This article was originally posted at my site. Only some of my articles are posted on SBC Voices. If you would like access to all of my articles, you can follow my feed here. You can also connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
Myk Habets, Professor of Theology at Carey Baptist College in New Zealand, believes that a doctrine of theosis is best appropriated within a Reformed framework. I disagree. I’ve provided a summary of his article “Reformed Theosis?: A Response to Gannon Murphy” below, followed by my response.
Habets, Myk. “Reformed Theosis?: A Response to Gannon Murphy.” Theology Today: Critic’s Corner, vol. 65 (2009): 489-498.
Summary of Main Points
Gannon Murphy has done the church a great service in stimulating the discussion surrounding the compatibility of an Orthodox notion of theosis in contemporary Reformed theology. I largely agree with Murphy, but we do have differing views on how best to incorporate theosis and reformed thought. In this essay, I point out areas of agreement between Murphy and myself, discuss a number of areas in which I disagree with Murphy’s proposal, and finally offer a brief reflection on how I think Reformed theology and a doctrine of theosis are compatible.
Let’s begin with points of agreement. Murphy makes a compelling case that a doctrine of theosis is best appropriated within a Reformed framework. I could not agree more. From Calvin to the present day, union with Christ is the centerpiece of a Reformed theology. Throughout Calvin’s theology, three distinct but interrelated unions are presented: 1) incarnational union, 2) unio mystica, and 3) a spiritual union. Murphy believes that a doctrine of theosis can naturally be understood as an aspect of the unio mystica. Murphy helpfully presents various aspects of the unio mystica that have been examined in the past by such figures as Watson, Berkhof, and Strong, but he does not discuss the hypostatic union. This makes the hypostatic union commensurate with the unio mystica. Through participation in Christ we receive all the benefits of salvation, including Christ’s righteousness. Calvin writes, “You see that our righteousness is not in us but in Christ, that we possess it only because we are partakers in Christ; indeed, with him we possess all its riches.” In this way theosis and a Reformed doctrine of justification may be considered compatible. The work of theosis is first of all a work of God in Jesus Christ—literally a theopoiesis—and only then a reality applied to specific human beings.
Theosis is not so much the “divinization” or “deification” of humanity, but the re-creation of our lost humanity in the dynamic, atoning interaction between the divine and human natures within the one person of Jesus Christ, through whom we enter into the triune communion of God’s intra-trinitarian life. Theosis is the work of the triune God in graciously allowing human persons to participate or partake of the divine nature (participation in the triune communion, or perichoresis). Through being united with Jesus Christ, we are united to His divinized humanity.
A final area of agreement between Murphy and myself is in his discussion of the “means of theotic relationality.” By means of the Word primarily, the sacraments and prayer as well, the blessings of theosis are realized. I also think that in any discussion of theosis, it is important to comment on how theosis is worked out in ministry and worship now and more fully in the eschaton at the final resurrection. These latter aspects of theosis in Murphy’s presentation were passed over.
Moving onto my disagreements with Murphy, I only want to mention two. First, Murphy accepts the Eastern Orthodox notion of the divine essence and energies. A fundamental axiom of Reformed theology is that to know God we must know His being in His act. What God reveals to us in Jesus Christ is nothing other than a self-revelation of His own being. Despite the radical distinction between divine and human being in the Reformed tradition, we have seen that room is still left for a real communion between the two. This is effected through theosis, the participation of human beings in the divine being through the Son and by the Holy Spirit. Because God’s act is inherent in His being, and that act has taken the form of Jesus Christ in the Incarnation so that he is identical with the action of God, then we know God in accord with the acts of His being, consistent with his activity in disclosing Himself to us. For this reason we must reject the Eastern Orthodox distinction between the essence and energies of God. The identity of the being and act of God in Christ Jesus will not allow this. The basic difference between Reformed theology and Eastern Orthodoxy is that in the Incarnation God gives himself in grace. In Jesus Christ we can participate in God. A Reformed doctrine of theosis posits an ontological, not a metaphysical union. Working within a Reformed understanding of theosis, we may say that humans can participate in the divine nature, but this is thoroughly personal and relational experiencing of the triune relations. Instead of the essence/energies distinction of Eastern Orthodoxy, we affirm the economic/immanent triune distinction that allows us to know God in the Incarnate Son through the Holy Spirit and at the same time worship the incomprehensible God.
Second, I disagree with Murphy’s decision to locate theosis primarily within the locus of sanctification. Theosis should not be restricted to one aspect of the order of salvation, but instead, should be used to refer to the entire order of salvation (which coincides with the doctrine of theosis in church history). In light of theosis, forgiveness is not just a word of pardon but a word translated into our existence by crucifixion and resurrection, by judgment and re-creation; it means the sinner is now given a right standing before God and is holy—that is, justified. Forgiveness is experienced by us believers united with Christ in a perichoretic bond in which we partake of all Christ’s saving benefits precisely because we partake of Christ. The ultimate goal of salvation is no longer to appease the wrath of an angry God but to attain to participation in the divine life through the Son by the Holy Spirit.
Finally, the dialogue should be widened. Several prominent Reformed thinkers have rejected the doctrine of theosis: Lewis Smedes and Bruce McCormack. Others have favorably adopted a doctrine of theosis and sought to fit it within a Reformed context: J. Canlis and C. Mosser. As long as the sacramental and transactional Christologies remain separate, then doctrines of theosis will suffer from misinterpretation and will be rejected by those of the Reformed tradition. However, when these two Christologies are brought together into a coherent unity, theosis is seen for what it is, namely, a biblical ideal with considerable theological weight and usefulness for presenting the gospel. If we can redirect Reformed theology to speak of human participation in the divine nature as union and communion with Christ in His human nature, as participation in His incarnate Sonship, and so as sharing in Him the divine life and love, false notions of theosis may be avoided.
I appreciate Habets’ thorough examination of theosis as it relates to Reformed theology, but I question His apparent rejection of Chalcedonian Christology. Christ’s humanity was not divinized. Such theology rejects classical Christian orthodoxy. Habets is obviously aware of Christian orthodoxy, but assumes that Christ had a “divinized humanity.” Yet, Chalcedonian Christology argues the contrary that there is no mixture of the two natures, although the Person of Christ is united to both. I think this is the crux of the doctrine of theosis. If Christ’s humanity was not divinized, and His humanity is perfect, then there is no possible way our humanity will ever be divinized.
Furthermore, I am uncomfortable with the thought of ontologically sinful Christians being united with the divine nature, for this means God unites Himself with sinners. In the Incarnation, Christ united Himself with a sinless human nature. In theosis, however, God unites Himself with Christians who are still ontologically sinful (Habets affirms Christian sinfulness since we have not yet been glorified), which means in theosis God unites Himself to sin.
Moreover, I am uncomfortable with the thought of humans partaking of the intra-Trinitarian relationship in a personal and relational way. This seems to bring God down to man, even with the economic and immanent Trinitarian distinction. We are not in any way, shape, or form in communion with the divine essence in a similar manner as the Persons of the Trinity.