Becoming a “god” … Through Luther, Calvin, Lewis, Wright and Other Protestant Giants?! … (part 7)

Clockwise from Top to the Center: Wesley, Calvin, Lewis, Augustine, Luther, Wright, and an Eastern Icon of Jesus the Christ

Welcome back to our discussion on theosis and deification.  If you haven’t been following the series thus far, I’d like to suggest that you scroll down to the end of the article and take a look at the links I have listed.  For without the background of these articles, very little of what is said in the remainder of this series is going to make sense to you.

Now, as you know, the genesis of this series was a question posed by a friend of mine.  He wanted to know if the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis (“becoming one with God”) was related to Oswald Chambers’ “Christian Perfectionism.”  So I began the series by unpacking 2 Peter 1:3-11, the most famous text upon which this presumably Eastern theology is built.  Following that, I moved the discussion forward by exploring significant Catholic thinkers who have defended the theology as well.

So the question that lies before us today is this: is theosis (or deification) taught by significant Protestant and evangelical theologians?  When I first started this series, my immediate, ill-considered impulse was to answer this question with a rather non-committal “probably not.”  But the fact of the matter is, I could not have been more wrong.  As it turns out, Western theologians, as far back as Augustine[1] himself, have taught a version of theosis.  Consider this list of Western theological giants: Anselm of Canterbury,[2] Martin Luther,[3] John Calvin,[4] John Wesley, Charles Wesley,[5] Jonathan Edwards,[6] C.S. Lewis,[7] and N.T. Wright.[8]  All of them, without exception, have wrestled with the concept of theosis, and all of them, without exception, have defended the idea that through our union with Christ – by being “in Christ” – we are in some way deified, and made into a “god.”  Lewis himself says it most clearly (to our modern ears), when he writes in Mere Christianity:

“[God] said that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him-for we can prevent Him if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for.”[9]

And so there you have it.  Whether we are comfortable with it or not, there is no doubt that in the historical, orthodox teaching of the universal Church, theosis and deification have been taught.  And for those of us in the Western, Protestant, evangelical tradition, this probably comes as something of a shock to our systems.  What are we supposed to do with this?  Is this idolatry?  Wasn’t this the sin of humanity at the Tower of Babel?  All of these are great questions, and as the series continues, I will unpack some of these ideas and more.  But for now, I wish to leave you again with the words of C. S. Lewis.  May you ponder them as you look upon the people that surround you in your everyday life.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . .”

—C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory[10]

Recommended Reading in this Series on Theosis and Deificaiton:

Becoming a “god” … (part 1)

Becoming a “god” … Through the Catholic Church?! … (part 2)

Becoming a “god,” Razorback Ridge, and the Things that Tend to Scare Us … (part 4)

Becoming a “god” … Need a Roadmap? … (part 6)

[1] While it is true that Augustine lived and worked prior to the Great Schism that divided the East and the West in 1054 AD, he is generally thought of as a Western theologian, primarily because the Western Catholic Church and the Western Protestant Church has leaned upon him so heavily.

[2] N.R. Kerr, “St Anselm: Theoria and the Doctrinal Logic of Perfection,” in M.J. Christensen and Jeffrey A. Wittung, eds., Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[3] In his writings, Luther used the term Vergottung, to express this idea. Moreover, he most explicitly defended this doctrine in his Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, where he refers to the justified Christian as ein gottliche Creatur (“the divine creature”).

[4] J. Todd Billings, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).  It should be noted that amongst this list of theologians, Calvin’s doctrine of deification would be the weakest as he maintained the largest gap between a Holy God and a totally depraved humanity.  Nevertheless, his writing in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will provides the clearest understanding of Calvin’s understanding of union with God though Christ.

[5] S. T. Kimbrough, “Theosis in the Writings of Charles Wesley,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52 (2008), pp. 199-212.

[6] Richard B. Steele, “Transfiguring Light: The Moral Beauty of the Christian Life According to Gregory Palamas and Jonathan Edwards,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52 (2008), pp. 403-449.

[7] Lewis touches on this theme in multiple works including (but not limited to): The Weight of Glory, A Grief Observed, and even his classic, Mere Christianity.

[9] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1976), 174-75.

[10] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1976), 45.

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5 Responses to Becoming a “god” … Through Luther, Calvin, Lewis, Wright and Other Protestant Giants?! … (part 7)

  1. Hi, Scott.

    Finally have a little bit of time to weigh in on this. There are several things which strike me about this issue.

    The first of these is historical. Obviously, the culture in which the Eastern church took root had a worldview which was heavily Greek. As as result, it should not be surprising to detect a whiff of Greek philosophy scenting the cultural expressions of faith there. Conjecturally, Plato would be quite comfortable with the idea of theosis PROVIDED that it does not include a resurrection of the flesh. It is what he longed for when he wished to be freed from the shackles of the flesh. Not surprising then that the church fathers, particularly in the east, should be equally comfortable with this idea. Men like Athanasius in the east and Augustine in the west clearly demonstrate many Platonic ideas in their writings. In the west you have men like Tertullian and Jerome warning against the dangers of syncretism. They clearly saw two cities as being in conflict with each other: Jerusalem and Athens. Augustine’s more Platonic definition of them as the City of Man (material) and the City of God (spiritual) it telling. Conceptually, to me at least, I understand Jerome, Tertullian, and Augustine to have meant basically the same thing, but the way in which they chose to define their “cities of conflict” tells us something about their underlying philosophical presuppositions. One is more western, the other more eastern. I appreciate both, but I think that what Augustine proposed can be misleading to those who tend to think in either-or categories. (I don’t think Augustine meant this, but I do see people making division in this way, which I don’t believe can be defended biblically). It can give the false impression that, since this world is passing away, it is not where we should be focusing our efforts. It’s got to be both/and.

    Secondly, as I believe has been touched on by some other posts, this is a question of ontology. What is our essence as glorified beings? While I completely understand what Lewis is saying and essentially agree with him, I believe it is the use of the term “god” that can be problematic. Clearly there is something that happens during the course of sanctification that makes us more like Christ morally. Clearly there is something that happens physically at glorification that enables us to be in the presence of the thrice holy God. But, does our essence change? Again, we have to say that something happens if we are no longer going to be able to sin in our glorified states. YET, does our essence become equal to that present in the Trinity? I simply cannot make that leap. I find it helpful to go back to Genesis and the original creation. If in the end, heaven is a complete restoration of the original creation, man will still be subordinate to His creator—but with the upgrade from Adam’s state in that sin will no longer be a possibility for us. Is that a different essence than what Adam had. It has to be, but that does NOT mean that our essence will necessarily be equal and of the same substance as that of the God.

    Thirdly, the term “god” is an interesting one. Consider the fact that the term “elohim” is also used to refer to false gods, demons, and human leaders. Time does not permit, but it would be interesting to do a thorough word study in both the Hebrew and Greek to unpack this further.

    Finally, I think that modern evangelicalism has done damage to the whole doctrine of what it means to be “in Christ.” I, personally cringe whenever I hear someone use the term, “He has Jesus in His heart.” Why do we persist in using this language? What we have is the Holy Spirit, not a little Jesus tucked neatly into our hearts. Jesus is in one place: the right hand of God interceding on our behalf. Revelation tells us He is busy trimming the wicks of the lampstands preserving the churches that have been given to Him. He is acting as our priest; He is preparing for the day when He rides forth as Conquering King. He is the Judge of the Universe, mighty and terrible to those who will not be found in Him on that last day. Not be found IN HIM. No, we need to be more careful about the words we use. In continually trying to bring Him down to us, we fail to see who He really is and we forget that He is doing something far better than “living in our hearts.” He is conforming us to His likeness, hiding us in His righteousness, and preparing for the day when we shall see Him as He is.

    There is far more mystery here than we post-enlightenment, reason- bound moderns are comfortable dealing with. May we live in humility to His word and trust that what He is doing is wonderful.

    Thank you for this thought-provoking series. It is a great way to reflect on the Advent of our Lord.

    • Dear Angel,

      First and foremost, thank you for chiming in. I can truly say that there were a handful of people that I have been hoping to hear from and you clearly make that list. I was just commenting to a friend on the telephone that you are probably one of the most theologically educated people I know, and I deeply respect your thoughts on these issues. So truly, thank you.

      With regards to your second point, I am going to be teasing that out in the next post. Even in the East, there is a clear distinction between essence and energies, and theosis (which they consider to be orthodox) and apotheosis, which is carrying theosis too far. So I hinted at the problems in my post on the Razorback Ridge (part 4), and I will be diving in further over the next day or so.

      With regards to your concern with calling us “gods,” you are echoing the thoughts of another friend, who commented under part 2. Here’s my question: what do you do with Psalm 86:2 and John 10:34 (Jesus’ citation of Psalm 86:2). There is not one major translation of Scripture that does not use the term “gods.” And my concern, as I have been studying this, is that we are diluting the message by opting for watered down language. Why is it that the Son of Man calls use “gods?” What is it that he is affirming even as He quotes the Psalms?

      Lastly, with regards to your final point, I have actually decided to add another post dealing with the East/West divide. I’m really starting to wonder if the reason that we see this in the Reformers writings, but not in evangelical churches has to do with the subtle influences of the Enlightenment. It’s one thing to say that we there is a transaction that makes us clean. It’s another altogether to take about being made into a “god” or a glorified version of True Man. Might this be a place where our culture has stripped our theology of real meat?

      Again, thanks so much for chiming in. I always appreciate your thoughts.

  2. Scott, thank you for your kind encouragement. I don’t know about the educated part, but I really and truly love to read and study theology. It is a source of joy to me.

    I am not suggesting that we water down the language at all! Heaven forbid. Maybe it is more a matter of defining terms.

    I have some ideas about the relationship between Psalm 82 and John 10:34 just beginning to form, but I have no idea if they are valid or not. But by looking at the text itself, I see a few things jumping off the page. First of all, anytime I see Christ quoting from the OT, I always look at the immediate context of both passages. In John 10, Christ is rebuking the Jews who wish to stone Him for “making Himself God.” As is so often the case, Christ turns their perceptions of their beloved OT on its head leaving them no wiggle room…as it appears He is doing in this case. In Psalm 82, there is a similar sort of rebuke going on. Earthly leaders whom God has raised up as agents of justice are failing to act justly. When it says in v. 6, “I said, ‘You are gods,’ I see that as God reminding them that it is HE who raised them to this position of leadership. The phrase following, “You are all sons of the Most High,” is listed in some commentaries as a Hebrew idiom referring to men of high social rank and power who OUGHT to be using that God-given power to help the needy, and afflicted and protecting them from the wicked (the immediate context of Ps. 82).

    If this Psalm, as so many of them do, has Messianic elements in it, could we not be seeing the words of this Psalm being played out in reality, even in some small way, in John 10? Here the Jews (presumably including the leaders, but not clear) have been given a certain position of privilege in having had the word of God come to them v. 35. That being so, should not their primary concern be to seek truth and justice which that Word of God requires? Yet, filled with arrogance, they pick up stones to kill Him and are more concerned to protect their position of power than to be just and do the work God has called them to do. His (rather sarcastic) response in vs. 34 and 35 does not seem to me a statement that men will be turned into “gods” rather it speaks to me of a cold, hard reminder to arrogant men that they aren’t sovereign and don’t get to have the story go they way they want it to go even though God has given them a measure of earthly power. Moreover, I see in v. 37 a further slap. They have been called “gods” but have failed to do the work God has called for them to do. Worse, yet, they are seeking to prevent the greatest work of God…the one that was given to them (v. 35 again) as a promise so many years previous. Yet, He, who is doing the work of God and is indeed that Promised One is being called a blasphemer. He then leaves them with a final thought: “…if I do (the work of My Father) though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.” They may have been happy to be called “gods” but have not done any work to evidence their position. He, who is calling Himself God has works to verify that claim…and what works, indeed!

    As to the essence thing, I had another thought: When Christ condescended to take on flesh, his divine essence was not changed, else He could not be said to be truly God. If that is true, is it reasonable—or wise—for us to believe that our essence will be changed when we are exalted?

    I absolutely believe that the Enlightenment has done much to rob us of the glory, majesty, mystery, and awe of God’s revelation. It should take our breath away.

  3. As I thought about this further last night I realized that in my last post I had not clearly defined the term “god” as I had said I would do. I see it being used here as a term referring to earthly leaders who have rule over a certain “dominion”, not divine beings. Since this same word “elohim” is used in this way and also to refers to “gods” who are demonic, this seems to make sense. Those demons have a measure of “rule” over their own little dominions…for now. Similarly, going back to creation, this can be applied to Adam as he was a “god” with dominion over creation. This interpretation would seem to answer the questions about the essence of man at glorification. He is restored to his pre-Fall condition PLUS given the upgrade of the inability to sin. Just a thought.

    Further clarification came to mind about the paradoxical relationship between Ps. 82 and John 10:
    1. Psalm 82 is being used by Jesus to remind the Jews that the “word of the Promise” and the Law came to their fathers, making them responsible for living out obedience to God through loving HIm, executing justice, and performing mercy in behalf of the defenseless…as gods who are agents of GOD.
    2. In John, Jesus, “THE WORD, the incarnate Promise” has come to them in reality and their response, rather than rejoicing in the fulfillment of the promise given to their fathers is to pick up stones to kill the innocent. Hence, they are just like their fathers…covenant breakers.

    I realize this is very similar to what I have already said, but it’s coming into sharper focus in phases.

  4. Josh The Younger says:

    Ok, in total honestly, a lot of the above went over my head. However, one thing I did get out of reading both the post and the comments was that I really want to see a definition of ‘gods’ here. I think it’s obvious that we will be changed into glorified beings. Sanctification has been a major tenant of the church from its beginnings, after all. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like this discussion is largely revolving around to what extent this glorification goes. I don’t really feel comfortable with the term if we’re using the common definition, but I’m sure there’s a deeper meaning behind the usage.

    Anyway, I suppose it’s kinda obvious that I haven’t exactly reached any conclusions yet. Looking forward to more updates and some good discussion. You’re running a great blog, Mr. Bryant, and I’m really glad to be able to participate in it.

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