Christology and worries about “theosis”

I’m reading Tyron L. Inbody’s The Many Faces of Christology, and while this isn’t a direct comment on the book, it is inspired by something he writes about.

In discussing the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries, Inbody emphasizes that these were about soteriology first and foremost. All the seemingly esoteric talk about substance, person, essence, etc. was, at bottom, aimed at safeguarding the Christian experience of salvation. In other words, what kind of being must Jesus be/have been in order to be the Savior?

Inbody uses this soteriological lens to discuss the debate between Arius and Athanasius. For Arius (according to Inbody) salvation was primarily a moral matter, so the Savior had to be a creature–someone whose pattern of life it was possible for us to replicate in our own lives. By contrast, Athanasius viewed salvation as more of an ontological matter–the Logos must be divine because it was the unity of the divine and human natures that makes our own “deification” and salvation from death and corruption possible.

What was interesting to me about this discussion was that it enabled me to sympathize with Arius more than I had before. On Inbody’s account, not only was Arius concerned to safeguard the unity of God, but he also thought it was important for the Savior to be like us if we were to share in the sonship of Jesus, where sonship is understood as a moral relationship to God.

It also made clearer to me some of the issues I have with talk of salvation as “deification” or theosis. On Athanasius’ view, human mortality is a result of our separation from God. What’s needed in order for us to be saved from death is for humanity to be united to deity in an ontological or metaphysical fashion.

I have a couple of worries about this. First, contemporary science doesn’t really permit us to see mortality as a result of some spiritual “fall” that happened once upon a time. If we are to live beyond death, it will have to be the result of some supernatural act on God’s part.

Secondly, the language of theosis–at least as it is sometimes used–seems to present salvation as a “sub-personal” affair: we’re saved by having the right “stuff” (God stuff) injected into our humanity. I realize this is a crude characterization of at least some versions of this view, but I think ontological language does easily lend itself to this kind of misuse.

It has long seemed to me, rather, that Christians should think of salvation in fundamentally relational terms. That is to say, salvation consists in having a right relationship to God restored (and, correspondingly, a right relationship to other people and to the rest of the created order). I think some of the church fathers (e.g., Irenaeus) got this–by seeing salvation more in terms of Jesus reorienting humanity toward God rather than as the mere fact of the divine/human union understood in a metaphysical, quasi-substantialist sense. In other words, Jesus “re-narrates” human life (“reacapitulates” in Irenaeus’s terms) so that its relationship to God is restored.

This doesn’t mean that Jesus is simply a moral teacher, as some crude “moral exemplar” Atonement theories have it. (Or that “sonship” should be understood in narrowly moral terms.) And I would certainly want to affirm the intention behind the creedal affirmations that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. But to see this union primarily in metaphsical or ontological terms may not be helpful if the nature of sin and salvation is understood in terms of relationship.

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3 thoughts on “Christology and worries about “theosis”

  1. Hi, Lee! I’m very interested in this post because usually theosis is one of the things most Protestants find very appealing about (Orthodox) theology (I know I do). About the first worry, St. Athanasius is actually refreshingly clear in *On the Incarnation* that our bodies are ‘made to die’ in some sense. He grants from the beginning that our bodies are such that, without a close relationship with God, the natural path is towards death, just like everything else. Our initial immortality was always a special grace added on to ‘nature’. (This might still be hard to believe, but it makes more sense than what I believed growing up.) I can’t say I’ve come across the second worry, and I think the dichotomy of the third is too strong. I think the point to insist on is that relationships *are* ontological. If I say I love my wife and have a special relationship with her, but all I ever do is think or talk *about* her, or even do good works in her name, I think I would be speaking strangely. Christianity is about doing those things, but it is also about a more mystical reality.

  2. Yes. Relationality is at the heart of the matter. Remember that Orthodox and creedal ontology is being-in-relationship, so that being and relationship on the level of God is coterminous and co-arising. I fundamentally see theosis as growth in graciousness and it’s not something we achieve so much as is given to us and to which we respond. Death in this view is at heart separation from God. Physical death perhaps reoriented to Modernity is not what was intended had we continued to grow from immaturity to maturity in relationship with God sans separation, a la St Symeon the New Theologian….

    Remember also that for the Greek Fathers, and for a moment, I count St Irenaeus among their number given his views, the Fall happens to immature human beings and does not have the same finality that it finds in St Augustine, and thus, a very different sense of the imago Dei, understanding of the consequences of the Fall, and even of how it is Death can be understood.

    At heart, however, because God in Christ enters into and swallows up Death, with St Francis, we can face into death not as enemy but as passage because One of us who is also fully God passed through and into and over Death…

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