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Chapter 24: Christians: Human Children of God

Question C: How intimate a communion does God establish with us?

1. God’s love makes us his children: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn 3.1). As his children, we are called to share intimately and fully in his own life: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3.2).7 To be reborn as a child of God is to be begotten of the Spirit. The Spirit is the principle of adoption by which we call out to God: “Abba!” (see Rom 8.15). “It is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8.16). God lovingly chooses those whom the Spirit will adopt in order that the Son might be the firstborn of many (see Rom 8.29).8

2. This way of speaking suggests a parity between the eternal Son and God’s adopted children. How seriously are we to take this suggestion?

3. Certainly we are not to take it in any way which would eliminate the distinction between the natural Sonship of our Lord, who is a divine person, and the adoptive sonship or daughtership of Christians, who remain human persons. Nevertheless, the personal communion in which Jesus wishes his disciples to remain is based upon a strict analogy with his Father’s love for him: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love” (Jn 15.9). Jesus wants it known that the Father loves his followers as the Father loves him (see Jn 17.23). It is the Father’s very love for Jesus which, together with Jesus himself, is to live in Christians (see Jn 17.26).9

Divine love transforms created persons into partners in communion who are related to the divine persons much as the divine persons are related to one another. This transformation is not imposed upon anyone. That divine life which is the eternal Word is revealed to humankind as a light to be accepted in faith; if it is accepted, human persons are reborn as children of God who share in the faithful love of God which is fully present in the Word Incarnate (see Jn 1.4–16).

Thus, if we are faithful: “God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4.12–16).

A mutual abiding-in, the unity of love, is established by God with his adopted children. On John 15.9, Spicq comments:

The great revelation of this verse is that the charity of the Father, the Son, and the disciples is on one and the same level and flows from one to the other without any interruption. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. You, yourselves, remain in this agape. The verse implies that charity is a bond; charity creates the union between those who love one another. It tells us that “to be in Christ” (v. 2) means to be in his love. Above all, it presents the relationship of the Father to the Son as the type and source of Christ’s relationship to his own disciples. There is so great a disproportion between the Son and the disciples that the statement is truly stupefying, but it is no arbitrary parallel or comparison. It is precisely the love most proper to God which reaches men through the intervention of Christ. God loves men in Christ, and they participate in his love and live from it in the most real sense.10

Now, as is argued above (and in appendix 1), God’s proper love is his very constitution as one only God in three divine persons. If it is correct that the love which is proper to God is extended to us in Jesus, then it follows that in him—through having been reborn by the Spirit—the very constitution of God includes us.

4. Human love is not an action but a disposition to that which fulfills. The mutual love of two or more human persons simultaneously perfects their identities and joins them in communion (see A above). Similarly, to abide in God’s love is to be drawn within the unity of God. This unity is so perfect that the divine persons, though utterly distinct, are also wholly in one another (see S.t., 1, q. 42, a. 5). The Father and Son are expressly said in Scripture to be in one another (see Jn 10.38; 14.11), and the Church teaches that this is mutually true of all three persons (see DS 1331/704).

5. In some way, God brings Christians into this divine unity. Jesus prays for all who will believe in him: “. . . that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17.21–23).11 Not only our Lord Jesus, but the Father and the Spirit as well, dwell in Christians (see Jn 14.17, 23).

6. Commenting on 1 John 4.17, where it is asserted that Christians are in this world as Christ is, Ceslaus Spicq, O.P., says: “The clause is not about qualities and virtues or even about states and modes of being in heaven and on earth, but simply about being. The burden of the comparison rests on the verb ‘to be.’ Just as he is, so we are. Who is he? He is the object of the disciples’ faith, Christ himself, precisely the incarnate Son of God. Jesus is God and man. Similarly, in this world, Christians are both men and gods.”12 Human persons remain always of human nature and always creatures; yet by a free self-giving of the divine persons, a self-giving which always presupposes their own interpersonal relationships, human persons also in a real way share—“share” in an irreducible sense—in divinity.

7. Although it may seem strange to us to speak of the divinization of human beings, the Fathers of the Church speak this way. St. Irenaeus says that Jesus “became what we are, so that he might bring us to be what he himself is” (FEF 248). St. Athanasius says of the Word: “He became man so that we might be made God” (FEF 752; cf. 780, 788). St. Basil the Great describes the effect of the gift of the Spirit by saying the Christian is “made God” (FEF 944). St. Augustine says Christians are deified by grace (see FEF 1468).13

Pope Pius XII warns us not to suppose that this intimate unity means that the Christian ceases to be a creature. Divine attributes cannot be predicated univocally of created persons (see DS 3814/2290). This warning cannot be ignored, but it also is true that communion by love in God’s life is a mystery which can no more be reduced to any other way of speaking than to that excluded by Pope Pius. In other words, what is revealed about the sharing of Christians in the unity of God is an irreducible truth. One ought not to try to fit it into other categories.14

8. In sum, there is a true sense in which it can be said of created persons who enjoy the grace of adoption that they are God. Thus we can say: “Mary is God, and Joseph is God, and Peter is God . . ..” Clearly, though, in saying this one is not using the word “God” in precisely the same way one uses it in saying the Holy Trinity is God. That is probably why the Fathers prefer to say “. . . is made God,” not simply “. . . is God.”

It will help to clarify what has just been stated if one considers the question: What does St. Paul mean when he speaks of the love of God which “has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5.5)? Many interpreters take “love of God” to mean God’s love for us rather than our love for God. However, St. Thomas takes “love of God” here to refer to our love (see S.t., 2–2, q. 24, a. 2). The Council of Trent refers to this passage in Paul when it teaches about the charity which is infused by the Holy Spirit into hearts and inheres in them (see DS 1530/800, 1561/821).

The First Epistle of John speaks of love in a somewhat similar passage, in which it is clear that the love in question is our love: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love” (1 Jn 4.7–8). Making reference to Romans 5.5, Spicq comments on the passage just quoted, saying that while Paul’s meaning is somewhat unclear, in this Epistle it is clear “that the Christian himself is the lover, for he has become capable of loving divinely.” Spicq also says that since the phrases “he who has been begotten by God” and “he who loves” are equivalent, “it is clear that the child of God has received a faculty or power of loving which is inherent in the divine nature he has come to share.”15

In Spicq’s view, no sharp distinction should be made between “love of God” meaning God’s love and the same phrase meaning our love. Rather, the phrase “represents a genitive of quality, ‘the love that is truly divine,’ already mentioned in 1 Jn 3.17. Before being subjective or objective [that is, in this context, God’s love of us or our love of God], love exists in itself as a distinct entity. It is possessed or shared by various persons and consequently has various manifestations, although it always keeps its own nature and essential laws. Perfect, authentic, full agape is described in 1 Jn 4.10. God possesses it supereminently and essentially (v. 8). He communicates it to his children, whom it enables to love their brothers and to love him. Love creates the stable union among all those who share the same divine nature.”16

Of course, Spicq does not mean that love is a something prior to God in which he shares. God is his own love. The important point Spicq is making is that the love of God which is poured forth in our hearts is a disposition to the divine goodness which God is, the goodness which God communicates first in creating, and ultimately in divinizing created persons. By this disposition created persons receive their own inherent capacity to act according to the divine nature in which they share by God’s grace.

Thus, in some true sense one can say of certain created persons—those in whom Jesus lives and who live in him—that they not only exercise human capacities in an appropriate and fulfilling way, but somehow also act in union with Jesus according to the divine nature in which they share. This conclusion seems to be supported by a remarkable passage in St. John of the Cross:

Having been made one with God, the soul is somehow God through participation. Although it is not God as perfectly as it will be in the next life, it is like the shadow of God. Being the shadow of God through this substantial transformation, it performs in this measure in God and through God what He through Himself does in it. For the will of the two is one will, and thus God’s operation and the soul’s is one. Since God gives Himself with a free and gracious will, so too the soul (possessing a will the more generous and free the more it is united with God) gives to God, God Himself in God; and this is a true and complete gift of the soul to God.
  It is conscious there that God is indeed its own and that it possesses Him by inheritance, with the right of ownership, as His adopted son, through the grace of His gift of Himself. Having Him for its own, it can give Him and communicate Him to whomever it wishes. Thus it gives Him to its Beloved, who is the very God who gave Himself to it. By this donation it repays God for all it owes Him, since it willingly gives as much as it receives from him.17

The exchange of love, initiated by God in creating humankind, comes to its fulfillment in such unity.

7. For exegesis of 1 Jn 3.1–2, see Brown, Epistles of John, 387–96 and 422–27.

8. The doctrines of divine election and predestination, firmly rooted in Scripture (see Rom 8.28–30) do not mean that anyone is predetermined to do evil (see DS 1567/827) but that there is a grace which is truly sufficient and it is really entirely God’s gift (see DS 2306/1296). Thus understood, predestination is an essential element of Catholic teaching, although it has been downplayed since the Reformation in reaction to distorted interpretations of it. For a brief summary, see A. G. Palladino, “Predestination,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 11:714–19; a longer treatment: R. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Predestination (St. Louis: Herder, 1946). For a summary of St. Augustine’s teaching on this matter, with references: Eugène Portalié, S.J., A Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine, trans. Ralph J. Bastian, S.J. (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960), 213–23. A key text in St. Thomas: S.t., 1, qq. 22–23; esp. q. 23, a. 1; see also S.c.g., 3, 163; De veritate, q. 6, a. 1.

9. This central truth of Christian faith and life is the kernel of the doctrine, richly unfolded by Emile Mersch, S.J., The Whole Christ: The Historical Development of the Doctrine of the Mystical Body in Scripture and Tradition, trans. John R. Kelly, S.J. (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1938); note especially the treatment of Jn 17.21–23 in the work of St. Athanasius (276–77), St. Hilary 301–4), and St. Cyril of Alexandria (345–53).

10. Spicq, op. cit., 35; also see Brown, Epistles of John, 520–26 and 553–60, and on mutual indwelling (or “abiding/remaining in”) 259–61 and 283–84.

11. For an exegesis of this passage, with references to much other exegetical work on it, see Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John (xiii–xxi), Anchor Bible, 29a (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970), 769–79. At the end of this section of commentary, Brown remarks parenthetically: “From the viewpoint of a later and more precise theology, one might like to have a sharper differentiation than John provides between God’s incarnation in Jesus and God’s indwelling in the Christian—in other words between natural Sonship and general Christian sonship. That such a distinction was not strange to Johannine thought may be indicated by John’s custom of referring to Jesus as the huios or ‘Son’ of God, while the Christians are designated as tekna or ‘children’; but no sharp differentiation is apparent in the verses we are considering.” My contention is that some later and more precise theology, in making the necessary distinction between God’s Incarnation in Jesus and his indwelling in the Christian, has made altogether too sharp a differentiation, so that the Johannine realism of Christians’ deification is reduced in practice to a mere metaphor.

12. Spicq, op. cit., 143; also see Brown, Epistles of John, 528–30 and 561.

13. See Victorino Capánaga, O.R.S.A., “La Deificación en la Soteriología Agostiniana,” in Augustinus Magister: Congrès International Augustinien (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1954), 2:745–54. Deification was downplayed in later Western Christianity, although it has a solid basis in Scripture and the Fathers of the Church: Petro B. T. Bilaniuk, “The Mystery of Theosis or Divinization,” in The Heritage of the Early Church, ed. D. Neiman et al., Orientalia Christiana Analecta, 195 (Rome: 1973), 337–59. Although Protestant in interpretation, Patricia Wilson-Kastner, “Grace as Participation in the Divine Life in the Theology of Augustine of Hippo,” Augustinian Studies, 7 (1976), 135–52, very helpfully shows how Augustine adopted and altered the Eastern teaching on divinization, thus leading to the Western theory of grace in which deification is downplayed.

14. Just as attempts to explain the Incarnation of the Word in other categories inevitably fail, so do attempts to explain in other categories the sharing of God’s adopted children in his life. In both cases, the revealed fact is a contingent one about God, and the predication is relational, as all contingent predication about God is. The proposition does not convey what God is in himself, but rather that whatever his always-mysterious inner reality is, God is what he must be to bring about realities related to him as are his Incarnate Son (Jesus) and his adopted children (Christians). See Bernard Lonergan, S.J., De verbo incarnato (thesis altera ad decimam), ed. 3 (Rome: Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, 1964), 252–55.

15. Spicq, op. cit., 124.

16. Ibid., 137.

17. St. John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, 3, 78, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1979), 641.