It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. –C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses
In my theology classes, I often assign works from 4th- and 5th-century theologians debating about Christ and the trinity. These theologians stand in awe before the reality of the Triune God – they stutter with words of poetry and praise as they worship Christ the Lord. They meditate on the astonishing scriptural truth that we have been made adopted sons and daughters of the Almighty King, through the power of the Spirit.
Reformed theologians do not hesitate in speaking about the uniting communion that we experience now – and will experience in fullness – in Christ.
In reading these sources, students are often surprised – even scandalized – to read statements such as “God became human so that we might become God.” Isn’t that … blasphemy? Don’t Christians believe that it is sinful to ascend to the place of God? I love it when they ask these questions. I point back to the text, the way in which the patristic authors clarify and unpack the phrase: that “becoming God” doesn’t mean becoming absorbed into the Godhead, like a drip of water into the ocean. In Christian teaching, it is not an attempt to usurp the place of the Creator by creatures. Rather, in a hyperbolic turn of phrase, the patristic writers point to the incredible way in which the ends of salvation are shaped not so much by the first Adam as by the second: God became human in Jesus Christ – the Son of God – so that we might become sons and daughters of the Most High. Salvation does not just “fix” sin and the fall. It is higher, bigger, more breathtaking than that: through our union with Christ, the Son, we come to share in his royal identity and inheritance, as adopted children of the King through the Spirit. We are “deified” insofar as we are able to be fully conformed to the glorified Christ, in blessed communion with the Triune God.
TASTE OF THE DIVINE
We have a taste of this reality now, but not in the way that we often assume. Christian deification has nothing to do with “finding the god within” in our age of Oprah spirituality. Truly, God dwells with his people as in a temple, and we experience intimacy with God in Christ. But only in following the path of the crucified Lord do we live into our adopted identity. As “children of God” and “joint heirs with Christ,” “we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17). Indeed, Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom. 8:18-19). Now the Spirit dwells with us in the midst of our suffering and our lament. The Spirit animates our eager longing of what is to come. For in final redemption, the same Spirit will dwell in us as ones who are glorified with Christ.
Moreover, in a Christian theology of deification, the Christian life involves not only our current suffering, but joy in the most beautiful and delightful object of our desire: the Triune God. We taste this goodness of God in union with Christ, as Christ presents himself to us in Word and Sacrament. It is a perennial temptation to turn God into the spectator of our life – our Facebook life in which we are at the center. In innumerable ways, contemporary Christians tailor the faith to fit desires and needs emerging from a self-centered boredom, as “half-hearted creatures” (Lewis). Our sin is that we don’t delight enough in God’s life and glory, in the glow of his handiwork; we would rather be self-made persons who heroically “change the world” than find our lives hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). We are content with building our own castles and mud pies in the sand when we’ve been invited to be kings, priests and prophets of the one true King, Priest and Prophet.
Should Reformed Christians believe in deification? It depends upon how “deification” is defined. But if a broad, ecumenical definition of the notion is used, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” In a Western, Augustinian version, the Reformed tradition has taught a particular form of deification (often under the heading of “glorification”) for centuries. And there are strong biblical, theological and pastoral reasons for continuing to develop and teach a doctrine of deification.
A theology of deification addresses the question, What is salvation for? Contemporary Christians are often quite energized about questions concerning how we come to salvation and what we are saved from. But if our desires are to be fired with hope for God, we have to consider what it is all for. The missional-church movement has given a helpful partial answer to this question by reminding us that election is for the sake of God’s blessing the whole world. But even this can easily be reduced to a question of this-worldly mechanics (“how can I go be a blessing today?”). This pales in comparison to Paul’s expectation of glory: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:16-17). As one student told me, his “missionally minded” church almost never speaks of heavenly glory – members just look to God’s action in the here and now. Paul would not agree. Our imaginations have become impoverished about the scope of what salvation is for: an adoption that includes an inheritance of “an eternal glory that far outweighs” our current troubles.
WHAT DEIFICATION IS AND ISN’T
Of course, using the word “deification” needs qualification: a Christian theology of deification is not absorption into the Godhead; a historic Reformed doctrine of glorification and deification is not an adaptation of Eastern Orthodox doctrine, which was refined in quite specific late Byzantine debates; it is not an alternative to a forensic/legal doctrine of justification by faith. To say either would be categorical error. Moreover, if your view of deification requires the overwhelming of Christ’s human attributes by the divine attributes, then the classical Reformed sources don’t teach it.
Nevertheless, classical Reformed theologians do not hesitate in speaking about the uniting communion that we experience now – and will experience in fullness – in Christ. As Calvin asserts, in our present life of union with Christ by the Spirit – which is nourished through the preached and sacramental Word in community – believers are “participants not only in all his benefits but also in himself.” Indeed, “day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us” (Institutes 3.2.24). Moreover, believers are “fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him” (Institutes 2.16.3). Yet this union with Christ is impossible without a participation in the Spirit, who unites the believer to Christ (Institutes 3.1.2). Indeed, through the Spirit “we come to a participation in God (in Dei participationem venimus)” (Institutes 1.13.14). As the “perfection of human happiness is to be united to God,” this union takes place in redemption (Institutes 1.15.6). Yet this union does not make us “consubstantial with God” like a fourth member of the Godhead, but it is in Christ, through “the grace and power of the Spirit” (Institutes 1.15.5).
Calvin also speaks of a coming beatific vision, a “direct vision” of the Godhead, “when as partakers in heavenly glory we shall see God as he is” (Institutes 2.14.3). This final, temporal end is in fact “the end of the gospel,” that is, “to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us” (commentary on 2 Peter 1:4). For Calvin, the present and future scope of God’s work in salvation requires us to go beyond looking at how we receive salvation and what salvation saves us from. All of this takes place for the sake of union and communion with God. Salvation not only restores what is lost by the fall; it incorporates creatures into the glorious life of the Triune God.
GIVING OURSELVES TO GOD
If one is looking for an ecumenical account of the final ends of salvation that is great enough to desire – to join the deer who pants for streams of water and longs for God – then one will find it in classical Reformed sources, in patristic writings and indeed in Scripture itself. When Jesus Christ is at the center, we find our place in the drama – as ones who belong to him. Adam and Eve sought to become like God on their own terms, and we do today as well. Let’s give up. As sinners, we are turned in on ourselves. As an object of our sustained gaze, the self brings boredom rather than delight. Let’s give ourselves over to one more desirable and delightful: the Triune God whom we know in Jesus Christ. For as children of God growing into our adopted identity, the Spirit is transforming us into Christ’s image, our crucified and risen Lord. While this path involves taking up our cross and following Christ, it is also glorious, with a glorious end. For “we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
J. Todd Billings teaches theology at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan. He explored Calvin’s theology of union with God in Christ in his first book, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (Oxford University Press, 2008), which won a 2009 Templeton Award for Theological Promise.
Image: “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” by Georges de la Tour; the Louvre, Paris; public domain.