Conformed to the Image of His Son: Reconsidering Paul’s Theology of Glory in Romans

Haley Goranson Jacob, Conformed to the Image of His Son: Reconsidering Paul’s Theology of Glory in Romans. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018. xvi + 328 pages. $32.00, paperback.

One can only thank Haley Goranson Jacob for her recent book Conformed to the Image of His Son. This book helps us rethink Romans. It helps us explore the topic of union with Christ in Paul in deeper ways. It helps us gain a clearer sense of the meaning of “glory.” And in so far as it explores this last topic with modern linguistics in mind, it represents a serious attempt to apply this field to New Testament studies.

The focus of Jacob’s book is Romans 8:29: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (ESV). Her conclusion is that “conformed to the image of his son” expresses “vocational participation.” Christians presently share Christ’s vice-regency over the world, and this ought to provoke them to see their current responsibility in the world. In Jacob’s own words:

What I have argued here in Romans 8:29-30 is that Paul sees that those conformed to the image of the Son are those who, though once participants in the Adamic submission to powers of sin and death, now participate in the reign of the new Adam over creation. Mankind’s position on earth as God’s vicegerents to his creation is now restored, though now through the image of the Son of God, who reigns as God’s preeminent vicegerent. The depiction of humanity being crowned with glory and honor and established with dominion over creation in Psalm 8 is now again a realty. (226)

To arrive at this conclusions Jacob pays close attention to the theme of “glory” (δόξα, δοξάζω), since this word-group is strategic throughout Romans, and especially because it occurs climactically in the next verse: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (ἐδόξασεν)” (ESV). Jacob takes seriously the aorist as implying past tense (aspect?), and uses this to argue that already Christians are to some extent honored as the head of creation, albeit in a nuanced way:

We must now ask, “At what point are believers conformed to the image of the Son?” Or, “When are God’s children glorified?” The answer to this question is not easy to secure, particularly in Romans 8, where Paul’s articulation of the redemptive narrative is decidedly inter tempora. In Romans 8:17-18, the glory of believers is yet to come; according to Romans 8:30, believers are already glorified. (233)

And so this book is as much an exploration of the meaning of glory as anything else.

Yet further, Jacob makes an important contribution to the subject of union with Christ. Could Paul’s overall language of union be as much about Christians embodying Christ’s stewardship as anything else? To the extent we decide “yes” is the extent to which Jacob’s work may reshape our thinking about this important topic. On this point, note that Jacob’s PhD (on which this book is based) was done at St. Andrews, where Grant Macaskill teaches. Jacob rightly lauds Macaskill’s 2013 book on union with Christ as one of the most important contributions on the subject (130). It is unsurprising therefore that her own review of this topic is crisp and penetrating (123-30). This is a section not be missed.

There are also some very provocative gems. At one point Jacob broaches the subject of whether we should still think in terms of a “now but not yet” eschatology. She then draws on the important discussion by Philip Esler. This is entirely correct, because if “vocational participation” sums up Paul’s union with Christ perspective, perhaps realized eschatology is “an unnecessary modern intrusion on Paul’s thought” (234). Jacob is quoting Esler here, and does not draw this conclusion. But in at least broaching this subject (as she must), Jacob raises an important question worthy of further consideration.

Among other notable elements, I found her comments on the role of Romans 5:12-21 helpful. As she says, in quoting someone else, this section is often “treated as the ugly stepsister of the family of major sections in the letter to the Romans.” Jacob suggests that to understand it properly, we must read it in light of Paul’s use of glory in 5:2: “Often overlooked, however, is that Paul primarily addresses [in 5:12-21] the reason why God’s people have hope in the glory of God” (117).

I have referred already to Jacob’s contribution to the study of glory (δόξα, δοξάζω). But now I wish to say something more about how her contribution in applying modern linguistics.

In looking at “glory”, Jacob has been willing to do what few New Testament exegetes have done. She has been willingness to considering modern linguistics. It is not that others have been against doing this. Indeed specialists of Koine Greek like Con Campbell, Murray Harris and Stanley Porter, have all recently commended cognitive linguistics. But while they have dipped their toe in the water, none have taken a plunge. Jacob carefully takes a plunge into applying modern linguistics (22-29), which is commendable.

There are some elements in this book that give reason for pause. In particularly, I think of Jacob’s application of the Adam tradition to Romans and specifically her suggestion that Psalm 8 is being echoed. She admits that this is somewhat precarious (75-84), which is admirable. But is it wise to rest so much on something so precarious? Also, much seems to rest on “glorified” being past tense in Romans 8:30. But what of modern discussions of aspect, which tend to challenge wholesale temporal readings?

Also, while Jacob is very willing to interact with a swath of literature, both conservative and non-conservative, one might have hoped for more. I am thinking particularly of the important recent work of Crispin Fletcher-Louis on Adam as God’s idol. Jacob refers to his earlier work, but only in two footnotes, and only by noting other’s critiques (110-11). As one is reading Jacob, Fletcher-Louis’s work comes often to mind, especially because “image” is a major theme alongside “glory” in both Romans 1:23 and 8:29. One would have hoped for closer dialogue, even if to explain where she sees Fletcher-Louis lacking.

Also, going back to the topic of language studies, Jacob makes no reference to the vital recent study of Marilyn Burton, The Semantics of Glory: A Cognitive, Corpus-Based Approach to Hebrew Word Meaning (2017). This work parallels her own, not only in dealing with the topic of “glory” but also in doing so in light of modern linguistic. Of course we can forgive Jacob for not including this work. It was published too close to her own book, and clearly after Jacob finished writing (xv). Yet knowing that Burton’s work was available as an electronic dissertation as early as 2014, and that her work was also done at a nearby Scottish university, makes it all the more regrettable that Burton was not a serious dialogue partner.

What is particularly notable about Burton’s work, but in a way that also illustrates that more work is needed (see van der Merwe’s 2018 review of Burton), is her willingness to contemplate metaphors as potential unifiers of language. While the work of Lakoff and Johnson on metaphors has been criticized, the more recent discussion of Kövecses alleviates fear. The study of metaphors, sensibly considered, suggests that unifying stories lie behind many words. It is particularly interesting that Jacob neglects to explore this approach to metaphors, given that her doctoral supervisor was N. T. Wright. It would have been intriguing to see Jacob interact with Burton, particularly because this may have forced her to more fully consider the importance of story/metaphor in terms of “glory.”

This leads naturally to a final comment. While it is thoroughly understandable that Jacob would want her book to stand out on the subject of “vocational participation”, in contrast to other theories of union with Christ, one wonders if such a sharp distinction needed to be made. This is particularly so when it comes to relational elements being wholly excluded by Jacob from how Paul might have understood ‘glory’ in Romans. On page 216 she asks, “What does it mean to inherit ‘the world’?” This is a good question. She then proceeds to emphasize is that it means a real inheritance of the real world. This fits with her “vocational participation” with Christ. But in doing this she feels the need to deemphasize relationality. Speaking of Romans 4:13 and what it meant for Abraham to be promised “the world,” Robert Jewett in his Romans commentary notes that as with the Sermon on the Mount it is “a nonpolitical and at any event nonmilitary form of imperialism” (Jewett, 325-26). He goes on to say that this cannot be spiritualized “by reference to the eschatological future” but should be seen as “current experience among converts”. So far so good, in terms of Jewett aligning with Jordan. What this means according to Jewett then is that “Their inheritance of the world had ready (sic) begun, ‘but through righteousness of faith’” (326). One cannot help but think here of the much-overlooked work of W. D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land (1974). Davies is willing to emphasis how participation with Christ may actually fulfill the land promise to Abraham: “it was “located” not in a place, but in persons in whom grace and faith had their writ. By personalizing the promise “in Christ” Paul universalizes it. For Paul, Christ had gathered up the promise into the singularity of his own person. In this way, the “the territory” promised was transformed into and fulfilled by the life “in Christ” (179). What is neat about Jewett’s analysis and that of Davies is that both are willing to see the importance of Christians already having an important impact in the world. But for both there remains an emphasis on a relationship with Christ as an important part of how this happens. Jacob disagrees. She seems quite adamant that any emphasis on relationality when it comes to “glory” in Romans is misguided. Note particularly her pushback from Jewett (216-17). Note also her comments on Carey Newman’s famous work on glory: “Paul’s use of δόξα in Romans 8:18, 21 implies believers’ exalted status as humans designated to have dominion over creation and not, contra Newman, a restored relationship between humanity and God” (219). One wonders whether a more thorough application of cognitive linguistics by Jacob may have led to a more unifying picture of “glory” as including both relationality and honor under some deeper metaphor, which would then allow for relational elements in (for example) Romans 8:15, 31-39 to be seamlessly integrated.

A rather minor criticism is how Jacob (not untypical of New Testament scholars) gives all credit to Albert Schweitzer for modern innovations concerning Paul (124-25), whereas Wilhelm Wrede’s 1907 book on Paul ought to be lauded as the true ground-breaking work. Also, while the book includes a fully bibliography and subject index, there is no scripture index, making it hard to cross-reference her discussion of key biblical texts.

These criticisms, in the final analysis, however, are given with an eye to what might have been. It is because Jacob has come as a master chef, with a deliciously provocative feast, that one is inclined to wish for more.

It seems to me that her basic idea that glory in Romans 8:29-30 means “honor” and that to be “conformed to the image of his son” must at least include humanity’s current position as ruler over the world, are correct. And so, with appreciation in mind, I suggest this book will be valuable for anyone wanting: (1) to understand Romans better; (2) to gain better insights into “glory”; (3) to be stretched further on New Testament language studies; or (4) to further explore union with Christ. This is an impressive list for a 300-page book in what is a most significant publication from InterVarsity Press.

Bruce Lowe
Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta