History of Interpretation


A friend texted me a screen shot of a review of my Christosis book in a recent journal, and I realized that I hadn’t seen others come through like with it’s first printing. So, a quick journal search turned up several reviews in the last few months of the Eerdmans version:

  • Gorman in Interpretation
  • Jervis in Catholic Biblical Quarterly
  • Smith in Chriswell Theological Review
  • Kennard in Affirmation & Critique (this is long)
  • Bucey in Westminster Theological Journal
  • Stephan in Theological Studies
  • in addition to several for the Mohr Siebeck version.

I confess that with the first printing (with Mohr Siebeck) when a review came in, I would have to let it sit for a day before I steeled myself. I think I have a little thicker skin now, but there’s not much new feedback that will come out with a revised edition. There are definitely areas to sharpen, and the reviews all helpfully point to those. I still agree with myself, but if I had to do it over again, I’d shoot to be at least 10% shorter. My favorite thing about the new edition is the much improved taxonomy of ancient views of (ontological) deification.

Among all the reviews, this had to be my favorite quote in Gorman’s review:

In a recent straw poll of scholars, a prominent publisher asked about the three most significant books on Paul published in the last five years. After widespread agreement on tomes by John Barclay (Paul and the Gift [Eerdmans, 2015]) and N. T. Wright (Paul and the Faithfulness of God [Fortress, 2013]), the field was divided on the third position. Among those mentioned more than once was Blackwell’s Christosis. “Let those who have ears . . . .”

This work, of course, pales in comparison to my two mentors, but it’s surely the best book on theosis and Paul, written in Durham, by comparing patristic views, in the last five years. I at least win the prize for publishing the first monograph length treatment of Paul and deification!

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Someone recently asked on Facebook for what the best works on theosis were. It raised many resources I knew and a couple I wasn’t aware of. I’m not really staying up on the forefront of things now that I’m writing about justification in Paul. As to the question, I gave my to go-to volumes which are good primers: Daniel Keating’s Deification and Grace (mostly focused on patristic views), and Norman Russell’s Fellow Workers with God (patristic views in light of wider contemporary Orthodox perspectives). Of course, Russell’s The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition is the gold standard for patristics, and I’m partial to this Christosis volume which brings together Paul and theosis.

In the thread this was posted:

Question by an ignorant person for all: I get God’s communicable attributes, sanctification, and in this way taking on the divine nature, being conformed to Christ, etc. I get believers’ mystical union to Christ, Christ living in us, etc. Does Theosis go beyond this, and if so, how so? And how is that not a bad thing? And if it does not go beyond this, then why are people lusting over the peculiar terminology?

Is theosis a fad? If not, what’s it got going for it? These are good questions. Here’s the answer I gave:

I’m sure there is a fad element to this, but there is a coherence it provides that some of our current theological dichotomies miss. In the patristic tradition, the terminology of theosis served a catch-word for the whole salvation-historical work of God–uniting creation and new creation. As such, it is not primarily anthropological (merely regarding salvation) but theo-logical and salvation-historical. In that way, it served to speak to the whole story of the Bible. (In case you are interested, I spell this out further in a recent essay: “You Become What You Worship: Theosis and the Story of Bible,” Ex Auditu (2017): 1–20.) For patristic theologians, it also incorporated their cosmological framework, in that participation was what explained the way of all reality. God is the only true self-existent being, and all life inheres to him, so to the extent we have life, we are participating in God’s life, which is again a reaffirmation of a theo-logical perspective. Finally, it provides a coherence in the narration of anthropological salvation: it is not just “sanctification” but participating in the life of God, so it unites life now and life in the future, moral incorruption (sanctification) and somatic incorruption (resurrection). So, one term that captures all that is handy.

If you are looking for a little on this topic, here’s something as a primer on theosis and theosis for dummies.

Continuing my series on Theophilus of Antioch and his work To Autolycus (Ad Autolycum), I am addressing theosis or deification in his work. (Previous posts address Christianity in antiquitythe parting of the waysTrinity without Christology, and Theosis in Theophilus.) If you are lost by my terminology of theosis, see my primer on theosis and theosis for dummies.

As part of his apologetic for Christianity, Theophilus establishes Christianity as deriving from the most ancient part of antiquity–creation itself. In this discussion of creation, he described the telos of humanity arising from their original creation, that they should become immortal like God. Indeed, they would be called “gods” because they share in this immortal attribute, though they clearly remain distinct in nature and identity from God. This shares the basic framework that almost all later writers about theosis or deification share.

Placing this discussion of becoming gods in terms of creation fits his rhetorical purpose, but it also frames the nature of continuity in almost all discussions of theosis, that is, the creator of the world is also its savior. Thus, others often place their discussion of deification in terms of creation. Theophilus is unique among other patristic writers because he does not use Psalm 82:6 to ground his reading. However, the outcome is exactly the same since when Irenaeus and others discuss Psalm 82:6, they always narrate it according to mortality at the fall and the hope of immortality. However, Irenaeus also places this within his larger salvation-historical narrative in which Christ is the one through the Spirit who restores immortality to humanity. I explore the importance of theosis for helping capture the “story of the Bible” in an essay that came out earlier this year.

Thus, what is unique about Theophilus is not that he speaks of human identity and salvation in terms of becoming gods, nor that he places this deification discussion in terms of creation and new creation. No, what is unique is that he describes resurrection and immortality in terms of God alone and not through Christ’s death and resurrection. In my work on Paul and theosis, I titled the book Christosis because I argued that Paul’s discussion of soteriology could be described as theosis, but it was explicitly framed in terms of embodying the death and life of Christ.

Note: By Christosis, I expressly do not mean: 1) this is a Christological-only soteriology because being transformed into the image of Christ is almost always in the context of the Spirit’s work (and being a “christ” entails being anointed by the Spirit). 2) Christosis should be distinct from theosis, especially not in parallel to the Christotokos-Theotokos distinction. Christosis is intended to point to a Pauline emphasis within the wider framework of theosis.

In distinction to Paul, Irenaeus, and the many other patristic writers who wrestle so distinctly with the Christ-event and its relation to theology, Theophilus has a “Christianity without Christ” as I have explored in an earlier post. He has a Logos-theology and indeed an distinctly Trinitarian discussion of God, but at least here when he describes the telos of humanity in terms of divine immortality, he does it in a generically God way, thus my phrase theosis without christosis.

 

I’m doing a short my series on Theophilus of Antioch and his work To Autolycus (Ad Autolycum). The previous post addresses Christianity in antiquity. I’m now addressing his Christology and Trinitarianism. I will address here his voice related to the parting of the ways.

Given his emphasis on the antiquity of Christianity (via Judaism), he stands in distinct contrast to many other second century Christians who show clear evidence of the parting of the ways. Take for example, Ignatius of Antioch (c. AD 107), Letter to the Magnesians 10.3:

It is utterly absurd to profess Jesus Christ and to practice ‘Judaism’ (ἰουδαΐζειν). For ‘Christianity’ (Χριστιανισμός) did not believe in ‘Judaism’ (Ἰουδαϊσμός), but ‘Judaism’ in ‘Christianity’, in which every tongue believed and was brought together with God.

This construction of a distinct identity in this passage (see ch 8-10) and others is built upon the full revelation of God in Christ, the old versus the new, and grace in opposition to Torah practice. These types of arguments are found throughout Christian texts of the second century. Clear examples include Melito of Sardis in his On Pascha (e.g., 72–82), the Epistle of Barnabas, and Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho.

In contrast to the effort to establish and defend a distinct identity, Theophilus appears much more concerned with the charge that Christianity is a new religion and therefore suspect. This reflects the wider value in the pre-modern world that what is older is better and more trustworthy. In light of his second century context, Theophilus is unique for almost never playing up distinctions with Judaism. His main argument, rather, is that Christianity is grounded in the most ancient of Jewish texts, and thus he spends the majority of Book 2 expositing the creation account in Genesis.

He also plays up God’s continued offer for restoration in the NT as the OT. In this you hardly get a feel that the NT is distinct from the prophets (3.10-15). Earlier he wrote that “Christians,” in distinction to the Greek writers, “have held the truth–we who are instructed by the Holy Spirit who spoke in the holy prophets and foretold everything” (2.33). The following chapters explore the challenge of the prophets (2.34-35), and NT and OT are mixed directly together without distinction. There are a number of other places where he does not play up differences when others do.

Where does Christology fit in this? A unique aspect of Theophilus’ work is that he does not mention the crucifixion, which can often be used as a way to flag up inadequate Jewish behavior and therefore the inadequacies of Judaism. For example, Paul speaks of dying to the Law with Christ (Gal 2; Rom 7). His Christology is therefore unique, but I wonder if he ignores that piece because of his very strong interest in continuity over discontinuity with Judaism in order to defend Christianity’s antiquity?

Theophilus shows that the parting of the ways is not a linear progression or division, and his reading of the Bible to ground a wider biblical theology is interesting. A comparison contemporary with Theophilus would be Irenaeus. In his Against Heresies Book 4, he especially addresses the continuity and discontinuity with Judaism, and he grounds it in the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, not unlike Paul. I’ve got an essay in an upcoming volume that explores this: “The Covenant of Promise: Abraham in Irenaeus” in Irenaeus and Paul. Pauline and Patristic Scholars in Debate. Todd D. Still and David E. Wilhite, eds. (London: T&T Clark, forthcoming 2019). I came across this initially when working on this essay: “Partakers of Adoption: Irenaeus and His Use of Paul,” Letter and Spirit 11 (2016): 35–64.

A student of mine recently did a masters thesis related to deification (or theosis) in Theophilus of Antioch in his Ad Autolycum (c. 180 AD). It’s been a while since I read him, so I thought I’d do a few posts about him.  It’s not a long read. Unfortunately Grant’s translation with facing English and Greek pages is out of print, so the ANF version is likely your best bet for an accessible translation.

As an apology this work to Autolycus contains both a critique of contemporary views and a portrayal and defense of his perspective. His critique is directed at the cult and the myths related to Greco-Roman gods. In that, he follows similar Jewish apologetics that critique the immoral, inconsistent, and contradictory perspectives of Greco-Roman literature, as found, for instance, in Hesiod and Homer in distinction to the philosophers. (A great  exposition of this is found in Barclay’s Pauline Churches in his essay: “Snarling Sweetly: A Study of Josephus on Idolatry”). He also addresses specific charges against Christianity, like cannibalism (3.15) by denouncing it but also by throwing the charge back against the stories of the gods (3.5, 15).

As he portrays and defends his perspective,  Theophilus argues for the unity and consistency of the biblical God, and Book 1 is explores a variety of topics around God’s attributes in contrast to other portrayals of the gods. He also especially notes the hope of resurrection (1.8, 13). A central point that he returns to regularly is that his faith is not a recent invention (reflecting the idea that older/ancient things are the more true and reliable), and thus he grounds his Christian faith in the antiquity of creation (Book 2, where he exposits the early chapters of Genesis) and world history (Book 3).

He presents an early and interesting Christian engagement with the Bible and apologetics in the ancient Mediterranean world. For an accessible and informative introduction to Theophilus, I commend this essay: Rick Rogers, “Theophilus of Antioch,” Expository Times 120.5 (2009): 214–224.

For all the posts in the series, see Christianity in antiquity, the parting of the ways, Christology and Trinitarianism.

I recently posted a link to my co-authored essay on “Theosis and Theological Anthropology.”  In that essay, I extended my work on theosis and Paul to focus on the later theological appropriations of theosis in Maximus the Confessor (with regard to Christology) and T.F. Torrance (with regard to the Trinity).  Being that that essay is still rather academic, I got a request to put the cookies on the lower shelf.

As a follow-up to that essay, I wrote a short piece for a blog that summarized the key biblical points: “‘Man as a God in Ruins’: Theosis in the Christian Tradition.” Using Psalm 82 as a lens on deification, I walk through the key ideas that undergird patristic views on theosis. The Bible is itself a witness to humans/believers being called ‘gods’, and I briefly walk through what that terminology entails through key biblical texts, in the OT and the NT (especially with the apostle Paul).

Of course, if you want the longer version check out my book Christosis: Engaging Paul’s Soteriology with His Patristic Interpreters where I spell out the issues related to Paul and theosis in excruciating detail. : )

Every year North Park Theological Seminary hosts a Symposium on Theological Interpretation of Scripture. In 2017 that symposium was on the topic of Participation in and with Christ, and the presentations were printed (as with each symposium) in Ex Auditu (vol 33). It was a great conference with voices from a variety of perspectives–biblical, historical, and contemporary.

My piece extends some of my work on Paul and theosis by means of a conversation with Irenaeus (with my book Christosis) to include here a wider perspectives on the story of the Bible as a whole, particularly with a focus on glory as a biblical theme. Here is a list of all the essays.

 

Introduction – Stephen J. Chester

You Become What You Worship: Theosis and the Story of the Bible – Ben C. Blackwell
Response to Blackwell – Cynthia Peters Anderson

The Old Testament and Participation with God (and/in Christ?): (Re-)Reading the Life of Moses with Some Help from Gregory of Nyssa – Brent Strawn
Response to Strawn – J. Nathan Clayton

Cruciform or Resurrectiform? Paul’s Paradoxical Practice of Participation in Christ – Michael J. Gorman
Response to Gorman – Markus Nikkanen

Union(s) with Christ: Colossians 1:15–20 – Grant Macaskill
Response to Macaskill – Constantine R. Campbell

Why Bother with Participation? An Early Lutheran Perspective – Olli-Pekka Vainio
Response to Vainio – Stephen J. Chester

The Geography of Participation: In Christ is Location. Location, Location – Julie Canlis
Response to Canlis – Mary Patton Baker

Jews and Gentiles together in Christ? The Jerusalem Council on Racial Reconciliation – Ashish Varma
Response to Varma – Hauna Ondrey

Letting the Music Play (Matthew 22:34–40) – Cynthia Peters Anderson

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