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Union with Christ: Can We Truly Become God Like?

Theosis

Have you ever wondered whether we could become like God? The truth is, we can never become God or even gods, despite Jesus’s proclamation, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? (John 10:34, see Psalm 82:4). The Baptist pastor and theologian, John Piper offers an excellent discussion here, putting Jesus’s words in proper context. Nevertheless, we are told that we can become like God.

 

Eastern Orthodox Christianity uses the Greek word theosis, meaning deification or divinization. The idea was first taught by St. Athanasius of Alexandria (296–373 AD) and other Church Fathers (click here for more on theosis). I don’t know about you, but when I read deification or divinization it raises red flags because no one can become God or divine. But this is not quite what Eastern Christians mean by theosis, deification, or divinization, despite the confusing terminology to many of our Protestant ears. What they mean is that Christians have a transformative relationship with God, one in which they are in union with Jesus Christ and participate in the divine nature through the Holy Spirit’s work. The divine essence and energies distinction in Eastern Orthodox theology makes it utterly impossible to access the essence of God, never mind becoming God or a god, not to mention the Creator-creation distinction we share in Protestant Christianity (click here for a Protestant reflection on the essence-energies distinction). So, this process of becoming like God through theosis is really a process of spiritual growth as we walk our Christian life with Jesus Christ, it’s what Protestants might prefer to call sanctification where the believer walks together with God and his grace to become more Christlike. The emphasis of theosis in Eastern Orthodox Christianity is perhaps more mystical and experimental than in Western Christianity, as is typical of Eastern Christian theology.

 

Protestants and Catholics don’t use the word theosis, deification, or divinization. We prefer to use terms like “union with Christ” and “sanctification” (click here for more on Union with Christ). And while there is less emphasis on participation in God’s divine nature, it’s certainly implied in some sense by being united with Christ, growing in holiness, and becoming more Christlike through the process of sanctification where the Holy Spirit works in our lives accordingly. In this way, while we never become God or a god, we become like God, or as our Eastern brothers say, deified and divinized (these words still sit awkwardly with me, but that’s because of my faith tradition).

 

Our emphasis in Western theology, particularly Catholicism and Protestantism, lies in theological themes such as original sin, salvation through faith (faith alone for most Protestants), God’s grace, and our substitutionary understanding of the atonement. This frames much of our theological reflection. You can see how we have been influenced by the Church Father, Augustine of Hippo, and the systematic and analytic approach to Christian theology that tries to understand Christian teaching in categories and concepts in a way that is logical and precise. We get that from the medieval scholastic theologians. Even if we are unaware of it, this is how we Western Christians think and why we think the way we do.

 

Eastern theology thinks differently, they don’t look to Augustine as one of their primary theologians, and neither were they influenced by European scholasticism. They had other influences so they are more interested in mystery, using images, and using apophatic (negative) language to understand divine mysteries. While we emphasize original sin, salvation through faith, God’s grace, and substitutionary atonement. Eastern orthodoxy places its emphasis on salvation through theosis, where God became incarnate in Jesus Christ so that we might become like him, where the transformative power of the Holy Spirit works in us so that we may enjoy mystical union with God. So, where do we get these ideas of theosis/union with Christ? This is what Scripture has to say:

 

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire (2 Peter 1:3–4).

 

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:29).

 

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

 

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).

 

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me (John 17:20–23).

 

Now that we know that we can become like God, the question remains, which is correct, Theosis or Union with Christ? The answer is that they are more or less the same Christian idea of becoming more like Christ and participating in God’s divine nature. The difference, however, lies in the terminology, theological emphasis, and the theological approach.


Further Reading:


Deification
Union with Christ

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Image of a mountain landscape by kinkate available at Pixabay, and edited by Robert Falconer.

2 comentários


Amen! This is a very clear and concise article.

Curtir
Robert Falconer
Robert Falconer
28 de abr.
Respondendo a

Thanks, John!

Curtir
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