Theosis


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.

 

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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 ways, and Trinity without Christology.) If you are lost by my terminology of theosis, see my primer on theosis and theosis for dummies.

In his defense of Christianity, Theophilus begins his work by establishing the identity of God (1.1-7). He is immortal, invisible, uncreated, and immutable. He is the maker of the universe, which was created ex nihilo. Even though we cannot see him because he is beyond the created order, we can know him through creation if we have a pure heart for these pure at heart can know God. Thus he concludes: “If you know these things, O man, and live in purity, holiness, and righteousness, you can see God” (1.7).  He later continues: “When you put off what is mortal and put on impershability, then you will rightly see God. For God raises up your flesh immortal with your soul; after becoming immortal you will then see the Immortal, if you believe in him now” (1.7). This draws from the ancient conception that you had to become like something to know it (“like is the friend of like” as described in Plato’s works). As we become like God in holiness and moral incorruption, then we can know God. Importantly, Theophilus then turns immediately to somatic incorruption as the hope for those who believe and know God (1.8). The basic idea is that even though humanity is fundamentally distinct from God because of creation ex nihilo, humanity can truly be in relationship with God and share in God’s attributes, namely incorruptability.

Note: We see this exact interchange between knowing God and overcoming death through immortality in Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. Note there how the first 10 chapters or so are about experiencing immortality and overcoming mortality through Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection. Then, the next 10 chapter or so are about knowing God, but without a hint of any transition. Athanasius like many ancients saw a fundamental coherence between knowing God and being like him.

Theophilus’ discussion of resurrection early in the treatise points to the importance of immortality within his basic anthropology and soteriology. We see this played out in much more detail in his discussion of creation, and this is where his discussion of deification comes into play. One of his fundamental arguments about anthropology is that humanity was not created naturally immortal, but God had the intention that humanity would be immortal (2.19, 24, 27). We might call this conditional immortality, and Irenaeus also reflects a similar perspective (AH 38-39).

It is in these contexts that Theophilus uses deification language, describing humans as “gods” (2.24, 27). For example:

For if God had made him immortal from the beginning, he would have made him God. … God therefore made him neither immortal nor mortal but, as we have said before [2.24], capable of both. If he were to turn to the life of immortality by keeping the commandment of God, he would win immortality as a reward from him and would become a god…” (2.27).

While humans chose disobedience, Theophilus makes clear that humans can attain resurrection and imperishability, which in the flow of the argument would make them implicitly gods.

Of course, this is a metaphorical ascription. Given the Creator-creature distinction that undergirds this discussion (from Book 1), I would describe this as example of “attributive deification” using the taxonomy that I developed in my book ChristosisHumans share through participation in the attributes of divinity, and so they become like God while remaining distinct in their essence or nature. Though it is a metaphor to be called “gods,” it entails an ontological transformation, not in terms of the change their nature to a new nature (or species), but their mode of being changes. Here the primary emphasis is on participation in divine immortality, but as we saw above their is a distinct interconnection between these different forms of incorruption–noetic, moral, and somatic.

Theophilus gives us an early witness on deification and theosis and he grounds this doctrine of theosis in the Bible. This basis framework is not too unique, given that Irenaeus, follows a similar pattern. However, part of the contextualization is different, and so I’ll continue with a separate post on that.

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.

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. : )

While the topic of theosis has grown in popularity among scholars, I regularly get awkward looks by students and family when the term arises. While my primary work has been in the area of theosis and the Bible, particularly theosis and the apostle Paul, I cut my teeth on the topic with my masters work on Maximus the Confessor.

As a fruit of that work, I later co-authored a piece for the Ashgate Companion to Theological Anthropology with a friend Kris Miller. In our essay “Theosis and Theological Anthropology,” we explored theosis from a Christological perspective (via Maximus the Confessor) and a Trinitarian perspective (via T.F. Torrance). If you are looking for a primer on theosis, this essay would give you the key ideas that I think are relevant.

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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