The word of the day is “partakers.” In various places in the New Testament, we hear that we are to become “like God.” Our reading of 2 Peter 1:1-10 ties all these terms together in the concept of “deification.” At the core of today’s passage, the apostle writes, “… that you may be partakers of the divine nature…” (vs. 4). Our discussion will explore the background of this thought.
A startling statement of the Athanasius summarizes the topic of today’s study. In 318 A.D., the theologian wrote a seminal book entitled On the Incarnation. To explain why the Son of God came down from heaven to “become man,” the church father wrote, “God became man so that man might become God.”
Sample Scriptures on Divinization
When we hear it put in such a concise way, the thought may seem astonishing to us. However, many places in scripture refer to the goal of sharing in the divinity of God. But they do it in different ways. For instance, the Lord said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” (Matthew 5:44-45). In the same vein, the writer of 1 John says, “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!… now we are children of God, and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:1-2). Moreover, Paul writes in Romans, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery that returns you to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship, by whom we cry ‘Abba! Father!’’ (Romans 9:4).
Another set of verses speaks of being “like God.” For instance, Paul writes, “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts… and to clothe yourself with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24). The apostle also writes, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image [likeness] from glory to glory, by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18).
A final grouping speaks of oneness with God. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20-21). Moreover, in 1 John, the apostle writes, “And we have come to know and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, whoever abides in love abides in God and God in him (1 John 4:16).
Scriptural Themes That Refer to Divinization
These references are just a sample of the many ways that in Christ we have the closest relationship to God imaginable. Passages like Matthew 5, 1 John 3, and Romans 9 above teach that those who receive Christ and believe in Him have the “power to be called the children of God” (OAB John 1:12). The assurance that we are children and sons [and daughters] of God is more than a metaphor. Children share in the genes of their parents. So we share in the divine character of God.
Second, passages like Ephesians 4 and 2 Corinthians above teach that the Lord calls us to share in the “likeness of God,” that is, to become “like God.” To explain, the book of Genesis describes the basic nature of human beings. God has created us in His “image and likeness.” However, as Genesis tells it, sin corrupted that image of God in humankind. But the Gospel proclaims that by assuming human nature, the Lord restored it to its state before the fall into sin. Now, as St. Paul says, those who believe are called to be “conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29). Because Christ has restored our human nature, it is possible to fulfill our human nature and to become “like God” by grace.
Third, passages like John 17 and 1 John 4 above proclaim that in Christ, we are made one with the Holy Trinity. In Christ, God is “in us,” and we are “in God.” Again, this oneness is not a metaphor but an actual sharing of the divine reality of the Holy Trinity.
This scripture survey shows that “partaking of the divine nature” may be an astounding idea. But the idea of “divinization” or “theosis” is sown throughout the pages of the New Testament from the Gospels to Paul, 1 John, and 2 Peter.
The Role of Divinization
Divinization shows the relationship between these and other otherwise isolated teachings of “theosis” in the Word of God. It gives a positive view of salvation, clarifying what we are saved “for” in addition to what we are saved “from.” The conception also gives an understanding of the reasons for the incarnation of the Son of God. Furthermore, it lays out our human vocation. In this regard, the Oxford Annotated Bible offers a clearer expression of this calling when it translates the phrase as “become partakers” (OAB vs. 4) rather than “may be partakers” in the Orthodox Study Bible (OST vs. 4).
Qualifications to the Concept of Divinization
Our study leads to two qualifications. First, our calling to become “like God” does not reintroduce the idea that we can achieve our salvation by our own piety and works. On the contrary, Peter teaches that divinization happens by God’s work in us. The apostle writes, “His divine power has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue [God’s excellence]” (vs. 3) (See OSB fn. on 1:3). This verse assures us that the power and promises of God give us all that we need to grow in our likeness to God.
Second, to speak more precisely, our “theosis” in no way puts us on the same level with God. Divinization does not mean that we share in the very essence of God, which is far above human reach. But it means that we share in God’s “energies,” that is, we participate in what the Almighty reveals of Himself through His works (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 123-24). In the above passages, we can find three of the most important attributes that God has manifested to us. These are holiness and righteousness (Ephesians 4:24) as well as love (1 John 4:16).
Readers may have different exposures to the concept of “divinization.” Our study today intends to introduce the idea to those who are less familiar with it. At the same time, it is meant to review the scriptural background of the thought for those who are more acquainted with it. In any case, as we approach Lent, a study of this concept would give us more understanding of the aim of our Lenten disciplines.
The article on “Deification” in the Orthodox Study Bible (inserted between 2 Peter 1:1 and 1:3) is a good place to start. Mark Shuttleworth’s “Theosis: Partaking of the Divine Nature” on the Antiochian Orthodox Christian website < http://ww1.antiochian.org/content/theosis-partaking-divine-nature> is a helpful and accessible article. For more in-depth study, see Christopher Veniamin’s recently published The Orthodox Understanding of Salvation: “Theosis” in Scripture and Tradition, Mount Tabor Publishing.
2 Peter 1:1-10, Partakers of the Divine Nature, Deification, Theosis, Essence and Energies, Image and Likeness of God. Children of God, Sonship, Like God, Oneness with God, Image of God Restored, To Become Like God, Becoming Like God in Holiness, Righteousness, and Love
Works Cited: G.E.H. Palmer, et. al. Trans. 1981. The Philokalia: the Complete Text Vol. 3. New York: Farber and Farber