Triadosis: Union with the Triune God
Interpretations of the Participationist Dimensions of Paul's Soteriology
- ISBN: 9781532646034
- Published By: Pickwick Publications
- Published: February 2019
In the past three decades the doctrine of theosis (the notion that human beings can become God, gods, or in some sense, divine) has experienced a renaissance within the Protestant West, though biblical specialists have been far more reticent to ascribe explicitly deiform intentions to the Pauline corpus than their theologian counterparts. Still, exceptions exist—most notably, Stephan Finlan, M. David Litwa, Ben C. Blackwell, and Michael Gorman. Eduard Borysov’s Triadosis: Union with the Triune God is a recent addition to this growing sphere of inquiry and is proffered as a corrective to possible confusion surrounding the use of theosis to describe Paul’s theology. Concerning this, Borysov notes:
For some theologians, the word points to widespread ancient beliefs about the transformation of worshippers into the likeness of a deity that influenced Paul’s thinking; for others, it points to a distinctive element in early Christian theology radically different from other ancient thought…If the range of meanings is not to confuse, there needs to be a study that examines its complexity, offering some criticism of the various approaches and their inadequacies (1).
For Borysov, criticism of “various approaches and their inadequacies” responds to depictions of Pauline theosis that are “too over-imposing (Litwa), too narrow (Blackwell), or too general (Gorman, Finlan)” (ix). To rebut these conceptions, Borysov employs a tripartite methodology: (1) an historical-critical approach “applied in response to the historical-critical (religionsgeschichtliche) work of Litwa”; (2) an examination of reception history in response to Blackwell’s approach, which “corresponds to what is known as ‘effective history’ (Wirkungsgeschichte)”; and (3) a sensitive appraisal of the diverse theological traditions that “use the concepts of theosis and deification in ways that are more complicated and nuanced than some New Testament scholars recognize” in order to critique “whether Gorman uncritically collapses tradition back onto Paul” (5–6).
While ambitious, a significant weakness of Borysov’s monograph is that—though devoting space to sustained critiques of Blackwell’s, Litwa’s, and Gorman’s interpretations of Paul—it includes no original analysis or engagement with the Pauline corpus. Rather, it details historic conceptions of theosis and brings them into conversation with the authors above. Chapter 2 examines the early church and contends that four “concrete trajectories” of theosis exist: (1) the transformation of Christian gnostics into bodiless spiritual beings through apotheosis; (2) the transformation of saints into Christlikeness through christosis; (3) the transformation of believers into the image of the tripersonal God through triadosis, which is realized in the church; and (4) the transformation of Christian contemplators into Godlikeness through energeosis (195). As the monograph’s title suggests, Borysov proposes that triadosis, a trajectory he posits was held by the Cappadocian fathers, best encapsulates Paul’s conception of salvation.
Beyond being an apt lens to understand Paul, Borysov argues that a trinitarian soteriology brings “more coherence to the theologies of the apostle, Luther, and Calvin”—a theme explored in chapter 3, where he concludes that the latter two thinkers “are in essential agreement with the patristic vision of participation in the life of the Trinity by means of incorporation into Christ through the Spirit” (122). To be sure, the implicit proposal of this chapter is dubious—that is, that Martin Luther and John Calvin offer more robustly trinitarian accounts of salvation than Cyril and Irenaeus (Christosis), Evagrius (apotheosis), or even Gregory Palamas (energeosis). Moreover, it is difficult to see how this chapter advances Borysov’s overall argument about Pauline soteriology, since his discussion is delimited to examining trinitarian Reformation conception(s) of salvation sans any comparison with Pauline texts.
A similar critique of Borysov’s discussion of John Zizioulas in chapter 4 is apropos, though here Borysov is on much firmer footing when suggesting that Zizioulas is a robustly trinitarian “theosis-centric” theologian. Turning to chapter 5, while Borysov’s purported disagreements with Litwa, Blackwell, and Finlan may be well-grounded (at least, in terms of not cohering with his notion of triadosis), his dismissal of Gorman is surprising, as the latter defines theosis as “transformative participation in the life of the Triune God” in his most recent monograph (Michael Gorman, Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul’s Theology and Spirituality, Baker Academic, 2019).
Still, whether or not Borysov is aware of the trinitarian character of Gorman’s conception of theosis, his main contention with Gorman is that the “the church fathers maintained that God’s essence remains unknown and imparticipable to humans, while the divine attributes reveal personal qualities of the Trinity,” (193)—a distinction he suggests was maintained in the writings of Luther and Calvin. Yet even this critique is problematic. While an essence-attribute distinction is true enough within the Eastern tradition, Borysov’s absolute pronouncement entirely ignores a rich Western tradition that conceptualizes deification as being participation in the essence of God without comprehension of the essence of God.
Despite these concerns, Borysov’s volume advances the conversation about Pauline theosis in important ways. First, he is certainly correct that clarity is required when characterizing Pauline soteriology as theosis. Second, his inclusion of multiple interpreters, despite the above critiques of how successfully he uses them, increases the plausibility of interpreting Paul in a deiform manner. Third, Borysov’s emphasizing the trinitarian character of Pauline theosis in conversation with both the Cappadocians and Zizioulas is noteworthy. Both their shared notions of perichoretic union (that is, the notion that two or more beings can mutually indwell one another) and Zizioulas’ conception of relational personhood helpfully broaden discussions of Pauline theosis—which, as previous scholars rightly note, includes individualistic transformation—to include its communal dimensions. Regarding this, Borysov states that “this communion transforms estranged biological creatures into spiritual persons, who realize their potential and ultimate goal in the life of the church and the Trinity” (148), and further notes that research related to the body of Christ is needed “to elucidate the external and corporate effect of triadosis” (198).
Overall, this volume is an invaluable resource for biblical studies students, if only to be exposed to historical theology. Moreover, it is a welcome addition to the ongoing line of inquiry related to Pauline theosis, notwithstanding the above critiques. In brief, Borysov’s work will advance dialogue between historical theology and Pauline studies, and additionally bolster depictions of Pauline soteriology as theosis.
Michael M. C. Reardon is the academic dean and professor of biblical languages and religious thought at Canada Christian College in Whitby, Ontario.Michael ReardonDate Of Review:May 3, 2021