Book Notice: Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul’s Theology and Spirituality

Michael J. Gorman. Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul’s Theology and Spirituality. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019. 320 pages. $30.00 (paperback)

In two of his previous books—Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (2001) and Inhabiting the Cruciform God (2009)—Michael J. Gorman provided extensive exegetical explorations of the Pauline doctrine of union with Christ and its implications for Christian spiritual formation. Gorman, the Raymond E. Brown Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland, has produced another contribution to this subject: Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul’s Theology and Spirituality. In this volume, Gorman seeks to demonstrate that the theme of “participation” (which he describes as the enacting of believers’ status “in the exalted crucified Messiah,” 26) is key for understanding Paul’s theology and its application. Gorman devotes Part One of the volume to digging exegetically into Paul’s theology and spirituality. He then closes the book in Part Two with theological reflections on how Paul’s doctrine of participation spiritually forms those who partake in Jesus.

Gorman is an established biblical scholar who is consistently stimulating to read; Participating in Christ is no exception. Gorman often demonstrates his exegetical skill in interpreting the text. For example, he examines Phil 2:5 in depth as a textual bridge between Paul’s exhortations (vv. 1–4) and his poem/hymn (vv. 6–11). Addressing how to read the preposition ἐν (en) in verse 5, he renders the verse, “cultivate this mindset—the way of thinking, acting, feeling—in (ἐν) your community, which is in fact a community in the Messiah Jesus” (93). Thus, he concludes that this verse is key for comprehending Paul’s promotion of a multi-dimensional way of thinking—that followers of Jesus are a living embodiment of his life, death, and resurrection. Gorman also offers theologically creative readings, taking existing topics and adding to them in order to reach thought-provoking and stimulating suggestions, though this sometimes produces mixed results. In Chapters 6–8, for example, he addresses the widely-debated topic of justification, arguing that justification—in Paul’s mind—is both participatory and transformative (115). In seeking to emphasize the transformation that always accompanies justification, however, Gorman critiques a forensic (i.e. traditional Protestant) view of justification and, as a result, ends up confusing the distinction between justification and sanctification (though he rightly argues that they are inseparable in a believer’s life).

Though the volume contains many helpful exegetical and theological insights, two words of caution are in order. First, Gorman comes from a Wesleyan tradition and is a professor at a Roman Catholic seminary—allowing him interpretive flexibility in his conclusions. Thus, he often produces somewhat provocative readings of biblical texts that call traditional interpretations into question (as illustrated above). Second, the task of following Gorman’s argumentation can be laborious. Careful reading is essential when seeking to understand Gorman’s views on justification, theosis (or deification), and justification’s relation to sanctification. Nevertheless, his research and argumentation can be an aid for many faithful, Bible-believing Christians who, with discernment, can glean from his spiritually-rooted concepts—learning truly how to live a “resurrection-infused” life (255–62).

CBS book notices provide brief descriptive summaries and assessments of new publications in biblical studies and biblical theology. The present book notice was written by Jonathan Wright, a Ph.D. student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary


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