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“He [the Son]…assumed humanity that we might become God…” – Athanasius, On the Incarnation
With these words, the Church Father, Athanasius, repeats a version of the so-called “Patristic Exchange Formula,” an idea traceable in the patristic era from Irenaeus through many of the Fathers in the East and West (e.g., Gregory of Nazianzus and Hilary of Portiers). This idea suggests that one of the effects of the Incarnation of God the Son was that human beings could become God. God the Son takes on humanity (i.e., a human nature) so he can give humans divinity. In modern theological terms, the doctrine proffered in the Patristic Exchange Formula is called “deification.” Deification is a process that’s fully realized in the eschaton; that is, it’s fully realized in post-resurrection glorification.
According to Dr. Carl Mosser, Professor of Theology at Gateway Seminary, the doctrine of deification is an ecumenical one, moving through the Latin Fathers, Latin Medievals, Magisterial Reformers, and the East (both pre and post schism). If that’s right, it’s certainly worth a hearing! Happily, it was given a hearing a few weeks ago at Fuller’s AT seminar when Mosser presented his talk: “The Metaphysics of Union with God.” In his paper, he aimed at clarifying the doctrine of deification, situating it as an orthodox teaching shot through the history of the Church, and sketching some possible models for how the sort of union requisite for deification might be possible. Mosser’s paper was a nice mixture of biblical exegesis, historical theology, and analytic metaphysics. In sum: it was analytic theology!
Now, then, what about this “becoming God” stuff? In my view, this part of Mosser’s lecture was particularly illuminating. Briefly, Mosser thinks that the patristic understanding of “becoming God” traded on the rather broad semantic range of the term “theos” (English: God/god) in ancient/koine Greek. According to Mosser, the ancient understanding of the word that we translate as “God/god” was much broader than one normally assumes. “Theos” was not used univocally to mean “creator and sustainer of the cosmos” or “the greatest conceivable being” or the like. Instead, “theos” (and its various lexical forms) could be applied to things in much the way we, in English, apply the word “divine.” Think here of the following statements: “the sunset is divine” or “this Florentine steak is divine.” No one thinks the predicate “is divine” in the previous statements means “is God.” Instead, we mean something like “wonderful” or “excellent.”
According to Mosser, something was similarly true of “theos.” It was synonymous with immortality, incorruptibility, and glory, all of which could be parsed out in ways that fall on a spectrum such that the sort of immortality, incorruptibility, and glory that Yahweh has, for example, is far surpassing anything to which a creature could attain. So, when Athanasius writes what I quote above, he does not mean that the Incarnation allows humans to become Yahweh. And there’s at least one perfectly obvious reason for this: it’s impossible.
Nevertheless, something extraordinary does happen in the deification of humans at the bodily resurrection. They live a godlike sort of life: they’re immortal, incorruptible, and glorious. Importantly, humans are not God. But, so goes the story, they begin to share in the life of God in ways not possible this side of the eschaton. And humans do this through union with God, which is the telos of redemption. Mosser suggests that union with God as the telos of redemption can be seen in a number of biblical passages (e.g., Deut: 10:20; John 17:20-23; 1 Cor. 6:17; Col. 3:3) and in theological works from the patristic era through the Reformation (e.g., Pseudo-Dionysius, Albert the Great, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley).
To make sense of all this, Mosser provides four metaphysical models for a class of union that allows humans to be godlike without traversing the category of God [for my Thomist friends, just put aside whether God fits in any category]. In other words, the creator/creature distinction must be preserved (and that, by my lights, stands to reason given orthodox Christian theology). All of the models Mosser proposes are, by his own admission, still well under construction. I’ll list them here, but, for reasons of space, I’ll briefly examine just two of them.
Let me say something briefly about (1) and (2), models I found the most promising.
In this model, creatures have a certain cluster of properties that, when united with God in the appropriate ways, constitute deification. That is, the creature then exemplifies immortality, incorruptibility, and glory. God, on the other hand, has a cluster of properties that, when humans are united to him, causes the creaturely “divine” properties to manifest, hence: mutual manifestation. By analogy, think of a water-soluble sugar cube and the solvent, water. Sugar, even when it’s not interacting with water, has the property of “being soluble in water.” Water, even when not interacting with sugar, has the property of “being a solvent of sugar.” Put them together, and these properties are exemplified; they’re mutually manifested and aren’t such that they can manifest themselves in isolation from their mutual manifestation partner. On this view, God acts as something like the solvent to a human’s solubility.
Mosser spoke at some length about this model, one to which I’m drawn. He provided some explanation for why humans aren’t presently exemplifying these properties, and why union isn’t applied in the relevant ways now (e.g., sin as “mutual manifestation inhibitor”). But, one shortcoming of the model, as it stands, is that it doesn’t explain union. It says something about what happens when a human is united to God, but I’d like to see something about in what union, itself, consists. Granted, that’s not an easy task!
Now, Mosser might be able to add to (1) this second model; for, he was clear that these models aren’t mutually exclusive. On the “Union as Instrumental Agency” model, one can think of human beings being united to God in a way analogous to the way in which Edward Scissorhands’s scissor-hands are instrumentally united to him. Mosser asks us to think of the sort of instrumental agency that’s sufficient for union in the following way:
x is instrumentally united to y if and only if x is (efficiently) causally related, R, to y such that x is capable of performing some action A that it couldn’t perform without standing in R to y.
Suppose that x is God and y is a human. What sort of actions is God incapable of performing without humans? Odd as it may sound, there are probably many. But here’s one really relevant one: co-ruling the cosmos. Suppose that Yahweh intends to rule the cosmos through humans, his vice regents. Then it seems like God couldn’t do that without humans. And if He’s an efficient cause of a human’s co-ruling God’s cosmos, then it follows (by the above principle) that God and the human in question are instrumentally united. Couple this with model (1) and we have a human instrumentally united with God and exemplifying properties that she couldn’t without being united with God.
Whether these notions of union work remains to be seen. Instrumental union, for example, gets tricky if attached to a doctrine of divine simplicity. For, while it’s the case that Edward Scissorhands is instrumentally united to that which is a part of him, the simple God has no parts. Moreover, it’s not clear whether God should be ‘x’ in the above or ‘y’. Or whether, with respect to instrumental union, it matters. Maybe instrumental union is, in some sense, symmetrical. These are just some of the details yet to be worked out.
For a project under construction, I found Mosser’s paper rich and engaging. I look forward to hearing more from him in due course!
J. T. Turner is a Research Associate on Fuller Theological Seminary’s Analytic Theology Project for the 2016 – 2017 academic year. He holds a PhD from The University of Edinburgh, a ThM from Erskine College and Seminary, and an MA and BS from Liberty University. Turner’s current research projects include writing a book on the metaphysics of afterlife in Christian theology, and work on constructing an analytic theology of what some biblical theologians call “holistic eschatology.”