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Review of Michael J. Gorman, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission

Author: Zane B. McGee
Published: Summer–Fall 2017

MD 8.2

Article Type: Review Article

MICHAEL J. GORMAN. Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission. The Gospel and Our Culture Series. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015. 351 pp. Paperback. $28.00.

Michael J. Gorman is professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary & University (Baltimore, MD) and has authored several works on Paul, participation, and mission. This volume builds upon the theological groundwork laid in two previous works1 to argue that participation in the character of God cannot be separated from participation in the mission of God. In short, being cannot be separated from action, so that such participation is “the starting point of mission and is, in fact, its proper theological framework” (4).

To argue his central thesis that the apostle Paul “wanted the communities he addressed not merely to believe the gospel but to become the gospel” (2), Gorman begins (chs. 1 and 2) by considering Paul’s view of the missio Dei as bringing salvation to the community of faith, humanity, and ultimately the cosmos. Such an expanded view of “salvation” invites (or demands) missional participation as reflected in seven features of Paul’s letters, such as his “co-” language (Greek: syn-). The difficulty, however, with asserting the missional nature of Paul’s teaching arises from the apostle himself in that direct commands to evangelize are rare in the Pauline letters. Nonetheless, it is clear that Paul expects his churches to embody the mission of God because, though not all are called to become “evangelists” of the gospel, all are expected to become the gospel (42–45). Gorman argues that biblical reading must be shaped by a missional hermeneutic which broadens our conception of mission and evangelism to include participation in the character and mission of God.

After establishing the conceptual and theological framework of his thesis, Gorman turns to demonstrate how this missional participation unfolds in the Pauline letters. First Thessalonians presents the Pauline triad of faith(fulness), love, and hope, which manifest as virtues of the Father, the Son, the Spirit, and Paul, their apostle (ch. 3). The Thessalonians are called, then, to embody these same characteristics found in these exemplars (90). This embodiment means expressing virtue through action, so that the church becomes “public, holy, and full of faithfulness, love, and hope” (102). In his letter to the Philippians (ch. 4), Paul appeals to the “master story” in his recounting of the Christ hymn (Phil 2:6–11), which serves as “a missional Christology for a missional people” (109, 116, 121) and encourages them to continue striving in the face of suffering. The kenotic example of Christ serves as the foundation of their faith and the paradigm for their present and public action.

From here, Gorman turns to examine a less explored, though no less significant, aspect of Paul’s theology: peace. Chapter 5 offers an overview of the Pauline corpus, where peacemaking creates communities of reconciliation and provides a missional imperative. This concept is more fully explored in Ephesians (ch. 6), a letter which centers around peace and nearly transforms the Pauline triad to faith, peace, and love in its final prayer (Eph 6:23; on authorship see 183). This letter reveals a community that has been shaped by the peacemaking work of Christ and is called to enact this mission in the world so as to become “the gospel of peace” (6:15).

Chapter 7 shifts to justice, a prominent concern in the prophetic tradition, to ask whether Paul’s use of dikaiosynē speaks primarily of justification or of justice. This question is explored through various reflections of justice in Pauline thought, culminating in an abbreviated analysis of the Corinthian correspondence. The reader is reminded that for Paul, “God is the God of justice, and the church is a community of justice; justice is both a divine trait and an ecclesial practice” (258). Chapter 8 takes up a topic explored in previous works by Gorman, which argue that theosis—“becoming like God by participating in the life of God” (261)—is the focal point of Romans. Glory is presented as a divine attribute in which the church, “as the missional community, sought out for salvation by God and sharing that salvation with others” (285), is able to participate. Each chapter above concludes with a brief look at practical examples from modern communities who are creatively enacting such missional participation.

Gorman’s writing throughout is clear and his arguments plainly presented. The work aims to be accessible to scholars, pastors, and leaders (10), and the book provides material for each. The main body cogently introduces Gorman’s primary arguments while the ample footnotes offer resources for further engagement, and the extensive indices aid in locating subjects, authors, and specific texts. The volume’s greatest strength is its theological foundation, as it is through-and-through a theological exposition on the missional calling of the Christian community. As such, for those seeking practical or strategic advice, it is lacking, as Gorman himself admits: this book “is not a handbook for mission but a foundation and a stimulus for it” (15). Additionally, it may be noted that while the participatory nature of Paul’s theology is well supported, the author at times (unnecessarily) pushes his reading of periphery texts too far (e.g., his argument that Paul’s anxiety for his converts evinces their public participation in mission; see 75 and elsewhere). The presentation would be strengthened by allowing the principal texts to stand on their own strength and by not coercing less amenable passages as secondary evidence.

Gorman’s volume provides a broad theological interpretation of the Pauline letters which produces the seemingly simple thesis that, “because the cross reveals a missional God, the church saved and shaped by the cross will be a missional people” (9). As Paul’s own letters attest, this was not a simple task for the earliest recipients of this message, and it remains just as challenging for the church today. Gorman helpfully reminds us that being a “missional” people means more than “winning souls,” but instead becoming a people who enact the missio Dei in our individual and corporate lives.

Zane B. McGee

PhD Student, New Testament

Emory University

Atlanta, GA, USA

1 Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001); Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).

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