ArticlesIs Theosis Biblical? Three Pauline Texts that Show it Might Be

Is Theosis Biblical? Three Pauline Texts that Show it Might Be

By Jordan Velazco, MDiv student at Criswell College and member of Lebanon Baptist Church

 

While theosis is often associated with Eastern Orthodoxy, the doctrine has started to make inroads into Western Protestant churches. This has forced many pastors to take a closer look at the doctrine to see if it is biblical. Also called divinization or deification, theosis at its core is the idea that Christians are transformed to become like God. This transformation can be understood in many ways, ranging from nominal versions which hold that believers can merely be called gods in some sense to essentialist versions which hold that believers become consubstantial with God by sharing in the entirety of His nature. Among these options, the attributive version, which holds that Christians partake of certain divine attributes through Christ and the Spirit without becoming consubstantial with God, is able to muster a good bit of Biblical evidence, making it favorable among Protestants. Here are a couple of texts that lend support to theosis.

 

Romans 1–5 and the Theme of Glory

In context, the first movement of Romans seems to focus on Paul’s view of justification, establishing the condemned status of both Jews and Greeks, the atoning death of Christ, and how faith results in justification apart from works of the Law. Repeatedly at key points in this section, Paul uses the phrase “the glory of God”:

“For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give

thanks, but they became futile in their reasonings, and their senseless hearts were

darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the

incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible mankind, of birds, four-footed

animals, and crawling creatures.” (Rom 1:21-23, NASB)

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Rom 3:23)

“through whom we also have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which

we stand; and we celebrate in hope of the glory of God.” (Rom 5:2)

According to advocates for theosis, these texts are referring to the radiant glory that is an attribute of God and is supposed to cover the earth in the last days (Isa 40:5; 60:1–2). If so, this means that humans were meant to participate in a divine attribute and that believers will do so. The proponents have a couple of reasons for believing this. 

First, they appeal to Jewish traditions that recorded in The Life of Adam and Eve and Genesis Rabbah.[1] These texts present Adam as possessing the radiant glory of God when he was created but losing this glory after he sinned. As a trained Pharisee, Paul might be referring to these traditions when he writes of sinners exchanging and falling short of the glory of God. If this is true, Paul agrees with these traditions that God designed man to possess and shine forth His attribute of glory and withheld it because of sin, but further holds that God will extend His glory to believers who have been justified in Christ.

Second, Paul seems to be invoking the Old Testament theme of people becoming like what they worship.[2] This theme is seen clearly in Psalm 115:5-8 and Ps 135:15-18 but can be discerned in the story of the golden calf when the idolaters are described as stiff-necked and quickly turning aside like a cow or ox (Ex 32:8-9) whereas Moses who worships God becomes glorious (Ex 34:29). The first chapter of Romans establishes that God’s nature is revealed in creation and that humans should respond in worship and thanks. Yet, it states that they exchange the glory of God by worshiping the image of corruptible creation and receive corruption and dishonor as a result, becoming like what they worship.[3] Since both this theme and a discussion of the divine nature is in the context, the glory that was lost and will be restored to believers likely refers to a divine attribute.

Thus, historical context suggests that theosis lies behind Paul’s comments in the first chapter of Romans, while literary context and Biblical theological insights encourage the reader to conclude the same. For these two reasons then, advocates for attributive theosis argue that the theme of the glory of God in Romans 1-5 supports the doctrine.

 

Romans 8:18-23

Romans chapter eight is another text proponents of attributive theosis put forward. Specifically, the main verses which they talk about are Romans 8:18-23.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. (Romans 8:18-23).

At first glance, this passage of Scripture seems to add little to the theme of God’s glory found in the previous section of the letter. However, this text moves beyond that point, adding the quality of incorruption to the list of attributes God will share with believers (and creation through them).

Proponents of theosis interpret the passage this way because of how Paul talks about corruption and incorruption in the first two chapters of Romans. Romans 1:23 specifically describes God as incorruptible and creatures as corruptible; moreover, Romans 2:7 lists incorruption as one of the rewards a righteous person can expect on judgment day, indicating humans do not possess this quality at present.[4] Yet now, Romans 8:21-23 promises that believers and creation in general will be set free from slavery to corruption through the redemption of believers’ bodies. In other words, they will become incorruptible just as God is incorruptible.[5] If one combines these factors with the discussion of believers participating in God’s glory (Rom 5:2, 8:21), this passage seems to indicate that believers will not only share God’s glory but also His incorruption. Thus, theosis proponents argue that Romans 8:18-23 supports the doctrine.

 

2 Corinthians 3–5

Perhaps the strongest passage for theosis from Paul’s letters is 2 Corinthians 3–5. In context, Paul is defending the validity of his ministry, since the Corinthians are pointing out his lack of recommendation letters and apparent lack of success as seen through his suffering (2 Cor 3:1). Paul argues that the Corinthians are judging by the wrong standard and should expect suffering and apparent lack of success since they must be conformed to the image of Christ who first suffered and died before being raised and glorified (2 Cor 4:8–11, 14; 5:12–16). Although Paul’s ministry will be verified through the glory of the resurrection (2 Cor 4:13-14), the current way of discerning its validity is through recognizing the inward moral transformation in his converts (2 Cor 3:1–6). Paul describes the means for both transformations in 2 Cor 3:18, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.”[6] Thus, the confirmation of Paul’s ministry is the glorious transformation through the Spirit’s work by allowing the believer to see and become more like the Lord, in their righteous suffering and final resurrection.

Proponents of theosis argue that these chapters support believers’ participation in God’s glory, understood as His visible majesty and righteousness. The reason they think this is fairly straightforward; Paul said that if his ministry was valid it would produce righteousness in the current time and glory at the resurrection. To truly support theosis however, the text must identify this majesty and righteousness as attributes of God. Yet there are three good reasons to believe this as well. First, 2 Cor. 3:18 identifies what believers see to be “the glory of the Lord;” and they are transformed into “the same image.” This emphasis seems to indicate that what the believers see and receive is a divine attribute. Second, the immediate context of 2 Cor. 3:18 recalls the glory that Moses had when he returned from Sinai (2 Cor. 3:7, 12–16). Given this passage’s connection to the theme of people becoming like what they worship, the transformation that is talked about here seems to align well with the theosis doctrine. Third, 2 Cor. 4:6 seems to further support that what believers will receive is divine. This verse says the glory which Christians see is “the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Thus, it must be the divine glory that is seen in Christ and reflected in Christians’ conduct and, eventually, being (2 Cor. 4:7–14). Thus, proponents make a good case that 2 Corinthians 3–5 supports attributive theosis.

 

Conclusion

Utilizing texts from Romans and 2 Corinthians, the proponents for attributive theosis make a good case that Paul teaches that believers will participate in certain divine properties without becoming consubstantial with God. The beginning chapters of Romans seem to teach that believers will participate in the glory of God, while Romans 8 indicates that they will partake of God’s incorruption. Moreover, 2 Corinthians 3–5 seems to teach that God will impart His righteousness and glory to believers. Where does that leave Protestant pastors? In as much as Scripture seems to provide support for attributive theosis, pastors should be open to the doctrine and willing to embrace it. However, this article is not meant to be an open-and-shut case for theosis but merely a starting point for investigation. Interested pastors should explore these texts and the writings of theosis proponents such as Blackwell, Berry, and Byers before making up their minds. That said, there may be a good reason for why theosis is moving into the West.

 

 

[1] Genesis Rabbah 12.6 and Life of Adam and Eve 21.6.

[2] Thomas Schreiner, Romans, 2nd ed., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 195.

[3] Donald L. Berry, Glory in Romans and the Unified Purpose of God in Redemptive History (Eugene, OR:Wipf and Stock, 2016), 14–17.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Ibid., 147.

[6] Ben C. Blackwell, Christosis: Engaging Paul’s Soteriology with his Patristic Interpreters, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2016), 175–178, 190–191.

 

 

 

*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common

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