Reforming Deification Print
Theology
Written by Steven Wedgeworth   
Wednesday, 05 January 2011 07:40

The doctrine of deification (or theosis) is one of those doctrines that, in the words of one esteemed divine, “gives us the willies.” It certainly sounds dicey, and with a long and checkered history behind it, there are a number of ways in which it can pan out. Even the Reformed taught this doctrine though, and, perhaps ironically, I wish to show that they were in the best position to conceive of deification because of their doctrine of man. It is also because of this “advantage,” that I think the Reformed view is the correct one and the best-suited to keep us today from falling over the rails.

The dangers of the wrong-kind of deification theology should be obvious. Collapsing the Creator-creature distinction, or even just smudging it a little, is seriously bad juju. And basing deification upon the incarnation (in and of itself) cannot help but expose us to a bit of Marcionism, as all of the Old Testament will be understandably subpar.

This is where the older Reformers come in. John Calvin, in several places, affirms a doctrine of deification (see his commentary on 2 Peter 1:4, Romans 6:5, and John 6:33, 51). John 6:51 is one of the most interesting. On it Calvin writes, “As this secret power to bestow life, of which he has spoken, might be referred to his Divine essence, he now comes down to the second step, and shows that this life is placed in his flesh, that it may be drawn out of it,” and also, “as the eternal Word of God is the fountain of life, (John 1:4,) so his flesh, as a channel, conveys to us that life which dwells intrinsically, as we say, in his Divinity. And in this sense it is called life-giving, because it conveys to us that life which it borrows for us from another quarter.

At this point, we tempted to reply “Say what?”  Has Calvin completely jettisoned his . . .  um . . . Calvinism?

That Calvin and the whole Reformed tradition clung doggedly to the absolute qualitative distinction between creature and Creator should require no proof. Karl Barth would not have existed had it been otherwise. The controversy with the Lutherans would not have gone down. Calvin would not have had to call Pighius all those mean names.

The solution is found in Calvin's conception of righteousness, as well as his anthropology. Immediately following his strong language about John 6:51, he adds, “This will not be difficult to understand, if we consider what is the cause of life, namely, righteousness.” In fact, pretty much everywhere Calvin talks about union with God, he adds the qualification of righteousness. On 2 Peter 1:4 Calvin states:

“. . . that God, then, should make himself ours, so that all his things should in a manner become our things . . . The end of the gospel is, to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us.”

"But the word nature is not here essence but quality . . . There are also at this day fanatics who imagine that we thus pass over into the nature of God, so that his swallows up our nature. Thus they explain what Paul says, that God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28,) and in the same sense they take this passage. But such a delirium as this never entered the minds of the holy Apostles; they only intended to say that when divested of all the vices of the flesh, we shall be partakers of divine and blessed immortality and glory, so as to be as it were one with God as far as our capacities will allow . . .”

“But we, disregarding empty speculations, ought to be satisfied with this one thing, — that the image of God in holiness and righteousness is restored to us for this end, that we may at length be partakers of eternal life and glory as far as it will be necessary for our complete felicity.”

That is, dear readers, what we might call a nuance. A glance back at 2 Peter 1:3-4 will show that it is not a false one. We partake of the divine nature by escaping corruption, and that corruption was caused by lust. The problem was not creation, but sin, and deification is not having our human nature swallowed up, stretched out, or infused with cosmic glowworms, but rather being made righteous. Your good works are what shine.

Calvin believes that a righteous man is deified because of his view of original Adamic humanity. Adam was deified at creation.  “Adam’s spiritual life would have consisted in remaining united and bound to his Maker” (Inst. 2.1.5). Speaking of life before the Fall, Calvin writes, “For as soon as he had been raised to a dignity so great, that the glory of the Divine Image shone in him, the terrestrial origin of his body was almost obliterated.” (Commentary on Gen. 3:19). Though created an “earthly man,” after being given the imago dei and the Spirit of Yahweh, Adam was himself a heavenly man.

Martin Bucer, writing along with Wolfgang Capito in the Tetrapolitan Confession, shares this view of righteousness and deification. Chapter 4 of that confession, which is named “Of Good Works, Proceeding Out of Faith Through Love,” states:

“And it is through this faith that we are born anew and the image of God is brought forth again in us. Through this faith, we become good, we who are born evil and from youth have turned all our thoughts toward evil. Then, by this faith we become completely filled with God, the eternal   and everywhere overflowing well of goodness, and thus we become of a divine kind, which means that we show ourselves soon to other people as gods, that is [as] true children of God, in that we through love further the benefit of everybody and don’t ever withhold any possible effort.”

Through love and the accompanying works of righteousness, we show ourselves to be as gods. A righteous man is a deified man because he shows the original image of God.  Rather than confuse the creature and the Creator, the Reformed tradition proclaims that this was the original state of creation, and once sin is dealt with by God, creation can once again reflect His glory.



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Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 January 2011 08:24