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Echoes of Theosis in Genesis 3

Theosis is a topic which we will explore in great depth and detail during my work here, as it is both heavily underexplored and of particular interest to me. I have often said that God does not save us simply so that we can sit on a heavenly shelf and stay exactly as we are, but rather, He has saved us for something. That something is what the Eastern Orthodox Church often identifies as “theosis,” or being made like God. It is important to recognize the difference, however, between what Christianity would identify as theosis versus the way in which the term is often used for other religious traditions. Where some (such as the Latter-Day Saints) would assert that we become a god ourselves, we who maintain Christian orthodoxy disagree with this understanding. There is no one who can ascend to become as God is; rather, the popular phrasing to capture the doctrine of theosis in Christianity is “Christ became like us so that we might become like Him.” We do not become Christ – we become like Christ. The imagery used by the New Testament will often identify this as the “image” of Christ – just as an image is simply representative of the original, so we bear resemblance to Christ in the completion of His work within us.

Theosis is often overlooked territory in terms of research within Protestant Christianity. Search a scholarly system for more common themes such as “missions” or “salvation,” and one is likely to find upwards of 30,000 results. A search for “theosis” yields only 100 – and several of them are repetitions! These searches are far from exhaustive concerning the resources on any topic, but they demonstrate a key reality: the specifics of the end result of Christian sanctification remain largely unexplored. We want to answer the question, “What is God making us into after all?”

Although more extensive examination of this passage will undoubtedly be the topic of a future blog post, let us briefly consider what Paul says to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4:

“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?”

The full implication of what it means to be a “spiritual person” must be explored at another date. For now, take note of Paul’s peculiar language to the people: they are behaving “only in a human way” and are being “merely human.” The implication seems to be that, even now, those who are in Christ are no longer mere human beings, but are actively involved in being made into something more. Our goal through these studies is to look at the hints found throughout Scripture to see (1) what God has already revealed concerning that which we are becoming in Christ, (2) what is being done now versus what we can only expect to see fully realized in the age to come, and (3) what must remain a mystery until the end of all things.

As the book of Genesis opens, we are met with a perfectly picturesque Creation by the end of God’s work. Genesis 1 ends with God’s own acknowledgment that it was “very good.” Unsurprisingly, humanity only manages to remain in this state of perfection for the first and second chapters of Genesis, and by Genesis 3, humanity falls from grace. The story is a familiar one: the serpent deceives the woman, and the woman eats the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. However, the specifics of the serpent’s temptation are rather interesting.

“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”

Obviously not. The serpent’s opening words here are for the explicit purpose of bringing God’s role into uncertainty and making Eve doubt the goodness of her Creator. Victor Hamilton, in his commentary on Genesis for the New International Commentary on the Old Testament, states concerning this opening from the serpent, “Apart from this claim being unadulterated distortion, it is an attempt to create in the woman’s mind the impression that God is spiteful, mean, obsessively jealous, and self-protective. …by this one statement of the snake, God has moved from beneficent provider to cruel oppressor” (189). This moment of doubt is important for the serpent’s intended outcome: he needs to move Eve from contentment with her position (which is still “very good” at this point, given the final statement of Genesis 1), and toward a place of desire for more. Humanity fills a key role in the created order and works in the paradise which God has made on the earth. There should not be any need for us to desire more, and indeed, up until this moment, it seems Adam and Eve have remained quite content. The desire for more than what God has provided apparently requires an external force to be implanted in the human heart, which demonstrates to the reader the sufficiency of God’s provision. The idea that there could be more has never crossed Eve’s mind until the temptation by the serpent. But following Eve’s response, the serpent’s next move has some curious implications for our study.

“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The serpent’s words here are filled with falsehoods – no, sin will absolutely cause us to die. Yes, God knows our eyes will be opened, but not in the positive sense which the serpent presents here. Yes, we will take on a new sense of understanding when it comes to our knowledge, perception, or discernment of good and evil, but this does not come to us with semi-divinity; rather, it brings a fall from the perfect image of God status which has been ours since Creation and causes division between us and the Creator. Note again Hamilton’s words here:

“Deification is a fantasy difficult to repress and a temptation hard to reject. In the woman’s case she need give in to both only by shifting her commitment from doing God’s will to doing her own will. Whenever one makes his own will crucial and God’s revealed will irrelevant, whenever autonomy displaces submission and obedience in a person, that finite individual attempts to rise above the limitations imposed on him by his creator” (190).

Again we note, theosis is not attainment of divinity. We do not become God. We do not teach that God makes us into Himself, nor that it is possible in any way to be what He is.

Rather, our examination of Genesis 3 yields one particularly interesting note for the study of theosis: to be “like God” is a desirable status. If it is possible to go beyond mere humanity and to become something which is closer to what God is, even the earliest humans recognized this as preferable. Being omniscient, God Himself recognizes that becoming more like Him is better than remaining as we are. As such, with the Fall, God begins a process which will give us that which is even better than what we had before. In order to do this, however, it will come at great cost to Him.

The story of theosis is never one of our own achievement. It is never about us “doing enough” or “being enough,” but is rather a story of the grace and provision of God for His people even in the midst of their rebellion and sin. God chooses to become like us so that we might become like Him. The full implications of this will be explored in much greater depth and detail in the weeks ahead.

Let us follow where the Word leads!

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