I have to admit up front that I found this chapter absolutely fascinating. I was brought up in a traditional “saving-people-from-hell-is-the-important-thing” evangelical church. As long as a person had “come forward” at some point and didn’t drink or smoke, the question of whether that person had only been “declared” righteous or had actually “become” righteous was completely irrelevant. And until recently, the closest I ever got to Orthodox theology was seeing an Eastern Orthodox Bishop in full regalia when I visited Romania a few years ago. Suffice to say that all this talk about “deification” or “theosis” (the author uses both words interchangeably) was new territory for me.
For anyone unfamiliar with the term, theosis (according to the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology) encompasses in one concept what in the Western Church are two separate steps in the salvation process: justification and sanctification. In the West, justification is the act by which the believer is declared righteous at the moment of faith. Sanctification comes later. The Orthodox view, on the other hand, asserts that the believer is both declared righteous and, in the moment of his union with Christ, actually becomes righteous. Conventional wisdom states that one of the main theological differences between the Eastern Orthodox Church and Lutherans (as well as those denominations heavily influenced by Luther) has been Luther’s understanding of justification as strictly positional.
In a nutshell, Veli-Matti Karkkainen’s thesis is that a “New Interprepration of Luther” (oh, the irony) offered up by the scholars at the University of Helsinki suggests that Luther, rather than holding to a strictly positional understanding of justification, also allowed for a kind of “effective” justification through a believer’s participation in Christ. What gets Karkkainen really excited, though, is that this new understanding of Luther as embracing a kind of theosis could possibly lead to theological group hugs spontaneously happening among Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox everywhere.
Karkkainen actually makes a pretty good case for the presence of deification in Luther’s thought, and then goes on to highlight what he calls“several recent convergences” between Protestant and Orthodox scholarship. According to the author, when Western scholars acknowledge the fact that justification is just one metaphor among several—or when they agree that Paul uses participatory language like “union with Christ” more often than he uses legal metaphors—they are building a bridge between a solely forensic view of justification and the concept of deification.
My primary issue with Karkkainen’s essay is not that he doesn’t make a strong case for theosis in Luther’s thought; it’s that his entire thesis is focused almost exclusively on whether this new understanding of Luther might have positive ramifications for the relationship between Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians. Nowhere, other than a passing reference to 2 Peter 1:4 does the author address whether theosis is supported by scripture. Happily, this glaring omission is rectified by Michael Bird, who actually does provide strong scriptural support for what he describes as “something like theosis.” While Bird’s disagreement with Karkkainen is not about whether Luther believed something akin to theosis, he does have issues with the use of the word itself. Although he agrees that the idea of the believer’s union with Christ is clearly described in Scripture, Bird suggests that “participation” or “transformation” might be better words to use.
Unsurprisingly, Michael Horton disagrees with Karkkainen most vehemently. While he admits that there is more in Luther concerning communion with Christ than is usually acknowledged, he objects to the suggestion that Luther actually included theosis in his understanding of justification. The Roman Catholic contributors, interestingly enough, agree with Horton on this. “While it is true,” they write “that justification is only one of the metaphors for salvation that the Scriptures employ, it is nevertheless for Luther the central metaphor.”
The response I found most interesting, however, was James Dunn’s. Dunn is less open to the idea of theosis than Michael Bird and, in fact, disagrees that there is much scriptural support other than 2 Peter 1:4. He also admits that his discomfort with the idea of theosis may be rooted in his Western prejudice against anything that seems to blur the distinction between the creator and His creation.
I happen to share Dunn’s hesitancy on this. There are places in Karkkainen’s essay in which his description of deification/theosis does begin to sound as if believers share in the nature of Christ so much that they actually become—in some essential way—divine. And while the idea of union with Christ is certainly one of the primary ways in which Paul describes the nature of those who are saved, it seems less problematic to talk of being “sanctified” rather than being “deified.” Yes, this may be just a question of using different words for similar concepts, but words matter. I have learned a lot from this essay on the Deification View, but more than anything I’ve been reminded that the words a person uses to describe something shape how he views it.