of imputation. It is quickly dismissed as a legal fiction. A longer argument would have seemed to have been in order, or at least appreciated, again for the benefit of his reformed readers.

Overall Inhabiting the Cruciform God was an excellent book. Students and scholars will benefit from the freshness and the scope of Gorman’s proposal, while pastors will appreciate the practical challenges and deep concern for proper theology. Rare is it than one can write a book that hits two distinct audiences so squarely. Gorman has done us all a great service in writing this book, and hopefully he will continue to expand the lines of thought that he developed in these pages.


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