Monday, August 13, 2007

Can't we all just not get along?

So I'm reading this collection of essays on the doctrine of Deification called Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology. It was published by Princeton and was edited by Vladimir Kharlamov and Stephen Finlan.

Generally speaking I find it a solid collection of essays. Kharlamov does a nice job of synopsizing the first two major stages of the doctrine (apostolic writers and the early apologists), while Finlan once again shows his prowess as a researcher/writer (his book The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors is pure class. Grade-A work that should be read by everyone who's interested in the literary connectivity of the OT and NT.) This guy strikes me as peculiarly gifted, and I'm not exactly sure why he isn't on the short list of Who's Who in theology circles at the moment.

However, one thing got under my skin: the insistence that Orthodox are not unique in this "doctrine of theosis". I find this annoying on two levels:

Level 1: While yes, everyone has some form of the imitatio christi in their tradition, it is only a living, breathing, factor in the consciousness of Orthodoxy. I dislike the religion of scholars as it tends to measure reality by published works and linguistic debates rather than by the lived reality of a community. Sure, Luther or Calvin might have given a glancing nudge to theosis in some bastardized way. Does this mean that they had any comparable concept to what Orthodox are typically referring to? No. Does this mean that any Lutherans or Calvinists except the foundational writers picked up on these strands of thought? No. Most importantly, have I ever met a single serious Lutheran or Calvinist who had this doctrine as a category of thought which they were willing to discuss? No.

So let's stop the trendy wavering. Reformation theology by and large has not been open to the idea of theosis, and on the level of praxis, it still resembles the remarks of arrogant old Germans like Adolf Von Harnack, who wrote that the Orthodox churches don't have any trace of authentic Christianity whatsoever. Practically speaking, that is the consensus conclusion of Calvinism and Lutheranism, and the fact is that Reformed theology and Orthodox theology are competitors who are (essentially) professing different religions.

Level 2: There is too much presumption of theosis as a doctrine commonly understood and clearly articulated within contemporary Orthodoxy. In truth, it's difficult to speak of this "doctrine of salvation" in the same way that Lutherans can speak of salvation "by faith alone", or Calvin's TULIP. If anything, theosis was latched onto in the Western diaspora in order to say something in the foreign category of "soteriology", which in my reading had always had a more organic up until that point. Now this isn't to say that we didn't have the idea of theosis, but I don't think it was necessarily "the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of salvation" in the sense that it is now understood. Certainly there is little to no liturgical reflection on this idea, and I'm interested to track where the language first pops up in the 19th and 20th century. also, depending on who one reads, the "doctrine" looks very different.

Given these two hangups, I find Myk Habels' article, which tries to link REformation ideas of indwelling of Christ with "the Eastern Orthodox Doctrine of theosis" (as if such a thing is commonly understood and easily referenced) to be simultaneously thin and wishful. Especially the idea of "the three great streams to which all Christians ultimately appeal". Define... "great"


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