Reviews of

Scott Hafemann, “Fellow participants of the ‘Divine Nature’ (theia fusis): 2 Peter 1:4 within its ‘Philosophical’ and Eschatological Context”

In 2 Peter, Apotheosis, Edinburgh, Eschatology, Kerry Lee, New Testament, NT Theology, Philo, Scott HAFEMANN, SEMINAR REPORTS on February 19, 2012 at 1:32 pm

A report on a paper given by Dr. Scott Hafemann (Reader in New Testament, University of St. Andrews) at the New College Biblical Studies Research Seminar, 17 February 2012, University of Edinburgh.

The list of forthcoming papers in the Biblical Studies Seminars at Edinburgh can be downloaded from here. RBECS is also on facebook, here.

Dr. Hafemann’s paper argued for a new reading of 2 Peter 1:4’s famous ινα δια τουτων γενησθε θειας κοινωνοι φυσεως, which has served as a prooftext for the concept of apotheosis in Christian theology since the time of the Church Fathers. Through a close reading of the text and a study of the classical use of the word φυσις, Hafemann argued against the typical understanding of this phrase as communicating a concept of an altered ontology, though what he wants to replace it with is not entirely clear.

Following the lead of ancient Christian theologians, modern commentators and translations of the New Testament encourage an understanding of φυσις which is essentially synonymous with ουσια, that is, a static non-physical quality or being. The whole phrase, generally translated something along the lines of “so that through these things you may become partakers of the divine nature and escape the corruption which is in the world because of passion,” is taken to describe an escape from human physicality, or what amounts to, as Ernst Käsemann points out, a collapse of Christian theology into Hellenistic dualism and Gnosticism. The escape from physicality has been understood in three ways: 1) a translation from the material world either at death or at the parousia; 2) a participation in God’s immortality in the future as well as already partaking of it in the present through aligning one’s moral behaviour with God’s holiness; 3) an experience of God’s presence and an escape from moral corruption in the present.

Over against this trend in interpretation, a minority view attempts to understand this statement from a covenantal perspective. The way this works out is that θεια φυσις comes to be a circumlocution for “divinity” and a κοινωνος is a “partner,” so that the phrase means, essentially, “so that through these things you may come to be a partner with divinity.” Hafemann agrees with this position’s understanding of κοινωνος (participant or partner versus a partaker or recipient), but disagrees that θεια φυσις is simply a roundabout reference to God like the word “divinity.” He bases his disagreement on the uses of the terms θειας δυναμεως in 1:3 and της μεγαλοπρεπους δοξης in 1:17, (where μεγαλοπρεπους or “majestic” is understood as a more or less exact synonym for θειας “divine”), both of which refer to a characteristic of God, not simply to God himself.

For some illumination on the word φυσις, Hafemann went to Classics scholarship where, he discovered, while the word does have a wide semantic range, in most cases >φυσις is not an abstract or static noun but a verbal noun. While in certain philosophical contexts, reflected in the New Testament, Hafemann allows, in places like Galatians 4:8, φυσις may, in fact, take on a specialised meaning and become thus cognate to ουσια the everyday “street use,” so to speak, was very different. Related to the verb φυω, which means to grow, put forth, or become, φυσις as a verbal noun very commonly described a thing’s fundamental being as it expresses itself in what it produces (perhaps “result,” “product,” or “output?”; Hafemann avoided giving the word even an approximate one or two-word English rendering, making his paper difficult to follow at times; I also suggested in the discussion afterwards that this would seem to place φυσις more in the semantic field of τελος, and Dr. Hafemann cautiously agreed). In a way, the noun, as I understand Hafemann’s meaning, seems to express an idea that what you see is what you get. Hafemann traced a range of uses of the word related to this understanding through Platonist, Neo-Platonist, and Stoic writings. An exploration of Philo’s use of the word also shows him to understand φυσις as referring to the inherent characteristics of a thing, especially revealed by what it does or makes. For Philo (according to Hafemann), God’s nature expresses itself and is perceived through his act as a Creator. Divine nature is a creating nature. Hafemann has gathered a great deal more data from Second Temple Jewish sources, but time restraints limited his discussion of them.

The last half of the paper returned to the text of 2 Peter in order to further explain his understanding of 1:3-4 and its impact on the larger message of 2 Peter. Focusing on the word επαγγελμα, which only occurs in the New Testament in 2 Peter 1:4 and 3:13, he asserted an understanding of the event of becoming “fellow participants in the divine nature” as something which occurs at the parousia. This is especially based on the context of 3:13, “According to his promise [επαγγελμα] we await the new heavens and new earth, in which righteousness resides,” where the promise has specifically future eschatological content.

In light of this, θεια φυσις in 1:4 means, according to Hafemann, God’s eschatological acts of redemption. However, I have to confess my confusion on this point, since this would remain exclusively God’s activity making κοινωνος not so much “fellow participant” as “recipient” or “one who experiences.” But this was not predicted by Hafemann’s discussion of κοινωνος earlier in the paper, where the options opposed were “partaker” and “partner.” In fact, this would almost seem to contradict those earlier conclusions. In keeping with his intention to find a covenantal reading of 2 Peter 1:3-4, Hafemann wants κοινωνος to refer to the relationship between God and man, a meaning, Hafemann admits, is startlingly new, having no precedent in LXX language or in Classical uses of the word. If I understood Hafemann correctly, 2 Peter 1:4’s ινα δια τουτων γενησθε θειας κοινωνοι φυσεως could be expanded and paraphrased “so that through them [the things promised] you might become beneficiaries of God’s eschatological act of redemption in new creation [an act which is the natural product of God because of who he is].”

I am not myself an expert on 2 Peter, so I am not in an especially strong position to call Hafemann’s conclusions into question. However, I wonder whether his insistence that 2 Peter understands the point in time where Christians become “fellow participants in the divine nature” is at the parousia is necessary or even the best of possible readings. One wonders, also, if Hafemann’s understanding of what a covenantal reading must entail has not prevented him from seeing simpler and more satisfying understandings of 2 Peter 1:3-4, understandings which are just as much based on the results of his lexicographical research. In other words, while he makes a compelling case that 2 Peter 1:4 is not best understood as referring to an apotheosis (based on the most likely meanings of φυσις and κοινωνος) his conclusion concerning what the verse does actually describe is not really more satisfying. I look forward to seeing the end results of his work on 2 Peter, and I think that it will provide a catalyst for a much needed re-examination of 2 Peter’s understanding of “divine nature.”

Kerry Lee
University of Edinburgh

  1. Related to the verb φυω, which means to grow, put forth, or become, φυσις as a verbal noun very commonly described a thing’s fundamental being as it expresses itself in what it produces

    My first thought on reading this sentence was of the Father’s begetting of the Son and spiration/procession of the Spirit (positing an Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Trinity here.) Is it too far out of the semantic field to connect this phrase with these later concepts?

  2. That’s a really interesting thought. It seems to me that there are several implied questions tied up in your question, including: 1) is this in mind in the passage, 2) is this a possible extrapolation from the passage, 3) can the word itself, outside of the context, include this idea. I do think, at the very least, Dr. Hafemann’s research could open up some room for valuable meditation in devotional or philosophical theology along the lines of your thinking. This may, with additional exegesis outside of 2 Peter, even bear fruit in systematic theology. Whether the word can bear this theological load outside of the 2 Peter context is a difficult question to ask, depending on your theory of semantics. For myself, I feel that a word requires a context to have meaning, so rather than saying the word includes some embryonic Trinitarian theology, I would say that, assuming Dr. Hafemann’s research accurately describes the “street-language” use of the word φυσις, it could very well be within a recognisable realm of usages for the imagination of a 1st or 2nd century Christian author. Further study in the use of the word among the early Church Fathers would be needed, and here I am far outside of my area of specialisation, which happens to be Hebrew narrative, not even New Testament. 🙂

    However, it becomes more difficult if our question pertains to what is in view in the passage, and I guess here it depends somewhat on your theory of the origin of meaning in a text. If meaning is primarily created in the reader, then the word means whatever you want it to mean in this context. If, on the other hand, we are trying to understand an assumed process of communication (that is, reconstructing either authorial intent or the mindset of an implied audience for the text), I, personally, would have some difficulty seeing the divine begetting or procession dynamic being referred to in this particular context.

    I have passed the question on to Dr. Hafemann in an email. He can probably interact with your observation more astutely than can I.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Kerry, and for passing my question along to Dr. Hafemann.

    To clarify a bit, I certainly would not think that this was in mind in the passage. I was thinking more along the lines that this passage might have influenced the development of Trinitarian thought among Greek speakers, particularly the element that leads to the Orthodox insistence on the single procession of the Spirit in order to preserve the distinguishing characteristic of the Father as the Sourceless Source.

    • Oops, or rather I should have said, “the distinguishing characteristic of the Father as the Source”. That “sourceless” part is my own western tradition creeping in, I think.

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