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.