Theosis: Does Christmas Make Men Gods?

Sometimes you’re reading an old Church Father or something along those lines when you suddenly feel the need to stop in your tracks because you hit a quote like this one from St. Athanasius:

For the Son of God became man so that we might become god.

If you’re not from an Eastern tradition of Christianity, you might think that sounds heretical.Then there are other statements like of Irenaeus: “If the Word became a man, It was so men may become gods,” or of Augustine: “But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. ‘For he has given them power to become the sons of God.’ If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods.” 

So what does this all mean? Were the Church Fathers just raving heretics who missed important doctrines like monotheism and the Creator/creature distinction? Were they basically the predeccessors of New Age charlatans? I’m going to say “No,” and if that seems indefensible I will go on to explain why, and what the line of thought they’re talking about has to offer us today, specifically from a more Reformed perspective.

The doctrine we are specifically dealing with here is called theosis (also deification or divinization). Broadly speaking, the term just refers to a creature somehow becoming more like a god. For Christian theology in particular it is about a way of looking at salvation focused on our union with God. So what exactly does theosis mean in that context?

First, I should point out that despite the strong language in those quotes I just provided, none of these people thought that humans were somehow going to become equal to God, members of the Trinity, secondary deities, or anything along those lines. What they actually meant is more nuanced. They all believed that there is and can be only one true God, and that humans can’t just become another one, or something just like Him. So we can ignore the initial fear and try to find the reality that the writers were pointing toward by using deification language. Specifically, I will look at this from a Reformed perspective, through the lens of union with Christ.

In Reformed and Lutheran circles, doctrines of theosis are sometimes called Christification to emphasize that we are not dealing with some generic turing of men into gods but that what is happening in theosis is the transformation of humanity into the pure image of Christ, who is the image of God. Theosis means that through Jesus we participate in the life and glory of God, and that is where we find salvation.

What does this mean more specifically? I’ll break it down a little more clearly. Man by his mere flesh, his nature without God, has no true life or glory. He is little more than a smart and emotionally complex monkey. He will pass away after a brief, absurd, and often miserable existence filled with sin. His life and glory can come only from God, only from His ability and call to display the image of God. The glory of God is the true life of man. But because of sin, man is separated from the glory of God. This leaves him with only death and misery.

Jesus came in to resolve this problem. Being Himself God, He took upon human nature so that in His person there could be a humanity who is truly the image of the invisible God. Jesus, being that image unstained, lived a human life which was completely filled with the glory of God both in His power and in His holy character. Unlike Adam, He carried out that union of man’s life and God’s glory all the way to the grave and even back. Upon returning in a victorious resurrection, He was glorified as a renovated human being. His resurrected humanity far surpassed the old, mortal kind. It was and remains filled to the brim with God’s life and glory. Jesus is therefore what God looks like as a man. Jesus’ glory as the resurrected Lord is the human version of the glory of God. He is the image of the invisible God, and the only person in whom human nature has been able to align perfectly with divine nature (though without the two being mixed up together). To reiterate in one more way, in Jesus God’s glory has been translated into a human glory, a glory owned by the risen Christ.

The result with Jesus, then, is this: in Him there exists a form of humanity that far surpasses our fallen, sinful state, and even surpasses Adam’s state in Eden. It is filled with more life, glory, and power than man has ever known because of His union with God the Father through the Holy Spirit.This is humanity grown up, perfected, and exalted as God’s partner in love. This is not by any power inherent in mere humanity, but by grace alone, the free grace of the Son in choosing to become man, the free grace of the Father in resurrecting and glorifying His Son, and the grace of the Holy Spirit in binding this all together by His sovereign power. And by this grace Jesus has formed a kind of humanity which, compared to us in our current state, is so exalted and like-God to possibly justify calling it deified humanity, man become god.

Now, because of this new kind of human existence which Jesus alone possesses by nature, a special union between God and man, the rest of us are invited to join in. But we are called by grace alone through a union of faith with Jesus in the Spirit. And in this union we are transformed. We get to participate in the new, glorious humanity of Christ. We are conformed to the image of Christ (thus Christification), who is the image of God. So by the Spirit we become like the Son who is the exact expression of the Father. In this way we also come to be filled with and to express God’s life and glory. The glory of God became the glory of the man Jesus, and by our union with Him it becomes our glory as well. This is, in the end, our salvation. By our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we commune with God so much as to become like Him in a supernatural way which transcends the natural possibilities of anything else in creation. As Peter put it, we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), not to become literal equals to God or sub-gods but to become in our human existence what Jesus is in His human existence, an existence which is created and animated by His divine nature.

The focus, then, is all about union with Christ. Theosis, in a Reformed key, is a way of saying, on the basis of Scripture alone, that by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone we are radically transformed and exalted from our totally depraved human existence to a state which lives by and expresses the glory of God alone. By the Spirit and word we know Christ, by Christ we know God, and by knowing God in Christ we are conformed to His image to His glory unto eternal life (2 Cor. 3:18, 1 Jn. 3:2, John 17:3).

This naturally makes for a great Christmas meditation. In theosis, everything has to go back to Christmas. If Jesus did not incarnate, if He did not enter our human existence as an infant in Bethlehem, then there would be no union between God and man, no restoration of human nature by the glory of God. It all began with the Son of God becoming a Son of Man, so that we might become sons of God. On Christmas, we find that by Jesus’ grace He partook in our nature, so that by the same grace we could partake in His.

Or, perhaps as Clement of Alexandria put it, “The Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become god.” Merry Christmas, children of God!

Theosis: Does Christmas Make Men Gods?

Whose Glory? On the Transfiguration

Alastair Roberts, a favorite blogger of mine, has just finished a 10-part series on the Transfiguration. It’s really interesting, and I highly recommend it for any of you who can fathom 10 blog posts covering just the Transfiguration. Reading this series has given me two thoughts I feel are worth sharing, one more directly from the series and less directly.

The first point of note is the dramatic role of the Transfiguration in the history of Israel and their God. From time to time in Israel’s history, God was seen, but never fully. Moses saw God’s back, the 70 elders saw His feet, Isaiah saw His robe and throne, but His face was not ever mentioned or described. It is something like in a TV show where you never see an important background character, only having name-drops, instructions, references, and maybe even an occasional glimpse of part of their body. Yahweh’s face remained a mystery, one too glorious for human viewing.

Yet there are references linking the Transfiguration to these events, and it is portrayed as essentially the same thing: a theophany. In the Transfiguration, the glory of God is revealed on a mountain like so many times before. But this time that glory shines from a face. The face hidden throughout the Old Testament is revealed, and it is no other face than that of Jesus Christ. Yahweh is no other God than the God whose fullness dwells bodily in Christ, of whose glory the Son is the radiance and exact expression. The face of the main character of the Old Testament finally comes into view, and it was Jesus all along. Now we know who God really is: whoever has seen Jesus has seen Him.

The other interesting point that I drew from Alastair’s posts is this glory is to become our glory. The glory which Jesus bears by nature as the Son of God, we will one day share by grace as sons of God. See, the glory which was revealed in the Transfiguration has been alternately viewed by some either as a divine glory (which Alastair focuses on) or as a prefigured resurrection glory. But there is no need to separate these. The glory of Jesus, of the one who is both God and man, is the glory of God in a human “shape.” Before Jesus rose, this glory remained veiled, with a single peek coming through in the Transfiguration. When He did rise, He was exalted and could be fully and simply an example of a glorious human filled with the life and glory of God.

We are also united to Christ, though. We share in His death and His resurrection, and one day will experience that fullness when our bodies are brought to new life. At that point, when Christ returns, John tells us, “what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2), Paul notes that we are “looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18), and Peter says that we will “share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world” (2 Pet. 1:4). Our resurrection, an event in theology often called “glorification,” is the time that we will share the glory of Christ, who is the glory of God. The Transfiguration glory is our destiny. We will be truly and fully humans in the image and likeness of the Triune God. Or, as Irenaeus put it, “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ…did…become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”1

With all of this in mind, let us read the Transfiguration account and be moved to worship. Jesus is the God who has been working in salvation history from Abraham to Malachi and beyond, and He is so gracious as to unite us with Himself and raise us to His very own glory. Amen!

Whose Glory? On the Transfiguration

Faith and Works, Plus a Bar Fight

The Fight

A Catholic bishop and a Presbyterian preacher walk into a bar. Seeing that they were both teachers of Scripture, they began talking theology over drinks. The discussion soon got heated when they got to the topic of justification by faith. Before anyone knew what had happened, both men lay dead on the floor, beaten and bruised.

In an instant they found themselves before God. They were told by an angel to be patient while God prepares to declare their destinies. But they couldn’t control themselves and blurted out, “Who was right, Lord? Are we justified instantly by faith alone or progressively by faith and works?”

Immediately God responded, “Neither of you are justified by either faith or works, for in your dispute you’ve both proven not to be my children! Depart from me, you workers of iniquity, for I never knew you.”

Just-As-If-I’d Never Sinned

What is the point of this little story? Well, it doesn’t have much of one, I just wanted to start with a story, especially if I could use the classic bar setup. But it is related to the topic of this post, namely the relationship between faith, works, and justification.

From an average Protestant perspective, we have the doctrine of sola fide, aka justification by faith alone. In this account, while we start legally on the hook for our sin and guilty in God’s court, when we put our faith in Christ God immediately declares us righteous, giving us a not-guilty verdict and acquitting us of the charges against us. Thus we are saved from God’s wrath. From that point on our faith naturally produces works through the Spirit.

From a Catholic perspective (which I hope I am presenting accurately), justification is a state bound up with sanctification (becoming holy). When we become Christians, we start becoming sanctified and so also justified because God infuses us with grace that creates faith and works if we are willing to make use of it. As we make use of God’s grace provided through the Holy Spirit, we become more holy and therefore find ourselves increasingly in right standing before God. In most people, though, death comes before we are completely holy and completely justified, so we must undergo cleansing in Purgatory until the process is complete.

The Part Where I Define Stuff

What both of these positions have in common is underlying grace. For the usual Protestant view of sola fide, we can only be acquitted because Jesus takes our condemnation for us out of sheer, undeserved grace. We can’t earn His sacrifice, but merely say “yes” to it. Likewise for the Catholic, we can only be sanctified and justified by grace. All of our faith and works which justify us can be traced back to God’s grace provided through the Spirit.

Of course, it is important to consider what faith and works are to discuss this issue. We can’t think of faith as just plain belief, thinking something is true. After all, even the demons have that kind of faith, and they are doomed. Saving faith, according to James especially, is an active thing which demands to be made real through works. Without works, we are taught, faith is dead and useless, totally incapable of justifying anyone.

What are works, though? That depends what we’re talking about. Works can usually refer to three things: actions which are done in order to fulfill the Law, anything good anyone does at all, or the good things we do by the power of the Holy Spirit. The first kind is the mostly blatantly ruled out as having anything to do with justification. Paul goes on and on about how following the Law can’t fix anything. All Christians must categorically deny the possibility of being justified by keeping the Law to avoid falling under Paul’s stern condemnation of the Judaizers.

The other two kinds of works are where things get less clear cut. There is a difference between works we manufacture on our own to be good and works the Spirit creates in us. The former is clearly excluded from justification when Paul rules out all boasting in our own righteousness. If we are saved, we do not get credit. No one can say that he earned or performed his own way into a right standing with God, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

On the other hand, there are the good deeds done because of the Holy Spirit living in us. Most Protestants would still deny that these have any role in our justification, even though they come solely by God’s grace. Proponents of something called the New Perspective on Paul would generally argue that these works do play into our final justification, but that even then we are promised this end when we believe. Catholics would include all these good works in the process of becoming holy, which is what carries our justification.

Speaking Different Languages

Much of the divide between Protestants and Catholics, but not all of it, on justification can be traced back to miscommunication regarding these three kinds of works. When the average Protestant hears the Catholic say we are justified by both faith and works, he assumes the first and/or second kind of works, so they hear “We are justified by faith and keeping the Law” or “we are justified by faith and our own efforts to do good.” When Catholics hear us claim that justification comes apart from works, many hear that people who live fruitless lives of clearly dead faith will be saved as long as they agree with the facts of the Gospel.

So when we understand faith as a living, active, life-changing kind of belief, the kind of trust in Jesus which bears fruit through the Holy Spirit, there are indeed many Catholics who would more or less agree that this faith alone justifies. Likewise, if we understand the works Catholics say contribute to justification as the good we do because of the Holy Spirit in us, caused entirely by grace, then while not all Protestants would agree, most would drop the charge of a “work your way to heaven” heresy.

Neither position is without its weaknesses, though. Sola fide will never quite feel snuffly fitting with James 2 (especially verse 24), and it actually does lead and has led many people to think that fruitless “Christians” are assured of salvation, or that believing facts and praying a prayer are enough. The Catholic view I think sometimes stumbles through Paul and lends itself to many abuses, such as legalism, self-righteousness, performance-based spirituality, and even superstition in combination with any ambiguous form of their sacramental theology.

Resetting the Focus: Grace is a Person, Not a Thing

I, personally, take a step back from the standard Protestant and Catholic views to focus on what—actually who—they have in common. We all agree that Jesus is the true cause of our salvation and that we owe it all to Him. When it comes to the issue of justification, Jesus already lived a life of perfect faith and perfect works in our place. He trusted the Father, did good deeds, kept the Law, and made all around flawless performance on our behalf. When we meet Him in the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, all we do is nothing. By simply not resisting Him, we are spiritually united to Him, with His own faith coming into our hearts and His own works flowing out through our hands. Christ Himself is the grace behind all faith and works we do. Jesus’ life flows into us through faith and out of us through works.

In this way, we receive both justification and sanctification from Jesus’ own innocent status and perfect holiness. In one moment we are united to Christ in faith and so become right with God and set apart for Him, while we spend the rest of our lives being transformed to live Christ’s right life before God and become purely holy all the way through.

I think if we keep Jesus the main thing, looking at it all through the light of His own person and work instead of impersonal versions of grace, faith, justification, and holiness, then we’re in good shape. While I do think sola fide, when given proper nuance and focus, is a superior way to speak of our right standing before God over the Catholic articulation, that is secondary to saying our salvation is all of Christ. In the end what matters is if we agree that we are accepted not because we are worthy in ourselves, but because of what Christ has done and still does for us, in us, and through us. Amen?

All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 3:24

(I am aware, my more theologically minded readers, that I did not really interact with at least one other important view on justification, namely the New Perspective on Paul, especially as proposed by N. T. Wright. But this post is long enough as it is, and the NPP, while certainly important to this discussion, would not greatly affect what I have to say.)

Faith and Works, Plus a Bar Fight