Thursday, February 14, 2013

Pauline Soteriology: Theosis or Deification (Part II: M. David Litwa)

We Are Being Transformed: Deification in Paul's Soteriology (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift fur die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der Alteren Kirche, No. 187)
"Today, biblical scholarship on deification is more or less dominated by theological discourse and presuppositions.  In this climate, it is tempting to simply focus on Christian forms of deification when treating Paul.  I am convinced, however, that scholars will never understand Paul and deification until they open themselves up to honest historical inquiry about other, larger discourses of deification in the Greco-Roman world.  ...If we are going to achieve a truly historical understanding of deification in the Greco-Roman world (including Christian deification), it seems to me that scholars need to be more sympathetic to ancient forms of thought.  In modern theology, the very way we think about humans and God(s) tends to preclude deification.  ...In this study I try--as best I can--to peer behind centuries of Christian theological discourse about deification.  But the road is hard.  Some of the texts are scattered and unfamiliar.  My argument requires deep and sympathetic listening to Greco-Roman sources and the careful reconstruction of ancient modes of thought.  ...The best reader of this study is the one who will bracket later theological distinctions (e.g., the essence/energies distinction, synergy vs. sola gratia, 'natural' vs. adoptive sonship) in an effort to look at the evidence afresh and with an open mind.  Every author desires such readers, but the controversial nature of this study requires that I must ask for them" (vii-viii).

Already in the preface to his book M. David Litwa announces the difference between his approach to deification in Paul's soteriology and what he takes as the more common approach to deification in biblical scholarship.  Litwa takes a comparative, history of religions approach to the question and deliberately brackets questions raised by later theological discourse in order to understand Paul's language of deification in his historical context.  Methodologically, then, Litwa is a child of the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment every bit as much as was F. C. Baur or Adolf von Harnack, and his study represents the continuing value of historical-critical study of early Christianity.  As with the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule Litwa undertakes to explore deification as a soteriological category for Paul not as he was later understood and employed in the Christian doctrine of theosis, but as he might have been understood in the context of the ancient Jewish and Hellenistic world of which he was a part.

In brief, Litwa finds in Paul's letters gestures toward a "Platonic" soteriological scheme popular in his time.  In the Platonism of the late Hellenistic and early Roman Mediterranean world, world-transcending salvation based on a fundamental overlap between human and divine natures (3-5).  Paul, like the Hellenistic Judaism from which he arose, "adopted and adapted" this generally Platonic scheme of salvation.  As Litwa says, "The assumption here is the not-so-radical idea that Paul was influenced by his culture" (30).  For Paul, being saved means becoming a God.  Such a statement is familiar to Eastern traditions of theosis, of course, though the meaning of "becoming a God" is subject to some interpretation.  As a historical exposition Litwa takes to task Norman Russell's influential work (The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition).  The ancient Greeks and Romans (and Jews and Christians, too!), Litwa argues, meant what they said when they talked about humans becoming gods.  But as he points out, Russell's exposition of patristic deification falls under the subheading, "The Metaphor of Deification."  I will risk a lengthier quotation here:

To be sure, Russell then makes "realistic" deification (by which he means likeness to God and participation) a subcategory of metaphorical deification. ...In none of the three ways of deificaiton that he outlines (nominal, analogical, and metaphorical) does Russell think that the deified Christian is actually made a God.  One would think that deification by participatory union would involve ontological change.  ...What [Russell's argument] amounts to is the idea that--even in the most "realistic" mode of deification--deified humans always remain ontologically other than God (or deity); that is, they always remain human.  But how, I might ask, is this "realistic" deification? (9)
It's a fair question, I think.

So what does deification mean?  "The basis of deification--as I understand it," Litwa proposes, "is sharing in a or the divine identity--that is, sharing in those distinctive qualities which make (a) God (a) God" (32).  The perceptive reader will note the word "identity" in this rudimentary definition and will no doubt suspect a little influence from Richard Bauckham's work, although transferred from Christology to soteriology.  But Litwa also uses the term to sharpen the concept of deification beyond vague "likeness" to God.  "Likeness" maintains the distinction (or, the difference) between God and the deified.  The phenomenologist in me naturally wishes at this point to hear something about identity and difference, alterity and singularity, the other, the Other, and indifference to difference.  But this is not a work of philosophy or theology.  It is a work of historical research, in which Heidegger, Levinas, Lacan, Derrida, Badiou, etc. are not usually invited to participate.

The historical character of the work is evident also in its procedure.  In Part I, Litwa examines traditions of deification in the Hellenistic (and) Judaic world, beginning with the obvious (and obviously overlooked) question of "What is a God?"  One of Litwa's most strident challenges to scholars who have studied deification in Paul is that they import an understanding of God that is a later development in Christian and Jewish theology.  At the very least the idea of strict monotheism (a full-stop break between the Creator and creation) is a misinterpretation of theistic thought in Paul's time.  "Generally speaking," writes Litwa, "the peoples of the first-century Mediterranean world did not envision their Gods as totally beyond time and space, beyond the world, and beyond being itself.  Gods were real beings who lived within time and in the upper stories of the cosmos" (38).  What follows is a barrage of closely read and cited texts from Homer and Hesiod, Aristotle and Plato, Plutarch, Sextus Empiricus, Herodotus, Stobaeus, Callimachus, and Clement of Alexandria (among others), outlining the basic rudiments of a theos in the Greco-Roman world:  immortality and power, especially ruling power (41-50).

The bolder claim Litwa makes, though, is that Jews did not have a fundamentally different conception of divinity than their pagan counterparts.  He challenges Bauckham's claim that the characteristics of God, which Jesus shared, were somehow unique.  Litwa does not mean, however, that the Jewish God is not distinctive.  He recognizes that the Jewish God is not presented in abstract characteristics, but rather in stories.  Even so, these stories (from Genesis, Ezekiel, Habbakuk, Deuteronomy, Joshua, 2 Kings, Exodus, the Psalms, Judith and Philo) point yet again to two fundamental characteristics:  "For Jews...divinity was something seen and shown through immortality and unmatched power" (55).  These are constitutive, but not exhaustive, characteristics of the God of the Jews.

So how do humans become gods?  Mortals could be deified through assimilation to a specific god, a theme Litwa develops in Chapter 2.  That Litwa is able successfully to argue humans could become gods in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds (particularly in mythology and ruler cult) should surprise no one.  Litwa does a fine job of steering the discussion away from the mystery religions and toward ruler cult, however, further bolstering his claim that (ruling) power was a central element in ancient understandings of deification.  And if that were all Litwa had to offer we might rightly object that even though Paul was a thoroughly Hellenized Jew, surely his Jewish religion prevented him from evoking the idea (if not the language) of deification.  But that is not all Litwa has to offer and his next chapter provides one of the most important arguments of the book.

"The Jewish Roots of Deification" is the theme of Chapter 3.  Litwa begins by contesting the old saw that the divide between human and divine was stronger in the Jewish world than in the Greco-Roman world.  While admitting that the Hebrew Bible does seem to draw a distinct line, he proceeds to adduce texts from Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Herodotus, Plutarch, and Cicero (again, among others) that show a marked tendency also among the Greeks and Romans to deprecate the idea of deification, or at least self-deification.  For these authors, "[t]he very idea of a community deifying a ruler or--what's far worse--a self-deified living ruler was the height of impiety and impossibility" (92).  Litwa quickly turns the argument around and proceeds to show that not all Jews by any means eschewed the category of deification, anyway.  Philo, Ezekiel the Tragedian, the Prayer of Joseph, Daniel, Artapanus, and Ps-Phocylides all make an appearance in the case for the defense.  Litwa does not argue for any kind of simple acceptance of deification in Judaism, however, but rather an adaptation of concepts of deification to Judaic theologies.  Perhaps one of the weaknesses of the book is the relatively narrow scope of Jewish sources in chapter three as compared with chapter two.  The chapter focuses largely on Philo of Alexandria.  Although other Jewish authors and Scriptures are discussed, Philo takes the mainstage.  One might wish for extended discussion of the Qumran documents and other pseudepigraphical documents (especially the apocalyptic and testamentary literature) which may contain similar notions of deification.  Some of these documents do show up in Litwa’s discussion of Paul’s soteriology, but a clear presentation alongside Philo would have been welcome.

With the groundwork laid, Litwa devotes four chapters to illuminating problems in the interpretation of Paul’s letters with themes from these traditions of deification.  In chapter 4, Litwa addresses the question of the “pneumatic body” in 1 Corinthians 15.  Put briefly, here Litwa argues that through the pneumatic body one is assimilated to Christ’s body.  In chapter five, Litwa extends this argument to point out that the assimilation entails celestial immortality—one mark of deity.  The other main feature of a god in the Greco-Roman world—ruling power—is the subject of chapter six, in which Litwa argues that Paul’s concept of the future rule of the saints implies deification.  Finally, in chapter seven, Litwa discusses the Hellenistic philosophical notion of moral assimilation to a god, and the interpretive value of the theme for Paul’s soteriology.

With the final chapters, Litwa defends his reading against two potential theological objections.  Although it is in the main a work of historical scholarship, Litwa’s book certainly has a theological edge.  One could perhaps charge Litwa of a guise of neutrality and objectivity (as one goodreads reviewer has), but it is the guise common to its species not merely to this member. History (or historiography, if one prefers) has long worked under the supposition of its practitioners’ objectivity. The instability of the guise has long been noted, and we could debate the problem ad nauseum. Nevertheless, Litwa thinks his historical reading might have a contribution to make to theology insofar as (as Rowan Williams has said) “good theology does not come from bad history” (Why Study the Past? , p. 2). 

In chapter eight, Litwa explores the question of monotheism in the ancient world.  Or rather, he argues for the surprising (for some), coincidence of divine unity and divine multiplicity, especially in ancient Judaism.  Here Litwa makes explicit his interpretation of ancient divinity as a pyramidal continuum, or as he calls it, summodeism.  In essence, Litwa construes deity as a continuum encompassing lesser and greater divinities, and usually with one primal power at the summit (in the case of Judaism, YHWH).  Beneath this high God are mediate deities with whom the high god shares divinity.  Monotheism in this context refers to a numerically singular deity with one ultimate source, though not a single, solitary god.  The entire chapter is devoted to demonstrating that this paradigm is operative throughout Judaism in this period.

Is there not a Creator-creature divide, then?  Chapter nine is devoted to the question of the absolute transcendence of God (esp. YHWH), and the in/ability of humans to share in the divinity of this supreme God.  Here Litwa discusses the important notions of mediate divinity, participation, and shareable or unshareable divinity.

The virtue of Litwa’s study should be fairly obvious for those acquainted with the history of earliest Christianity and the Hellenistic world.  Early Christianity did not arise in a vacuum, nor in any straight line out of some kind of non-hellenistic Judaism.  More importantly, the concept of deification predates patristic theology.  It is prevalent in ruler cults of the Hellenistic world, and attaches itself to the Roman emperor.  Regardless of the complexities involved in understanding Greco-Roman traditions of deification, the fact remains that the concept of deification was alive and well in the context in which Paul wrote and thought.  Litwa’s erudite study asks (and answers fairly pointedly) the question of the extent to which Paul’s thoughts on salvation might be indebted to or at least resonant with these traditions.  

Unlike Blackwell's study, Litwa's book will be a bit more difficult for theologians to digest, challenging as it does a standard Western theo-philosophical notion of monotheism.  To take Litwa's historical work further for any constructive or dogmatic theological work, one would need to connect deification and the doctrine of the Trinity, and, I think, Orthodox theological anthropology (Bulgakov, perhaps).  That work probably deserves its own volume.  Litwa's work provides a solid historical foundation for such theological endeavors...for those who need such foundations.  

The glaring question some critics will have of course, is whether Litwa's arguments that monotheism was not really monotheism (so to speak) are sound.  Did religious thinkers in Paul's day, and especially Paul himself, really hold a summodeistic pyramid?  Are there no instances of (to put it crassly) numerical monotheism in Paul's context (one might think, for instance, of the letter to the Hebrews)?  Is it possible that some of the claims that there is one God were taken literarlly, and that there were some who would have died in a ditch--or in a mountaintop fortress--for such a claim?  Just because the literal affirmation may have implied something else--oneness need not mean singularity--does not mean the more literal claim (the denotation) is completely excluded by the further significance of the claim (the connotation).  I suspect there are sources--particularly in the OT Pseudepigrapha, and perhaps also in the Maccabean literature--that would lend more weight to a strong Creator/creation distinction.  Elements within early Christianity and early Rabbinic Judaism both seem to hold such a boundary.  Blackwell does a nice job of showing Irenaeus's concern for a strong boundary between the human and the divine.  Granted, this is later than Paul, but I think for the historical argument to fully succeed, this topic needs a more full and even-handed discussion.  


Blackwell and Litwa both offer fine studies on deification in Paul.  These two studies are indeed compatible, though not toward the same thesis.  What I think both studies do show, at the very least, is that the soteriological model of deification is not fundamentally a post-biblical theological development; even if it is post-biblical, it is firmly rooted in at least one voice within the canon. 


Peter said...

Hi Andy,
I just stumbled across your website while doing a search for "Litwa." I think “Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God” sounds quite thought provoking.

Would it be fair to say this book questions one of the core beliefs of Christianity-that Jesus was in fact God? (I'm just wondering if Litwa is a Biblical Scholar in the way that Ehrman is--studying the Bible as a non-Christian.)


Andy said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for your query. Sorry I'm just getting around to this.

I'm not sure I would put it quite the way you have. Iesus Deus does not set out to question that tenet of the Christian faith. It may have that effect on certain readers, I suppose, but the intention of the book, as I read it, is to document episodes, snapshots, possibly stages in the apprehension of Jesus as divine in early Christianity. Litwa uses the term "deification." I have questioned whether that term is quite right. He does not weigh in on whether or not Jesus did actually become a god, or was God, or the like. Those metaphysical questions are bracketed. Instead, Litwa explores the various discourses around Jesus's perceived divinity, in the context of other ancient Mediterranean discourses regarding humans who were perceived as (becoming) divine.

Litwa is a historian--perhaps an intellectual historian(?)--of early Christianity. In that, he and Ehrman are similar. In terms of axes to grind, they strike me as having some affinity, but ultimately fairly distinct. Litwa does not write "for the Church," as it were, but I wouldn't say he writes as a non-Christian, exactly, either. He does write with a broad (if educated) audience in mind. I think it's work that could be put to good use by theologians and other biblical scholars of a more ecclesial or faith-directed perspective, but it is equally valuable to the historical understanding of antique religion.

Does that answer your question?