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Nicola Hoggard Creegan
Sunday, 21 August 2016

Theosis, CitySide Baptist, August 21, 2016. 


Thank you Stu and all of you for inviting me here today. I am afraid this will be more lecture like. That is what you get when you ask a theologian to speak about a doctrine. 


I have read what Stu said last week (Theosis 1) and I should say at the outset that I am no expert in theosis either, in theory or in practice. 

But like Stu I find the idea of theosis very attractive;  it is also very exotic. The natural habitat of theosis is the Eastern Orthodox environment with its incense, icons and chanting, its holy days and extensive fasting. 

And Stu is right that there are obvious resonances with the magical parts of Scripture, walking on water, the burning bush, the transfiguration, the mystical breaking of bread at Emmaeus, the biblical thin times and places when the other side seems to break through the barriers that separate this life from the other. These are reflected in Eastern orthodoxy in the visual and sensory beauty and ardours of the liturgy and iconography. 

A few years ago I was at a  year long engagement between scientists and theologians in Princeton. One of the scientists was an unbelieving but practicing Jew who was an expert on the evolution of religion. Richard said on the first day that Christianity was such a strange religion. Christians keep talking about what we believe rather than how we practice, he said.   And he kept saying it throughout the year.  He was only half right. The orthodox Church has long been a church of praxis.  Though they are not without there complex doctrine as well, of course. Theosis is not acquired by belief. It needs practice, prayer, works of mercy, fasting and so on. 

I am going to back up a bit here though. If you have been in Church for a while you will agree that the protestant church’s understanding of salvation has been going through a paradigm change, really for the last 20 years or even longer. 

If you remember a time when salvation was mainly the penal theory, or sacrifice as payment for sins, then you will be aware of how far things have come. The penal theory much simplified is the idea that Jesus, the second person of the trinity, paid the penalty for the sin we as humans could not pay. God needed a punishment or penalty and Christ paid it on our behalf.  We in turn just believe. The whole drama of Christian life turned on an historic fall and Second Adam in Christ. Less common was some form of Christus Victor where the idea was that Jesus paid a ransom to the devil to free humanity from the Devil’s grasp. Either way Jesus came to make a transaction on behalf of humanity centred on his death. And there are obvious resonances with the story of Abraham and Isaac. 

Some of the first pressure on these transactional accounts were feminist or liberation theology critiques of the extreme violence in the atonement.

Feminists argued: If God can use violence why can’t we also. If God is an angry Father surely this legitimizes the angry human father. None of that made sense in human terms. And it played into and seemed to validate coercive regimes and abusive fathers and the idea that god was on our side in war. 

Liberation theology also critiqued the doing of theology as an academic exercise. Theology should always be reflection on practice, they said, like reflection on the struggle to bring justice and the end of tyranny in Latin America. For liberation theology of all kinds salvation itself was a process. The names were people like Gustav Gutierrez, and Leonardo Boff,  but more recently also the reluctant archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero. He was quickly radicalized upon his elevation but he never ceased to oppose tyranny. His words of challenge and rebuke were always said as he celebrated the mass, one inseparable from the other. He was assassinated and therefore martyred while celebrating mass In 1980.  In North America and more widely this message has been heard and practices of faith are being emphasized, hospitality to the stranger, truth telling and so on, even in places where the struggle for justice is not as extreme as it was in the Latin America of the 70s  80s and 90s. 

More recently there has also been ecological pressure. We have looked again at romans 8 and at God’s obvious presence within and concern with the whole of creation. We have begun to understand the sentience of animals and our deep evolutionary connection to animals. Why did we ever think we were the only beings being saved or that we were being saved as separate independent creatures?  But the kind of salvation that works with an expanded creation is not a pact between God and the devil, nor a substitute for sin. There is something about all of us, and everything, that is broken and needs healing. What we need is a salvation that brings with it holiness and healing. Even to the point where the wolf will lie down with lamb. 

All these critiques have laid the groundwork for a new look at salvation, a long and progressive re-assessment. While some feminists and liberationists embraced the idea of Jesus as a moral example that was not the end of the story. 

Our collective pondering of salvation has enabled a return to the early Church’s ancient but much less systematic metaphors of salvation, especially that of union of humanity with Christ, and union combined with various understandings of Christus Victor. In returning to the early church  we have also borrowed from orthodoxy and have looked longingly at its practices and at theosis. 

God became human in Christ to join humanity and divinity to restore our likeness to God, and then to bring humanity back to God, to participate in the very being of God, in the energies of God.  Think the gospel of John. You are in me. I am in you.  This gradual living in to the being of God is called deification, or theosis. We don’t become God, but we do participate in God. We don’t become sinless, but the idea is that we cease from deliberate sin. We might call it sanctification. But sanctification is only a pale image of theosis. 

Theosis is a luminous and glorious idea, that our telos, our aim, our final destination is the intermixing of humanity and divinity, becoming like God. The early church fathers never stopped talking about it this way. Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Irenaeus, Origen all had versions of theosis. Theosis is glimpsed not only in holy lives but in the most beautiful music and art. Theosis makes sense in a negative way, of all the rebukes about idolatry in the Hebrew bible. Something in humans is attracted to divinity  of any kind.We are always trying to get there by shortcuts. So  theosis comes with a warning, a caveat, the embrace of suffering and works.  A partial refutation of the reformations catch cry: salvation by faith alone. Or justification by faith alone. 

Nonetheless there has been a consistent Western affirmation of theosis. Jonathan Edwards had a doctrine of theosis. But John Wesley came the closest with his doctrine of perfection.  Methodists would regularly meet in cell groups to examine their consciences and encourage one another in holy living. 

But today I want to look at one contemporary theologian (and mention a few others) whose theology has taken them naturally in the direction of theosis.  

So I want to start with Kathryn Tanner. Tanner is an American, now at Yale. She is hard work, but she is one of the most interesting contemporary theologians around.   

Her starting point is the transcendence of God, but this very transcendence enables the incarnation. God can do what humans cannot –become something they are not. God is not in competition with humans. So god becomes a human being, but as a process. The incarnation is salvation. The incarnation is a process. 

“as Jesus’ life and death proceed . . . Each aspect of Jesus’ life and death, … is purified, healed and elevated over the course of time . . ..”(Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, 27-29)

The Incarnation is not, then, to be identified with one moment of Jesus’ life, his birth, in contradistinction from his ministry, death and resurrection. The incarnation is, to the contrary, the underlying given that makes all that Jesus does and suffers purifying, healing and elevating. 

Jesus does not overcome temptation until he is tempted, does not overcome fear of death until he feels it, at which time this temptation and fear are assumed by the Word. 

The cross saves, not as a vicarious punishment or an atoning sacrifice or satisfaction of God’s honor or as a perfectly obedient act –all these accounts of the cross that have become problematic for contemporary persons … Christ is victor here, but the underlying model is that of the incarnation itself. 

So it is in the course of everyday life of Jesus that Jesus is purified and taken further into the being of the Word. The process of becoming God over a life time is the Incarnation. The Incarnation is salvation. But we too go through this process, albeit at a different level, through the power the Spirit and the risen ascended Christ. 

All efforts at self-reform, no matter how successful, seem wiped away with our deaths, deaths which, as modern people , we suspect are less the wages of sin, in and of themselves, than they are the consequences of our natural existence as creatures. 

The model for overcoming our mortality is, then, Christ’s own deification…Humanity is elevated beyond its capabilities by its union with Divinity. It is only as borne by the Word that the humanity of Christ exhibits divine qualities, not in virtue of some new supernatural created powers, not by its becoming more like the Word  (pp. 97-117)

So you get the idea; As we overcome temptation, as we offer suffering up to God, we too are being purified and assumed into God. Of course it might not feel like it and we get only little glimpses sometimes of the real state of affairs. And these glimpses are mostly in other people. And none of this can happen without a community that values holiness. That is why the early Methodist communities were so successful. 

Other theologians and writers are joining in. Brian McLaren has written a book on sacrificial practices and theosis. He describes a traditional metaphor for theosis, as the effect of the fire on a poker. The fire is stronger than the iron of the poker. The poker becomes red but doesn’t stop being a poker. Sarah Coakley has also just published a new book on the New Asceticism. (Brian McLaren, Finding our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, Sarah Coakley, the New Asceticism) 

All of which generates a particular inner conversation about suffering, works and God. Am I being a masochist, letting the iron of my life be embraced by fire, or can this fire be offered to God, can this suffering be a means to holiness, can this suffering ultimately be the means of life. But this inner conversation, is distinctly Christian. A very fine line distinguishes the inner life of the Christian from serious abuse. One cannot let another person suffer, because of course that will help them to theosis. One cannot let a child suffer for that reason. One cannot tell another person to accept their suffering because they will grow closer to God. There are many forms of suffering that are simply dehumanizing. That break human bonds. As much as possible we are called to bear one another’s burdens. And joy, peace, love, are all the aims and end points of Christian life. On the other hand it might help to tell children, not that they are dreadful sinners, but that all humans find it hard to be good. And that human life is a struggle. All of this is a long way from the Protestantism of twenty years ago. 

That is why theosis becomes much more complicated that just one sermon. One of the most interesting Orthodox ideas is that marriage is a means to holiness, precisely because it involves the purification of constantly taking another person’s will into account. And yet of course the aim of marriage is not some lifeless suffering, but intimacy and communion. Marriage can be both a metaphor for the closeness of Christ to his Church, and marriage can be martyrdom. Where martyr just means witness. 

The stakes of Christian faith are very high, especially if we embrace theosis. As St Paul said, if Jesus did not rise, we are of all people most to be pitied. After all, to believe in an unseen God is one thing, but to then go about advocating holiness and self-denial is quite another. But in theosis we are called upon not only to be holy but to do the work of opposing evil in the world. For the other side of union with Christ is that in Christ we as the Body of Christ are still opposing and resisting evil. 

We see this most potently in the life of Oscar Romero. A great visual example is found in the movie, Of Gods and Men. The movie depicts  a group of French Cistercians in Algeria, living the life of Christ amongst and for their poor Muslim friends. They found themselves trapped between a brutal upsrising and a brutal government. They had to decide whether to leave. They decided in the end to stay. Most of the movie traces their decision making over a few months. They didn’t want to die, but they did in the end discern that their calling was to stay. Most of them were taken and executed.  IT is a rare movie that shows us the internal life of a Christian facing martyrdom. I was so excited by it because although we face nothing so extreme it also unmasked the inner life of the Christian, the life we don’t talk about very much. The movie was unbearably sad, but not grim, because we could feel and sense the glory in the beauty of the monks lives, their chanting, their last supper and their love of the people they were called to serve. Of God and Men shows us the energies of God. 

But what about us. The new church that is emerging will be very different from the one that my friend Richard has observed. For us, we hope our martyrdom is confined to little things, the trials and tribulations of everday life, of marriage, divorce, children or childlessness or loneliness or depression. If we embrace theosis though, there is much to learn, and we can be sure we are taking part in a movement that is much bigger than ourselves, that may be a new movement of the Spirit in our times. 

End with a quote from CS Lewis 


You must realize from the outset that the goal towards which [God]
is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal ... If we let Him —He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and love and wisdom as we cannot now imagine. (Mere Christianity)