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“Participants in the Divine Nature”: Theosis and Pauline Theology


For almost a quarter-century now, I have attended the Annual Meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, thanks to the commitment of AGST’s administration that our faculty remain current with biblical and theological scholarship and to the generosity of our supporters. This year, a couple of friends and I looked back over the meetings we’d attended and sought to recall the sessions and papers that stuck out in our memory. It was easy to recall humorous moments, including a few disasters we had witnessed; from one of these, I learned that it’s the path of prudence to write something out on a topic before standing up to address a group of experts on it. It was easy to recall papers that advanced implausible interpretations, and hearing these is not without value; they often drive the listener back to the biblical text to pinpoint the problem with the proposed interpretation, and a clearer understanding of a passage of Scripture is the result. But sadly, it was much more difficult to recall papers that presented fresh, sound interpretations that we’ve fruitfully incorporated into our study and teaching of the Bible. (I was able to think of three, maybe more if I undertook a review of the meeting programs.)

So I was pleased when the last session of the meeting I attended, on “Biblical Exegesis from Eastern Orthodox Perspectives,” included a paper on “Reconsidering Justification in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21,” which was a real humdinger. (That’s a technical term scholars sometimes use, meaning it was very good.) It was presented by Michael Gorman, a fine scholar of Paul whose introduction to biblical exegesis the AGST faculty recommends to our students. The leitmotif running through Gorman’s recent work — the man could form his own “Book of the Month” Club — is “transformation” as the central ethical ideal of the Pauline gospel and the goal of Paul’s missionary labors. According to Gorman, in his gospel Paul taught that in Christ God doesn’t only declare us righteous and innocent of guilt, merely overlooking the evidence of our sinfulness, but rather calls us to genuine transformation into the image of Christ, which begins with transformation into the moral image of Christ in this life and culminates in our transformation into Christ’s full image in the resurrection (cf. Rom 8:23, 30; 2 Cor 3:18). This process isn’t completed in this life, but our moral transformation begins in the here and now, and the goal of the Christian life on this side of the resurrection is that we may be found “blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thess 3:13).

This reading of Paul stands in tension with some formulations of Protestant theology, and with the general tenor of Western interpretation, which has found in “justification” (or “acquittal,” dikaiosunē in Greek) the controlling metaphor for Pauline soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), and for soteriology more generally. Gorman’s contention is that, while important, justification is only one metaphor Paul employs in presenting his understanding of salvation, and it is part of a process leading to our transformation into the image of Christ.

Gorman presented his paper in a section devoted to Eastern Orthodox exegesis of Paul, whose theology he finds to have significant points of contact with the Orthodox doctrine of theōsis. (Orthodox Christians like to use Greek words even more than Protestant Greek teachers.) The word means a “making divine” or “being made divine” and can sound suspicious to Protestant ears; surely God is one and has no rival, nor will he make human beings rivals to himself. And of course that’s true. On the other hand, God is a giver of good gifts (James 1:17), and he longs to give the men and women he created his image the gift of as much likeness to him as our nature can bear. The Bible teaches that, while we remain always God’s creatures and inferiors, God nonetheless has acted in Christ to make us “participants in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4; that’s my modification of the NRSV, which I think renders the text better than other versions), persons capable of intimate spiritual fellowship with our Creator. Paul describes the Christian’s present life as Christ living in us (Gal 2:20), and describes God’s whole redemptive work as conforming us to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29). As the celebration of Christmas continues this week (see my discussion of the traditional Christian calendar in Christian Studies, volume 28), it’s well to remember that our transformation into the image of the one who took on flesh for our benefit is the ultimate “reason for the season,” for which the one who came as a babe in arms ultimately gave his life, and for which the Father above raised him from the dead to the new, unending, and blessed life that he invites us to share, beginning even here and now. As the second century Christian leader Irenaeus wrote, Christ “become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself” (Against Heresies 5, preface).

There is thus much for biblically-focused Christians to consider in the interpretation of these passages and others incorporated in the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theōsis. As with many theological topics, it’s a case of what biblical scholars can learn from theologians  and vice versa, and (we say in hope) of the greater understanding of God’s work in Christ that their collaboration can bring to the church at large. We have reason to look forward to further work from scholars like Michael Gorman and his fellow laborers in this vineyard. To God be the glory!

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