who’s afraid of theosis?

There’s a buzz around the blogosphere — or at least on the blogs I subscribe to (like THIS and THIS) — about theosis. It’s fascinating to observe this groundswell towards rehabilitating the much-maligned way of describing salvation as participation in the divine nature (cf. 2 Peter 1.4). It’s big in the Orthodox tradition of course. But an increasing number of Pauline scholars (including some evangelicals) seem to be embracing it.

Caravaggio's Crucifixion of St Andrew

Caravaggio's Crucifixion of St Andrew

I guess it’s about trying to do justice to the significance and priority of the union with Christ motif in Paul’s thought.

What’s more, as the value of imputation language is increasingly contested — whether you want to throw it out or just sound some very stern warnings about the danger of a ‘book keeping’ mindset — scholars are beginning to take seriously ideas like justification by co-crucifixion and theosis.

But there’s a lot of resistance to it too — at least in the circles I move in. And what I want to know is why? What are we afraid of?

I’m genuinely keen to hear what people feel are the dangers and dead ends are in talking this way about the saving significance of what God achieved in the cross and resurrection of the Messiah. Am I missing something?


  1. Maybe theosis has been viewed suspiciously in the Western (and particularly protestant) Church because – except for Calvin – we haven’t known what to do with the ‘united with Christ’ language.

  2. Interesting mate – I read Kalistos Ware’s Orthodox Church a while ago and got thinking about this too! What I found most helpful thought was Michael Horton’s chapter on Justification and Theosis in his “Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ” book. He interacts with a whole bunch of dudes (from Robert Jenson to Milbank to Turretin) and finds that the Orthodox distinction of Essence and Energies can be coupled into Reformed theology to affirm a theosis – albeit a theosis which preserves the creator-creature distinction! Check it out, it’s an awesome book on its own!

  3. Thanks for opening up this discussion, Chris.

    Re what is the problem – the main problem I see is that it is the only way that the eastern orthodox conceive of salvation – they do not have any of the other ways in which the Bible concieves of salvation alongside ‘theosis’. The idea behind it is biblical and sound. But because the focus of your Christian life is on the goal, the final prize, of seeing the vision of God, it means that salvation is prospective, whereas in the Reformation tradition salvation is retrospective grounded in the objective and completed work of Christ. A view of ‘theosis’ which is not adequately grounded in ‘justification by faith’ causes many problems, which are avoided if you begin the Christian life through belief in the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ, for that is the proper basis for Christian living, and not in sacramental ecclesiology which enables someone to walk the path of ‘theosis’. Thus, a conception of salvation that minimises or neglects the clear biblical teaching that ‘we are saved’ by faith in Jesus, and places all the emphasis on ‘being saved’ by works in Jesus, creates massive problems.

    Re energy and essence distinction – my friend Chris Thanopoulos did his 4th year project on this very topic, and to summarise his main point, the essence/energy distinction is ‘radicalised’ in orthodox teaching so that we cannnot speak of knowing God as he is in himself. They will say that we can know God only through his energy communicated by the Holy Spirit but not his essence which is unknowable, but this philosophical takeover of biblical concepts betrays the revelation that Jesus as the Son gives us of the Father (Matt 11:27) which is God as he is in himself. So that we can and should say that we know God through the revelation of Jesus.

    1. Thanks mate. Very interesting. I’ve only recently begun to encounter the essence/energy distinction. But I can’t seem to nail it down…

      It seems really significant for Vladamir Lossky, for example, who ‘discovers’ it all over the place in the Eastern tradition — going all the way back to Athanasius and the Cappadocians (he’s a bit like an orthodox version of T. F. Torrance who ‘discovers’ striking anticipations of Barthian formulations all over the pro-Nicene theologians).

      By contrast, my impression of David Bentley Hart’s reading in The Beauty of the Infinite (not that I claim to have understood very much of what he says) is that it is much closer to the conception of salvation in the Western tradition. Which is not to write off the possibility of a ‘philosophical takeover of biblical concepts’ here too!

  4. The issue is how to speak of our salvation which maintains the Creator-Creature distinction (that is when we are saved we do not become God) and maintains our union with God on Christ in such a way that we actually share in the inner life of the Trinity without losing our distinctiveness – one way to explain this is through the essence-energy distinction with respect to our participation in God. The question to ask is whether this ‘conception’ does justice to the biblical concepts. But because of the radicilisation of the energy-essence distinction in our knowledge of God, the inner trinitarian relationships are beyond our experience, making any claim to know God ‘personally’ untenable.

    It is interesting to remember that the very foundations of Eastern Orthodox Theology function on a completely different paradigm than in the West. For the East, theology is apophatic, while for the WEst, theology is cataphatic. That is, in the East, words become inadequate and strained in our knowledge of God. What the East can say they do know is that God is unknowable, that is what we know about God, and if that is all we can say about God then we are furthest away from knowing God as witnessed to in the Bible through words, which not only tell us about God’s salvation but communicate God’s salvation, thus Paul can speak of the ‘power of the gospel’ and why believe so strongly in the ‘preaching of the word’.

    The question I want to think about is how these two completely different ways of experiencing God, which are so incompatable, arise?

    1. The issue is how to speak of our salvation which maintains the Creator-Creature distinction — Yes and Amen!

      I’m not entirely convinced that the Orthodox approach differs so dramatically from the Western. I’m currently reading a very interesting paper reassessing the work of the French scholar de Regnon who seems to have given us the very strong distinction between the two that we always fall back on. Nevertheless, there is a big emphasis on our limitations and inadequacies in at least the first two of Gregory Nazianzen’s ‘Theological Orations’ (I’ll let you know about the other three tomorrow).

      A degree of apophatic mysticism seems to be shot right through both traditions, and — I’m very hesitant to say this and totally open to correction — something like it seems necessary to underline God’s gracious and sovereign lordship even in giving Himself to us in Christ and by the Spirit. That is, He makes himself known and ‘available’ to us in the gospel, but so that we can master or control Him (like we would with an idol). He still exceeds us in all sorts of ways. He’s still the Lord!

      Barth seems to nail this when he’s talking about God’s attributes in II/1: we are limited and our language always falls short of the reality (Torrance would say that this fact in itself bolsters realism because it highlights how our language points beyond itself), yet ‘we cannot spare ourselves the trouble of formulation’ — we have to speak because God has revealed himself, we cannot take refuge in an ultimate apophaticism.

      Hmmm… This is not very thought through (so take it with a massive grain of salt!) but I wonder if this might point the way towards an answer to your question: How do the two approaches arise? They each take seriously one aspect of God’s gracious revelation in Christ — and the other not very seriously…

  5. Jaroslav Pelikan provides a very good summary of Orthodox theology when he says,

    ‘The most accurate way to speak of the knowledge of God, therefore, was to describe it as a ‘knowing ignorance’, and the most accurate way to speak of God himself was to speak in negatives. God was known through contraries, since he transcended both affirmation and negation.’

    What underpins their whole theology, which according to Pelikan had begun to move in its own theological direction by the seventh century, is that a knowledge of God knows by silence that God is unknown – this can be defined as mysticism. Greeks are mystics! The seven sacraments of the church are called ‘mysteries’. You are not allowed to speak in church. Even though they use words in the liturgy, they are not spoken to be understood but to reinforce msytery. Chanting and lighting candles all contribute to that effect. No wedding vows are required because God is mystery.

    Here is the paradox, what we know about God as revealed in the scriptures is that he is unknowable. Hah! Scripture, thus, is a starting point leading on to our mystical union with the unknowable God who transcends space and time.

    I am all for maintaining what we know about God in the gospel and what we don’t know about God and holding them together. I am all for maintaining both the transcendence of God and his immanence. This is exactly what Paul does in his sermon in Acts 17 in Athens. He highlights that the transcendent one, which is a neglected aspect in our preaching, is also the immanent one, which is something we are familiar with, particular in our use of ‘personal relationship’ to describe what it means to know God – it is personal as opposed to mystical which is something the East want to stress.

    But is this just a matter of one tradition emphasising one aspect over another tradition emphasising a different aspect?
    Can we overemphasis one aspect so much, that we lose the other aspect completely? Is this what the East are guilty of? Or the West perhaps?
    Can a mystic know God personally?
    How do mystics use human language?
    Can a mystic speak of knowing God as he is in himself?
    How does the incarnation of Jesus impact our Creator-Creature distinction?

    One more thing, ‘apophatic theology’ was written with regard to ‘essence’ but not to ‘persons’. That is, it was concerned to point people away from created realities to the uncreated being of God. But if we can’t have access to the essence of God, that is true, not all things are revealed to us, however, if we believe that the essence or nature of God is to be found in the communion of three persons, then we have a truly biblical way of speaking about knowing God, as Calvin put, ‘as he is in himself’ which brings us into that real and intimate and personal relationship with the transcendent God, through a Word which is ‘homousion’ which himself, so that we do and can have real saving knowledge of God in the person of Jesus Christ, for it is in Jesus that makes knowledge of God personal. So I am a bit hesitant to speak of God’s revelation in Jesus as a pointer to something else, rather, than bringing that reality to us in a very personal way.

  6. By the way, I am loving this discussion since I am doing a lot of stuff this year on Eastern Orthodox Theology and would love to continue to hear your thoughts…

    1. Yeah. I’m very much enjoying our discussion — on- and off-line!

      I’d love to figure out if and when the Eastern tradition took a sharp left hand turn and ended up in a place that undermines the gospel?

  7. I think that is an excellent question and one that I don’t have a definite answer on, but needs careful thought.

    But I can tell you what others have concluded.

    There are some who go so far as saying that Eastern Orthodoxy is epistemologically and functionally Neo-Platonic.

    The basis for this claim is that the organising principle controlling Orthodoxy is apophaticism and behind this is neo-platonism.

    I just read an article which argues that what makes Orthodoxy distinct form other Christian traditions is ‘apophaticism’. It is not the seven ecumenical councils or faithfulness to scripture because that would make Orthodoxy no different from Catholicism.

    In conclusion, it could be said that Orthodoxy is not Christianity using neo-platonic terminology, but Orthodoxy is fundamentally neo-platonism with Christian labels. It is a big call!!

    Now Orthodox theologians like Lossky and Meyendorff would oppose that conclusion, and see Orthodoxy as reappropriating philosophy for Christianity.

    More work to be done…

  8. Some further thoughts.

    It seems that the presuppositon that Eastern Orthodoxy affirms is that God is transcendent as Creator and Sovereign and that his transcendence relates to his essence, which means that God is ultimately unknowable. Thus, the way we know God is characterised as mystical and spiritual. It involves knowing through unknowing and an encounter with the actions of God, rather than his essence.

    Does this view of knowing God lead to agnosticism? Some say yes and others say no. I don’t know??

    But I guess what we need to work out is whether we can agree with their base presupposition which undergirds all their theology.

    Is God ultimately unknowable?

    On first thoughts, it doesn’t seem to square with the gospel way of knowing God, which is real and personal knowledge of God in his character and nature, as Calvin said, we know God as he is in himself. While in Orthodoxy, they would want to maintain an inexpressible distinction in God between that which he is in himself, and the way he manifests himself.

    Are we happy to say that?

    When the Bible talks about how no one can see God and then says in heaven we will see God face to face, will there be a distinction between God as he is in himself and the way he reveals himself to us?

    Nice chatting…

    1. Thanks for your reflections, Steve — generated as you wade deeper into your project no doubt?

      I’d love to keep hearing from you. I’m not sure I’m familiar enough with Greek Orthodoxy as it now exists (theologically or practically — George Athas tells me there’s a significant difference) to come at your questions.

      All I would say is that when the gospel assures us we know God personally — ie. as his adopted children, united with Christ by the Spirit — I’d hesitate to say that we know him exhaustively or completely or perhaps even “as he is in himself” (whatever that means — I suspect for many of the early fathers, and possibly also for Calvin, it meant something like ‘according to philosophical/speculative categories about nature and whatever’, which they were pretty keen to swear off under the impress of the gospel).

      Does that make sense? I’m aware I could be drawing overly sharp lines. And I would like to say more about the function of ‘accommodation’ in Calvin — but I’m waiting on Mike Allen’s project before I leap to overhasty conclusions there!

  9. Thanks Chris – it is interesting with the Greek Fathers how they used philosophical categories prevalent in Greek culture, in order to present the Christian revelation to Hellenic culture (a kind of contextualisation?), but in doing so, they used ontological categories from philosophical thought systems to present the unique Christian message, which I don’t think were very successful. At times when you read the Greek fathers you see the real tension between Christian revelation and Greek philosophy – I guess those types of ‘philosophical/speculative categories’ you mentioned.

    So I guess a good question to ask is what kind of metaphysical or ontological system can we develop from the gospel? Should we avoid that type of discussion all together? Should we just stick with the gospel way of speaking about God and our relationship with him, as personal, intimate, real, permanent, a unity in the Trinity, and leave it at that, without delving into deeper ontological distinctions, which the Greek Fathers did as part of the philosophical backdrop.

    I am sure Mike Allen will sort it all out…no pressure

    1. “it is interesting with the Greek Fathers how they used philosophical categories prevalent in Greek culture, in order to present the Christian revelation to Hellenic culture (a kind of contextualisation?), but in doing so, they used ontological categories from philosophical thought systems to present the unique Christian message, which I don’t think were very successful.

      Hmmmm… I suspect things may be little murkier than this. And I think the patristic scholarly consensus has swung the other way, arguing that the (admittedly) philosophical — and sometimes merely everyday — terms that were pressed into service by the Fathers were recontextualised and reworked in light of biblical revelation. The language of ‘causality’ for example which Origen bequeathed to the tradition to describe the interrelations between the members of the Godhead has been significantly transformed by the time people like Basil and Gregory Nazianzen are using it.

      Interestingly, we could say much the same about the ‘Hebraic’ terms pressed into service to speak of God in the Old Testament shouldn’t we. Often they — or their cognates in other Ancient Near Eastern languages — had remarkably unhelpful connotations (or even denotations). But this didn’t stop biblical authors harnessing them and bringing them within the conceptual orbit of the self-revelation of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This, I take it, is why there’s so much hand wringing over the inclusion of kingship in Israel’s constitution in 1 and 2 Samuel. At one level, the institution of kingship was perfectly compatible with the covenant (that’s why provisions were made for it in Deuteronomy). At another level, in its standard Ancient Near Eastern form it’s a really bad ‘fit’ for the chosen nation which was God’s special possession out of all the earth.

  10. Thanks Chris – you helped me to see that maybe I am using the term ‘Greek Fathers’ a little to broadly. I most probably had Origen as my main representative of someone who used philosophical categories in an attempt to speak into his Hellenic culture but in doing so left behind biblical conceptions of God – I think that assessment is right (?).

    1. You’re quite probably right about Origen. Although it does feel a little tough to judge him by a standard of clarity in disentangling the two only fully arrived at after Chalcedon — a point which I’m aware sounds like it runs against the grain of my previous comment, although I think it all about the ‘murkiness’.

      I guess I just want us to tread a little carefully: the opponents of Athanasius were (apparently) fond of saying, ‘You’re using Greek philosophical terms which obscure the plain biblical sense of things’ and ‘We should just get back to using the language the NT does’. As tricky and potentially misleading as it may be, those fathers who emerged as orthodox argued unashamedly — and in my view successfully — for the use of technical/philosophical vocabulary to clarify and guard biblical, gospel concepts, which were being abandoned under cover of adherence to the (relatively imprecise) biblical language alone.

  11. Thank you for the wonderful job of clarfication – your last paragraph is a gem. I have cut and copied it for future reference.

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