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Bridging the ontological gap: Incarnation and Theosis in the Gospel of John

The building of bridges presupposes both an open space and limits between two places as well as the intention to provide passage over this gap. One can also build stairway bridges that literally or metaphorically link two different levels. The latter is the case in the Fourth Gospel which opens its narrative by describing how God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ bridges the divine sphere with the human one. The author himself alludes at the very end of ch 1 to the ladder of Jacob described in Gen 28:12 and thus interprets God’s action in Christ as the revelation of a giant stairway bridge connecting heaven and earth: „Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.“ (Jn. 1:51). However, it is striking that the fourth Evangelist omits any reference to the ladder which is mentioned in Jacob’s vision in Gen 28. This occurs not because Christ is identified with Jacob but due to the fact that the ontological gap between divine and human sphere has already been bridged in Christ himself. JHWH is present in Christ because the divine Logos became flesh.

The whole Gospel describes how the God of the OT himself acts through the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection of the Word and how humans are ontologically united with Him by being born by Water and Spirit or, to put it in other terms, to be begotten “from above”. God becomes flesh so that those who believe in the divine identity of Christ become children of God. The Incarnation of Christ and the formation of the children of God are presented in the Prologue of the fourth Gospel and cannot be viewed separately.[1] I am referring to the very crucial verses of the Johannine prologue:

Jn. 1:12–14: 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

While the Word becomes flesh, the converts who previously were born of the will of the flesh are transformed by beholding[2] the glory of Christ and being born by “water and Spirit” as the same author mentions in ch. 3.

According to the testimony of Philo[3], Jews were speculating that by his ascension on the Mount Sinai Moses had received a second nature. He was deified. For he had not experienced a new creation but rather a second birth because he was begotten by God on the mountain.[4] Thus, he received a divine nature. Probably, John draws on this tradition when he interprets human turning to faith and baptism as becoming children of God or being borne from above. However, the fourth Evangelist does not only transform this Hellenistic-Jewish tradition about Moses but he takes radical further steps. In John’s view, deification of man does not occur as a result of human ascension to God but rather as a result of God’s bridging the ontological gap between human and divine nature through the Christ event. It results from the Word’s becoming flesh. It is God`s inexplicable love for humans which transcends the limits of different natures and opens the path for human deification.

Another contemporary to John Greek author, Plutarch, identified reflecting about the truth as a lodging for the divine nature (ὄρεξις θειότητος, Is. Os. 351E). He drew on the mid-platonic tradition which linked the idea of assimilation to God to the contemplative life. Yet, this understanding of deification is based on a worldview distinguishing between spiritual and material spheres. For John, human deification does not result from thinking about the truth but from God’s bridging the gap between human and divine sphere by becoming flesh. This insight was counter-intuitive for John’s time and could not be accepted by philosophers who adopted either the platonic dualism or the Stoic pantheism.

Early Exegetes of John like Cyril of Alexandria (378–444 C.E.), who have read the fourth Gospel from the same perspective of this ontological bridging, have detected a kind of embodied deification which occurs in Christ. This is because the Logos does not indwell the human world only as wisdom but restores and deifies the whole human nature with her spiritual and material aspects. The human body, the flesh of the Lord (Jn. 2:21), becomes the temple of God where angels service JHWH for Christ and JHWH are one. This is the reason why the Fourth Evangelist though alluding to Jacob’s vision at Bethel he does not refer to the stairway bridge at all. JHWH’s glory which Isaiah saw in heaven (Is. 6) is now embodied on earth.[5]

Therefore, the one who turns to Christ experiences not only a spiritual transformation but also a restoration of one’s body. God dispenses His grace not only to the human soul but also to the human body. Therefore, the renewal of the human body in the fourth Gospel is not only a process which will be fulfilled in the future. The narrative concerning the healing of the man born blind in John 9 demonstrates that Jesus is already restoring human body on the last day, Sabbath, i.e. an allusion to the eschatological era which emerges through His incarnation. Cyril of Alexandria (on Jn. 9:7 In Joannem VI.I) notices about this text that Jesus creates human eyes anew by His saliva because it is not only His word but also His “deified body” which includes life-giving energy. Accordingly, the coming to faith of the healed man causes not only a moral or spiritual change but rather a “pneumasomatic“ healing.

From this point of view, Jesus’s words regarding the eating of His body and drinking His blood in John 6 are not only a metaphor about the acceptance of a universal truth or faith but also a reference to a deep union with Christ who is both explicitly and implicitly described as the bridegroom in the Fourth Gospel (3:29). During the ritual banquet of the Johannine community, believers experienced this ritual as participation in Jesus’s deified flesh that leads to life eternal.

To conclude, in John’s time those traditions who accepted a division between a human mortal and a divine immortal world believed that humans could bridge this gap by a mystical journey of the soul which can contemplate a universal truth. In the fourth Gospel, this mystical journey is not required because the chasm between human and divine world has already been bridged in Jesus Christ. In John’s view, humans can transcend ontological limits by turning to faith and being born by water and spirit. Thus, the baptized are no longer just created by God but they are united with him. However, this union refers to an ongoing and embodied process which requires that believers not only abide in Christ’s fellowship and are united in one body with him but also bear similar fruits to that of the Son of God. In the fourth Gospel, the fruits of the believers refer both to love ethics as well as to missionary achievements. Thus, the concept of incarnation is not only linked to the idea of deification but also to a process of bridging the chasm between the community and the world.

[1] Byers, Eccelesiology and Theosis in the Gospel of John, 60–70.

[2] The idea of transformation through vision of God is grounded in OT examples in Jn 1:14–18, echoing Ex 33–34; Cf. Jn 8:56; 12:40; cf. 1Cor 13:12; 2 Cor 3:18. See Keener, Gospel, 412.

[3] QE 2:46.

[4] Leg. 1:31.

[5] Weinrich, John, 285–295.

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