The latest Grove Biblical booklet is a fascinating study by the well-known American scholar Michael Gorman on Participation: Paul’s Vision of Life in Christ. Within it, Michael offers 13 theses about Paul’s understanding of the goal of the Christian life, building in his previous ideas published in Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross and Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, but also moving them on. He begins with the importance of the idea of ‘participation’ both in everyday life but particularly within recent scholarship on Paul.
Human existence is full of participation—in families, workplaces, groups of friends, society as a whole and more. The search for God—or, rather, God’s search for us—is also ultimately about participation.
Participation is back in the (theological) news. The energy and, indeed, excitement about participation is palpable at conferences, in publications, and even occasionally from the pulpit. An account of this development would take at least its own booklet, but a few introductory remarks about the phenomenon, with special emphasis on its place in the study of Paul, are appropriate before launching into the focus of this book: a look at Paul’s theology and spirituality (lived experience) of participating in Christ.
Paul often uses the language of being ‘in Christ,’ as well as related phrases like being ‘with Christ.’ ‘In Christ’ seems, in fact, like a basic description of what we would simply call being a Christian. (See, for example, its many occurrences in Romans 16.) Many Christians therefore know that one of the great images of Christian existence is captured by the phrase ‘in Christ.’ Some may have heard about, or even read, A Man in Christ, a classic by James S Stewart, a Church of Scotland minister and University of Edinburgh professor. But what exactly does this spatial word-picture actually mean? Does it imply a view of salvation by works? Does it imply a mysticism in which we lose our identity and/or ignore doctrine in favour of experience?
After confirming the central importance of the cross in our understanding of Jesus, Gorman highlights its importance for the church, not only as the means of salvation, but as the shape of Christian living:
The cross is not only the source but also the shape of our salvation, and cross-shaped living (cruciformity) means that all Christian virtues and practices are cruciform: faith/faithfulness; love; power; hope; justice and so on.
Most Christians believe that the cross of Christ is the source of their salvation. To be sure, good theology does not limit the source of salvation to the cross, for it involves also Christ’s incarnation (as we have already noted), earthly ministry, resurrection, ascension and parousia (coming). Moreover, some Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, would especially put equal weight on the incarnation. But no one should deny the role of Jesus’ death in salvation…
Whatever one’s preferred model of the atonement, what is often lacking in the models is any application of the model to actual life. For Paul, however, the cross is more than the source of salvation; it is also its shape. Paul cannot talk for long, if at all, about the cross without connecting it to life in Christ, and he cannot speak of life in Christ for long, if at all, without linking it to Christ crucified…
Cruciformity is also theoformity, or theosis; that is, cross-shaped existence is God-shaped existence, and this existence is for both individuals and communities inthe Messiah.
If Paul’s spirituality is a narrative spirituality of conformity to the crucified Messiah, and if the story of the crucified Messiah is also the story of God, then the logical conclusion to draw is that cruciformity is also theoformity. To become Christlike is to become Godlike, for Christ is the image of God, the one in whom God’s fullness lives, the one in whom God has acted. If ‘in Christ’ is the heart of Paul’s theology as well as his spirituality, then when human beings are incorporated into Christ to take on his identity and be transformed into his image, they are also being incorporated into God the Father (1 Thess 1.1; 2 Thess 1.1) to be transformed into the image of God—to have their original Godlikeness restored. If the cross is a theophany as well as a Christophany, then cruciform existence is theoform, or God-shaped, existence.
Commenting on 2 Cor 5.21, Richard Hays comments:
[Paul] does not say ‘that we might know about the righteousness of God,’ nor ‘that we might believe in the righteousness of God,’ nor even ‘that we might receive the righteousness of God.’ Instead, the church is tobecome the righteousness of God: where the church embodies in its life together the world-reconciling love of Jesus Christ, the new creation is manifest. The church incarnates the righteousness of God.
All of this has serious implications for how we understand ‘justification by faith’ and its relation to the practice of baptism:
We enter the Messiah by means of faith/baptism; justification by faith is a participatory event of dying and rising with the Messiah, meaning that justification is resurrection to new life by means of co-crucifixion with the Messiah.
The doctrine of justification is often claimed to be at the centre of Paul’s theology. Whether or not that is precisely the case, it is certainly true that justification has been both central and controversial in discussions of Paul, and of his significance for Christian theology.
A strong case can be made that Paul’s understanding of justification is muchmore participatory and transformative than is often thought, especially by Protestant interpreters. Recent work on Luther, Calvin and Paul himself suggests that we cannot understand justification appropriately apart from union with Christ—that is, apart from participation and transformation.
A careful study of two critical passages in Paul’s theology and spirituality—Gal 2.15–21 and Romans 6—reveals that Paul has a basic soteriology of dying and rising with Christ that he associates with both justi cation byfaith/faithfulness (Gal 2.15–21) and baptism (Romans 6). In each passage, Paul speaks of co-crucifixion with the Messiah Jesus:
For I myself, through the Law, died in relation to the Law so that I could live in relation to God. I have been crucified with the Messiah. (Gal 2.19)
We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body defined by sin would be destroyed, and we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (Rom 6.6)
In fact, there are multiple parallels between Galatians 2 and Romans 6, suggesting that justification and baptism are two sides of the same coin—the coin of initial participation. Of these additional similarities, two are most important. First, co-crucifixion with Christ is followed (implicitly or explicitly) by co-resurrection with Christ, resurrection to new life in covenant relation to God.
After exploring these issues in some detail, Gorman concludes by relating the notion of participation in Christ to mission:
The church is called not merely to believe the gospel but also to become the gospel and thereby to advance the gospel; the church is a living exegesis of the gospel.
We have already seen that the church for Paul has a fundamental narrative quality: it participates in, and thereby tells, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, the story of his self-giving, life-giving love. Paul summons people not merely to believe in Christ or even just to believe into him, but to become part of a community, the body of Christ, that re-incarnates the Messiah in the world. His story becomes our story, and when that happens, we bear witness—in word and deed—to the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Messiah…
Paul is suggesting that the Christlike church is an obedient church, even to the point of suffering with and like Christ, faithfully displaying the word of life—the life-giving gospel—in both word and deed. If exegesis is the careful interpretation of a biblical text, a commentary on Scripture, then Paul is calling on the church to be a living exegesis of the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Lord.
We may refer to this embodiment of the gospel as becoming the gospel. Of course, this does not mean in any sense that the church replaces the gospel of Christ and becomes the object of attention and devotion. ‘May it never be!’ to quote Paul! What it does mean, however, is that the church’s vocation is to represent the gospel faithfully in its public witness, such that the watching world can see, even if it does not always understand, something of the counter-intuitive power of God displayed in the faithful and loving death of his Son. And this will mean that the church has certain practices, not merely beliefs, that are essential to its identity. Corporately, we become good news to the world.
This is a fascinating study, well written and accessible, but also stimulating and stretching. After reading it, I just felt I wanted to go back to Paul and read him again with new eyes. Gorman’s approach has three particular virtues. First, it takes the narrative shape of Paul’s thinking seriously, rather than twisting his letters into some form of doctrine textbook. Secondly, it cuts through some of the (at times unhelpful) impasses in the debate about what ‘justification’ means. Thirdly, it actually offers some practical application of Paul’s theology—as surely he must have intended, since his letters are all prompted by practical and pastoral concerns.
You can order the booklet, post-free in the UK or as a PDF e-book, for £3.95 from the Grove website. You won’t regret it!