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Cruciformity or Idolatry: Reflections on Michael Gorman’s “Counter-Imperial Theoformity”

I. Turning from Idols to the True and Living God (I Thes. 1.9b)

People are not their positions. Positions are ideological affirmations a person holds at a give time, but which a person can also renounce or just grow out of. If you have been journeying on a theological pilgrimage for any significant amount of time, your positions have no doubt evolved. If they haven’t, I would question how critically you’ve examined those beliefs, and whether you’ve interacted with the best alternative views.

It is not a shameful thing to renounce mistaken or inferior position in favor of superior and more accurate ones. Yet, for some, it is resisted as if it meant one is weak or simple-minded. Nothing could be further from the truth! It is the weak and simple-minded who cling to mistaken and inferior positions out of stubbornness, anxiety, or intellectual laziness.

One theologian for whom I have great respect is Clark Pinnock. I was first introduced to his thought through an essay he wrote called “From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology.” In this essay, he detailed his intellectual and spiritual journey away from New Calvinism (5-Point) [1] while a professor of theology in a seminary affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention which had recently taken a decidedly Calvinistic and Conservative turn. Pinnock’s journey toward a “true and living God” away from the static, “Unmoved Mover” of New Calvinism was inspirational to me and mirrored my own journey of theological exploration.

Pinnock was not afraid to acknowledge that his views had changed, and he was not afraid to admit they were still evolving—even until his last days in this age. Pinnock was not a coward; Pinnock was intellectually courageous!

Unfortunately, some people have a difficult time not over-identifying with their current positions. Often this is because there are relational and psychological reasons for the death-grip hold they have on their position. This stubborn and recalcitrant clinging can make fruitful discourse at best a minefield and at worst relationally fatal. The person with the death-grip hold on their cherished belief has made of their conception of God an idol that is praised in itself.

Idolatrous beliefs don’t necessarily make a person immoral or intellectually inferior. Idols happen when a person’s conception of God is not centered in the self-revelation of God in the Person of Jesus Christ—and particular on Jesus’s Cross. Good, well-intentioned Christians can easily hold idolatrous conceptions of God due to the pervasive and relentless influence of Western culture, which wars against a Crucified God. Nevertheless, our task as theologians is not to allow our particular cultural context to be determinative of our conception of God. Rather, we are to let the picture of God produced by Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition—the God self-revealed in the Crucified Messiah—to be determinative, supreme, and final.

II. Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology

Dr. Michael Gorman [2] is a celebrated theologian and prolific author. Among his many wonderful books are Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb Into the New Creation and Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross. One of his latest books is Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (hereafter “Cruciform God”). [3]

In Cruciform God, Gorman thoroughly exegetes Philippians chapter 2, the famous hymn the apostle Paul includes in his letter to the Church at Philipi. This hymn is what Gorman calls Paul’s “Master Story,” [4] and Gorman believes Paul’s soteriology is primarily “narrative” in nature. In Cruciform God, Gorman demonstrates that in Paul’s narrative soteriology, justification by faith happens in the process of a person participating in the cruciform (cross-shaped) character and nature of God. And Gorman goes on to demonstrate that, since God is cruciform in Godself, this process of participating in “cruciformity” is also the process of becoming more like God—the ultimate expression of which is called “theosis.” Therefore, for Gorman, cruciformity is theoformity.

There is neither space nor time enough in this brief post to give this masterful work of Gorman’s the treatment it deserves. However, I do wish to outline an important section of the book which pertains to idolatrous conceptions of God, the cruciform God revealed in Christ, and what Gorman calls “counter-imperial theoformity.”

III. The Idol of “Normal” Divinity

One of Gorman’s contributions for which I am most grateful is the precision with which he pinpoints from whence idolatrous conceptions of God derive. He locates them in a conception of power that is corrupted by cultural influences. Because of the context of empire in which the world has been situated since Babylon, a default view of power has been associated with coercion and control. This conception of power has become intuitive” for most people because of empire.

For some Christians this conception of power is baptized and given the pious-sounding nickname “sovereignty” in a vein attempt to make it appear biblical. Nevertheless, Gorman rebukes those who claim we must hold God’s majesty “in tension” with the humility of God we see in Christ. Instead, Gorman claims the only majesty of God is precisely that which issues forth from the face of the Crucified Lord Jesus.

“Because God’s majesty and God’s relationality cannot be separated, we must understand God’s majesty in light of God’s revealed relationally. We do not simply hold majesty and relationally in tension; with Paul, we must see them in concert, a unison revealed in the power of the cross. God is not a god of power and weakness but the God of power in weakness.” (p. 33)

It is difficult to say it more succinctly and beautifully than this:

“The counterintuitive God revealed in Christ is kenotic and cruciform, the Eternal vulnerable and self-giving One, the God of power-in-weakness.” (p. 32)

But this vision of God is unattractive to those who idolize the power of empire. Such “Christians” don’t want a Crucified Lord, with all the suffering and pain it entails. No, they would like to skip that whole nasty episode in Jesus’s life. They claim to still be “Christ-centered” but by this they mean a generically broad idea of “Christ” which relativizes the Cross. Gorman addresses this directly:

“…the cross is not just one theophany among many; it is the definitive theophany… Unfortunately, however, the embedded theology of most Christians still revolves around a non-cruciform model of God’s power, and a crucial corrective is needed.” (p. 34)

Gorman does not mince words, a non-cruciform vision of God’s power is idolatrous. God in Christ did not endure the Cross as a superfluous exercise. No, as Gorman says, the Cross is the “definitive theophany“. This will no doubt chafe against those who still cling to the imperial vision of divine power, what Gorman calls the “idol of ‘normal’ divinity.”

“In light of [the counterintuitive kenotic character of the God of the Cross], we must affirm that the ‘normal’ ‘civil’ god of power and might is an idol, and it must be named as such. This god is not the Lord God revealed in Jesus Christ and narrated in the theopolitics of Phil. 2:6-11. […] military power is not the power of the cross, and such misconstrued notions of divine power have nothing to do with the majesty or holiness of the triune God known in the weakness of the cross. The ‘civil’ god, though perfectly ‘normal,’ is not only unholy; it is an idol.” (p. 34-35)

IV. Kenosis and Chalcedon

Some Christians have misunderstood kenosis (that powerful word found in Phil. 2). They have made it into a bogeyman word, a word that (for them) equals a “low Christology.” Gorman won’t let such misunderstand stand. In two ways, he expounds upon what it means for God to be kenotic. First, he explains that “kenotic” and “cruciform” are “inseparable and overlapping in meaning, though not quite synonymous.” [5] This means that to deny Christ’s kenosis is to deny Christ’s cruciformity. Since no Christian could nor world deny Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, the “kenosis” of Christ is likewise undeniable. Second, Gorman expounds upon the correspondence between cruciformity and kenosis:

“By ‘cruciform’ I do not mean that God is constrained in being or act by a particular (Roman) form of death, namely, crucifixion. Rather, I mean to say that because Paul’s understanding of God’s kenotic character is inseparable from the revelation of that character in Christ’s cross, we must define this divine kenosis with content derived from Paul’s narratives of the cross, especially voluntary rejection of power/privilege and humble self-giving.” (p. 28, footnote 67)

For Gorman, the divine kenotic character isn’t optional, but essential. The revelation of God in Christ’s Cross makes this so. Kenosis is not a sudden shift in God’s character. No, precisely the opposite! Kenosis is the expression of God’s eternal nature.

“Some may object […] that the assertion about God’s essential kenotic character limits God’s freedom, making kenosis a divine necessity rather than a free act of love and grace. While I want to maintain with the Christian tradition (and Paul) that God in Christ acts in freedom and grace, I also want to maintain (with Paul, I think) the corollary, if paradoxical, conviction that if the cross is theophantic, kenosis must be something other than one of several options on the divine table.” (p. 36, footnote 36)

Therefore, Gorman directly refutes the claim that a kenotic Christ (and a kenotic God) somehow violates the Chalcedonian definition (which its more fanatical proponents don’t realize is thoroughly paradoxical). He writes,

“Kenosis is the sine quo non of both divinity and humanity, as revealed in the incarnation and the cross of Christ, the one who was truly God and became truly human. His preexistent and incarnate actions […] had essentially the same character. As Chalcedonian and therefore anachronistic as this claim will sound to some, it seems to be the inevitable conclusion of the line of thought we have been pursuing; it is Chalcedon with a Pauline, cruciform twist.” (p. 36)

V. True Humanity as Counter-Imperial Theoformity

All of Gorman’s exegesis and theopolitical analysis leads him to view the process of becoming more like Jesus—being formed into the image of the Son—is the process of cruciformity, because the Son is essentially cruciform. But, further still, Gorman concludes that this process of becoming more cruciform is also simultaneously the process of becoming more fully human and more godly. For Gorman, the telos of humanity is theosis, as is customary in the Eastern traditions. This glorification is not found in some blissful indifference to suffering. Rather, it is found in the process of being molded into the image of the Crucified Messiah—the only perfect revelation of the Living God.

“To be fully human is to be Christlike and thus Godlike in this kenotic and cruciform sense. Cruciformity, it turns out, is really theoformity.” (p. 36)

Salvation/justification for Gorman is being caught up—participating—in the divine nature. This process of participation is precisely the same process of cruciformity and theoformity Paul’s been describing all along. “The emphasis [of theosis] is on transformation by union, or participation […] Kenosis is theosis. To be like Christ crucified is to be both most godly and most human. Christification is divinization, and divinization is humanization.” (p. 37)

This participative process—cruciformity, theoformity, theosis—is thereby the way Jesus-disciples resist conformity to the ‘pattern of this world’: the idolatrous vision of power created by empire. The community of Christ is the location where the Spirit of God forms Jesus-disciples into the image of the Son (cruciformity) who is the image of the Father (theoformity) whereby the sons and daughters of God are revealed in glorious transformation (theosis). “The goal of the Christian community is to allow the life and Spirit of this God, rather than the imperial spirit of domination and acquisition, to flow in and through it — to participate in God.” (p. 37)

VI. Conclusion: Salvation is Union with the Kenotic, Cruciform, Triune God

The telos of humanity is to be united with the God whose very nature is revealed definitively and finally on the Cross of Christ. Christ has shown us the character and nature of God, and that character and nature is both kenotic and cruciform. Christ has also called us into participation in that character and nature—into cruciformity and therefore theoformity. Participation in the kenotic, cruciform nature of God is rejection and renunciation of the idolatrous gods of power worshipped by empire. Cruciformity is Counter-Imperial Theoformity.

“…because Paul says that Christ was in the form of God and that this equality with God was properly expressed through the kenosis of incarnation and crucifixion, we can say that the structure of [Phil. 2] is causative: ‘because…” Thus Paul compels us to rethink God and to speak of a cruciform God […]

The incarnation and cross manifest, and the exaltation recognizes, both Christ’s truth divinity and his true humanity, all of which leads us in a Chalcedonian direction, though with a Pauline (cruciform) twist. […]

We then contrasted this counterintuitive view of God with popular notions of divinity that focus on power, especially military power, and offered it as the foundation of a counter-imperial lifestyle. To be truly human is to be Christlike, which is to be Godlike, which is to be kenotic and cruciform. Theosis is the process of transformation into the image of this God.” (p. 39)

Praise and Glory, All Honor and Power be to the Kenotic, Cruciform God Revealed in the Cross of Christ! Amen!

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1. The tenets of New Calvinism can be summarized in the acronym T.U.L.I.P., which stands for: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints. For more on New Calvinism, see:

Against Calvinism by Roger Olson

– “The New Calvinism” by PBS [http://video.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365215800]

– “Young, Restless, Reformed” – [http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/september/42.32.html]

2. Michael J. Gorman is the Raymond E. Brown Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. He joined St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute of Theology faculty in 1991, becoming Associate Dean of the Ecumenical Institute and a member of the Seminary faculty in 1993. He was appointed Dean of the Ecumenical Institute in 1995 and served in that capacity through June of 2012. Prior to taking the Raymond E. Brown Chair, he was Professor of Sacred Scripture and, before that, Professor of New Testament and Early Church History.

Dr. Gorman is a New Testament scholar who specializes especially in the letters, theology, and spirituality of the apostle Paul. His additional specialties are the book of Revelation, theological and missional interpretation of Scripture, the gospel of John, and early Christian ethics. In addition, he has a strong interest in the relationship between church and culture.

Dr. Gorman earned his B.A. degree summa cum laude in French from Gordon College in Massachusetts. He received the M.Div. and the Ph.D. cum laude in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, where he was also a teaching fellow in New Testament and an instructor in New Testament Greek. He has also been a visiting professor at Duke Divinity School, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Mars Hill Graduate School.

3. Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Eerdmans, 2009).

4. Cruciform God, p. 2.

5. p. 10, footnote 6.