With All the Fullness of God: Deification in Christian Tradition
“All Christians agree that Christ came to earth to save us from sin and death. But there seems to be less agreement about what he saved us for” (With All the Fullness of God, p. 1). So Jared Otiz introduces us to his latest book: a collection of essays on the theme of deification written from the perspective of various Christian traditions — Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Ortiz’s stated hope is to help us begin to recover the once common and theologically generative doctrine of theosis, now held in suspicion by many.
The rich collection does achieve the stated goal of tracing the doctrine’s inspiring and varied history. The essays on divinization not only trace its historical reception, but in so doing, many offer compelling and moving accounts of God’s desire and purpose for creation, His faithfulness and dogged pursuit of humankind even in its sin, and the beauty of God’s desire for the ultimate end of humankind.
It is a truly ecumenical collection. Though it should be commended for this, one might be tempted to fault the collection for its ambiguity at certain crucial points. This is most clearly on display with the use of various terms (reflected with purpose in the opening paragraphs of this review). What exactly is this doctrine? Deification? Theosis? Divinization? Are the terms interchangeable? Does it matter? For some the ambiguity might seem to represent the danger of ecumenical dialogue: a watering-down and papering-over of real and significant differences among various traditions for the sake of the predetermined goal of unity.
Yet the ecumenism on display in these essays instead points to the promise of ecumenical projects. While at times it is hard to find a center, the diversity can serve to drive each tradition back to its own sources, mining their depths, returning to the table with all the richness each tradition can muster. There is an abundant and varied beauty on display in this collection. This is a gift to the church universal.
Ortiz helps us to see that the creation story culminating in Sabbath rest is no mere coincidence, but rather creation’s very telos. “Creation without Sabbath,” writes Ortiz, “is incomplete, which means that creation finds its end or fulfillment not in itself by only in God” (p. 11). This end and fulfillment is our union with God and participation in the divine life. This participation is made possible as we are restored to God by Christ. For Roman Catholics this participation is grounded in sacramental worship. Carl Mosser, writing from the Reformed perspective, can say yes, despite the perceived dangers to the doctrines like total depravity and justification, and the distinction between creation and its Creator, deification is not only present within Reformed theology, but “constitutive” of the “catholic inheritance” that the Reformers desired and defended. We see this most especially in its teaching on the theme of union with Christ in Calvin (Mosser notes the significant work done here by J. Todd Billings on the recovery of this important Reformed distinctive). Michael Christensen, writing from the Wesleyan tradition, speaks to the Wesleyan teaching on Christian perfection and entire sanctification, and how deification both affirms Wesleyan distinctives, and offers promise for their renewal.
What does this collection offer specifically to the preacher and pastor? In the particularity of my own tradition, and that of this journal, the Reformed tradition, our temptation is to so focus on the doctrine of justification (and more specifically on one theory: penal/forensic substitution), that we can be in danger of offering a truncated view of God’s creating and reconciling work. This collection of essays helps to put our doctrine(s) of justification into a much larger picture — that which has been painted for us by the triune God’s action in history.
Nikolaos Asproulis’s essay from the Eastern Orthodox tradition was most helpful in this regard. Pointing us toward a vision that draws upon the writings of Maximus the Confessor, Asproulis quotes Andrew Louth (who himself was drawing upon the work of Sergius Bulgakov), “[D]eification is not to be equated with redemption . . . but deification belongs to a broader conception of the divine [economy]: deification is the fulfillment of creation, not just the rectification of the Fall” (p. 39). In this way, redemption finds its home in the context of the grander story of God’s creating, redeeming, and sanctifying purposes.
A reader of these essays will come away with a renewed appreciation for doctrines of creation and theological anthropology, of the Incarnation, eschatology, the life of Jesus, and even of justification. As Mosser argues, there is no theosis without justification — union with God is impossible unless grounded in Christ’s work of declaring sinners to be holy. The pastor and preacher are offered new lenses by which to read and exegete Scripture, renewing and broadening our interpretive frameworks.
For Calvin, the Eucharist played a central role as it relates to deification, for it is in the Eucharist where the “wondrous exchange” is made especially real to us as we partake of Christ and “whatever is his may be called ours” (p. 96). Not only can deification deepen our appreciation of the Reformed tradition and its sacramental theology, but the implications of union with Christ, as made real in the Eucharist, spills over into how we pastor those in our care in generative and creative ways.
Deification, seen as the ultimate telos of our existence before God, informs how we pastor those preparing for marriage, and for how we talk about sexuality and our desires. The claim that our lives culminate in our union with Christ, and not in the union of our flesh with another, relativizes marriage. This helps us to see marriage not as a right but a gift, in which we are called to steward our bodies in faithfulness, even as we await our ultimate union with God. Further, this not only makes room in the family of God for those who are single and celibate but means that their witness bears a particular significance as celibacy points us all beyond the immediacy of our desires to their final fulfillment in God.
These essays also raised further questions. What meaning, if any, might deification have for how we interact with creation? While theosis has traditionally been anthropocentric, I wonder what implications we might draw from it as it relates to all of nature? After all, Sabbath rest was not only for humans, but significantly, it was also for the animals and the land (cf. Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Leviticus 25).
Despite the stereotype of having a typically dour view of human nature, these essays will encourage Reformed ministers to preach and pastor out of the context of the work of the triune God in exalting human nature! From His original purpose and telos at creation, to the intervention of His redeeming work in Christ, to His ongoing sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, the triune God of grace desires to exalt human nature, uniting us fully and finally to Himself. Our preaching can be made richer, and our pastoring more attentive to the whole person, as it is animated by the intoxicating beauty and love of the triune God and His works.
Yes, I wanted more. I wanted more clarity at certain points, more work in defining the distinctions of the doctrine of deification in relation to the various traditions represented. But, most of all, I just wanted more. And I think you will, too.