Becoming a “god” … (part 1)

The 12th century Ladder of Divine Ascent icon (St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt) showing monks, lead by John Climacus, ascending the ladder to Jesus, at the top right.

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.”[1]  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.[2]

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.[3]

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. [4]

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

And …

… 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.’”

[3] 2 Peter 1:3-11

[4] 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.”

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Theology and Salvation, Theosis and Deification and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Becoming a “god” … (part 1)

  1. Ryan Mahoney says:

    I told you theosis was compelling especially given the universal acceptance of this image of salvation in the earliest church. I have two books on the subject that I am looking foward to reading in January.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Just a quick thought before I head to bed (my brain’s sleepy tonight)…I’ll be back though.

    If this is the universal understanding of salvation in the early Church, this notion that we are not getting our tickets punched to get on the train out of the jaws of hell, that God killed Jesus to pay the cosmic Visa bill, or whatever modern, less-than-traditional understanding of salvation that has trickled down from the theological ant hills of Calvin, Anselm, et al, then why does the Western church (and I am lumping my dear Catholic brothers in there as well) persist in them?

    Western Christianity, particularly Protestantism/Evangelicalism, lumps our “objective salvation” together with our “personal salvation” and understands them as interchangeable/the same thing. Our objective salvation, to quote Elder Cleopa of Romania, was accomplished by Christ on the Holy and Life-Giving Cross. Our personal or subjective salvation, our theosis, is a continuance of the objective salvation and is realized through cooperation with the Divine Grace.

    What is the goal of salvation? That’s really the question. And for me, an Orthodox Christian, the point of this is NOT a get out of jail free card. The point of this is to recover the image of God on my soul. It was not completely obliterated by sin (contrary to Calvin’s thoughts), but it was scarred and darkened. The Church, through the Sacraments which convey God’s grace (His Divine Energies) to me in a very real way, provides me the way to do just that.

    Another question, I guess, is what do you understand God’s grace to be? When I headed East, I realized that there is a distinct difference between the understanding of Grace to the modern Protestant and the ancient Eastern Christian.

    BTW: I have always understood that quote as attributed to St. Athanasius re: God becoming man so man could become god. (you have it both ways I think, in the footnotes and body)

    If we who claim small o orthodox Christianity have no issues with the works of these early Fathers in hammering out the truths of the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Trinity, et al…why do we not completely and unquestionably trust them on this particular topic? But for a good 600 years or so, many haven’t.

    • Good catch on Athanasius being the author of the quote. A very trustworthy source I used in my research actually attributed it to Ireneaus. But in every other source I read, it was attributed to Athanasius. Me thinks I found in error in my beloved source.

      P.S. I’ve already adjusted the post to reflect the proper author.

      More thoughts tomorrow.

    • Hey Bec,

      I am so glad that you have decided to enter this conversation. My hope is that together, you and I (and other that join in) might actually come to a place of greater understanding and deeper faith in the One who is the author of all salvation.

      Now, in regards to your first substantative paragraph above, I have put up another post. Why? Because I believe you are in error when you lump the Catholic church in with the rest of the Protestant world. So take a look and see what you think.

      Let’s keep talking.

      Your brother in Christ,
      Scott

      • Rebecca says:

        In the history of the Church, protestants are closer to Catholics in many ways than they like to believe. They are, on the timeline, errant Catholics. I will respond more above on part #2 later…

  3. Darryl says:

    Scott, I appreciate what you say in your article. I believe it is good and even important to understand a widely held belief that many who associate with Jesus hold as true. That said, (and I’ve only read Part 1 so far) I do think that it’s possible that many people can be flat wrong…or in danger of being destructively wrong. As you know and acknowledged, the proximity of theosis to heresy seems quite precarious.

    Okay, so, here’s some initial thoughts from my corner. 1) If I were preaching this passage, I would go quickly to the original languages of the passage (here, koine Greek as you know) and inspect the legitimacy of treating the word rendered “partaker” as “sharing the essence of” or “becoming like” and not just “sharing an experience with.” A quick scan of the NT word usage doesn’t provide many examples as far as I read it. In other words, I don’t see “koinonia” as being typically understood to mean “sharing the same essence of” but rather, sharing an experience with (as when rendered “fellowship,” in that we don’t become brother Bill or sister Sue when we enjoy fellowship with them). You rightly introduce the big theological word, ontological (I stay away from those words because they scare me; ha. Oh, and I am afraid of misusing them) here. That’s the issue, right? So, to me, the concept hinges on the meaning of partake (as well as the other Biblical teachings to affirm or deny this reading).

    Now, another issue sticks out to me. This is the issue of God’s communicable vs. incommunicable characteristics. (There’s one of those words. For the rest of us, this just refers to the traits of God that cannot be shared with mankind.) I think the reason many of us (rightly) have a somewhat-visceral reaction to those who say “we are becoming like little gods” has to do with an accurate concern/fear of heresy. In this case, I mean the heresy of bringing God down a peg by suggesting that men can be elevated to reach Him. In other words, it is wrong to suggest that mankind can one day attain to the status of God because of the many ways that God is so much more awesome, pure, holy, infallible and perfect than we are. Even if we were to somehow be become holy (as the Scripture hints that we will [like Heb. 2:11 and every other place that there is reference to “sanctification”)- even if we were to become holy, we will never be the source of holiness like God as the source of holiness. Even if we go off to invent little universes like God created our universe…we will never be the chief architect. And so on, and so forth. You see where this is going. So, my thought is that many of us balk at saying we will become little gods for very right reasons: there is a danger in this statement- the danger in implying that we will one day become as much divine as God is divine. That is erroneous, and misled, as well as heretical because it implies that God can be copied. If God is the sort that can be copied, he is no longer God.

    However there is a way in which the term “gods” has been used throughout literature to refer merely to those who have (in their own mind or the minds of others) been elevated to a status above normal humanity’s level. Superheroes are thought to be like gods (think X-men; I think there is even a line in one of the movies where Magneto tells another “mutant” that they are like gods among men) in that they are revered by mortals. In “Point, Counter Point” Aldous Huxley refers to someone as being “like a god” in the way he hovered over the affairs of his peers. This is misleading and, I think, dangerous, for our understanding of who God actually is, but I understand it’s use in literature. This last point is one that, although it is not ideal, I wonder if it is something to consider more (…and maybe the point of your article?)

    The fact is…God has and is making us into something more than we once were. It’s right to look at this square in the face. We shall be “like him” (1 John 3:2), and we are a new creation (1 Cor. 5:7) and other verses – these all tell us that God has a plan to do something supernatural in his people. Likewise, the whole essence of the spiritual birth (John 3) and the ability to see/live/act with supernatural gifts (1 Corinthians 12 & 14; Eph. 4:11-16) not to mention the fact that we (the Church) are described as a “new man” in Ephesians 2:15; 3:10 & 4:24). I say…wow! When you look at the ideal Christian life and the reality of the Church, if we were to draw a comic book, you would think one was drawing a superhero or group of superheros.

    Then, looking at all that, it’s not inconceivable that someone would say (especially given the author of our faith and “new life”) that we are becoming gods. Still, I think it is so dangerous to use this term. That may be the “Western” part of me coming out. Not that I over-emphasize the delineation between justification and sanctification, but that I tend to like things in nice, tidy, easy-to-separate, compartments. In a sense, this may be a kind of mental laziness; like I want to say “it’s either a spoon or a fork, don’t give me any of this ‘spork’ business!” Or, more appropriate to this conversation: God is God and I am not, nor will ever be a god. Don’t mix my ideas. God is up there, I’m not. Such strong distinctions are helpful for mental comprehension, and labeling. However, these separations are seldom helpful for dealing with complexities like this. Fact: we’re becoming something more than we ever could hope to be apart from Christ. Fact: we will never be as amazing as God. Fact: we will never be NOT-dependent on God. Fact: in Christ, we are more than human.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to wrestle with this, Scott, I look forward to reading your next 2 installments. Oh, and I’m going to go buy a self-help book on how to NOT write novels on facebook now.

    • This is every bit as thoughtful as I would have expected from you, Darryl (note the spelling!). And I’m right there with you in terms of going to the original Greek, letting Scripture interpret Scripture, etc.

      But here’s the issue I have with your concern over using the language of “gods.” Jesus Himself, in quoting Psalms 82:6 suggests that the Israelites were “gods, sons of the Most High” And the implication is, if they were “gods,” certainly He is allowed to refer to Himself as the “Son of God.” Moreover, as we are “sons of the Most High,” in a way that the Israelites were not (due to our partaking in the divine nature of God), would it not be accurate to refer to us as “gods?” I realize this may sound offsetting in a Modern context, but perhaps that works to our advantage. Can you see that? Perhaps, it has the potential to open up all sorts of discussions that Christians do not typically discuss.

      Again, I’m not settled on this issue. This is a discussion that I started because a friend of mine asked me to compare the issue of “theosis” with Oswald Chamber’s “Christian Perfection.”

      Thanks for chiming in, friend. I look forward to reading your thoughts as the discussion continues to unfold.

Comments are closed.