Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Theosis in Convergence with the Eastern Orthodox: Part Two

Picking up where we left off yesterday, in this post we will jump right into how Adam Neder places Barth in a positive relation to the doctrine of theosis; particularly within the Orthodox iteration of that. Just as a reminder let me repost what I ended the post with yesterday; it is another short quote from Neder where he offers a distillation of the component parts of what makes up the doctrine of theosis; he himself is quoting Anna Williams’ compression of this doctrine for easy identification.

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.”[1]

Neder is contesting that Barth himself, a Westerner, contributes to the development of this prestigious doctrine along with other notables spanning from East to West (even though theosis is typically thought of as an Eastern theological reality).

Again, in the last post we saw how Neder framed Barth in rather oppositional terms relative to theosis, here Neder will place Barth in a positive stance towards the constructive development of the doctrine of theosis. Neder writes (in extenso):

There are of course other and important differences between Barth’s conception of the meaning of human participation in God and that of the Orthodox. I do not deny that such differences exist nor do I want to argue for some kind of rapprochement by smoothing them out. I am arguing, rather, that Barth is a contributor to the church’s history of reflection on this important issue, and that the quality of his contribution merits consideration within the present discussion. The following are just a few of the areas where their concerns overlap considerably:

[1] Both Barth and Orthodoxy conceive of participation in God teleologically and eschatologically. Participation in God represents the “ultimate destiny” of humanity. For Barth, this means the fulfillment of a perfect reality (i.e., the objective participation of all humanity in Christ is fulfilled as believers subjectively participate in Christ), whereas for the Orthodox the teleological movement is conceived along more gradual lines, as the final realization of a partial beginning. Nevertheless, both agree that participation in God is a teleological and eschatological concept.

[2] Both Barth and Orthodoxy insist that participation in God is not the abolition of true humanity, but its realization. Each works this out in a different way, but both agree that participation in God “does not suppress humanity, but makes humanity truly human.” Moreover, they agree that while the union between God and human beings is real, it is real as a union in distinction.

[3] For much of Orthodoxy, God’s nature (ousia) is unapproachable, unknowable, and imparticible. Deification is participation in God’s energies. Nevertheless, “these energies are not something that exists apart from God, not a gift which God confers upon humans; they are God Himself in His action and revelation to the world. God exists complete and entire in each of His divine energies.” Barth does not share this distinction between essence and energies, but he affirms something analogous to it. According to Barth, that which most basically distinguishes God from all else is his gracious and sovereign action. This action is God’s alone. God does not share it. God’s being is in-act, and God’s act is sovereign and gracious. But God freely shares himself with us. And he does so by including us in this action of his and therefore in himself. In the event of the union of God’s free primary action and our correspondingly free secondary response, we are given a creaturely share in God’s being. Thus, for Barth and Orthodoxy, God’s “nature” is imparticible even as human beings really participate in God.

[4] Barth’s actualistic anthropology, his insistence that human “being” does not precede human action, but rather is in-act, overlaps with what Meyendorff describes as “the central theme, or intuition, of Byzantine theology,” which, he writes, “is that man’s nature is not a static, ‘closed,’ autonomous entity, but a dynamic reality, determined in its very existence by its relationship to God,” such that “his very nature is truly itself only as much as it exists ‘in God’ or ‘in grace.’” I have already noted the divergent ways in which Barth and Orthodoxy conceive of nature and grace, and it goes without saying that Barth’s Christocentric framework for understanding creature nature is very different from that of Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, there is an important shared emphasis among them that human nature is only properly described in dynamic, active, and one might even say kinetic terms. What Meyendorff writes of Orthodoxy could, in its own way, apply equally well to Barth: “The logos  of every creature consists, therefore, in being essentially active; there is no ‘nature’ without ‘energy’ or movement.” Furthermore, both agree that participation in God is the event in which human nature is actively realized.[2]


Personally, I like Neder’s observations in regard to Barth’s relationship to the doctrine of theosis. As I alluded to above, theosis itself is not just an Eastern Orthodox teaching, it has prevailed throughout Western theology as well (even, as Neder suggests elsewhere, in Augustine himself). Off the top Martin Luther with his marriage mysticism and belief in the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’); John Calvin with his unio cum Christo (‘union with Christ’), unio mystica (‘mystical union’), and duplex gratia (‘double grace’) conception of salvation; T.F. Torrance with his actual doctrine of theosis in direct conversation with the Eastern church and Patristic theology all represent examples of how this doctrine was present in its own particular way within ‘Western’ theology—the examples could be enumerated exponentially.

As Neder has decisively shown, I think, Barth is one other significant figure who has helped forward our understanding of the doctrine of theosis; albeit from within his own unique framing of things. As we noted in the last post, as is the normal pace of Barth, he reformulates almost everything he gets his hands on through his actualistic theological ontology, driven by his intensively principial Christ concentrated way. He works, as Torrance, as a Reformed theologian with categories like: election/reprobation, covenant (foedus), and the Scripture principle in play; among other important identifying features as found within Reformed theology.

Even if you are Eastern Orthodox, maybe especially so, I commend Barth’s alternative approach to the doctrine of theosis to you. I think he offers a more robust version of this doctrine, and avoids the pitfalls that come along with the classical understanding of theosis as it affirms something like Luther’s commuticatio idiomatum, and a kind of attendant synergism in the “appropriation” of salvation.

I might do one more post based upon Neder’s work. If I do I will share four points where Adam Neder explicates what union with Christ theology actually is in Barth’s theology. These four points significantly differentiate, or at least nuance Barth’s understanding of ‘theosis’ and/or union with Christ theology from the Orthodox understanding. While, as Neder has pointed out there are some important points of contact between Barth and Orthodoxy on this doctrine, there are also significant points of departure (as my first post indicated, but these other four points might make that even clearer).


[1] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics(Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 91.

[2] Ibid., 90-1.


6 thoughts on “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Theosis in Convergence with the Eastern Orthodox: Part Two

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

  2. Yes, that’s what the whole book is; an “entry into the CD” oriented around Barth’s theme of paricipatio Christi. I’ll get you the pertinent sections.


  3. George, Neder is essentially picking up on Barth’s theme of participation in Christ and lifting commonalities between it and theosis; and then of course points of departure. As would be expected Adam emphasizes CD IV/1.


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