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Volume 1/Issue 2/August 2015
Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission

Book Review

Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission

Michael J Gorman, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015. 305pp.

Michael Gorman, Raymond E. Brown Chair in Biblical Studies and Theology at St. Mary’s Semi- nary, has now completed his “accidental trilogy.” The trilogy began with Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross in 2001, before continuing with Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology in 2009. Along the way, in addition to numerous articles, Gorman has contributed Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters, a major study of the Pauline corpus. Becoming the Gospel is well served by this prior work, which enables Gorman to make a variety of important exegetical and theological moves with simplicity and in short compass. The thesis of these 1500 pages on Paul, and again the central claim of Becoming the Gospel, is that “Paul wanted the communities he addressed not merely to believe the gospel but to become the gospel, and in so doing to participate in the very life and mission of God” (2, emphasis original).

The book begins with an “Invitation” to mission and participation. Here Gorman’s twin concerns, represented by the Gospel and Our Culture Network for whom he writes, move immediately to the forefront. The first concern is theological, and takes as its focus who God is and what He is up to in the world. This is the gospel. The second concern is pastoral, and deals with the transforming effect of the gospel. This is becoming. Of course, these two are intimately connected because what God is up to in the world is the transformation (new creation) not just of His people, but of the entire created order. Therefore, and this is the reason for the subtitle, as we believe the gospel and become the gospel, we participate, by virtue of this transformation, in the advance of the gospel. As we are joined to God, we join God in His mission in the world. “One of the primary contentions of this book is the inseparability of the church’s life together and its activity, or witness, in the world” (18).

Chapter One moves to answer the gospel question: what is God’s global mission? “For Paul the answer to that question is clear: to bring salvation to the world” (23). What then is salvation? Here Gorman’s language diversifies rapidly. Salvation is pictured as transformation, as new creation, as liberation, as justification and reconciliation. (The reader wonders whether Stephen Westerholm’s caution regarding justification might apply; “we confuse rather than clarify what Paul has to say about justification when we try to include, in the meaning of this term, other sides of his thought” [Justification Reconsidered, viii].)

Nevertheless, the “umbrella” under which Gorman gathers these biblical images of salvation is “participation” (25). The defining concern in this participation is that the church live as an exegesis of the gospel (43). To put it negatively, his aim is to break down the distinctions between “pastoral” (or the church being) and “missional” (or the church acting) that plague the Western church. Gorman is saying more here than the important claim that our mission(s) is a natural and necessary consequence of our salvation. In making participation the dominant image, his claim is that in the gospel, “benefitting [being] and participating [acting] are inseparable, even synonymous, realities” (34). We are as saved as we are engaged in God’s saving mission. The remainder of the chapter is giv- en to seven features Gorman discerns in Paul’s letters that highlight the centrality of participation. Having shifted the question from “what is God up to” (salvation), to asking “how will He bring it about” (our becoming the gospel), chapter two serves as the methodological nerve center for the book. Here Gorman presents us with the hermeneutic required for “reading Paul missionally” and thus answering the “how” question. The lens brought to the text by this subset of the theological interpretation of Scripture, is “how did Paul expect his communities to participate in the missio Dei” (58)? This missional hermeneutic rests on significant presuppositions such as the existence of a missio Dei, the divine intention for His people to participate with Him in it, and the confidence that Scripture not only calls but equips original and contemporary audiences to engage it. Whatever exegetical quibbles may come as this hermeneutic is put into practice, the five questions Gorman suggests a missional hermeneutic will ask of the biblical text are worth significant reflection (56).

The remaining six chapters are the strong point of the book, tracing the call to become the gospel, or to participate in God’s mission, across most of the undisputed letters (Galatians lacks a discrete chapter). In I Thessalonians, the focus falls on the Pauline virtues of faith(fulness), hope and love. In Philippians, Paul’s “master-story” of Christ emptying himself for the sake of embodied service is examined. Following a chapter on the OT background of “peace” in Paul more generally, the chapter on Ephesians traces the way the church embodies the work of Christ the peacemaker. 1 and 2 Corinthians present us with “justice” or “saving justice” or “make just” as the biblically and missionally preferable translation of all dik- cognates. The book ends with a treatment of Romans that returns in a focused way to the concept of theosis (or participation) with which the book began. Gorman’s aim in each of these chapters to demonstrate how the gospel virtue under discussion not only issues in but is experienced in mission. Our participation in God’s saving mission is bound up, essentially and experientially, with our reception of His saving benefits.

There is much to celebrate about this book. It is rare to find a study that combines a recovery of theosis/deification language and the experiential implications of the kingdom of God having broken into the world (the “already”), with a sober-minded expectation that we will suffer as we partici- pate in Christ’s cruciform mission. In a needed and devastating move, Gorman takes the biblical expectation that our faithful witness to Christ will provoke suffering and puts it as a question to the un-suffering church in the West. This kind of balanced eschatological vision provides the book with spiritual vitality.

Additionally, Gorman provides a real service by insisting that we take missions out of a line-item in our budget, and take the holy out of its huddle, and place the church on mission in the world. Because of how quickly personal and regional concerns can dominate the horizon of our vision, we cannot hear too often that God is on a mission that is cosmic in scope, and that He means to use us (a “gospel-ized” us) to do it. Though he admits that a perfect pairing is difficult to discover, Gorman is to be thanked in this regard for his hard work at finding words that capture this internal/external, pastoral/missional, centrifugal/centripetal, being/act dynamic. Allowing the gospel to continually have its way in us is surely the way to honor God in our whole life, as well as to integrity and power in our evangelism.

Third, this book is a refreshing example of how to write around the ruts. Gorman’s writing is not only clear and filled with evident conviction, he also refuses to be cornered by interpretive “bina- ries.” For example, in his chapter on Philippians, he suggests that the way through the epechontes (hold fast vs. hold out the gospel) controversy is to realize that the church would not need to hold fast to the gospel in the face of social pressure unless it had first held it forth in cruciform witness! Likewise, in treating justification in his chapter on Corinthians, he transcends the way of thinking about justification that characterizes both the OPP and the NPP, opting for a “more robust [under- standing]...that is both participatory and transformative” (221). This kind of exegetically responsi- ble creativity makes the book a compelling read.

With all of its strengths, and with all of the important challenges we should heed, there are several questions that remain about the book as it stands. Though these seem to characterize Gorman’s earlier writing as well, it is still best to phrase these as “issues in need of further clarification” rather than out-and-out disagreement. Nevertheless, because these issues are central to our understanding of the very gospel Gorman wants us to serve, creativity cannot be allowed to substitute for a lack of clarity.

Gorman rightly calls us to “broaden” our understanding of salvation so that it extends beyond the “privatistic” concept of the forgiveness of sins. He assures that this “more robust understanding of the gospel radically alters everything without losing the message of forgiveness and eternal life” (298). Yet, as we look around the book, this message has almost entirely disappeared. The language of the wrath of God as the wages of sin, of our need for propitiation, of our hope in the passive and active obedience of Christ, is all linked with the Old Perspective and muted as “the mere verdict of acquittal for an individual sinner” (221). Words like “merely” and “simply” jar against the reality of a sinner escaping the eternal horror his unrighteousness has merited. One hears the ghost of Anselm rise up at this point and question whether we have yet considered the seriousness of our sin.

This “radical” change Gorman attempts is just that, a relocation of the roots of our salvation. This relocation is not in terms of how we are saved (Gorman is clear that salvation is by faith in Christ). Rather, it is a relocation of what happens when we are saved, and all that follows from this salva- tion. The Old Perspective is equipped to explain how a believer takes up the charge (or lays down his life) for the sake of the gospel in terms of a foundational indicative giving rise to a functional imperative. That is to say, the root of justification (or positional sanctification) will and must bear the fruit of (progressive) sanctification. Gorman, however, explicitly rejects this idea of a “cause and consequence” in his insistence on the inseparability (even identity) of justification and justice (239). Rather than allowing a forensic root to bring forth moral fruit, he conflates justification with ethical transformation (“justification as inclusive of transformation” 8, or “each is part of the oth- er” 239). This change in behavior, therefore, rather than drawing on the resource of our changed relationship with God, seems to have become the gospel. It is, at least, what we have become as we“become the gospel.”

What we have suffered, then, in the language of “becoming the gospel” is the loss of progressive sanctification. This loss requires Gorman to leap over the life-long struggle of the “now” and the “not yet” and call for a degree of participation in God (embodying His kingdom) that does not easily square with the reality of suffering he holds up elsewhere. In wanting to preserve their inseparability, he has pushed act (being made like Christ) too far into being (being declared righteous), and so now pushes the eschatological fullness of our being (deification) too far forward into the inseparable, but nevertheless not-yet, reality of Spirit-empowered sanctification.

Additionally, this language of “becoming the gospel,” seems to leave little room for the gospel to remain the proclamation of historical, external events that continue to confront us, norm us, and fill our mouths with a message of hope. Gorman insists that there remains a place for “telling” the gospel, though his emphasis falls on being and doing (44). This is a needed emphasis and fair enough. Nevertheless, the vision he sketches must accommodate the telling. Where, in the talk about a living exegesis does the call to herald, or steward, or guard the gospel fit in? Having been so closely identified with the gospel, how can we continue to speak like Paul in 2 Cor. 4:5, “we preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord”? Where, in the emphasis on social justice is a wrestling with the fact that it is possible to comfort people on their way to hell? Where, in the subversion of binaries is the eternally relevant division in 1 Corinthians 1:18 of all of humanity into either “those who are perishing” or “those who are being saved”? Where, in the invitation to join the just community, is the call first and foremost to “be reconciled to God!” While assuring us we have not lost the vertical message of forgiveness, Gorman’s examples of this “becoming” in action unanimously trades on social, horizontal dimensions of justice.

The lingering question, then, regards whether this broadening of our gospel vision has in fact yielded a truncated practice. This truncation seems inevitable if the relocated roots are not deep or wide enough to support the widening canopy. Just this “radical” change seems to have happened in conflating forensic and ethical dimensions of justification/justice, and in collapsing the binaries of worship/outreach, vertical/horizontal salvation, spiritual/social justice (192, 303). By rejecting the cause - consequence (indicative - imperative) relationship, therefore, Gorman has not only under- mined theological nuance, but he has drained pastoral motivation. Ironically, he has decapacitated the church for new covenant (Spiritual) obedience to the mission of God.

In sum, many of the impulses of this book serve as vital correctives to spiritual presumption or simple laziness prevalent in the Western church. This call raised by a missional hermeneutic is a challenge we need to hear and heed. Gorman is among a growing number of scholars who are sounding it repeatedly and well. However, there is enough denied in (or absent from) the book to suspect that the NPP, which is where Gorman’s sympathies and sources clearly lie, may actually undermine the very thing it is trying to accomplish. What is needed is a proposal that works out the missional implications of our forensic justification rather than abandoning those for the un- clear substitutes of “mission” and “participation.” To cite one example, Constantine Campbell’s work Paul and Union with Christ may bring us to a similarly embodied destination but on surer theological footing. 

Review By: Nathan Tarr

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