An odd but well-known locution used by Paul throughout his letters is "in Christ." Rudolf Bultmann, arguably the most influential New Testament Scholar of the twentieth century, described this expression as denoting an individual's mystical relationship to Christ, from which the actual life of the believer is lived not out of himself but out of Christ. He continues: "It makes no difference whether Paul speaks of the believer's being in Christ or Christ's being in the believer."1 Perhaps Bultmann is correct, but that may not be the case. It seems to me that the linguistic contexts of antiquity out of which these two different locutions are driven are very different.
Readers will be most familiar with the expression of Christ being in the believer: for example: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20; compare, Rom 8:9-11; 1 Cor 3:16; 2 Cor 13:5). The language of these expressions finds its natural locus in the well-known context of spirit and demonic possession in the ancient world: for example, Mark 9:25-27; Luke 8:26-33; Matt 12:43-45a=Luke11:24-26; Luke 22:3.
On the other hand, the language of the believer "being in Christ" is different; for example, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away behold, the new has come" (2 Cor 5:17; Rom 16:7; 2 Cor 12:2; 1 Thess 4:16). The natural location of these kinds of expressions is found in a mystic encounter whereby the believer seeks to become one with deity, or to become deity; that is to say it is the process of deification or divinization; for example, Corpus Hermeticum I.25-26 describes the process of deification, or divinization:
The human being rushes up through the cosmic framework…And then stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework the human enters the region of the Ogdoad [the eighth sphere]; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father. Those present there rejoice together in his presence, and having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist beyond the ogdoadic region and hymn god with sweet voice. They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into god. This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god.
This experience is a "birth of mind," of which the teacher claims: "we have been divinized by this birth" (CH XIII. 10; see similar statements in CH IV.6; X.24-25; XI.20; XII.1, 14). In a hymn Trismegistus (Thrice Great Power) praises the god Asclepius: "We rejoice that you have deigned to make us gods for eternity even while we depend on the body" (Asclepius 41; see also 6, 22).2
A final example comes from the Neoplatonic philosopher, Plotinus (A.D. 204-70): The soul holds an "intent towards that unity to which all souls should move and the divine souls always move , divine in virtue of that movement; for to be a god is to be integral with the Supreme" (Ennead VI. 8).3
Paul seems to share such a view and puts it this way in 1 Cor 6:17: "But the person joined to the Lord becomes one spirit." Many translators add the words "with him" to the end of the sentence, but the words are lacking in the Greek. The inclusion of a clarifying "with him" in the translation suggests a dualism whereby the person and the Lord retain their individual identities in the unity, but Paul only says the two become one spirit. The same is true of the previous verse (1 Cor 6:16): whoever joins with the prostitute becomes one body." It is no longer he and she sharing one body, they are one body. Other arguments about unity seem to support this idea. For example, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female "are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28; see also 1 Cor 10:16-17; 12:12-13).
While Paul does not explicitly say that "becoming one spirit" with the Lord is essentially becoming divine, he nevertheless uses the language of deification and it could easily have been understood in that way by his contemporaries. The author of Second Peter, on the other hand, has no hesitation and described people who shared his faith (2 Pet 1:1) as having "come to share in the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). One who has come to share in the divine nature has essentially become divine himself—or so it would seem. At least that is how the Christian experience is understood by the Orthodox Church of today, where deification or theosis is the aim of the Christian life:
[Saint] Basil described man as a creature who has received the order to become a god; and Athanasius…said that God became man that man might become god…Such, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, is the final goal at which every Christian must aim: to become god, to attain theosis, 'deification' or 'divinization.' For Orthodoxy man's salvation and redemption means his deification.4
Does sharing the divine nature make one divine?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1 Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (1951), 1.328
2 Quotations from the Hermetica are from Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica. The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a new English translation with notes and introduction (1992). The dates of CH are given as A. D. 2-5.
3 Translation by Stephen MacKenna, Plotinus, The Enneads (1991).
4 Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (1963).