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Man as a God in Ruins: Theosis in the Christian Tradition

Ben Blackwell

How we share in the life of God

Assistant Professor of Theology, Houston Baptist University / Director of Graduate Programs for the School of Christian Thought
September 4, 2015

People are always trying to make themselves better.

In the last century this desire to improve ourselves has become even more evident as science has allowed us to change more and more about ourselves. Something that captures our imagination for what we might be able to do is the use of exoskeletons, like that of Iron Man. In fact, there is a whole transhumanist and posthumanist movement that trades on the desire for eschatological advances like these.

However, what if the changes we endeavored to make were not merely external (as the exoskeleton), but more internal or essential to our identity?

The recent movie Lucy (2014) centered the story around a character whose brain functioning was radically increased through a chance drug overdose. The exponential shift in her performance was incredible to think about. She was ultimately able to navigate the matter-energy barrier, almost becoming a god by her ability to manipulate her environment. Unfortunately, she looked more like the gods of Homer than the God of the Bible with her selfish and capricious use of violence to achieve her goals.

Theosis: Real Union with Triune God

This desire to transcend human limitations and to become gods is not foreign to the Christian tradition. Christian theologians have long discussed “theosis” (literally, “becoming a god”) as a final stage of salvation, when human beings have real union with God. The idea is virtually unknown among Protestants; but the goal of salvation described in terms of “theosis” or “deification” is at the heart of Eastern Orthodox theology, as inherited by Byzantine and Greek patristic theologians. We might say that theosis is to the Orthodox as justification is to the Protestant.

Of course, Christian forms of theosis (in distinction to non-Christian “apotheosis”) begin and end with the Trinity—with the foundational doctrine that God eternally exists as three persons in one nature. Describing salvation as theosis always means that humans are set in distinction to the one who is truly God. Therefore, Christian deification is always metaphorical—believers don’t literally become God (as a member of the Trinity). With this in mind, why even use the language becoming gods if it sounds so heretical? If believers don’t become God, what do they become?

Becoming Fully Human by Drawing Closer to God

The key idea behind theosis is that humans flourish and fulfill their created potential best when they draw ever closer to God. As we draw closer we are transformed by this relationship—as we reflect the image and likeness of God, as God intended. Thus, we look so much like God that we might (metaphorically) be called gods.

While this may seem heretical, the idea arose from early Christian readings of the Bible. Our earliest evidence of believers being called gods actually goes back to the lips of Jesus in John 10:34 when he quotes from Psalm 82:6, which reads: “I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.’” The church has followed Jesus in this interpretive stream, although they have spent more time exploring this passage in view of wider biblical contexts than focusing on Jesus’ use of it in the Gospel of John. With this, two primary exegetical themes come out of their readings of Psalm 82: (1) gods are immortals and (2) sons of God are gods.

1. Gods are Immortals

Note the connection in Psalm 82:7: “I said you are gods…but you die like mere men.” The experience of death is directly antithetical to the status of being gods. This reading fits directly with the ancient (i.e., Greek and Latin) mindset that gods were the immortals. In wider biblical theology, we see that God created humans to experience immortality, but sin brought death. Accordingly, the hope for immortality and resurrection (e.g., Romans 8; 1 Corinthians 15) became central for understanding what theosis entails.

2. Sons of God are Gods

As with the first affirmation, the patristic interpreters were close readers of Psalm 82 and John 10 and noted the connection between being gods and sons of God, for the text reads: “I said you are gods, you are all sons of the Most High.” To be a son of God, then, means being a god, in some sense. These interpreters knew that God did not have numerous children by nature (this status is reserved for his only-begotten Son). Reading this passage within the biblical narrative, they affirmed that these gods were children in a different way—by adoption and by grace. As adopted sons of God, they did not naturally have the characteristics of divinity (i.e., immortality), but rather, God adopted them to become sons similar to Christ the Son. Again, they are reading this text alongside other NT texts that affirm just the same thing, such as Romans 8, Galatians 4, and 1 John 3. In fact, Paul directly correlates becoming an adopted son of God with immortality in Romans 8. To be an adopted heir of God is to be a co-heir with Christ and conformed to his image.

The Role of Grace in Divinization

In distinction to the Son who is God by nature (together with the Father and the Spirit), believers are adopted and become gods by grace. Believers are active participants in the process of salvation, but they only receive salvation through grace. Because they are gods by grace, as opposed to nature, they cannot create salvation themselves. The life they experience is not their own; they are sharing the life of God.

The key idea behind theosis is that humans flourish and fulfill their created potential best when they draw ever closer to God.

 

 

In other words, believers do not become a member of the Trinity—that is, they do not become God by nature. So although theosis depicts the reality of a stage in salvation, it is a metaphor in that believers are only adopted as gods by grace. Furthermore, it is through this adoption that believers are literally transformed into the image of Christ.

Swords in the Fire: An Illustration of Theosis

Several early patristic writers make much use of the image of an iron sword in a fire to illustrate the transformative nature of theosis. The iron remains what it is by nature, but its attributes are transformed through participation in the fire. It remains iron and cuts as a sword, but it now glows red and burns. This metaphor illustrates theosis: just as the iron does not cease to be iron, humans do not cease to be humans. But by participating in the fire, the iron sword is transformed, becoming like the fire. It too becomes hot and glows. Similarily, in the process of deification believers are united to God and become like him, experiencing his life and holiness.

Out of the Ruins: Sharing in the Life of God

My brother had never heard of theosis. So when I told him I was writing a book about it, he asked: “Theosis? Can you die from that?” Actually, the opposite is true: one of the best descriptions of theosis is sharing in the life of God.

So why use the language of theosis? We ultimately use the language of theosis to describe our family resemblance. We begin to look so much like our immortal and holy God that we too might be called gods. Thus, Emerson may have been onto something when he said, “A man is a god in ruins.”

[For more reading, try Daniel Keating’s Deification and Grace and The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology.]

More Information about The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology

Philosophers and theologians address the relationship between body and soul and its implications for theological anthropology, interacting with cognitive science, biological evolution, psychology, and sociology. Reflecting these exciting new developments, The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology is a resource for philosophers and theologians, students and scholars, interested in the constructive, critical exploration of a theology of human persons. Throughout this collection of newly authored contributions, key themes are addressed: human agency and grace, the soul, sin and salvation, Christology, glory, feminism, the theology of human nature, and other major themes in theological anthropology in historic as well as contemporary contexts.

Click here for a full list of contributors and essays.

Theological Anthropology

Reviews

‘An invigoratingly diverse collection of essays focused on the Christian understanding of human nature in general and its bearing the image of God in particular; it would serve as an excellent introduction to the developing interest shown by analytic theology in these and related topics.’
T.J. Mawson, University of Oxford, UK

‘This Ashgate volume, brilliantly crafted by first-rate scholars from multiple disciplines, is a paragon of excellence for research companions. Rigorous, well informed, and refreshingly insightful, it is a tour de force of theological anthropology!’
Chad Meister, Bethel College, USA

‘Excellent in breadth and depth of treatment of relevant topics, with an international group of contributors, senior scholars and scholars newer to their fields but already published therein, this is a superb contribution to the fresh interest in theological anthropology, which it expands, develops, and encourages.’
Keith E. Yandell, University of Wisconsin – Madison, USA

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