Michael J. Gorman’s wonderful “theological introduction to Paul and his letters,” Apostle of the Crucified Lord (AOTCL) moves forward in its interpretive praxis through a (primarily) participationist hermeneutic.1Gorman (and this is not unique to his scholarship) correctly distinguishes between the Gospel ens a se on the one hand and the benefits of the Gospel on the other.
“[We] must always remember that the good news for us is that we can now participate in the grand story of God; ‘personal’ benefit and experience…must be placed in the larger context of God’s salvific activity. In other words, for Paul, realities like ‘justification’ and ‘salvation’ are social or corporate realities; we experience them with other people” (AOTCL, 134).
This distinction is perhaps one jumping off point, a conceptual springboard, from which we can begin to expand on pressing ideas in the air among left-wing Christians today. Christians together “constitute the covenant people of God” (135). What this means is that the texture of reconciliation with God must not, cannot, and will not begin with individual people reconciled to an individual God; it begins, much to the contrary, with a storied God redeeming his beloved people in space and time as the fulfillment of his freely willed determination to be the God of love in freedom, the God who wills to be with human beings for all eternity. Gorman terms the individual components of the Gospel as its “benefits.”
Barth, in his lecture-series-turned-book Evangelical Theology, wrote of the requirement of dogmatic work to have “the character of a living procession.” He provides a helpful analogy: we should not, as theologians and dogmaticians, think of any single of aspect of theology in “splendid isolation” from others. To do so would cause the movement of one’s work to be like a bird trapped in a cage, rather than a bird in flight. If only one were to view a particular theological issue in light of an entire dogmatic enterprise.2
In the same way, never mind the question of necessity, were we to begin this project of socialistic theology from the vantage point of the human individual in “splendid isolation” from other human beings, it would establish an interpretive grid that passes through various themes and ideas as a caged bird, rather than as a bird in flight. What’s more, the imagery of a bird in flight is apropos: inasmuch as we can imagine many birds in formation, a flock of birds speaks to the mystical reconciliation and liberation shared in and through Christ in our metaphysical Union with him.
The human community is not identical to the community of God, but the community of God is contained in the human community. Every person, being an image bearer, is meant to mirror God’s divine kavod as an apostle of his Edenic-restorative mission. All have turned away from this mission — we build our houses on sand, rather than on the immovable rock. The liberating power of the Gospel is the emancipatory procedure through which God manumits, enfranchises, and coronates his children as heirs to the promise. This is in effect God’s freely willed binding of his selfhood to human nature, eternally (in his will as the moment of his being, eternally unfolding in the energies of the Spirit) and in the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and glorification of Jesus Christ. The liberating potentiality of the Gospel is actualized in the dialectic movement of the already-not-yet schema.
As the community of Christ, we are made alive together with and in Christ though the power of the Spirit by virtue of God’s grace and lovingkindness:
“4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4–7 NRSV).
A communitarian praxis is heavily dependent on the theology of being made alive, being resurrected (Auferstanden zusammen), together and in toto. Here we do not appeal, as contemporary liberal theology could, to the postmodern idiosyncrasies of constructive theology, e.g., along the lines of Gordon D. Kaufman.3Rather, we would do well to consider Bonhoeffer’s main ideas in Sanctorum Communio.
Cf. Gorman, AOTCL, p. 4: “[The participationist perspective] stresses transformative participation in the death and resurrection of Christ as the central dimension of Pauline theology.”
Cf. Barth, Evangelical Theology, pp. 9–10
Cf. Molnar, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity, for a critical survey of Kaufman’s ideas vis-à-vis modern Trinitarian debates.