Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Evangelical Appreciates "Theosis"

(Phiro tip to Orthodixie)

Evangelical scholar James R. Payton Jr., professor of history at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, has published a piece in Christianity Today entitled, “Keeping the End in View: How the strange yet familiar doctrine of theosis can invigorate the Christian life”. He is also author of Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition, published by IVP Academic.

My reaction to this article is profoundly mixed. It is good, of course, whenever anyone, especially an Evangelical, says nice things about Orthodox Christianity and the patristic tradition in general, and it is to be hoped, may it please God, that Payton’s writing here will inspire many CT readers to further investigate the apostolic Christian faith in its Eastern and Orthodox iterations. Further, to be fair, perhaps Payton’s book length presentation is more complete. One hopes so. HOWEVER…

My problems with what Payton has to say in this article begin with the subtitle: “How the strange yet familiar doctrine of theosis can invigorate the Christian life.” The major thrust of Payton’s CT piece is apparently that Christians should keep the fulness of life in Christ ever in view, that fulness, of course, being experienced only in the age to come, at the end of history, in the glorified, resurrected state. Fair enough, as far as it goes, and Payton is certainly correct in criticizing the vulgar Evangelicalism, usually connected with the semi-Calvinist belief that “once saved is always saved,” in which justification, or conversion, is effectively reduced to, as Payton says, “a get–out-of-hell-free card”; however, it seems to me that Evangelical Christianity has long been looking for “doctrines” to “invigorate” it. One could even view the beginnings of the Reformation in these terms. Luther, as is well known, latched on to “the just shall live by faith” while Calvin found his starting point in the discussion of predestination in Ephesians 1. This search for a doctrinal panacea has continued until this very moment, the most well-known current manifestation being the so-called “prosperity gospel:, “blab it and grab it”, as Mar Cassian puts it. (Fr. Jon Braun’s book, Divine Energy directly engages the shortcomings of this search for panaceas.)

But, for Orthodox Christianity, theology – doctrine – is first and foremost practical: “What must I do to be saved?” The answer, given somewhat differently in different places in the New Testament, but always referring to the same reality, is clear: “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ”, “repent and be baptized”, “eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man,” “put to death the deeds of the flesh,” “endure to the end”. The point is, “doctrines”, even dogmas, no matter how true, how Orthodox, in and of themselves do little or nothing: “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life”, “faith without works is dead”.

The problem here is that theosis, or deification (also called union with Christ, sanctification, regeneration, and yes, justification), is not simply about ultimate salvation, resurrection, glorification. Theosis begins here and now with conversion, incorporation into Christ by way of the Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation, and participation in the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ. It is renewed in the Mysteries of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. It is pursued by way of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. There is absolutely no mention in this article of the Mysteries, the Sacraments, nor of these classical Christian disciplines.

There is also absolutely no mention of the fact that the Christian life, begun and lived by incorporation into Christ by way of baptism into his death, is life in the Body of Christ, the Church. This is not surprising, given that the Sacraments are not mentioned. However, it is impossible to discuss the Orthodox point of view on this apart from life on the ground, life in the Church, participating in the Mysteries, practicing the disciplines, because sanctification, theosis, union with Christ, is inseparable from this life in the Church, “the fulness of [Christ] who fills all in all”.

Payton also (mildly) criticizes Orthodox Christianity for not keeping its terms straight, for supposedly confusing “justification”, “sanctification,” and “theosis”. But, as the late Lutheran scholar Joachim Jeremias points out, citing I Corinthians 6:11, “justification” and “sanctification” are deeply interchangeable: they are synonyms (notice also the reference to “washing”, i.e., baptism here), related one to another by way of parallelism, each word focusing on different aspects of the same reality.

In conclusion, while it is always good to read appreciations of Christian Orthodoxy in forums such as Christianity Today, Payton’s presentation here is at best incomplete. This has been, I think, the stumbling block of Wesleyanism, Payton’s jumping off point. Wesleyanism, it seems, like virtually all of Protestantism, has split into two camps, one conservative, the other, in reaction to the shortcomings of the conservative stance, liberal. Now, in theology, liberalism is not a good thing, but perhaps worse is the conservatism from which it is born. Wesley, an Anglican priest, was both a progenitor of contemporary Evangelicalism and a proto-typical Anglo-Catholic, and he certainly sought that all of his followers – converts – should come to be “partakers in the Divine nature” (and one has to got to love that lost stanza of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" quoted at the beginning of the article). However, while he had a rather high doctrine of the Church and of the sacraments (one which, at least in the United States, did not have much effect on the development of Methodism and its Holiness and Pentecostal off-shoots), he made a very fundamental mistake: “sanctification by faith”.

In other words, Wesley failed to see the importance of the ascetic struggle, by way of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, in the transformation of believers into the image and likeness of Christ. (He failed here, perhaps, because, like Luther, earlier in his life he had pursued an ascetic lifestyle for the wrong reasons: he was seeking God’s love and favor, which are already given to all in Christ, rather than the fulness of transformation to be found by living in union with Christ.) Thus, like conversion or "justification", sanctification also became an event, a crisis, a “second blessing”. This has led to many problems on the personal and corporate levels, unnecessary psychological distress at one’s failures after having allegedly been sanctified, often coupled with a nasty legalism. One cannot separate any of this. Life in the Church and thus, participation in the Sacraments, the Mysteries, and the practice of the disciplines, is part and parcel of the path of theosis, which is nothing other than the “normal Christian life”.


Caron said...

"This search for a doctrinal panacea has continued until this very moment, the most well-known current manifestation being the so-called “prosperity gospel:, “blab it and grab it”, as Mar Cassian puts it. "

Check out the work of Justin Peters on this at his site: and be sure to watch the video!

Alice C. Linsley said...

Very good insights here on Wesley. Sanctification by faith apart from askesis is what James warns of in his epistle. Faith without sharing in the self-sacrifical way of life that is our resting place in Christ is not faith at all, only positive thinking.

Jesse said...

I think that the central problem with the Reformation and its descendant movements lies in its treatment of the apostolic faith, as if it were something separate from the life of the Church that could be ripped out of ancient times and brought to the present day through sheer force of intellect. It's so telling that all of the elements of a full Christian life from East to West are present, regardless of doctrinal emphases, in those churches that bear an organic connection to the apostolic Church.

Copts, Roman Catholics, Assyrians, Byzantines are all taught that fasting is valuable. All have a notion of sacramental grace. All believe in the genuine presence of Christ in the Eucharist. All believe that faith in Christ is the key, but that it ultimately has a transformative impact. It's only when someone comes in and says,"Generations of these people have gotten it wrong, but here, look, I've figured it out and now I'm going to rebuild the church" that the balance is lost and what passes for Christianity becomes some caricature of the ancient church.

"There's no need for fasting! Sacraments are lame and pointless! All it takes is faith!"

It's akin to saying,"All it takes to deal with your alcoholism is admitting that you have a problem."
Or to stay within the realm of the Christian faith, it's saying that faith is simply an static internal element with no particular expression. It's hard to not need invigoration when you teach that how a person interacts with their faith or expresses it in their daily lives isn't particularly central. It's hard to talk meaningfully of a "life in grace" when you disconnect the believer from the matrix of Grace that is the Body of Christ.

And that's where I think Protestantism falls down. The intent was right on, but I just don't see how the execution was supposed to work.

FrGregACCA said...

Jesse, thanks for your comment. I completely agree. With your permission (which I am going to assume), I am going to quote you on another blog.

Jesse said...


As long as it isn't prefaced with "so some jerk said..." assume away. :)

Take care,


FrGregACCA said...

LOL. Not at all, Jesse, not at all. Actually, I quoted it in a discussion/debate with some Mormons (in the combox of self-described "Fundamentalist Baptist's" blog. Here, you can see for yourself:

"Quotes from Andrew Jackson's Latest Book"

It is comment #16.