In Jesus the Messiah, we “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), which is what God intended for us from the very beginning when he created humanity in his own image and likeness. The implication of this, however, is one that many Christians shy away from, for it means that in Christ we become divine. Yet this was the understanding of the early Church Fathers. For example:
- Irenaeus. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through his transcendent love, become what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself” (Against Heresies, Book 5, Preface).
- Clement of Alexandria. “And now the Word himself clearly speaks to thee, shaming thy unbelief; yea, I say, the Word of God became man, that you may learn from man how man may become God. Is it not then monstrous, my friends, that while God is ceaselessly exhorting us to virtue, we should spurn his kindness and reject salvation?” (Exhortation to the Heathen, Chapter 1)
- Athanasius. “For he was made man that we might be made God” (On the Incarnation, chapter 54). “Therefore he was not man, and then became God, but he was God, and then became man, and that to deify us” (Against the Arians, Discourse 1, Chapter 11). “For he has become Man, that he might deify us in himself, and he has been born of a woman, and begotten of a Virgin, in order to transfer to himself our erring generation, and that we may become henceforth a holy race, and ‘partakers of the Divine Nature,’ as blessed Peter wrote” (Personal Letter 60:4).
- God created us in his image and according to his likeness — that is, to be like him (Genesis 1:26-27). Jesus, who is God in the flesh, the express image of God in human form (Hebrews 1:3) came to restore us to that image, that godlikeness.
- In Christ, we have the right to become the children of God (John 1:12). As the child of a bird is a bird and the child of a lion is lion, so the children of God are divine.
- In Christ, we have union with the divine, with God — we become one in him and with him (John 17:20-23)
- In Christ, we are being conformed to the image of the Son of God, Jesus (Romans 8:29), who is the express image of God.
- In Christ, we have the very life of Christ, who is living his divine life in us (Galatians 2:20).
- In Christ, we have the very Spirit of God dwelling in us, producing in us his divine fruit — love, joy, peace, etc. (Galatians 5:22-23). By his divine Spirit, God, who is love (1 John 4:8) brings forth in us that which he is: love.
- In Christ, we participate in the divine nature, that is, the nature of God (2 Peter 1:4).
The reticence many Christians seem to feel about being identified so with the divine nature is often, I think, because they do not have a very good understanding about the hypostatic union of the divinity and humanity of Christ. Jesus is not a divided being, half half-human and half-divine. He is fully human and fully divine. He is the perfect expression of God in human form, and in him we have the perfect union of God and man. However, this could not be unless it were possible not only for God to be humanized but also for humanity to be divinized. In affirming the Incarnation, then, we are also necessarily affirming that humanity can become divine. And so it is for us through Christ: he participate in our human nature so that we may participate in his divine nature.
No doubt, it is hard for us to wrap our minds around this truth, just as it is hard for us to wrap our minds around the truth of the Incarnation, that God became human. Many Christians today are often not taught very well about either one, but for the early Church, it was a very important part of the Christian faith. Yet, our divinity in Christ is, like the Trinity and the hypostatic union, a mystery. The early Church did not try to explain these mysteries (such explanations usually ended up in heresy), but they identified them and preserved them for us. For example, we can define what the doctrine of the Trinity is, but we cannot adequately explain the mystery of it. Likewise our participation in the divine nature: we can identify the truth of it in Scripture, but we cannot adequately explain the mystery of it.
So it is with the language in 2 Peter, about participating in the divine nature. It is quite stunning, yet mysterious, for how can we fully understand what it means to partake of the divine nature if we cannot fully understand God himself? We can only affirm, with Scripture and the Church, that it is so: To participate in the divine nature means that we are divine beings, just as surely as participating in human nature means we are human beings.