Archive for September 10th, 2009

“One-Way” Participation or Theosis?

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Over at his blog, Bruce Hamill has an interesting reaction to the main contention of my book Inhabiting the Cruciform God. I am reproducing it and my response here:


Recently I have been thinking about Michael Gorman’s claim that Paul’s account of human participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus amounts to theosis. Basically the claim is fairly simple (grounded in his reading of Philipians 2, Galatians and Romans). If this kenotic existence is truly the life of God in history then to participate in it is to participate in the life of God – ie theosis. In the light of this claim I was reading Bruce McCormack’s article. “Participation in God, Yes; Deification, No”. Basically it is an attempt to show how the ontologies of both Jungel and Barth allow for an important distinction between creator and creature, human and divine being, while acknowledging a real participation of humans in divine being. I came across this statement, which provoked some thought.

“Participation in God is, for Jungel, participation in the relation of the Son to the Father. It is not participation in the relation of the Father to the Son which constitutes the life of God.”

It seems to me that this implies that the way to establish the distinction between human and divine is to acknowledge that the (Father-Son) relationship is constituted by at least two relations. The Father relates to the Son (relation 1) and the Son’s relates to the Father (relation 2). This in turn presupposes two perspectives, that of the Father and that of the human Son Jesus.

A further question then arises, this time not so much about relationship as about identity. What constitutes the Son’s identity? The Son is not merely a perspective, but an agent in history (who has a perspective). The identity of the Son is that of a history constituted by both relations. And the relationship that these relations conjointly constitute is one of mutual love, or the confluence of the love of Father for Son and Son for Father. This is expressed biblically as the Son doing the will of the Father so that the theoretical possibility of a divergence of wills (my will and not thine be done) is overcome in the history (of the Spirit’s empowerment of Jesus) whereby the wills in fact converge (not my will but thine be done = my will is to do thy will) according to a logic of persuasion rather than necessity or causality.

If this distinction is valid then we could qualify Gorman’s kenotic paulinism by saying that to participate in the life of the Son is to participate (humanly, partially, historically) in a relationship from one of its poles as a result of being conformed to the Son by the Spirit.

McCormack summarises the Jungel-Barth view thus:

“These differences notwithstanding, Barth and Jungel have arrived at a very similar conception of participation in God. For both, participation is an eschatological reality whose ground is to be found in Jesus’ relation to the Father. For both, participation in god is mediated by participation in the humanity of Jesus – a participation which takes place in this world only actualistically and by way of anticipation of the realization of eschatological humanity. In both cases, the older metaphysics has been set aside in order to achieve a relational and historical understanding.” [emphasis mine]

I have one remaining question: Why only?

My Response (slightly edited):

Bruce, Thanks for the post and for the heads-up on my blog. I was nervous that you had really taken me to task! I have not read Bruce’s article lately, but I have two concerns from this post.

First, I think that there is a misplaced fear among some Protestants (and I am a Protestant) that theosis blurs the distinction between humanity and God. It does not; rather, it preserves it. This issue came up at Princeton last spring when I gave a seminar on my book to the biblical faculty and PhD students. I made the point I am making here, and when concerns were expressed, the Orthodox NT professor there, George Parsenios, rose to my defense. The orthodox (lower-case “o”) Orthodox understanding of theosis does not allow humanity to become God; that is not what deification means.

Second, I worry that making a distinction between “conformity to the Son by the Spirit,” or what we might call Christosis, and conformity to God [the Father], or theosis, by stressing a “one-way” relationship of Son-like obedience (one might also say faith[fulness]) as the sole meaning of participation, creates some serious problems…. [It] separates something that Paul keeps closely together: the faithfulness of the Son and the faithfulness of the Father, which is also to say the love of the Father for the world and the love of the Son for the world. The cross reveals that Christ’s love and faithfulness are simultaneously God’s love and faithfulness. If God the Father in self-giving love gives the Son, who obeys the Father as an act of love both for the Father and for the world, then participating in this love cannot be participating in a one-way relation. Rather, the situation is much more dynamic and complex, and to participate in the life of this God is to become like both the Son and the Father inasmuch as the Son is like the Father in the faithfulness and self-giving love we see especially on the cross. That is to say, the cross reveals that Christosis is not merely full humanization or participation in the humanity of the Jesus the Son; it is also theosis, or divinization, christologically understood.