As I was entering the Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity program at the University of Virginia, I was told another entering student would be working on theosis or deification in Paul, and I thought, "That's weird." I hope I can be forgiven such a dismissive reaction, since my interest in Paul at the time was mostly to do with the so-called apocalyptic Paul. In Joseph Kitagawa's foreword to Peter Brown's Haskell Lectures (The Cult of the Saints), he observes, "A number of graduate students remarked to me that at the beginning of the five lectures, they had no interest in the cult of the saints at all; by their conclusion, they had more interest in that subject than in their own area of research!" (x). I have occasionally felt the same about the work of my colleague at UVa, David Litwa. I have already mentioned that his book, We Are Being Transformed: Deification in Paul's Soteriology (BZNW 187; Goettingen: de Gruyter), came out earlier this year. His intensity and tenacity in exploring the theme of deification in the ancient world and Paul is contagious. As it turns out, though, David has not been the only one thinking along such lines. Ben Blackwell's revised Durham dissertation, Christosis (WUNT II, vol. 314; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011) also takes up the theme. Indeed, there have been a few hints toward the question by Michael Gorman and Stephen Finlan, but these two volumes by Blackwell and Litwa represent the first two detailed discussions of theosis/deification as a Pauline soteriological model. One could not ask for more different approaches. Blackwell suggests that there are two open paths for investigating the theme of theosis in Paul: one can approach the subject either through history of religions or through history of interpretation. Surely there are other approaches as well, but this simple schema highlights precisely the difference between Litwa and Blackwell. In this post, and in one or two following, I will be reviewing Blackwell and Litwa, and I will offer some concluding thoughts. Those who know my online style know that I can come off as hyper-critical. To my mind, one of the highest compliments one can pay to an author is sharp criticism. I trust that those under review will so take the following remarks.
In his monograph, Blackwell sets out to illumine Paul's anthropological soteriology (i.e. the transformation of the human person) through models of theosis derived from Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria. Blackwell finds two open problems in the current literature on Pauline theosis (including an earlier article of Litwa's). First, Blackwell finds the requisite definition of deification lacking (is theosis a moral or ontological soteriological model?). Second, Blackwell criticizes earlier attempts for their failure to distinguish developments in soteriological models of theosis (as Norman Russell does, for instance), and defending the particular version they employ in analysis of Pauline texts. Blackwell himself admits that the category of theosis is anachronistic (3, 13), and he works backward from patristic models (Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria) to Paul in what he deems a "History of Interpretation" route of study.
As mentioned above, Blackwell distinguishes a history of religions approach from a history of interpretation (or reception or effects) approach. The history of religions approach begins with antecedent or contemporary models of deification or theosis and proceeds to Paul. Blackwell spots two problems with this approach. First, there had been a tendency in the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule to fabricate new phenomena from sparse and far-flung evidence (e.g. the so-called Gnostic redeemer myth). Second, one must decide which models Paul may have been familiar with, or as Blackwell puts it, one must decide on a "determinative background" for Paul's thought (i.e. Jewish mystical tradition, imperial apotheosis, or Greek mystery religions). In the face of these problems Blackwell prefers the reception-historical approach, since it provides a clear analytic model from which to work. Rather than building a category of deification from uncertain evidence antecedent to and contemporary with Paul, Blackwell prefers to sketch the category from "clearer" patristic evidence. Blackwell prefers early patristic evidence because of its proximity to Paul.
Surely, there are mistaken assumptions here. Is it really true that
the patristic evidence is any less ambiguous than the antecedent
Greco-Roman or Jewish evidence on deification? If clarity were a prime
criterion why would we not wish to begin with the clearest, most
developed model of theosis--i.e. in Byzantine theology or even modern
Orthodox theology (Lossky, for instance)? More importantly, is Blackwell's study really what one might construe a Wirkungsgeschichtliche study? If by "history-of-effects" we mean the history of the effects of a text on a later generation, or the reception of the text by later writers, this is not what Blackwell is up to. Blackwell chooses his patristic sources not because they have the most developed system of theosis (for which, as Blackwell concedes, Maximus may have been a better choice), nor for their systematic or consistent exposition of Paul (for which Chrysostom or Augustine may have been preferable), but for a combination. Irenaeus and Cyril both arguably provide a doctrine of deification and draw on Pauline texts. The rub here is that Blackwell is not claiming Irenaeus or Cyril develop their doctrines of theosis on the basis of their interpretations of Pauline texts, or at least not on that basis alone. But this is exactly the claim we might expect for a Wirkungsgeschichte that hopes to talk about deification in Paul. If Pauline soteriological texts did indeed give rise to models of theosis, then perhaps those texts are more pregnant with a theopoietic soteriology than interpreters had previously given them credit. Perhaps the reason Blackwell does not make that move is because there are obvious problems with trying to impute such a cause and effect relationship between Paul's writings and later models of theosis. Blackwell cites Norman Russell to the effect that Cyril's theology is "Pauline as well as Johannine," drawing as well on Irenaeus and Athanasius (29). The point Russell makes is that Cyril's theology is Pauline, but implied is the fact that it is also Johannine and Irenaean and Athanasian. Could not Cyril be fitting Paul into an Athanasian model? So how can we establish a substantive Pauline stake in matters of theosis apart from interpretation of Pauline texts in the context of theosis? And if those moments are not forthcoming, then we cannot demonstrate the influence of Paul or Pauline texts in the development of a doctrine of theosis. So instead, Blackwell correlates Pauline and patristic ideas of theosis/deification through a constellation of other ideas (e.g. adoption, immortality). It should be pointed out, however, that this demonstrates neither "history-of-effect" nor "reception," but rather mere resonance.
Let us illustrate the attendant slips in logic that result in Blackwell's discussion of Irenaeus. Blackwell rightly points out (one) fundamental distinction Irenaeus makes between God and humans, namely, that God creates and humans are created (39, citing Adversus Haeresus 4.11.2; 59). Even so, humans are created in the likeness and image of God, and thus participated in divine existence from the beginning, though that participation was lost in the Fall and must be regained through Christ (41). If that is Irenaeus' view of recapitulation, how does Irenaeus build his case for theosis? Through a reading of Psalm 82 (81 LXX), according to Blackwell. Although Paul did not write this psalm, Blackwell argues that Irenaeus nevertheless interpreted Psalm 82 in conjunction with Paul's theology of adoption and the theme of immortality, as represented in Galatians 4, Romans 8, and 1 Corinthians 15. But this is a problem of exegesis and argumentation. In 3.6.1 Irenaeus can use Psalm 82 to mean that those whom God calls gods are the Church, but in 3.19.1 when he quotes the rest of the verse ("but you [will] die like mortals") he claims this refers to those who reject the incarnation and therefore reject the gift of adoption. In other words, and this is occluded by Blackwell's interpretation, Irenaeus is using the same verse for different rhetorical applications, all in order simply to explain away the offending textual irritant: "gods." All Irenaeus is trying to do is show that this verse cannot possible entail the existence of other gods. Whether these passages should then be taken to adumbrate a model of theosis is doubtful. Blackwell further argues, however, that the new themes of incorruption and immortality which the incarnation effects for believers indicate theosis. In an excursus (46-50) Blackwell concludes that immortality and power were the constitutive features of divinity in the ancient Mediterranean, and Irenaeus shares this perspective, so that when Irenaeus claims believers participate through adoption in the incorruptibility and immortality of the Word and Son of God they in effect are deified. First, this is a history-of-religions move, which could just as easily be applied to Paul himself. Second, this assertion seems to make im/mortality the criterion of divinity rather than the Creator/creation distinction. In Blackwell's reading, then, Irenaeus sounds perhaps very Pauline, but whether that Pauline resonance coincides with a clear model of theosis remains doubtful.
What of Cyril, then? In an odd move, Blackwell does not consider the evidence of Cyril's fragmentarily extant commentaries on Romans, 1 Corinthians, or 2 Corinthians, even though discussions of Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, and 2 Corinthians 3-5 comprise major portions of Blackwell's discussion of Paul. The reason Blackwell gives for not using this evidence is that these commentaries have not been translated into any modern language and translating them would have taken too much time (72, n. 2). While Blackwell intends to address these in the future, I cannot help but think they would have been better treated in this study. A better reason for not doing so would have been that their evidence for his argument was better expressed in the commentary on John (on which Blackwell leans heavily). This is an unfortunate balk for a scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity. Blackwell does manage to trace a discussion that resembles theosis in Cyril, however, through the Commentary on John and the Homilies on Luke. The theme of adoption again comes into relief as Blackwell works through Cyril's texts, and Cyril's relative use of Pauline texts (e.g. 2 Cor 5.7) and themes is decently illustrated. Even so, it should be pointed out that as with Irenaeus, Cyril's concern is not to exposit Pauline texts in these works; rather, Pauline themes turn up as Cyril applies his interpretive skill to other texts (e.g. the Gospel of John).
From this patristic analysis Blackwell concludes: "[W]e have seen the clear importance of Pauline texts for the development and use of deification language in both Cyril and Irenaeus. In particular, Irenaeus depends almost solely on Pauline texts when he unpacks Ps 82.6 and gives believers the appellation of gods. Cyril also leans heavily upon Pauline texts but he also makes use of 2 Pet 1.4. However, the fact that the use of 2 Pet 1.4 is relatively late in the development of notions of deification gives us further reason to consider the importance of Pauline texts and themes" (110). In brief, I do not think this has been sufficiently demonstrated. Even in this conclusion there are two qualifications. First, Irenaeus is not "unpacking" Paul; he's wrestling with Psalm 82 and finds Paul a convenient way to qualify the vocabulary of "gods" for believers. As I've noted, Blackwell highlights the themes of adoption and immortality (also vision and union) which come from Paul. But I would suggest that for Irenaeus adoption may be a present reality, but immortality a future achievement and a present promise. In that case, has Irenaeus weakened the theopoietic reading of Psalm 82? Second, Blackwell points out that for Cyril, Second Peter seems nearly as important for talking about theosis as the Pauline adoption texts. Just because the use of this text is late does not mean the full force of this fact in his chosen representative of a later understanding of theosis should be ignored. Cyril clearly thought it was important, and if Cyril is important for Blackwell's argument at all, then this fact should be significant also for Blackwell. The importance here is that the 2 Peter 1.4 consistently qualifies the language and themes of theosis as Cyril employs them in his expositions of John and Luke with reference to Paul. This text is being used to contextualize (and therefore limit) what the Johannine or Lucan texts mean when placed in conversation with Pauline themes. In other words, Blackwell has not conclusively shown that the interpretation of Pauline texts in and of itself contributed greatly to the development of soteriological models of theosis.
But as I said, this is not really a Wirkungsgeschichte. Blackwell's book is actually more of a comparative project, comparing the way that a theory of theosis is constructed in Irenaeus and Cyril and mapping the central questions raised by that analysis onto Pauline texts. Blackwell summarizes his patristic analysis in four points: 1. Themes of life and incorruption are strong elements of Irenaean and Cyrillian accounts of theosis; 2. Irenaeus and Cyril employ relational models (especially adoption) in their soteriologies, and they also strongly emphasize the role of Christ's and/or the Spirit's presence in the transformation of the one saved; 3. Both Irenaeus and Cyril employ "exchange formulae," and so the "height from which the Word descended" indicates "the height to which believers ascend" (111); and 4. Both Cyril and Irenaeus align protology and eschatology, emphasizing the continuity between the state of redemption and the original creation. Blackwell turns these four themes into questions for Paul: 1. "What is the anthropological shape of Paul's soteriology?" (i.e. how does the human change?); 2. "When do these soteriological changes occur?" (i.e. already/not yet); 3. "How does the soteriological change of the human come about? (i.e. what is the role of Christ and/or the Spirit?); and 4. "How does Paul relate this soteriological change to creation themes?" (112-113; cf. 239). These four points are really the entire value of the first (patristic) half of the study, and Chapter 4 is probably the most important for grasping what Blackwell is up to. But this reflects, I think, a confusion of methodology. Blackwell presents this study as a Wirkungsgeschichte, though without enough connection between Pauline and patristic texts to make the "effects" or "reception" clear. On the other hand, Blackwell accomplishes a comparative project which abstracts four essential points from the patristic evidence and then maps that analytical matrix onto Pauline texts. But in order to make the comparative project work, it would have been preferable to have a larger set of data. What if, for instance, the first half of the book outlined patristic theosis according to these four themes (i.e. a chapter on each), but drew on a broader set of authors? I feel that would have been more convincing. Then Blackwell could have shown a sort of analogical relationship between Paul's thought and the patristic authors. The current version seems to me to confuse the order of discovery with the order of presentation, and therefore Blackwell's study seems caught between history-of-reception and (phenomenologically?) comparative modes.
As one might suspect, the four themes Blackwell has picked out map quite well onto Pauline texts (Romans 8, Colossians 2, Galatians 8-9, 1 Corinthians 15, and 2 Corinthians 3-5), and Blackwell's discussion of these texts are quite good (though I might voice an objection or two here and there). Chapter 7 provides a fine summary of Blackwell's findings. The question, though, is whether all of this should rightly be called theosis/deification. Blackwell sketches a taxonomy for the concept of deification, basically following the work of Norman Russell. The basic distinction is between memorial/cultic and ontological deification. We are only concerned with the latter. Ontological deification can be understood (in Blackwell's terms) as essential or attributive/metaphorical, and indeed Blackwell places Irenaeus and Cyril on the metaphorical side of this configuration. Two subtypes of attributive deification are participation (realist) and likeness (ethical). But this is already far from what many of us might have assumed deification/theosis was all about. What does it mean to call a metaphorical attribution ontological? Does deification by participation really count as metaphorical, or should this not be regarded as similar to the tranformational-essential taxon? We need not belabor the point here, since we would need to engage Russell as well, and I am afraid I've taxed my readers' patience enough as it is. More important is the fact that Blackwell finds two major themes (or "pillars") to be constitutive of deification in Cyril and Irenaeus: likeness to (homoiosis) and/through participation in (methexis) God. "With these two pillars in mind," Blackwell concludes, "we can therefore describe deification as the process of restoring the image and likeness of God, primarily experienced as incorruption and sanctification, through a participatory relationship with God mediated by Christ and the Spirit" (253). And here we hit upon the central claim of the book. If the Creator/creation distinction is maintained, even in the state of redemption or even in the eschaton, can we really talk about a realistic or actual process of theosis? If all that humans can attain to is the image of or likeness to God,
does that not leave humans merely in the realm of divinity, but not yet
in the realm of deity? We may indeed be discussing a process of theiosis, but the Council of Nicaea and its aftermath demonstrated just how important those pesky little iotas are! Is it really true that for Paul the distinction between Creator and created is that crucial? Is it really the case that the difference between God and humans is one of function? What about humans as (sub-)creators? These are problems for theologians and historians of religion to sort out, of course. But they are questions that are crucial to the way we read Paul in the light of Blackwell's study.