Deification: An Ecumenical Teaching?

(This is Neil.) Again, I’m sorry about the infrequency of my posting. I was very happy to see that Todd posted about Charles Wesley, given my relative absence from the blog.

I’ve been meaning to post about an interesting article written by the Evangelical theologian Roger E. Olson in Theology Today earlier this year entitled “Deification in Contemporary Theology.” The topic might not be that unusual for a Protestant writer. After all, Olson begins by noting that Luther used the term Vergottung several times and referred to the justified Christian as ein göttliche Creatur And, of course, the relationship of the Wesleys to theosis has been much discussed (the unmentioned work of Frances Young could have been useful for Olson’s article). One need only recall a verse from one of Charles Wesley’s Hymns for the Nativity of the Lord:

He deigns in flesh to appear
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine
And we the life of God shall know.
For God is manifest below.

But, on the other hand, the topic might still seem unusual for a Protestant writer. Neither Barth nor Brunner nor much post-Kantian theology had much time for it. Deification also “fell on hard times” in recent Roman Catholic thought: “While Karl Rahner could make room for it, Hans Küng could not.” Olson will later mention the Evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch as a contemporary theologian of prominence who does not speak positively of deification.

Now, though, when Olson is asked who is talking about deification in Western circles, his answer is “Who isn’t?” Among Catholics, he names the late Catherine Mowry LaCugna and the great recent interest in Hans Urs von Balthasar. He mentions the writings of the Anglican theologian A.M. Allchin. Among Protestants, he considers the Finnish school of Luther research and its American exponents Robert Jenson and Carl Braaten, the Methodist Thomas Oden, the Christian Church/Church of Christ theologian F.W. Norris, Jürgen Moltmann and even Wolfhart Pannenberg, and a number of very different Evangelical thinkers. In Orthodox theology, “intense and creative ferment” surrounds the proposal of John Zizioulas (Metropolitan John of Pergamon) to do away with the tradition distinction between God’s essence and God’s energies in accounting for deification.

Two questions remain for Olson. They are, needless to say, of ecumenical significance. First, is deification necessarily bound up with the distinction between God’s essence and energies? Second, is deification compatible with the doctrine of justification by grace through faith as an extrinsic and forensic act of God? His article focuses on the first question.

Olson summarizes the traditional Orthodox distinction between essence and energies: “As person and as transcendent, God cannot be treated as an object; no creature can penetrate God’s essence. But God graciously reveals himself and draws creatures into real, ontological communion through his emanations or uncreated energies without derogating from the inviolable mystery of who and what he is in and of himself.”

He then summarizes Zizioulas’ replacement of divine energies with the hypostasis of Christ. There is an ontological unity for Zizioulas between the church and Christ so that the church really participates in the Trinity. When a Christian participates in Eucharistic communion, she is truly united with Christ, her own person is transformed “through a relationship identical with that of the Son [with the Father],” and she is divinized. For the Catholic theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna, being is likewise inseparable from personal communion, so, when the Holy Spirit incorporates us “into the very life of God,” we are transformed to the point at which we can speak of ontological change.

Some Orthodox theologians would wonder if Zizioulas’ theology inevitably results in either pantheism or the reduction of deification to mere metaphor. They would also suggest that LaCugna’s “deification,” given that she does not mean a change in substance, is less than the “partaking of the divine nature” that we read in 2 Peter 1:4. They might suggest that LaCugna is restating traditional Western ideas – “union with Christ” or “sanctification” – but not deification. The same criticism can be made of the late Evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz, who similarly did not distinguish between ontological change and a change of identity, so that, in his work, our sharing in Jesus’ filial relationship to the Father is called deification.

Some Western theologians have adopted the essence/energies distinction. F.W. Norris has written:

[W]e Christians have the promise of participating in the divine nature. We are gods, united with Christ through baptism in his death and resurrection. We participate in his body and blood through the Eucharist. Not only Eastern Orthodox but also Western theologians find solace in a sense of deification. Such restoration does not mean that we become God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God. Our participation in the divine nature is in God’s energies, not the essence, a participation through grace accepted in faith which includes being participants in Christ’s sufferings.

A.M. Allchin does this as well, without explicitly mentioning “energies.” The eminent German theologian Jürgen Moltmann likewise seems to make use of the distinction, speaking of “vitalizing energies of the Spirit” and an “immense outflowing source of energy” to eventually write about cosmic deification. But, despite his use of the language of energies, as far as the distinction, “one is hard pressed to know exactly what he thinks of it.”

According to Olson, the most discussed use of deification is by Lutherans following the Finnish school of interpretation that claims that Luther viewed justification as “Christ present in faith,” so that Christ is truly communicated to the believer, and, in Tuomo Mannermaa’s words, “the believer … partakes of the properties of God’s being.” The former Lutheran (now Catholic) theologian Bruce Marshall summarizes, “it seems that for Luther believers have a real participation by faith in Christ’s own divinity, and so in his own divine attributes or characteristics. At the same time, a distinction remains between a divine and creaturely way of possessing the divine attributes.”

But what, directly, of the essence/energies distinction? Mannermaa has written that, for Luther, the Christian actually participates in God’s essence. But what does this mean?

Most interestingly, Professor Olson ends by concluding that deification really does seem to rest on the distinction between God’s essence and energies, and Protestant theologians should think about adopting it.

He writes, using an analogy that most Protestants would recognize:

Just as the sun communicates life-giving properties to the organism that cannot enter into the sun or be entered by the sun, so God communicates himself to creatures in faith through Christ and the Holy Spirit even though believers cannot become one with God’s essence. The “himself” that he communicates transformingly is that communion of love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that flows out from the divine essence and carries some portion of it along and into creation. But actual oneness with God’s essence would obliterate the God/creature distinction.

Olson claims that Protestants, in dialogue with the Orthodox (and, presumably, us Catholics, too), would be able to communicate a strong emphasis on the personal nature of deification – the energies are not impersonal, but “bound up with the personal presences of Christ and the Spirit.”

What do you think?

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Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to Deification: An Ecumenical Teaching?

  1. FrMichael says:

    The entire being/energies theology of the East is an unexplored treasure in the West. It’s a shame that few of us Latin types have more than a passing acquaintance with Palamas and others of the East more recent than the Nicaean Fathers.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Fr Michael,

    Thanks for commenting. Yes, it would seem that you are right, although, perhaps, in the future the situation might be corrected (e.g., see the discussion in Anna Williams’ recent book on Aquinas and Palamas, The Ground of Union).

    In fact, one might be somewhat optimistic, given the widespread recent theological discussion of deification more generally.

    However, some recent prominent Orthodox theologians do question the distinction (Zizioulas is mentioned in the post, there is also David Bentley Hart, I believe).

    And, more generally, there is the question of the transmission of theological ideas to the clergy, most of the laity, and the general population. That, I’m sad to say, might be grounds for pessimism.

    But, thanks again.


  3. I rather agree with Fr. Michael that theosis (or deification, to use the latin term) is underappreciated in the West.

    While Zizoulis is the most recent apologist for the concept, neither he nor Palamas are the earliest to have stated it, or to have been exponents of it. As I recall, it was St. Athanasius in (I believe) the 4th century who said: “God became man so that Man could become God.”

    The failure in the West can perhaps be best explained by the fact that, at least in the Catholic West, aggiornamento has beat out resourcement as the motive force. Maybe when RCs start reading the Fathers again will there be some progress. In the mean time, I’m not holding my breath.

  4. Pingback: Transfigured Life « Catholic Sensibility

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