Theosis in the West? A Review of Michael Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God

inhabiting the cruciform GodIn our last review, we looked at Michael Gorman’s book Cruciformity and saw that for him the defining characteristic of Paul’s experience of God was Spirit-enabled conformity to the crucified and resurrected Christ, a concept he termed “cruciformity.” He also showed that Paul used the the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 to help flesh out the shape of this cruciform spirituality.

This time, we’re going to look at Gorman’s 2009 book Inhabiting the Cruciform God, which is basically an extension of what he started in Cruciformity. One of the foundational claims of his 2001 book was that, for Paul, God is cruciform. Gorman launches into Inhabiting the Cruciform God by verbalizing the consequence of this claim, writing that “an experience of the cross, a spirituality of the cross, is also an experience and a spirituality of God—and vice versa” (p.1). This leads us to the central proposal of this book, which we will spend the rest of our time unpacking: If God is cruciform, then cruciformity can also be understood as theoformity. He explains:

For Paul, to be one with Christ is to be one with God; to be like Christ is to be like God; to be in Christ is to be in God. At the very least, this means that for Paul cruciformity—conformity to the crucified Christ—is really theoformity, or theosis. (p.4)

That may well be the case, but while theosis has a rich tradition within the Eastern Church, it’s a term rarely used in Western Christianity and needs some defining.

What is Theosis?

First, some clarification of what theosis is not. It doesn’t imply that people can “become God/god,” nor does it speak of apotheosis, the Greco-Roman idea of post-mortal promotion of individuals (usually heroes or emperors) to divine status (pp.4-5). To the contrary, Gorman tells readers:

[T]heosis means humans become like God. The tradition of theosis in Christian theology after the New Testament begins with the famous dictum of Irenaeus, later developed by Athanasius: “God became what we are to make us what he is.” Theosis is about divine intention and action, human transformation, and the telos of human existence—union with God. (p.5)

In the New Testament writings, the classic basis for theosis is, according to Gorman, 2 Peter 1:4:

Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. (NSRV)

Other relevant scriptural passages include Romans 8:29 “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (NRSV), and 2 Corinthians 3:18 “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (NRSV). Gorman defines theosis as, “transformative participation in the kenotic [self-emptying], cruciform character of God through Spirit-enabled conformity to the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected/glorified Christ” (p.7). That’s a bit of a mouthful, so in order to better understand what he means, let’s start by looking one last time at the Philippians Christ Hymn.

Although/Because He was in the Form of God

In Philippians 2:6-11, we see a picture of the Christ whom believers are called to become like. The connection that Gorman makes in Inhabiting the Cruciform God is that since God is cruciform, one can translate verse 6 to read not only as “although he was in the form of God” but also “because he was in the form of God.” In his words, “These two translations correspond to two aspects of Paul’s understanding of the identity of the one true God… its counterintuitive character (‘although’) and its cruciform character (‘because’)” (p.10). Essentially, it is not in spite of God’s majestic character that the Word humbled Himself and became flesh to redeem creation, but because of it. Gorman connects this to theosis by saying:

[T]he key point for now is that human beings, including Adam, are most like God when they act kenotically. In Christ’s preexistent and incarnate kenosis we see truly what God is truly like, and we simultaneously see truly what Adam/humanity truly should have been, truly was not, and now truly can be in Christ. Kenosis is theosis. (p.37)

Participatory Justification

We will now turn to the most formidably ambitious and heavily-footnoted chapter of the book: Gorman’s exploration of soteriology in Paul. He explains that he will analyze:

[T]he foundational Pauline experience of the God known in Christ’s cross, an experience described by Paul both as justification and as death and resurrection with Christ. Our goal is to show the connection between justification, on the one hand, and co-crucifixion and co-resurrection on the other, arguing that for Paul justification is an experience of participating in Christ’s resurrection life that is effected by co-crucifixion with him.” (p.40)

As a protestant theologian, Gorman is treading on hallowed ground here, so he begins by firmly emphasizing that this participatory vision of justification in no way minimizes the need or significance of Christ’s death as the salvific and gracious act of God. Nor does it endorse Pelagian notions of self-justification or justification by “works” since justification by co-crucifixion is impossible without the initiating grace and work of the Holy Spirit (p.40).

He frames his discussion around the famous phrase in Romans 5:1 “justified by faith.” In all of this, his intention is to unite together two soteriological models frequently portrayed as being in opposition: the juridicial (justification-by-faith) model and the participationist (dying-and-rising-with-Christ) model (p.45).

First, there is the fundamental problem of sin. For Paul, sin leads to the alienation of people from God and from each other (p.51). Gorman suggests that we can speak of Sin (singular), a power from which humans need liberating, as well as sins (plural), harmful actions for which humans need forgiveness. He writes:

Thus justification… must include forgiveness but be more than forgiveness. It must be the reversal of Romans 1, of human asebeia [impiety] and adikia [injustice]. In other words, there can be no justification without transformation. (p.51)

According to Gorman, justification for Paul is connected with reconciliation and means the “restoration or establishment of right covenantal relations—fidelity to God and love for neighbor—with the certain hope of acquittal/vindication on the day of judgment” (p.53).

How does this justification occur? It is a death-and-resurrection experience (p.69). One of the passages Gorman uses to demonstrate this point is Galatians 2:15-21He explains that many Pauline interpreters see two major claims in this passage. First, that justification is by “faith in Christ” and not through “works of the law” (v. 16) (p.64). Secondly, and separately, that Paul views believers “in Christ” to have been “crucified with Christ” (vv. 19-20). Gorman finds this interpretation to be incomplete, arguing that:

These two claims must be seen as connected aspects of the same reality. Verses 16 and 21 are not merely parallel statements forming an inclusio (the subject being justification by faith grounded in Christ’s death) around a different topic in vv. 19-20 (the experience of being crucified with Christ). Rather, vv. 19-20 show why justification by works of the law would render the cross null, void, and superfluous. It is because justification is by participation in the cross—by co-crucifixion. This is what Paul means, in context, by faith over against works of the law. (p. 64)

Putting your faith in Christ and being “crucified” with Him are two sides of the same coin. At the end of this admittedly complicated chapter, Gorman again repeats that a participatory understanding of justification doesn’t marginalize its juridical aspect. “Rather, it says that in Pauline theological forensics, God’s declaration of ‘justified!’ is now a ‘performative utterance,’ an effective word that does not return void but effects transformation” (p.101). Any theological fracture between justification and sanctification is problematic for Gorman because those who have been “crucified with Christ” and “justified by faith” are also those who have been initiated by the grace of God into the ongoing process of cruciformity, which as he reminds readers, is “the process of theoformity, or theosis” (p.45).

The next chapter of Inhabiting the Cruciform God examines Paul’s view of holiness. Gorman seeks to show that for Paul the church is both already holy (1 Cor 1:2) and called to be holy. In other words, “Holiness (hagiasmos), for Paul, is both gift and task” (p.108). Believers in Christ participate in the cross-defined life of faith working through love by the transforming power of the indwelling Spirit, which, for Gorman, makes it possible to say that “theosis… is a helpful alternative term (and perhaps even a more appropriate one) for what has usually been called sanctification or holiness in Paul” (p.106).

The final section of his book firmly asserts that nonviolence is an essential mark of the self-giving, cruciform life that believers live “in Christ” (p.2). This chapter seemed necessary to him to counter other scholars who interpret the cross as legitimizing a form of “sacred” violence since Christ’s death on the cross is so central to Paul’s theology. In other words, is the God of the cross really a God of love? In response, Gorman argues that Paul’s conversion from persecutor of the Church to Christ follower needs to be understood as a conversion from a life of violence to a life of peace (p.166). He succinctly summarizes heart of his argument with these words:

God loved us while we were enemies, responding to our own violence and other sins, not with the infliction of violence but with the absorption of violence on the cross. A life of nonviolence and reconciliation is therefore an integral part of Paul’s vision of justification and of participatory holiness—theosis. (p.165)


Some readers may worry that Gorman’s participatory vision of justification undercuts the Protestant contention that justification is by “faith alone,” which is a legitimate doctrine worth defending. However, is he actually betraying the Reformation here? I think not. He repeatedly affirms that salvation is only by God’s grace and rejects all notions of Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism. What he is doing, though, is striving against the equivalent of what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace” in The Cost of Discipleship. As Gorman puts it, “parts of the Christian church have become enamored with cheap justification. Cheap justification is justification without justice, faith without love, declaration without transformation” (p.41). Even if one disagrees with Gorman’s conclusions, it should be admitted that he repeatedly expresses his intention to remain faithful to these important tenants of the Reformation.

In conclusion, I think that Gorman has made an important and necessary contribution with Inhabiting the Cruciform God. He has composed a detailed argument that he sees as highlighting an important connection between justification and sanctification in the Western Church and theosis in the East. It’s not that I think areas of legitimate disagreement should be simply papered over, but I firmly support efforts to help reconcile different parts of the body of Christ. Therefore, I find Gorman’s work in this area to be a valuable service and well worth reading.


1 thought on “Theosis in the West? A Review of Michael Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God

  1. Pingback: Reading Paul Missionally: A Review of Michael Gorman’s “Becoming the Gospel” | Tabletalk Theology

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