Theosis: Participation in the Divine Nature - An Interview With Myk Habets

This interview was originally done for the video series titled You’re Included. The technical quality was not sufficient for it to be included in that series, but we have been able to transcribe the interview.

Michael Morrison: Myk, you wrote your dissertation that was eventually published as a book: Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance. The title itself can be a bit intimidating – that’s the way dissertations often are. We can start with the first word, theosis. What is theosis?

Myk Habets: It has been an uncommon word to the West, but over the last 20 years has become almost popular. It comes from theopoesis – theos, meaning god – and poieo – meaning to make into. “To make one a god” is the literal translation. Theosis, to become god. In Christian discourse, from the early church onwards, it of course doesn’t mean that a human can literally become God – that’s idolatry – it’s that we become God-like. That’s probably the best definition. It becomes both a theme and a doctrine, depending on who is using it and how. As a theme, it’s a weak image; as a doctrine, it’s a robust idea that coordinates an entire theology. How’s that for a start?

MM: There’s a lot packed into there. But it sounds a bit non-Christian, that we are becoming like God. How’s this to be distinguished from, say, Indian views?

MH: Yeah, Eastern pantheism and mysticism. Apotheosis is a related word. It’s the making of a human into a god. The Egyptian Pharaohs, for instance, believed that they became gods – after death, for the early ones; and then the ones that followed thought, “Why should I wait until after death? In my lifetime I can be god!” There is a pagan sense to the term which we want to rule out. There’s a conception of it which is utterly not compatible with Christian attitude.

But when Christians use the term, from very early on in the tradition, they found within it an image, a metaphor, an analogy, that was profound. When we become united to Christ, we become something different – Paul talks about us being “new creations.” So they’re trying to get at a profound sense of becoming more human, not less, but nonetheless different. How are you the same but different? Theosis was one way they described it – not the only way, but it was a significant way. The term is rhetorical – it demands a reaction.

My thesis title was actually “The Danger of Vertigo,” to get at the sense that it’s too high, it’s too lofty, we get a bit dizzy when we think about it.

MM: It seems like it has some shock value.

MH: Yes. But when the early church started using it, it wasn’t simply shock value. The term was current, and they converted the term. Like the word person – there were definitions of person; they converted the term to give it Christian meaning. There were definitions of god; they converted the term. They baptized the term with gospel meaning.

So here’s this term theosis – the Greeks are using it; it has a currency, it has a history. Like the word logos – it has a Greek and a Jewish history, and John says, “I’m not meaning the Greek idea, I’m not simply meaning the Jewish idea – I’m going to fill it with meaning, but the idea is still there.” So theosis has a bit of shock value now, but it’s good value.

MM: The Greeks had this idea of theosis. Is it found in Scripture as well?

MH: The idea arguably is found in Scripture, although the term isn’t – the term comes later. Within Scripture, we can group together categories of what Scripture talks about when we become Christians, when we become united to Christ, when we become something that we were not. We don’t cease to be human. Before I was a Christian I was still Myk, and afterwards I’m still Myk. Nonetheless, we could look at least seven areas.

  • There’s imitation of God: Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, says Jesus (Matthew 5:48). Really? Does he mean that? The Sermon on the Mount says, “Your righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20). Whatever else you say about the Pharisees, they were righteous. So there’s a sense in which we are to imitate, we are to be like God. That’s a weak sense.
  • Then there’s taking on God’s nature. That’s 2 Peter 1:4, where the term theosis basically gets its name from: We are promised that we can become “partakers of the divine nature.” We can become partakers of God. What does that mean, to take part in God? It’s not to cease to be what we are, yet it is to be more than we were.
  • There’s being indwelt by God,
  • and being re-formed by God.
  • There’s being conformed to the image of Christ, from glory to glory, having his righteousness, having his likeness.
  • There’s being transformed in the resurrection into a heightened state, a state above our current one. Even our physicality, our physical bodies, will resemble that of the resurrected Christ. It’s an utter transformation. We become more like God.
  • There’s the, if you like, theosis or the divinization of the entire cosmos. Romans 8:19-21 says that all creation waits in eager anticipation for the redemption of the sons of God. I don’t know how rocks are eagerly anticipating our redemption, but in a sense all creation is, because it, too, will be conformed and transformed into something higher – new heavens, new earth, where (whatever the language means) the new Jerusalem comes down and makes its home on earth. God’s abode will be our abode; our abode will be his. It’s an utter transformation, but it still talks about trees, birds, and feasting, drinking. It talks about earthly things, but earthly things in a God-like way, humans in a God-like way. Theosis arguably is a good term to express that mystery and that reality.

MM: Is it just a synonym for transformation? What advantage is there in using this odd word?

MH: Many of my colleagues would say, “I agree with everything you’ve said but I don’t like the term theosis as a way to do that.” That’s fine, not all Christians do. Throughout the tradition, not all Christians have liked the term. I like the term because what I see in this constellation of images in Scripture, especially through the incarnation, Christ models this himself, of becoming human.

As Athanasius said in the early church, “God becomes man so that man might become god.” The early church talks about this theology of “the great exchange” – in Latin, the mirifica commutatio, the wonderful exchange. I get what’s God’s; God gets what’s mine, the great exchange. This is the incarnation. To me, that is profound and gets to the sense of Scripture which we’re reading throughout the Gospels and the epistles, that we are the same but we are so much different in Christ. The cosmos itself will be so much different.

I like the term because of its shock value, because of its rhetorical effect, because of the image, the metaphor, the analogy. It’s not just transformation – it’s an idea, a concept, a theology which encompasses the entire parts of salvation. I would use it as a doctrine, not simply as a theme. Some of my colleagues say, “I don’t want it as a doctrine (you’re going a bit overboard), but yeah, it can have a use.” They’ll replace being sanctified, or set apart or transformed, so theosis can replace that. All the normal stuff before and after, but during our transformation, they might use theosis. I think that undermines the term and doesn’t coordinate it with the rest of our theology. Far better to have all, or nothing.

Have you met Julie Canlis? She’s written a book, Calvin’s Ladder, with wonderful spiritual theology. She’s doing profound stuff. She doesn’t like theosis, but she likes “union and communion with God.” She likes “participation in the Trinity.” I mention her because she’s representative of a large part of the tradition. But I still think it has good value.

MM: You wrote your book on this doctrine in the theology of Thomas Torrance. Could you explain a little bit, who is Thomas Torrance? How did you become so interested in him in particular?

MH: Tom Torrance, Scottish Presbyterian, is credited as the chief interpreter, in the English-speaking world, of Barth’s theology. He studied with Barth for a couple of semesters. He was born in 1913, so next year will be 100 years since his birth; he died a few years ago. He was a prolific author. No one’s counted all of them, but the most comprehensive bibliography is over 650 published works. It’s a large body of literature.

He’s been described as a theologian’s theologian. He described himself, apart from being a devoted Christian, as a missionary and an evangelist to academics. A large part of his work was, How do we think rightly? How do we know what we know? It’s in the domain of epistemology. He’s trying to clear the ground for a Christian conception of reality and truth, and it’s Christ-centered. We only know reality by knowing Christ who is the real, who is the way, the truth and the life.

The rest of his work was unpacking a corollary of that – a Trinitarian theology – and teasing apart, What does the Trinity mean when we apply that to Christology, when we apply that to the Holy Spirit, to the church, when we apply that to science (it was a big fascination for him), when we apply that to creation? It’s a large body of work from a profound thinker, a dense writer (not for the faint of heart). He left a body of literature that we can get our teeth into.

He had a younger brother, James, who was equally profound, and he had a younger brother, David, who was also profound, and then they in turn, each of them had sons and daughters. Thomas’s son is Iain Torrance, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary and a patristics scholar. James’s son is Alan Torrance, a professor of theology at St. Andrews, and the dynasty goes on.

You’ve got this family of thinkers profoundly affected by Mr. and Mrs. Torrance senior. Tom, James, and David all credit the mother as being the formative influence. Their father was a missionary in China; their mother, an Anglican, taught them from birth, “God loves you in Christ. God is for you in Christ Jesus. God is a Trinity.” Probably not in academic language, but nonetheless in gospel language, from birth. They all testified to her witness. Then they all find Barth, and they’re critical readers of Barth.

Thomas Torrance’s theology is highly patristic, from the early church; he’s drawing on significant early church figures like Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzus etc., and so it’s rich in the tradition. He’s Reformed, and I have a Reformed theology, so there’s an affinity with Calvin and the tradition there, and he applies it in constructive ways. (A lot of people don’t do that – they’re just happy to deconstruct. But genuine, evangelical Christianity doesn’t just deconstruct – it presents the good news. It reconstructs. If we’re not that sort of human, what sort of human are we? We’re Christ-like humans.)

He latches onto theosis because he has this abiding interest in the Eastern Orthodox Church. He was a Christian with a world vision. So while he’s Presbyterian, his mother was Anglican, so he’s got nice relationships going on there; he interacts with Catholicism, and he came into contact with the Eastern Orthodox, who are also highly patristic.

What I sensed as I did my doctorate in his work was that he brings East and West together, so it’s got to be good. But more than that, he brings different sorts of theologies together as well because he finds those theologies in Scripture. Instead of making them dualistic, either this or that, he manages to provide a coherent whole theology, and that’s not easy. That’s genius, I think.

MM: Is this where you learned about the doctrine of theosis?

MH: Yeah. I start my PhD and you have a proposal, it’s sketchy, and a title, and you pretend you know what it means, but at first you don’t. In the first part of that PhD, I immersed myself in Eastern Orthodox literature, reading the Philokalia and other spiritual writings of the Orthodox; Kallistos Ware and Vladimir Lossky, John Weindorf, all these key figures. (Praise the Lord that they are now translated into English. Fantastic that I didn’t have to learn Russian and Egyptian, etc. We live in a privileged time.) I was immersing myself in Eastern Orthodox theology. Historically, Gregory Palamas, John of Damascus, etc. in the early church, medieval church, and then into the current times. Then re-reading Torrance’s stuff in order to get my own critical reflections.

MM: Thomas Torrance spent some of his time studying patristics, the early church fathers. Is that where he picked up the idea of theosis? Or was this an idea that he brought to them and found in them already?

MH: Undoubtedly he picked it up from them, because you can’t read them and not pick it up. Every single church father, I think without exaggeration, spoke of theosis. He’s finding it there. My suspicion is that it wasn’t until he came into personal contact with the Eastern Orthodox that he joined those dots and theosis became a theme and a doctrine that he was also interested in.

He did a study, his PhD, on grace in the apostolic fathers. Theosis is there in them, but it’s really the patristics just after them which emphasize theosis. Athanasius was one of his heroes, and others. He found it there – it’s pervasive throughout their works. You can’t read Athanasius, for instance, and not know about that divinization, theosis. Or Gregory Nazianzus, or Gregory of Nyssa, or Basil of Caesarea – all these key names that Torrance draws on again and again.

So he found it in the patristics, but I think it wasn’t until his interaction with actual Eastern Orthodox people and theology that that became important. That was reasonably early on in his career, where he came into dialogue with them, and I suspect that’s why it became such an important theme for him, as he continually tried to broker theological agreements with other traditions. “We have this in common.” What we have in common, we celebrate, we share, because he wanted to work towards “one holy catholic apostolic church.” I think (I never had an opportunity to ask him about that) that’s why it became important.

MM: He was able to see this doctrine as useful in a practical sense in terms of relationships with Eastern Orthodox. Did he also find it useful theologically? Did he build on that?

MH: I think he did, and that’s the contention of the book.

However, the answer is debatable. There is a T. F. Torrance Theological Fellowship that has 4 or 500 members, and growing. All those who read Torrance wouldn’t agree that he has a profound doctrine of theosis. I think they’re wrong – I think it is there, and it’s there in a profound and coherent way from early on, where he first has his interaction with the Eastern Orthodox, so my book is trying to set out to prove that across this very large body of work, there is a doctrine (not just a theme) of theosis, self-consciously there. It’s not structuring everything, but it is consistent in everything. I tried to outline it through his theological method, his anthropology, Christology, soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, etc.

He argued that all creation is conditioned by the incarnation. So logically, the incarnation is before creation. Not chronologically, but logically. What does that mean? Adam and Eve were created very good… We should ask, “for what?” What were they created very good for? Good to become that which God has designed them to become – Christlike – which necessitates an incarnation, I would argue is Torrance’s view. He coordinates all the little pieces of his theology with this theme of theosis.

And in other doctrines, like perichoresis, Trinity, etc. – it becomes a robust theology which he works out. To take creation again – the rocks, the trees, the very stuff of creation is designed to display the glory of God. But how do rocks and dung beetles display the glory of God? They can’t without humans. So Torrance uses the language the Eastern Orthodox use, today and in history, and he picks up that humans are priests of creation. Humans represent creation – all of creation – to the Father in Christ. The creation itself will undergo transformation. It is good…to be transformed into the abode of God.

Creation – humans – everything, for Torrance, has this transcendental determination which the Fall affected, so we’re turned in on ourselves. After the fall, we become gods, idols. We’re not looking at God anymore, we’re not looking to transcend; we become turned in. With the coming of Christ, he turns us back to the Father, in him, so that in the resurrection we realize fully what we were always created to be. That’s theosis, that’s theotic language, and that’s Torrance to a T, throughout all of his work. I see it; others would disagree. They say, yea, it’s a theme, but we don’t see it that strongly.

So you publish, and you get response and critique, and we’ll see.

MM: The doctrine of theosis was used in the early church on the Greek side. How did that come across into the Western church? When Thomas Torrance was studying it, it was not common.

MH: The West has tended not to think about theosis for a long, long time, so it is shocking. I’m not recommending that you preach to the congregation on Sunday that you can become gods. That language would be misunderstood. But within the early church, the Greek-speaking early fathers, the patristics, were using this term and it was profound, and so were the Latins. They were using it in the same sorts of ways. It’s embedded in their theology.

When we come into the medieval period, Thomas Aquinas was happy to use the term – in a weaker sense, but Anna Williams wrote a dissertation published with Oxford University Press comparing Gregory Palamas, the great medieval Eastern Orthodox theologian, where theosis is everything, and Thomas Aquinas. She argues that Aquinas hardly ever uses the term because it is everywhere assumed. That’s a debatable thesis, but I think she does a very good job of showing the parallels in a Latin way and an Eastern way. The same sort of thing happened in the Reformation.

MM: Who in the Reformation?

MH: Luther’s works are all digitized, so it makes a search a lot easier. Even if you just search for theosis and its cognates, deification, and divinization, it’s often found. He interacts with it directly, he affirms it directly, in his own way – he unpacks what he wants to say. Recent Finnish scholarship, which is Lutheran, has gone back to Luther, asking these sorts of questions (rightly or wrongly, but I think more right than wrong; there might be an overstatement), they’re finding this theme a doctrine in Luther. When we have Christ, we have all of Christ, says Luther, including his righteousness, including his identity, in a sense. We become, in a sense, small Christs. We don’t replace him – we could never conceive of Luther saying that we replace him – but we do become like Christ.

I’m not saying we become God – we become God-like. We have these attributes of God. Luther is happy to pick up on deificatio, in Latin, the deification of the human.

MM: I was thinking of 1 Peter 2:4. There’s a difference between “being partakers of the divine nature” and becoming divine.

MH: Right. The language and the meaning behind the language are very important to distinguish.

MM: Luther has the idea frequently, Calvin somewhat, but then it got lost.

MH: It became a minor key because of the problems. I think of Torrance’s phrase, “the danger of vertigo.” It was possibly too easy to misconstrue what was being said. Lazy communicators cut corners, saying “we become God” – but that’s pantheism. So it tended to diminish, but in the Reformed tradition, if we follow that sort of line, John Owen is quite happy to use it.

Jonathan Edwards saturates his work with theotic language. He uses the term over and over again: deification, divinization. So reading someone like Jonathan Edwards in the American context – he is very happy to use this language. (But Jonathan Edwards was happy to uses all sorts of language modern Reformed aren’t. That’s why I like him, I think.)

So it is there in a minor key, but it becomes muted because in the West, the Augustinianism, the dualism, the legal sort of stuff, forensic stuff becomes all-important. (Justification by faith alone is important, but it’s not on every page of Scripture. Unlike Luther’s comments, it’s here and there.) The legal stuff, the forensic stuff, came to dominate in the West because that’s our legal system, that’s our culture, whereas the East didn’t have that culture.

MM: I was wondering whether it was scientific language, that they expected language to be scientific.

MH: That picks up on the Enlightenment and modernity, that’s true. But that itself would be from out of that Western, legal, dualistic view (Newton and the mechanistic universe). Deification is too mystical, too esoteric. It seems too intangible. So the term becomes associated with Eastern mysticism. For Protestants particularly, Eastern mysticism is ruled out of court. That’s a mistake, though – it’s not Eastern mysticism – it’s robust and practical.

MM: Just because Eastern mystics used the term doesn’t mean that they’ve got the corner on it. [MH: That’s right.]

MM: You mentioned a couple other terms that are similar, more Latin-sounding: divinization or deification. Do you prefer theosis over them, or are they equivalent?

MH: Theosis is Greek, and then you’ve got deification, divinization, which derive from Latin. They’re all the same – synonyms. You can use them equally. I use theosis because divinization has a sense in literature of being divinized, of literally becoming God. That’s not a technical distinction, but that’s often how it’s used. Whereas theosis, because it’s a funny word, it doesn’t immediately have a sense to people today. It’s like inventing a word, you know – what’s a kuza? I don’t know – tell me. And I’ll tell them. What’s theosis? And I tell them.

MM: When does theosis happen?

MH: If we take it as this Christian baptized view, then theosis happens, first of all, in the life of Christ, in a very robust sense. When Christ becomes a human, a historical person, he takes on our humanity in some sense, and he does something to it. He lives for it, dies for it, rises from the grave for it. He owns it, he possesses it, he re-creates it. This is the offer of salvation, the finished work of Christ. He’s not going to do it again – he’s done it. It’s objective, it’s once and for all.

A major question of salvation is, How can we be holy, how can we be righteous, how can we be the expressions of God, who is light? Resurrection is Jesus’ answer. So, when does theosis happen? It happened in Christ Jesus for all of us – and then it’s repeated in actual persons, individuals, throughout the course of our Christian life.

MM: …as we are continually being “partakers of the divine nature.”

MH: Yeah. From glory to glory, from age to age. It begins now, at our faith, our baptism, and it works itself out now. And it doesn’t stop at the resurrection – the resurrection is simply the beginning of what continues from age to age.

MM: There’s more after the resurrection?

MH: Yeah. Because if God is triune, then God has always been becoming – as Barth and Jüngel say: “being is becoming.” God is always active, God is always love (God is love, says John.) This is an ontology: The Father loves the Son by the Spirit, the Son returns the love of the Father by the Spirit, the Spirit is the love of the Father and the Son. You keep doing that movement, that’s who God is. God is dynamic, God is community, God is relational.

If we are made in that image, which Jesus Christ bears uniquely and then we are in that image of Christ who is in the image of God, then in eternity, we can never exhaust that being of God. We emulate, we imitate it, we partake of it, which means (well, I like to think of it) we are always chasing after God (but never catching him, because you can’t).

I don’t know what time is in the new heavens and new earth, but if we use our notions, what’s the song… when we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve only just begun. So ten thousand upon ten thousand, whatever time means, we’re becoming more and more godly, God-like, Christ-like. We’re partaking of him, we’re relating to him, we’re knowing more, feeling more, we’re serving more, and that just never ends. It’s dynamic, because God is dynamic. Because we are transcendent in that sense, we’re always striving for that which we are not: God. And God gives us our wish: we become God-like.

MM: You were saying earlier that’s what he created us for in the first place.

MH: From the first place, yeah.

MM: He gave us a desire for that.

MH: Yeah. So I’m trying to trade off the ideas that Paul talks about Christ pre-existing; he talks about Christ being crucified from the foundation of the world. Christ is prime, Christ is primary, Christ is first. So whatever it means, before creation, in God’s time, God elected the Son to be Jesus Christ; God purposed that the Son would be Jesus Christ. The triune God decided that the Son would take on flesh in order to have these image-bearers that could sense God, feel God, know God, enjoy God, participate in the very best that there is – the summum bonum – the highest we could ever conceive or think or imagine or feel or be: God.

We can’t become God. God purposed in Christ that we could have the next-best thing. We can be in Christ, who is God, and he calls us children, not slaves. We can participate. That’s why I find theosis not just convenient, but actually an appropriate term. It is shocking. That is revolutionary. That is hard to get our minds around. That’s too good to be true – and yet it is true. The word has good rhetorical force.

Myk Habets
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