Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Evolution of Soul: Theosis for the 21st Century PART III

Because of my previous lack of familiarity with the doctrine of theosis, I have found it helpful to trace the origins of thought surrounding it through the Patristic Period and into the Middle Ages. In no way is this a comprehensive look at the development of theosis doctrine; rather, this section will serve as an overview of the material contained within The Story of Christian Theology as pertaining specifically to theosis and its development in order to supply the reader with the foundation for my interest in it.

Ignatius of Antioch, d. c.110-115 A.D.?

Theosis – or some precursor of it – seems to come first into the theology of Ignatius and his understanding of the sacraments. Ignatius believed that each time one participated in the Eucharist, he was transformed by the sacrament as a means of grace. Though his thoughts were not fully recorded or developed along the eventual implications of this belief, he did “mean to emphasize that by partaking in the bread and wine of the Lord’s meal, a person is gaining a participation in the divine immortality that overcomes the curse of death brought on by sin.”[1] Centuries later, this basis of belief became the understanding for believers in both Catholic and Orthodox traditions that each time they participated in the sacrament they were given increasingly more of the divine nature.

Ireneus, c.120-202 A.D.

If anyone could most rightly be called the father of theosis doctrine it would be Ireneus. His understanding of the Incarnation-- a metaphysical “do-over”, so to speak-- lay the groundwork for his vision of humanity’s participation in the divine nature. For Ireneus, God’s “purpose and goal in redemption is to reverse the sin, corruption and death introduced into humanity by Adam and lift humanity up to life and immortality.”[2] He saw this as being accomplished through the union of Christ’s two natures – divine and material – which make provision for believers to follow suit. Theosis asserts the complete restoration of all people, in principle, through the recapitulation of Christ by which He “provided redemption by going through the entire scope of human life and at each juncture reversed the disobedience of Adam.” Thus, anyone who now chooses to accept Christ as their “new head” [hence, recapitulation] will trade their old, corrupt “head” [born of Adam – the first head of humanity] and be able to find repentance and transformation with the hope of participating in the divine nature.

For many fathers, theosis goes beyond simply restoring people to their state before the Fall of Adam and Eve, teaching that because Christ united the human and divine natures in his person, it is now possible for someone to experience closer fellowship with God than Adam and Eve initially experienced in the Garden of Eden, and that people can become more like God than Adam and Eve were at that time. Some Orthodox theologians go so far as to say that Jesus would have become incarnate for this reason alone, even if Adam and Eve had never sinned.[3]

Nevertheless, it is from Ireneus that most of the latter theologians take their cue. He was the first one to truly follow the implications of Ignatius’ thoughts to their practical conclusions and make use of the doctrine in such a way as to help our understanding of soteriology.

Origen of Alexandria, c.182-251 A.D.

Origen understood theosis as the ultimate goal of every believer’s life. For him, theosis was the journey and the struggle of faith that was the centerpiece of Christian living, and he encouraged his adherents to scour the scriptures for the “most important level of meaning in the scripture”[4] which often revealed how believers ought to live in order to further their divinization.

Origen conceived salvation as a “process of transformation into the image of God”[5] which would eventually lead believers into a partial participation in God’s own nature, though he did value human free will in the midst of this transformation alongside the “absolute necessity”[6] of God’s grace. In this way, we might conceive of his soteriology as a kind of synergy, wherein human thoughts and will and emotions cooperate with the Spirit of God to gradually reflect more of His nature.

Origen’s thoughts seem most consistent with the contemporary Evangelical notions of “working out your salvation”,[7] or even of the process of sanctification or holy living. He steps into contentious territory in the tension between grace-and-behavior/law, but with the intention of encouraging theosis-transformation rather than simply behavior-modification.

Athanasius, c. 298-373 A.D.

Next in line was Athanasius, though his orientation on theosis was more of a defense versus Arianism than it was an assertion of Christ’s humanity. Athanasius believed that Christ’s union of the divine and the material was the soteriological bridge that allows people to be saved; and, if that union were in some way compromised – i.e. if Jesus were not “truly God” – than the salvation of humanity was impossible. So Athanasius’ rationale was that the “human problem was death because of sin”[8] and the solution was “deification by means of humanity and divinity being joined in the Incarnation.”[9]

Athanasius also supplied one of the most oft-quoted references regarding the doctrine of theosis, which – though it was cited in the introduction – is printed here.

For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the Unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality.

Note that Athanasius makes careful mention of the duality of Jesus’ existence: He is both “manifested” and is able to give us an “immortal” inheritance. In his fight against the Arian heresy, Athanasius was very clear about the fact that the gospel was about Jesus Christ, and “if Jesus Christ was not God and human, then he could not bring the two together…[and] salvation would be reduced to living a good moral life…”[10]

Gregory of Nazianzus, c.329-389 A.D.

Much of Gregory’s thinking about theosis had to do with combating Apollinarianism, which denied that Christ’s “spirit”[11] never fully entered human experience and/or limitations, but instead wore His humanity like a suit which was ultimately discarded. For Gregory, this constituted a threat to salvation, for if Jesus Christ’s humanity was not complete, then neither could we be saved wholly through it. Apollinarius’ theology, on the other hand, “could work whether one believed the Son of God who dwelled in Jesus Christ as his rational soul was eternal God or created demigod”,[12] which many heretics had already begun to teach. Yet this teaching was ultimately condemned as heresy because of the reality that Gregory foresaw, which was that no true bridge between the wholly divine nature of God and the wholly material nature of humanity could be made without Jesus Christ having wholly become human. The incarnation was the bridge between these two natures, and theosis was the “process of grace transforming humans into partial participants in the divine nature through the wonderful exchange of the incarnation.”[13]

Gregory of Nyssa, c. 334-394 A.D.

Perhaps this Gregory’s most significant contribution to the doctrine of theosis is that of epektasis. Epektasis, or “constant progress”, was Gregory’s way of understanding the perpetual climb of humanity out of our fallen nature. It was the way in which he chose to represent theosis as “constant progress in godliness and virtue” and noted that it is the goal of humanity to “become more and more perfect, more like God, even though [we] will never understand, much less attain, God’s transcendence.”[14]

This doctrine particularly rubbed with the Platonic philosophy that immutability is perfection and any ability to change constituted an imperfection; hence, many Platonists neglected to see the spiritual nature of progress in the same way that Gregory did. In Gregory’s view, however, he understood God to be immutable – because He was/is already perfect – but insisted we must change [ergo voluntarily be imperfect] in order to become more like God, who is supremely Perfect.

Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274 A.D.

Arguably the greatest theologian since the Apostle Paul, Aquinas’ was a welcome voice in the conversation about the significance and meaning of theosis, particularly in our understanding of how theosis brings together both justification [the judicial/satisfaction side of salvation [and] sanctification [the internal side of personal holiness]. For Aquinas, “grace is a work of God in human beings raising them above their human nature to the point where they become sharers in the divine nature.”[15] Significant to Aquinas’ line of thought was his belief that human nature was not ruined by the Fall in Genesis 3; rather, the Fall destroyed “original righteousness” but not human nature. Human nature, according to Aquinas, retained the image of God during the Fall and that nature is revitalized through transformation by God’s supernatural grace into the nature of the divine.

As we have traced theosis through these theologians, it becomes clear that the doctrine is morphing somewhat in its scope. Whereas some of the earlier writers might have thought theosis in more mystical terms, we begin to see in the latter ones the idea that we are returning to something from which we have been taken; or, more accurately, something is being returned to us. Aquinas in particular seems to suggest that our theosis is a re-entry into a pre-Fall Edenic identity that is more truly, more authentically, human insofar as we define humanity as bearing the image and likeness of God.

It is this notion of our true humanity that I would like to put forward as a beginning for a contemporary theosis. I believe there may be great benefit to our evangelistic efforts and our spiritual conversations with the world if we frame things in this light. I will explore these ideas later on in the article.

[1] Roger E.Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 48.

[2] Roger E.Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 77.

[4] Cf. Roger E.Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 106.

[5] Roger E.Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 112.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cf. Philippians 2.12b

[8] Roger E.Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 169.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Roger E.Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 170-171.

[11] In reference to the Platonic distinction of the three components of being: body, soul, spirit.

[12] Roger E.Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 189.

[13] Roger E.Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 189.

[15] Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Claredon, 1992), 264.

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