Theosis and Mission: The Conversation Continues

Recently David Congdon, a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at my alma mater (Princeton Seminary) who has a fine theology blog called Fire and Rose, raised some excellent questions about my new book Inhabiting the Cruciform God. The questions were posed especially in light of my commitment to a missional hermeneutic. The ensuing conversation was buried in the comments of an earlier post, and I thought that it was sufficiently significant to create a new post repeating them. So here, with David’s permission, is that conversation. He and others of you are welcome to join in.

DWC = David
MJG = me


This [the missional hermeneutics program on Philippians at SBL] looks excellent. I celebrate the rise of missional hermeneutics and I hope it gains a wide hearing.

But I have a question. I’m working on a review of your latest book, and while there is much that I like about it, I am unsettled by the total absence of mission from your exegesis. This is apparent in many places where you speak about the faithfulness, holiness, and cruciform love of the community—but you never once mention witness, proclamation, or mission. As far as I can tell, you never connect the sending of the Son by the Father with the sending of the community through Word and Spirit. For the most part, this wouldn’t be hard to fix: you could simply clarify that when you talk about faith, hope, and love you intend this to be inclusive of the community’s life of missional obedience.

The problem becomes especially apparent in the chapter on holiness. A lot of what you say here is excellent, except for the lack of mission. But this is key. You speak about holiness as cruciform and communal love for the other. Where is the act of proclamation and witness to the gospel? If holiness is defined by Christ, then holiness is not about being “set apart” from the world but about being “sent into the far country,” as Barth would put it. Holiness is precisely to be sent into the world, to be in concrete solidarity with the poor and persecuted. I don’t think you deny any of that, but the focus on holy sex and holy politics makes it seem like holiness is something that can be accomplished “internally,” so to speak. I would rather define holiness in terms of our “going out,” our centrifugal activity as a community of faith.

Another important issue has to do with ontology and what constitutes the being of the community. And here is where I think the lack of mission connects with your thesis on theosis. The lack of any discussion of ontology is maybe the one thing most missing from the book, and it’s almost a death-blow to your main thesis—in part because theosis has always implied some kind of ontology, and you can have ontological participation in God without theosis (see Barth). But that aside, the question is whether there is any “gap” between being and act in your ecclesiology, which is then a question of whether there is a “gap” between being and act in your doctrine of God. Missional theology defines God’s being in terms of mission (act), and the same goes for ecclesiology. I feel like, in your book, you come up to the point of saying that the being of the church is in act, but you never actually say it. You say that the obedience of faith is “inherently a participation in the being . . . of God” (p. 93), but you don’t make the crucial reverse move: that participation in God is inherently (and we ought to add, solely) our obedience of faith. Your account needs an actualistic ontology in order to be suitable for a missional hermeneutic. Otherwise there is a substance that participates in God apart from mission. I don’t think you want that, but it isn’t explicitly clear in the text.

All in all, though, it’s a fine book. But the lack of mission is conspicuous and troubling.


David, I appreciate much of what you say, and I admit that much of my thinking on missional hermeneutics is developing—literally—day by day. But I think you may have missed some of the at least implicit (and even explicit) missional language in the book. I will try to write more about this when it’s not 1 a.m., but the most important dimensions would be (1) the inseparability of the vertical and horizontal in justification, with the stress on justice (chap. 2) and (2) nonviolence, which is of course about being and action vis-à-vis the world constituted as real or potential enemy.

Furthermore, even in the chapter on holiness, I speak of participation and theosis as other-centered love, and I do not restrict that to the Christian community. Is that not missional? And is not “holy politics” outwardly oriented? See especially p. 128.

As for ontology, I hope I make it clear that being and act in God are inseparable (chap. 1) and therefore at least imply the same for the church and ecclesiology.

I think there is more centrifugal movement in the book than you have noted, and I would hope you could look again before publishing the review!

Oh—one other thing. Please remember that as a sequence to Cruciformity, this book is taking a rhetorical stab at scholarship that divides participation in Christ from participation in God, and at piety that divides faith from obedience.

I am grateful for you compliments and critique.


Two other quick thoughts, David.
1. As you probably noted, Richard Hays blurbed the book, concluding his endorsement with the words “Gorman’s book points the way forward for understanding the nonviolent, world-transforming character of Paul’s gospel.” If the missional dimension is really conspicuously absent, then Richard completely misread the book. But I don’t think so. On the other hand, his phrase “points the way forward” suggests that a direction has been set yet there is more work to do, and I indicate as much in the book’s introduction.

2. When I speak about theosis and/or participation, I am understanding those terms narratively, as the book’s subtitle conveys. Again, there is much more to say, but it seems to me that a narrative approach to Pauline soteriology (which I think is absolutely essential to understanding Paul) is inherently missional. Or, in the words of Brian Blount quoted in chap. 2, justification is “kinetic.”


Thanks for the responses. I certainly recognize everything you’ve said. And I am in complete agreement with you on basically all of these points, esp. the issue of politics and justice. But I think a properly missional theology has to recognize that our political witness cannot be divorced from the ecclesial act of witness to Jesus Christ. Of course, our political witness is itself an act of witness, but the language of witness and proclamation and discipleship is, from what I can tell, wholly absent from the book. There is also no language of the church “being sent.”

I have an essay in the Journal of Theological Interpretation (2.2, 2008) on the Trinitarian shape of faith in Galatians. I make the missiological element central. I think you’ll find a lot to agree with, especially since I too stress the participatory element.

I do have other critiques on the theosis issue, but that’s separate from the question of mission. I’m happy to discuss those issues as well.


Most of my critiques of your book can all be found in some form on p. 93, and I’d like to quote one section that demonstrates the conspicuous lack of mission:

“For Paul theosis takes place in the person and especially the community that is in Christ and within whom/within which Christ resides, as his Spirit molds and shapes the individual and community into the cruciform image of Christ. But this process of transformation takes some human cooperation, including especially contemplation of the exalted crucified One (2 Cor. 3:18). For Paul, this is not merely a form of ancient, perhaps vacuous, mysticism, but a sustained reflection on, and identification with, the narrative pattern of Christ crucified and of its paradoxical power to bring life out of death (2 Cor. 4:7-12), all enabled by God himself at work in the individual and community (Phil. 2:12-13). This sustained reflection and identification begin in the public act of faith and baptism and continue throughout one’s life in Christ …”

Setting aside the issue of cooperation which raises problems regarding the relation between divine and human agency, the biggest concern for me is how you define the process of transformation. The words you use are “contemplation of,” “reflection on,” and “identification with.” While I know you want to define these acts in terms of our active life in the world, what is implied here is that we are transformed first through an inner process of contemplation and reflection which then (and only then) plays itself out in a life of obedience and love in the world. There is an implicit separation here between our vertical participation and our horizontal obedience, despite your rejection of this separation. The fact that you even have to say that this isn’t “merely” mysticism is telling. Furthermore, the lack of mission is all too apparent.

I think you should have dropped the language of cooperation (without heavy qualification), and then replaced the language of contemplation with something like: our identification with the crucified Christ is actualized in our active witness and correspondence to his life of faithful obedience to the Father through the Spirit.



Thanks for the ongoing critique. I think, however, that mission is implicit in your quote from p. 93, though it could have, and indeed should have, been more explicit. I cannot avoid the “contemplative” character of a text like 2 Cor 3, although for Paul and his communities this contemplation is embodied in cruciform personal and communal public existence. I am afraid that perhaps you go too far in neglecting the aspects of Paul’s thought and experience that might be called mystical (e.g. revelations and visits to heaven) and doxological (hymns, worship). These are for Paul foundational to and formative of the practices in the world that you term “faithful obedience.” Paul sees Jesus as the true glory of the true God and worships him as such, inviting others to do the same and then (using your words) actualizing that reality and its inseparable narrative in the world. To use contemporary terms, there is a difference between contemplation/worship and action (vertical and horizontal) though they are inseparable; this is spiritually and doxologically based witness/mission.

My mistake on 93 was to stop at Phil 2:13 instead of going on to the following verses that imply a mission in the world (though the tone of my sentences suggests that). I certainly also could have/should have been more explicit about the church’s task of proclamation, but to say that the call to discipleship, and the content of discipleship, are missing from this book is a puzzle to me.

I hope that my SBL paper on Phil 2 will make more explicit what was sometimes only implicit (not missing) in the book.


Just to note one more example: there is no discussion of 1 Cor. 9:19-23 anywhere in the book. You cite v. 19 in reference to Paul’s “enslavement” as an example of a Christlikeness (p. 23), but you nowhere connect this self-enslavement to Paul’s life of witness to the Gentiles, his pursuit of becoming all things to all people in order to “win” them to Christ, the translation of the gospel to other cultures, and other such missional themes.

This is what I mean by the lack of discipleship, even though you are right that discipleship as such is not missing. The book is all about “being a disciple,” but I don’t see anything about “making disciples.”



Thanks again for your input. Four quick points:

1. You are correct that the book is primarily about being a disciple, not making disciples. But I would argue that that my focus is primarily what Paul’s letters are about, and my task in writing this book is to interpret the theology, etc. found in those letters.

2. The debate is quite vigorous at the moment about whether Paul expected his communities to evangelize (however that is defined); I think he did expect them to do so, and I think they did (this will come out in my SBL paper)–but the word evangelize needs to be carefully defined. In any event, the task of making disciples (in the sense of converts) is not Paul’s primary focus in the letters, and therefore not in my book.

3. It is important to note that this book, as the Introduction states quite clearly, is a sequel to my 2001 book Cruciformity, which is closer to a full-blown Pauline theology. Inhabiting in many ways presumes and builds upon Cruciformity, where lots of topics and texts not covered in Inhabiting are treated. Among these is 1 Cor 9:19-23, which figures quite prominently in Cruciformity. I treat Paul’s narrative missional posture and activity in that book, and I also have a discussion of “The Missionary Character of the Colony” (363-66) in my chapter on the church.

4. Having said all that, I will be the first to admit that both I and the majority of Pauline scholars have a LONG way to go in reading Paul’s letters missionally. Let’s hope that this conversation contributes to that enterprise. I have written elsewhere that “theological interpretation” is insufficient if it does not lead to missional interpretation and thus mission. I very much appreciate your excellent JTI article on Galatians, which I have read on two occasions. It’s good to have a systematic theologian working so closely with the text of Paul and pushing all of us in good directions.


That’s very helpful; thanks. Let me just state for the record that your book is really an excellent work that I have far more praise for than criticism. Thanks for engaging my questions so thoughtfully and kindly.


Let the conversation continue and the conversation partners multiply!

10 Responses to “Theosis and Mission: The Conversation Continues”

  1. Angela says:

    Hi, Michael,
    I am looking forward to reading your new book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God. I think this book might just be the natural flow from Cruciformity. How can I say so? This excerpt that was noted above and repeated here mirrors what has taken root in me:

    But this process of transformation takes some human cooperation, including especially contemplation of the exalted crucified One (2 Cor. 3:18). For Paul, this is not merely a form of ancient, perhaps vacuous, mysticism, but a sustained reflection on, and identification with, the narrative pattern of Christ crucified and of its paradoxical power to bring life out of death (2 Cor. 4:7-12), all enabled by God himself at work in the individual and community” (Phil. 2:12-13).

    I have been experiencing a rather unique transformation over the last couple of months. Once the concept of “Cruciformity” was reassessed and grasped in my mind, my spirit hungered to reflect on Christ crucified. From out of my contemplation came a spirit of servanthood like I’d never seen lived-out in me before!! Over this past weekend, I ministered to several people in ways that confirmed that the Lord’s mission was at work through me. I have fixed my focus and identity on the Crucified Christ narrative; I now see with eyes of compassion which compel me missionally onward. I can confirm this inhabitation of the Cruciform God by my change of heart and missional mindset.
    So, I look forward to reading, Inhabiting the Cruciform God and hearing your missional reading of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

  2. MJG says:

    Hi, Angela,

    And thanks for this. It is really good to hear the “full circle” in your words–from contemplation to service/mission. Some folks worry that contemplation sounds privatistic or non-missional.

    There is a book out there called “Not the Cross but the Crucified.” I’m not sure what the book’s thesis is, but it should be that living in Christ/the cruciform God is about a dynamic relationship with Christ that is embodied in concrete practices–not an unhealthy devotion to the cross per se or to “suffering” As I have said on numerous occasions but never written (as far as I can remember), cruciformity is not the work of God unless it is, paradoxically, life-giving to others (see 2 Cor 3-5, etc.)


  3. Michael N. says:

    I do agree that mission is at least implicit in the book, not least in the chapter dedicated to the theological significance of Paul’s master story including the narrative identity (cruciform) of Jesus and the participating church. It is also explicit in the last section of that same chapter (“communal kenosis for the good of the world”).

    For a book under 200 pages it seemed enough to work out theosis and the cruciform God. I am hoping that future conversation includes how this participation in the cruciform narrative identity relates to non-human creation and other subjects such as art and aesthetics.

    With respect to Paul’s “mystical and doxological” thought, I was reminded of the book “Ascension and Ecclesia” by Douglas Farrow where he is discussing Irenaeus, the eucharistic community and the world:

    “But the church, believing in the renewal of creation, offers an oblation which commits it to a life of responsible engagement with the world for the sake of its transformation. Not that the church itself can or will accomplish that transformation from below, so to speak, or assist the world to do so…Indeed, the new possibilities implanted in its oblation by the Word and the Spirit, just because they are eschatological, consistently thrust the church back to the cross as the ground and pattern of its engagement. But in the cruciform life of the church, in the witness above all of its martyrs, is the evidence of an unrelenting devotion.”

    These works (i.e. contemplation and worship) are not so much preliminary or foundational to outreach as they are part of that work. How can it be otherwise? If the church truly does participate in the cruciform narrative identity of God, then when it breaks bread it does not do so only for its own transformation, but also for that of the world.

  4. Mike Cantley says:

    I’m gonna jump in with the not so novel reminder that we are missional, like it or not—and ready or not! An over-anxious turn toward strategy may tragically forego what we are to be. We’ve got lots of messed up missional history when our “be” has been screwy. If this discussion is not about an over-anxious turn toward strategy, then you’ve—thankfully—been talking about something not so far apart all along. I don’t think either of you guys are separating “participation in Christ from participation in God” or “piety that divides faith from obedience.” So, with that said, I’m glad to cheer for both of you:

    For MJG – Sir, arguing that this work is not about mission has some analogical kinship with arguing that Philemon has nothing to say about slavery. If we could, by God’s grace, get as kenotic and theotic as you and Paul point us, we would not miss a step in our mission. Kenosis does not imply mission. It is categorically explicit. It is ontologically explicit. To get/be kenotic is astounding theotic missional presence! May we keep aiming ourselves this direction.

    For DWC – Perhaps—instead of antithetical—your review might be offered from the perspective of how a grasp of MJG’s work, esp. Cruciformity/Inhabiting, will properly inform/vivify mission. Your point will be sound and your review will be much more of the missional heuristic you want to offer. Kudos for the import you give mission! It can rightly be part of the seamless garment for this—Cruciformity/Inhabiting, that is—to be what is “sent.”

    Thanks for you both “talking out loud,”
    Mike C.

  5. MJG says:

    Mike C.,

    Thanks for your good words to/for both of us, and for the reminder that kenosis is inherently, not implicitly, missional.

  6. MJG says:

    Michael N.,

    Thanks to you, too. “Communal kenosis for the good of the world” is clearly missional, though one might (rightly or wrongly) conclude that it is not evangelistic.

    Thanks also for pointing us to Farrow’s book and paragraph, and for raising the question of non-human creation, etc. As for non-human creation, I think Norm Wirzba and some of his students at Duke are moving in this direction, but I’ve not yet thought it completely through.

  7. (posting here as e-mail did not work)
    Dear Dr. Gorman:

    I have just finished reading your book Elements of Biblical Exegesis and just wanted to thank you for your efforts. I have been a pastor for nearly 30 years and found much to refresh my thinking in this area. I am a former United Methodist who has gravitated to conservative evangelicalism and while I could differ with some of your editorial comments, I want to commend you for the wealth of practical suggestions and your obvious passion for understanding God’s Word.

    Jesse Waggoner

  8. MJG says:

    Dear Jesse,

    Thanks for the comments; I’m glad you benefited from the book. Hope you have the second edition!!

    Blessings on your ministry!

  9. Sue says:

    What could the name/title “inhabiting the cruciform god” possibly refer to that is in any sense real in the now quantum world of 2009.

    A quantum world which Einstein (via E=MC2) told us that everything is just a temporary always changing (moment to moment) modification of energy or play of light.

    Put in another way, ALL of this is just a Light show, or a boundless field of radiant energy.

    Blake: Energy IS eternal de-lite (delight)

  10. MJG says:


    Before you make broad generalizations, may I ask if you have read the book? If not, why don’t you? From the post, it would seem that you are up to the intellectual challenge.

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