Taking Another Look at Deification

The essays in this issue of Perspectives tackle a topic that might seem strange to readers habituated in the Reformed tradition. The word “deification,” if it rings a bell at all, is commonly associated with Eastern Orthodoxy or with Mormonism. Todd Billings, in his essay in this issue, notes that when students are first exposed to one of the ways that early Christian theologians thought about salvation – salvation as deification – they are taken aback. I often experience this disorientation with students as well. As a college and seminary student, I experienced that same vertigo and did not quite know what to do with it.

Deification, if it rings a bell at all, is commonly associated with Eastern Orthodoxy or with Mormonism.

It is true that some Reformed theologians do not speak highly of deification. Herman Bavinck, in Reformed Dogmatics, does not use the word positively. But there are also good reasons to get over this antipathy, and Bavinck does not represent the whole of the Reformed tradition. Carl Mosser’s essay argues that the doctrine is not just found in the Eastern church but that it has clear biblical roots and a long historical pedigree in many branches of the church (including the Reformed). Mosser also provides a historical orientation to the doctrine of deification, so that readers have some sense of its vocabulary and logic. Aaron Kuecker’s piece proposes that certain dynamics in the gospel of Luke put deification at the heart of Jesus Christ’s mission and at the heart of Christian discipleship. Todd Billings’ essay identifies deification as a way of naming what we ultimately desire in Christ and as a doctrine that John Calvin did not neglect.

Why is deification still a strange topic for Reformed communities of faith? Mosser’s essay goes some way to explain why deification is associated with the Eastern church to the exclusion of the Western. Beyond what Mosser says, it might be that the confessions of the Reformed churches de-emphasize this way of speaking of salvation. It is possible, however, given the sample of quotations that Billings offers from John Calvin in his essay, that we need another way to articulate these confessions. There might be more there than we think. As Trygve Johnson puts it in his Inside Out, we might need to go back to the attic of our tradition to see what’s there.

Keith Starkenburg teaches theology at Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, Illinois.

Photo: Sergio L.A. /Flickr; CC BY-NC 2.0 license.