I’m in the process of re-reading Michael J. Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. It’s not the coolest name for a book, you know. In fact, it violates every principle of marketing known to man. It has at least four words that few people can even define! And it’s not an easy read.
But … it’s a great book. It’s having a huge influence on how people read Paul and will continue to do so for a very long time. And I agree with nearly all of it. In fact, Gorman explains a lot of things I’ve been trying to say but from different, very helpful angles.
It’s not a book for everyone because it’s written at a very scholarly level with lots of words like “theosis.” But anyone who is serious about their studies in Paul needs to read this one.
In fact, what he says is of huge importance in the contemporary debate between the conservative and progressive elements of the Churches of Christ, and so I want to work through the book carefully — at a less technical level — and show what I believe is the right way to approach Paul’s writings.
“Soteriology” is derived from the Greek soter, meaning savior. Soteriology is the part of theology that focuses on how God saves us. Call it “atonement theology.” Calvin and Arminius disagreed regarding soteriology when they disagreed over TULIP. But the first chapter is not really about soteriology. Rather, it’s about …
We begin with “theosis.” The New Testament teaches that Christians are supposed to become “like God.” We aren’t, of course, to become mini-gods who rule mini-planets. Rather, we are to take on the personality of God.
(Eph 4:22-24) You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
(2 Pet 1:4) Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
What does it mean to “participate in the divine nature”? Also,
(2 Cor 3:18) And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
What does it mean to be in the “likeness” or “image” of the Lord? If we look just like the Lord, does that mean we become mini-lords? What particular characteristics are we to take on?
Gorman, who writes for a scholarly audience, defines “theosis” as —
transformative participation in the kenotic, cruciform character of God through Spirit-enabled conformity to the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected/glorified Christ.
Let me try to unpack this. He is saying that God reveals himself in Jesus. Jesus reveals himself in the cross and in his self-emptying (kenosis) when he left heaven to take on the form of a servant to willingly die on the cross. Therefore, Christians become like God when they become like Jesus — by emptying themselves and becoming humble servants. This can only happen by the transforming power of the Spirit, and the Spirit’s transformation of Christians to be like God demonstrates the reality of their hope to be with God. We’ll consider this in more detail as we go.
Now, this isn’t all that radical until we realize that he is describing God. God! We don’t picture God as an humble, self-emptying servant. But he is, and so we must be the same. And understanding God this way changes everything.
Obviously, the key passage to Gorman’s understanding of theosis (becoming like God) is Phil 2:5-11 —
(Phil 2:5 ESV) Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Gorman offer his own translation, which is similiar but different in some important respects —
5 Cultivate this mind-sent in your community, which is in fact a community in Christ Jesus, who
You see, he considers the “yourselves” to emphasize that the command is not so much about individual spiritual formation as the church being formed in the image of Christ by the individuals being transformed. The community is an essential part of the command. We do this together.
6 Although/because being in the form of God,
did not consider consider his equality with God as something to be exploited for his own advantage,
He makes an extensive and persuasive argument that v. 6 is both “although” being like God and “because” being like God. Jesus did what he did both because he is like God and despite being like God. It’s God nature to surrender what he is entitled to — his nature — out of love.
7 but emptied himself,
Self-emptying is kenosis. It’s the same word you’d use for pouring water out of a pitcher, if a pitcher could pour itself. He poured himself out.
by taking the form of a slave,
The Greek word, doulos, means slave, not servant. First Century slaves had no right to own property or even to marry. Their children were property of their owners. Their owners had the power of life and death, and many slaves were killed by their owners to set an example.
Some people sold themselves into slavery to pay debts. Think of Jesus as having sold himself into slavery to pay our debts.
that is, by being born in the likeness of human beings.
8 And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient
to death —
even death on a cross
Ponder this last part. “Obedient to death” means he obeyed God’s enemy! This is slavery indeed.
And in the Roman world, death on a cross was the greatest shame. Crucifixion was designed not only to torture and kill, but to shame the criminal so that others would not commit the same crimes.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name that above every name
10 that [in fulfillment of Isa 45:23] at Jesus’ name
every knee should bend,
in heaven and
on earth and
under the earth
11 and every tongue acclaim that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Gorman argues that this text is Paul’s “master story.” It’s the idea that permeates everything he writes. I think he’s right. You see, as you read Paul’s writing elsewhere, you are constantly drawn to this passage. Indeed, in my own writings, I’ve repeatedly found this passage helpful to explain a point made by Paul elsewhere.
Now, it’s hard to overstate how shocking it would have been in the Roman world to speak of a god as self-emptying and taking the form of a slave. The Romans had slaves, and the gods were as far removed from slavery as imaginable! And yet Paul tells us that Jesus was a different sort of god altogether.
What is out of character for normal divinity in our misguided perception of the reality of the form of God is actually in character for this form of God. That is, although Christ was in the form of God, which leads us to certain expectations, he subverted and deconstructed those expectations when he emptied and humbled himself, which he did because he was the true form of God.
(emphasis in original). Gorman notes that Calvin saw Christ’s self-emptying as temporarily covering the glory of God’s nature. Gorman says that it reveals God’s nature. And I believe that is plainly true.