Tuesday, August 24, 2010

An Ecumenical Account of Paul's Soteriology

Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul's Narrative SoteriologyOne of the most significant problems of the theology to come out of the reformation is the separation between soteriology (theology of salvation) and ethics. If salvation is by grace alone and there is no human participation, then how does the gospel make any claim on how believers live? Or to put it another way, if God saves us completely apart from anything we do then how does salvation change lives or does it? The result of this sort of thinking is that salvation becomes an individual assent to the belief that humans really are so bad off and subsequently that they need to trust Jesus' goodness to save them. This "trust" or "faith" is little more than believing Jesus will tell God that the believer is righteous at the final judgment, even though the believer is not actually righteous‒a legal fiction. After Luther and Melanchthon, the meaning of "justification by faith" (JF) has often been put in these terms. 

Recently, there has been a trend in NT scholarship and biblical theology to correct this sharp dichotomy between faith and works and thus reclaim the gospel as Paul preached it‒emphasizing salvation as God's work of grace empowering believers to actually become holy and righteous. Michael J. Gorman, in his most recent book Inhabiting the Cruciform God, offers an excellent contribution to Pauline theology in this vein. In four concise chapters Gorman unpacks Paul's soteriology as essentially "theosis," which he defines as "transformative participation in the kenotic, cruciform character of God through Spirit-enabled conformity to the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected/glorified Christ" (7). Yeah, it's a mouthful. Gorman's definition is based on his exegesis of Paul and described in terms of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The concept of theosis is borrowed from Eastern Church fathers like Irenaeus and Athanasius (click here to learn more about theosis from Orthodox Christians). Through sound exegesis and incorporating a neglected theological trajectory in western NT scholarship, Gorman brings much needed correction and clarity to Paul's soteriology.

In his first chapter Gorman analyzes the theological significance of one of Paul's most famous passages (Phil 2.6-11). He argues that Philippians 2.6-11, "Paul's master story, is (in part) about the counterintuitive, essentially kenotic ‒ or cruciform ‒ character of God" (10). He finds a narrative pattern of "Although [x] not [y] but [z]" which is played out in Phil 2.6-8 as "Although God [x] Jesus did not exploit his status [y] but rather emptied [z1] and humbled [z2] himself" (16‒7). Not only does Gorman see this narrative pattern in Philippians 2, but he also finds it at work other Christological texts (2 Cor 8.9; Rom 15.1-3), autobiographical apostolic texts (1 Thess 2.6-8; 1 Cor 9.1-23; 2 Cor 12.15) and ethical hortatory (Gorman does not cite any examples here but I would include Rom 12.1-2; 14.13-19; 1 Cor 8.1-13; 2 Cor 5.16-21; among others). Gorman finds in this short passage the narrative pattern that Jesus exhibited, Paul followed and is now normative for Christians to follow as well. According to Gorman Phil 2.6-11 is a text that redefines the vision of God as essentially self-emptying or kenotic. This vision of God dramatically reshapes what it means to follow him. The new shape of God's identity is that of a cross, thus Pauline theosis is "cruciformity"‒ conformity to the cross.

Gorman's second chapter is by far the most ambitious and unsurprisingly his longest (pgs 40‒104). He attempts to show that "for Paul justification is an experience of participating in Christ's resurrection life that is effected by co-crucifixion with him" (40). Gorman recognizes "it may appear presumptuous to attempt, in one chapter, to address two (or perhaps even three) of the most controverted topics in current discussion of Pauline (and indeed Christian) theology ‒ Paul's understanding and experience of justification" (45‒6). Still, he attempts to provide an overview of justification as participation or "co-crucifixion" that unites forensic and participationist soteriological models (cf. 42‒5). His attempt is quite impressive.

To find a satisfactory reading of these usually separate models Gorman first identifies the demands of the covenant and the problem of sin (48‒51). Basically, he argues that there is both a vertical (human to God) and a horizontal (human to human) aspect to the covenant and sin is a distortion of each. Sin is both a power from which people need liberation (Rom 3.9, 24; 6.7; Gal 3.22) and culpable action for which people need forgiveness (Rom 1.18-32; 3.10-18, 25). Paul's cruciform soteriology addresses both needs (Rom 3.21-26). So Gorman defines justification as "the establishment or restoration of right covenantal relations ‒ fidelity to God and love for neighbor ‒ with the certain hope of acquittal/vindication on the day of judgment" (53). The covenant requires faithfulness to God (vertically) and love for others (horizontally). Justification restores both elements in the work of Christ unto the end of eschatological salvation. In this reading, and I think Gorman is right on here, Jesus' death is the "quintessential covenant act" (57) which "simultaneously manifests both vertical and horizontal covenant-keeping" (58) demonstrating faithfulness to God and love toward humanity. Forensically, the covenant is keep in Christ's act on the cross and in a participatory sense Christians are justified by Christ's action at work in them.

Appropriating justification comes by faith. Here Gorman draws significantly from participationist soteriology. He defines faith as "co-crucifixion with Christ; faith is a death experience" (63; cf. 67). It is "through participation in Christ's quintessential act of covenant-keeping" that justification occurs (63). This participationist reading of justification is exemplified in two passages specifically (Gal 2.15-21; Rom 6.1-7.6). In these two texts justification is explicitly linked with co-crucifixion (systauroƍ) "as connected aspects of the same reality" (64). Summarily, Paul modifies "justification" with "by faith" and Gorman argues that this "faith," according to Paul, "is an intimate identification with Christ's unified act of fidelity and love" (80). This leaves no room for a legal fiction that says sinners are "justified" apart from participation in the death of Christ. Faith, as Paul describes it, requires participation in Jesus' death. In his next chapter, Gorman attempts to show how "holiness," as Paul defines it, gives content to what participation in the death of Jesus looks like.

Having established that Pauline justification is both forensic and participatory Gorman goes on to suggest that "holiness" must also be defined by Paul's gospel. For Gorman this has two meanings. First, Jesus as the crucified/resurrected Messiah is the fullest and final revelation of the Father's holiness. Second, those who are justified by Jesus are enabled to be holy by the power of the Holy Spirit. Gorman shows that holiness is defined chiefly as becoming like Christ and is a major theme in Paul's letters (107‒23). This holiness is, like justification, about participation in the death of Jesus. "Paul's notion of holiness challenges privatistic, self-centered, therapeutic, and sectarian notions of holiness" for "cruciform holiness is inherently other-centered and communal" (126). It challenges selfish sexuality and imperial politics (127‒28) two exemplary instances of unholiness. According to Gorman, justification and holiness are two sides of the same soteriological coin.

Gorman's fourth chapter shows that nonviolence is a central feature of Paul's gospel not an ethical aside. Gorman writes against the work of John G. Gager who suggests that Paul was a violent person and his writings continue to inspire violence among his readers. Gorman agrees that Paul was quite violent before his conversion to Christ (131‒37). He parts from Gager's reading of Paul by observing Paul's radical transformation to an ethic of nonviolence after Damascus. This, Gorman suggests, clearly demonstrates that Paul saw violence as fundamentally anti-gospel. The crucial change in Paul's thought occurred as he took seriously the resurrection. "The resurrection means that the mode of Jesus' salvation [that is cruciformity] has been vindicated by God as the way of true salvation, and the violent modes of ethnic cleansing, imperial domination, and the like are pseudo-soteriologies" (139). The cross which was once an affront which Paul thought needed eradication becomes in the resurrection the means of justification and thus salvation both now and in the future.

The strengths of Gorman's book are numerous. His work is a fine example of how to blend exegesis and theology. Gorman is not satisfied to ask just what a text might have meant, but neither will he do his theology without spending lots of time tracing Paul's arguments. The exegetical approach of the book is broad. Gorman appreciates the nuances of socio-political allusions in Paul's writing as well as his theology as an existential reality not a systematic thought-construct. Gorman's appeal to Theosis and the Eastern Church tradition is a welcome ecumenical approach that might be a helpful guide in brining unity to the Church. It is almost laughable that Gorman is a Methodist teaching at a Catholic institution and drawing heavily from the Orthodox tradition. It might be laughable if the result were not so compelling. Gorman consistently shows how Paul's gospel, rightly understood, speaks as much to the contemporary world as it did to the ancient. These strengths make Gorman's book a must read for those wrestling with how to explain Paul's account of salvation. It will prove especially helpful for those who have been dissatisfied with an anemic gospel that promises the hope of future salvation without the power of present transformation.

Unlike this review, Gorman's book is short. Brevity is both a strength and a weakness. Gorman's small book packs a punch. He does more in a mere 173 pages than most do with 300. Yet, the weakness of this shorter work is that it leaves more to be desired in addressing some specifics. Likely one of the critiques of Gorman's thesis is that he collapses separate theological concepts into his one idea of theosis. One could accuse him of overloading "faith" to mean more than Paul does (an accusation Gorman is keenly aware of, but I think fails to fully address 84‒5). Gorman will no doubt face criticism from a growing movement of scholars who suggest that Paul's Christology was not as "high" as he suggests it is in Philippians 2 (i.e. Dunn and McGrath). On the other side of the spectrum, he will face accusations of a "works-based" soteriology for suggesting that Paul thought that justification actually required human participation (reformed folks like Carson and Seifrid). Despite these criticisms, some more valid than others, Gorman's book deserves careful attention in pointing the way forward in Pauline theology.


Michael J. Gorman said...


Thanks for a full and fair summary and critique of my work. It is satisfying to see it given such careful attention. I hope both the book and your review will stimulate more conversation.

Jeff Hallett said...

"Justification and holiness are two sides of the same soteriological coin" Very well said. So many Biblical truths are debated vigorously for that very reason. We are debating different sides of the same coin. It is not surprising that spiritual reality would be like that, and that we as mortals trapped in this space and time have difficulty seeing both sides at the same time.