In this post, I want to consider what the early church fathers called theosis or divinization. They were convinced that this was man’s original calling, and it is principally man’s final end through salvation in Christ. But what does it mean? And how do we partake in it? This is what I want to answer through this post.
The outline of this post will take three steps. First, I need to define, primarily from the fathers and biblical metaphors, what divinization/theosis actually means. Second, I will look at the nature of sin as deprivation from the help of Augustine. Finally, I will look at what salvation in Christ means through the lens of the first two steps.
First, what does divinization mean? I realize that the word divinization or theosis sounds very foreign and strange. But these were words that the Fathers often used, and they are ultimately a biblical idea; so we must explore what they mean. Frederica Mathewes-Greens defines theosis by breaking down the word:
The goal of [mankind] is union with God. This is called theosis, which is usually translated “deification” or “divinization”. Those terms are misleading, if not alarming, since it could sound like we expect to become junior gods, each an independent owner-operator of a personal divinity franchise. Fortunately for everyone, that is not the case. We can dismantle the Greek word and see it is composed of theos, which means “God”, and the suffix -osis, which indicates a process. As red dye saturates a white clothe by the process of osmosis, so humans can be saturated with God’s presence by the process of theosis.
This was God’s plan from the beginning; we were created… to be increasingly filled with his glory (Welcome to the Orthodox Church, p 68-69)
Theosis, then, means that human beings were created to be increasingly filled with God’s glory. Or, put another way, mankind was made to participate and find its life within God’s divine life.
Aiden Nichols, in his book Chalice of God, tells us that the world was created to be a “beautiful receptacle”; that the “being of the world is so constituted as to receive” (p 12-13) and not to exist on its own. Rather it was created to receive the breath of God and to live in his own life. God, out of love then, created the world to participate or to be permeated with the divine indwelling.
But why is this so? Why was man created for this end? It is because only God has the infinite and unlimited resources that permit him to live independently. Aidan Nichols explains “anything whose nature does not demand its existence must have its being from another — meaning, ultimately, from the First Cause” (Chalice of God, p 14). God’s being, or his essence, is infinite, endless, and demands its own cause and existence. Created things on the other hand demand the cause of the other.
Frank Sheed explains:
[T]he infinite Being, having all perfections is utterly changeless. Nothing else is. Every created being, however glorious, contains a certain negative element, lacks something, from the fact that it is made of nothing.
So St. Augustine writes (De Natura Boni): All the things that God has made are mutable because made of nothing. And the Council of Florence tells us that creatures are good, of course, because they are made by the Supreme Good, but mutable because they are made of nothing. (Theology and Sanity, p 124-125)
All the created order is necessarily good (because God created it!), but is also necessarily changeable or even possibly corruptible because it is created and not eternal. Thus all of creation is made dependent, open, in need of receiving a life outside of itself. Left to its own resources, creation would change, degenerate, morph; because something created doesn’t have the capacity for eternal life in and of itself. For this reason, when God created the cosmos, he intended to dwell in it, to energize it with his life and to sustain it as his eternal temple. Nichols tells us the cosmos was made to “mediate the infinite” (p 21).
This is especially true of man: mankind was created commune with the triune community and life of God. Or, if I may put it biblically: man was created to be sanctified and finally glorified by participation in the triune God by the Spirit (Rom 8:28-30). When God created Adam, it is said that He “breathed” into him, and Adam “became a living being”. The fathers understood this breath to be the Holy Spirit, energizing Adam’s human nature with the divine life such that he was rendered immortal. Adam did not contain or own this life, rather it was a divine gift of grace.
The fathers illustrated this divine participation in several ways. Frederica Mathewes Green explains one way:
How can poor human clay take on the overwhelming presence of God? St. Cyril of Alexandria gives an analogy to the way fire acts upon metal. He wrote, “when the iron is brought into contact with the fire, it becomes full of its activity — that is, it takes on the properties, the heat and the light, of fire. “While it is by nature iron, it exerts the power of fire” (Welcome to the Orthodox Church, p 70)
Another good example, which I’ve mentioned before, is the temple. Many of the fathers understood Adam to be the priest within the temple of Eden. God thus made the world to be his dwelling place, his earth-temple. And Adam was tasked as the primordial priest to consecrate and offer the cosmos to God in thanksgiving, and for God to receive and fill the world with his life. Alexander Schmemman explains it this way:
The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament. (For the Life of the World, Kindle Locations 152-155)
Schmemman calls the entire cosmos the “matter”, and the man the “priest”. Man was created so that he could offer the “matter” of the world as a eucharist (thanksgiving sacrifice) to the Father in order that He may accept and transpose it with his glory.
I want to secondly move on to the nature of sin. Saint Augustine dealt with the heresy of Manichaeism, which held to a type of dualism akin to the gnostic heretics of the early church. The Manichaeans understood evil to be a substance, a thing that is part of the world that is in opposition to the good. Augustine’s insight against this impulse was to reason that if evil is a thing, a substance, then it means it was created. If it was created, it must have come from God, making God the originator of evil, or worse, evil in and of himself. This is obviously unbearable. God did not create or ordain evil.
From whence comes evil then? Augustine’s solution was to explain evil in negative terms. Evil is not a thing, something to be seen or grasped. Rather, evil is deprivation of the good. It is a corruption of the good. Evil is the very absence of what should be there. Evil is like rot in a tree, or darkness as the absence of light, or cold as the absence of heat. It is not a thing per se, but rather a reality of privation and incompleteness. Thomas Aquinas built on concept by furthering explaining that because evil is not a thing, or a substance, we may also affirm that evil is meaningless. Evil has no logical end or purpose. And actually, evil is the derailing of the purpose of a thing. Nichols says that “sin falls outside the divine understanding since it is objectively unintelligible, a falling away from being” (Chalice of God, 22). Sin is a falling away from being; meaning, it is a deprivation of that which should be. It is not properly something, rather it is a state of nothingness (this is the paradox of hell: it is simultaneously and eternally existence and non-existence. It is utter turmoil because man lives forever in this state of nothingness). Kallistos Ware expounds on this:
Against all forms of dualism, Christianity affirms that there is a summum bonum, a “supreme good” — namely God himself — but there is and can be no summun malum. Evil is not coeternal with God…
What then are we to say about evil? Since all created things are intrinsically good, sin or evil as such is not a “thing”, not existent being or substance… “Sin is naught”, says Augustine… And St. Gregory of Nyssa states, “Sin does not exist in nature apart from free will; it is not a substance in its own right”… Evil is always parasitic. It is the twisting and misappropriation of what is in itself good. (The Orthodox Way, 46-47)
Now, what does this have to do with theosis? The logical connection becomes evident when we ask: if evil is a privation, what is missing from the world that creates the evil of death and suffering? What is missing within man that makes him corrupt and die?
The answer is simply: God’s own life. If we tease out the metaphor of Adam as priest and the earth as God’s temple, when Adam sinned — when he seized the divine prerogative for himself — God’s presence was removed from his earth-temple. Adam’s sin was a turning-away from God’s very sustaining presence. And in turning away from the glory of God’s energizing presence, Adam turned into corruption, death, sickness, disease; or put another way, when Adam sinned, he forfeited the Spirit and was left to live autonomously and by his own resources; and having no eternal resources in himself, Adam become mortal, corrupt; he returned to the dust from which he was created.
Many people understand the punishment of Adam’s original sin to be an imposition of God’s hand on the nature of man: God struck the man dead. But death is not part of God’s nature. Instead, we must understand Adam’s sin as a punishment in and of itself. By this I mean that when Adam sinned, he turned away from God’s very life and forfeited the eternal, energizing presence of God. In other words, Adam dislodged mankind, even the entire cosmos, from the life of the triune God by his own sin. The communion he was meant to share in with the triune community was broken through his disobedience. As Karl Adams says, mankind, “called to share by grace in the divine life… [became] detached from its original supernatural goal,…like some planet detached from its sun, [and] revolved only in crazy gyration round itself”. Aidan Nichols explains original sin in terms of a “failure to attain a telos” (Chalice of God, 22). This impulse, I believe is correct.
Original sin is therefore a reversal of man’s final end from eternal life in God to finitude and death in the self; and this death is not just physical, but spiritual as well. The body is not only bound toward corruption, but the soul with its moral and reasoning capacity is corrupted and in a state of death. Man’s moral compass and ability is thus askew, and his calling to be an image bearer is thwarted: instead of imaging God, he becomes animalistic and brutish. Man is stuck in this state of death — his will is bound as Augustine would say; he cannot rescue himself — and thus he needs deliverance.
This takes us to our last point: salvation. The question of salvation becomes: if man’s final end is union with God, theosis, divinization etc, and if sin is a derailment of that final end such that all mankind is constituted in death and corruption, how then does the human project realize it’s final purpose once more?
The answer is that mankind is saved through union with Christ who was obedient where Adam was not, and who was filled with new life through his resurrection from the dead. And by this I mean that salvation entails a rejoining with the divine life of God in the Spirit through mystical union with the resurrected Christ.
But what does this mean? And how does it happen? I will give two answers:
First, the patristic view. The patristic church was fond of saying that God became man that man might become God. And by this they meant that God did something through Christ such that man can be reconstituted in union with God’s life once more.
But what did God do in Christ? Very simply, God came down to where we are — into our sinful, dead situation — to raise mankind back to him in the fellowship of the Triune life.
Kallistos Ware explains:
The Christian message of salvation can best be summed up in terms of sharing, of solidarity and identification… Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is.
St Paul expresses this metaphorically in terms of wealth and poverty: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Christ’s riches are his eternal glory; Christ’s poverty is his complete self-identification with our fallen human condition. In the words of an Orthodox Christmas hymn, “Sharing wholly in our poverty, thou hast made divine our earthly nature through thy union with it and participation in it”. Christ shares in our death, and we share in his life; he “empties himself” and we are “exalted” (Phil 2:5-9). God’s descent makes possible man’s ascent. St Maximus the Confessor writes: “Ineffably the infinity limits itself, while the finite is expanded to the measure of the infinite”…
Christ who is the Son of God by nature has made us sons of God by grace. In him we are “adopted” by God the Father, becoming sons-in-the-Son. (The Orthodox Way, p 73-74)
[B]y suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which He suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured… And therefore Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 John 2:2: “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (ST, 3.48.2)