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Saturday Afternoon Book Review: Marcus Maher

Marcus Maher, an M.Div. student who blogs at Zetountes, writes this review on a most important book and an increasing, relational trend in Paul’s soteriology. One thing I hope you observe in this review is his fair-minded description and his charitable approach to disagreement. 


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, hyparchon, 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
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’

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.

Comments read comments(11)
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posted February 20, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Wow, Marcus has hit the big time. =) Don’t forget all us little bloggers…

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Dana Ames

posted February 20, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Nice review.
Gorman’s thought seems to echo Wright’s, where they touch. But the thing that interests me is how much Gorman’s thought seems to echo EOrthodoxy. I would suspect his training, like the vast majority of Protestant scholars, is steeped in the Western tradition, and the reason his ideas seem fresh is because of that Eastern “echo”.

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posted February 20, 2010 at 8:54 pm

This book was difficult for me because of my lack of training, but I really enjoyed studying it, meditating on it and looking up the terms that I did not understand (and then reading it again!). I was in the midst of teaching a Sunday School on the Book of Revelation while I read this, and in trying to explain Gorman’s ideas about faith and co-crucifixion, the language that came to me while addressing the class was that saving faith is not merely faith in a person (Jesus) or the historicity of His saving act (death and resurrection) but faith in His way (the way of the Lamb, as compared to the way of the Beast) such that we choose His way, not just once, but day in and day out. It reminds me of a line from Volf (paraphrased): To preach the comfort of the Crucified but to deny His way is to preach not only cheap grace, but a deceitful ideology.” (Exclusion & Embrace).

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posted February 20, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Hi Peter,
Thanks for the comment. I agree with you (and Gorman) in that we need to avoid preaching cheap grace. It’s done a lot of damage to the church over the years, and I do agree with you in saying that we need to have faith in following Jesus’ way to be saved. That’s a bit different than how I understand Gorman, though. In my opinion (although Gorman might disagree with my assessment of what he wrote), his redefinition of faith as faithfulness conflates faith and works as part of the same reality, where Protestantism has traditionally understood faith as one thing and works as another closely related thing that flows out of faith.

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Mike M

posted February 21, 2010 at 2:12 am

For us non-professionals, is “theosis” the same as “theoformity”? And if not, how are the terms different?

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posted February 21, 2010 at 5:13 am

We’re reading Gorman’s book Apostle of the Crucified Lord for a course on epistles at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary. In his commentary on the various epistles he discusses some of the same issues, such as whether or not we have faith in Christ or it’s the faith of Christ.
Thanks for the thorough review!

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posted February 21, 2010 at 10:09 am

Hi Mike M,
Good question. Yes, theosis and theoformity are the same thing. Theosis is a term mainly utilized in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

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posted February 21, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Tom Tobin raises a question about “faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ” in his commentary on Romans that I wonder if anyone might have thoughts about here. He notes that Jesus is never the “subject” of the verb pisteuo (believe) in any of Paul’s letters, and that it seems odd as a result to try and argue for a “subjective genitive” interpretation of the phrase “pistis christou” (“faith/fulness of Christ”), which assumes that the genitive does in fact function as the subject of the “verbal substantive”. Thoughts?

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Alan K

posted February 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm

The most thorough defense of the subjective genitive in this generation comes from Richard Hays in his monograph “The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11″. In it Hays argues that Paul writes his letters with an assumed story of Jesus Christ, that of Jesus as Israel’s true and faithful Messiah, and that salvation has come to the Galatians because of something Jesus did, not because of something the Galatians believed.
There is a fallacy in Tobin’s rationale that we would have expected Paul to say something along the lines of “Jesus was faithful to God in going to the cross”. Does not the story of Jesus Christ (Hay’s “substructure”) in effect say that very thing? Just because the words are not there does not mean that the idea is not present.

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posted February 23, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Thanks Alan. I understand your point.
I guess in my mind, the alternative argument could just as easily be made. In other words, that same “narrative” ultimately tells the story of a people who must be “faithful” to God, and “believe” his promise through Jesus. I don’t think Tobin, or anyone really, would disagree with the idea that Jesus was faithful to God (in Paul’s mind, that is!). So, on what grounds does one make a decision about pistis christou, then?
When there are equally viable conceptual options (that is, Jesus as faithful, or people who must believe), each of which it seems can be sustained exegetically, perhaps this semantic data should help us discern whether one of the two is more likely to have been Paul’s meaning.

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Alan K

posted February 23, 2010 at 5:41 pm

In determining how the phrase should be read, ultimately the proof is in the pudding. Which reading makes the best sense of the text? And which reading offers the greatest coherence with regards to Paul’s theology? Such questions create academic careers. How one reads Paul will impact whether one believes the conceptual options are “equally viable”.
The strongest defense of the objective genitive reading in the past several years has come from James D. G. Dunn, ?Once More, Pistou Christou,? in E. E. Johnson and David Hay, eds., Pauline Theology Volume IV: Looking Back, Pressing On, pp. 249-271. I should have mentioned this along with Hays’s monograph.
Regarding the semantic data, the matter is complicated by the idiom that Paul uses to speak of Jesus Christ, especially in Romans. Do we see trees, or do we see forest? If we see trees, then we will notice what Tobin notices. If we see forest, then we will see that God-language dominates and that statements about Jesus Christ are framed by larger statements about the righteousness of God.
How do we know what are the right moves exegetically? Again, the proof is in the pudding. If you are really game for Pauline theology then I recommend Douglas Campbell’s new tome “The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul.” In it he covers the difficulties on how to make decisions regarding how one should read and access texts. (BTW, there was a rather interesting exchange between Campbell and Gorman over on Chris Tilling’s blog Chrisendom on November 24, 2009–here

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