Michael J. Gorman. Inhabiting the Cruciform God

Michael J. Gorman. Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. Eerdmans, 2009. 194 pages.

I really like this new book from Michael Gorman, a Methodist New Testament scholar teaching in a Roman Catholic seminary (the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore). Gorman has been prolific in recent years writing on Paul; this book stands alone but is surely best understood when read in conjunction with others of Gorman’s books, especially Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Eerdmans, 2001).

I am a bit put off by terms such as “cruciformity,” “spirituality,” and “theosis.”  I’m not totally happy with Gorman’s choice to use these words. But the way he uses them and the meaning he gives to them make a lot of sense and are part of an extremely attractive theological reading of Paul.

Gorman writes with great clarity and economy. He’s a scholar well-versed in current Pauline scholarship and the broader theological world–but this book is quite accessible and would probably even work as a text for mid- and upper-level undergrads, and certainly for lower-level seminarians.

He sees Philippians 2 and its affirmation of the centrality of Jesus’ self-giving in its view of God’s involvement in the world as a key element “Paul’s master story.” And at the heart of this story we find a view of God that sees the best understanding of God being one wherein God is self-giving–not simply Jesus.

Along with seeing God as self-giving and vulnerable, Gorman argues strongly for an understanding of Christian faith where the believer identifies so closely with Jesus (and God) that it is most meaningful to think not so much in terms of belief or even following so much as participation, sharing life with–even to the point of sharing in Jesus’ crucifixion (hence, the term “cruciform”).

When we share in God’s self-giving, we share in the life of God– “theosis.” And this takes the form of self-giving love. Gorman’s understanding of God is determined in large part by his understanding of Jesus. And his understanding of Jesus centers on Jesus’ self-giving love described in Philippians 2 and manifested most fundamentally in Jesus’ way of life that led to his crucifixion.

While not as “political” in his reading of Paul as a scholar such as Neil Elliott (see Elliott’s insightful book The Arrogance of the Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire), Gorman takes the social and political implications of Paul’s theology quite seriously (on this point I read Gorman’s approach as lining up closely with N.T. Wright’s, a scholar Gorman uses extensively).

The central “political” message Gorman sees in Paul is the message of nonviolence. His fourth chapter, “‘While We Were Enemies’: Paul, the Resurrection, and the End of Violence,” is a tour de force. Better than anyone I have read, Gorman helps us understand Paul’s own journey from sacred violence as a persecutor of Jesus’ followers to a powerful advocate of the way of peace.

Along with his forceful argument for Paul as a pacifist, Gorman helps us understand Paul’s integration of theology and practice more generally. Paul’s pacifism links inextricably with Paul’s affirmation of Jesus’ divinity–and with Paul’s portrayal of God’s own cruciformity (that is, God’s own nonviolence).

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. It ranks right at the top of an ever-growing list of valuable books on Paul’s theology, especially notable for his clarity, accessibility, and (most of all) for its portrayal of a Paul whose life and thought link him intimately with the Jesus of the gospels and his message of peace.

My only hesitation with this book is Gorman’s use of key terms such as “cruciform” and “theosis.” Before reading this book (and his others) I would have more often associated these words with apolitical and even otherworldly piety and spirituality. Gorman goes a long way toward redeeming this language, but I still wonder if he makes his presentation a little too jargonish and insiderish and less accessible to those who don’t know these words.  If one follows Gorman’s own use of his key terms, though, one will be left with a clear sense of a gospel that fully engages this world we live in, and engages it with a transformative message of peace.

PeaceTheology.net Book Review Index

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