Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Day with Ben Witherington: Theosis, Multiform Salvation

The series of lectures that Witherington presented were on ethics, and so it is unsurprising that his focus was on moral aspects of the New Testament. In fact, I would have been annoyed had it been otherwise. After all, I did not come to hear a lecture on the role of the intellect in salvation or on the eschatological hope for life. Unfortunately, Witherington did not merely ignore other aspects of soteriology but actively subordinated them to his moral agenda. After his rejection of theosis as a proper interpretation of 2 Peter 1, Witherington insisted that our participation in the divine nature was a moral participation: a grace-empowered imitation of the divine moral attributes. He spoke of knowledge as a means of understanding those characteristics but not as an area in which we partook of divinity. He explicitly rejected the idea that we should partake of any characteristic of divine being. It is precisely in these areas that I think theosis improves on the deficient Western means of understanding salvation.

Witherington provided me with the pedagogical tool to lay out my opposition to his "moral only" view of participation in God, his ethics-driven view of salvation. He noted that in Scripture there are three predicates for God: God is love, God is life, and God is light. Witherington insisted that the first of these was most critical as it represented the moral character of God. I would suggest that there is a corollary between the way in which salvation grants increase and participation in the characteristics of God and these three predicates.

God is love, and I certainly do not mind Witherington pointing out the critical importance of this affirmation. Salvation does include moral perfection, as it should. Ours is a holy God, a God for Whom love is the highest expressed good. Our experience of the divine is one of love: love in the very act of creation, love in the governance of that creation, and love in the plan of redeeming creation. To encounter the divine is necessarily to be changed into the image of love, to love God and to love neighbor. The entire ethos of the New Testament is constructed on this axis and, if we trust the testimony of Christ, so is the Old Testament. To participate in God requires a holiness which manifests as love and a love which drives holiness. In the process of salvation, God cures us of the disease of sin, cooperates with us in keeping us morally healthy, and finally eliminates the potential for the disease altogether. That is an appropriate, even crucial, understanding of salvation. It is not, however, exhaustive.

God is also life, and life is not a moral characteristic of God. Yet, the most common images for salvation are those of the "new life" and of "eternal life." Unless we view this life as the mere absence of physical death and as a consequence of moral health--which I find to be a shockingly shallow understanding of the "life abundant" that we are promised--we must understand our being given life as being given a divine characteristic which is not moral. Life is a characteristic of being, and in that sense we may speak about it as an "ontological" quality of God (thought I realize how much qualification that would require). Salvation includes not merely a moral perfection and the elimination of evil, but also the elimination of sin's handmaiden, death, and a kind of perfection of our being. Salvation is not merely a process of God helping us to do good and forgiving us when we do evil, it is a an initiation into being good, not in the ethical sense of having good virtues which motivate good actions but in the metaphysical sense of having being which is being perfected by its contact with Being. Unless we view being as a static category which includes both Creator and creature, than we admit that a communion with a transcendent "being" can affect our very being.

Finally, God is light. In this we see that God is Truth and the revealer of truth. The fourteenth century hesychasts spoke of divine light as an object which was seen and the means by which that object was seen and the seeing subject by virtue of the transformative power of the light. This, I believe, is a fuller view of knowledge than Witherington suggests when he speaks of knowledge a means of revealing the moral character of God. Again, Witherington seems to limit knowledge merely to a possible bank of knowable facts. In Scripture, however, what the light exposes is not facts but Truth (a distinction which is both rhetorical and substantial, however trite it may seem). Knowledge is a means of encountering God, of unlocking or decoding the facts which are rationally perceived, and of combating ignorance which is a sinister force in the order of sin and death. Certainly as a part of this, we better understand both the moral and ontological character of God and of our own salvation, but knowledge has merit which transcends the auxiliary function Witherington wants to assign to it. To know is something in itself, provided that we understand knowing in a way that ignores the limitations that science is attempting to artificially impose on knowledge.

However artificial that schema may be, I think it appropriately conveys the point: salvation is comprehensive. When we encounter God, which is itself the means of salvation, the result is not merely moral perfection. It is not "merely" anything. The come into contact with the divine is transformative experience whose ramifications are total. It is perhaps even inappropriate to speak in even so broad of categories of moral, ontological, and epistemological aspects of salvation. In truly apophatic style, it may be best to keep silent as to the true scope of salvation. Certainly, however, a view of salvation which involves only the erasure of sin and the perfection of moral virtue leaves much of the human person unaffected by the intervention of the divine, something that contact with divinity would seem to preclude by its very nature.

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