Fear of Theosis

Why are so many Protestants afraid of theosis? This is the term, used primarily in the Eastern Christian tradition but now enjoying a revival more widely, for becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter): becoming like God, a process that begins now and culminates in eschatological glory. Other terms for theosis are deification, divinization, and christification. We come to share in God’s life especially God’s holiness, and immortality. Some of us even argue that there is a spirituality of theosis in Paul.

I have heard or inferred the following objections to theosis:

1a. OBJECTION: Theosis blurs the distinction between humanity and God, implying that humans become God/gods. (Subtext: theosis sounds like Mormonism.)
1b. RESPONSE: The Eastern tradition has always denied this claim and reminded us that creatures always remain creatures and never become God. Theosis does not negate the ontological difference between humans and God.

2a. OBJECTION: Theosis misrepresents the appropriate relationship between humans and God, which is to be primarily one of recognizing the difference and distance between us as sinful humans and God as the Holy One.
2b. RESPONSE: Theosis does not negate the moral difference between humans and God or deny the importance of worshiping God as the Holy One in this life or the next.

3a. OBJECTION: The idea of theosis—even the term—is especially dangerous for people who live in contexts of great political power because they will be tempted to adopt a kind of spiritual and political megalomania.
3b. RESPONSE: When an important theological term or concept poses problems, the solution is not to jettison the term or concept but to define and articulate it carefully and, if necessary, polemically in order to prevent misunderstanding and misuse.

4a. OBJECTION: Theosis is not the language or theology of the Reformation. (Subtext: if we give on this, we’ll soon be either Orthodox or Catholic.)
4b. RESPONSE: Yes and No. No, because recent interpretations of the Reformers and their theology suggest something more like theosis, or at least participation and union, was at the heart of Reformation theology. Yes, because the Reformation did not get everything right–or even get everything. There are aspects of salvation that have been overlooked by the Reformation and especially its heirs. Yes again, because the pre-occupation of some with a juridical approach to justification and salvation has made them blind to the inadequacies of that approach and to the strengths of other dimensions of salvation.

5a. OBJECTION: Theosis is not the language or theology of the New Testament.
5b. RESPONSE: Again, Yes and No. Like many other important theological terms, such as Trinity, eschatological, Christus victor, participation, etc., the word “theosis” does not appear in the NT. That does not mean, however, that the reality to which the term points is absent. If people of antiquity, Gentiles and Jews alike, were preoccupied with becoming like God/the gods, as many people have observed, it would be odd indeed if the early Christians did not share this concern and goal for human existence. If one looks carefully at the NT documents, one finds again and again language about sharing in God’s life, holiness, and immortality—which is the essence of theosis. Or, as I have argued in my book Inhabiting the Cruciform God, in Paul (and throughout the NT, I would add) becoming like Christ, cruciformity, is really becoming like God. That is, cruciformity is really theoformity, or theosis.

33 Responses to “Fear of Theosis”

  1. Scott Watson says:

    Dr. Gorman, thanks for this post! Beyond the great work that you and others are doing in establishing theosis in the realm of critical NT Studies, the theological vision and socioreligious praxis of the Desert Fathers, who saw themselves as inheritors of the vision and praxis of Jesus (hence the use of the term “evangelical life” to describe monasticism).

    In practical terms this meant a deconstruction of the culturally-inscribed self through asceticism to facilitiate process of the transformation of the Holy Spirit, in the image of God in Christ, embodying your theses in Inhabiting the Cruciform God. As one whose journey has taken him from Charismatic Christianity to Orthodoxy–and views every step as a blessing–my contention is that one’s allegience and Christian identity is grou

  2. MJG says:

    Scott—thanks for this, but I hope you finish it!

  3. Scott Watson says:

    I’m having some tech difficulty on my laptop but the following is what I meant to write:…grouned in the person of Jesus Christ. When I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” at 17 and experienced a powerful transformative experience by the Holy Spirit, I knew this was bigger than a particular “theology” and particular ecclesial identity, just as long it was within the orthodox Chrisstian tradition. With your work my love for critical biblical studies and converged with the spiriituality and theological journey God has led me on. Thank you!

    Rev Dn. “Irenaeus” Scott Watson

  4. Dr. Gorman, I am glad that you posted on this subject. I agree that the Eastern Orthodox conception is often misunderstood and often paralleled to Mormonism. I am also sympathetic, to an extent, with those who object to theosis based on it’s theological implications. I do believe that theosis can be misinterpreted and lead to blurred lines between humanity and God as well as imply that humans, who have become “like” God, are able to be sustained autonomously in and of themselves. This misinterpretation, as you have stated above, is often one of language. I see that you have mentioned this in objection 5 but, would it be more beneficial and less ambiguous to use the language of “participation” rather than theosis? Implying that we become like God, not because we are made like God, but because we participate in God’s being. The language of “participation,” although it is also not used in the NT, preserves the distinction between humanity and God and it also claims God as the source of human sustenance. Just some thoughts. Thanks for your post

  5. MJG says:

    Andrew—I agree that theosis can be misinterpreted, but that’s exactly what it is: misinterpretation. Could not the word sanctification be similarly misunderstood?: “I do believe that [sanctification] can be misinterpreted and lead to blurred lines between humanity and God as well as imply that humans, who have become ‘like’ God, are able to be sustained autonomously in and of themselves.”

    Becoming like God is certainly very biblical (e.g., “You shall be holy for I am holy”), and it clearly implies (like a metaphor) difference as well as similarity. Although I use and thus clearly do not object to the word “participation,” it is equally subject to misinterpretation, and both more vague than theosis and potentially more problematic in terms of blurring the distinction between humans and God. Moreover, participation does not have the rich history in the church (even in parts of the Western tradition) that theosis has.

    Bruce McCormack at Princeton has an article entitled something like “Participation, Yes; Theosis, No”; I’ve not read the article in a while, but I think he’s obviously sympathetic to your concerns but also clearly not a pure soteriological juridicist.

    All of that said, we need to re-read and re-think and re-articulate as precisely as we can the good news, not merely of forgiveness, but of transformation and participation (there I go!).

  6. Michael: Thank you very much for this post. I’ll be sending people your way!

  7. [...] on Objections to Theosis Head on over to Cross Talk and do check out Michael Gorman’s recent post on objections to theosis, becoming like God, a process that begins now and works toward completion throughout the [...]

  8. I think that the term theosis gives meaning to the term ‘godliness’. GOD-LIKE-NESS.

  9. Dr. Gorman,

    I tried to email you but it didn’t work. Here is my email:

    Hello Dr. Gorman,

    I just wanted to ask you a quick question regarding your view of the
    atonement. In the footnotes of your book Reading Paul I sometimes get
    the impression that you reject any notion of Penal Substitution. I was
    wondering if you could clarify your views. I adopt a form of this
    model but I place it in the larger framework of God’s dealings with
    Israel. God is faithful to his covenant and so he punishes, quite
    justly, idolatrous behavior. As a result, his people go into exile
    (God withdraws, though not completely, from his people). Humanity and
    the people of God face God’s curse because of their unfaithfulness.
    Yet God promises that he will be faithful to his covenant promises.
    God desires to ransom and reconcile a people for himself and this is
    done on the cross. Jesus enters into that state of exile (or God
    forsakeness) on our behalf so that we might enter into his kingdom,
    his blessed new creation. Through this act the covenant has reached
    its climax. I see this as a form of penal substitution. Do you agree?
    I hope this made sense; I wrote it in a hurry.

    In Christ,

    Nick Mitchell

  10. MJG says:

    Nick:

    Sorry for the email problem.

    Your interpretation of penal substitution sounds like traditional reformed theology read through the lens of Tom Wright. I don’t doubt there is some truth in your view, but I don’t really hear Paul’s voice in it. While I affirm that there is both a substitutionary and a sacrificial understanding of Christ’s death in Paul, I think “representative” may often be better than substitutionary, and I think “penal” wrongly suggests that God is punishing Christ in our stead. If it is true that God initiates the atonement, and if God is in Christ, then Christ’s death can hardly be punishment. It is rather the expression of God’s love. To the extent that Christ suffers sin and death on our behalf and in our stead, we may speak of substitution, but it is, so to speak, a consequential substitution (the consequence of our sin, Christ’s love/obedience, and the Father’s faithfulness and mercy), not a penal substitution.

  11. Scott Savage says:

    Okay, I just want to say up front … don’t get me wrong. I have MANY reservations about the penal substitutionary metaphor of atonement. I do, however, wonder if there is room to talk about the punishment of sin. I am thinking particularly of the latter half or Romans 1. Could we not say that Sin is its own punishment? Or, as one of my NT profs says, God hands us over to the chaos for which we vote?

  12. MJG says:

    Sure, with respect to Romans 1. But there’s no connection in my mind between that and Christ’s death as penal substitution.

  13. MDM says:

    It seems the most noteworthy objection could be the third one…

    Example: I had a recent debate with somebody concerning the topic of “theosis”, and they were particularly and understandably reticent about it, as their home orientation/context espoused a sort of communism. On the flipside, I am attracted to the idea of theosis, in that I have been largely oriented around American evangelicals and penal substitution theory. And so, orientation and history deeply matters, otherwise our systematics can step on toes and push people away.

    While theosis, looks to have a strong case, biblically/exegetically speaking [not least of all, cosmogony of Gen. 1.26-28!!], I wonder if sometimes our systematic theologies get in the way of sensitivity to people’s walk – I would like to think the Bible is prismatic; the hard part is deciphering what parts need to be heard and at what time.

    I have heard Mark Baker and Joel Green talk about this topic in their book, Scandal of the Cross…

  14. Dr. Gorman, I do in fact agree with you, that the problem is misinterpretation not the doctrine of theosis itself. Thanks for the article recommendation from Bruce McCormack I will have to check it out. Also, if it perks your interest Adam Neder, a student of McCormack, addresses this issue in the conclusion of his book “Participation in Christ: An Entry Into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.” He discusses the similarities between Karl Barth’s idea of “participation” and the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis. Thanks for your response.

  15. MJG says:

    Michael—

    Objection $3 was raised strongly and publicly by Robert Jewett at SBL last fall—in response to my paper on Romans and theosis. He appreciated my cruciform definition of theosis but was “scared to death” by the term in the American context.

    As for implications for daily life: what can be more exciting than the idea of being transformed day by day into the image of God in Christ? How do we position ourselves before God and others to allow that to happen as fully as possible? How do we, by the Spirit express the character of God and the mind of Christ (the very mind of God!) in daily living???

    Andrewe—

    Thanks for the reference to Neder; I’ve not yet read the book but will now.

  16. If you’ve got access to ATLA or some other database, there’s a terrific article on the topic that’s been published recently. Gavrilyuk looks at all the positive attention that theosis has been getting from quarters where just a few decades ago the idea was shunned. He also offers some critical comments for a Protestant appropriation of the doctrine.

    Paul Gavrilyuk, “The Retrieval of Deification: How a Once-Despised Archaism Became an Ecumenical Desideratum,” Modern Theology 25, no. 4 (2009): 47-59.

    Best,
    Eric

  17. MJG says:

    Thanks, Eric. I’ve read this piece. Just to add: one can also still read it in hard copy at a good theological library, as I did!

  18. Carl Mosser says:

    Part of the problem is that the term theosis historically refers to particular, mystical development of the patristic deification tradition that arose in later Byzantine theology. (The term is never used before the Cappadocian fathers and is not used much until Ps. Dionysus and Maximus.) But modern western theologians have been using theosis as a simple synonym of the earlier patristic term theopoiesis, itself encapsulating even earlier language about “becoming gods.” Most western writers who embrace theosis are really embracing the earlier, less mystical notion of theopoesis and mislabeling it. They are not usually endorsing the energies/essence distinction, apophaticism, mysticism, or the conviction that theosis can be achieved in this life through ascetic practices–all of which are hallmarks of the fully developed notion of theosis. Rather, they are endorsing only the earlier patristic themes related to participation in the immortality, incorruptibility, and glory of God, the adoption to divine sonship, union with Christ, renewal of the cosmos, etc..

    The patristic doctrine of deification is biblical and true. It is a profound way of referring to a huge amount of biblical theology in very condensed form. Theosis as historically understood, however, is a development of the deification tradition that raises some genuine concerns.

    The easiest way to get Protestants to accept deification is (1) present it biblically without any odd sounding terminology and (2) demonstrate its presence in the Western theological tradition. In other words, present the concept, then the terminology. Of course, a lot of scholars assert that deification is an Eastern notion alien to the Western tradition. If one is talking about theosis, then that may be correct. If, on the other hand, one is talking about the earlier patristic notion as represented by Irenaeus, Clement, Athanasius, etc., then it is demonstrably false. Deification/theopoiesis is an ecumenical doctrine found in most of the major theologians of the West as well as the East. Because of linguistic changes in the West, many writers do not employ special terms to refer to it, but the concept is there. (Irenaeus used no special terms for it, so there is ample precedent for this at the root of the tradition.) Theosis is not an ecumenical doctrine, but an Eastern development of the doctrine.

    The tendency to conflate theosis with deification as such is not merely imprecise and historically anachronistic. It leads scholars to use the developed Byzantine notion as represented in Palamas, Simeon or whomever as the standard by which to judge any purported doctrine of deification. Arguably, they are not. It also perpetuates the notion that deification is alien to the West and that those of us who promote it are hankering after an exotic flower. But once we make a careful distinction here and start focusing on the early patristic concept, it becomes easy to show that this is a doctrine with a very good Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist and even Baptist pedigree.

    –Carl

  19. MJG says:

    Carl,

    Thanks for this very informative post. I certainly concur that deification (I’ll use your term for a minute in contrast to theosis) is present in theologians like Irenaeus, etc. without a special term, that its early formulation has deep biblical roots, and that the term theosis takes on a life of its own: “the energies/essence distinction, apophaticism, mysticism, or the conviction that theosis can be achieved in this life through ascetic practices–all of which are hallmarks of the fully developed notion of theosis.”

    I guess I would quibble a bit with your insistence that theosis and deification still refer to two very different realities. In my own experience and reading of recent treatments of theosis and deification the terms are largely used interchangeably, and theosis is not generally defined in terms of energies/essence or in terms of the means to achieving it. It seems to me that we may wish to distinguish theopoiesis/deification and theosis with precision in speaking of historical developments and differences, but at the same time use either or both terms to refer to, and re-articulate, the fundamental biblical notion of “he became what we are so that we might become what he is.”

    What do you think?

  20. Dr. Gorman,
    I don’t suppose that you subscribe to the way in which Jesus was divinized, do you? Do you think that someone that develops morally will all have the same convictions about what is “divine”, or “holy”, or “good” or “just”?

    It seems the “concept of theosis” has not been defined, other than saying that it divinizes men. But, what if the apostles, scribes and canonizers of scripture and church tradition has had its own reasons for protecting itself through exploiting religion, in the name of the ‘good’? Is that ethical?

  21. MJG says:

    Angie,

    Your question puzzles me. Jesus was not divinized; he was and is the second person of the Trinity, so he was not divinized but his divinity was recognized and articulated.

    As for different convictions about divine, holy, etc., of course they exist. For Christians the basic sources for understanding holiness, etc. are the texts of Scripture.

    Finally, as for self-protection, exploitation, etc., of course those activities are not ethical. Christians and Jes believe that sometimes God works in spite of human sin. (Correction: usually, not sometimes.)

  22. Carl Mosser says:

    I agree that in much recent literature the terminology is used interchangeably, usually in reference to what I consider to be the earlier, less mystical doctrine. When I began doing research in this area I picked up and employed that same usage. This can be seen in a couple of places in my SJT article on Calvin and deification. But as I continued in my research I began to realize that this conflation of terms really isn’t helpful and that it would be good to be a little more precise in our usage. This change in terminology is reflected (and advocated in a footnote) in my later JTS piece on the patristic interpretation of Ps. 82 and the origin of Christian deification. Here are a few reasons why I moved away from the common usage.

    1. The term theosis was not popularized until the early medieval period and was employed, presumably, because it better captured the mystical turn that was taking place in Byzantine theology than did the more traditional terminology from earlier centuries. Neither the West nor the Oriental Orthodox churches followed suit. By appropriating theosis as a generic synonym for deification, we obscure one of the more distinctive developments of Byzantine theology. Note: what is distinctive is not the presence of deification as such, but the mystical interpretation of the doctrine.

    2. The mystical Byzantine notion of theosis is still around. What term do we use to refer to that doctrine if we also use theosis to refer to earlier patristic notions that arguably differ from it in some important ways? How do we distinguish the doctrines if the terminology is identical? It seems simplest to reserve theosis for the doctrinal package to which it consistently referred until quite recently.

    3. When Western writers insist on taking over this terminology and using it a novel way, the word can lead to miscommunication. Eastern writers will sometimes use the word in its traditional sense, but Western scholars will interpret them as referring only to the less developed notion of deification, thereby not appreciating all that the author intended. Similarly, Western writers will use the term as a synonym for deification and Eastern readers will assume that more is meant by it than intended.

    4. Conflating the terminology leads many scholars to discuss the topic as if there was no real doctrinal development in this area between the second and fourteenth centuries. The ideas of everyone from Irenaeus to Palmas get conflated together and some scholars inadvertently read later notions into the early fathers or, conversely, assume that later writers really only mean what the earlier writers were saying. This skews our understanding of both individual thinkers and the development of Christian theology.

    5. Eastern Orthodox theologians and liberal protestants like Adoph von Harnack have alike argued that deification disappeared in the Western church because of the West’s theological innovations. Augustine is often identified as the culprit (for the Orthodox) or hero (for Harnack) responsible for this. Of course, Augustine spoke about the deifcare of the Christian. The typical response is that he could not have really affirmed the patristic doctrine because Augustine does not make the essence/energies distinction and his understanding of God precludes the kind of mystical participation required by the doctrine of theosis. (This, of course, begs the question about whether the developed Byzantine notion is the standard by which to judge.) Thus, Augustine does not have a real doctrine of deification and no one in the West after him does either. The result of this is that people fail to notice the presence of the doctrine in Western writers and quickly dismiss any talk of deificare as poetic, metaphorical, or hyperbolic.

    Another consequence is that it allows the Orthodox to apologetically claim that only they have maintained the patristic vision of salvation. If we draw a distinction between the earlier, less developed doctrine of deification and the later doctrine of theosis, then we can grant that theosis is not found in the West but insist that the apologetic claim does not follow. Western writers who speak of deification may indeed possess a vision of salvation consonant with the patristic doctrine, but one that has not developed along the same lines as the East—either conceptually or terminologically. The distinction allows us to see the presence of the patristic deification themes in the Western theological tradition that we might otherwise miss. It allows us to see that this doctrinal theme is not an exotic flower that we are attempting to transplant into new theological soil; it has been growing in our garden all along, we just haven’t paid it much attention.

    6. The distinction allows us to identify deification as a truly ecumenical concept encountered in the major theological traditions of both the East and West (Protestant as well as Catholic). Admittedly, it comes in different flavors and has been developed in varying degrees. But the early patristic vision at the foundation of these variations provides a basic soteriological vision upon which we can agree without any of us compromising the integrity of our theological traditions. In this regard it is like the doctrine of the Trinity. But if we do not make the distinction, then the basic doctrine will continue to be looked at as an Eastern doctrine and Eastern writers like Palamas will continue to be cited as the authoritative expositors of the doctrine. Protestants will continue to look at deification as a suspicious, imported doctrine that cannot be embraced without compromising the insights of the Reformation. Ironically, in making this assumption they fail to fully appreciate doctrinal insights found in the Reformers themselves.

    7. Related to #6, the indiscriminant use of theosis has led Western writers who are uninterested in rapprochement with the East or suspicious of the patristic tradition to assert a fundamental incompatibility between deification and justification by faith alone, as if we must choose one over the other. They are helped in this by the tendency to use Byzantine theologians as the authoritative expositors of theosis/deification since they do say things that are incompatible with any kind of Protestant understanding of justification (whether Old Perspective or New). But this is a serious category error since the patristic doctrine of deification (in contrast to theosis) is concerned only with certain elements of the ontology of salvation (incarnation and participation) and the teleology of salvation, not the means of appropriating it.

    8. The promiscuous use of theosis and the failure to carefully define terms has opened the way for theologically aberrant groups to make claims of similarity or identity between their teachings and the Christian deification tradition. I have seen odd mystical groups, neo-pagans, Mormons, and others outside the Christian tradition refer to “their” doctrines of theosis. They use the term for much the same reason that Protestant advocates do—it is short, sweet, and does not sound as objectionable as deification or divinization on first hearing. If Christian scholars did a better job defining their terms and making distinctions, it would be much more difficult for heterodox movements to hide their theologies behind the terminology.

    9. To my mind the recent habits regarding the use of theosis are analogous to what would happen if Orthodox or Roman Catholic writers began to use distinctively Protestant theological terms that are fairly well defined to refer to related but less developed patristic concepts that they accept. This would create the impression that there is more agreement than may actually exist. It would create the kind of miscommunication mentioned above. It would also lead some people to read historic Protestant texts as if all that was in view is the less developed notion now referred to by the term. This is simply unhelpful.

    –Carl

  23. Carl Mosser says:

    One more item I forgot to address. I agree that “both terms to refer to, and re-articulate, the fundamental biblical notion of ‘he became what we are so that we might become what he is.’” But within Byzantine theology theosis simultaneously can refer to an experience that is to be sought and which can be achieved in this life. It is that conviction and debate about the nature of that experience that sparked the Barlaamite controversy that ultimately elevated theosis to such a prominent position within Orthodox theology. Many of the Western theologians who freely use the term theosis merely to refer to “he became what we are so that we might become what he is” do not seem to be aware of how closely tied these ideas are in the theosis tradition of the East. Indeed, many times they are unaware that theosis is ever used to refer to an already attained experience.

  24. MJG says:

    Carl,

    First of all, thanks for offering (I think) the longest comment ever on this blog! Seriously, thanks for the detail and the care with which you make your points.

    As sympathethic to your arguments as I am, I still have a couple of counterpoints. Of course it starts with the fact that theosis is in the subtitle of my book Inhabiting the Cruciform God (the reactions to which, in part, started this post.) I’m not going to give up on it too quickly. Second, I’m not sure that all contemporary Orthodox writers use the term theosis in the ways you describe as traditionally or authoritatively Orthodox. Third, one thing I like about the term theosis is that it sounds less problematic than deification/divinization language because most Westerners intuit (and misperceive) the meaning of the latter. Fourth, I am less sure than you that we can meaningfully distinguish, at least in the study of biblical writers (and perhaps not in others) among the ontology, teleology, and means of salvation. Fifth, while I want to affirm and acknowledge the importance of precision in our language about soteriology in the various traditions, as a (Protestant) biblical theologian I am less concerned about preserving those distinctions than I am in examining them for their appropriateness in light of the biblical witness. As a post-Old and post-New Pauline interpreter, I am especially uninterested in finding in Paul the source of traditional Protestant theology—a disinterest shared by a growing number of Protestant interpreters of Paul.

    Having said all this, I will be the first to admit that I am a biblical theologian, not a systematic or historical theologian. Your perspective is important, intriguing, and tempting. Thanks. And I need to reread one of your articles and read for the first time the other.

  25. MJG says:

    I think it is appropriate, at least speaking of and for Paul, to say that theosis is partially and proleptically realized in the present. Others currently writing about the biblical text do, too. Would you be comfortable with that notion, Carl?

  26. Carl Mosser says:

    Quick points in reply.

    1. I’ve appreciated your work on Paul and have assigned one of your books a couple of times in class. Given that and my own interest in deification/theosis, I was eager to get Inhabiting the Crucified God. Admittedly, I cringed when I saw the subtitle. Its always tough to convince somebody who has committed to something in print. But its not that big of a deal to change nomenclature–you just make note of it in the next book or article. :-)

    2. You are correct when you observe that contemporary Orthodox writers do not always have in mind the fully developed Palamite notion when they speak of theosis. They use the term for both deification in general and theosis proper. Of course, the Orthodox also frequently claim that there has been no real doctrinal development within their tradition, so they deliberately conflate the notions. By following this habit of usage, we subtly lend support to their apologetic assertion.

    3. I agree that deification/divinization language can be troublesome to modern ears (including in the East). So, it makes sense to use a Greek term and then explain the content. I would suggest, however, that in contexts where this may be useful, that we use the term preferred by the early fathers, theopoiesis. Doing so would allow us to easily make the distinction between earlier and later developments, it avoids anachronism, and it does not shock people. Moreover, theologians won’t make silly assertions about the early Fathers supposed usage of the word theosis (a clear sign that they have not read the relevant passages in Greek!). Theopoiesis gives you all the advantages of theosis and none of the drawbacks. Its better than even Diet Dr. Pepper.

    4. A lot of Protestants who reject any notion of deification do so because they think it is incompatible with any traditional Protestant theology. Whether that theology adequately accounts for the biblical data or not, the simple fact that the patristic doctrine of deification can be found in Luther, Calvin, etc. should indicate that there is no substantive incompatibility. But it is hard to convince people of this because when they hear/read “theosis” they immediately look to Orthodox writers for definitive exposition. A change in terminology will make it easier to convince our fellow-Protestants to at least entertain what we are saying on this issue.

    5. I happen to think that many of the Reformers had a better grasp on Paul than many of their successors do. Because of this I am probably more sympathetic towards traditional affirmations (but not necessarily some interpretations thereof), but share the concern to understand Paul on his own terms as a Jew within Judaism.

    6. I am perfectly comfortable saying that deification in Paul is partially and proleptically realized in the present. Its basically the now/not yet structure. Saying this, however, I am a world away from Orthodox writers who describe the experience of attaining theosis in this life. Some of the themes that pop up in such talk are mystical experiences in which one lose his identity, radiating glory visible to others, becoming completely sanctified, etc.. I remain very skeptical of such reports and don’t believe that the NT points to this kind of proleptic experience.

    7. My desire for more precision is that of a fellow NT scholar who is concerned that sometimes we NT scholars pay insufficient attention to systematic and historical theology. I happen to think that the divisions between these disciplines is unfortunate and unhelpful. But for the record, while I sometimes dabble in historical or systematic theology, most of my research focuses on Hebrews, early Judaism, and related topics. For a variety of reasons, only a little of that has yet been published, but it will be eventually.

    Thank you for letting me air my concerns on your blog and your friendly interaction!

    –Carl

    –Carl

  27. Dear Prof. Gorman,

    I enjoyed your original remarks and the subsequent exchange with Prof. Mosser. Rather than post a long comment I have hazarded some remarks over at Sacred Veils.

    Best,
    Jeffrey Keiser

  28. [...] enjoy reading. I will then follow some of their blogrolls, which led me to one by Michael J Gorman. This post on Theosis was a good one. I deeply admire the Eastern Orthodox tradition and this post answers some [...]

  29. Carl Mosser,

    “Mystical” seems awfully vague as a term to do the kind of individuating work you seem to want it to do. There is arguably “mystical”material in the NT as well as figures not too far from it.

    Second, demonstrations are in fact required to show that there is an essential difference between earlier and later writers and not just a retreat to a kind of assumed minimalism. The vast majority of literature on various figures that argues that such and so’s concept isn’t that of some later figure usually proceeds by assertion or minimizing conceptional content without demonstration. Some of the best work on Ireneaus and Athanasius for example doesn’t seem to reveal any great conceptual leap on deification between them.

    As for Augustine, I think your criticism misses the mark. Since historically and even prior to Christianity, there are a variety of notions of deification one can concede that Augustine has a genuine doctrine of deification but it can’t be one the held by say Athanasius or the Cappadocians on conceptual grounds. This does not assume that one or the other is the standard, but just that Augustine’s conceptual commitments, particularly how he understands divine simplicity logically preclude it. What then is required is a demonstration one way or the other that for Augustine given his metaphysical commitments that we formally become or don’t become what God is.

    As to point 4, using the term in the way you suggest can cause miscommunication, but a few points to consider. Modern academics are Johnny come lately’s to the theosis discussion. I am not sure why the Orthodox tradition should have to make room. Terms have a history. Sure terms like “hypostasis” were used in a myriad of ways prior to Nicea, but then it was codified. It seems a bit absurd to say that given the history of usage post Nicea that we can’t use hypostasis since many positions in the history of theology used it differently. Further the Orthodox usage may cause confusion for those who take themselves to study the development of Christian theology, but this just points to a different conceptual apparatus since the Orthodox don’t adhere to an Idealistic model of conceptual development regarding doctrine.

    Also your remarks about the early patristic tradition seem to frame it as if it were compatible more or less with any Christology or any general theological model. It’s a seed that then grew into a myriad of different forms. I don’t think the early writers took it to be so and I don’t think it is demonsratable that there is some generic concept into which they all tap. This seems like a throwback to 19th century Idealism. It seems rather that there is a set of terms which receive conceptual content from various traditions.

    As for the “patristic doctrine” only being concerned with certain elements of the metaphysics of salvation rather than a means to appropriate it, this not only seems to beg the question in favor of a Reformation schema. More to the point, for Athanasius for example, the metaphysical commitments entail certain kinds of intrinsic relations that logically preclude the kinds of extrinsic relations that the Reformation theology favors. And it isn’t clear where you take the patristic doctrine to begin and end in terms of historical representatives. Is John of Damascus representative of the “Byzantine” doctrine or the earlier patristic doctrine?

    Your remarks about the controversy regarding the experience of theosis being the cause for elevating to such a prominent position in Orthodox theology strikes me as mistaken. It certainly had a high position in Athanasius as he uses it as a lynchpin against the Arians and the same is true for the Cappadocians against Eunomius and Cyril against Nestorisus. The primary issue upon which the experience of theosis in the controversy with Barlaam was the deification of the body, specifically whether or not matter per se could be God-bearing or not. Barlaam’s metaphysical commitments precluded the deification of the body because it precluded God being the formal cause of creatures and matter.

    It is that conviction and debate about the nature of that experience that sparked the Barlaamite controversy that ultimately elevated theosis to such a prominent position within Orthodox theology.

    As for a fully developed Palamite e/e distinction, we don’t need to go to Palamas for it. If we look at Maximus in his debate with the Monoenergists, the distinction between essence and energy is entailed by Dyothelite Christology on pain of monoenergism. Not to mention the fact that Michel Barnes seems to have pushed back the metaphysics into the Cappadocians with his tracing out the history of the distinction between a power and its use in Plato and the Hippocratic medical tradition.

    As for theopoiesis it certainly opens up the door that the church meant to close by ceasing to using it by permitting adoptionistic and Nestorianizing glosses on deification. That seems to be a significant draw back.

    As for the patristic concept found in Luther or Calvin, this seems to assume once again that there is some generic notion that floats free of Christological commitments. Its true we can find deification language in Calvin, but we can find it in the Stoics and Philo too.

    When you write that you are skeptical of accounts of radiating the divine glory and that the NT doesn’t pick out that kind of experience, what do you suggest we make of say the transfiguration or that objects touched by the Apostles bear divine power for healing? We could add Pauline material about visions, whether “in the body or out of the body, I do not know” or the Johannine “being in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” To simply retreat to a kind of automatic minimalism where creatures are related to God via extrinsic relations of will only seems not only ad hoc, but question begging when no demonstrations are given that such a view is drawn from the text.

  30. MG says:

    Prof. Mosser–

    You wrote: “Whether that theology adequately accounts for the biblical data or not, the simple fact that the patristic doctrine of deification can be found in Luther, Calvin, etc. should indicate that there is no substantive incompatibility.”

    I’m not an expert on Luther and Calvin, but I’m not sure that the compatibility of the patristic doctrine with reformation theology can be inferred from the fact that the Reformers used the language of the Fathers, or even agreed with the concept of deification in the Fathers (though I doubt that the latter is actually the case–they don’t seem to me to be teaching the patristic doctrine). It was possible for the Reformers (or anyone, for that matter) to adopt a patristic concept that was actually incompatible with their core theological commitments. Horton (referencing some of Mcormak’s arguments) thinks that something like this happened with the Reformers and medieval theological concepts of “infused habits”; they adopted an idea that was incompatible with the rest of their soteriology. Would you agree that the mere fact that the Reformers affirmed the language (or ideas) of the Fathers does not entail the compatibility of the patristic concepts with Reformation theology? (And thus it might be that they are compatible, but this is not entailed by their agreement)

  31. Thomas Palmieri says:

    Too much jargon. Far wiser to seek the reality of the living God than to talk it into obscurantism. God is unity. The search for endless distinctions creates disunity. Jesus said: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” And he said: “Is it not written, ‘Ye are gods.’” He did not say: “The concept of deification in the early Fathers should not be conflated with the Byzantine mystical concept of theosis.” So the early Fathers do not have a sophisticated theological vocabulary. Does Saint Palamas shine more brightly in the heavenly firmament than the great martyrs and shepherds of their flocks, Bishops Ignatius and Polycarp? For it was Ignatius who said: “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ;” and “Suffer me to obtain pure light: when I have gone thither, I shall indeed be a man of God.” And it was recorded of Polycarp, that when he was burnt at the stake, he manifested the following miracle: ‘the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch…encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is being burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace…[and gave off] such a sweet odor…as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.’ Or does the doctrine of theosis outshine the words of Saint Paul, who said: “I knew a man in Christ…(whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth); how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” Saint Thomas A Kempis wrote wisely: “I would rather feel contrition than be able to define it.” Saint Paul gave another succinct definition that sums up everything all the volumes written on deification and theosis are attempting to explain: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” God is Light, absolute unity, and pure simplicity. He sends his Spirit to teach men, and to bring all things to remembrance. The Scripture teaches us how to find God: good works, prayer, fasting, love of God and neighbor, charity towards all, spiritual reading. These are the basic indispensable elements of the spiritual life. Indian yoga is more complex due to its researches into the spiritual anatomy than anything the West has produced, yet even there it is affirmed that even simple people can reach union with God if they live morally, pray-meditate, and study scripture. Talking about so called theosis is not the same as practicing it. A Muslim scholar once related this bit of Sufi wisdom: a sage said ‘Once Sufism was a reality without a name; now it is a name without a reality.’ How true!

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  33. Anon says:

    A suggestion with respect to both theosis and the essence-energy description – check out Bradshaw’s Aristotle East and West. This was a real eye opener for me, especially his discussion of the Cappadocians. To a large extent it refutes quite a bit of Carl’s assertions, which seem to be motivated more by sectarianism than searching for understanding, frankly speaking.

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