This article is a layman’s plea to confessional Lutheran pastors, theologians, and doctors to consider the myriad of challenges to the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls from a simple, strategic perspective. Otherwise, all we’re ever going to do is play whack-a-mole. That would be only a tactical defense, not a strategic one.
Despite what seems to be a dizzying array of ideas and movements that undermine, erode, or outright displace justification, really, there is a single thread running through them: theosis. When we see this single thread, we can be nimble in defending the flock.
My plea does not arise as a matter of ideology. We lay people, lambs that we are, need the militant shepherd.
Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God. (1 Sam 17:34-36)
This is not an academic or theological paper. I haven’t got the chops for that. It is a plea that you explore the core proposition to assess its merits and, if it pans out, that you use it in a coordinated way to up your game. If this is all rubbish, well, I hope I don’t waste too much of your time.
We’ll be looking at theosis in Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Osiander, Finnish School Lutherans, the Emerging Church, Trinitarian Theology or the Perichoresis Movement, the FiveTwo network, Jordan Cooper’s Christification, the Holiness Movement, and Pietism.
Eastern Orthodoxy: Archetype of Theosis
In Eastern Orthodox thinking, “The Christian message of salvation can best be summed up in terms of sharing, of solidarity and identification.”1 Sharing is a key to God as Trinity and Christ as Incarnation. In the Trinity, the persons share or participate in each other. In Christ, God and man share or participate in each other. Christ’s union with man gives man union with God.
God’s Incarnation opens the way to man’s deification. To be deified is, more specifically, to be “christified”: the divine likeness that we are called to attain is the likeness of Christ. It is through Jesus the God-man that we are “ingodded”, “divinized”, made sharers in the divine nature. (2 Pet. 1:4)2
This idea has a number of names: theosis, divinization, deification, and christification, to name a few. Christification produces salvation because, Christ empties himself of deity (kenosis, Phil 2:7)3 and fills us with divinity (theosis, 2 Pet. 1:4) We are connected into this exchange because Christ took on not only unfallen human nature, but in a sense that is not only external, He took on our fallen human nature. He was touched somehow from within by sin and sin’s suffering.4
St Paul goes so far as to write, “God has made him who knew no sin to be sin for our sake” (2 Cor. 5:21). We are not to think here solely in terms of some juridical transaction, whereby Christ, himself guiltless, somehow has our guile “imputed” to him in an exterior manner.5
Notice the direct challenge to Luther’s justification.
From this, two things have happened through history. First, the idea of theosis has reappeared chronically in a variety of forms.
Second, the various forms of theosis all have the effect of us looking into ourselves for evidence of salvation rather than looking outward at God’s judgment of condemnation on Christ and his judgment of acquittal on us for Christ’s sake.
Whether warranted or not, the human tendency is to think, “If I am to believe what I am being taught, that I am being Christified, I should be able to see that, and gain from seeing it some assurance that I am saved.” We stray from the sheer Word of God that declares absolution. Instead of faith coming by hearing, we want it to be by seeing. We want a Christian life that is not “hidden with God in Christ,” (Col. 3:1), but is manifest.
Roman Infused Grace: Theosis Thinly Disguised
Two ideas in Roman theology have this self-inspection effect: infused grace, and satisfactions as part of repentance. For Luther, grace is God’s disposition of forgiveness and favor towards us for Christ’s sake. Grace exists in God, outside ourselves, and the ground of forgiveness exist outside ourselves in the merits of Christ.
The Roman notion of infused grace puts grace into us. The means of grace, rather than creating and sustaining faith and delivering forgiveness, deliver grace itself. The means of grace infuse grace into us by which we are able to perform satisfactions for sin and thereby be saved. God justifies us in view of the satisfactions we will add to the sacrifice of Christ.
This may be said to be all of grace since infused grace is given the credit, but it still puts the focus on infusion. Instead of the focus being entirely on Christ crucified, the focus turns to us. Our eye is divided from the grace of God to grace in us. Whether warranted or not, the human tendency is to think, “If I am to believe what I am being taught about infused grace and my own satisfactions as part of repentance, I should be able to see the grace infused in me and the satisfactions infused grace empowers me to perform.”
Osiander: Confusing Theosis with Mystical Union
Andreas Osiander was a German Lutheran theologian who caused a division within Lutheranism that was settled in Article III of the Formula of Concord. Using the language of the Lutheran idea of the mystical union of the saints with Christ, he taught what practically amounted to theosis. The Epitome rejects the following idea: “4. Faith not only looks to Christ’s obedience, but also to His divine nature, since it dwells and works in us, and by this indwelling our sins are covered.”
It’s as if our hearts, rather than the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies (Heb. 9:11-15), were the place of salvation, and what covers sin is not Christ’s blood but his divine nature.
Under that rejected view, instead of being justified by the righteousness of Christ being imputed to us, God declares one righteous because Christ indwells that person. Once that view is taken, the self-inspection process is bound to commence. Consequently, the Epitome also rejects the following idea (and several others): “7. Faith saves on this account: because the renewal by faith is begun in us, which dwells in love for God and one’s neighbor.”
Though Osiander might not have meant to repackage Roman infused grace, try as one might to preach his doctrine, it will be practically impossible for the pew to hear the difference. Both are theosis thinly disguised.
Finnish School Lutherans: Theosis the Ground of Justification
At an ecumenical meeting between Lutheran and Orthodox theologians in Kiev in 1977, Helsinki professor Tuomo Mannermaa titled his lecture, “Salvation Interpreted as Justification and Deification.” From that beginning, the Finnish School was built.
The fountainhead formulation is: “in faith itself Christ is present.” Mannermaa quoted this from Luther’s comments on Galatians 2:16. This is taken to mean that what is grasped in faith is truly present to the subject. Christ indwells by faith.
From there, Mannermaa developed the idea that in Luther’s thought on justification, participation or theosis is not separated from imputation of righteousness. Justification depends on theosis. The events of imputation and the union mystical are simultaneous. God imputes the sinner as righteous because he unites him with Christ and Christ’s omnipotent righteousness. God sees the righteousness of Christ dwelling within the person.
Emerging Church: Incarnating Us as Little Christs
The Emerging Church was a movement in the late 20th century and early 21st century. It crossed many theological boundaries, and it embraces so many variations that it can be difficult to summarize. Generally, though, its leaders became disillusioned with established churches. They sought to deconstruct worship, evangelism, and community.
A particular take on the Incarnation became a foundation of the missional nature of the Emerging Church. Mark Driscoll, founder of Mars Hill Church, wrote:
Jesus’ incarnation is in itself missional. God the Father sent God the Son into culture on a mission to redeem the elect by the power of God the Holy Ghost. After his resurrection, Jesus also sent his disciples into culture, on a mission to proclaim the success of his mission, and commissioned all Christians to likewise be missionaries to the cultures of the world (e.g., Matt. 28:18-20; John 20:21; Acts 1:7-8). Emerging and missional Christians have wonderfully rediscovered the significance of Jesus’ incarnational example of being a missionary immersed in a culture.”6
Emerging Church leaders like to say things like, “We are to become, as Luther said so eloquently, ‘little Christs.’”7 Whatever Luther might have meant by that, one might think the Emerging Church only means that Christ is an example and we are imitators. But consider the totalizing impact of the idea. Australian church planter and student of Christian movements, Steve Addison, provides a digest of the pervasion of missionalism.
You can be a missional church, business leader, mom, small group, disciple, or movement. Even Nehemiah was missional.
You can be a missional denomination, church plant, or house church. You can replace mission trips with missional living. You can even preach and worship missionally, or is that missionaly?
There’s a missional hermeneutic and missional ecclesiology. …
For the brave there’s “missional synergy through cordic connectivity.” …
You can relate incarnationally, be spiritual incarnationally, your soul can have an incarnational journey. There’s incarnational art and incarnational youth ministry. The Scottish parish system can be incarnational. The Shona women of Zimbabwe have an incarnational narrative Christology.
For the confused there’s incarnational counselling.8
Can something so permeating and encompassing be only a matter of doing and not a matter of being? Maybe intellectual people can keep those separate, but as understood in the pew, becoming “little Christs” does not sound like a figure of speech. It sounds like plain talk. It sounds like christification.
Not until the mid-twentieth century re-flowering of Eastern Orthodoxy were Westerners brought into fresh contact with the Eastern Orthodox concept – and we have been making intriguing and useful comparisons ever since. At a practitioner level, something very like theosis, began to emerge in the West in the early 1970s.9
That has support from statements like this from Emerging Church leader Scot McKnight: “The atonement is designed by God to restore cracked Eikons into glory-producing Eikons by participation in the perfect Eikon, Jesus Christ.”10
At the academic level, theosis is proposed as the solution to evangelical problems. Take for example the doctoral dissertation of Michael Paul Gama, Theosis: The Core of Our Ancient/Future Faith and Its Relevance to Evangelicalism at the Close of the Modern Era.11 As summarized in the abstract, “In the final chapter I seek to show how and why the ancient soteriological understanding of Christian salvation as theosis or union with God through grace is the spiritual medicine fit for an Evangelicalism in crisis.”
Trinitarian Theology: Our Perichoresis with the Father
Trinitarian Theology or the Perichoresis movement in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and other countries uses the idea of perichoresis at three stages resulting in theosis.
First, and to my great satisfaction, the movement describes the relationships of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That relationship is perichoresis.12 This term speaks of the interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity. The prefix peri means over, under, around, and through. The persons of the Trinity thoroughly permeate each other, while remaining distinct. The root choresis speak of dancing, as in our English word, choreography. Hence, C. Baxter Kruger, The Great Dance.
Second, the natures of God and man are in perichoresis in Christ.
Third, by our adoption into Christ, and through the Incarnation, we are brought into perichoresis with the Father.
If we are in perichoresis with the Father, that’s theosis, acknowledged or not.
Indeed, much of the foundational material in Trinitarian Theology is from church fathers speaking about theosis. They also use material from James Torrance, Thomas F. Torrance, Barth, Luther, Robert Farrar Capon, Madeleine L’Engle, and others.
I have exchanged emails with leaders of Perichoresis Movement churches inquiring whether their theology produces salvation by giving us union with the Father apart from the cross. Our Lutheran line goes: Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Justification. Their line seems to go: Trinity, Incarnation, Adoption, perichoresis with the Father. It seems to rely on the person of Christ without the work of Christ. In these exchanges, I haven’t gotten straight answers.
Notice that this again, as with all the other theosis-based ideas and movements, erodes or displaces the article on which the church stands or falls: justification. In instance this is so because it sidesteps the atonement and, directly from the Incarnation, brings us into adoption.
A familiar variant on this idea is put forth in William P. Young’s New York Times number one bestseller, The Shack. C. Baxter Kruger, founder and president of Perichoresis, Inc., in The Shack Revisited, reprises the Trinitarian Theology of The Shack.
FiveTwo: Sacramental Identities
For a long time, Lutheran synods have had missional factions. Of late, a church planting network within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has received a lot of attention.
FiveTwo is a refined and updated version of the Emerging Church that deconstructs language to make Emerging ideas sound Lutheran. They like to use words like sacrament and sacramental, but in ways never before known to Lutheran thought.
How is this done? Well, if you think of Henry Ford’s replaceable parts, you could almost unplug the word incarnational from Emerging Church talk and replace it with the word sacramental in FiveTwo talk. Instead of being incarnational this or that, now we are sacramental this or that. Instead of having incarnational identities, now we have sacramental identities.
You have a unique sacramental you, that lives out the presence of Jesus in a unique, divinely called way.13
Sacramental identity is the unique presence of Christ in you, a God-combo of your Psalm 139 knitting together and your baptism-day-Holy-Spirit washing. It is the predestined, divinely patented you, ordained by your Creator Father for His purposes in the world. In sacramental terms, it is the sacramental Jesus in you, the real presence of Jesus wrapped in your bread and wine.14
So, what’s that? Humpty Dumpty can say that’s not theosis, but it is.
Where is that in the Bible? Where is that in the Augsburg Confession, the Large Catechism, or any other confessional writing of the Lutheran church? If you’re going to go looking for it, pack a lunch, or better yet, be prepared for your clothes to go out of style while you search.
This completely debases the word sacrament. In Baptism, God’s external word connected with external water administered to me by my Pastor from outside of myself saves me. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s external word connected with the external bread and wine administered to me by my Pastor from outside of myself delivers the body and blood of Christ to me, and with his blood, what it was shed for, the remission of sins. Theosis is the complete contradiction of sacrament.
Jordan Cooper: A Lutheran Approach to Theosis
In his earlier book, The Righteousness of One, Lutheran Pastor Jordan Cooper picked up the Luther research commenced by Mannermaa and the Finnish School. Cooper rejected locating theosis in justification, and thereby developed what he hopes will be a Lutheran view of theosis. The book left some points unclear. In his later book, Christification: A Lutheran Approach to Theosis, he clarifies those points and continues to develop his idea.
A rough and ready summary of Cooper’s idea is that Luther does teach theosis, but he locates it in sanctification (in the narrow sense). Cooper’s idea has generated noticeable controversy, and if I have misrepresented his view, I hope he or others supporting his view will use an early opportunity to correct me.
With the understanding of Cooper I have at present, it appears possible that he has saved theosis from Mannermaa’s error, on a formal basis. But I am still concerned about it because of experience with Lutheran Pietism and the Holiness Movement. If my concerns are founded, his idea still will not function in a Lutheran way.
The Holiness Movement and Lutheran Pietism also locate something within the believer in sanctification. The something is variously identified as the indwelling Christ, the indwelling Holy Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, the fruits of the Spirit, the crisis of entire sanctification, and so on. In none of those formulations does the formal doctrine of sanctification or piety seem to undermine justification. But just try to preach those things to laity in the pew and have them put that into practice without it leaking its way back into justification.
I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard the saying, while I was in Americanized Evangelicalism, “We can’t judge, but we can be fruit inspectors.” Well, that’s judgment, and it leaks back from sanctification to justification. I have seen over and again in Pentecostalism the normative sign of speaking in tongues function as one’s assurance of salvation. These things seem always to leak back. What’s to stop theosis in sanctification from having the same effect, though not intended?
Somehow, you’ve got to have a doctrine you can preach and that laity can hear. Add to that the question, what problem are we trying to solve by locating theosis in sanctification? Did the confessions leave us without a way to believe, teach, and confess sanctification? Without meaning to do so, doesn’t Cooper’s theosis idea add an article or two to the Book of Concord?
And finally, once we adopt theosis in sanctification, won’t that be the common ground with theosis in things like the Emerging Church and the FiveTwo network, despite the fact that such may not be intended and probably is the furthest thing from Cooper’s mind?
What is the cause of all this hankering after theosis.
My colleague, Tim Wood, opened my eyes to one reason:
The theosis attraction is because we despise / diminish the doctrine of vocation. It’s not good enough to serve our neighbor – we want to serve God and have him thank us for it.15
Another reason is, the mystical impulse has got people bored with justification. We need to do a better job of overtly and expressly teaching the extra nos nature of Word and Sacrament and how tightly associated that is with justification.
And thank God, theosis, gives us another way to do that when we identify theotic error and exposit the contrast between that and the truth.
1. Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p. 73 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, rev. ed. 1995).
2. Ware, p. 74
3. Some drive kenosis to the point of Christ giving up his divine nature. They fail to understand correctly, as the Lutheran confessions do, the true nature of Christ’s state of humiliation. But, while this is closely related to the issue of theosis, the errors relating to kenosis must be deferred to another time.
4. Ware, pp. 75-76.
5. Ware, p. 76.
6. Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission.: Hard Lessons from an Emerging Missional Church, rev. ed., p. 26 (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2006).
7. Steve Griffiths, “An Incarnational Missiology for the Emerging Church,” opensourcetheology.net, January 30, 2007.
8. Steve Addison, “Just How Missional-Incarnational Was Jesus?” movements.net, March 16, 2012
9. Ben Pugh, Atonement Theories: A Way through the Maze, p. 33, (cascade Books, Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR, 2014).
10. Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, p. 21, (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2007).
11. Gama, Michael Paul, “Theosis: The Core of Our Ancient/Future Faith and Its Relevance to Evangelicalism at the Close of the Modern Era” (2014). Doctor of Ministry. Paper 74. http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/dmin/74
12. It isn’t only perichoresis, but I am happy to see a rise in interest in the Trinity and in that particular aspect of it.
13. Bill Woolsey, “Five Q’s To Begin To Discover Your Unique Sacramental Identity,” fivetwo.com, July 24, 2014.
14. Bill Woolsey, “Five Keys to Releasing The Sacramental Jesus in Others,” fivetow.com, July 29, 2014.
15. Use of this insight is not intend to imply that Tim endorses everything in this essay.