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Theosis

Note of the Day – December 27

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In the previous note, I discussed aspects of the Prologue to the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1-18) which relate to the idea of the birth of incarnation of Christ as the Son of God, as well as some interesting parallels to the language and terminology found in the annunciation to Mary (Lk 1:28-35). The two most relevant of these—the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) and the title ui(o\$ qeou= (“Son of God”)—come together in John 1:13.

John 1:13

In order to view this verse properly in context, we must begin with the first portion in verse 12:

“But as (many) as received him, to them he gave the exousia [i.e. ability/authority] to come to be [gene/sqai] (the) offspring of God [te/kna qeou=, i.e. sons/children of God]—to the ones trusting in his name…”

The context is clear enough—Christ himself gives the ability to become “children of God” to believers (the ones who trust/believe in him). The the verb gi/nomai (cognate with genna/w) is used, more or less, in the sense of coming to be born, as is clear from the parallel in v. 13. The expression te/kna qeou= (“offspring/children of God”) is generally synonymous with ui(oi\ qeou= (“sons of God”), as demonstrated by a comparison of Rom 8:16-17, 21 with Rom 8:14, 19; Gal 3:26, etc. The Gospel and letters of John (Jn 11:52; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2) prefer te/kna qeou=; based on the slight evidence available, Luke (and the Synoptics) tends to use ui(oi\ qeou= (cf. Lk 20:36; and 6:35, where it is u(yi/stou instead of qeou=, as in Lk 1:32).

The sentence continues in verse 13:

“…who, not out of blood [lit. bloods] and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh and not out of (the) will of man, but (rather) out of God [e)k qeou=], have come to be (born) [e)gennh/qhsan]”

Note, again, a general parallel with Lk 1:28-35, especially if v. 35b is expanded with the additional (variant) e)k sou (“out of you”):

  • Jn 1:14—e)gennh/qhsan “(the ones who) have come to be born”
    Lk 1:35—to\ gennw/menon “the (one) coming to be born”
  • Jn 1:14—e)k qeou= “out of God”
    Lk 1:35—[e)k sou=] “[out of you]” (v.l.)

In Lk 1:35, Jesus is born (as a human being) out of Mary’s body (i.e. her “flesh”); in Jn 1:14, believers are born (spiritually) out of God. The spiritual birth of believers is referred to on several occasions in the Gospel of John, most notably in the famous passage Jn 3:3-8, where the verb genna/w appears 8 times; by contrast, as indicated in the previous note, it is used of Jesus’ incarnate (human) birth only in Jn 18:37. The Gospel writer’s use of genna/w in 3:3-8 will be discussed specifically in an upcoming note.

The author refers to believers as te/kna qeou= (“offspring/children of God”) rather than ui(oi\ qeou= (“sons of God”), as indicated above; for him (and the tradition/community in which he writes), there is only one true “Son” (ui(o/$) of God, and this is almost certainly the proper way to understand the term monogenh/$ in the  context of Jn 1:14, 18—Christ is the only [monogenh/$] (Son) of God the Father. Within the Gospel, Jesus frequently identifies himself as “(the) Son”, usually in terms of his relationship to, and identity with, God the Father. Believers come to be (born as) “children of God” through Christ—that is, we are dependent on him for our relationship to the Father. Paul says much the same thing (though in different terms) in Rom 8:3ff, 14-15, 22-29; Gal 3:26; 4:4-7.

Despite the many New Testament references to believers receiving a divine status and/or nature as sons/children of God, Christians throughout the centuries have, at times, been uncomfortable with this idea. It has been much more prevalent in Eastern (Orthodox) tradition, under the theological/doctrinal term qew/si$ (theosis), “deification, divinization”—the ultimate destiny of believers to become “like God”. Such an idea, understood in a particular “gnostic” sense, was opposed by (proto-)orthodox theologians such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. It seems also to have been connected to a specific view of Jesus’ birth (and his full/true humanity) which involved an interpretation of John 1:13:

As is clear from the majority text, the relative pronoun and form of genna/w which bookend verse 13 are in the plural: “(the ones) who…have come to be born [oi^e)gennh/qhsan]”, referring back to “as many as [o%soi]…the ones trusting [toi=$ pisteu/sousin]”. However, Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ §19) claims that the correct text has the singular: “(the one) who…has come to be born [i.e. o^$e)gennh/qh]”. He accuses the Valentinian “gnostics” of tampering with the text, changing the singular to the plural—instead of a reference to the birth/incarnation of Jesus, they make it refer to their own gnostic/spiritual ‘birth’. Tertullian cites the variant form again in §24, as does Irenaeus in Against Heresies III.16.2, 19.2; somewhat earlier, it is also found in the so-called Epistle of the Apostles (§3), as well as one manuscript (Latin MS b). A few scholars have argued that the minority reading (with the singular) is original, however the overwhelming textual evidence supports the reading with the plural. The error (if such it is) may have crept in through a careless reading of the text, thinking that the relative pronoun should refer back to the immediately prior words “his name”, especially since Christ is the implicit subject of the verb e&dwken (“he gave”), etc in verse 12. A scribe may thus have mistakenly “corrected” the text; the fact that the reading with the singular was advantageous in the context of early Christological debates with “gnostics”, could explain its temporary, limited popularity in the second century. For more on the text-critical issue in this verse, see the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition), pp. 168-9, and B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford:1993), p. 59.