Divine Filiation

Divine filiation is the Christian doctrine that Jesus Christ is the only-begotten Son of God by nature, and when Christians are redeemed by Jesus they become sons (and daughters) of God by adoption. Because of its Biblical roots, this doctrine is held by most Christians, but the phrase “divine filiation” is used primarily by Catholics. This doctrine is also referred to as divine sonship.

Divine filiation builds on other Christian doctrines. In the doctrine of the Trinity, God the Son is the Eternal Word spoken by God the Father. The doctrine of the Incarnation teaches that around 2000 years ago, God the Son assumed a human nature, “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) as Jesus of Nazareth.

Divine filiation is the centerpiece of the Gospel, the Good News: it is the reason why humanity was saved. And is also the purpose behind baptism. According to John Paul II, divine filiation is “the deepest mystery of the Christian vocation” and “the culminating point of the mystery of our Christian life…we share in salvation, which is not only the deliverance from evil, but is first of all the fullness of good: of the supreme good of the sonship of God.”

Divine filiation implies divinization: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God”, “sharers in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), other “Christs”

The Baptism of Christ - Frans Hals Museum Creator: René Gerritsen Kunst en Onderzo | Credit: René Gerritsen Copyright: Foto © René Gerritsen-Kunst en Onderzoeksfotografie/FransHalsMuseum Haarlem

The Baptism of Christ – Frans Hals Museum
Creator: René Gerritsen Kunst en Onderzo | Credit: René Gerritsen


The Gospel of John begins by pointing to what Jesus brought: “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God.” (John 1:11–13)

Saint Paul unraveled this mystery further in his letter to the Romans: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:14–17)

The very first point of the Catholic Catechism states that God’s “plan of sheer goodness” is oriented towards man’s divine filiation: “In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.” (CCC 1; italics added)

Benedict XVI explained that “The Fathers of the Church say that when God created man ‘in his image’ he looked toward the Christ who was to come, and created man, according to the image of the ‘new Adam,’ the man who is the criterion of the human… Jesus is ‘the Son’ in the strict sense – he is of one substance with the Father. He wants to draw all of us into his humanity and so into this Sonship, into his total belonging to God.”

The Fathers of the Church describe Jesus’s work of salvation as a restoration of humanity’s original dignity—man made in the image of Christ, as children of God.

Divine filiation, said John Paul II, constitutes the essence of the Good News. This is the purpose of Christ’s redemption and through baptism, each Christian’s fundamental state is being a child of God, according to Catholic doctrine.

According to John Paul II, Christians are supposed to “be always aware of the dignity of the divine adoption,” so as to give meaning to what they do. Thus, the Christian relates to God as a Father who is loving and provident, and becomes confident and daring as a Christian and apostle. Each Christian, whether a priest or a layperson, is called to a life of holiness, consistent with his membership to the family of God. Ordinary Christians are fully responsible for continuing the redeeming mission of Christ in the ordinary circumstances of their life.

According to John Paul II in Redemptor hominis, his first encyclical, at the deepest root of the redemption of the world is the fullness of justice in the heart of Jesus Christ “in order that it may become justice in the hearts of many human beings, predestined from eternity in the Firstborn Son to be children of God and called to grace, called to love.”

Divine filiation, said John Paul II, constitutes the essence of the Good News. “What is the Good News for humanity?” is a question of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The reply to this question begins with Jesus Christ and ends with Galatians 4:45: God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. Divine filiation is “the deepest mystery of the Christian vocation: in the divine plan, we are indeed called to become sons and daughters of God in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.”

Thus, the Catechism states: “By his death, Christ liberates us from sin; by His Resurrection, He opens for us the way to a new life. [Justification] brings about filial adoption so that men become Christ’s brethren.” (CCC 654)

Judaism’s view

Fundamentally, Judaism believes that God, as the creator of time, space, energy and matter, is beyond them, and cannot be born or die. Judaism teaches that it is heretical for any man to claim to be God or a part of God; see also Idolatry in Judaism. There is no Jewish concept of something as a “divine filiation” or “God The Son”. The Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit 2:1) states explicitly: “if a man claims to be God, he is a liar.” According to Jewish scholars, the Christian concept of Divine filiation has an indirect reference to the prior Jewish phrase Son of God, which is found in the Jewish Bible, referring to angels, or humans or even all mankind.

According to Judaism’s view of Jesus, Jewish scholars note that though Jesus is said to have used the phrase “my Father in Heaven” (cf. Lord’s Prayer), this common poetic Jewish expression may have been misinterpreted as literal.

Meaning and significance

Christians are said to be children of God because through divine grace they share in the nature of God. [St. Peter] referred to Christians as “partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4) Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the early Church Fathers, expresses the participation of the baptized in the Divine nature by saying: “By the love of God we are made gods.”

St. Thomas Aquinas explained the terminology of the Fathers that Christians are “sons in the Son.” He said that Christians enter the trinity through the Son, and they “have a certain participation in the filiation of the Second Person.”

Thus, John Paul II said that Divine filiation is “the culminating point of the mystery of our Christian life. In fact, the name ‘Christian’ indicates a new way of being, to be in the likeness of the Son of God. As sons in the Son, we share in salvation, which is not only the deliverance from evil, but is first of all the fullness of good: of the supreme good of the sonship of God.”

Divine filiation is at the core of Christianity. “Our divine filiation is the centerpiece of the Gospel as Jesus preached it. It is the very meaning of the salvation He won for us. For he did not merely save us from our sins; He saved us for sonship.”

Thus the incarnation and the redemption is for this: The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature”: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.”[St. Irenaeus] “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”[St. Athanasius] “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”[St. Thomas Aquinas] (CCC 460)

St. John the Evangelist: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are!" (1 John 3:1)

St. John the Evangelist: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are!” (1 John 3:1)

The Christian then is another “Christ”: “We can adore the Father because he has caused us to be reborn to his life by adopting us as his children in his only Son: .. through the anointing of his Spirit who flows from the head to the members, he makes us other “Christs.” “…you who have become sharers in Christ are appropriately called “Christs.” (CCC 2782)

The divinization of man through sonship is real and metaphysical. It is not metaphorical, i.e. a mere comparison with a real thing that is similar. In the Christian religion, God is really Father, and does not just act like human fathers. And God really made us share in his nature, and thus we are really children. Not in the same level as the Only Begotten Son, but truly sharing in his filiation and his divinity.

And so St. John the Evangelist said with a tone of amazement, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are!” (1 John 3:1)

General consequences for Christian life

Since divine filiation is fundamental for the Christian life, a foundational point, then the various aspects of the Christian life follow from it, as shown by the frequent allusions of the Catechism to divine filiation:

  • Abandonment to God the Father’s providence, since Jesus said that “your heavenly Father knows what you need.” (Mt 6:31; CCC 305) Thus Benedict XVI said in Deus caritas est, “Immersed like everyone else in the dramatic complexity of historical events, [Christians] remain unshakably certain that God is our Father and loves us, even when his silence remains incomprehensible.”
  • Becoming child-like in piety, because it is a condition for entering the Kingdom. (Mt 18:3-4; CCC 526)
  • Confidence to call God “Father” and asking him for gifts. “Our Father: at this name love is aroused in us . . . and the confidence of obtaining what we are about to ask…. What would he not give to his children who ask, since he has already granted them the gift of being his children?”
  • Viewing the liturgy as “a meeting of God’s children with their Father, in Christ and the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 736; 1153)
  • Loving the Church, for God “gathers all his children into unity.” (CCC 845), and the Church is “the house of all God’s children, open and welcoming”. (CCC 1186). And with this the Christian keeps the communion of the saints. (CCC1474)
  • Giving importance to baptism, by which the Christian become a child of God. (CCC 1243). The Christian should realize the “greatness of God’s gift… by the sacraments of rebirth, Christians become children of God, partakers of the divine nature.” (CCC 1692)
  • Playing the role of the prodigal son. Because the “new life as a child of God can be weakened and even lost by sin,” (CCC 1420) the Christian has the sacrament of healing called the sacrament of Reconciliation which “bring about restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God.” (CCC 1468) “The whole of the Christian life,” says John Paul II in his first encyclical Redemptor hominis, “is like a great pilgrimage to the house of the Father, whose unconditional love for every human creature, especially for the “prodigal son”, we discover anew each day.”
  • Living in imitation of Christ: “Following Christ and united with him, Christians can strive to be “imitators of God as beloved children, and walk in love” by conforming their thoughts, words and actions to the “mind . . . which is yours in Christ Jesus,” and by following his example.” (CCC 1694)
  • Loving freedom (CCC 1828)
  • Practising obedience. “Although he was a Son, [Jesus] learned obedience through what he suffered. How much more reason have we sinful creatures to learn obedience – we who in him have become children of adoption.” (CCC 2825)

Piety of children

An important consequence of divine filiation is the prayer of Christians as children of God. Prayer is at the center of the life of Christ, the Son of God. Benedict XVI says that the person of Jesus is prayer. The “fundamental insight” of the Sermon of the Mount is, he says, “that man can be understood only in the light of God, and that his life is made righteous only when he lives it in relation to God.” Thus, Jesus, after praying and after being asked by the disciples how to pray, teaches the Our Father, a prayer which aims to “configure [man] to the image of the Son,” and trains him in the “inner attitude of Jesus.”

“Contemplative prayer is the prayer of the child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which he is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving even more.” (CCC 2712 )

Responsibility for the Christian mission

Since Christians are other “Christs“, they are in a sense co-redeemers with him, and have, so to speak, the same role as Jesus Christ—to save other men, and make them children of God. “As members, they share a common dignity from their rebirth in Christ, they have the same filial grace and the same vocation to perfection… Because of the one dignity flowing from Baptism, each member of the lay faithful, together with ordained ministers and men and women religious, shares responsibility for the Church’s mission.”

Because the laity—that is, ordinary Christians (not priests or consecrated religious)—are children of God, they have a specific role to play in the world: “By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. . . . It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and maybe to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer. The initiative of lay Christians is necessary especially when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life. This initiative is a normal element of the life of the Church: Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society. Therefore, they in particular ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church.” (CCC 898-99)

Theological views

Writing in the early 20th century (circa 1917–1923), Blessed Columba Marmion gave great emphasis to this doctrine. One commentator has observed that although the doctrine had been addressed by many spiritual writers before him, “it would be difficult to find another who had given the mystery such preeminence, making it, as he does, the beginning and the end of the spiritual life. And with Dom Marmion it is not so much a theory or a system, as a living truth that acts directly on the soul.” Some believe the Catholic Church will one day formally declare Marmion the Doctor of Divine Adoption.

Among contemporary authors, Scott Hahn, an American theologian and convert from Calvinism, has written much about filiation in the context of the theology of the covenant. He sees the covenant as a real family bond. He has also written about filiation in the context of his journey as a member of Opus Dei, whose founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá, is a leading writer on this topic. Escriva saw filiation as the “foundation of the Christian life,” and had a mystical experience in early years of Opus Dei (1931) that led him to emphasize this aspect of Christian life. Fernando Ocariz, who wrote God as Father (1998) is another theologian who has several works on divine filiation.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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