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Robert V. Rakestraw‘s Bio: “I received my PhD in theology from Drew University. I have been the pastor of two churches and on the full-time faculty of three schools: Prairie Bible College, Criswell College, and Bethel Theological Seminary, the last from 1988 to 2005. Because of serious heart problems I retired in 2005. My wife, Judy, and I have two married children and five grandchildren.” You can read Rakestraw’s blog here.
Rakestraw, Robert V. “Becoming Like God: An Evangelical Doctrine of Theosis.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 2 (1997): 257-269.
Theosis—also known as deification, divinization, or participation in God—is the controlling doctrine in the Eastern Orthodox Church. To the church in the west, however, this doctrine is virtually unknown. The purpose of this article is to present some of the key ideas and proponents of divinization theology and offer an introductory critique of the concept.
Genesis 1:26 and 2 Peter 1:4 provide the basis for theosis theology, more so than any other verses. Genesis 1:26 speaks of men and women as created in the image and likeness of God. The Greek fathers taught that in the fall humanity lost the likeness but retained the image. Whether one agrees with the Greek fathers or not, the concept of the Christian’s reintegration into the life of God through Christ and the Holy Spirit remains central in all understanding of theosis. In 2 Peter 1:4 the apostle Peter speaks of Christians participating “in the divine nature and excepting the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” There are others verses as well that ground the doctrine of theosis: John 17:21-23, Colossians 1:15-18, Ephesians 3:16-19 and 4:13-15, 1 Corinthians 15:49, Galatians 2:20, and 1 John 4:16.
The doctrine of theosis began to develop indirectly at first then later became more explicit. One can find implicit references to theosis in Irenaeus and the author of the Epistle to Diognetus. More explicit references can be found in Hilary of Poitiers, Maximus, and Gregory of Nyssa. Also, it is helpful to realize there are two strands of the classical patristic view of deification: one emphasizing the communication of divine attributes to Christians and the other concentrating on the Christian’s participation in intradivine relationship.
Defining theosis is not easy since so many aspects of Christian truth are utilized by those who advance the teaching, and different writers and traditions emphasize different truths. Theosis is the restoration and reintegration of the “image” or “likeness” of God, seriously distorted by the fall, in the children of God. One must note that theosis is more than the customary Protestant concept of sanctification. In theosis, while there is no ontological change of humanity into deity, there is a real impartation of the divine life to the whole human being—body and soul. In western churches, the concept of the imitation of Christ is the closest analogy to the theosis doctrine of the east; however, in Orthodox theology, Christians are not merely called to imitate Christ, but to manifest the energies of the Holy Spirit. Through receiving the Spirit, Christians have access to the spiritual power that belongs to Christ. The basis for such theosis is primarily the incarnation of Christ: the Orthodox church believes God joined humanity to divinity in the incarnation so that human beings might assume godlikeness and be imagers of God in His divine life, characters, and actions. The grace of God is essential, but so is human vigilance in obedience to all God has commanded.
Furthermore, the Protestant churches in Great Britain have sustained a strand of theosis teaching that incorporates both eastern and western emphases. This reality is displayed in the works of Henry Scougal, Charles Wesley, William Williams, and Ann Griffiths. In the incarnation God adds to himself human flesh so that human flesh may actually become transformed as it is changed by the very life of God indwelling it.
Now we’ll examine a few critical observations. First, the terminology is deficient since divinization, deification, and human beings “becoming God” seems to violate the historic Christian understanding of the essential qualitative distinction between God and creation. Second, theosis proponents misuse Scripture sometimes, such as Psalms 82:6 where the psalmist states, “You are gods.” Third, general humanity is often emphasized at the expense of individual human beings even though humanity will never be totally deified (unless we affirm universalism). Fourth, especially in the eastern Orthodox tradition, there is a heavy emphasis on the sacraments as a principal means of theosis and a negative attitude toward sexual desire, sexual union, and even biological birth.
Finally, the strengths of theosis theology outweigh these weaknesses. First, the most significant benefit of theosis theology is that the concept as a whole is biblical. The Christian who is transformed by God has the assurance that he or she is thinking the thoughts of God (2 Cor. 3:17-18; 1 Cor. 2:16), doing the works of God (John 14:12; Acts 1-2), and at times even speaking the words of God (1 Cor. 2:13; 1 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 4:11). Second, the Pauline concept of being “in Christ” may take on new meaning as we understand more and more our genuine participation in the life and energies of God (1 Cor. 1:30-31; Col. 2:9-10, 3:3-4; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 4:24; John 15:1-17; 1 John 3:9). Third, theosis may offer hope to some Christians who despair of finding the abundant life on earth. Instead of viewing our progressive sanctification as something done for us by God from outside, by God’s acting upon our minds and wills from some external habitation, or as something we do from below as we pray to God above and seek to obey Him here on earth, we may understand our sanctification as the very life and energy of God in us. We are becoming increasingly like God because we are participating more and more in His divine nature. Fourth, theosis is the meaning of theology itself. According to Orthodox theologians there can be no theology apart from the process of transformation. The work of theology involves a radical re-creation of the human person.
Since I am a Western Evangelical Christian, I must admit that I had never heard of the doctrine of theosis prior to reading this article. I appreciate Rakestraw’s summary of the doctrine, and its development in church history. I also appreciate his willingness to point out the flaws of proponents of theosis theology, since he affirms theosis as well.
Furthermore, I agree with Rakestraw’s critiques of theosis theology. He is correct that the terminology appears to blur the Creator/creature distinction. He is also correct that Scripture can be misused in order to further justify the doctrine. Based on Rakestraw’s description, it appears that once someone affirms theosis, they start to find the doctrine throughout Scripture, sometimes in spite of the context.
Moreover, I appreciate Rakestraw’s reasoning for affirming theosis, but in spite of his protests, the doctrine sounds very much like the doctrine of progressive sanctification. Even though Rakestraw argues that theosis affirms something more than progressive sanctification, his article did not convince me. First, if nothing is ontologically changed in Christians, then there is no real “theosis” or “deification.” Something less than deification is taking place, a gradual conforming of one’s life to the image of Christ due to the work of the Spirit. Second, if the incarnation is the ultimate example of theosis, and Chalcedonian Christology is affirmed, then Christ is united with both a human nature and a divine nature without any mixture of the two. Although, I do not see how one can speak of Christians being incarnated (united with the divine nature), even if I grant that this is the case for sinners who are transformed into Christians by God, there is still no mixture between the divinity and humanity of these Christians, or we bring God down to man as if He is the creature. Third, if we unite God the Father with our declared righteous humanity, not our ontologically righteous humanity since we are not yet glorified, then we unite God the Father with sin. In the incarnation God the Son united Himself forever with a sinless human nature. In theosis, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are united with sinful human natures: Christians. Thus, in theosis, the Persons of the Trinity are acting through the sinful human natures of mankind, manifesting their “energies” in and through them. To say that God unites Himself with sinners and acts through sinners in a unified way too closely ties God to sin. The gain of “the abundant life,” to use Rakestraw’s words, is at the expense of God’s holiness, if theosis is consistently applied; which means that there is no abundant life in a sinful god. Fourth, those who affirm progressive sanctification believe that through the inward work of the Spirit Christians think God’s thoughts, do His works, and speak His words as our lives agree with and are conformed to Scripture. Fifth, if “participation in Christ” is not an ontological participation, then is not this just another way of speaking of progressive sanctification? I believe so. Through the Spirit, we participate in the life of Christ as we continue His ministry as the body of Christ. Sixth, I believe Rakestraw caricatures progressive sanctification when he argues that progressive sanctification is the work of God from without or our work for God from down here while He is on His throne in heaven. I affirm these things while also affirming the Spirit’s work from within me to submit my life as a living sacrifice as a continual act of worship to God.
Finally, I agree with Rakestraw that transformation is essential to theology. God is conforming His people to the image of His Son due to the work of His Spirit within them to bring them from death into life. We represent God on earth as His image-bearers to spread forth this image and Christ’s love across creation. We are to be salt and light, permeating every area of culture and humanity in which we live. If theosis affirms more than progressive sanctification, yet does not make God human or unite God to sin, and does not deify humans (theosis) ontologically, then we should use the term “progressive sanctification” instead of “theosis” since this theosis is in name only.