Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Partakers of the divine nature (part 3)

In the previous two posts (click on the label below), I sought to probe the Biblical teaching on this subject. Now, in this final post, I propose to look at the theology of partaking of the divine nature.
Athanasius (295?-373), well known for his defence of the full deity of Christ, was much taken with the idea of Christians partaking of the divine nature. For him, it is only possible for human beings to be deified if Jesus was fully God and fully Man,
"For therefore did he assume the body originate and human, that having renewed it as its framer, he might deify it in himself, and thus might introduce us all into the kingdom of heaven after his likeness. For man had not been deified if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were very God; nor had man been brought into the Father's presence, unless he had been his natural and true Word who has put on the body." (Against the Arians 2.70)
Athanasius taught that the incarnation of Christ involved a great exchange, boldly saying, "He was made man that we might become God" (On the Incarnation 54). He did not mean than Christ ceased to be God when he became Man or that we will be absorbed into the being of God. He was trying to express the wonder of the deification of the saints, based on 2 Peter 1:4.
This emphasis on deification became central to the understanding of salvation in the East. Gregory of Palamas (1296-1359) distinguished between the unknowable divine essence and God's uncreated energies, through which he interacts with creation. He speculated that to be deified is to participate in the energies of God But this removes deification from its New Testament Christological basis. We are made partakers of the divine nature by being transformed into the image of Christ through the Spirit.
While the East focuses on salvation through deification, Reformed theology has tended to concentrate more upon the removal of the guilt and penalty of sin through justification. But there is really no need to choose between partaking of the divine nature and justification. They are both important aspects of the New Testament's theology of salvation. Athanasius' statement, "He was made man that we might be made God", is not (as he realised) the whole story. The Son was made man, coming in the likeness of sinful flesh, that God might condemn sin in his flesh (Romans 8:3). The forensic aspect of redemption is essential for our deification. Its is justified sinners, who are no longer under the condemnation of the law (Romans 8:1), who are glorified together with Christ (Romans 8:17).
This is not to say that deification has been neglected altogether in Western Reformed theology. Robert Letham discusses this in p. 471-474 of his book, The Holy Trinity. (See my review here).
Calvin returns to 2 Peter 1:4 several times in the Institutes. We have already noted his rich exposition of the key text in the first post.
"Peter declares that the purpose for which believers are called is, that they may be “partakers of the divine nature,” (2 Pet. 1:4). How so? Because “he shall come to be glorified in his saints and to be admired in all them that believe,” (2 Thess. 1:10). If our Lord will share his glory, power, and righteousness, with the elect, nay, will give himself to be enjoyed by them; and what is better still, will, in a manner, become one with them, let us remember that every kind of happiness is herein included. But when we have made great progress in thus meditating, let us understand that if the conceptions of our minds be contrasted with the sublimity of the mystery, we are still halting at the very entrance". (The Institutes of the Christian Religion Book III:XXV:10)
We must never forget, with all out theologizing, that to partake of the divine nature is to be filled with love, for God is love. Peter himself insists on this, "For this very reason, giving all diligence add to your" (2 Peter 1:7). To put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14) is to be clothed with love, which is the bond of perfection (Colossians 3:14).
I conclude with a quote from Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, discussing the deification of man in Christ in the teaching of Athanasius,
"When Athanasius said that the Word of God became incarnate in order that we might be deified he was speaking of the redemptive purpose of the Son's coming, which was not only to set us free from the guilt and power of sin and to reconcile us to the Father but also to exalt us in himself to the glorious perfection of God's everlasting kingdom and to that imperishable life that swallows up our mortality; he was speaking of our transposition from this present frail and fleeting existence to that full and unclouded existence which is bestowed upon us by God; he was speaking, in short, of the attainment of that resplendent destiny of harmony with our Creator that was from the beginning intended for us. To enter into the "inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us" is to "become partakers of the divine nature" (1 Pet. 1:4, 2 Pet. 1:4). It is not the obliteration of the ontological distinction between Creator and creature but the establishment at last of intimate and uninterrupted communion between them". (The True Image, Eedrmans, 1989, p. 286. )
Charles Wesley, then was right to sing that:
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.
PS. Courtesy of "revdrron" see here for a wonderful Spurgeon quote on this subject.


Gary Brady said...

This is really helpful as I noticed this theme is all the way through Wesley's nativity hymns. The P E Hughes comment is very helpful. Felicitas Navidad.

Exiled Preacher said...

Thanks, Gary. I'am glad that one of our members asked me what "and make us all divine" meant in Wesley's hymn.

It's an amazing thought, isn't it, that we shall partake of the divine nature?

revdrron said...

Greetings rev. exiled! Immanuel! and all that that means for you this fine time of the year. Thanks for the insightful and pastoral three part "Partakers..." series.

Blessings and finitum non capax infiniti, ron

Exiled Preacher said...

Thanks for your comments, Ron.

A very happy Christmas to you too!

(Can't do much Latin I'm afraid)

Joy to the world! The Lord has come!


revdrron said...

Greetings Guy!

I was just having a little fun with you around the Latin phrase finitum non capax infiniti with connection to your series. After all I did a short stint with a Reformed Baptist group in CA several years ago.

Extra Calvinisticum (The Calvinistic Extra): The Lutherans believed in the ubiquity (omnipresence) of Christ's human body and nature, whereas the Calvinists have believed the historic view that Christ's human body-and-soul is not infinite or omnipresent, but is only now at the right hand of the Father. Calvinists hold to the principle Finitum non Capax Infiniti, or the finite is not capable of the infinite (the finite human nature of Christ is not capable of containing His infinite divine nature in its entirety).Thus, ever since the Incarnation, there is still infinite deity beyond Christ's human nature. The beyond is "extra" or outside, infinite.

enjoy, ron

FYI: Check out this resource for fuller definition of many theologically significant Latin & Greek words, Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985).

Exiled Preacher said...

Thanks for that, Ron.

Finitum non Capax Infiniti seems about right to me!

It strikes me that the Lutheran doctrine of ubiquity is just a sneaky way of trying to justify consubstantiation.