Holy Spirit

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). Previous posts address Christianity in antiquity and the parting of the ways. I’m now addressing his Christology and Trinitarianism.

In describing Theophilus’ treatment of Christ, Grant writes: “His understanding of the work of Jesus Christ can be recovered only from allusions, for like other apologists of his time he never openly speaks of him” (xvii).

For example, Theophius does not mention Christ’s crucifixion but does note the hope of resurrection (1.8, 13). He exclaims that he is a “Christian” right at the very beginning (1.1). When exploring the derivation of the name “Christian” (1.12), he does not mention Jesus as the Christ, but rather speaks of Christians as being anointed with the oil of God. When describing faith (1.14), he notes the hope of resurrection and eternal punishments, but not Christ. Mentions existence of the Gospels (3.12), and when quoting Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5.28, he describes “the gospel” speaking rather than naming Jesus (3.13, 14). When addressing the charge of cannibalism (3.15), which surely arises from the Lord’s supper, he does not explain the practice or its relation to Jesus, he only rejects it and points to cannibalism in the Greco-Roman theogonies (3.5, 15).

If he never mentions Jesus or the Christ, does he speak of the Christian plurality? Yes, he commonly refers to God in relation to the Logos and Sophia (Wisdom). Sophia is most commonly associated with the Holy Spirit (e.g., 1.7, 13, etc.). The three are most clearly delineated in terms of creation. After an extensive critique of the Greco-Roman myths and theogonies, he turns to explore creation and this takes up the majority of Book 2. To ground his creation theology before walking through Genesis, Theophilus speaks of God creating ex nihilo with the Logos and Sophia (2.10). The chapter is longer than most and has a well developed interaction between the three before walking through Genesis (2.11ff.). Importantly, he uses several passages from the Bible to explain his proto-Trinitarian position.

Later, we also see the three when he explains Gen 1.26 with its affirmation: “Let us….” He argues that human dignity was shown through that “the making of man [was] the only work worthy of his own hands” (2.18). Theophilus then describes why the text has “us” there, by appealing to God’s speaking to “his own Logos and his own Sophia” (2.18).  Though he does not directly call the Logos and Sophia God’s hands, the implication is clear. This is the same language that Irenaeus commonly uses.

In the midst of this wider discussion Genesis, is when explaining day 4 with the sun and moon, Theophilus uses some of the first distinctly trinitarian language. After describing the sun and moon as types of God and man, and the greater and lesser, he explores other types:

Similarly the three days prior to the luminaries are types of the triad/trinity (τύποι τῆς τριάδος) of God and his Logos and his Sophia. In the fourth place is man, who is in need of light–so that their might be God, Logos, Sophia, man. For this reason the luminaries came into existence on the fourth day. (2.15).

There is much more to explore here, but it is very interesting that Theophilus is one of the earliest uses of “trinitarian” language, and yet he does it without an emphasis on “Christ” but rather the Logos. J. Bentivegna has an essay on Theophilus describing it as “A Christianity without Christ.” Thus, we might say also Trinity without Christology. Of course, this work does not capture everything that Theophilus had to say. (A similar dilemma shows up with Boethius, whose Consolation of Philosophy which is distinctly monotheistic such that you might wonder if he is a Trinitarian also has a work On the Trinity.) However, it is hard to square how you can have such a seemingly developed idea in one side of a topic but without the coordinate discussion of other issues.

While Wright is pegged as the “ecclesiological” version of justification, it strikes me that this is a red-herring. While justification as covenant status addresses the division of Jews and Gentiles, the problem is more basic. Wright sees justification has addressing the human problems of sin, condemnation, and death, and Paul’s discussion of a creational, anthropological, covenantal, and forensic eschatology is described in terms of justification (see the progressive discussion of these framing terms in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 925-37). Ultimately this is all captured in his discussion of final eschatology:

Paul’s vision in Romans 1-8, then, has as its framework the all-important narrative about a future judgment according to the fullness of the life that has been led, emphasizing the fact that those ‘in Christ’ will face ‘no condemnation’ on that final day (2.1-16; 8.1-11, 31-39). The reason Paul gives for this is, as so often, the cross and the spirit (8.3-4): in the Messiah, and by the spirit, the life in question will have been the life of spirit-led obedience, adoption, suffering, prayer, and ultimately glory (8.5-8, 12-17, 18-27, 28-30). This is not something other than ‘Paul’s doctrine of justification‘. It is its outer, eschatological framework.   …   And, to repeat a vital point about the character of Paul’s theology, that integration [of present and final justification] makes nonsense of all schemes that depend on regarding Romans 1-4 and 5-8 as representing two types of thought or systems of soteriology. That division results from failing to notice Paul’s larger controlling category, namely, the covenant promises made by God to Abraham to deal with the problem of the world’s sin and its consequences. Those, Paul insists, are the promises to which the covenant God has been true in the Messiah. The faithfulness of this God is the underlying theme of Romans 1-8… [sic] as it is also the problem, and then the solution, throughout Romans 9-11. (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 941-42)

He later uses the terminology of ‘inaugurated forensic and covenantal eschatology’. “The future verdict … is thus brought forward into the present, because of the utter grace of the one God seen in the ‘faithful’ death of the Messiah … and then at work, as we shall now see, through the spirit in the gospel” (944-45).

Restoring the community, setting it to rights, is important, but in Christ and the Spirit God is setting the whole world to rights, and so to limit justification, for Wright at least, to ecclesiology is to miss his larger picture. That said, he frames it this way:

Once we have worked through the first five preliminary points, we ought to realize that this sixth one is where it has all been going. Those who are declared or accounted ‘righteous’ on the basis of Messiah-faith constitute the single covenant family which the one God has faithfully given to Abraham. (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 961)


Now that I’ve described the rationale for my in-progress book, Participating in the Righteousness of God: Justification in Pauline Theology, I’m laying out below the goals and scope of my study:

Part 1: Historical Framework
To set the stage for a reevaluation of Paul’s theology of justification, I demonstrate how historical frameworks influence contemporary biblical interpretive models. In particular, I establish how Protestant readings of justification are reactionary against Catholic theology and therefore explicitly frame justification in light of Christology and faith to the exclusion of the Holy Spirit and love. Rather than being overly influenced by post-Enlightenment anthropological conceptions, I also show the need to incorporate more a more robust pre-modern understanding of the porous self, making explicit use of Charles Taylor’s work on the buffered and the porous self.

Part II: Reading Paul
In distinction to post-Reformation readings of justification which place Christ over the Spirit and faith over love, my exegetical analyses demonstrate that Paul intertwines the Spirit and Christ in his employment of justification language in key texts—namely, Galatians 2–4; 2 Corinthians 3–5; Romans 1–8. Thus, my reading of Paul shows the coherence of this doctrine with the transformative participation of believers in the triune God. After establishing the relationship of participation and justification through close readings of specific passages, I then treat a variety of participatory topics that relate to justification—namely, suffering/cruciformity, the community (adoption, covenant), and sanctification/ethics.

Part III: Theological Framework
To conclude the monograph, I explore a participatory reading of justification through the lens of the fifth century patristic theologian Cyril of Alexandria, showing that readers not limited by the later Protestant-Catholic categories offer a similar reading as my own. With this model in mind, I then provide an essay that explores justification in light of theosis, an important and growing topic of study arising from wider ecumenical discussions.

This monograph does not attempt to answer all the opposing positions regarding the topic of justification. Rather, it provides a focused and sustained reading of Paul that demonstrates how justification serves as one primary way that he develops his doctrine of a transformative participation in the triune God.

I (Ben) am starting work on a book on justification in Paul: Participating in the Righteousness of God: Justification in Pauline Theology (with Eerdmans). Of course, the first question is: why do we need another book on justification in Paul? In response, my larger thesis is that other theological loci, such as the Spirit and resurrection/life, play a much larger role in Paul’s theology of justification than is acknowledged, and the book will largely be an exegetical exploration of key passages to document those connections.

One aspect to my argument is that the Protestant church has specifically shifted to a solely Christological view of justification rather than a more Trinitarian one. Note, for instance, how the Holy Spirit serves as the subject of the three first statements on justification and grace in the Catholic Catechism. (In the Joint Declaration with the Lutherans, the Spirit is hardly even mentioned.) While solus Christus isn’t as directly related to justification, it fits well with the traditional Protestant view of justification, as well. Even the very helpful Reformed doctrine of “union with Christ” belies a Christological focus in distinction to a more Trinitarian participation. Thus, a substantial part of my argument is to show how resurrection is more central to justification, and thus how the Lord, the Giver of Life (i.e., the Holy Spirit), is more important to the doctrine than our tradition has allowed.

In a paper for SBL’s session on Christian Theology and the Bible, I’ll show from Luther’s Galatians commentary how he connected justification with life/resurrection much more closely than Pauline scholars do today. Though I won’t be detailing the nuanced shifts in Protestant theology for the book, the work I’ve done for the essay appears to show that the shift was more of a second and third generation evolution than with the magisterial reformers–more with Lutheranism than Luther himself.

Christian Theology and the Bible
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM

Theme: Martin Luther as Interpreter of Scripture
This is the first of a four-year series on Christian theologians and their interpretation of the Bible. This session examines Martin Luther and his theological interpretation of a specific text or set of texts in the Old and New Testaments. The session is interested not only in Luther as a historical theologian but also for his role in constructive Christian theology today.

Arthur Sutherland, Loyola University Maryland, Presiding (5 min)

Claire Mathews McGinnis, Loyola University Maryland
Martin Luther on Exodus 7–11 (and Romans 9:6-13): the Hardening of the Heart (30 min)
Tyler Atkinson, Bethany College (Lindsborg, KS)
Solomon’s Political Body: Luther’s Lectures on Song of Songs and Contemporary Political Theology (30 min)
Ben C. Blackwell, Houston Baptist University
Luther and Galatians: Justification as Participation in the Life of God (30 min)
Gordon Campbell, Union Theological College (Northern Ireland)
“Christ is neither taught nor known in it”: some christological fallout of Martin Luther’s Prefaces to the Revelation of St. John (1522 & 1546). (30 min)
Discussion (25 min)

I have been kicking around doing a piece on Irenaeus’ Christology in light of his view of deification, and the opportunity to do something on pneumatology popped up, so I put in to do a paper on that side. Essentially, I’m arguing that if deification is a metaphor for Irenaeus, which it is since believers don’t become part of the Godhead, it is based upon his conception of true (non-metaphorical) deity. For the Spirit (and Christ) to deify believers means that these two are already truly God. This later became an argument for the Spirit’s deity in the fourth century: the Spirit deifies, he is not deified. I’m happy to see my friend Jonathan Morgan in the line-up since he does excellent work on Cyril’s Pneumatology.

Development of Early Christian Theology (S22-212)
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: Room 30 B (Upper level) – San Diego Convention Center (CC)

Theme: The Spirit in the Early Church: Accounts of the Spirit in the Early Church

Christopher Beeley, Yale University, Presiding
Ben C. Blackwell, Houston Baptist University
Irenaeus on the Deification of Believers and the Divinity of the Spirit (25 min)
Kellen Plaxco, Marquette University
The Place of the Spirit in Origen’s Taxological Grammar of Participation (25 min)
Jonathan Morgan, Toccoa Falls College
Circumcision of the Spirit: Type and Pneumatology in Cyril of Alexandria(25 min)
David Kneip, Abilene Christian University
The Spirit and the Bible in Alexandria: Cyril and Didymus (25 min)
Paul M. Pasquesi, Marquette University
Reclaiming the Divine Feminine: Re-Reception of the Holy Spirit in the Divine Economy (25 min)

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