Monday, December 11, 2006

Partakers of the divine nature (part 1)

During our Sunday evening Service, we sang this hymn by Charles Wesley:

1. Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made Man.
2. He laid His glory by,
He wrapped Him in our clay;
Unmarked by human eye,
The latent Godhead lay;
Infant of days He here became,
And bore the mild Immanuel’s Name.
3. Unsearchable the love
That has the Saviour brought;
The grace is far above
Of men or angels’ thought:
Suffice for us that God, we know,
Our God, is manifest below.
4. He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.
5. Made perfect first in love,
And sanctified by grace,
We shall from earth remove,
And see His glorious face:
His love shall then be fully showed,
And man shall all be lost in God.
After the meeting, a member of the congregation asked me what Wesley meant in the 4th verse by And make us all divine? "We'll", I said, "that is probably an allusion to 2 Peter 1: 3 & 4." Which says:
3. as His divine [theias] power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, 4. by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine [theias] nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
Thankfully, I was able to give a few words of explanation and the member was satisfied that she had not been singing heresy. But, what did Peter (yes I believe that Peter did write 2 Peter!) mean by "you may be partakers of the divine nature"?
On the face of it, the words suggest that we will somehow be absorbed into the deity. But such an idea is more akin to mystical paganism than the New Testament. The word "divine" or theias is only found here in 2 Peter and Acts 17:29. In vs. 3 it is associated with the divine power of Jesus our Lord. So, how do we become "partakers of the divine nature"?
1) We are made partakers of the divine nature through the promises of God. Jesus has given his people all things that pertain to life and godliness. He has called us by glory and virtue. In him the "exceeding great and precious promises" are given. Paul teaches that all the promises of God are yes and amen in Jesus (2 Cor 1:20). Peter probably has the promise of Jesus' return uppermost in his mind (see 3:1-4, 9-13). The Lord has promised to return to this world to defeat evil and renew creation. "According to his promise we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (vs. 13). Through this same promise, believers are made partakers of the divine nature in anticipation of the glory that is to come.
2) We partake of the divine nature having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. Partaking of the divine nature is not to be conceived of as a mystical absorption into the deity. It has a strong soteriological and ethical dimension. Believers have escaped from worldly corruption. This escape is related to the the fact that we have been called by the glory and virtue of Jesus (vs. 3). In 1 Peter, the apostle writes of the people of God as those who have been "called out of darkness into his marvelous light" (2:9). This "call" is not a mere invitation to be saved. It is a mighty, effective summons to salvation from sin. The ethical implications of partaking of the divine nature are spelt out in vs. 5-11. Note "for this very reason..." vs. 5.
But still we are left with the question, "What does it mean to partake of the divine nature?" The text suggests that this is a redemptive rather than ontological category. We partake of the divine nature through the Word of God as we are delivered from the corruptions of a fallen world. There is no sense in which Peter is teaching that the ontological distinction between God and the creature has been abolished in the gospel. But to partake of the divine nature is to be made God-like, to be renewed in his image and to be drawn into the closest possible union and fellowship with him. No higher possible privilege can be imagined.
Peter may have a unique way of expressing this thought. But he says something quite similar, using different language in 1 Pet 5:1 & 10,
The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed:
But may the God of all grace, who called unto His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.
To partake of the glory that shall be revealed when the Chief Shepherd appears (vs. 4) and to be called to God's eternal glory is the eschatological dimension of partaking of the divine nature. Our destiny is to share in the glory of Christ. United to him by the Spirit, we shall be enjoy communion with God in the splendour of the new heavens and the new earth. Truly, Jesus became man to "bring our vileness near and makes us all divine."
I conclude with the comments of John Calvin,
For we must consider from whence it is that God raises us up to such a height of honor. We know how abject is the condition of our nature; that God, then, should make himself ours, so that all his things should in a manner become our things, the greatness of his grace cannot be sufficiently conceived by our minds. Therefore this consideration alone ought to be abundantly sufficient to make us to renounce the world and to carry us aloft to heaven. Let us then mark, that the end of the gospel is, to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us. (See here.)
In Part 2, I hope to examine the wider New Testament teaching on this theme. In Part 3, I will reflect on the theology of partaking of the divine nature.


Anonymous said...

very instructional and I believe right on point.

Judith Irene Matta said...

If you understand that Christians may receive the Energies (NOT Essence - i.e. "Nature of God") which flow out from the Divine Essence, then it will clear up the meaning. Gregory Palamas writes beautifully on this in his homilies. We become holy and transformed by participating in these Energies (prayer, baptism, Holy Orthodox Services filled with the Holy Spirit, reading Holy Scriptures, etc)
Palamas' homily on the Transfiguration speaks of "theosis" which means becoming "god-like" which glorifies the Father as we become like His Son our God!