Since the 2nd century, Christians have described the telos of God’s creation and redemption of humanity in terms of deification, or divinization. Even though it is one of the oldest entries in the church’s theological lexicon, deification sounds exotic when first encountered. Some people are immediately disconcerted. Unfamiliar with the word in a Christian context, they associate deification with ancient Greek hero myths, the apotheosis of Roman emperors, forms of mysticism in which humans are thought to merge into God and new religious movements that teach human beings can become deities. Deification brings to mind the serpent’s offer to Eve (Gen. 3:5), the tower-builders’ hubris (Gen. 11:3) and the king of Tyre’s prideful boast (Ezek. 28:2). Other people light up with fascinated anticipation, hoping to have stumbled upon some long-suppressed teaching that undermines Christian orthodoxy. People from both ends of the spectrum are usually surprised to learn that a soteriology of deification motivated many patristic arguments for the trinity and a two-natures Christology. There is an important sense in which the doctrine of deification helped birth ecumenical orthodoxy.
Since the 19th century, scholars have portrayed deification as a distinctively Greek-patristic and Eastern Orthodox doctrine foreign to the mainstream of the Western theological tradition. Depending who tells the story, the presence of deification represents either fidelity to apostolic and patristic tradition or capitulation to Hellenistic thought. The alleged absence of deification in the West is variously attributed to incompatibility with the filioque, Augustine’s trinitarianism, divine simplicity, original guilt or scholastic method. In the case of the Reformation traditions, deification is said to be additionally precluded by such things as total depravity, predestination, supposedly deficient Christology and (especially) justification by faith alone.
Deification brings to mind the serpent’s offer to Eve.
According to another scholarly commonplace, the primary (and perhaps only) biblical warrant for the doctrine is Peter’s reference to becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Of course, patristic writers frequently quote Psalm 82:6 in support: “Behold, I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.’” This is typically dismissed as a bit of overly exuberant prooftexting designed to justify bold speech about the redeemed becoming “gods.” Either way, biblical warrant appears sparse. If we judge from the way many contemporary advocates present it, the doctrine seems to derive primarily from tradition, spiritual experience and/or reflection on the dogma of the incarnation rather than from scriptural exegesis.
The idea that deification is a distinctively Eastern doctrine with scant biblical support could not be more mistaken. Over the past 20 years, numerous studies have demonstrated the presence of deification throughout the mainstream of the Western patristic, medieval and early-modern tradition. This includes the Magisterial Reformers, who accepted deification as an uncontroversial part of the catholic inheritance of the early church, which they sought to uphold and defend. More important, the biblical basis for the core of the doctrine is much broader than 2 Peter 1:4 and Psalm 82:6. It can, in fact, be established without recourse to those verses at all. Recently New Testament scholars have begun to explain passages and motifs in the Pauline letters in terms of deification; the same can be done for other parts of the canon.
The claim that deification is well-attested in the Western tradition, including the Magisterial Reformation, is often met with incredulity. Deification has been identified as the hallmark doctrine of the Christian East for so long that it is uncritically taken to be an Eastern idea. Furthermore, theologians tend to conflate the early patristic doctrine of deification with theōsis, a later Byzantine development of it. Not finding the distinctive vocabulary and imagery of theōsis in Western sources, they erroneously infer the absence of deification as such. This mistake reflects insufficient familiarity with the origin and development of Christian deification.
But if deification really is common to Christendom’s three main branches, then how did it come to be seen as the conceptual boundary between the East and West? The histories of dogma on which this characterization depends themselves have a fascinating history, one that calls into question their reliability on precisely this point.
ORIGIN AND BIBLICAL WARRANT
Early patristic writers express deification in three primary ways: as a formula of exchange, in the interpretation of Psalm 82, and in a variety of words we translate (somewhat inadequately) as “deification” or “divinization.” The interpretation of Psalm 82 and some versions of the exchange formula refer to the goal of redemption in terms of making human beings theos or theoi. The most popular word for deification into the 6th century, theopoiēsis, is a compound derived from theos and poieō (a common word meaning “make”). A great deal of unease about the patristic doctrine stems from an inadequate understanding of how theos was used in antiquity. So we begin with a few comments on that.
Beginning Greek students are told theos simply means “God” or “a god” and the plural theoi means ‘gods.’ In that light, patristic texts about redeemed humans being made theos/theoi look like they teach undifferentiated mystical union with God or some kind of polytheism. Either view would be an unacceptable violation of the crucial distinction between Creator and creature. But theos had a broader semantic range than is the case with its modern European equivalents. The word began its career as an attributive term. Anything deemed immortal, incorruptible, glorious or sublimely beautiful could be described as being theos. This is much like us describing a beautiful sunset or a singer’s performance as divine. The attributive use of theos continued after theos became the common word for deities. Greek writers could employ both senses of the word in close context and even play on them without much risk of misunderstanding. We do much the same with English polysemes such as “love,” “stock,” and “bank.”
Before the 19th century, it is difficult to find support for the idea that deification divides Eastern and Western Christianity.
During the early centuries of the Common Era, theos was especially associated with immortality, incorruption and glory. Paul, of course, describes the resurrected body in precisely those terms (1 Cor. 15:35-54). This same language appears elsewhere in the New Testament as well. God will grant eternal life to “those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and incorruption” (Rom. 2:6). When Christ returns he will “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). Christ Jesus “abolished death and brought life and incorruption to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). The resurrection of Jesus secures for us “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” and believers are already “born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable” (1 Peter 1:4, 23). Patristic writers did not understand this as a vision of autonomous immortality and glory such as a deity might possess. Scripture is clear: God “alone has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16), and believers are called to God’s own glory (1 Thess. 2:12; 1 Peter 5:10; 2 Peter 1:3). Thus, while it is appropriate to say redeemed human beings are made theos/theoi, this is not the same as saying they become deities. Rather, they share in the immortality, incorruption and glory that properly belongs to the one true theos, the God of Israel revealed in Jesus Christ. A fully redeemed human being is truly theos, but derivatively, not in the absolute sense that the one God and Creator of all things is.
CHILDREN OF THE MOST HIGH
It was very natural for 2nd-century Christians to paraphrase the New Testament’s redemptive vision in terms of being made theos/theoi. The reason they adopted this language, however, lies in their interpretation of Psalm 82. Verse 1 says, “God stood in the assembly of gods.” Irenaeus, for example, interprets the singular “God” as a reference to the Father and Son, while the “gods” are “those who have received the adoption … these are the Church.” Similarly, when verse 6 states, “I have said you are gods and all sons of the Most High,” Irenaeus says the gods are “those, no doubt, who have received the grace of the ‘adoption, by which we cry, Abba Father’” (Against Heresies 3.6.1, Ante-Nicene Fathers 1.419a; cf. Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:15).
What early patristic writers consistently found significant was not that the psalm mentions gods but its reference to “sons of the Most High.” Drawing on earlier Jewish interpretations that link Psalm 82 with the creation story (Gen. 1-2) and stories of humanity’s and Israel’s fall (Gen. 3; Exod. 32), the fathers saw verses 6-7 as a declaration of God’s intentions for humanity and how they were foiled by human disobedience. Human beings were created to be sons of the Most High who reflect his immortality and glory (see Ps. 8:5). This declaration is recapitulated in the gospel message. Those who respond positively become “sons of the Most High.” Because this phrase is synonymously parallel with “gods,” it follows that it too is an appropriate designation for redeemed human beings.
In the snippets quoted from Irenaeus, we see that “gods” and “sons of the Most High” are explicated in terms of the Pauline notion of adoption to divine sonship. To be made a “god” is to experience adoption in Christ and the benefits that accrue to his co-heirs. Clement of Alexandria, another foundational figure from the 2nd century, also connects these ideas. In a remarkable passage, he ties them together with several additional New Testament themes and draws on the synonymy between theos and immortality:
Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal. “I,” says He, “have said that you are gods, and all sons of the Most High.” This work is variously called grace, and illumination, and perfection, and washing: washing, by which we cleanse away our sins; grace by which the penalties accruing to transgressions are remitted; and illumination, by which that holy light of salvation is beheld, that is, by which we see God clearly. Now we call that perfect which wants nothing. For what is yet wanting to him who knows God? … Being perfect, He consequently bestows perfect gifts. As at His command all things are made, so on His bare wishing to bestow grace, ensues the perfecting of His grace. (The Instructor. 1.26.1-2, ANF 2.215b)
Clement’s word for “made immortal” (apathanatizometha) is one of several deification terms he introduces into the tradition, including theopoieō. Elsewhere he associated deification with additional themes, including restoration of the imago Dei and moral imitation of God. But this passage nicely illustrates how deification begins as a way of tightly tying various biblical themes together in an evocative package. The exchange formula does this as well but in a somewhat different manner.
GOD MADE HUMAN
The heart of the doctrine of deification is not found in the use of quasitechnical terms, reference to the redeemed as gods or even the patristic interpretation of Psalm 82. Rather, it is found in the Irenaean exchange formula. Here are the two most commonly quoted examples:
For it was for this and that the Word of God was made man, and he who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. (Against Heresies 3.19.1, ANF 1.448)
But (we follow) the only true and steadfast Teacher, the Word of God, 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 5 pref., ANF 1.526)
Subsequent writers adapt the formula in various ways. Most famously, Athanasius states, “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God (theos)” (On the Incarnation 54). Gregory Nazianzus makes the point with the plural, “Let us become as Christ is, since Christ became as we are; let us become gods (theoi) for his sake, since he became man for our sake” (Oration 1.5). This is by no means limited to the Greek Fathers. For example, Hilary of Poitiers writes, “For when God was born to be man the purpose was not that the Godhead should be lost, but that, the Godhead remaining, man should be borne to be God” (On the Trinity 10.7). Ephrem the Syrian is more concise: “He gave us divinity, we gave him humanity” (Hymns of Faith 5.7). None of these writers take the exchange to be perfectly symmetrical, but they do believe a real exchange took place in the incarnation.
The basic thought pattern the exchange formula expresses is already found in the New Testament. Pauline passages in which it is found include the following:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
“Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).
“Our Lord Jesus Christ … died for us, so that … we might live” (1 Thess. 5:9-10).
“Though he was in the form of God … (he) emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him” (Phil. 2:7-9).
This brief sketch captures the key elements found at the core of all versions of the doctrine of deification. It also gives some idea of how patristic writers derived warrant for the doctrine and its language from Scripture. A few additional observations are worth making before moving on. First, note that 2 Peter 1:4 played almost no role in the origin of the doctrine. The doctrine’s biblical warrant comes from elsewhere and is much broader than one or two verses. Second, the concept can be present without any special terminology. Irenaeus is universally regarded as the first theologian of deification but has no terminology for it. Cyril of Alexandria uses the popular term theopoiēsis in early works but abandons it after the outbreak of the Nestorian controversy. Nonetheless a robust doctrine of deification permeates his later writings. Cyril could articulate deification by means of the Irenaean exchange formula and notions such as sharing divine life, participation in God and partaking of the divine nature. It is only then that 2 Peter 1:4 becomes a common deification prooftext. Third, in the early centuries deification is usually seen as a future event, not something that can be experienced in the present.
FROM THEOPOIESIS TO THEOSIS
Today the anglicized word “theosis” is used as a synonym for Christian deification and even non-Christian divinizing notions. Theologians prefer this word because it is less susceptible to misunderstanding than is “deification.” But using it conflates early patristic and later Byzantine theology. As a result, later ideas are read into early writers, and we fail to detect development. Also, distinctive Byzantine developments are used as criteria for assessing the presence of deification in Western traditions in a question-begging manner.
Nazianzus coined theōsis in the latter half of the 4th century. The related verb was known earlier but rarely used in the context of Christian theology. Gregory’s neologism was not taken up again until Pseudo-Dionysius in the late 5th or early 6th century and only became popular after Maximus Confessor freely used it in the 7th century. After that, it became the standard word for deification in the Byzantine tradition. Its rise in popularity correlates with four developments in the deification tradition: First, the individual believer’s union with God becomes more central. This is evident in Pseudo-Dionysius’ informal definition: “Deification (theōsis) is the likeness to and union with God as far as is attainable” (Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 1.3). Second, Neoplatonic terms and concepts are more frequently employed to articulate aspects of the doctrine. Third, greater attention is paid to the cosmic implications of deification. Finally, in medieval Byzantine theology, deification takes something of a mystical turn. This is especially evident in Symeon the New Theologian, Hesychastic monasticism and Gregory Palamas, albeit with important precursors in the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus and others.
Martin Luther goes so far as to say we “become gods and partake of the divine nature.”
Theōsis becomes both the eschatological telos for all Christians and something that may be granted in the present to those who purify themselves through ascetic practices and spiritual disciplines. Several stories tell of pious monks who experienced the light of Mount Tabor and visibly reflected it as Moses did after Sinai. In its most developed form, theōsis explains the nature of the light experienced on Mount Tabor and in Hesychastic mystical experience by means of Palamas’ distinction between God’s energies and essence. Human beings can participate in the former but not the later. Modern Eastern Orthodox theologians typically make the essence/energies distinction sine qua non for any doctrine of deification.
ECUMENICAL DOCTRINE BECOMES EASTERN
Before the 19th century, it is difficult to find support for the idea that deification divides Eastern and Western Christianity. It was not a major topic of discussion at the Council of Florence (1438-45), which attempted to reunite Christendom. In his polemics against the council, Mark of Ephesus cites the Filioque, purgatory and papal authority as reasons for declaring the Western church schismatic and heretical, but not deification’s absence. Nor does he allege incompatibility between deification and Augustinian theology. To the contrary, he enlists Augustine as an ally. In another context, he even appeals to Bernard of Clairvaux in defense of Palamism. A couple of centuries later, deification is not a point of contention in Patriarch Jeremias II’s reply to the Augsburg Confession. Nor does it play any significant role in the 17th-century Eastern confessions of Peter Mogila (1638) and Dositheus (1672), written to repudiate the Calvinistic confession of Patriarch Cyril Lucar (1629).
The core elements of the doctrine found in the early Greek Fathers are also attested in Tertullian, Cyprian, Novatian, Leo the Great, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine. They appear in some of the oldest liturgical prayers of the Latin West and in the writings of medieval theologians such as Boethius, Richard of St. Victor, Bernard of Clairvaux, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventure and Aquinas. Deification usually is expressed by means of the exchange formula and citation of Psalm 82, but use of deificatio and related words is not unusual. John Scotus Erigena and Nicholas of Cusa have strongly neoplatonic conceptions that approach the more speculative and mystical theologies of the medieval East.
Given this background, it would be most surprising to find deification absent from or rejected by the Reformers. If we consult their writings looking for the early patristic doctrine rather than distinctively Byzantine developments, we readily find it. Many Reformers employ versions of the exchange formula. Several employ more explicitly deification terminology. For example, in a long passage brimming with deification themes, Martin Luther goes so far as to say we “become gods and partake of the divine nature” (D. Martin Luther’s Werke: kritishce Gesamtausgabe 17 II. 74. 20-75, 11). Martin Bucer identifies the “deification of the elect” as the fruit of the incarnation (Opera Latina 2. 44). According to John Calvin, “the end of the gospel is to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us” (commentary on 2 Peter 1:4). Richard Hooker very frequently employs the language of deification. We also find it in later Protestant thinkers as varied as Jonathan Edwards and C.S. Lewis.
So how did it become accepted as fact that deification is incompatible with the Catholic and Protestant theologies of the West? The answer is found in 19th-century histories of dogma that sought to bastardize trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy as the product of an illicit affair between Christianity and Hellenistic thought. These histories were also designed to contribute to the creation of a distinctively Germanic theological and cultural identity. Albrecht Ritschl, Adolf von Harnack and other liberal Protestant scholars posited three stages in Christianity’s development. Each corresponds to an important transition in church history, a particular soteriology and a distinct cultural manifestation. In the first stage the simple message of Jesus and Paul was distorted by Hellenism. Hellenism reached its climax when Christians adopted the Greek philosophical understanding of redemption – deification – in place of Pauline justification by faith. The dogmas of the incarnation and trinity were outgrowths of this soteriology. Patristic debates over these dogmas illustrate how far Christianity strayed from Jesus’ simple message about the Fatherhood of God, brotherhood of man and free reconciliation. The cultural manifestation of this stage is found in Greek and Slavic culture, while its religious ideas were calcified in Eastern Orthodoxy.
The second stage corresponds with the separation of Latin and Greek Christianity. It is conceded that language, culture and politics all contributed but is asserted that theological differences were determinative. In particular, Augustine’s rediscovery of the Pauline experience and Paul’s doctrine of sin, guilt, grace and justification set the West on a path away from the primitive and pagan concept of deification. Nonetheless, the Roman church eventually recapitulated the Greek church’s fall into traditionalism, ritualism and statism.
A climactic third stage of development begins with Luther’s recovery of justification by faith alone. Justification represents a genuine doctrine of redemption, something lacking in Greek Christianity and only imperfectly present in Latin. Because Luther did not benefit from scientific history of dogma, he did not realize that justification is incompatible with the dogmas of incarnation and trinity, because they emerge from a soteriology of deification. Once this insight is made, the way is opened to cast off the stifling conservativism of confessional commitments. Ritschl, Harnack and their followers saw themselves bringing Christianity’s Germanic stage to full blossom by means of “scientific” theological scholarship. They wanted to liberate Christianity from dogma and ritual alien to the gospel. They also wanted to see Christianity’s final stage thoroughly manifest in the scientific and technologically advanced culture of the emerging German nation.
When the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, Orthodox theologians who emigrated to the West found themselves confronted by this influential account and its denigrating depiction of Eastern Orthodoxy. In response, they were eager to create a positive theological identity of their own. To do this, they uncritically accepted the dual claim that deification is the hallmark of Eastern theology and that it is incompatible with Western accounts of salvation. Combined with Theodore de Régnon’s distinction between patristic and scholastic theological paradigms, they created a rhetorically powerful polemic against the entire Western tradition. The basic idea is that Latin theology after Augustine became a rationalistic, philosophical system with a deficient trinitarianism that reduced soteriology to juridical categories and legal transactions. As a result, the gospel was fatally compromised.
Deification is both a biblical doctrine and a constituent part of our catholic heritage.
Orthodoxy is depicted as preserving the patristic inheritance unchanged despite persistent attempts by the West to impose its deficient theology, ecclesiology and way of life on the East. Deification proves Orthodoxy’s fidelity to the gospel and the genius of its distinctive theology. However, what is elevated is not early patristic theopoiēsis but theōsis as articulated by Palamas during a 14th-century controversy about the practices of Hesychastic monks and the nature of the divine light they reported seeing. This controversy is portrayed as an archetypal struggle between the apophatic, mystical theology of the East (represented by Palamas) and Western scholasticism (represented by Palamas’ opponent, Barlaam). The recovery of Palamite theōsis is not just a theological achievement; it is also the first step toward liberating the shared Byzantine cultural heritage of Greece, Russia and the Slavic lands from debilitating Western influences.
While their value judgements clash, Ritchilian and emigré scholars agreed that deification is an Eastern doctrine fundamentally incompatible with Western theology even if occasional remnants are found. Given the stature of the scholars on each side, this apparent consensus was widely accepted as truth; few thought to verify it from the primary sources. Subsequent scholars simply assumed deification was not to be found in any of the main figures in the Western theological tradition. We can now see that this agreement is not the product of sober-minded historical inquiry but a polemical theological construct that both groups found useful for nationalistic apologia.
INTEGRAL TO GOSPEL
When first encountered, the patristic doctrine of deification looks exotic and its terminology unsettling. Confining deification to the patristic past or Eastern Orthodoxy conveniently allows us to dismiss it without fully considering its claims. Our understanding of the gospel is impoverished as a result. Once we understand patristic language and how scripture warrants it, we begin to see that deification is not an import alien to the gospel. To the contrary, it ties together several facets of the biblical vision of redemption in a whelming way that encompasses the entire economy of salvation. Only a few of those facets have been mentioned here.
Protestants have long been leery of deification because it is allegedly an Eastern doctrine incompatible with justification by faith alone. But it is a category error to think deification and justification are mutually exclusive. One concept concerns the goal, or telos, of redemption; the other pertains to the mechanics of entering salvation. In any case, the reality that deification is well-attested among Reformers who vigorously defended justification by faith alone should be enough to undermine that worry. Yet, while deification can be found in Protestant sources after the 16th century, it has never been prominently featured in our systematic theologies. Why, then, should churches of the Reformation begin attending to it now? The answer is simply this: deification is both a biblical doctrine and a constituent part of our catholic heritage. The Reformers considered themselves catholics who sought to both recover and defend that heritage. We maintain fidelity with our own tradition when we continue in their footsteps. Doors also open in the realm of ecumenical discussion when we begin to see deification as part of our own Reformational heritage. In discussion among traditional Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians, deification should not represent a boundary to be overcome through negotiated compromise or a wall to be raised against improved relations. Rather, the early patristic vision of salvation should serve as a common starting point from which we address our deep similarities as well as our differences. Finally, paying greater attention to the telos of salvation provides resources for the contemporary theological task and helps orient the spiritual life. Contemplating God’s purposes in creating and redeeming this world is good for the soul.
Carl Mosser teaches biblical studies at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania. Currently he is on research leave as a visiting scholar at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana.
Image: Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, The garden of Eden with the fall of man, Mauritshuis, The Hague, the Netherlands – www.geheugenvannederland.nl; Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons