Becoming the Gospel: A Book Review

Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation and Mission is written by Dr. Michael J. Gorman. Dr. Gorman is an accomplished author and theologian who specializes in the theology and spirituality of the Apostle Paul[1]. At the seminary where he teaches, he has held the Raymond E. Brown Professorship in Biblical Studies and Theology since 2012[2]. Dr. Gorman earned his M.D. and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary and has lectured in Catholic and Protestant churches and seminaries around the world[3]. Dr. Gorman is the author of several books in addition to the one criticized, including Participating in Christ: Explorations of the Theology and Spirituality of Paul, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters, and Cruciformity: the narrative spirituality of Paul’s cross[4].

Theme of becoming the Gospel

The theme of the book is to encourage Christians not just to believe the gospel, but to become the gospel.[5]. In the introduction, Dr. Gorman admits that this idea is not new and describes the work of David Congdon and his thesis that the Christian life is the act, the life and the mission of God.[6]. However, in describing his thesis, Dr. Gorman says he agrees with Congdon and describes his thesis as “theosis – the Spirit-activated transformative participation in the life and character of God revealed in the crucified Messiah and risen – is the starting point of mission”[7]. One of the strengths of the book is that the introduction gets to the heart of what Dr. Gorman is trying to convey about Paul and evangelism. Those who participate in the life of Christ participate in the redemptive work of the word of Christ[8]. He describes the gospel as revelatory and through theosis we participate in God’s mission. Dr. Gorman is careful to describe what is meant by theosis here, as some Christian traditions have a different meaning. According to Gorman, it is participation in the mission of God which is made possible by the Spirit for the Christian.[9]. In essence, the Christian is empowered to participate in God’s mission, and thus becomes in some way the gospel.

The image of God

God’s mission, or Missio Dei is highlighted in the first chapter. Gorman says that for Paul, and we by extension, hold that God’s mission is to bring salvation to the world for those who have faith[10]. Moreover, the mission is that of liberation to free people from the power of sin and death.[11]. One of the strengths of the first chapter is its emphasis not just on the gospel message, but on not reading Paul with Western eyes.[12]. It is not about what God does in the individual, although that is important, but about God working through the churches to transform humanity[13]. Finally, Dr. Gorman gives seven reasons why Paul says salvation is participatory. There is a language of Baptism, a parallel language of justification and faith, the language of being in Christ and Christ within, the language of being clothed with Christ, sharing, transformation of those who are in Christ, and the language of sharing Christ[14].

Becoming the Gospel and Hemeneutics

In Chapter Two, Dr. Gorman introduces what he calls missionary hermeneutics. This method of reading Paul focuses on his interpretation from a missionary perspective. It differs from the theological in that the focus is on the Christian community sent out to transform the people and places around them.[15]. He emphasizes that mission is the reason the church exists, it is participation in God’s mission, and mission must be the guiding framework.[16]. While I understand the point that Dr. Gorman is conveying, it is a weakness in the book in my opinion. There is no doubt that missions should be a priority, but to be the main hermeneutic in which to interpret Paul is a bit of a stretch. In his defense, Dr. Gorman anticipates this objection by stating that missionary hermeneutics would uncover the theological.

Theological virtues

In Chapter Three, Dr. Gorman presents the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love[17]. Most readers might think that by bringing up these virtues, Dr. Gorman would start discussing 1 Corinthians 13, but that is not the case. This “triad”, as he calls it, actually appears twice in 1 Thessalonians[18]. Gorman points out that Paul has a different order than we are used to and uses faith, love, and hope. His explanation of these virtues is a strength of the book, and it is something that is not sufficiently addressed. In his explanation, Dr. Gorman states that Paul lists hope last to give it the greatest importance.[19]. These virtues are emblematic of a spiritual battle over steadfastness and represent much more than an attitude.[20]. As noted earlier, the three virtues appear twice in 1 Thessalonians, and they do so at the beginning and end of the book. This was not done by accident as one is prescriptive and the other is descriptive and describes the Christian identity we have in Jesus Christ.[21].

God’s righteousness

In chapters five and six Dr. Gorman describes peace, or shalom, or God and in chapter seven he brings this together with the justice of God.[22]. It is a strength because the justice of God goes hand in hand with the peace of God. It’s something not often talked about, but Dr. Gorman is up for the challenge. Justice is a biblical concept that we see in many parts of scripture, especially in the Old Testament.[23]. Regarding justice, Dr. Gorman states that it is not just a mandate, but part of a relationship with Almighty God. Some may see this and think judgment, but that’s not what Dr. Gorman is trying to say. Biblical justice is missionary and includes caring for the poor, orphans and widows[24]. It’s not something we do because it feels good and feels good inside, but it’s an extension of who God is. By doing this, we participate and become the Gospel. Justice is an attribute of God and is related to the peace of God[25]. One cannot exist without the other. Did this concept exist in Paul’s writings? Dr. Gorman admits it’s hard to find and is there if you’re willing to look. It exposes seven bonds that Paul gives with justification and justice[26]. This part of the book is considered a weakness in my opinion. I am in no way saying that a link does not exist, because there is. However, the links given by Dr. Gorman focus less on scriptural links and more on linguistic and behavioral links.

Becoming the Gospel is recommended

In conclusion, this book is very stimulating because it obliges the believer not only to believe but to be active. To be a Christian is to participate in the mission of God and involves more than going to church on Sunday morning. Some may say it’s works-based justice, but that’s not what Dr. Gorman is saying. What he is saying is that if we give ourselves to God, we want to participate in his mission. The Gospel is about transformation and will lead to action[27]. The Holy Spirit works through those who believe.

This book is very technical in places and there is ecumenical language, such as theosis, which may confuse those who cling to a single Christian tradition. That being said, it may not be the best book for the average person on the bench, although the message is definitely for everyone. The book challenges Christians to become what they say they believe and let Christ transform them and use them to accomplish his mission.

Bibliography

Gorman, Michael J. Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation and Mission. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2015

[1]. “Faculty,” www.stmarys.edu, accessed November 28, 2021, http://www.stmarys.edu/seminary/faculty/dr-michael-j-gorman/.

[2]. Same.

[3]. Same.

[4]. Same.

[5]. Michael J. Gorman, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation and Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2015), 1.

[6]. Ibid., 4.

[7]. Same.

[8]. Ibid., 6.

[9]. Ibid., 7.

[10]. Ibid., 23.

[11]. Ibid., 24.

[12]. Same.

[13]. Same.

[14]. Ibid., 33.

[15]. Ibid., 52.

[16]. Ibid., 54.

[17]. Ibid., 63.

[18]. Same.

[19]. Ibid., 64.

[20]. Same.

[21]. Same.

[22]. Ibid., 212.

[23]. Same.

[24]. Ibid., 214.

[25]. Ibid., 215.

[26]. Ibid., 223.

[27]. Ibid., 298.


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