The Shepherd of Hermas was a most revered Christian text from the second through the fourth century, and it was widely read throughout the early Church. Numerous Church fathers argued for it to be included in the canon, but it ultimately was excluded from canonicity by the Council of Carthage in 397 AD. Despite its ancient and strange literary character it still has volumes of wisdom available for contemporary readers. Read the rest of this entry »
Tag Archives: Eastern Orthodox Christianity
Welcome back to our discussion on theosis and deification. If you haven’t been following the series thus far, I’d like to suggest that you scroll down to the end of the article and take a look at the links I have listed. For without the background of these articles, very little of what is said in the remainder of this series is going to make sense to you.
Now, as you know, the genesis of this series was a question posed by a friend of mine. He wanted to know if the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis (“becoming one with God”) was related to Oswald Chambers’ “Christian Perfectionism.” So I began the series by unpacking 2 Peter 1:3-11, the most famous text upon which this presumably Eastern theology is built. Following that, I moved the discussion forward by exploring significant Catholic thinkers who have defended the theology as well.
So the question that lies before us today is this: is theosis (or deification) taught by significant Protestant and evangelical theologians? When I first started this series, my immediate, ill-considered impulse was to answer this question with a rather non-committal “probably not.” But the fact of the matter is, I could not have been more wrong. As it turns out, Western theologians, as far back as Augustine himself, have taught a version of theosis. Consider this list of Western theological giants: Anselm of Canterbury, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Charles Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, C.S. Lewis, and N.T. Wright. All of them, without exception, have wrestled with the concept of theosis, and all of them, without exception, have defended the idea that through our union with Christ – by being “in Christ” – we are in some way deified, and made into a “god.” Lewis himself says it most clearly (to our modern ears), when he writes in Mere Christianity:
“[God] said that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him-for we can prevent Him if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for.”
And so there you have it. Whether we are comfortable with it or not, there is no doubt that in the historical, orthodox teaching of the universal Church, theosis and deification have been taught. And for those of us in the Western, Protestant, evangelical tradition, this probably comes as something of a shock to our systems. What are we supposed to do with this? Is this idolatry? Wasn’t this the sin of humanity at the Tower of Babel? All of these are great questions, and as the series continues, I will unpack some of these ideas and more. But for now, I wish to leave you again with the words of C. S. Lewis. May you ponder them as you look upon the people that surround you in your everyday life.
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . .”
—C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Recommended Reading in this Series on Theosis and Deificaiton:
 While it is true that Augustine lived and worked prior to the Great Schism that divided the East and the West in 1054 AD, he is generally thought of as a Western theologian, primarily because the Western Catholic Church and the Western Protestant Church has leaned upon him so heavily.
 N.R. Kerr, “St Anselm: Theoria and the Doctrinal Logic of Perfection,” in M.J. Christensen and Jeffrey A. Wittung, eds., Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
 In his writings, Luther used the term Vergottung, to express this idea. Moreover, he most explicitly defended this doctrine in his Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, where he refers to the justified Christian as ein gottliche Creatur (“the divine creature”).
 J. Todd Billings, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). It should be noted that amongst this list of theologians, Calvin’s doctrine of deification would be the weakest as he maintained the largest gap between a Holy God and a totally depraved humanity. Nevertheless, his writing in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will provides the clearest understanding of Calvin’s understanding of union with God though Christ.
 S. T. Kimbrough, “Theosis in the Writings of Charles Wesley,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52 (2008), pp. 199-212.
 Richard B. Steele, “Transfiguring Light: The Moral Beauty of the Christian Life According to Gregory Palamas and Jonathan Edwards,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52 (2008), pp. 403-449.
 Lewis touches on this theme in multiple works including (but not limited to): The Weight of Glory, A Grief Observed, and even his classic, Mere Christianity.
 See http://dunelm.wordpress.com/2009/01/31/nt-wright-and-theosis/. For an audio mp3 of the actual lecture, you can follow this link: http://media.intervarsity.org/mp3/N.T.Wright2-Glory.mp3
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1976), 174-75.
 C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1976), 45.
So are you starting to wonder where this discussion goes and what this means for evangelicals? Well let me tell you just a little bit about where we’re going. I’m not often one for giving my readers or my listening audience a road map, but in this case, it seems like you’ve earned it. Besides, when something goes on for this long, you kind of need to know that they journey has a destination.
Post 7: This post is going to lay out significant Protestant theologians and pastors that have subscribed to some version of theosis or deification. This is probably going to be the post that blows a fuse in your mind, because you’re going to wonder: “Why haven’t I heard about this?”
Post 8: This is likely going to be the hardest post for you to grasp. It will be the most technical, and yet, I would argue that it will be one of the most important in the series. Because if you get theosis or deification wrong, you end up in some really bad places.
Post 9: This is the big “so what?” post. If you’re wondering what all of this means and how it might actually change how you live your life, this is the post for you.
Post 10: The post will close out the series by asking one really significant question that will challenge you to re-think the need for theology.
So that’s it, friends. Four more posts to go after this one. Hope you’re enjoying the series; and I hope you find yourself thinking about God, creation, salvation and a host of other topics in ways that are simultaneously surprising and enriching at the same time.
As for those of you who are just now tuning in, here’s a few critical posts that will help you catch up with the conversation:
So what is it with Bill Murray and his seemingly impeccable grasp on theosis and deification?! Enjoy a little laugh from the brilliantly funny Groundhog Day.
This film was rated PG by the MPAA for thematic elements.
Many years ago, in the summer of 1994, I had the privilege of spending a glorious summer traipsing around the Badlands of South Dakota. As an undergraduate student at Wheaton College, I had elected to spend my summer at the school’s science station, where I “studied” environment chemistry, astronomy and geology. In reality – and with apologies to my parents – very little studying actually occurred. Instead, I spent almost every free moment I had walking back and forth along a rather treacherous trail known as the Razorback Ridge.
Now, assuming you have never been to Razorback Ridge, this probably means very little to you. But let me assure you that Razorback Ridge is not for the faint of heart. Looking back on it now, I am actually somewhat surprised that I spent as much time wandering its length as I did. Similar in many ways to the Devil’s Causeway in Colorado, Razorback Ridge is an uneven, winding trail set at the peak of a “mountain.” The face of the mountain on either side of the path drops off in such a fashion that were you to slip off either side of the three-foot wide trail, you would almost surely plummet to your death.
So why am I telling you about Razorback Ridge in a series on theosis and deification? Because in many ways, navigating the complex, theological waters of theosis and deification is a bit like navigating Razorback Ridge. The path is excruciatingly narrow, and if you slip up even a little in your understanding, you are likely to fall off into the steep ravines of pantheism on the one side and panenetheism on the other.
Now stop. Does what I just wrote sound a little scary to you? Are you feeling a little overwhelmed? It’s okay. Trust me. We often tell our children that the only things worth having in this life are the things that we have to fight to obtain. We tell them that hard work matters, and that hard work pays off. But for some reason, when it comes to theology, when it comes to our walks with the Christ, we want everything to be instantly accessible. And if it isn’t “applicable” for right here and right now, we tend to write it off and say: this is too hard. The problem is, in the process of doing so, we settle for a much, much smaller picture of God and we settle for a greatly reduced vision of what we were designed to be. It’s almost as if someone has handed us two sets of car keys. One set is for a two-door, hatchback, rusty old Yugo, while the other set is for a shiny, red Ferrari. As Christians, we seem to be willing to settle for the keys to the Yugo because we know how to drive a Yugo. While the Ferrari looks cool and exciting, we don’t really know how to drive a high-end sports car and truth be told, we’re a little scared of driving it right into a light pole.
So I’m pausing for a moment, in the middle of this series, to remind you of the richness of God’s Word and the unbelievable depth of The Great Christian Tradition. And if sometimes, in the course of your studies, you open a door that leads down a passageway you’ve never seen before, don’t immediately assume that the passageway is false or dangerous. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the door that leads to a heated, indoor garage with a purring red Ferrari just waiting to be taken out for a test drive.
Yesterday afternoon, at the request of an old friend, I began a series on the subject of theosis, Oswald Chambers, and Chamber’s conception of “Christian Perfection.” If you have not read the first post, I would highly suggest that you take the time to do so now, for without reading the first post, you will not understand what is being discussed in the remainder of this series.
Once I finished the first post, it became clear to me that many people might make the assumption that theosis (or deification in the Latin) was largely an Eastern theological construct. And because we, as evangelicals, do not tend to be overly conversant with our sisters and brothers in the East, we might be tempted to dismiss this as a “heretical” idea, much as we often flippantly lump certain Roman Catholic beliefs under the heading of “heresy.” So today, I want to briefly unpack the evidence that deification is taught by the Roman Catholic Church, and then I want to conclude with an important question that I believe Protestants must be able to answer.
Let’s start with a brief overview of significant Catholic figures that have taught on this subject. The Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches did not occur until 1054 AD. So, when it comes to understanding theosis and/or deification, both the East and the West appeal to the same body of early Church Fathers, such as Ireneaus, Athanasius, Clement of Alexandria, Cyril of Alexandria, Basil the Great, etc… But the question is, after the split, did the Roman Catholic Church continue to teach this doctrine?
The answer, quite simply, is yes. In the Western Roman Catholic Church, the major figures that continued to teach on this doctrine include: St. John of the Cross in his Dark Night of the Soul and Ascent of Mt. Carmel, St. Teresa of Avila in her Interior Castles and even, more importantly, St. Thomas Aquinas, the “Catholic Doctor,” in his Summa Theologica.
Perhaps, more significant than all of the aforementioned teachers of this doctrine, is the fact that deification is still taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is used to indoctrinate Catholic believers worldwide. Consider the following excerpts:
CCC Article #460: 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.” “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” “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.”
CCC Article #759: ”The eternal Father, in accordance with the utterly gratuitous and mysterious design of his wisdom and goodness, created the whole universe and chose to raise up men to share in his own divine life,” to which he calls all men in his Son. “The Father . . . determined to call together in a holy Church those who should believe in Christ.” This “family of God” is gradually formed and takes shape during the stages of human history, in keeping with the Father’s plan. In fact, “already present in figure at the beginning of the world, this Church was prepared in marvelous fashion in the history of the people of Israel and the old Advance. Established in this last age of the world and made manifest in the outpouring of the Spirit, it will be brought to glorious completion at the end of time.”
CCC Article #1999: The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification: Therefore if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself.
CCC Article #1988: Through the power of the Holy Spirit we take part in Christ’s Passion by dying to sin, and in his Resurrection by being born to a new life; we are members of his Body which is the Church, branches grafted onto the vine which is himself: [God] gave himself to us through his Spirit. By the participation of the Spirit, we become communicants in the divine nature. . . . For this reason, those in whom the Spirit dwells are divinized.
As you can see, theosis or deification is not merely an Eastern construct. Rather, both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church have historically taught this doctrine from as early as 200 AD to the present. This, of course, leaves us with a rather significant question. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, when Luther initiated the split from Rome, the issues largely centered around the abuse of the papacy and the issue of justification. Put simply, Rome was teaching that salvation is contingent upon both justification and sanctification, while the Protestants wanted to put the entire burden of salvation upon the act of justification alone? The issue here is that Protestants have always maintained that they were the true heirs to the apostolic teachings, while Rome had been the one to go astray. But when you examine the subject of theosis or deification, which is intimately tied to salvation, justification, and sanctification, it would appear that many Protestants are making a break with all branches of the historical Church. And the question that must be answered is this: if both the East and the West have taught theosis and deification for 2000 years, are we to believe that only in the last 500 years have Christians properly understood salvation? And if so, what does this mean about the clarity of Scripture? And what does it mean about the giftedness of the pastors and theologians that were working prior to the Reformation?
 In 1999, A. N. Williams released The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas. This book attempts to find common ground between the East and the West through their shared belief in the doctrine of theosis and/or deification.
 An online version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church can be found at: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/index/g.htm
Yesterday afternoon, an old friend of mine asked me to compare the Eastern Orthodox conception of theosis to Oswald Chambers’ conception of “Christian Perfection.” Given the widespread use of Chambers’ devotional classic, My Utmost For His Highest, and the growing evangelical interest in Eastern Orthodoxy, I have decided to post a reply to his inquiry here, on this site. If you are unfamiliar with either of these concepts, consider this an opportunity to learn a little more about the theological thinking of millions upon millions of Christians around the world.
So, let’s start with the origins of theosis. The earliest extra-biblical references to theosis date back to the early church fathers, Ireneaus (ca. 202 AD) and Athanasius (ca. 300 AD) who wrote: “If the Word is made man, it is that men might become gods.” Now here, in the West, I expect that many of my evangelical and/or atheistic readers likely have a sound similar to an alarm at ground zero going off in their minds. “That men might become gods?! That can’t be!” I hear you. I hear you. Stick with me, friend.
Let’s take a look at the evidence. The first thing you need to know is that this theological construct is not simply created out of thin air. Rather, it is most explicitly grounded in the Apostle Peter’s Second Epistle, with slightly more ambiguous references being found in other passages throughout the New Testament as well.
God has bestowed upon us, through his divine power, everything that we need for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and virtue. The result is that he has given us, through these things, his precious and wonderful promises; and the purpose of all this is so that you may run away from the corruption of lust that is in the world, and may become partakers of the divine nature. So, because of this, you should strain every nerve to supplement your faith with virtue, and your virtue with knowledge, and your knowledge with self-control, and your self-control with patience, and your patience with piety, and your piety with family affection, and your family affection with love. If you have these things in plentiful supply, you see, you will not be wasting your time, or failing to bear fruit, in relation to your knowledge of our Lord Jesus the Messiah. Someone who doesn’t have these things, in fact, is so shortsighted as to be actually blind, and has forgotten what it means to be cleaned from earlier sins. So, my dear family, you must make the effort all the more to confirm that God has called you and chosen you. If you do this, you will never trip up. That is how you will have, richly laid out before you, an entrance into the kingdom of God’s coming age, the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Messiah.
Now that we have seen the passage in its entirety, I want to take a few moments to slowly pull it apart. Let’s start by taking a look at the opening section.
God has bestowed upon us, through his divine power, everything that we need for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and virtue.
The first thing that needs to be said on the subject of theosis is that this concept is grounded, first and foremost, in the grace of Yahweh and the Christ. It is not an independent act of man nor is it something we have merited. Rather, for the Eastern Orthodox believer, theosis is a gift that is bestowed upon the followers of the Christ, who does all things for His own glory.
But what is the purpose of this gift? What is the result of deification?
The result is that he has given us, through these things, his precious and wonderful promises; and the purpose of all this is so that you may run away from the corruption of lust that is in the world, and may become partakers of the divine nature.
Look again. What does it say? “The purpose of all this [grace] is so that you may run away from the corruption of the lust that is in the world …” Yes, yes. We get that. We’re evangelicals. We understand avoidance. Keep going. “The purpose of all this [grace] is so that you… may become partakers of the divine nature.”
That’s the key. Now stop and think for a minute. In Western Christianity, and in evangelicalism in particular, we are very comfortable talking about being like Jesus. We even have pithy, little catch-phrases like “What would Jesus do?” to remind us that we need to seek to be like our Rabbi and Savior. But what this passage seems to suggest, is that we actually become partakers in the divine nature. In other words, we’re not merely becoming like Jesus in a moral or ethical sense, but rather, we’re becoming like Jesus in a limited, ontological sense. Is that a bit confusing? Let me try to clarify. Eastern Orthodox believers put a clear limitation on theosis. On the one hand, they want to affirm the believer is saved from a state of unholiness unto a state of perfect holy union with Yahweh. But on the other hand, they want to avoid the heresy of apotheosis, which is broadly defined as “deification in essence,” or becoming One with the One. In other words, they are trying to maintain a distinction between the Trinitarian God and those that bear His image, whilst making that distinction as minimal as possible. 
Let’s keep going because this gets more and more interesting as you proceed.
So, because of this [grace-rooted partaking in the divine nature], you should strain every nerve to supplement your faith with virtue, and your virtue with knowledge, and your knowledge with self-control, and your self-control with patience, and your patience with piety, and your piety with family affection, and your family affection with love. If you have these things in plentiful supply, you see, you will not be wasting your time, or failing to bear fruit, in relation to your knowledge of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.
Now in Western Christianity, these are all activities that we place under the category of “sanctification.” “Justification” is the act of God graciously removing our inequity through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus on the cross, but “sanctification” is the process that follows “justification.” And “sanctification” is the term given to our cooperation with the Holy Spirit as the Spirit strives to lead us into becoming more like the One that died for us.
What is particularly interesting in this passage is that the process of becoming “divinized,” is directly related to our sanctification. More significantly, it also appears to be directly related to our justification and entrance into the Kingdom of God. Take a look:
Someone who doesn’t have these things [e.g. love, patience, self-control, etc…], in fact, is so shortsighted as to be actually blind, and has forgotten what it means to be cleansed from earlier sins. So, my dear family, you must make the effort all the more to confirm that God has called you and chosen you. If you do this, you will never trip up. That is how you will have, richly laid out before you, an entrance into the kingdom of God’s coming age, the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Messiah.
Read that one more time:
… you must make the effort all the more to confirm that God has called you and chosen you …
… if you do this, you will never trip up. That is how you will have, richly laid out before you, an entrance into the kingdom of God’s coming age, the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Messiah.
When it comes right down to it, this is an absolutely fascinating passage with implications that are rarely, if ever, discussed in evangelical circles. For the Eastern Orthodox Christian, theosis is the grace-driven process of becoming morally and ontologically like Jesus. It is the process of becoming a “god.” It is the reason that when faced with the question: “Are you saved?” the Eastern Orthodox Christian responds: “I was saved. I am being saved. And I will be saved.”
For many Western Christians, salvation has come to mean nothing more than justification. In other words, salvation is nothing more than a declaration of innocence before a Holy and uncompromising God. It has been stripped of its fullness of its power and meaning and finds itself wallowing in a reductionistic, minimalistic malaise. For Eastern Christians, on the other hand, salvation entails far more than justification. Salvation is a process that involves (at a minimum): justification, sanctification, and deification, all of which play into the “already and not yet” nature of the Kingdom of God.
Now the ramifications of this could not be more significant. Regardless of how you emotionally respond to this post, you must understand there is a movement within the larger Christian Church that is beginning to question some of the formalized doctrines and delineations of the Protestant Reformation. What’s more, there is a social trend in which evangelicals are beginning to migrate back to the Roman Catholic Church and even back to the Eastern Orthodox Church. For many of these people, it is the mystical concepts of theosis and being “in Christ” that are drawing them to an experience that is neither Modern in its orientation nor entirely rational in its expression. It is a move towards the unknown in the belief that God is not entirely knowable from a rational perspective. And for the sake of understanding these brothers and sisters in Christ, and for the sake of potentially learning something from them, it is incumbent upon us to begin to come to terms with this theology.
One final note. I am aware that many protestant theologians and pastors might desire to unpack the passage above in different manner than that which I have done. My point in dissecting the passage as I did was to attempt to be as fair as I could to the Eastern Orthodox perspective on these matters.
So what do you think, friend? Are the lines between justification and sanctification as clean as we, in the West, have been taught? Or might it be that the two are far more intimately connected? And if so, what does this do to our understanding of the assurance of salvation? The phone lines are now open and operators are standing by to take your call.
 Although I have only quoted Ireneaus, the reader needs to understand that this concept is widely discussed in the writing of early church fathers. Notable theologians working with the topic include: Ireneaus, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, Cyril of Alexandria, and Basil the Great, as well as many others.
 See also Romans 8, John 14-17, and even John 10:34, when Jesus himself quotes Psalm 82:6 by saying: “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods.’”
 2 Peter 1:3-11
 The language that is used here is the language of essence and energies. While theosis brings one into perfect union with God’s “energies,” it does not bring one into union with His “essence.”