(A much shorter and edited version of this review will be published in ‘Evangelical Review of Theology’)

Stephan Finlan, Vladimir Kharlamov (ed.), Deification in Christian Theology (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2010) 194 pp. ISBN: 9780227173299. $42.50

Deification is the transformation of believers into the likeness of God. While Christian monotheism does not support the notion of any literally becoming “god,” the New Testament speaks of a transformation of mind, character, vision and mission towards those of Jesus and an imitation of God. However, those passages do not spell out the concept in detail.

The idea was often mentioned in the early Church, but it took a long time until the term “deification” (“theosis”, Θεωσις) was coined by Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century and became the label for the concept. Though the term has taken many meanings in church history, it is now used to designate all instances where any idea of taking on God’s character or being made divine occurs.

In the Orthodox Churches, the Old Oriental Churches, and the Oriental Churches in Union with the Roman Catholic Church, the term plays a central role as salvation from an unholy life to partaking in the holy life of God himself. For the Orthodox, theosis is the process of a believer becoming free of sin (in the general meaning), being united with God, beginning in this life and later consummated in the bodily resurrection. Humans were made to share in the life of the holy Trinity. This transformation is part of salvation and ends in everlasting life (zōé).

The Oriental concept of deification has often fallen prey to fights betwenn the Christian confessions as they were accused of believing that humans could become God. As the editors see it, the debate went forth and back between deification as an heathen idea (as proposed by Adolf Harnack) and an essential and indubitable Orthodox doctrine (p. 9). They want to get beyond this static warfare. And one has to agree. Theosis never meant to become God or to become like God in every aspect or to give up the distinction between creator and creation, including man as a created being. (See the leading Romanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae, who emphasizes that “theosis” may not be taken literally, p. 161.)

Two Orthodox theologians edited this volume to examine the history of the concept and invited authors from other confessions to be involved. Stephen Finlan is a research assistant on the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture at Drew University and Adjunct Professor at Seton Hall University. Vlandimir Kharlamov teaches at Fairleigh Dickinson University and works as a research assistant on the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture at Drew.

Besides the introduction by the editors, there are chapters on Judaism and the Old Testament (Gregory Glazov), on 2 Peter 1:4 (Stephen Finlan), on the Apostolic Fathers and on the Apologists of the Second Century (both by Vladimir Kharlamov), on Irenaeus and on Athanasius (both by Jeffrey Finch), on Augustine (Robert Puchniak), on Maximus the Confessor (Elena Vishnevskaya), on Soloviev (Stephen Finlan) and “Reforming Theosis,” a chapter by a Reformed scholar evaluating the concept of deification (Myk Habets).

It is not always clear whether this book is primarily historical research or primarily an Orthodox defense of the concept to other churches. One could wish for an essay on the history of the criticism of the concept and a clearer presentation of the possible differences between Orthodox and classic Reformation soteriology in regard to theosis. To be clear, I think that it is worth studying the subject and that Protestants or Evangelicals need to take into account the relevant biblical texts. But getting closer to each other is only possible by starting with clearly stating the possible obstacles and then working our way through the Bible, its interpretation in the early church, and in all of church history.

For Evangelicals, exegesis will play a major role in evaluating the concept and this volume is a good starting point. Clearly, there are enough NT texts to be explained that one cannot omit the topic. The question cannot be if we should deny becoming “participants of the divine nature,” but only how to interpret this in the light of all of Scripture. I agree with the following list:

Taking on God’s nature (2Pet 1:4, Ps 82:6, John 10:34),
imitation of God (Mt 5:48, John 14:12, Eph 5,1),
indwelt by God (Job 32:8, John 14:17, Rom 8:16),
being re-formed by God (John 3,:6; Rom 12,2, Eph 4,24),
being con-formed to Christ (Phil 3:21, Rom 8,29, 2Cor 3:18, 1John 3:2),
final divinization of the kosmos (Hab 2:14, Isa 32:17, 1Cor 15:28).

The OT has to be added. Gregory Glazov examines Old Testament covenant theology, divine adoption, and on bearing the fruit of knowledge or attaining the stature of a tree of righteousness in Proverbs, Isaiah, and Sirach, as foundations for the NT teaching on theosis.

Since all the articles are well researched and shed new light on the whole debate, I want to confine myself to two remarks and then concentrate on the article by Habtes. Otherwise I agree with Evangelical theologian Thomas C. Oden, connected to the editors as General Editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, who writes: “An extraordinary collaboration of scholars examining the neglected theme of deification in the classic Christian tradition from its biblical roots through Irenaeus, Augustine, and Maximus, to contemporary reconstructions of Torrance and Soloviev.”

  1. I do not really understand why the article on Vladimir Soloviev was included. The Bible and the Early Church are given, but a modern poet of comedy? At least I would have made it an appendix or provided an explanation.
  2. Finlan takes it for granted that 2Peter was written around 100 n. Chr. (p. 32) and in-terprets 2Peter on this backround. This surely is not in line with the thinking of the Church Fathers or traditional theology on which so much emphasis is laid in this volume. This idea is an inroad from liberal Protestantism, which is criticised by a growing community of NT scholars. There are good arguments that the letter was written prior to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, and the idea from the 19th century, that the letter does not reflect the thought of Peter, but comes from a pupil of Paul (p. 43-45), and therefore has to be late, should not be binding on us in light of the fact, that the evidence is still missing. Finlan’s belief that 2Peter borrows from Middle Platonic spirituality, from Stoic ethics, and from Jewish apocalyptic expectation, will not help to further his idea among Evangelicals. It is a pity when Orthodox theologians copy liberal theology even at places where it hits the essence of their faith. More conservative commentaries on 2Peter would give much more strength to understanding and applying 2Peter 1:4.

An exception among the authors is the Reformed theologian Myk Habets, both as a Protestant and because his topic is to compare an Orthodox teaching with Reformed theology. He compares theosis to the “heart of Reformed theology,“ union with Christ, which “is compatible with a doctrine of theosis” (p. 147). Calvin’s comment on 2Peter 1:4, in the view of Habets, could have been written by an Orthodox theologian (p. 148). Calvin’s emphasis on union with Christ (pp. 148-150) is very similar to the Orthodox position and was taken up by theologians in his line such as Jonathan Edwards and Karl Barth. At length he describes the positive appraisal of theosis by the Scottish Reformed theologian Thomas Forsyth Torrance (pp.142-166).

For Habets (and Torrance), the second Biblical and Reformed concept in line with theosis is the imago dei. Humans are the image of God, but this image has been destroyed by sin. Through salvation, this image is restored and believers will be transformed in the real image of God, who is Jesus, the Son of God (pp. 153-158).

Reacting to this, there are two sides of the story.

  1. There are many concepts in the Bible, especially the New Testament, that make a doctrine of deification possible, as long as the concept is not taken to mean, that we become god. We are created in God’s image and will be transformed into the image of God per se, Jesus Christ (Phil 3:21, Rom 8:29): We are indwelled by the Holy Spirit and Jesus is in us (and we in him). “What is born of the spirit is spirit” (John 3:6), yes, “You … may become participants of the divine nature” (2Pet 1:4). And all this leads to the concept of becoming holy, a concept central not only to all holiness movements but to all Protestant revivals and Evangelical movements, even where soteriology was strictly separated from the following ethics. Thus it always only can be a question of interpretation of the concept, not of pure denial.
  2. As soon one accepts this, for Protestants the same questions concerning the relationship between salvation and theosis arise as between salvation and sanctification. It is here where the real discussion should have started. It is a pity that only Reformed theology interacts with theosis (though as a Reformed theologian I like the essay by Habets), but Lutheran theologians (who are mainly critical of “deification”), Methodist theologians (who are mostly in favor of it, since John Wesley), and Pentecostal theologians have different views on the relation of salvation and holiness which should have been discussed.

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