Wednesday 13 December 2006

Theology for beginners (22): Glorification

This is the final part of the series: the whole series is here.

Summary: At the End, God deifies all creatures by raising them up to participate in the movement of his own life; thus we are summoned to join with all creatures in the harmonious symphony of God’s triune love.

The goal that awaits us all is participation in God. Our stories are lifted up and integrated into the story of God’s own identity. This is precisely what “salvation” means. Our little stories are broken and fragmented, but God heals them and makes them whole. Our stories are without meaning, without narrative closure, but God completes them, so that our lives are flooded with the radiance of his own truth, his own meaning, his own reality.

The integration of our stories in the story of God may thus be described as our “deification.” In Jesus, God becomes one with us so that we can be one with him. This does not mean, of course, that God erases the distinction between himself and his creatures. It does not mean that God eliminates our finitude or our temporality. Rather, it means that God elevates his creatures to participate in the inexhaustible riches of his own life as it has unfolded in the history of Jesus. God raises us up to enter into the movement of his own divine identity as Father, Son and Spirit.

We might speak, therefore, of a narrative deification of all created reality. The stories of all creatures are made to participate in God’s story – each particular fragmented and finite narrative is woven into the perfect and infinitely detailed fabric of God’s own identity. All that we are is gathered up into the vibrant and differentiated interplay of the life of God.

Thus our creatureliness, our temporality, our embodiedness are elevated and preserved. We don’t enter into some sort of timeless existence, some disembodied afterlife: on the contrary, it is precisely this life, this embodied existence, this temporal history that God raises up and deifies. All our particular life-histories – just as they are! – are taken up into the divine dance of God’s eternity.

Far from erasing the distinction between creator and creatures, therefore, God deifies his creatures by bringing them together and weaving them into the living event of his own deity. The same Spirit who creates difference now preserves and upholds our otherness and our finitude – but he transforms all this into something wholly new. Through the Spirit, God glorifies all his creatures in the light of his own glory. He raises us up in the radiance of his presence. He transforms all his creatures – just as they are! – into a “new creation,” just as through the Spirit he also transformed the dead body of Jesus into the new body of resurrected life.

As God’s creatures, we therefore remain what we really are – but we are transposed into a different key. We retain all our difference and all our particularity vis-à-vis God – but we are now woven into the fabric of God’s identity. We are no longer separate from God. As different creatures with different stories, we continue to speak with our own unique voices – but the Spirit now brings all our voices together into a single harmony of praise and delight. The Spirit integrates all our life-movements into the single dance of the divine life – a dance in which the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father through the communion-giving presence of the Spirit.

This triune harmony is the fitting goal of all creation. To be a creature is to be summoned to participate in this harmonious celebration of the love of God’s triunity. In the End, when all creation is raised up before God, when all that exists joins together in this single harmony, we will hear this sound as the sound of God’s own life, the sound of Father, Son and Spirit who dwell together in a symphony of joy and delight that is always new. In the End, we will hear this sound as the sound of love, the love that is God’s own deity. The end of all our ways is to find our place within this song of love, to find ourselves lifted up into the movement of God’s music, in harmony at last with God and with all things.

Or to put it another way: the end of all our ways is the vision of God, the sight of God’s own radiant beauty and piercing clarity, the sight of all things flooded with the light of this beauty. The end of all our ways is to see this glory – the glory of the Father who loves the Son, and of the Son who gives himself to the Father, and of the Spirit who opens Father and Son to one another and to us in the joy of love.

The end of all our ways is this joyous completion, this glorification, this “new creation” of harmony and delight. At the End, there is only music – the music of the triune God who loves all his creatures and with love gathers them into the life of his kingdom.

Further reading

  • Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Theo-Drama, Vol. 5 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998).
  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III/2, § 47; IV/3, §73.
  • Fergusson, David and Marcel Sarot, eds. The Future as God’s Gift (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000).
  • Hart, David Bentley. The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 395-411.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 309-69.
  • Jones, Joe R. A Grammar of Christian Faith, Vol. 2 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), pp. 689-748.
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Coming of God (London: SCM, 1996).
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 527-646.
  • Smith, Byron. “Heaven: Not the End of the World” (2006).


byron smith said...

Christian asks a good question: is the end also a beginning?

And I also really loved the idea of a narrative understanding of deification. Yet is this simply the unveiling of what is already the case (that we are all and each part of God's story), or a making new?

Beauty seems to be a key idea in this final post: from narrative, to vision, to music.

And thanks for the reference - though I doubt my rants belong in that company!

byron smith said...

Congratulations on finishing the series. I'm really glad you made it. I'm sure many others will say the same, but it has been excellent - I'm sure I'll continue to use as a resource.

Anonymous said...

Ditto Christian (and Byron) on the "new narrative". Not long before he died, a Cardiff theologian named Michael Walker ended a book entitled The God of Our Journey (1989): "At last we shall have arrived at our home. Yet, who knows what other journeys may await us within the limitless possibilities of God's eternity?" (a line I often use at funerals). Perhaps your last line shoud not-end . . . (!)

I am certainly sorry to see the series end. It is truly a magnificent achievement, and has given bloggers a treasure of insights and a heartful of joys.

Perhaps one day I shall do a "Ten Propositions on Ben Myers"!

Anonymous said...


There are quite a lot of other substantive remarks I would like to make about the content of your presentation, but I'll limit myself to just one little side issue. I won't ask how two things can be one and distinct in the sense that we are one with God and that the 'infinite qualitative distinction' between ourselves and God is not erased. I won't ask how something can be 'radically transformed' to the extent that the process can be called 'deification', and yet remain self-identical. I'll leave those kinds of questions to other theologians who would doubtless know how to press those questions more thoroughly than I would. What I will object to is the nihilism implicit in this picture. I'll even use Nietzsche to fight your postmodern-cum-Plotinian universalism.

You say, "Our stories are without meaning . . ." until they are reabsorbed into God's story. This is the point where Nietzsche will point his finger and tell you that you are a nihilist. Christians are nihilists insofar as there think there is no value to life and so they look to something beyond life to give it meaning. It is because of claims like these that Nietzsche understands Christianity as a religion of decadence, because it is based on the hatred of life.

There is nothing that gives life meaning. Life is its own value and it doesn't need justification from outside itself.

While there are lots of parts of Nietzsche's treatment of Christianity which are severely lacking, on this issue he has a point. Christianity ought not to try to convert people by saying something like, "Listen to me sinner, right now your life is meaningless, but accept Jesus as your savior, and then it will have meaning."

This is pure decadence. Say a prayer and everything is resolved. As if conversion makes one's life make sense. As if faith gives one certainty about God and all the rest of our existential concerns. It does not.

Life has it's own integrity, and for the enjoyment of life faith is not necessary. Life also has its own perplexities which faith is insufficient to resolve. Perhaps in the resurrection everything will make sense, but it is vacuous to claim that it all makes sense here and now.

Life is a miracle and a debacle at the same time but it isn't an empty sign waiting to be filled with meaning by God. It has a meaning and value of its own already, although perhaps this meaning will receive a new interpretation at the resurrection.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shane: thanks for your helpful and incisive comment. I agree with the point you're making here (and with Nietzsche's critique of Christian nihilism) -- and I think my statement that "our stories are without meaning" was definitely overdrawn.

What I really had in mind was our stories' lack of narrative closure -- their lack of a fitting end which provides a semantic context in light of which the whole story receives its proper meaning. So it was unnecessary and misleading of me to say in an unqualified way that "our stories are without meaning".

Anyway, perhaps I could have expressed this better if I had placed more emphasis on the contingent nature of the eschatological consummation -- it is not a "necessary" conclusion to our stories, but it is a surprising and unexpected (yet perfect and fitting) conclusion.

To borrow Eberhard Jüngel's phrase, then: the eschatological consummation is not "necessary" for human meaning -- but it is "more than necessary"!

Halden said...

This is a truly excellent post, Ben. A fitting conclusion to a fine series.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shane.

I don't want to be a knave, let alone a fool, and play the "paradox" card too quickly (as, admittedly, it, along with the "mystery" card, can be sheer theological sleight of hand, the last refuge of a lazy thinker), and I certainly respect the rigour of your own intellectual powers, but am I right that you have a fundamental problem over (for want of a better expression) the conjunction of opposites - e.g. in my case, that humans can be both physical and spiritual, in Ben's that they they can be "deified" and yet remain human? Or take Chalcedon: I take it to be a legitimate point of departure for theologians doing Christology, not something that they feel they must first demonstrate, or about which they must first offer an explanation before they get on with the job, rather it is something that they can assume and then exegete, along the lines of Anselm's fides quaerens intellectum. Indeed theological methodology itself is a dogmatic issue. Or (another example) Luther's homo simul peccator et justus -is that, for you, not so much wrong as simply meaningless? These are genuine questions; I am trying to understand you and what you are driving at.

As for Nietzsche, at least I can completely agree with you about the wrong-headedness of the approach to "converting" folk that you describe. Analagously, Bonhoeffer (who was a great expositor of Nietzsche and considered him something of a prophet) decried the kind of evangelism that feels that it first has to expose humans in their weakness, or go sniffing around their sins (as he memorably put it). But then as Nietzsche himself said, "the most serious Christians have always been well disposed towards me."

Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer - as well as Ben - would deny that the meaning of human life is in se; on the contrary, it is extra se, because en Christo. But not pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, because -another paradox, I'm afraid - Christian eschatology is both futuristic and realised: the God to whom we go in the eschaton of the eschaton is the God who came in the eschaton of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. With you, I would be prepared to say that "life is its own value" and "has its own integrity", but only because (and would you be prepared to say?) the Word became flesh and because Christ will come again in glory.

As for faith being a bolthole where "it all makes sense here and now", only an idiot would say such a thing - and Ben is not an idiot. Me? I may well be. You certainly would not be alone in thinking so!


byron smith said...

I wonder whether (to again switch metaphors) Lewis' discussion of 'transposition' mightn't be relevant here. Our lives presently make the (non)sense that they do, but once 'transposed' by resurrection, it is like a piano piece rescored for full orchestra. The 'same' notes are struck, but with colour and tone not possible on a piano alone. It is the 'same' tune, but fuller and more glorious. For those who have only heard the piano piece (as beautiful as it might be), the piece now makes a new and fuller sense.

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for this metaphor, Byron, which is brilliant -- that really captures it beautifully.

I'm currently in the midst of expanding and rewriting the whole series as a book, so I'll definitely incorporate this metaphor -- it sums up exactly what I was trying to get at.

Halden said...

Hans Urs von Balthasar also has a very helpful discussion of the idea of transposition in the Theo-Drama, vol. III, pp. 122-142.

Anonymous said...

Byron and Halden.

I too find the idea of "transposition" a helpful metaphor. And of course metaphor is not merely ornamental, it carries epistemological freight. The deployment of metaphor in theology is not only a reasonable thing to do, it is essential. So too the deployment of a dialectical method. Barth was adept at both.

I say this lest what I said above to Shane sound obscurantist. Having heard the patristics scholar Frances Young lecture last week, I returned to her little gem (now an SCM "classic"!) The Making of the Creeds. Discussing Chalcedon she says that "the basic question was how can one thing be two things at once. Whatever terms that question is expressed in, it remains a natural question, and a persistent challenge to the rational expression of Christian claims"; and that while "No simple and satisfactory definition within human terms will ever be adequate to the mystery, ... that does not absolve us from the necessity of struggliing with it, if only to ensure that simplistic and inadequate accounts are seen to be as inappropriate as they are. And that means that Chalcedon is more than paradox and more than parameters. It points us in positive directions while standing against the mistaken notion that the problem is like chemistry." As with Chalcedon, so too with the Last Things.

I suspect that Frances Young would agree with Tennyson's verse:

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of Thee,
and Thou, O Lord, art more than they.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the clarification, that was what I was looking for.


Please don't take too gloomy a view of me. I am not a philosopher-spoilsport trying to argue that theology is meaningless. But, I am convinced that the current idiom of academic theology is strongly slanted towards being bullshit and that it needs a corrective quite badly.

You are quite right to say that reveling in paradox is a sleigh-of-hand that has no place in theological thinking. The trick is to distinguish mystery, paradox and contradiction.

A mystery is something you don't understand because of it's subject matter. The trinity is a mystery for us because we have no really satisfying creaturely analogues to compare it to.

A paradox is a logic puzzle. "This sentence is false."

A contradiction occurs when the same predicate is affirmed and denied of the same subject in the same way at the same time. A is non-A. All contradictions are false. No one is ever justified in believing a contradiction--which means Christianity ought not to imply any.

The goal of theology is not to produce any contradictions, to eliminate the paradoxes insofar as possible and to find ever better expressions for the content of the mysteries. (it is the province of the Christian philosophers to show that the doctrine of the trinity is not a contradiction, for example . . . but that's a different issue).

Re Luther: I don't think the simul iustus et peccator is a paradox or a contradiction for Luther. (Remember the scholastic maxim: When you encounter a contradiction, make a distinction.) Luther himself distinguishes the homo coram mundi from the homo coram deo. As I understand Luther, it is the homo coram mundi which is the sinner and the homo coram deo which is iustus. Now whether that distinction works or is true or has sufficient exegetical support is a different issue, but I don't think it's a bald contradiction.

Hope these remarks are helpful,


Anonymous said...

Hi Shane.

Your remarks - and the distinctions you draw - are very helpful and well put (I love the scholastic maxim). Thanks.

Theology is, of course, rational reflection on, thinking in the wake of, revelation. Gregory of Nyssa said that "Concepts create idols. Only wonder understands" - but he never suggested that mystery is a muddle!

It seems to me that when God encounters reason, reason comes away from the tryst humbled, chastened, corrected, marked "could do better", but also empowered and encouraged to continue its ministry of articulation, saying something sensible - and saying it better.

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