Michael Gorman’s comments over at Cross Talk concerning Protestants’ Fear of Theosis have sparked a lively discussion with Carl Mosser. It is good to see biblical scholars engaging with the subject of theosis, although, as Mosser observes, the discussion could benefit from greater precision at certain points. Since I have not (yet) read Gorman’s recent book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul's Narrative Soteriology, I shall claim ignorance of its contents and restrict my remarks to what I see as the wider theological and ecumenical issues involved in the ongoing Protestant (re)discovery of theosis.

Firstly, regarding the objection that theosis blurs the distinction between humanity and God, Gorman responds that the Eastern tradition has always denied this claim. Here I think the the issue has less to do with whether the Eastern tradition has historically denied such claims than with how the Eastern tradition has affirmed the distinction between human beings and God. Mosser’s first response seems to cut to the heart of that issue:

Most western writers who embrace theosis are really embracing the earlier, less mystical notion of theopoesis and mislabeling it. They are not usually endorsing the energies/essence distinction, apophaticism, mysticism, or the conviction that theosis can be achieved in this life through ascetic practices–all of which are hallmarks of the fully developed notion of theosis. Rather, they are endorsing only the earlier patristic themes related to participation in the immortality, incorruptibility, and glory of God, the adoption to divine sonship, union with Christ, renewal of the cosmos, etc.

Mosser rightly calls attention to the essence/energies distinction because modern Orthodox theologians tend to deploy that distinction strategically in order to preserve the gap between God and created beings. When humans experience union with God in theosis, they experience God’s energies, as it were, but union in essence with God is reserved for Christ. This distinction is rooted in a fourteenth-century debate between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam the Calabrian, and its effects have been felt more keenly in Eastern Orthodoxy (much like the effects of the debate between Augustine and Pelagius over the character of Original Sin have been felt more keenly in the Western traditions).

My quibble with Mosser concerns his somewhat cavalier use of the term “mysticism” and its cognates, which seems to involve a distinction of degree (less mystical vs. more mystical) attached to a temporal framework (earlier = less mystical; later = more mystical). It should go without saying that these are not necessary relationships. Particular vocabulary is not necessarily less mystical simply because it is earlier, but Mosser appears to define mysticism so narrowly that it can be applied without qualification only to the developed Byzantine tradition; anything short of that is presumably less mystical.1

The second gap that interests me is the one between this life and the next, which I take to be the primary concern underlying Mosser’s implicit critique of “the conviction that theosis can be achieved in this life through ascetic practices.” My experience has been that Orthodox Christians tend to approach this particular gap with somewhat less respect than the gap between human beings and God. A beloved priest of mine even said that death is merely a bump on the road of life. He has since passed over that bump.

Confusion or misunderstanding is possible, however, because Orthodox theologians often treat theosis as an end or a goal in itself. This tendency ought to be, and often is, counterbalanced by the assertion that one never actually reaches the end of the road that leads up to God. Gregory of Nyssa used the term epektasis to describe this phenomenon of the soul’s ever-increasing growth in conformity to God, and it seems to me that this is where questions of degree are relevant to any discussion of theosis. The distance between this life and the next is minute in comparison to the distance between created human beings and the uncreated God.

  1. A distinction (or non-distinction) between mysticism and mystical theology may be relevant here. Orthodox apologists sometimes claim that the entirety of Orthodox theology is “mystical” in the sense that it emerges organically from the common experience of the Church through the ages. From this perspective one could say that union with Christ is no more or less mystical when experienced by Paul than Palamas, while simultaneously indicating that Palamas’ own circumstances forced him to formulate the same experience in more precise terms.