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Theosis and Participation in Christ

September 10, 2009

Christ crossRecently I have been thinking about Michael Gorman’s claim that Paul’s account of human participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus amounts to theosis. Basically the claim is fairly simple (grounded in his reading of Philipians 2, Galatians and Romans). If this kenotic existence is truly the life of God in history then to participate in it is to participate in the life of God – ie theosis. In the light of this claim I was reading Bruce McCormack’s article. “Participation in God, Yes; Deification, No”. Basically it is an attempt to show how the ontologies of both Jungel and Barth allow for an important distinction between creator and creature, human and divine being, while acknowledging a real participation of humans in divine being. I came across this statement, which provoked some thought.

“Participation in God is, for Jungel, participation in the relation of the Son to the Father. It is not participation in the relation of the Father to the Son which constitutes the life of God.”

It seems to me that this implies that the way to establish the distinction between human and divine is to acknowledge that the (Father-Son) relationship is constituted by at least two relations. The Father relates to the Son (relation 1) and the Son’s relates to the Father (relation 2). This in turn presupposes two perspectives, that of the Father and that of the human Son Jesus.

A further question then arises, this time not so much about relationship as about identity. What constitutes the Son’s identity? The Son is not merely a perspective, but an agent in history (who has a perspective). The identity of the Son is that of a history constituted by both relations. And the relationship that these relations conjointly constitute is one of mutual love, or the confluence of the love of Father for Son and Son for Father. This is expressed biblically as the Son doing the will of the Father so that the theoretical possibility of a divergence of wills (my will and not thine be done) is overcome in the history (of the Spirit’s empowerment of Jesus) whereby the wills in fact converge (not my will but thine be done = my will is to do thy will) according to a logic of persuasion rather than necessity or causality.

If this distinction is valid then we could qualify Gorman’s kenotic paulinism by saying that to participate in the life of the Son is to participate (humanly, partially, historically) in a relationship from one of its poles as a result of being conformed to the Son by the Spirit

McCormack summarises the Jungel-Barth view thus:

“These differences notwithstanding, Barth and Jungel have arrived at a very similar conception of participation in God. For both, participation is an eschatological reality whose ground is to be found in Jesus’ relation to the Father. For both, participation in god is mediated by participation in the humanity of Jesus – a participation which takes place in this world only actualistically and by way of anticipation of the realization of eschatological humanity. In both cases, the older metaphysics has been set aside in order to achieve a relational and historical understanding.” [emphasis mine]

I have one remaining question: Why only?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Myk Habets permalink
    September 10, 2009 4:00 am

    Hi Bruce, any chance of emailing me your full paper for the confernece please?

  2. September 10, 2009 4:31 am

    Sure, if and when I write it… Why did I volunteer?!!!

  3. Myk Habets permalink
    September 10, 2009 4:33 am

    Thank you!

  4. September 10, 2009 11:17 pm

    I haven’t read McCormack’s article, but this seems consistent with his Christology seeing the person of Jesus as a product of the two natures. It seems to turn on the principle that nothing human can participate in the divine.

    If participation in the Son’s relation to the Father doesn’t imply theosis, then this seems to imply that the Son isn’t God or more precisely a divine person. This looks awfully Arian-ish to my ears.

    If it is not possible for the Son to will other than the Father, what do you make of his statement in the Pasison, “not my will” which seems to indicate that he did will differently than the Father?

    On your reading, how many actions/activities then are there in the Spirit empowered Christ, one or two? If participation is in this world only actualistically, it seems crucial then to know how many actualization there are.

    • September 13, 2009 11:23 pm

      You ask difficult questions… the texts suggest a divergence of wills, however, they also suggests the overriding of a will (in freedom and not by any violation) which is ‘to do the will of the Father’. Does this mean that whatever forces are at work in the life of Jesus they are resolved (as in the overcoming of temptation) in an act of concord with the sending will of the Father, so that in fact the identity of Jesus is that of the Son. I’m not sure what is actually possible, but the language of this conflict suggests at least a ‘theoretical possibility’ which is not actualised. So I suspect I would say there is finally one action which is the life of the Son (Spirit powered Christ). Does this make sense.
      By the way I had a glance at your blog and its title. It reminded me of a comment McCormack makes in the cited article namely that ‘defenders of the idea of “deification” have frequently had recourse to the Palamite distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies, restricting participation only to the latter. In this way, the ontological otherness of God is certainly preserved – but at what cost? If participation is limited to the energies of God and the true being of God belongs to a realm inaccessible to human beings, then it is hard to understand why one would still care to speak of a deification of the human.’

      • September 13, 2009 11:53 pm


        The text does suggest and I believe affirms a difference of objects willed-to preserve his life and to go to the cross. What motivates the worry that a difference in objects willed entails a sin is the idea that one option is good and the other bad, or more simply, that the good is simple so that a choice between alternatives entails a choice between morally opposed alternatives. If we deny that assumption, we are free to view both options as goods and so maintain the freedom of the Son in his humanity while also upholding his impeccability.

        An overriding of the will I think makes more problems that it solves. First, if Christ is impeccable, then we have a natural volition in human nature per se that is opposed to God so that either creation is intrinsically opposed to God who is good and creation bad or vice versa. Second, it will imply not only predestinarianism for all human persons but also that a divine person who is most free is subject to necessity. Third we have to keep before us the truth that this is a divine person willing with and through the human power of choice so that any fault in the willing will be chalked up to that divine person.

        Rather I would argue Christ freely wills both with each of his two powers of choice and that both options are good. But that he reorients the telos of human nature internally from preservation of life to going through death towards resurrection and this is done by and with his human power of choice. The salvation of the world then is willed through and by the powers of human nature freely.

        The empowering of the Spirit will only indicate the source of the potential supplied rather than the object willed, if that object is freely willed or not, and how many acts occur. If Christ has two wills, then it seems reasonable to say there are two acts while all the while, one agent.

        I adhere to Palamism, though I think the distinction is much older than Palamas. McCormack’s comments betray a lack of understanding of the position he is attacking. The energies are not less than “true God” or metaphysically deficient created substitutes. They are fully divine. Second, the position denies being can be said of God ad intra since God is huper ousia or beyond being in and of himself.

        On the other hand, I’d need to see what McCormack thinks theosis on his gloss amounts to, to see if he is really entitled to claim the term in any meaningful sense. And I am not sure how much ground is gained in claiming that the distinction between creature and creator is maintained in theosis, since the Palamite view claims as much as well. If McCormack thinks that it doesn’t I haven’t seen a cogent reason to date to think so. Do you have any of the reasons at hand that he gives for thinking so?

    • September 13, 2009 11:29 pm

      ps: I think McCormack is saying that participation in the Son’s relation to the Father DOES imply theosis, just not a deification in thich the difference between creature and creator is eliminated

      • September 29, 2009 11:30 am

        I think McCormack presents a straw man approach to theosis. In Footnote 21 (p. 354) he notes the primary problem with his reading of the Orthodox position:

        ‘The root of Barth’s protest aginst “divinisation” is to be found at this precise point–in his insistence that divine humiliation and human exaltation do not stand in a relation of simple correspondence and that, therefore, the participation which each entails differ in kind. … The Son of God assumed human flesh into unity with Himself and thereby became human. But “there was and is…no Son of Man who assumed divine essence to his human essence and thus became the Son of God”‘.

        I’m pretty sure the Orthodox position would say that Jesus’ humanity was deified, not Jesus himself as the human became deified. That is, Jesus’ humanity shares in the communication of properties, but like Barth argues there was never a man who was just a man that became God. Accordingly, the orthodox don’t simply assume that believers become deified in the same process as Christ, but there humanity shares in the divine attributes. McCormack also seems to make out that the creator-created divide is crossed in the Orthodox position (p.374), which is clearly not the case and makes me think he is working with a straw man version of theosis.

        I talked to a Barth scholar who happened to be on Sabbatical around these parts, and he was under the impression that in the end what Barth is talking about and the Orthodox get to the same place, notwithstanding the obvious differences in ontologies to get there. I barely know how to pronounce Barth’s name correctly, so I can’t comment on this myself.

      • September 29, 2009 4:20 pm


        For the Orthodox, there is divinization but also enhominization of Christ. One problem is the theory of nature and how it relates to grace. That is a persistent problem in the Augustinian tradition. For the Orthodox, if it’s a problem it isn’t a problem in the same way. Human nature is a logos, plan or predestination and it is eternal and in Christ. Consequently, the taking up of that logos in the incarnation doesn’t present same kinds of problems of reaching across a nature-grace divide. This is why Maximus says contrary Pyrrus, that virtues are natural things. The logos of human nature then isn’t in an oppositional relation to creation, while still distinct. Anatolios’ work on Athanasius’ doctrine of creation is most helpful here.

        Another problem seems to be Barth’s advocation for a gnomic will in Christ while the Orthodox deny this. This is one reason why divinization in the case of Christ’s humanity is different than in our case. Christ as a divine person never achieves theosis because he never has a beginning. This is so even though he is recapitulating human nature in a process of natural growth and progress. Theosis then has a natural component but also requires hypostatic engagement through free will.

        Part of McCormack’s problem then is that he doesn’t think that Jesus is only a divine person, as he himself says. This is why his Son of Man and Son of God language is troubling since it turns on the fault lines of what it means for Jesus to be a composite hypostasis after the union. If Jesus a divine person into whom human nature is taken or is Jesus a divine and human person which is achieved at the union? McCormack certainly seems to endorse the latter and the Orthodox the former. For my limited reading of McCormack, it seems he hasn’t grasped the patristic material on enhominization.

  5. michaeljgorman permalink
    September 11, 2009 1:57 am

    Bruce, Thanks for the post and for the heads-up on my blog. I was nervous that you had really taken me to task! I have not read Bruce’s article lately, but I have two concerns from this post.

    First, I think that there is a misplaced fear among some Protestants (and I am a Protestant) that theosis blurs the distinction between humanity and God. It does not; rather, it preserves it. This issue came up at Princeton last spring when I gave a seminar on my book to the biblical faculty and PhD students. I made the point I am making here, and when concerns were expressed, the Orthodox NT professor there, George Parsenios, rose to my defense. The orthodox (lower-case “o”) Orthodox understanding of theosis does not allow humanity to become God; that is not what deification means.

    Second, I worry that making a distinction between “conformity to the Son by the Spirit,” or what we might call Christosis, and conformity to God [the Father], or theosis, by stressing a “one-way” relationship of Son-like obedience (one might also say faith[fulness]) as the sole meaning of participation, creates some serious problems. In addition to the hint of Arianism Perry suggests, it also separates something that Paul keeps closely together: the faithfulness of the Son and the faithfulness of the Father, which is also to say the love of the Father for the world and the love of the Son for the world. The cross reveals that Christ’s love and faithfulness are simultaneously God’s love and faithfulness. If God the Father in self-giving love gives the Son, who obeys the Father as an act of love both for the Father and for the world, then participating in this love cannot be participating in a one-way relation. Rather, the situation is much more dynamic and complex, and to participate in the life of this God is to become like both the Son and the Father inasmuch as the Son is like the Father in the faithfulness and self-giving love we see especially on the cross. That is to say, the cross reveals that Christosis is not merely full humanization or participation in the humanity of the Jesus the Son; it is also theosis, or divinization, christologically understood.

    • September 13, 2009 11:41 pm

      No I had no plans to ‘take you to task’. In fact I agree with what you are saying here, but wonder how different it is from what McCormack is trying to say. Arguably to participate in the Son’s relation to the Father is not exclusive of participating in the Father, but the means of participating in the Father. However, it is not a direct participation, but participation by means of humanisation in Jesus the Son. As you say the Father and Son share a love for the world but this does not blur the distinctions between them in that the Father sends and the Son does not, the Son is a human being and the Father is not.
      On rereading my post, I don’t think I was suggesting that we ‘participate in a one-way relationship’ but rather that we participate one-way in a two-way relationship which is constituted by reciprocal one-way relations (if that makes sense).

  6. Myk Habets permalink
    September 11, 2009 2:31 am

    Amen Micahel! Thank you for that.

    I was at Geneva when Bruce McCormack gave his follow up study to appear soon as “Union with Christ in Calvin’s Theology: Grounds for a Divinisation Theory?” in Tributes to Calvin, ed. D. Hall (Phillipsburg, NJ.: Prebyterian and Reformed, 2009.

    It is a very good piece, as is all of Bruce’s work. But it hammers out the same theme he has been working out over a series of articles. I plan to interact with Bruce in some detail in a forthcoming essay but I do have an initial response to these Protestant Reformed (which I am myself) worries over what Thomas Torrance delightfully termed ‘The Danger of Vertigo’. In Myk Habets, ‘Theosis, Yes, Deification.’ in Reading Scripture and Constructing Theology with the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals, Peacemaking, and Social Justice Series. Eugene, Or.: Pickwick Publications, forthcoming. Ed. Myk Habets, I build on some earlier work of mine to further show the compatibility of theosis with Reformed thought.

    These posts are helping to clarify some of the issues Bruce and others have with theosis and ways to adequately address them. Thank you.

  7. Mike Cantley permalink
    September 11, 2009 2:47 pm


    This is a great reflection, and I appreciate you showing me more great thinkers along these lines. I went straight for this McCormack piece after reading the quote you pulled (Denkwürdiges Geheimnis, p371—BTW, being a noob, I was glad to find McCormack in English!).

    You also raise great questions and observations. The “Son’s identity” piece, especially with the two dimensions you mention as a starting point, holds much more for us to glean as “followers” too, I’m sure! Are we also in on this constitution of the Son’s identity? Can being allowed to “participate” in the Son’s identity show another dimension of God’s amazing kenosis? Such an “allowance” would be a profound way to communicate one’s self! I’m also trying to think this through and honor or preserve “the distinction between humanity and God,” as M. Gorman said in his response.

    Then, with a sharp change of gears, I like your second question too. With “Why only?” two things come to mind immediately. BTW- I’m in no way an authority on this! It is fun and cathartic, though, to try to think about this “out loud”!

    1. First we hold a great stake in reality. Maybe we’ve been invested in reality. Without actualistically participating, of course, we could say there is no participation at all. Twisting this two distinct directions, we could argue in a general sense that everyone and everything is “actually” participating, and, therefore, to “participate in Christ” embodies a participation that must actualize to not only be real, but also to be unique and powerfully present among other means of participation.

    2. Slightly changing where the emphasis falls adds to the ontological and epistemic impetuses as well and may speak to this uniqueness more specifically. “For both, participation in god is mediated by participation in the humanity of Jesus – a participation which takes place in this world only actualistically AND by way of anticipation of the realization of eschatological humanity.” I may be hijacking McCormack’s, Barth, and Jungel’s intentions here, but couldn’t it, in somewhat step-wise fashion, be argued from this:

    That if there is no reality outside of participation, indeed (loosely following Polanyi) there is no knowledge outside participation, do claimants “know” Christ at all without participation in him and his inbreaking (inbroken!) denouement?

    3. Finally, to take into account M. Gorman’s response, even the problems with obedience/conformity and the “one-way relation” hold a piece of this talk of reality. I’ll try to keep framing it in Gorman and McCormack terms: The “one-sided” obedience thing would surely pass for an actualization, but to do this for varied reasons other than as participation in God’s self-giving love (i.e. fear, image, unexamined tradition, etc.) would not be to truly participate/anticipate the “realization of eschatological humanity.” Anticipate something maybe…but even that would deny the reality of God’s present work.

    That might be where I would go with “Why only?” Again, I’m not a qualified voice in your great discussion, and I direct the biggest question to my own mirror: Am I participating in the coming reality? If not actualistically, then surely it is not at all. It will be fun to watch for your own thoughts on “why only?”

    Thanks for your provocative post!
    Mike C.

  8. Mike Cantley permalink
    September 12, 2009 4:57 pm

    It is obvious to me now that I was likely in the dark on the very particular “Why only?” that you were questioning! If, as I now suspect after a bit more “listening,” you are questioning specifically the “one way” aspect M. Gorman responded against pointedly, I am with you completely (period!), and I wasted lots of your time with the previous post! From that angle, I appreciate even more your prompt about identity/agency.
    Mike C.

    • September 13, 2009 11:53 pm

      To cut a long story short, Mike, the reason I questioned the ‘only’ was itself questionable. I thought it might imply ‘merely’, as if actualistic participation were some kind of second-class participation to another kind of essentialist magic – but as I read it again, I think McComack makes no such implication.
      Thanks for you interesting comments… the link with Polanyi is worth thinking about.

  9. michaeljgorman permalink
    September 15, 2009 11:35 am

    I absolutely agree that the Polanyi connection Mike C. makes is very important, as are his words about the difference between anticipation and participation. I would argue (following Paul) that participation is no less real even though is is in some sense anticipatory. What is anticipated in anticipatory participation is full (eschatological) participation. (I think McCormack et al would agree.) But saying it this way reveals part of the theological beauty of theosis over against the traditional Protestant justification-sanctification-glorification schema. In theosis, these three dimensions are all of a piece and therefore, in important ways, inseparable both practically and theologically.

  10. bruce hamill permalink
    September 15, 2009 8:20 pm

    Thanks for commenting on this Michael. By the way, have you written anything on N T Wright’s book on Justification by way of review. I note you mention of his narrow view of justification (if I recall correctly). Have you perchance any further material


  1. “One-Way” Participation or Theosis « Cross Talk ~ crux probat omnia

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