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Participating with God

an expression of that fundamental attitude which transforms the whole of theology into a contemplation of the mysteries of revelation. It is not a branch of theology, a chapter, or an inevitable introduction on the incomprehensibility of God from which one passes unruffled to a doctrinal exposition in the usual terminology of human reason and philosophy in general . . . For Christianity is not a philosophical school for speculating about abstract concepts, but is essentially a communion with the living God. That is why, despite all their philosophical learning and natural bent towards speculation, the Fathers in the eastern tradition in remaining faithful to the apophatic principle of theology, never allowed their thought to cross the threshold of the mystery.26

It is here that Williams departs from endorsing participation with God of the kind that Orthodoxy embraces. For Williams, revelation must be verbal.27 He derides any mystical experience that does not produce declaration.28 Revelation must be disclosure of divine truth that is communicable through human language. Williams does not make clear any methodology for reconciling this conviction with the abiding mysteries of the Christian faith. Perhaps the apophaticism of Eastern Orthodox theology merits some serious and sustained consideration.

As noted, for Williams the believer’s own experience as stated in 2 Pet. 1:3-4 (also Gal. 2:20) intimates some understanding of the paradox of the Incarnation. For Orthodoxy, the converse is true; it is the Incarnation which explains the believer’s experience. Athanasius clearly had 2 Pet 1:3-4 in view when he wrote “God became man so that men might become gods.”29 This is the doctrine of theosis, or, deification. For the most part ignored in the West, it is the chief theological motif of Eastern theology: “it is not too much to say that the divination of humanity is the central theme, chief aim, basic purpose, or primary religious ideal of Orthodoxy.”30 Western believers likely cringe at the thought of “becoming god.” Pentecostal/Charismatic believers emphasize the experiential, and theosis is a quintessentially participative ideal. But they do not have such a unifying theological motif.

Before Athanasius the same concept was taught by Origen, Clement, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, and Justin Martyr.31 Basil the Great posited that “from the Holy Spirit there is the likeness of God, and the highest of all things to be desired, to become God.”32 Today the Orthodox continue to maintain the primacy of theosis:

For the Three Hierarchs theology, or knowledge of God, was a dynamic of love which culminated in union and communion with the tripersonal God.33

Emphasizing word but maintaining a healthy appreciation for the limits of man, Williams does offer some commentary that is essentially sympathetic to a theology of theosis. He concedes that “the content of special revelation finally, is the declaration of God’s ultimate purpose:

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Category: Fall 2016, In Depth

About the Author: Brian C. Smith, M.A. (Regent University), already had extensive ministry experience before pursuing his Ph.D. studies. Brian is a U.S. Army veteran and has been involved in refugee outreach, harbors ministry, prison outreach, kids crusades, preaching and evangelism in the USA and in eight countries in Western and Eastern Europe.

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