Saturday, July 25, 2009

Calvin and Theosis

Sadly, I could not make the Calvin 500 Conference in Geneva this month gone by. But in looking at the photos of the event it looks as if a great time were had by all, and it was great to see PCA and PCUSA guys there in such intimate fellowship drawn together by their common love for John Calvin (who knows were such friendship could lead too). One of the papers I would have like to have heard was that given by Bruce McCormack on, "Union with Christ in Calvin's Theology: Grounds for a Divinisation Theory?" In sum, McCormack rejects the notion that Calvin's idea of union with Christ can be seriously integrated with the Eastern Orthodox notion of theosis. McCormack recognizes that there is one passage in Calvin that might support this perspective: "the flesh of Christ is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain that pours into us the life springing forth from the Godhead into itself. Now who does not see that communion with Christ’s flesh and blood is necessary for all who aspire to heavenly life?" (ICR 4.17.9). The problem that McCormack notes is that Calvin's christology will not actually allow God's essential life to be communicated to believers. McCormack states that Calvin "has dispensed completely with that which made divinisation theories possible, viz., the idea of an inter-penetration of the natures. This move only serves to underscore what we saw earlier: the believer participates only in the human nature of Christ. And since there can be no inter-penetration of the natures in Christ, participation in the human nature of Christ cannot result in a participation in the divine nature. The end result is that one simply cannot find the ontological ground needed for a divinisation theory in Calvin’s Christology. If there is no inter-penetration of the natures, there can be no divinisation".

Under the heading Residual Questions, McCormack also deals with Calvin's alleged link of justification and sanctification through "communion". He writes:

"Dennis Tamburello thinks himself to find evidence of a “twofold communion” with Christ in Calvin’s writings—one of which corresponds to justification and one to sanctification. His primary sources for this claim are Calvin’s commentary on Gal.2:20 (published in 1548) and a letter written to Peter Martyr Vermigli (in 1555). In the first, he says, “Christ lives in us in two ways. The One consists in his governing us by his Spirit and directing all our actions. The other is what he grants to us by participation in his righteousness, that, since we can do nothing of ourselves, we are accepted in him by God. The first relates to regeneration, the second to the free acceptance of righteousness.” It is surely not without significance that this work was published before the onset of the Osiandrian controversy and, therefore, before Calvin had given his doctrine of justification its final form. Be that as it may, it is conceptually odd to treat justification as a form of communion if one understands justification along the lines of the imputation of an alien righteousness. One could say that it is still necessary for faith to be awakened in the individual who would receive the promise of imputed righteousness—and that, therefore, union with Christ must logically precede justification. All of that would make sense, though it would be strange to describe it in terms of a twofold communion."

I think that pretty much makes sense, though I think Calvin's duplex gratia provides a better explanation for the link of justification and sanctification through union with Christ than what Tamburello's notion of "communion" does.

I should note that the essay will published in Tributes to John Calvin, ed. David W. Hall (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2009).


Paul L. Johnston said...

I wonder if McCormack misunderstands Eastern Orthodox definition of theosis. I have not seen them describe theosis as the absorption of Christ's divine nature. They seem to view theosis as becoming like the person of Christ (e.g. conformed to the image of his Son, Rom. 8:29), not into the divine essence. To compare Calvin's two nature discussion with E. Orthodox thought seems to mis-apply this idea.

reformation man said...

Actually, Theosis can be either an absorption into the divine nature or being conformed to the image of Christ. Historically, the Cappadocian fathers represent the latter use of the term, while Eastern theologians following Alexandria typically think of theosis in a more Realistic, absorption manner. See "The Doctrine of Diefication in the Greek Patristic Tradition" by Norman Russell.