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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte
Christensen, Michael J., and Jeffery A. Wittung [Eds.]
Partakers of the Divine Nature. The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions.
Madison-Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press 2007. 325 S. gr.8°. Geb. US$ 60,00. ISBN 978-0-83864-111-8.
Anselm Kyongsuk Min
Partakers of the Divine Nature is a collection of 19 short and very readable essays presented at the »Partakers of the Divine Nature« conference held at Drew University, New Jersey on May 21–22, 2004. It is a rather comprehensive treatment of the topic. It begins with an introductory summary of the issues involved and a reminder of the central place of deification in Orthodox theology, goes on to discuss the antecedents of the concept in classical Greek philosophy, its biblical bases in Paul and 2 Peter, and its historical developments in Patristic (Athanasius, Cappadocians, Maximus the Confessor, Ephrem), Medieval and Reformation (Bulus al-Bushi, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Wesley), and modern periods (Bulgakov, Rahner), and ends with a critical review of recent literature on the topic (the Finnish school of Luther research and A. N. Williams) and a very full bibliography of literature on the subject.
What are some of the highlights? In a magisterial essay Andrew Louth brings out the central place of theosis in the very structure of Orthodox theology, emphasizing its three dimensions, the fulfillment of the cosmos as such, the transformation of human existence, and the apophatic dimension of the divine-human union. Deification is more than redemption from sin. J. A. McGuckin sheds fascinating lights on the »strategic« side of the Cappadocians’ theology of theosis: they were trying to speak to their educated contemporaries steeped in Plato (ascent, communion, contemplation) by highlighting the role of purification of the soul, contemplation, enlightenment, assimilation, and participation. Vladimir Kharlamov calls attention to the »rhetorical« side of the doctrine by emphasizing Athanasius’ use of theosis in his struggles against both Arius and pagan forms of deification and Gregory’s stress on ontological transformation through moral purification, imitation of Christ, and assimilation to God. In another very informative essay Elena Vishnevskaya shows how Maximus the Confessor applies the concept of perichoresis to the deifying relation between God and human beings in terms of the supralogical reciprocal interpenetration of love and the dynamic asceticism of the image trying to attain likeness to its archtype.
There are also informative essays on the Western conceptions of deification. In a most provocative essay Nathan Kerr argues that although Anselm lacks a specific doctrine of deification as such, he shows that deification in the sense of being perfected into participation in the divine esse as creatures is not one doctrine among others but the very content of theology. As theoria the task of theology is to »know« or »see« God, its »proper« object, by seeing all finite beings as pointing beyond themselves to and participating in the fullness of being, in their tendere in Deum according to a »logic of perfection« that always seeks what is major and melior. This logic of perfection is the equivalent of a »logic of deification«. Theology as contemplation of God is not just about this logic but also participation in that logic. The loss of this contemplative dimension in much Western theology, for Kerr, is a loss of the proper task of theology, a concern that many would perhaps share with him today.
Jonathan Linman presents the results of the recent Finnish Luther scholarship which retrieves aspects of Luther going beyond the forensic formulation of justification and emphasizing the ontological transformation of the believer and her mystical union with Christ in faith. Justification is more than forgiveness of sin; it is transforming participation in the divine life through union with Christ. Such participation is mediated by Baptism and the Eucharist where the believer is transformed into the Body of Christ. The ecumenical and ethical potential of this transformative understanding of justification is enormous. What Linman tries to do for Luther J. Todd Billings tries to do for Calvin. What is distinctive of Calvin’s doctrine of deification is the inseparability of justification and sanctification. Forensic justification is necessary for sanctification because the believer must first be freed from fear by participating in Christ’s righteousness so that she could and should follow God with gratitude through participation in Christ and moral transformation. In particular, participation in the Lord’s Supper is participation in the Body of Christ and in fact becoming »one substance« with him. Is there a doctrine of deification in John Wesley as well? Michael Christensen argues that Wesley’s doctrine of spiritual transformation and Christian perfection is a programmatic and pastoral adaptation of the patristic doctrine of theosis that replaces the Platonic notions of assimilation and union with the less esoteric notions of imitation and communion.
Jeffrey Finch’s critique of the Neo-Palamism of Vladimir Lossky and John Meyendorff is an insightful discussion of the Palamite doctrine of the real distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies as a foundation of the possibility of deification. Francis Caponi provides a likewise insightful and substantive discussion of Karl Rahner’s theology of divinization as central to his thought in terms of our obediential potency, the supernatural existential, the theological priority of the Incarnation and hypostatic union as condition for creation, and the mediating function of the church, sacraments, and theological virtues.
In his review of recent literature Gosta Hallonsten raises what is an important issue for all the essays in the collection. He insists on making a distinction between developing the »theme« of deification, which includes participation, transformation, sanctification, filiation, indwelling, union with God, and the beatific vision, and developing the »doctrine« of deification, which, in its original Patristic and Orthodox context, includes not only the goal of participation in the divine life but comprehends the whole economy of salvation on the basis of an anthropology of image that seeks likeness to its divine prototype with emphasis on God’s formal causality vis-à-vis creation as opposed to the Western emphasis on God’s efficient causality and the dualism of nature and grace. One wonders how many of the essays dealing with Western developments in this collection (Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Rahner) would qualify as developing a »doctrine« of deification in this sense. One can also wonder whether such a restrictive distinction makes compelling theological sense. I think it does if one’s concern is historical, but perhaps it does not if one’s concern is systematic.
As a whole the collection is a valuable addition to the recent literature on the problem of deification: it provides a very informative, broad historical overview of its development as well as some of the central issues. I have two reservations. One is that all the essays are purely historical, exegetical studies, with no attempt to explore the »surplus of meaning« of the doctrine for our contemporary world. What does the doctrine have to say about the increasing economic inequalities, political and military tensions, cultural and religious conflicts, secularism and nihilism, and the many acts of violence to the dignity of nature and humanity in the world today? Is the doctrine of deification only relevant to the area of spirituality and historical theology? If not, and if it is in some sense central to the Christian faith, how should it be developed, not just repeated or imitated, in a way that responds to the many cries of our time in its physical and spiritual hunger, in its humility and humiliation? Another reservation is that it fails to include an essay on St. Thomas, a most significant omission. With the prominence of such themes in his theology as assimilation, participation, illumination, and a teleological Trinitarian dialectic of image and exemplar pervading the very structure of his Summa theologiae, he would have provided a most substantive Western complement to the Eastern theology of deification, not to speak of a different perspective on the Palamite distinction of the divine essence and the divine energies.