What to Call it? Divine Filiation

All-SaintsWe have considered the topic of this web site as it relates to us (holiness, the interior life) and as it relates to the Son and the Holy Spirit (life in Christ, the Spiritual life). Let us now consider our relation to God the Father.

The first thing to say is that God as Father is NOT just a metaphor. In Catholic theology, to call God father is not to say he’s really nice (are fathers a great example of being really nice?), or that his love is unconditional, or that we really look up to him.

Nor is it merely to say that God made us. The difference between begetting and making is at the very heart of Christianity. God made the mountains and the trees and the puppy dogs, but they are not his children, and he is not properly their father. Just as I can make a pizza, but I am only father to my sons and daughters.

To be the son of a father is to receive from him his very nature. Only human beings can be my children; Jesus is Son of God because he is God.

Now, Jesus is the only begotten Son, whereas we are “adopted” sons. (Daughters, too, though sometimes it is emphasized that we are “sons through the Son”: sons and daughters parallel to Jesus’s sonship.) But don’t misunderstand. The Latin ad-optio means that someone has become a son through a later choice: “option.” But you can only adopt someone who possesses human nature: you cannot adopt a dog (at least not as your son).

And the parallel to human adoption is not perfect, because God the Creator can give us a nature we did not have. In fact, the Greek is huiothesia, from huios, son, and thesis, placing or putting. That is, God makes us into sons.

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St. Paul tells us, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). God creates us new. He makes us something that we were not. He makes us divine. The early Church used the Greek word theosis: divinization, being made gods. “God became man so that man could become God.” Crazy, I know – some of my students just look confused when I teach this. But this is Christianity.

We don’t have a good word for this in English – “son-ification”? – so we use the Latin, filiation, from filius, son.

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Divine filiation, becoming children of God, has contemplative and practical aspects. On the contemplative side, only God can see and fully love God. Filiation means that we are lifted up, given a new, divine nature, so that we can see and know God. “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). Only a son of God can enter the contemplation Christianity offers. To say that there is no access to this but through Christ is not a put-down of non-Christians – it is to say what an awesome grace we believe is offered to us in Christ. True contemplation.

But also a life of Christianity. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ proclaims the Beatitudes – radical! – and tells us to fulfill the Law radically, so that we do not even lust in our hearts. This is humanly impossible, but he says, “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Indeed: we can only live the life of Christianity if God is truly our father: if we become not merely human, but sons of God.

This is the context of Christian morality. It is impossible, super-human. That’s precisely the point. Every page of the New Testament proclaims that we are to live the life not of mere humans, but of a “new creation,” divinization, divine filiation. That’s what Christian “spirituality” is about.

This is the context, too, for the Catholic understanding of faith and works. No, we do not earn our salvation. To the contrary, the question is how a “new creation” lives: doesn’t quack, not a duck; doesn’t act like a son of God, not a son of God.

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Not everyone is a son of God. In Catholic theology – I hate to shock you – we even say that God is not everyone’s father. He becomes our father by grace, by adoption, by our being born again in Baptism, and living that regeneration through the other sacraments. But all are made in the “image of God”: not the same as being like God, but on the way.

The radical dignity of the human person is the possibility of being lifted up into the life of God. The respect Christians owe every human being focuses on that radical possibility.

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But what does it mean? How do you see divine filiation in the life of the saints, and in your life?

Click here for the rest of the series on names for the spiritual life.

eric.m.johnston

One Comment

  1. Excellent article that helps me put my efforts to grow in the spiritual life in perspective. Divine Filiation is the “big picture”. Thank you! Really enjoying your posts and website.

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