“One-Way” Participation or Theosis?

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:

Bruce:

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.

6 Responses to ““One-Way” Participation or Theosis?”

  1. Halden says:

    Thanks for posting this exchange. I think the real problem I have with McCormack’s account is in one of the quotes that Bruce posted:

    “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.”

    Does this not directly imply that the Son’s relationship to the Father, in contrast to the Father’s relationship to the Son does not constitute the life of God? How does it even make sense to say that the Son’s relationship to the Father is not constitutive of the divine being? Clearly the Father cannot be the Father outside the Son’s relationship to him. To arbitrarily claim that the Son’s relationship to the Father is not constitutive of the divine life seems extremely wrongheaded to me.

    While I generally like McCormack a lot, this sounds like a sort of subordinationism that cannot ultimately be acceptable.

  2. MJG says:

    Halden,

    Thanks for the comment, with which I agree. Bruce M. is an old friend from Princeton days, and I have benefited from his work, too, but this line of thought strikes me as causing more problems than it solves in trying to avoid theosis. An undocumented rumor says that when certain folks hear people like me talk about theosis, their reaction is, “Can’t Protestants just be Protestant?”

  3. bruce hamill says:

    Here’s my response cut and pasted from my blog… I still don’t know much about the finer points of blogging technology.

    No I had no plans to ‘take you to task’. In fact I agree with what you are saying here, but wonder how different it is from what McCormack is trying to say. Arguably to participate in the Son’s relation to the Father is not exclusive of participating in the Father, but the means of participating in the Father. However, it is not a direct participation, but participation by means of humanisation in Jesus the Son. As you say the Father and Son share a love for the world but this does not blur the distinctions between them in that the Father sends and the Son does not, the Son is a human being and the Father is not.
    On rereading my post, I don’t think I was suggesting that we ‘participate in a one-way relationship’ but rather that we participate one-way in a two-way relationship which is constituted by reciprocal one-way relations (if that makes sense).

  4. I’m going to come to the defense of Jüngel and McCormack, because I think they are right. What’s missing here is the recognition that what constitutes the life of Jesus as the definitive revelation and actualization of God’s being is the fact that God is the one who does it. As Barth puts it, God has elected this man Jesus to be God’s self-revelation. To say that the Son’s relationship with the Father constitutes the life of God is only true if that relationship is one that God has elected and determined. The fact that this election, as I would put it (in a rather Jensonian way), coincides with the life of this man must not obscure the important differentiation between the divine decision and the human correspondence to this decision. What makes Jesus the self-revelation of God is the fact that he is determined from beginning to end by the triune God’s determination to be this particular human being. Put differently, Jesus is the actuality of God because he wholly and perfectly corresponds to his election. One gets the impression from what is being said here that Jesus elects God, rather than the other way around.

  5. MJG says:

    David,

    Thanks for weighing in. I hate to do this but I need to plead (a) “I’m not a theologian or the child of a theologian” and (b) that my extensive reading of Barth was many years ago. However, I wonder about some of these assertions:

    1. “As Barth puts it, God has elected this man Jesus to be God’s self-revelation. To say that the Son’s relationship with the Father constitutes the life of God is only true if that relationship is one that God has elected and determined.”

    This seems to me to be quasi-adoptionistic and to put a huge chasm between “God” and “Jesus.” Jesus is not the self-revelation of God because he is elected but because he is, from all time, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.

    2. “What makes Jesus the self-revelation of God is the fact that he is determined from beginning to end by the triune God’s determination to be this particular human being.”

    Same problems, except now exacerbated by the sharp distinction between “the triune God” and “this particular human being.”

    I certainly do not want to make Jesus the “initiator” of God’s self-revelation by means of electing God/the Father, but neither is it satisfactory to imply that this Jesus of Nazareth could have been anything other than the self-revelation of God.

    Bruce,

    Thanks for the clarification. You are right. I completely agree of course that the Son and the Father are not identical, that the Father sends the Son and not vice-versa. But ultimately, I think, participating one-way in a two-way relationship is still not the same as becoming like God, or becoming the righteousness of God, or glorification, or… theosis. I don’t object to the humanization of course, but I see no theological (or exegetical) reason to prevent us from saying that in becoming like the Son we also become like the Father, or to prevent us from saying that to be in Christ is to be in God [the Father]—see 1 Thess 1:1. If incorporation into Christ is incorporation into God, then (human) obedience does not exhaust the meaning of participation in this life that is made possible by incorporation.

  6. ajk says:

    I too thought “subordinationism” after reading “Participation in God is, for Jungel,….” (And possibly elsewhere adoptionism: “the human Son Jesus”?) It could be said that “It [our participation in God] is not participation in the relation of the Father to the Son” as, for instance according to Zizioulas, theosis is a “participation not in the nature and substance of God, but in His personal existence.” (Inserting the word “directly” after “God” might better convey what Zizioulas is saying in a fuller context.) Our alignment is directly with the person of the incarnate Son (not the Father or the Holy Spirit), becoming/being by grace — adopted sons — what the Son is by nature. The expression “the relation of the Father to the Son which constitutes the life of God” is also ambiguous. If it is referring to the monarchy of the Father (which is not subordinationist) then it needs clarification, but I don’t think that was the intended meaning.

    Even more problematic for me is “… participation in god is mediated by participation in the humanity of Jesus” etc. To me (as it stands) this significantly misses the thrust of the sarkosis-theosis exchange. It is the Word who became flesh and who shares our human nature. In the traditional expression of theosis, we “become god” we “participate in God” (upper/lower case intended) not just through one shared (and common) nature, “ the humanity of Jesus,” but through the Divine Person, Jesus, true God and true Man, who perfectly unites the two natures. It is not our participation in the” humanity of Jesus,” but the participation of God, Jesus, in our humanity that is the ontological imperative. This finds liturgical expression in a prayer said at the Offertory in the Tridentine Masss: da nobis …, ejus divinitatis esse consortes, qui humanitatis nostræ fieri dignatus est particeps, Jesus Christus, Filius tuus, Dominus noster.

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