The Rejuvenation of Theosis in Lutheran Scholasticism

by Joshua C. Benjamins

Tuomo Mannermaa and his followers in the New Finnish School have made a forceful case that Luther’s doctrine of justification has at its heart the idea of actual participation in the divine life through union with Christ. Mannermaa also argues that Lutheranism subsequent to Luther lost the Reformer’s emphasis on the presence of Christ’s divine life in believers (“Why is Luther so Fascinating,” in Union with Christ [1998], 2). However, even a cursory overview of the great architects of Lutheran orthodoxy reveals that Luther’s heirs articulated a rich and well-developed theology of participation (communio/κοινωνία) in God—one which draws its inspiration not primarily from Luther but rather from a re-appropriation of the patristic notion of deification. Even while they retain a forensic doctrine of justification through imputed righteousness, Lutheran theologians describe union in dynamic terms: friendship with God, the influx of divine qualities, divine indwelling, and participation in the very life of the holy Trinity.

One such vibrant description of theosis can be found in the writings of Johann Gerhard (1582-1637), the Wittenberg-educated theologian who emerged as the greatest systematizer in the Lutheran scholastic tradition. Gerhard works out a rich theology of participation in his exegesis of 2 Peter 1:4, which reads, “He has granted to us his precious and very great promises so that through them you may become partakers [κοινωνοὶ] of the divine nature.” Gerhard identifies seven different facets of this κοινωνία: renovation of the image of God in the believer; the Son of God’s assumption of human nature in the Incarnation; the grace of adoption; spiritual union with Christ; the indwelling grace of the Holy Spirit; the eucharistic communication of Christ’s body and blood; and the eschatological consummation of union with God in eternity. The broad sweep of this seven-fold division already suggests to us that Gerhard takes participation in God to be a comprehensive description of the totality of Christian experience.

Significantly, Gerhard connects his exegesis of 2 Peter 1:4 to the language of deification in the patristic tradition, citing both Eastern sources (Dionysius, Basil, and Gregory of Nazianzus) and the great Western Fathers—Ambrose, Anselm, and Augustine. He approvingly quotes Augustine’s famous statement that the Son of God “became a partaker of our mortality, so that he might make us partakers of his divinity” (City of God 21.16) and that “God became man so that man might become God” (Sermons on Time 9). Gerhard concludes, “This is the conformity to God and formation [formitas] in Christ which the pious ancients speak about so often and which consists, not in any essential conversion of our substance into the nature of God or of Christ, but in a mutation of qualities and a restoration of the divine image….So whenever [God] receives anyone as his son, he makes him a partaker of the spiritual life which is from God (Eph. 4:18) and communicates to him certain divine properties, together with a right to all the inheritance of God” (Comm. super poster. D. Petri epist. [Hamburg: Hertel, 1709], 35). It is significant that Gerhard describes participation not with the forensic language of imputation but with the filial language of adoption into the divine family. Through their union with Christ, believers become sons of God and share in his supreme life as well as his very properties. According to Gerhard, this participation will reach its consummation in eternity with the intuitive vision of God, so that (quoting Gregory of Nazianzus) “deification is the terminus of all action and contemplation.”

At the same time, Gerhard is careful to distinguish his understanding of theosis from the Thomistic concept of participation in God through charity—although he offers a more optimistic appraisal of charity’s role in theosis than Luther had done. Gerhard takes exception to the interpretation of 2 Peter 1:4 put forward by Robert Bellarmine, who interpreted the “promises” of this verse as divine gifts—above all the gift of charity. Bellarmine concluded that “we are made sharers in the divine nature through charity, inasmuch as it is through charity that we are made sons of God and those who are sons of God are sharers in the divine nature” (De iustificatione impii 2.5 in Op. omn. 6:220 [Paris, 1873]). To this Gerhard responds, “We agree that charity pertains to that ‘κοινωνία in the divine nature’ which the Apostle is talking about, for it pertains to the renewal and restoration of the divine image. We also agree that the adoption as sons pertains to that κοινωνία….But we deny that through charity we are made sons of God, since charity is not the cause of adoption but rather the sign and effect of it” (Comm., 41-42). Significantly, even while he disagrees with Bellarmine on the primacy of charity in adoption, Gerhard—much more than Luther—is perfectly willing to concede that charity is a constitutive element of the believer’s participation in the divine nature. Quoting Simon of Cassia, Gerhard asserts, “We are in Christ in the unity of faith, love, and grace, like a branch on a tree or a ray in the sun.”

Gerhard’s robust participatory theology is evident not only in his Biblical commentaries but also in his homilies and devotional writings. Particularly illuminating is one of his feast day prayers where he vividly describes the structure of participation and explicitly states the Augustinian inspiration behind it:

Do not merely bestow your benefits on me and apply them to me, but also bestow your very own self on my soul and engraft me into yourself, for I am a shoot from your stock. For this is what I have learned from Augustine, O you who are the food of the mature: you will not change yourself into me, but you are changing me into yourself. This alone I ask: increase faith within me, for this is the salutary means by which we are joined to you; made one with you; engrafted into you, so that you are our head. (Homiliae XXXVI: seu meditationes breves…, ed. Georg Berbig [Dieterich, 1898], 2)

Here, even more clearly than in his commentary, Gerhard emphasizes the dynamic character of the believer’s participation in Christ. Far from a mere forensic or legal connection to Christ, this is a vibrant and organic indwelling of the life of God, through which the image of God is renewed and the believer is indeed changed into Christ.

Gerhard’s rich understanding of participation in God is not an anomaly in seventeenth-century Lutheran Scholasticism, as becomes clear when we turn to Abraham Calov, unquestionably one of the greatest systematizers of Lutheran orthodoxy. In his own commentary on 2 Peter 1:4, Calov sketches a similar interpretation of κοινωνία/communicatio as a comprehensive participatory union between God and the soul: “Communicatio entails a union which perfectly connects the believing soul to God, as well as a certain participation in divine glories by the power of that gracious union. After all, we are filled with all the fullness of God through Christ’s indwelling in our hearts through faith (Eph. 3:19), in keeping with the nature of the mystical and spiritual union” (Biblia Novi Testamenti Illustrata…, 2nd ed. [Dresdæ & Lipsiæ: Zimmerman, 1719], vol. 2, part 2, 1537). Again, as with Gerhard, to participate in God means not only to share metaphysically in his attributes and glories but also to share in the very divine life itself through the indwelling of Christ.

Like Gerhard, Calov is careful to safeguard this union against any transformation of essence (μεταμόρφωσις), in keeping with the paradigm of the hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ. With this caveat aside, however, Calov can fully accredit the patristic language of deification. Christ’s incarnation in the flesh opens up the path for believers to become sharers in God’s nature and qualities:

This κοινωνία is not exhausted by any mutation of qualities or a kind of restoration of the divine image. For we possess the very divine nature itself in the way of a gracious indwelling [ἐνοίκησις] (John 14:23; Eph. 3:17) and are made partakers of the divine glories….This can be shown too from the mystery of the personal union, which is the foundation of our spiritual union and communion with Christ. For just as the Son of God became a partaker of human nature too through the personal union, and just as Christ’s human nature became a partaker of the divine nature so that the whole fullness of the divine nature dwells in the human (Col. 2:9), so believers are made partakers of the divine nature through spiritual union. “God became man,” Athanasius says in his fifth Oration against the Arians, “so that we might be deified [Deificaret] in him.” And Ambrose in On Faith book 4, ch. 5, says, “Christ presented himself as a sharer in our fragility in the flesh so that he might make us sharers by nature in his divine power.”

Here we have a rich Christological and incarnational structure of participatory union. In the Incarnation, the plenitude of the Godhead was infused into the human nature of Christ, the God-man, so that the divine nature dwells in the human and the human participates in the divine. Now, through spiritual union with the God-man who took on human flesh to become homoousios with mankind, believers in turn participate in the very nature of the Godhead so that divinity dwells in them.

But what precisely does this participation entail? Calov’s answer to this question furnishes perhaps the best indication of his robustly Augustinian conception of union with God as amicitia or friendship:

This is the chief and consummate effect and benefit of the coming of the Son of God and of the proclamation of the gospel:—κοινωνία with the Father, by which we are partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4) and become one with God (1 Cor. 6:17). For κοινωνία presupposes union: we live in God; or, by the life which is from God (Eph. 4:18; Gal. 2:20); and we become partners [socii] of God, which is a partnership [societas] so great and so affectionate—so anyone can understand it—that it is expressed by the term friendship, just as Saint James mentions. (Biblia Novi Testamenti Illustrata, 1587)

Once again, what is being articulated here is not a static or forensic notion of union but one which is active and dynamic. The believing soul lives in God, and this life is a partnership of the most intimate kind. Like Gerhard, Calov appeals to the patristic tradition as the provenance for this understanding of participation as friendship, quoting Irenaeus (“He became a partaker of our nature so that we might become sharers in the divine nature”) and Augustine (“The blessed and beatifying God, by becoming a partaker of our humanity, offered the gain of participating in his divinity”).

It should be clear that the Lutheran scholastics, far from abandoning Luther’s emphasis on union with Christ by faith, developed the theology of participation in new ways, drawing explicitly upon the patristic tradition which emphasized participation in the life of the Trinity. In dialogue with Augustine, Ambrose, and the other church fathers, theologians like Gerhard and Calov harnessed the relational imagery of engrafting, indwelling, sonship, and friendship with God—in tandem with the patristic language of deification—in order to construct a robust concept of mystical, sacramental, and spiritual participation in God through Christ. While Lutherans continued to disagree with Thomists like Bellarmine on the role of charity vis-à-vis adoption and participation in God, it is surely striking that the Lutheran scholastics often described the meaning of theosis in comparable terms and drew upon the same patristic sources. To the rapturous exclamations of Gerhard in his feast day prayers we might well compare the devotional writings of Bellarmine: “One cannot conceive of any union more intimate than the one which God shares with the rational soul, as the Apostle says: He who clings to God is one spirit with him….What sweetness, then, what delight will the soul experience when it will be so intimately conjoined with God, who is infinite sweetness, as to become one spirit with him? Here I am clearly at a loss for words to explain what I contemplate internally in my thoughts” (De arte bene moriendi, 2.4 [1620], 174). “O blessed union, which turns many men into the one body of Christ, which is governed by one head and eats of one bread and drinks of one cup and lives from one Spirit so that, by clinging to God, it becomes one spirit with him. What more can a servant desire than not only to become a partaker in all his master’s goods but also, through the bond of love, to become indissolubly joined with his all-powerful, supremely wise, supremely beautiful Lord himself?” (De ascensione mentis in Deum, 4.2 [1618], 61-62).

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