Theosis and the supposedly cruciform God

Some recent conversations around the theme of theosis have directed me to Michael Gorman’s book Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. Gorman’s thesis about theosis runs something like this: i) Jesus is a crucified or cruciform Lord; ii) to be Lord is to be God; ii) therefore, God is also cruciform; iv) believers participate in the crucified Lord; v) therefore, believers participate in God; vi) which is theosis. Here’s his definition: “Theosis is transformative participation in the kenotic, cruciform character of God through Spirit-enabled conformity to the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected/glorified Christ” (Kindle loc. 82).

The first chapter is an analysis of the “Christ-hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11 as a foundation for the model. I’ve highlighted here three stages in the argument and have suggested why I don’t think it works very well.

1. The story about Jesus in Philippians 2:6-11 is not just about Jesus. It reveals something about God. The exaltation of Jesus described in verse 9 is not a “promotion” as reward for his obedience. Its meaning is determined by the fact that “human beings will appropriately render a kind of homage to Jesus that is properly due only to God” (297).

This is simply not what is happening in the text. God is not revealed as being like Jesus. There is no analogical structure to the argument. God is revealed as the one who has done something to and for Jesus. He has “highly exalted” him to a position at his right hand (cf. Eph. 1:20; Heb. 1:3-4), “above all the gods” (if we allow for an allusion to Ps. 96:9 LXX). He has “graciously given (echarisato) him the name which is above every name”. This verb, which is often used to mean “forgive”, suggests a clear distinction between a high status giver and the beneficiary of grace (e.g., 2 Macc. 1:35). God “bestowed” (kecharistai) on Abraham the inheritance of the land by a promise (Gal. 3:18). The outcome is that the nations will confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”.

It’s a standard New Testament storyline: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Principally on the basis of Psalm 110, as in Peter’s speech, the resurrection is interpreted as the means by which YHWH made Jesus king at his right hand with a view to the judgment of and rule over Israel and the nations. We may want to avoid the language of “promotion” and “reward”, but the consistent story is that God exalted Jesus to his right hand and gave him authority to judge and rule.

Yes, Isaiah had expected YHWH himself to be confessed as sovereign by the nations, but Philippians 2:9-11 simply states that this right has been graciously bestowed on Jesus. God has made Jesus king in place of all other kings, above all other gods—divine Caesar take note. But nothing in the passage suggests that Jesus participates in the identity of YHWH or that the pattern of Christ’s suffering and vindication determines the character of YHWH. In the end, God and Jesus are neatly and properly differentiated: having taken the path of obedience, Jesus is confessed as Lord by the nations, and God the Father, the God of Israel, is glorified as a result. The sort of convoluted rationalisation that Gorman supplies is simply unnecessary:

…God has publicly vindicated and recognized Jesus’ self-emptying and self-humbling as the display of true divinity that he already had, and that makes the worship of Jesus as Lord (i.e., YHWH, the God of Israel) perfectly appropriate.(300)

It seems to me that the story being told is much more like Hebrews 5:5-10. Christ did not “glorify” himself to be made a high priest; rather he “learned obedience”. But God spoke to him: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”, which is a reference to the resurrection. Therefore, he was “designated (prosagoreutheis) by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek”. In Philippians 2:9-11 Jesus is named “Lord” because of the resurrection. Here he is called “high priest” because of the resurrection. The phrase “after the order of Melchizedek” makes this a royal priesthood (cf. Heb. 8:1), which brings the idea closer to the argument of Philippians 2:6-11.

2. The God revealed by this narrative must share the cruciform character of the Son who reveals him: “the servant-like, kenotic activities attributed to Christ in 2:6-8 are in fact divine in character, or to put it the other way around, …divinity has kenotic servanthood as its essential attribute” (310). Gorman encapsulates the theological argument: “The counterintuitive God revealed in Christ is kenotic and cruciform, the Eternal vulnerable and self-giving One, the God of power-in-weakness” (327).

I don’t see how this argument is sustainable, for all its appeal as a critique to American civil religion, which is clearly of concern to Gorman: ‘The “normal” god of civil religion combines patriotism and power; this is the god of many American leaders and of many Americans generally.’(347) No doubt, but I would suggest that what is really going on here is that a belatedly post-imperial and probably post-Holocaust Western theology is being retrofitted on Paul’s apocalyptic narrative. The New Testament does not attempt to cast YHWH as a cruciform God. The suffering and vindication of Jesus is everywhere made the pattern for the suffering and eventual vindication of the early churches, but nothing is said about the suffering of God. God is rather the one who vindicates—the one who judges.

3. Jesus as Lord is always the crucified, servant Jesus: “Jesus’ lordship, paradoxically, has the form of servanthood even in the present (which is why it is no surprise that Paul tells the Romans that Christ is praying for us…)” (321).

Here again I think we have to ask whether this is actually how the New Testament narrative works.

Paul says that Christ Jesus is at the right hand of God “interceding” for those who were suffering persecution. He is able to do so because he was the “firstborn among many brothers”—he had faced the same suffering and had been vindicated for his faithfulness (Rom. 8:29, 34). A similar argument is made about Jesus as high priest in Hebrews: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He therefore ministers in the heavenly tabernacle before God on behalf of believers (Heb. 9:24).

It is the relationship between Jesus and the early suffering churches that is at issue. Because he has gone before them as the one who suffered and was vindicated and is now in the presence of God, they have the assurance that, no matter how desperate things may get, nothing will separate them from the love of God (Rom. 8:39).

But this has nothing to do with Jesus’ lordship as such. Because he suffered, he can sympathise with the weaknesses of the Hebrew believers, but the narrative moves beyond persecution and suffering to vindication and glory and participation in the reign of Christ throughout the coming ages. In the New Testament’s apocalyptic narrative, to be “Lord”, seated at the right hand of God, is to rule in the midst of his enemies, to wait until all his enemies have been made a footstool under his feet (Heb. 10:13; cf. 1 Cor. 15:25-28). It is to rule the nations “with a rod of iron”—a rule in which those who conquer death, as Jesus conquered death, will share (Rev. 2:26; 12:5; 19:15).

John sees “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” before the throne of God, which might be thought to lend support to Gorman’s thesis (Rev. 5:6). But the Lamb is worthy to open the scroll because he has redeemed a people to be a kingdom, “and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10). And what happens when he opens the seals on the scroll? Judgment ensues. In such a vision it must be bordering on the blasphemous to suggest that the one who sits on the throne also suffered. This is not about the nature of God, it is about the outworking of an apocalyptic narrative about kingdom.

Rule over the nations is gained not through military means but through suffering and faithful witness to the resurrection of Jesus. But it seems to me to cut against the grain of the New Testament narrative to insist that his present lordship is fundamentally cruciform—let alone that that cruciformity can further be transferred to God. Let the New Testament tell the story the way it wants to tell it. If we want to oppose the idolatry of American militarism, then why not just teach what Jesus taught: love your enemies?

Eric Boehmer | Sun, 10/18/2015 - 06:02 | Permalink

I agree, wholeheartedly, with your analysis. However, what coherent argument might I, as one who has an interest in opposing the idolatry of American militarism/exceptionalism, have among fellow evangelicals that Jesus’ admonition to “love your enemies” was anything more than a historically contingent command to the militarially zealous within second temple Judaism?

You’re right, Eric. That was too simplistic—and only really meant to be a sort of ad hominem argument.

To be honest, I think the basic argument against “the idolatry of American militarism/exceptionalism” is the historical-prophetic one—that people who hold this view are living in the past. It assumes that it is possible to perpetuate the Christendom model, or a particular perversion of the Christendom model, when all the signs point to the need to dissociate church and state, for the church to regroup on the margins of a dominant secular culture and work out what we’re here for.

Until we do that, I think it will be very difficult for the people of God in the secular West to recover its fundamental calling, which I suggest can be summed up very simply in terms of the original promise to Abraham: by obediently serving the Creator the people of God experiences in its corporate life something of the original blessing of creation and as a priestly-prophetic people mediates that blessing to the surrounding nations and cultures of the world, for the sake of “goodness” and for the sake of the glory of the living God.

The story has taught us very clearly that when that calling is violently opposed by the world, we must take a Christlike path. We cannot expect the crucified and exalted Lord to condone taking an eye for an eye. That is integral to the new covenant.

So what’s needed is not so much a proof-texted argument (“Love your enemies”)—even if that’s all evangelicals will listen to—but a prophetic narrative about the situation of the people of God in the secular West.

The cruciform God concept is reductionist, attempting to wed the constricted gospel of the cross (rather than kingdom) with a post-biblical, essentially 4th century credal view of Christ’s divinity to satisfy a modernist evangelical audience. This won’t do…except for an increasingly narrow audience. Postmodern secularists have no interest in this dogma-driven portrait of the historical Jesus who they might otherwise be interested in. Is this what our witness has come to? Appreciate you calling a spade a spade with regards to the narrative of Christ in the actual scriptures… let’s dialogue about a richer portrait of Christ that begins from a more
understandable —human— perspective with the larger audience at large, and lets talk about themes of vindication on the human level and search for bridges of meaning. Otherwise how are we really mediating blessing to the nations of today? If the cruciform God is our template, it’s unintelligible and just plain silly to the secular educated of our day.

I’m not so confident that the actual biblical narrative will make any better sense to the “secular educated”—maybe. But I appreciate the comment.