Partakers of the Divine Nature
What does it mean to be partakers of the divine nature? In what way is fallen and fallible man able to be said to share the perfect and infallible? Does the Christian merge with the divine being becoming ontologically equivalent with God or is the Christian changed from the inside out while retaining their creaturehood? These are the cruxes of the issue when discussing the matter of theosis as it relates to 2 Peter 1:4.
According to Douglas Harink, “we must seek a definition governed by Biblical teaching and orthodox doctrine regarding the Triune God, the uncompromised ontological distinction of creator and creature, humankind as created in the image and likeness of God, union with Christ, and the life-giving presence and power of the Holy Spirit.” (Harink, 246)
What are some of the things the Bible says of the Triune God and the ontological distinction of creator and creature? The Godhead, consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are uncreated, eternal, infinite in being and perfection, immutable, and each person of the Godhead has life in themselves not contingent upon any outside phenomenon (John 5:26, Job 11:7, James 1:17, 1 John 5:7, 2 Cor. 13:14). Man, on the other hand, is created (Genesis 1-2), mutable (Genesis 3), and contingent (Ps. 54:4). Therefore, there is an obvious distinction between God and man per the Scriptures that must be resolved in order to understand how a believer partakes of the divine nature.
What of the conversion of the fallen and dead sinner into a new a living creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17)? The key word there is “creation” as man is now and will forever be a creature in God’s creation. However, the Christian is indeed new, being conformed to the very image of Christ (Romans 8:29). The very concept of being conformed stands in contradistinction to the doctrine of the immutability of God. The mystery of theosis is found in human nature’s perfection in Christ, not its alteration or destruction (Harink, 247).
Since Christians do not now and never will become little God-humans, what exactly does partaking of the divine nature consist of? Partakers is often translated as “fellowship” or “sharers” and believers are in fellowship with the very life that belongs to God (MacArthur, 30-31). This is seen in such well known passages as John 1:11-13, Ephesians 2:4-6, and Titus 3:5 that speak directly to the new birth and regeneration/quickening. The Christian receives life in Christ (John 5:21) and through this life we have fellowship with both Christ and the Father (1 John 1:3). The life in Christ is also through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit as seen in passages such as Romans 8:9-10, 1 Corinthians 15:45, and Galatians 6:8.
Contextually, the reader must look at verse three for some clues in how to decipher the concept of being partakers in the divine nature that Peter wrote about in verse four. This passage includes the statement that God has given the believer all things that pertain to life and godliness and it should be noted that life is only obtained in and through the workings of the Godhead. Peter also speaks to God’s glory, which is His alone, and that the believer is called to it, not sharers of that glory.
The believer is called to Christ and united with Him without the creature being subsumed into the creator. Those who are alive in Christ reflect His glory into creation (Isaiah 60:1-3) without becoming part of it. To become part of God, part of glory, and receiving attributes that only belong to God would lend itself to a pantheistic worldview that is contrary to the orthodox teachings of the Christian Church.
It is also worth noting that being partakers of the divine nature is in direct accord with the promises made by God. The redeemed become participants of the God-man, members of the totus Christus (Harink, 247) and receive all the promises made in and to Christ. This includes the inheritance (Ephesians 1:11, Hebrews 9:15) as fellow heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:22-23), and eternal life (1 Peter 1:4), and likeness to Christ (1 John 3:2).
It is also interesting to consider the hypostatic union when considering this passage of Scripture. Christ, being the God-man, had both the divine nature and the human nature while neither nature was mingled or confused. The eternal Son of God, in the Incarnation, joined the divine to the human in one person while neither confounding or diminishing either. In being united to Christ, the believer’s human nature being conformed and renewed in Christ, can be joined to Him without becoming divine in and of itself. The joining of the two does not necessitate the mixing, the subsuming of the one of the other, or the confusion of what either ontologically are.
In conclusion, the believer does indeed partake of the divine nature, but in this sharing of that nature the creature does not lose its humanity. Rather than becoming less human, those who are in Christ become all that humanity was intended to be, that is in perfect fellowship with their Creator. The Christian does not become a little god but an eternal reflection of the faithfulness and glory of God.