Paul and the Incarnation

We students of Paul tend to be rather myopic about the role of the cross in his theology and spirituality. Some of us have begun to broaden a bit to grant the resurrection a more significant role. But few of us have sufficiently listened to Paul on the subject of incarnation.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me, at least, that for Paul incarnation is as inseparable from the cross as is resurrection. A few texts to keep in mind:

Phil 2:5-8

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Note here that there are no fewer than four phrases that express incarnation—(1) emptied himself, (2) taking the form of a slave, (3) being born in human likeness, (4) being found in human form—to anticipate and complement the subsequent stress on the cross. To have the mind of Christ is to be incarnational as well as cruciform, and the two realities, both Christologically and practically, are mutually interpreting.

2 Corinthians 8:9

9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

Here Paul grounds his plea for generosity on the part of the Corinthians in the incarnation. This is one of Paul’s “interchange” texts that connects his Christology to his soteriology: Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is, as the early Fathers put it. But also, as in Philippians 2, this text is not only about Christology and incarnation, but also about the mind of Christ and ethics.

Romans 8:3-4

3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

This is another kind of “interchange” text, with the emphasis on God’s initiative (rather than Christ’s), but again with a combination of soteriology and ethics. There is also a very evident Trinitarian theology here. (2 Corinthians 9:15 is also more theocentric, balancing 2 Corinthians 8:9: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” 2 Corinthians 5:21 is similar in structure to Romans 8:3-4, but its emphasis is on the cross.)

Galatians 4:4-6

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

This is perhaps the first text people think of when they say “incarnation” and “Paul” in the same breath. Like Romans 8:3-4, here there is a Trinitarian theology expressed in the parallelism between God’s sending of the Son and God’s sending of the Spirit. The soteriology is expressed as redemption and adoption (see also Romans 3:21-26, with emphasis on the cross, and Romans 8:1-17, with similar emphasis on the experience of adoption and knowing God as Father).

With these texts in mind, we can draw five very significant conclusions:

1. Incarnation and cross are inseparable.
2. Both incarnation and cross are necessary for our salvation.
3. Both incarnation and cross express the self-giving love of God in Christ.
4. Both incarnation and cross should narratively shape the Christian believer and community into the image of Christ, decisively affecting Christian praxis in multiple ways and in all areas of life.
5. A Pauline theology/spirituality of theosis (becoming like God, in Christ, by the Spirit) is able to hold incarnation and cross together. And with that link, incarnation, cross, and resurrection/exaltation are all tied together in Paul.

(In addition, at least implicitly, the parousia may be parallel to the incarnation. But that’s for another day. Now we only need to discern how aspects of the “life of Christ”—or at least his teachings—fit into Paul’s narrative theology from incarnation to exaltation. Not enough work has been done here, either.)

9 Responses to “Paul and the Incarnation”

  1. David B. Capes says:

    I find myself in complete agreement with Professor Gorman on this post. While I do not perceive a fully developed doctrine of the incarnation in Paul, I do think the concept of incarnation is present in a variety of places and ways in his letters. I agree that the passages he suggests are best interpreted against an incarnational scheme.

    Let me offer another passage that Prof. Gorman did not. I wrote about this in an article published in the Festschrift for Alan Segal and Larry Hurtado, ISRAEL’S GOD AND REBECCA’S CHILDREN: CHRISTOLOGY AND COMMUNITY IN EARLY JUDAISM AND CHRISTIANITY (Baylor Press, 2007). I argue that a proper reading of Paul’s pesher-like interpretation of Deuteronomy 30 is best understood against an incarnational schema. Paul interprets this important TORAH text as the descent of the Messiah from heaven (incarnation) and the ascent of the Messiah by resurrection. I think this indicates that Paul believed the Messiah existed in heaven prior to his earthly sojourn. I am not convinced by Dunn’s argument that here he refers to the parousia or descent of the risen Christ for reasons I outline in the article. Furthermore, other intertextual echoes in Rom 9:30-10:13 indicate that the Messiah is none other than the stone of stumbling and therefore THE LORD (read here the tetragrammaton: Isaiah 8 and 28), the one upon whom the faithful must call. If all this is so, then I believe we have here an early form of incarnational Christology.

  2. msheddem says:

    Dr. Gorman,
    Thanks for these thoughts as usual. But coming from a seminary that holds the incarnation word very close it seems we throw too much in it. A lot of my friends use incarnational language in two awkward ways: 1) it is often used to refer to God’s complete “yes” to the world and humanity but has no divine “no” in it and 2) it makes an good comparison for what we do (Isn’t that ministry so incarnational?) that seems to lose the uniqueness of Christ.
    The thing I worry about the most around the people who use the word incarnation the most is that it seems like a sort of modern avoidance of the cross. We like the premoderns have no problem with our god’s taking on flesh, but them losing and dying not so much. That is also might require that of us is often missing in discussions regarding the incarnation. Surprisingly I most often hear the term used by Christians in the arts because them the incarnation acts a call to creativity in way that the cross can fall flat.
    Is there any where in the biblical text where we are commanded to pick up our own “incarnation”? I would never seperate the incarnation and the cross but it seems we need the cross in a different way. Mark’s gospel doesn’t seem to need it that much either.
    As always I appriacte your thoughts. (None of this really serves a critique of you, considering your books are focuses more on the cross, but just some thoughts on the bag this type of theology has looked like sometimes.)

  3. MJG says:

    David/Prof. Capes—

    Thanks for the feedback and the intriguing reference to Romans and your article, which I will now read.


    I hear your concerns. I would of course in no way want to diminish the uniqueness of Christ, but I don’t see how that would necessarily follow from focusing on incarnational ministry any more than it would follow from thinking about taking up one’s cross.

    And while it is true that what makes Christianity unique is not so much incarnation as crucifixion (Hans Kueng famously said this in the ’60s), my point is simply that students of Paul have neglected incarnation when in fact he keeps incarnation and cross together, at least in some texts. If I am right that they are inseparable for Paul, then it seems that the real theological problem lies, not in using incarnational versus cruciform language, but in using one to exclude the other when they need to be both connected to each other and mutually interpreting. That is, incarnational living/ministry must always be cruciform, and cruciform living/ministry is not something arbitrary but is in fact a reflection of and even participation in the being/life of God.

    Are we commanded to take up our incarnation? Perhaps not explicitly, bit Phil 2:6-8 implies something like that because incarnation and cross are two stages or dimensions of God’s self-giving love. Not essentially different is 2 Cor 8:9.

    As for Mark, he may not have a full-blown incarnational theology, but if the true nature of the Son of God is revealed on the cross, and if the cross reveals the true nature of divine Sonship, we are not far from the necessary conclusion that imitatio Christi is imitatio Dei.

  4. Josh Rowley says:


    I appreciate your desire to hold “incarnation and cross together” (after the example of Paul). I’m wondering how doing so might inform one’s understanding of atonement. Does what you have in mind fit with one or more of the established atonement theories or metaphors? Do you consider theosis (“becoming like God”) to be an understanding of Christ’s atoning work? If so, then do you think it is broad enough to make sense of all of the many NT soteriological images?

  5. MJG says:


    Thanks for your message and thoughtful question. I am working on some possible public lectures on incarnation and atonement in Paul for next fall, so I am just beginning to formulate some of this. Morna Hooker (Christ and Adam) has done some basic work on the topic, but it has been largely neglected.

    In my view, the major atonement theories in the West have largely ignored the Eastern emphasis on theosis, recapitulation, and the like. This does not make the Western theories wrong, but perhaps they at least need to be supplemented. I am very hesitant to boil down the rich variety of biblical and later visions of atonement to one vision/theory/metaphor, but I do think that we need to correct the Western visions by incorporating theosis into them. My own view is that a covenantal view of the atonement works nicely with incarnation and theosis: Christ became what we should have been (faithful to God and loving to neighbor), which was expressed supremely in his death, and that faithfulness and love are the essence both of true divinity and true humanity. When we participate in Christ’s faithful and loving death, we are raised to new life and made both truly human and truly divine (i.e. Godlike).

    As I read the NT, I find something like that everywhere. It is related to other aspects of atonement (deliverance from powers, forgiveness of sins, etc.), but it is much more prominent—and much richer theologically and practically—than many people realize.

  6. Trey Palmisano says:

    Dr. Gorman, the motif of being God’s son can be found throughout Jewish literature, and one argument has been that being a “son of God” does not distinguish a unique relationship between God and Jesus, but rather shows him to be a “divinely appointed” sage/prophet/teacher who shows us the more perfect way to communion with God.

    Yet, it’s clear from the verses you’ve brought to the forefront here that Paul has something different in mind. I like your use of Galatians 4:4-6 as an example. Paul could have said “God sent a Son.” But by using the possessive pronoun “his,” Paul is electing to show a relational quality between Father and Son, which goes beyond the covenantal language of Psalm 82:6 (you are all sons of the Most High). Romans 8:3-4 does the same thing, adding “own” to qualify Christ’s sonship.

    Finally, I was intrigued by 2 Corinthians 8:9 as a proof text for your notion of theosis. It reminded me of the way Paul often takes two concepts “many” vs. “all” (in Romans 5:18-19) in one statement and reverses the position of the words in the restatement to show how God has reversed the situation for our good. In this case, Christ who was rich became poor to grant us poor humans the blessings of his richness.

    It seems your doctrine of theosis must defend against two extremes: those who do not accept the incarnation and those who do and as such make godhood a possibility for all.

    How would you answer critics of theosis/incarnation language who say that in John 1:1 (for example) the noun “theos” is a class noun that simply indicates Christ as being of a divine nature (but not necessarily equal to God). Some have used 2 Pe 1:4 to make this suggestion.

    Second, what keeps theosis from becoming a full-blown doctrine of man becoming god, as is common in the theology of the Latter Day Saints? Kurt van Gordon raises such a concern when he states in recent years that Latter Day apologists have been revisiting the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of deification which derives from the Greek “theosis” to invest their own doctrine with greater credibility that man can become god. What points of your working out of theosis protects against making such leaps?

  7. MJG says:


    Thanks for these thoughtful questions.

    A few things:

    1. One has to look at “Son of God” language (or justification language, or “Lord” language, or whatever) in Paul and see what he actually says, not merely compare it to its usage in his world. The linguistic context contributes to, but does not control, the use and interpretation of the language in a particular author. Paul reworks everything in the light of Christ and the Spirit (as NTW is fond of saying), and that bursts the wineskins, (That said, I would look for Son of God precedent in royal and missional/representative language. but “his own” is a very important part of Paul’s discussion of Jesus’ sonship.)

    2. 2 Cor 8:9 is not a prooftext but an exemplum/example—a big difference. This is one of the “interchange” texts cited by Hooker.

    3. Important theological terms are always subject to misuse and misinterpretation. At SBL Robert Jewett expressed a concern (which I share) that Americans could misunderstand theosis as sanctioning their drive for power and imperial rule of the world. But the Christian tradition has always said that in theosis humans never cross the uncrossable line/divide between creature and Creator. I have recently heard Orthodox theologians re-emphasize this, even in person, to second my own position on that.

  8. Josh Rowley says:

    Thanks for your reply, Michael.

  9. MJG says:

    My pleasure, Josh. Maybe the covenantal-theosis view will make it into your study of atonement theories one day~

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