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.

Harnack’s Hellenization Thesis, Heretics, and Evangelizing Metaphysics: Thomas Torrance and Thomas Aquinas

In this post I will write off the top, for the most part, at least when referring to Thomas Torrance, and will offer some suggestions about how I think Torrance operated in his constructive methodology of retrieving patristic theology, and how that may have informed his critique of later theologians like Thomas Aquinas.

Evangelizing Metaphysics and Orthodoxy

An important reality to grasp in regard to the development of Christian Dogma and theology through the centuries, particularly in the first four centuries of the church, is the idea of what Robert Jenson calls the evangelization of metaphysics. As Jenson writes against Harnack’s Hellenization thesis that the early church was overcome by appeal to classical Greek philosophical categories in aquinas1.jpgits articulation of the implications of the Gospel, Jenson argues that this was not the case at all (as reported by Peter Leithart)! Instead, as Jenson develops the early church took Hellenic philosophical categories and repurposed them, or reified them in such a way (a non-correlationist way) that they were essentially gutted of their former meaning and given new meaning under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; the lexical realities were still present (i.e. at the level of the words used), but within their new context driven by God’s revelation in the economy of His life, they lost any resemblance (i.e. the words) to what they used to mean within the classical philosophical context, and became resurrected words within a new grammar given reality by the logic of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Here is how Peter Leithar frames this as he quotes Robert Jenson:

Harnack’s hellenization thesis has been subjected to searching criticism, and an alternative account of the interaction of Christianity with Greco-Roman civilization has been offered. Writing not as a historian of dogma but as one of Harnack’s dreaded “dogmaticians,” Robert Jenson describes the relation of the gospel to philosophy during the first four centuries as an “evangelization of metaphysics.” Far from being conformed to Hellenistic categories and forms, the church in the persons of her theologians employed Greek concepts and terms to express something that Greek philosophy could never have envisioned. For Jenson, the central issue concerns time. Greek metaphysics and religion, he argues, were an elaborate effort to escape the corrosive effects of time.

It was the great single dogma of late Mediterranean antiquity’s religion and irreligion, that no story can be “really” true of God, that deity equals “impassibility.” It is not merely that the gospel tells a story about the object of worship; every religion of antiquity did that. The gospel identifies God as “He who brought Israel from Egypt and our Lord Jesus from the dead.” Therefore the gospel cannot rescind from its story at any depth whatsoever of experience, mystical penetration or theologia. Developed trinitarian liturgy and theology appeared as the church maintained the gospel’s identification of God in the very teeth of what everybody knew to be of course and obviously true of God, and in every nook of practice or theory where uncircumcised theological self-evidency lurked.[1]

I would like to suggest that Thomas Torrance in a principled way has attempted to do this same thing. Torrance works within the classical tradition, particularly as articulated by Athanasius; and he uses the grammar of the patristics like ousia (being) and hypostases (persons) inherited from his reading and understanding of the Niceno-Constantinopolitano creeds and what he calls the Athanasian-Cyrilian axis. Torrance uses the patristic concepts of De Deo Uno&De Deo Trino when he develops his doctrine of God and Trinitarian theology, but he uses them under advisement. In other words unlike, say the early medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, Torrance doesn’t simply appeal to God’s ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostases’ in a philosophical way; he doesn’t refer to God’s impassibility or immutability, or the omnis of God without reifying them or concretizing said concepts under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation simpliciter.

I would like to suggest that what Torrance did was to take what the early church did, and apply it to theological categories that had developed in the history of the church over the centuries in a way that he believed had lapsed back into purely Greek philosophical ways of understanding and “grammarizing” God. In a sense, and alongside Jenson’s thinking, Torrance believed the Harnackian thesis that the early church Hellenized the Gospel, it’s just that Torrance believed that (just like Jenson does) Harnack’s thesis only applies to the heretics of the early church, particularly with reference to Arius and his later disciple Eunomius; this is where Torrance’s Athanasian-Cyrilian axis is important. Torrance believed it was possible to evangelize metaphysics, and he believes that’s what happened in the Nicene and Constantinopolitan church councils, and later at Chalcedon.


In summary, Torrance believed that there has always been this kind of thread present within the development of dogma and church doctrine. In other words, he believed that there was always a heretical thread (a Hellenic thread) and an orthodox thread (and maybe a heterodox thread somewhere in between in this complex) at play within the walls of the church. So if we come up against someone like Thomas Aquinas, I believe Torrance would think that Aquinas veers toward, at least, a heterodox thread, and overly-Hellenizing thesis in his development of a doctrine of God. That because Aquinas so relied upon Aristotle’s categories (so Thomist classical theism), he indeed began to think God in a way that did not adequately work from an evangelized metaphysic, which resulted in presenting a God who was more of a mechanical-monad, a singularity, rather than a God who is by definition Triune, dynamic and relational. Torrance might look at Aquinas’ doctrine of God and see the classical concepts of ousia and hypostases at play, and Torrance might even find Aquinas’ emphasis upon God’s ‘being’ commendable (versus voluntarist emphases like those found in Scotism etc.), but Torrance would look at the whole picture presented by Aquinas and relegate his material conclusions in regard to God as overly-Hellenic. At this point Torrance would feel free to emphasize God’s antecedent-being (in se) as determinative for all else (like Aquinas) and in line with what has been called unity-of-being theology (like what is found in Athanasius’ theology), but then he would take said emphasis from Aquinas and other overly-Hellenized theologians and ‘evangelize’ it under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And he would scold Aquinas just as Athanasius scolded the Arians by saying that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.”[2] Clearly, Torrance would not place Aquinas into the same category as Arius (i.e. heretic), but he might just well think of Aquinas as heterodox on this front, precisely because, for Torrance, Aquinas failed at being a good “evangelist.”

[1] Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius: Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality (Michigan: Baker Publishing, 2011), 57 Scribd version.

[2] Athanasius cited by Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

St. Ephrem the Syrian, Thomas F. Torrance on a Theology of Nature rather than Natural Theology

Thomas Torrance has many things in common with the Patristic theologians and writers he spent so much time with. Mark Mourachian a scholar of one of these early Christian theologians, St. Ephrem the Syrian, constructively brings T.F. Torrance into discussion with Ephrem with focus on their similarity in the area of theological realism.

ephremWhat I wanted to highlight was the basis upon which Torrance can have a ‘theology of nature’ (versus a natural theology), and how there is precedence in this in many of those from the past inclusive of Ephrem. In the following Mourachian describes for us how ‘faith’ works as the lens through which knowledge of God in and through the Incarnate Christ not only grounds knowledge of God for us, but also knowledge of God in creation itself as creation finds its reality in the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ. So there is no sensus divinitatis or sense of the divine embedded in humanity, in general, there would only be such sense first found and grounded in creation’s reality, in the Deus incarnatus, in God incarnate. As humanity participates in the vicarious humanity of Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, we by his faith for us have the capacity to rightly appreciate God’s works in creation in the ‘theater of God’s glory’, as we understand those works as works of Christ and not abstract things from Christ. Here Mourachian enlightens us:

The pervasive emphasis in Ephrem’s works on the concrete reality of God’s self revelation in the midst of the world he created may incline some of his readers to consider him a natural theologian of sorts. The corrective to that misreading is Ephrem’s equally persistent stress on the priority of faith in Christ as that which enables human persons to read nature and Scripture rightly, to find in them what God has veiled. The notion that natural knowledge serves as the necessary propaedeutic for the reception of divine revelation given in Christ and in the biblical testimonies to him is certainly alien to Ephrem’s way of thinking. Faith is the requisite lens through which the human person is able to perceive the truth of God to which all the natural world and all the Bible bear witness in symbolic fashion. It is faith that transforms the believer’s eye into the instrument by which the opacity of created realities is changed to a transparency opening out onto God. More accurately, it is faith in the incarnate Word and the life-giving relation into which he draws the believer that make proper vision, perceptive hearing, and true knowledge possible: “With faith gaze upon Him, / upon the Lord of symbols, who gives you life.”

Since truth, for Ephrem, is ultimately hypostatized in the person of the Word, our relation to the truth consists in our relation to him. The source of all true knowledge and that of life are one and the same, the person of the incarnate Lord, and our relation to him is given life by way of faith in him – Ephrem considers faith a “second soul,” enlivening our soul which, in turn, enlivens our body. All theological knowing is actualized in relation to Christ and through the dynamism of faith in him. The mind possessed of faith is enabled by God to bear the fruit of a godly life in freedom on the basis of knowledge of truth. Torrance points to the same interpenetration of faith, true knowledge, and life lived according to the truth:

The very passion of faith is the opening up of the knowing subject to the most objective of all realities, God Himself as He actively communicates Himself to us in Jesus Christ. To know the truth is to be in a right relation to Him, to be in the truth with the Truth. To know this Truth in a medium appropriate to Him is to do the truth and to live the truth, to be true.[1]

I hope this has encouraged you!

[1] Mark Mourchian, “Theological Realism in St. Ephrem the Syrian and T.F.Torrance,” Participatio Vol. 4 (2013): 103-04.

Was Thomas Torrance Really a Calvinist? Georges Florovsky Thought So.

There have been some who have made the claim that Thomas Torrance was not a Calvinist; indeed, this claim has come from his fans and interpreters as well as his un-fans and antagonists. Myk Habets and I have colored florovskyTFT as a Calvinist, and so if he was something lesser than this, then it might be argued that we are mis-representing and misplacing Torrance along the theological spectrum. Of course Myk and I did not make this up whole cloth about Torrance, we found this kind of self-labeling in his book Scottish Theology wherein he describes the kind of Calvinism he follows, along with some older Scottish Calvinists he is engaging with in his book, as evangelical Calvinism; and this in contrast to what he called (in the same book) ‘Federal’ Calvinism, ‘Bezan’ Calvinism, ‘Westminster’ Calvinism, etc.

So there is that, but then there is also Georges Florovsky, who was a contemporary (although senior) of TFT, and friend. Florovsky and TFT interacted and became friends over a period of more than twenty years; they worked together to forge an ecumenical dialogue between the Eastern Orthodox (pace Florovsky) and the Reformed (so Torrance). Matthew Baker, a young Eastern Orthodox scholar, and Thomas F. Torrance fan, while writing on Torrance’s and Florovsky’s friendship, describing something else, but related to the point I am narrowing in on with this article, quotes Florovsky as Florovsky is reflecting upon Torrance’s theological identity in contrast to his own. Florovsky said about Torrance,

here begins probably a very terrible experience. You may say sometimes it is a confusing embarrassing experience. You do everything that Professor Zander wants you to. You discover – excuse me for using just the name – Tom Torrance is an awfully nice fellow, but unfortunately he is a Calvinist. I might love him as a man, and then we have a terrible row. He is a very close friend of mine, but twenty years younger, and an excellent theologian. We know each other as brothers and yet we disagree; this is a real experience. We agree at a certain point, well then we cannot agree. The point is, one may say, that because I was educated in Russia and he was educated in Scotland . . . this would be fatalism and probably all the circumstances had some importance, but there is something else.[1]

This might seem like a technicality, and it is. But I want to help endorse and simply register the idea that T. F. Torrance was a Calvinist theologian, even if ‘Calvinist’ at the end of the day becomes synonymous and short-hand for ‘Reformed.’[2]

I realize this post reflects how geeky I am, but you get the drift ;-).


[1] Typescript of an audio lecture, Georges Florovsky, “The Vision of Unity,” p. 24, Carton 3, folder 1, 1955 in Matthew Baker, “The Correspondence Between T. F. Torrance and Georges Florovsky (1950-1973),” Participatio Journal vol. 4 (2013): 291.

[2] I believe understanding someone’s theological identity is important. Not so we can slander or caricature them (which is how the label ‘Calvinist’ was originally used by the early Lutherans against Calvin and his followers [see Bruce Gordon’s book on Calvin for a discussion on this]) by invoking the political connotations that might be built up around whatever label we use to identify a particular and given theological identity; but instead, so that we can have clarity about the historical and ideational forces that have given a certain theological identity shape. But I also think it is important to remember that even within a given identity we should be careful to understand that there is nuance within a continuum of belief. In other words, not all Calvinists are the same; not all Lutherans are the same; not all Eastern Orthodox are the same; etc.

image of the image of the image: Dei, Christi, Nos

Here is a good quote from Greek Orthodox theologian Khaled Anatolios on the vicarious humanity of Christ and Incarnation:

A helpful way to synthesize the argument of Against the Greeks—On the Incarnation and to integrate it with Athanasius’s later and more explicitly polemical work is to focus on the trintarian-christological-athanasiusanthropological nexus that forms the guiding motif of the work: only the One who is true Image can renew humanity’s being according to the image (kat’ eikona). The trinitarian ground of this nexus is the immediate relation (though we do not find the later technical vocabulary of “relation” in this treatise) whereby the Son is the Image of the Father. The soteriological consequence of this immediacy is that the Son is uniquely able to grant direct and immediate access to the Father. The statement that humanity was created according to the Image is simultaneously anthropological and christological: to be created according to the Image is to be granted a participation in the one who is the true and full Image of the Father. When humanity lost its stability, which depended on remaining in the state of being according to the Image, the incarnate Word repaired the image of God in humanity by reuniting it with his own divine imaging of the Father. Jesus Christ is therefore both eternal divine Image and restored human image. The saving union of divine and human image in Christ is characterized by immediacy. One foundational principle of Athanasius’s theological vision is this stress on the continuity of immediate connections between God and humanity and a corresponding abhorrence of obstacles and opaque mediations. As perfect Image, the Son is immediately united to the Father and transparently reflects knowledge of the Father; anything short of this immediate and transparent relation would deconstruct our immediate connection with the Father through the Son from the divine side. Through his incarnation, the Son repairs our human participation in his imaging of the Father from within the human constitution; anything short of a full incarnation would leave humans disconnected from both Father and Son. Thus, incarnation and the full divinity of the Son are both integral to the immediacy of our contact with the Father. Far from indicating inferior divinity, the human life and death of Jesus Christ extend the efficacy of is divine imaging of the Father in the face of humanity’s loss of the state of being according to the image. It is a wonderful display of the loving-kindness that belongs to the divine nature as such, the philanthrōpia that is equally shared by Father and Son. [Khaled Anatolios,Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine,(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 107-8.]

So we are images of the Image in the Son as we participate from His life for us. He is the Image of God, and the recreated image of the image that was originally created in the garden in Adam and Eve. So Christ was the human image of God whom Adam and Eve reflected as the image of the image first. It is only as this image is recreated and restored through the ‘firstborn status’ of the Son (Col. 1.15ff) that salvation and reconciliation is realized for us in Christ. This fits well with Thomas Torrance’s understanding of Theosis, and his ontological theory of the atonement; and something that is central to what Myk Habets and I consider to be the grist of evangelical Calvinist soteriology.

If I Was Going to Convert . . .

. . . It would be to the Eastern Orthodox and not the Roman Catholic. Why? For one thing the EO don’t hold to the filioque, as much of the Western church does. For another reason, and I think this to be a legitimate reason at some level; EO has a certain aesthetic beauty about her that the Roman Catholic church doesn’t have (this might be as shallow as picking a favorite football time because you like their uniforms; but I don’t think so). The EO, at least the Greek Orthodox have liturgy in Greek; which is cool. I think the EO make better sense of the Episcopacy than does the Papal system. I like how the EO know their Patristic Fathers. Thomas Torrance liked Eastern Orthodoxy. They have a more personalist understanding of a doctrine of God (more Trinitarian) than does the Western church (although Lewis Ayres has done a lot to squash the oversimplification of this).

But this is only if I was going to convert. How about you, which way would you go; if you had to make this choice?