Before delving into passages from the Bible that are directly related to the doctrine of deification, I would like to start with an 'introduction' of sorts. The following material is from a preliminary draft of one of the chapters from a book I have been working on—all rights reserved.
"Deification in the Bible" (by David Waltz)
Chapter abstract: The terminology used to describe the doctrine of deification in the New Testament has many points of contact with the terminology used to describe the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. The terminology used to describe this relationship between God the Father and God the Son has convinced the vast majority of Christians down through the ages of the Church to conclude that because Jesus Christ shares so deeply in the nature and divine life of God, He too must be of the same order of being as God the Father. One must water down the motifs of “image of God”, "Son of God", “immortality”, “heir”, “kingly rule”, etc. in order to avoid the clear teaching that Jesus Christ truly shares in God the Father’s “divine nature.” If the same terminology used to describe this relationship between God the Father and God the Son is used to describe the relationship between Jesus Christ and God’s adopted Sons, what should are conclusions be?
Phase one: The New Testament
I am fully convinced that the foundational source of the doctrine of theosis lies within the pages New Testament.[i] Although some interesting parallels exist in the writings of the some of the ancient Greek philosophers[ii] and Mystery Cults[iii] (and that some intimations of the doctrine can be read into the Old Testament and inter-Testament writings[iv]), there is no question that the early Church Fathers believed (and rightfully so) that the doctrine was clearly taught by Jesus Christ and His apostles, and as such, is to be found the New Testament writings.
One modern scholar who certainly seems to agree with this assessment is David L. Balás—Balás penned the following:
The real sources of the doctrine of divinization are found in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the teaching of the creation of the human couple in the image and likeness of God and the call of the chosen people through the covenant to a closer communion with God prepared for the theme. The New Testament’s central teaching on God’s Son becoming man in order to make human beings in and through himself adopted children of God animated by God’s Spirit is theologically elaborated primarily in the Pauline letters and later in the Fourth Gospel. Whereas the doctrinal foundations of the theme of divinization are thus broad in the New Testament, the literary antecedents are limited to a few texts.[v]
For the first 25 years of my life, the very thought that redeemed mankind could “become God[vi]” never crossed my mind, and for a good reason: I was an Arian[vii] through and through. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness (4th generation), and their strict, absolute monotheistic theology placed a filter on my mind that would never allow such a concept to be examined, let alone seriously studied.
However, shortly after 1975 (a date predicted by Jehovah’s Witnesses as the second coming of Jesus Christ in judgment of the world, and the ushering in of His millennial kingdom[viii]) I, for the first time, started to have grave doubts about my faith, and began an independent study of the Bible. My personal Biblical studies soon compelled me to reject my Arian theology, for I had come to believe the Bible taught that Jesus Christ was fully divine. But I was not content to limit my studies to just the Bible, and began devouring theological books, especially books concerning the doctrine of the Trinity and the early Christian church. This led to my purchase of the 38-volume set of the American (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) reprint of the famous Edinburgh edition of the Ante-Nicene and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series. I was now ‘hooked’, such that my studies of the Church Fathers now consumed a sizable portion of my study time. As my knowledge grew, I began to sense a need to share my personal studies with others.
In October 1992, I presented my first public lecture at a conference promoted by Northwest Bible Conferences (a public forum started by a group of former Jehovah’s Witnesses back in 1979). From 1992 through 1999 I ended up delivering a total of nine public lectures. My third lecture (delivered in the spring of 1994) was titled: “Deification in the Bible” (see appendix for the notes of that lecture). I have chosen to include this personal, historical excursus, for the simple reason that the seeds of this chapter were planted in early 1994 as I prepared for my upcoming lecture that spring.
FONS TOTIUS DIVINITATIS[ix]
Before proceeding onto what scripture has to say about the destiny of redeemed mankind, it is important to begin with an examination of the relationship between God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. For as we shall shortly see, there is a direct correlation between that relationship, and the relationship that Jesus Christ[x] has with God’s adopted Sons.
One important doctrine (rarely discussed in theological literature) is the Biblical teaching that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, owes His very existence to the Father. In John 5:26 we read, “For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself” (KJV), and 6:57, “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father” (ASV). One New Testament scholar wrote the following about John 5:26:
God is eternally living and lifegiving (see ὁ ζῶν πατὴρ ‘the living Father’, 6:57) and the Son possesses his life in its fullness and power. The formula with διδόυαι in the aorist indicative is distinctively Johannine. God does not give his life externally, like a gift, to his Son, but grants him a share in his own inner possession, without himself losing anything of the fullness of his life. Both the Father and the Son equally have ‘life in themselves’, but the Father is the one from whom the movement of life goes out.[xi]
A respected Evangelical scholar when commenting on the same verse wrote:
None but God the Father, unbegotten and uncreated, inherently possesses life-in-himself. He is in his very being ‘the living God’…To the Son alone, begotten but not created, has the Father imparted his own prerogative to have life-in himself.[xii]
And in the first volume of the new Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series – The Doctrine of God we read that, “Jesus says that the Father has life within himself, and has given to the Son to have life in himself.”[xiii]
The famous Reformed theologian, Jonathan Edwards (whom many consider the greatest American theologian of all time), provided an excellent summation of this teaching:
The Father is the deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated and most absolute manner, or the deity in its direct existence. The Son is the deity generated by God’s understanding, or having an idea of Himself and subsisting in that idea…Hereby we see how the Father is the fountain of the Godhead, and why when He is spoken of in Scripture He is so often, without any addition or distinction, called God which has led some to think that He only was truly and properly God.[xiv]
And finally, from the pen of the equally famous 17th century British Reformed theologian, John Owen, we read:
Now the Son receives all from the Father, and the Father nothing from the Son. Whatever belongs unto the person of the Son, as the person of the Son, he receives it all from the Father by eternal generation: “For as the Father hath life in himself, so hath he given unto the Son to have life in himself:” John v. 26. He is therefore the essential image of the Father, because all the properties of the divine nature are communicated unto him together with personality—from the Father.[xv]
That the Son, Jesus Christ, owes His existence to God the Father is well attested in the Church Fathers[xvi], starting before the end of the first century. The patristic evidence will be explored in greater depth in chapter 3, but at this time I will cite one Church Father who is representative of so many others:
(We believe) in one Father, the beginning, and cause of all: begotten of no one: without cause or generation, alone subsisting…All then that the Son and the Spirit have is from the Father, even their very being: and unless the Father is, neither the Son nor the Spirit is…because of the Father’s existence, the Son and the Spirit exist.[xvii]Due to the fact that Jesus Christ owes His existence to the Father, we see a strong emphasis of the Father/Son motif through out the New Testament. The generative import of this motif is further emphasized when we read that Jesus Christ is “the only begotten”[xviii] Son of God.
Fundamentally linked to the Father/Son motif, is the phrase “image of God” when used in direct reference to Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the “the image of God”, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), and “the very image of his substance”[xix] (Heb. 1:3). Concerning precisely how one is to understand the usage of this phrase we read:
Image is not to be understood as a magnitude which is alien to the reality and present only in the consciousness. It has a share in the reality. Indeed, it is the reality. Thus εἰκὼν does not imply a weakening or a feeble copy of something. It implies the illumination of its inner core and essence.[xx]Just as Seth bore the image of his father Adam (Gen. 5:3), so too, Jesus bears the image of His Father. In addition, and this importantly, Seth, begotten in the image of father, shares without any loss, the full nature of his father. The same can be said of the pre-existent Jesus, for He shares, without any loss, the divine nature of His heavenly Father. Keeping the above in mind, we shall now move on to the Biblical verses that teach the doctrine of theosis.
[i] Other treatments on this topic include: Jules Gross, trans. Paul A. Onica, The Divinization of the Christian (Anaheim, CA: A & C Press, 2002) pp. 61-69, 80-92; Keith E. Norman, Deification: The Content of Athanasian Soteriology – FARMS Occasional Papers, Vol. 1, 2000 (Provo, Utah: Foundation For Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000) pp. 5-9; and Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification In The Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004) pp. 79-89.
[ii] The most important figure of this group being Plato.
[iii] Some of the more important of which include the cult of Eleusis, the cult of Isis, the cult of Dionysus, and Orphism.
[iv] Two important collections of these writings in English are: The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 2 volumes, edited by Martínez and Tigchelaar (Grand Rapids, MI: Brill and William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., vol. 1, 1997; vol. 2, 1998 – paperback edition 2000); and The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 volumes, edited by James H. Charlesworth (Garden City, NY; Doubleday & Company, Inc., vol. 1, 1983; vol. 2, 1985).
[v] David L. Balás, “Divinization”, in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity – Second Edition, Everett Ferguson editor (New York, NY: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997, 1999) p. 338.
[vi] To “become God” was the phrase used by some important Church Fathers to describe the doctrine of theosis.
[vii] Arianism is the name given to theology promoted by a Catholic presbyter of Alexandria named Arius (d. 336) in the early 4th century. Arius explicitly taught for the first time (at least from the extant writings that have come down to our time) that the Son of God was created ex nihilo by God the Father. Noted patristic scholar, R.P.C. Hanson wrote, “The part of Arius’ doctrine which most shocked and disturbed his contemporaries was his statement that the Father made the Son ‘out of non-existence’. [The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998), p. 24.] Many Catholic bishops, including Arius’ own bishop of Alexandria, Alexander, believed that Arius was teaching heresy, yet despite their early efforts to quench Arius and his teachings, many lay and clerical members of the Catholic Church embraced nascent Arianism. This led to the first “general/universal” council of the Catholic Church: the Nicene Council of 325. Arius’ and his teachings were condemned at this council, and the vast majority of bishops who attended the conference endorsed the first draft of what is now known as the Nicene Creed (the final form of this creed was expanded and ratified at the first Council of Constantinople of 381). Because Jehovah’s Witnesses fully embrace the doctrine that the pre-existent Jesus Christ (Michael the archangel) was non-existent before he was created ex nihilo by Jehovah (God the Father), they are classified (rightfully) as Arianians.
[viii] For a scholarly assessment of the importance of the 1975 date and it’s apocalyptic implications see M. James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1985, second edition 1997), pp. 91-126.
[ix] Latin for: “the source of the whole divinity”.
[x] I am going to be using the name “Jesus Christ” to refer to the pre-incarnate and incarnate (earthly and post-resurrection) person known by such names/titles as “His Son” (τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ – Gal. 4:4), “firstborn” (πρωτότοκος – Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:6), “only begotten” (μονογενὴς – John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1Jn. 4:9), “the Word” (ὁ λόγος – John 1:1, 14; Rev. 19:13), “Lord” (κύριος – numerous texts), and “God” (θεὸς – on the controversial issue of whether on not the term God is used unequivocally as a name/title for Jesus Christ see Murray J. Harris, Jesus as God, Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Book House, 1992).
[xi] Rudolf Schnackenburn, The Gospel According to St John (New York, NY: Crossroad, 1987), vol. 2, p. 112 – emphasis mine.
[xii] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983) p. 132.
[xiii] John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001) p. 212.
[xiv] Jonathan Edwards, “An Essay On the Trinity”, in Treatise On Grace and other posthumously published writings (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1971) pp. 118, 122.
[xv] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, Volume 1 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965, 3rd printing 1981) pp. 71, 72.
[xvi] For an excellent summary of the patristic evidence on this topic see Yves Congar’s, I Believe In the Holy Spirit, trans. by David Smith (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1983, 2001) vol. 3, pp. 133-143.
[xvii] John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, I.8, in NPNF2, IX.6, 9.
[xviii] John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9 (John 1:14 reads “the only begotten from the Father”). Though many modern commentators had tried to weaken the generative sense of the term “only begotten” [some translating it as simply “only” (NJB, RSV, NRSV), or “the One and Only” (NIV)], one must not lose sight that of the fact that the term still retained much of it’s generative sense during the NT period, and this is reflected in its early ecclesiastical usage by many of the Church Fathers [see G.W.H. Lampe, ed., A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, 17th impression 2003), pp. 880-882; Gerhard Kittel, ed., English translator and editor, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967), vol. IV, pp. 740-741; and John V. Dahms, “The Generation of the Son”, in Journal of the Evangelical Society, vol. 32.4 (Dec. 1989) p. 496.] Particularly insightful are Clark’s comments, “the two verbs themselves are derived from an earlier common stem…the genes in monogenes derives immediately from genos”; and then importantly that the word genos, “as a matter of fact suggests begetting and generation, as much as if it had been derived from gennao”, Gordon H. Clark, The Trinity (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1985) p. 120. On the somewhat controversial issue of whether “only begotten Son” or “only begotten God” is the best reading of John 1:18 see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary On The Greek New Testament (London – New York: United Bible Societies, 1971, corrected edition, 1975), p. 198.
[xix] χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ.
[xx] Gerhard Kittel, ed., English translator and editor, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967), vol. II, p. 389.
Grace and peace,