Thursday, February 21, 2008

Book Review: Reading Paul

My thanks to the great chaps at Wipf and Stock for a review copy of Michael J. Gorman's Reading Paul, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008

It is not often that I am as excited about getting a book in the post as I was waiting for Michael Gorman's Reading Paul. Apart from the fact that Gorman is a most accomplished Pauline scholar, I simply love introductory books on biblical themes. Indeed, if I'm honest, even if a book is targeted for beginners I often learn a lot more from them than many others. Also promoting my interest in this book were the blubs by Richard Hays and Joel Green, both of whom were fairly unrestrained in their praise of this little book: 'This splendid introduction to the Apostle Paul is the best book of its kind', said Hays; 'Michael Gorman has given us an extra ordinary gift', wrote Green!

But what particularly attracted me to this little book
was its focus. Instead of detailing a Pauline chronology and the various steps in Paul's missionary journeys (matters that tend to leave me a little cold), Gorman focuses upon providing a framework for understanding Paul's theology. In practice this means that Gorman examines, after three chapters on Paul, his letters, and his gospel, 'eight themes that a lie in and behind his letters' (6). Gorman's project is not, however, an exercise in abstract theologising, but rather aims to present Paul's letters as Christian scripture. He argues:

'To be sure, there is merit in remembering that Paul and his letter-recipients lived in a culture different from our own. We need to acknowledge the distance between now and then, and we need to employ tools to understand "then." But the perspective that stresses difference should not be the governing view we bring to the reading of Paul. If it is, we betray the apostle's own purpose in writing and forget the very meaning of the word "Scripture."' (4)

As I noted in a previous post, Gorman introduces his task by attempting to summarise Paul in one sentence. This sentence introduces all the themes that he will seek to unpack in the following chapters. He first examines the apocalyptic in Paul. Quite rightly, in the next chapter, he goes on to examine 'the Gospel of God' in terms of covenant faithfulness. Gorman thus avoids the false either / or between apocalyptic and covenant. Naturally he draws from Tom Wright's work at this point, especially his language of Christ as the 'climactic event' of God is dealings with Israel (68). After examining the meaning of Christ's death in Paul, he turns, in chapter 8, to examine the meaning and (eschatological) logic of the resurrection in Paul and the meaning of the statement 'Jesus is Lord'. In this chapter Gorman pays particular attention to eschatological claims and is careful to emphasise the physicality of Paul's hope.

In a chapter that no doubt some will want to read first, Gorman then turns to the question of justification by faith. Naturally, he emphasises participation in Christ. To no doubt cause disappointment for some and prompt others to sing for joy, he explains in a brief footnote his position on E. P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism:

'Although other aspects of this book have been rightly challenged, and although Sanders does not offer a fully satisfying account of the connection between justification and participation, he was on the right track' (113 n.6)

However, Gorman maintains that there are several interlocking streams of biblical thought informing Paul's understanding of justification/righteousness (114-115). This enables him to not only lampoon 'cheap grace' but also affirm that there is truth in different approaches to justification in Paul (traditional Protestant and 'new perspective'). For Gorman 'justification and participation are two sides of the same coin, the coin of relationship to God in Christ by the Spirit, because faith for Paul is above all sharing in the fullness of Jesus that culminated on the cross ' (130).

Gorman then goes on to discuss the meaning of the church as 'God's countercultural and multicultural beloved community that walks in the Spirit of Christ' (143). This leads naturally into his eleventh chapter and a discussion of his notion of 'cruciformity'. He proposes that '[h]oliness for Paul, we have suggested, is a countercultural life shaped by the presence of the crucified and resurrected Christ who is present within his people' (145). He maintains that '[c]ruciformity, conformity to Christ crucified, is Paul's all-encompassing spirituality' (165). It is within this frame that Gorman discusses the meanings of 'faith', 'Love' and 'hope'.

In chapter 12 he returns again to eschatological themes. He argues that '[g]ross misunderstanding and misdirected zeal characterize much popular, and even some more sophisticated, theological reflection on the things to come' (179). Of course, this involves the compulsory sideswipe at the anti-creational Left Behind novels!

The themes of the final chapter (the character of God, the theopolitical character of the Gospel and the church, some things that should mark out the church, and the inseparability of faith, hope and love) show particularly clearly how Gorman, in this book, has treated Paul's letters as scripture. Indeed, at end of each chapter is a useful summary as well as a number of questions for reflection. In other words, this is an ideal book for group discussion on Paul. In fact, I plan to use it soon in a church group myself.

I will not here detail all potential points of disagreement, but I will mention just a few thoughts. First, I remain unconvinced that '[c]ruciformity, conformity to Christ crucified, is Paul's all-encompassing spirituality' (165). While not directly engaging with this question, the kind of material analysed in my doctorate puts a question mark after such a claim. Second. I'm not sure that Wright's language of 'climax', which Gorman simply adopts, is the best. While I suspect Scott Hafemann goes too far in the other direction, do see his critique of Wright on this point in his review of The New Testament and the People of God in JETS 40 (1997), pp. 305-308. Third, I am not sure Gorman managed to grasp the historically contingent nature of Paul's eschatology firmly enough (cf. the works of Andrew Perriman for more on this topic. Though like Hafemann, I suspect he goes too far at various points as well). I would also have liked more discussion about the practice of reading the context of the OT texts which find allusion and citation in Paul's letters. Of course, it is easy to make such 'know-it-all' comments at the end of a review. The hard work has been done by Gorman, and I agree with Green: Gorman's book is indeed a precious gift.



At 2/21/2008 8:59 PM, Anonymous J. B. Hood said...

Great review--I have been impressed with Gorman's previous books and can't wait to read this one.

I have to say I think Gorman is right on cruciformity, CT. I think this is far more crucial to Paul than we realize, and I think we are slow to realize it because our tradition(s) have LEFT it BEHIND so to speak. In the broadest sense it seems to me cruciformity (dying to the world, dying to flesh and self, and giving one's self in the service of Kingdom and others) holds much of Pauline spirituality together.

I will wait for further discussion till you are in a vulnerable state at SBL (i.e., after you've had a beverage or two).

I appreciate your willingness to step in where Jim W left off and critique NTW. What would you sub for "climax"?

At 2/21/2008 9:50 PM, Anonymous Nick Norelli said...


Great review! I absolutely adored this book (as can be seen from my review), so much so that I loaned it to a friend (and I NEVER loan books out). He loved it so much that he put himself into further debt and ordered Gorman's Cruciformity. Now after your mini-critique of this point of Gorman's I'm going to have to borrow that book from my friend and see if I agree with you. :-)

At 2/21/2008 10:21 PM, Anonymous dan said...


Good to see this review. I've been a fan of Gorman's for a good couple of years now and I've got to say that I side with him (and j.b. hood) in seeing cruciformity as central. Of course, I tend to think that what one does with the notion of cruciformity is frequently dicated by one's context. Journeying as I do, with some of the 'crucified people of today', it is only natural that I would be drawn to this theme -- so why is it, I wonder, that you aren't as convinced?

Anyway, I've had Reading Paul on order for over a week now; I'm expecting it any day and, after reading your review, I await it even more eagerly!

At 2/22/2008 8:44 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi JB,
OK, lets be clear at the outset. I'm right; and you're wrong. Now that this is clarified, let me continue.
Actually, I don't deny that cruciformity holds much of Paul's spirituality together. But I don't see it as Paul's "all-encompassing spirituality". For my reasons why, see my forthcoming!! (I'm right - if I didn't say that before)

As for 'climax', I prefer simply 'inauguration'. The covenant promises were inaugurated in Christ. WHat do you think?

Hi Nick,
Thanks for the link to your review. Don't just read Gorman’s book on cruciformity, but also my forthcoming! As I said to JB, I'm right. It's hard being humble, but I try. But I'm still right. :-p

Maybe you are right that there are deeper reasons for my slight disagreement with Gorman at this point. But as I said to JB, it is not that I think the notion of cruciformity is absent from Paul. Not at all. It plays a big part and Gorman shows us why. But I don't think it is accurate to claim it is Paul's "all-encompassing spirituality". I'll detail my reasons for this judgment when I share details about my thesis on the blog

At 2/22/2008 2:03 PM, Anonymous Nick Norelli said...


I'll read anything as long as you send me a FREE copy! (Dissertation included!) :-)

At 2/25/2008 10:10 AM, Anonymous Craig Bennett said...


I wonder if there needs to be more reflection done on Paul in the same way there needs to be some more done on a more holistic Spirit led Christology, instead of the normal Spiritless Christology?

That way when we speak of cruciformity, its not us doing it, but as Paul says Christ in him.

At 2/29/2008 3:13 PM, Anonymous Michael J. Gorman said...

Craig says (in a few words) what my book Cruciformity says in a few more--especially chapter 3 on the Spirit, but also other chapters.

Cruciformity is not a form of semi-pelagianism or works-righteousness or even normal human effort, though it requires what Catholics call cooperation. Rather, it is the work of indwelling Christ/the Spirit of the Son in the individual and the community.


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