Karl Barth’s Reformed Doctrine of Theosis in Contradistinction to the Eastern Orthodox

In light of Hank Hanegraaff’s Chrismation into Eastern Orthodoxy, I thought I would do a post on theosis; it just so happens that in my readings, apart from all of this, I just read through a study on Barth’s theology where Adam Neder dedicates a section to Karl Barth and theosis. So for the remainder of this post we will see what Neder thinks about Barth’s theology in this regard; Neder offers five points where Barth is at odds with theosis, and then four constructive points where Neder sees Barth in some convergence with this typically Eastern framed doctrine.[1] We will look at Neder’s framing of Barth’s ‘negative’ posture towards theosis in this post, and then in another post we will look at Neder’s four points on how Barth is positively predisposed towards theosis within his theology.

We will get right into it through Neder’s accounting of this doctrine in the theology of Barth. Here are the ‘cons’ relative to Barth’s relationship to the doctrine of theosis as understood by Neder in Barth:

This way of stating Barth’s relationship to the history of the church’s reflection on deification will puzzle many readers. If ever there was an enemy of deification, was it not Barth? How can Barth be a contributor to the church’s clarification of the meaning of human participation in the triune being of God when he rejects deification literally hundreds of times throughout the Church Dogmatics? Consider just a few of the ways that Barth and Orthodoxy differ significantly on the matter of participation in the being of God.

[1] If human beings participate in God’s being, God’s being must, in some way, be particible. Barth does not affirm the distinction, widely (although not universally) held within Orthodoxy, between divine essence and energies, and he defends the filioque. Therefore their respective doctrines of God yield differing understandings of the meaning of human participation in God’s being.

[2] Participation in God’s life is a reality for human beings because it is a reality in Jesus Christ. Barth and Orthodoxy agree on this point. Yet their Christologies differ significantly—especially regarding the communicatio idiomatum—and therefore so too do their descriptions of the meaning of participation in God’s life. Unlike the Orthodox, Barth does not think that Jesus’ human nature is deified (in the sense of receiving and possessing divine “qualities” or “attributes”), and therefore he denies that human participation in the being of God involves such a transfer.

[3] The Orthodox synergistic construal of the relationship between divine and human action  is at odds with Barth’s understanding of that relationship. Both agree that human participation in God occurs in human freedom, but their conceptions of the meaning of participation will differ along with their differing views of human freedom, the imago Dei, and sin.

[4] Whereas the doctrine of election is centrally significant for Barth’s understanding of human participation in God’s life and touches every aspect of it, that doctrine plays virtually no role in Orthodox descriptions of theosis. Neither does Orthodoxy emphasize the covenant in the way that Barth does.

[5] The sacraments (mysteries) often figure centrally in Orthodox discussions of theosis, but, as we have seen, that is not the case with Barth’s understanding of human participation in God. In addition to his repudiation of sacramental mediation in general, Barth’s actualistic ontology is incompatible with the common affirmation of that grace is infused into the soul of the believer through the sacraments.[2]

This is interesting, really, cause if you know anything about Barth’s theology he has a huge emphasis upon a participationist understanding of salvation and what it means to be human in Christ; which is why Neder is able to offer a list of positives in Barth’s theology towards theosis (which we will get to in another post). But this list should highlight for you how Barth and theosis might not get along so well, and this because of the way that Barth re-frames much of the tradition through adopting another “metaphysic” and ontology (i.e. actualism). We see how Barth follows the Reformed way when it comes to Christology, and thus theoanthropology, which is what Neder’s point is about the communicatio idiomatum. We see how Barth’s doctrine of God is a bit different from the Orthodox in regard to the ‘particible’, and the idea that God can be ‘pieced’ out as it were which for the Orthodox is accommodated for by (at least for some of them) the distinction between divine essence and energies. We see how ‘human freedom’ is different, particularly because Barth holds strongly to a Reformed conception of God’s sovereignty grounded in a thick doctrine of divine freedom. Meaning that salvation is already accomplished, for Barth, de jure (objectively) in Christ—from both the Godward side and humanward side in Christ. In other words there is no cooperation between God and humanity in salvation (as there is in the Orthodox conception of theosis and its concept of grace), but instead there is a de facto (subjective) correspondence between the faith of Christ accomplished in his vicarious humanity for us, and then our ‘transfer’ into that by the Holy Spirit’s capacity to provide a correspondence between Jesus’s ‘yes’ to the Father for us, and now our ‘yes’ in correspondence to his to be for the Father in Christ by the Holy Spirit—this is a strong distinction between Barth and the Orthodox, even though they both respectively hold to a view of salvation that is participationist (participatio Christi). And then we see how the Reformed emphasis upon ‘election’ differentiates Barth from the Orthodox; bearing in mind of course how Barth rightly recasts election/reprobation in and from Christ. And finally we see how Barth is distinct from the Orthodox in regard to the sacraments, and this gets into Barth’s actualism and how he thinks of Jesus as ‘grace’ in person versus the Orthodox conception which is oriented around and from the sacraments as a ‘means’ of receiving God’s grace and as the ‘means’ by which someone participates in God’s life through Christ in theosis.

What is Theosis? — In Conclusion

Let me close with another short quote from Neder where he quotes Anna Williams on four distinct contours of thought that she identifies as essential when attempting to identify if theosis is actually being considered or not. In other words, this is a compressed distillation of what one should expect to find if they are ever confronted with the doctrine of theosis. Indeed, it is these points of theological material that Barth in his own unique way is engaging with and contributing to within his own participatory understanding of salvation. Here is Neder quoting Williams:

In her summary of the patristic doctrine of theosis, Williams offers just such a list. After acknowledging “considerable diversity in the ways various theologians describe deification,” she observes that nonetheless, “there is a firm core that distinguishes this doctrine from other model of sanctification.” According to Williams, four criteria must be met: “Where we find the ideas of [a] participation in divine life, [b] union with God and [c] humanity portrayed as human destiny, and [d] a mode of articulating  divine transcendence in this context, we can say we are dealing with a doctrine of deification.”[3]

In this sense Barth fits quite well within the theosis discussion. What we just noted, via Neder, are the ways that Barth’s theology remains distinct from the Orthodox conception of theosis, but at the same time we can also see some over-lap; particularly in light of Williams’ definition of the component parts of what theosis entails as a doctrine. In another post we will highlight the four points of Barth’s theology, according to Neder, wherein he fits in well even with some of the Orthodox understanding of theosis and participation soteriology.


[1] Although as Neder notes, the concept of theosis is ubiquitous throughout the history of Christianity; whether East or West. He is right, John Calvin himself with his union with Christ theology is right there in his own Reformed way. T.F. Torrance actually had a doctrine of theosis in his theology, as my colleague Myk Habets has written on in his book Theosis in the Theology of Thomas TorranceAnd lets not forget Martin Luther in all of this, the Finnish reading notwithstanding.

[2] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 90-1.

[3] Ibid., 91.


2 thoughts on “Karl Barth’s Reformed Doctrine of Theosis in Contradistinction to the Eastern Orthodox

  1. Pingback: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Theosis in Convergence with the Eastern Orthodox: Part Two – The Evangelical Calvinist

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