Orthodox Christian Theosis and Deification in the New Religious Movements
by Rev. Dn. Dr. Brendan Pelphrey
More than ten years ago as editor of the journal Areopagus at Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre in Hong Kong, I wrote an editorial on the subject of deification as it is understood in Christian tradition and in new religious movements. With the encouragement of Responsible Editor Johannes Aagaard the article was subsequently republished in an anthology, Dialogue in action, edited by Lars Thunberg, Moti Lal Pandit and Carl Vilhelm Fogh-Hansen in honor of Aagaard’s sixtieth birthday. In the article I attempted to draw a distinction between deification as it is understood in new religious movements, particularly New Age; and divinization (qewsiV, theosis) as it is understood in historic (Eastern Orthodox) Christianity.
As it turned out, writing the article was part of my own movement into the Eastern Orthodox Church. Although I am grateful for having explored the subject at the time, from my perspective today as an Orthodox Deacon and teacher in an Orthodox college, those initial reflections seem unsatisfactory. I was writing without adequate resources at hand, especially the works of the Eastern Church fathers in which the Christian doctrine of theosis is developed. I did not summarize all the various kinds of popular religion which teach deification today, but limited the discussion to Western spirituality loosely characterized as New Age. The article did not address Roman Catholic dialogue with Hinduism on the topic of deification, notably by the late Frs. Jules Monchanin and Bede Griffiths and their mentor Swamiji Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux) at Saccidananda Ashram in Tamil Nadu. Finally, my use of the term “divinization” for theosis, to distinguish Orthodox Christian concepts from other approaches to deification, does not seem to have been followed subsequently by other writers.
On the other hand, Areopagus was also ahead of its time. We addressed the issue of deification/divinization before it was popular in evangelical Christian publications. No doubt Protestant theologians knew of a Christian tradition of theosis, but Protestant theology was seen as incompatible with Catholic mysticism, and Western theologians were apparently unfamiliar for the most part with Eastern Orthodoxy.
Now deification has suddenly become an important topic in Evangelical Christian circles in America. The reason is not dialogue with Asian religions or New Age, but a growing concern about Mormonism and its acceptance by many as a “Christian” church. In this context a controversy has arisen about the true nature of salvation in historic Christian doctrine. In particular, the discussion has focussed on traditional Protestant understandings of justification and sanctification, as against the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis. How this came about is an interesting story in itself.
In a dialogue between Evangelical Christians and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints published in 1997, the question was raised whether Mormonism should be treated by Christians as a kind of Christian sect rather than as a different religion or an overt heresy. That the question was even possible points to a reversal in recent years of the Mormon stance vis-à-vis Christianity in general. Previously, Mormons were taught, and said in their witnessing, that Christians are going to hell. More recently Mormons have begun to assert that they are Christians too, and to demand acceptance as such. Pointing to the phenomenal growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints worldwide some Mormons would insist today that they are a mainline Christian denomination.
But what about obviously non-Christian doctrines and practices in Mormonism? Indeed LDS theology could be characterized as a distortion of every significant point of Christian doctrine including the Trinity, the Person of Christ, the nature of sin and salvation, the sacraments, revelation, the scriptures, even morality and anthropology. An important example is the Mormon teaching that men can become gods. Perhaps embarrassed by the doctrine, only a few years ago Mormons were reluctant to discuss it even when confronted with Mormon texts on the subject. In my experience most Mormons denied that they had ever heard of it. In the last decade, however, “secret” Mormon temple rituals, including deification rites, have been published and analyzed in non-Mormon journals and have become a matter of common knowledge. Indeed Areopagus published a seminal article on Mormon deification doctrine, with sidebars on other topics of LDS interest, in the same issue which contained my original “deification” editorial. Perhaps as a result of such publicity, in recent dialogues the Mormon response has not been to deny the doctrine of deification but to claim that Mormons teach deification just as it was taught by the early Christian fathers.
In the face of such a large theological red herring—more accurately, a fish the size of Jonah’s—evangelical theologians scrambled to research the whole subject of deification in early Christian tradition. They found that the Greek term theosis, translated as “deification” in English, appears frequently in Orthodox Christian theological works and is an important theme in the writings of the Church fathers. A well-known Orthodox aphorism, first attributed to the second-century Christian apologist Irenaeus of Lyons, is that “God became man so that man might become God.”
Could it be, then, that early Christian fathers really were Mormons? Some prominent evangelists in America apparently thought so. Their response, in print and on the electronic media, was to characterize first, second- and third-century Christianity, especially in the East, as deviant and heretical—deviating, that is, from certain elements of Reformed theology (as opposed to Lutheran theology) first put forward in the sixteenth century. Orthodoxy was found guilty of “mystikism,” as I once heard it pronounced in an evangelical radio broadcast. Subsequent arguments appeared on the Internet over whether or not Augustine also taught a doctrine of deification. It would seem that there was a willingness to convict Eastern fathers of heresy, but less certainty about burning Augustine at the stake owing to his acknowledged influence on the Protestant Reformation.
The problem was not so much the discovery of a doctrine of “deification” in the early Church period, but whether writers such as Irenaeus were actually representative of “original” Christianity. Some Evangelicals would have it that the Apostolic Fathers were neither apostolic, nor fathers of the Church, owing to their identification of salvation with theosis, their view of the sacraments (especially the Lord’s Supper), and other factors. However, the criticism of the Apostolic Fathers extended to all Eastern Orthodox Christianity, because of the continuation of these ancient doctrinal perspectives in Orthodoxy. Interestingly, Protestant writers who denounce the Orthodox fathers as heretical seem to be unaware that Luther and Calvin found much of their inspiration precisely in these same fathers, including Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus), Athanasius, John of Damascus and so on—some of whom are cited in the works of the Reformers nearly as often as scripture or Augustine.
The issue of deification has become a cause celebre and is being debated with Reformation fervor. Careers, if not souls, are at stake. In 1998 BIOLA University was shaken when certain students and faculty expressed an interest in Orthodox Christian theology. Could these persons be allowed to remain on campus? A task force was appointed to document the differences between Reformed doctrine and ecclesiology as articulated at BIOLA, and elements of Orthodox thought and practice. Topics included the role of the scriptures, human depravity, justification by faith, ecclesiology and so on. The finding of the task force was that Eastern Orthodox Christianity is essentially flawed, especially with regard to the doctrine of theosis.
Interestingly, BIOLA ultimately did not take action against the persons involved. However, on other campuses professors who converted to Orthodoxy were less fortunate. As a result, Orthodox clergy such as myself are now being approached secretly by evangelical scholars who profess a strong personal interest in Eastern Christianity, but who are unwilling at this time to make their private spirituality a matter of public affirmation.
As of this writing the topic of deification is still an emotional one. Recently a statement appeared on the Internet that Orthodox Christians believe they become uncreated gods by attending the Divine Liturgy. When I pointed out that we do not teach anything of the kind, I was scolded that we Orthodox do not understand our own faith. Unfortunately some Evangelicals, still upset by the Evangelical/Mormon debacle and misled by poor scholarship, are ready to defend Christianity at all odds against…well, ancient Christianity.
This was the situation when Prof. Aagaard approached me about re-issuing the original Areopagus article on deification/divinization in Christianity and new religious movements. Rather than reprinting the entire text, I have preferred to offer brief selections from the original article, along with an expanded section on the Orthodox Christian position on deification. My hope is to open a door for dialogue, in which eventually the whole question of Asian religions with relation to Eastern Orthodoxy can be discussed. In these paragraphs the term “deification” is used to represent New Age and Mormon teaching about the ability of human beings to become gods in their own right; while the original Greek term theosis is used exclusively for the early Christian doctrine that human beings may be raised into mystical union with God, through Jesus Christ.
Deification in the New Age
On my desk there is literature printed on pink and yellow perfumed paper and sent by a friend of a friend. The publisher is the founder of an organization “to promote the study of esoteric philosophy.” Although his particular background is Muslim, he follows a path which, he says, embraces many traditions including Christianity. However, he suggests that his path is not really a religion so much as a philosophy which will help followers to live more fully.
The first page of the advertisement urges readers to discover a new way of life. It is a path to liberation from materialism and the confusion of this world, through meditation. Meditation, the pamphlet states, is learning to still the mind and to look inward rather than outward to external things, which are only illusory. Only by this kind of non-activity can we learn to discover true happiness. Then we can “discover the divinity which is within us.”
In many of the new religious movements today a major theme is deification: the idea that human beings can become divine, or can discover the divinity which is already within us, through spiritual discipline. Oddly enough, this idea is often represented as having nothing to do with religion or a belief in God. Rather, it is put forward as a teaching about human nature itself. The fundamental idea is that whatever is called “God” is really what lies deep within ourselves. We are ourselves divine. We are gods on earth.
In some religious movements the theme of deification is communicated very subtly and may not be obvious at first. It can be implied in the belief that by following a certain guru who is thought of as divine, the disciple can take on some of the guru’s own qualities. In other movements, however, deification is promoted openly as the whole aim and purpose of the movement.
Also on my desk, for example, is a slick brochure from America printed in purple ink and advertising what is called “a master’s manual.” This manual is said to contain the teachings of a thousands-of-years-old man who did not die, but who “ascended.” Now he is channeled through the body of a woman who promotes his teaching, often on television, regarding the inner powers of the human spirit. The object of the manual is expressly to teach deification of the self.
According to the teaching of the Master, human beings can do anything they want. They are gods, but they do not know how to harness their true power. The brochure states that “there is an eternity that loves you greatly. It is called the God of your Being. It is your spirit. It walks before you…”. Finally, the brochure spells out plainly that we really are gods. We can discover this truth by following the Master’s instructions, for a fee, in a process called “becoming”:
Becoming is the innocence of intellect reversing back to original unlimited Godself, the child, the purity of self. Then the miracles begin. Little by little the layers come off, and the innocence that lies within is Divine God, divine master, uninhibited ability, pure spirit, pure genius. It takes courage to be what you are, but once seen, it is joyous; and it is easier to be a god than not to be one.
Deification in Ancient Christian Tradition
Earlier this century, Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky wrote concerning the role of theosis in Orthodox Christian spirituality: 
“God made Himself man, that man might become God.” These powerful words...are again found in the writings of St. Athanasius, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. The Fathers and Orthodox theologians have repeated them in every century with the same emphasis, wishing to sum up in this striking sentence the very essence of Christianity: an ineffable descent of God to the ultimate limit of our fallen human condition, even unto death—a descent of God which opens to men a path of ascent, the unlimited vistas of the union of created beings with the Divinity.
Today, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, following the tradition of the early Christian fathers, describes salvation in Jesus Christ as theosis. The Greek term has no real equivalent in the English language. It means to be filled with God, to take on the divine likeness, to live fully in Christ who is one with the Father. Thus it means to become one with God. The doctrine of theosis is apostolic and scriptural. A well-known reference in the New Testament is 2 Peter 1:3:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.
Protestant Christians sometimes object that the passage in 2 Peter does not mean what it says, because it is impossible for human beings to share the divine nature. Orthodox Christians, however, are always puzzled by such statements because in its original Greek the passage is very clear. It cannot mean anything else. Other passages in the New Testament offer a parallel to the statement in 2 Peter and can help us understand how early Christians thought of theosis. St. Paul speaks, for example, of human nature being changed into the likeness of Christ, that is, receiving the glory of God:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)
The word “glory” (doxa) denotes radiance but also means appearance or face. Thus Paul’s meaning is that those who behold the glory of God’s face, as Moses did, take on the divine radiance just as Moses himself shone with the bright light of God’s glory. Similarly, the believer in Christ is transfigured into His divine likeness, and this transformation is the real purpose and destiny of human beings. By becoming human God has transformed humanity and made it to partake of the divine nature. In a parallel passage Paul explains that it is the divine purpose for human beings to be glorified (edojxasen, edoxasen):
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)
From a Protestant perspective this passage seems to be concerned primarily with predestination and justification. Some Protestant traditions interpret the term “predestined” (prowjrisen, proorisen) to mean that God determines who will be saved and who will be damned (the doctrine of “double predestination” in some Reformed theology), while other traditions understand the word more in terms of divine purpose for all humanity, even though not all persons are in fact justified by faith (Lutheran theology). In either case, justification itself is understood to mean the work of Christ on the cross, in which Christ paid the debt of sin by suffering death on behalf of human beings (substitutionary atonement). Those who repent of sin and accept the vicarious suffering of Christ on their behalf are “justified.” The term “justify” therefore has the sense of “to declare (as if) righteous,” for the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers. This general doctrinal position may be traced to the writings of Anselm of Canterbury, who introduced it as an innovation in Christian thought in the eleventh century.
From an Eastern Orthodox perspective justification involves more than being accounted righteous because of a settled debt. Salvation in Christ is, first of all, the defeat of death. Death has been at work in humanity since Adam; therefore, the salvation of humankind necessarily involves the liberation of humanity from death and the overcoming of death in humanity. What saves us is not only the cross of Christ, but first of all the nativity of the eternal Logos in flesh, his baptism on our behalf (in which, Orthodox hymns say, the waters were cleansed and re-created as Jesus entered into them), his descent into Hades to defeat death, his resurrection, his ascension. In the theology of the early Church, God became human in order to change humanity from within, uniting humanity forever to God.
Celebrating the Nativity in hymns, St. Ephrem the Syrian, writing in the fourth century, depicts salvation as the Logos “clothing” himself with created flesh, the flesh of Adam. Christ puts on Adam, and after defeating death in Hades ascends into the heavens in the flesh. The flesh of Adam is therefore deified in Christ. Ephrem’s imagery is still to be found in Orthodox hymns of the Nativity:
All these changes did the Merciful One make,
Salvation is the lifting of human nature out of the context of sin and death, and into the context of eternal life. But salvation also necessarily involves the appropriation of God’s grace by human beings, those who identify with Christ in baptism and become his followers. In the Romans passage cited above, the Greek term usually rendered “justified,” (ejdikaivwsen, edikaiosen) literally means “straightened out” or “made straight (righteous).” Orthodox agree with Protestant Christians that at baptism the believer is identified with Christ and declared righteous. But the “second birth” of the believer at baptism is the beginning of spiritual life, not the end of it—just as natural birth is only the beginning of life in the flesh. Justification involves more than birth; it is the growth of the believer into the fullness of life in Christ.
The Orthodox understanding of justification can be understood in terms of an event narrated in the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus straightens the woman who for eighteen years had been bent over by an illness (Luke 13:10-17). Jesus tells her that she has been loosed from the spirit of infirmity. The evangelist contrasts the spirit of infirmity with the Holy Spirit, noting that in the Holy Spirit there is liberty. Thus, justification in Christ literally means being straightened out and given a new life, in the liberty of the Holy Spirit. Human beings, weighed down and distorted by sin, are set free in the Spirit of God. They receive new life and, through the grace that God gives continually, literally take on a new appearance. They begin to look like Christ, in whom we find divinity and therefore, genuine humanity.
From a Protestant perspective the Orthodox interpretation appears to conflate justification in Christ with sanctification, the subsequent work of the Holy Spirit in the believer. From an Orthodox perspective Protestants here misunderstand the fundamental meaning of salvation, dividing justification from sanctification as if there were two distinct operations, and understanding salvation as if it were a purely legal operation. As in the other biblical languages of Hebrew and Latin, the Greek swzw (sozo), “I save,” is not a legal term. It means to heal, make whole, rescue, preserve, restore. It does not mean “to reckon as if one were whole,” “to reckon as though healed,” “to reckoned as if restored.” This distinction would be vitally important in a hospital or on a battlefield, and Orthodox regard it as even more vital with regard to spiritual life and death.
To say this does not subtract from the central role of divine grace in salvation. Orthodoxy has always regarded that we are saved (healed) through the grace of God, not through our own efforts (Ephesians 2:8). But at the same time salvation requires our cooperation. Redemption from sin is like being healed of a mortal illness. The physician’s care is necessary, surgery removes the evil growth, medication destroys the infection, but nevertheless healing is, finally, a process of the body itself. The patient must take the medicine; he or she must cooperate with the physician and want to get well; the body must repair its cells and organs. In Christianity the Physician is Christ, the surgery is repentance, the sterilizing is baptism, the medication is chrismation initially and the divine Eucharist often, the daily exercise is obedience to Christ’s command to love, exercised in prayer. In this connection Ignatius, writing at the dawn of the second century, refers to the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality, and the antidote which wards off death but yields continuous life in union with Jesus Christ.”
Such healing is an operation of love, because love is the nature of God. Love cannot be forced or imposed. Human beings must receive love and nurture it by our actions and our decisions. This is what Orthodox call synergy, literally “working together.” The meaning is not that we can add anything to God’s free gift of salvation and forgiveness of sins, but that we accept and receive it by faith, and then act upon what God has done in our lives. Examples of our cooperation, then, are to receive baptism, to repent of sins, to cultivate prayer and inner peace by deciding not to engage in immoral and godless behavior, to read the Holy Scriptures, to participate in the sacraments of the Church. These create the environment in which theosis is possible and can be actualized.
Without inner discipline and peace, sinful human beings cannot provide a dwelling-place for God. The dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit is called the nous by the fathers: literally “mind,” but much more accurately translated as “heart” because it denotes the spiritual mind, the dwelling-place of God in us. The unspiritual person allows the heart to atrophy until, in some, it is altogether dead. But for those who seek the Lord, who call on His name and walk according to His will, their lives are transformed and they become children of light. Growing in grace, such persons take on the likeness of Christ in their daily lives. This is what Orthodox call theosis, to be God-filled.
The tradition of the Hesychasts
When speaking of theosis Orthodox writers today often refer to the great spiritual fathers known as Hesychasts, who describe their experience of receiving divine grace and of being drawn into God and receiving divine nature. In the view of the Hesychasts, it is the sharing of divine grace in the gift of the Holy Spirit which brings about salvation, healing, and restoration of humanity into the divine image which is in Christ. An assumption by non-Orthodox readers might be that Hesychasm is therefore a kind of mystical (or even Pentecostal or “holiness”) branch of Orthodoxy which fell into belief in deification. This is actually not the case.
The term hesychast (from hsucia, hesychia, “quiet”) is the name given to certain solitaries and other monks in the Orthodox communities at Mount Athos. However, hesychasm is typical of the whole of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, in which monks cultivate inner peace through stillness and constant prayer. More generally, hesychasm means the attainment of spiritual peace and a transformation of human passions, a goal for all Orthodox Christians whether monastic or not. It is another way of describing the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 4), and it is also a necessary step in making room in our lives for Christ.
Hesychasm is a consistent theme in Orthodox spirituality beginning in the Apostolic era. To speak of a “school” of Hesychasm (as some writers do) is therefore inaccurate. Unfortunately, much of the patristic literature has not been translated from the original Greek into modern languages. Following a large emigration of Russian Orthodox to Paris after the Bolshevik Revolution some important Orthodox spiritual texts were translated from Russian/Slavonic into French. Today a few more texts are available in English, translated either from Slavonic or from Greek. Perhaps the best known in the West, made available in English over the last thirty years, is the collection of spiritual writings called the Philokalia (“love of the beautiful” or “love of the good”) which is representative of Orthodox spirituality.
These texts include reflections from Ss. John Climacus, Nikitas Stithatos, Gregory of Sinai, and the better-known Hesychasts Maximos the Confessor, Symeon the New Theologian and Gregory Palamas. However, they reflect a consistent theology which may be seen in the writings of many other Church fathers. Here it is helpful to study the works of such theologians as Ss. Athanasius, Gregory the Theologian, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Ephrem the Syrian, and John Chrysostom on the issue of salvation itself.
It is important to remember that most hesychastic texts were written by monks as advice for other monks. Hesychasm was, and is, developed in the context of daily Orthodox prayers (the Hours) and especially the Divine Liturgy. For those who have never lived in this context or practiced these ways of prayer, it can be difficult to understand the spiritual advice which the monks offer. Many ordinary monastic practices might seem unbelievable to those who have not seen them: for example, praying through the night without sleeping, eating only crumbs of bread during the week; learning to pray constantly.
Such feats are not undertaken by Orthodox in order to earn merit from God, but flow naturally from the desire to draw closer to God in silence and peace. Besides, fasting and disciplined prayer are always part of ordinary Orthodox Christian life, even for laypersons. These are ways to prepare for the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper), which is at the center of the Christian life. In the view of the Eastern Church, reflecting the perspective of early Christianity, regular participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood is central to spiritual growth and attainment of theosis—the transformation of non-spiritual humanity into the likeness of Christ.
Frequently the words of the Hesychasts echo the Divine Liturgy and the prayers which are said quietly by the priest or the deacon during the course of celebrating the Eucharist. They also recall the actions of the priest in consecrating and distributing the Body and Blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. An example is the action of pouring wine and water into the chalice during the preparatory prayers (the proskomedia) before the Divine Liturgy begins. The deacon urges the priest to bless the wine and then the water, and to bless the union of the two elements. The Protestant reformers saw little point in retaining this action, and for the most part omitted it. But for the Orthodox it represents salvation, theosis, itself.
In his prayers the priest calls to mind the testimony of the Gospel of John, that “out of [Jesus’] side flowed blood and water” (John 19:34). The spiritual meaning is that the divine nature of the Logos (the uncreated Son of God), symbolized by the wine, is commingled with created human nature, symbolized by the water. In the chalice the water is entirely mingled with wine and “becomes” wine. Thus, while water is not wine, the two become perfectly one because the water is suffused by the wine. In the same way the Incarnation of the Son of God is said to change, or deify, human nature itself. By becoming human the divine Son lifted humanity out of the depths of sin and hell, and into the realm of heaven and the divine nature.
Orthodox Christianity therefore understands salvation in Christ to be the restoration and completion of human nature. Adam fell into the power of death; Christ, the New Adam, overcame the power of death for all humanity. To be sure there are many ramifications of this theme, and Eastern Church fathers from the very beginning understood the mystery of salvation as encompassing many different elements: that Christ is the perfect sacrifice for sins, drawing to a close the Jewish sacrifices; that Christ is the ransom for many; that Christ has loosed the slave from bondage; that Christ is like bait on a hook, catching the sea-monster (Satan) by allowing himself to be crucified and descending into Hades. Swallowing up Christ, the sea-monster of the Deep finds the uncreated Logos clothed in humanity, and vomits Him up just as the fish vomited up Jonah. All these images are very early employed by Christian writers such as Justin, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa and so on. But the overwhelming single image employed by the fathers is one of “justifying”—setting straight, or restoring—humanity.
Nor is humanity merely restored to the state of Adam. Adam was made in the “image and likeness” of God. Orthodoxy distinguishes between “image” and “likeness.” The divine image is found in all human beings, and represents our God-given human potential. It is never fully erased, even if it is heavily obscured by sin. But to have the likeness of God is to actualize human potential, to look like Christ. We obtain this only in Christ, as we are joined to Him in His Body, the Church. We have it through a life of faith, in the Holy Spirit. Thus, in the liturgy of Holy Baptism, the priest prays,
Form the image of Your Christ in him/her who is about to be reborn
The concept of humanity being transformed, objectively through the Incarnation and subjectively in our participation in the Christian life, is not a matter of speculation for the Fathers. It is a practical principle, something which is lived in the Church. Orthodox theological method accepts the philosophical principle defined by Aristotle and employed by St. Gregory of Palamas in his arguments against the detractors of Hesychasm. This method teaches that the philosopher understands things only insofar as they are practically experienced. Similarly, Christianity is the practical experience of God who has revealed Himself in Christ and who has sent the Holy Spirit to human beings. Thus there is no abstract or speculative theology in Orthodoxy. It is assumed that one cannot talk about theosis abstractly, but only about an actual way of prayer and daily practice of Christian discipline in which one is growing spiritually, in the divine likeness.
The Orthodox claim is therefore that the grace of God is given to human beings in very real ways, so that through faith and self-discipline the Christian begins to take on the likeness of Christ. The fruit of the Spirit mentioned by St. Paul in Galatians 4:22-23 is observable and practical. Those who receive the Holy Spirit actually undergo a transformation of life. Nor is this transformation limited to one’s lifetime. Orthodox Christians claim—and it is a claim based on experience, even in our own time—that the lives of saints are so transformed that even their flesh and bones become vessels of grace.
Following the resurrection, Jesus’ body was clearly different from ordinary flesh. Jesus passed through walls, bi-located, rose in the air. Such events recall the transfiguration of Christ on the mountain, in which his body and even his clothes demonstrated the quality of intensely bright, divine light. In the same way, the relics (flesh and bones) of saints who have departed this life are known to manifest miraculous grace—for example, by exuding myrrh (the “myrrh-streamers”), sweet smells and healing powers, or shining with bright light, even long after the saint has died.
Finally, many of the Hesychasts are said to have witnessed the uncreated light of God which was visible to the Apostles, Peter, James and John, on the mountain of the Transfiguration. This is what the 14th-century St. Gregory Palamas wrote about in his dialogues with his detractors. They thought that the Hesychasts were practicing a type of psycho-physical technique, perhaps like Yoga, which produced certain kinds of mental lights or images of light. Palamas argued, to the contrary, that the Hesychasts were engaged in prayer (not meditation or psycho-physical exercises) and that the light they saw was not induced by posture or meditation techniques but was the uncreated light of God, objectively real. Nevertheless, the Hesychasts are consistent in warning novices not to desire to see lights, or any phenomena, but to concentrate on repentance and humility.
Not all Christians have experienced the grace of God in the same ways, just as not everyone lives to the same age or attains the same degree of wisdom. Not every Christian has seen divine light. This does not mean that God’s grace is given less to a new believer, or to laypersons, nor that ordinary Christians do not have the forgiveness of God. It does mean however, that there is such a thing as spiritual growth through time, and various degrees of appropriating divine grace. Because of their lack of experience, it can be difficult for novices in prayer to understand the Hesychastic texts. Orthodox students do not usually attempt to understand the works of great Hesychasts like Symeon the New Theologian or Gregory Palamas without the help of an experienced guides or spiritual elder, a gerondas or gerondissa, who has a practical knowledge of deep prayer and spiritual life.
Ironically, it is precisely these more advanced works which have caught the attention of modern Protestant students of theology, and have been so widely discussed in the arguments about deification. Letters from monks to other monks are now widely read by laypersons, including non-Orthodox Christians and followers of other religions. This can only result in a distortion of the original Orthodox meaning. Here we are reminded that Christianity—like any practice of spirituality—has to be understood as a whole. To extract a sentence or two from scripture of from one of the fathers is pointless unless one understands the whole direction or tendency of Christian thought and experience. This general direction or character is known to Orthodox as the Christian phronema (“mind”).
An important example of a dimension of early Christian teaching which is central to understanding theosis is the Orthodox distinction between divine essence and divine energies. Eastern Christianity is apophatic: that is, the fathers see the essence of God as absolutely unknowable. In this view the mystery of the Divine Being, which is the Trinity, cannot be understood or in any way imagined or experienced by a created being. The divine energies, on the other hand, are the movement of God to humanity and may be experienced directly by human beings in the graces (charismata) of the Holy Spirit. The uncreated light seen by the Hesychasts is divine energy. So is the Christian experience of salvation and sanctification. While it is God Himself who comes to us, it is the energies of God which we can receive and experience, because we are not God but creatures in God.
In this light, it is nowhere argued by the Church fathers that human beings become “gods” in their own right, because it is impossible to share the divine essence. We cannot be God. Nor could we, of ourselves, become “gods.” But in Christ human beings share the divine energies of God and in that sense become God-filled. Nor, as I have said, is theosis an experiential reality for everyone who claims to be Christian. Rather, the extent to which we live by the Holy Spirit, in meekness and submission to Christ and in His will, is the extent to which we develop a home for the Holy Spirit at the center of our lives, and our lives are transformed. The heart of this way of life is continual repentance, even the shedding of tears for our sins, and the recognition that whatever we are, we are not God, whose mercy we need. This is why Orthodox continually pray the Jesus-prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
In summary, the theological background to the doctrine of theosis is the doctrine, taught by the Church since the beginning, that God the Word became human in order to transfigure humanity. In this context Palamas makes the startling and radical statement that in Christ it is possible to take on all the characteristics of the Logos, who was not a creature but was unoriginate, pure, holy, obedient of the Father, to eternal life. The emphasis here is upon the nature of Christ, not upon the believer. Christ, Palamas says, is not a creature or angel or a deified human, as certain heresies would teach (today such heresies include Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons). Rather, he is God in flesh; and being God, He is without beginning. It is only because he is truly God that he can lift us out of the well of sin. In this context, Palamas says that the believer can share the nature of God the Son, who is “unoriginate.”
Reading passages such as this out of context, some students—at least a few who are currently posting on the internet—have concluded that Palamas means the believer becomes an uncreated god. This is not Palamas’ meaning, since it would be impossible to become uncreated in any case. Palamas is saying that by grace human beings can partake of the energies of God, though as creatures we cannot receive the essence of God. The love of God is without-beginning; it is this love which we receive from God and share by divine grace. It is in the context of Orthodox liturgical life and assumptions about essence/energies—and solely in this context—that the great writers like St. Athanasius, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Maximos the Confessor or St. Gregory Palamas can argue that human beings “become” divine. Now it will be possible to compare other teachings of deification which are popular today.
Deification: the opposite of theosis
For Christians of any background, the idea of wanting to be God—or even to be “like” God—is dangerously wrong. The First Commandment says that only God is god, and there can be no other (Exodus 20:2-3). At the same time, there is a genuine Christian tradition called theosis, “sharing the divine nature,” which is relatively little-known today in the West. While it may be thought of as a process, it is not the process of “becoming” which the Master advocates; nor is it compatible with the idea of “discovering the god within.” Nevertheless, it asserts that it is possible for human beings to take on the divine nature, and by becoming divine, to become truly human for the first time. This teaching is not only part of the Christian tradition, but it may be said to be the most important part. It is the substance of the Christian faith and the very thing which Christians have historically meant by “salvation.”
It is important to understand from the start that there are real differences between Christian theosis and deification as it appears in the new religious movements. Many new religious movements claim that their teachings about deification are compatible with Christianity. However, to make this claim is fundamentally to misunderstand Christian faith. Some religious movements recognize this, and say that their doctrine of deification is derived from early Christianity, that is, from esoteric teachings which were later “suppressed by the Church.” What is really meant are doctrines of various Gnostic sects of the second and third centuries, whose teachings were always regarded as heretical by the Church and which are still rejected by Orthodoxy. In fact, some of the earliest Christian texts known, outside the New Testament itself, contain the idea of theosis but also vigorously oppose Gnostic doctrines of deification. The two concepts are perhaps related to one another as a mirror image is related to the real object, or the right hand is related to the left hand. At first glance they look alike, even identical, but if we look more closely we will see that they are opposite at every point.
In a sense it seems natural for human beings to desire to be divine. This desire lies behind all religious movements. Indeed, Christians believe that God has given us the desire to know divinity, because the purpose of God in creation itself was for humanity to be in communion with God. However, there is a perversion at work in the human psyche. The fall into sin is the desire not to know God, but to be “like” God. Deep within every human being is the desire to manipulate God and to have the power of God for ourselves. This desire drives us to occupy ourselves with myths of the gods, to make offerings to various divinities and to seek religious answers, especially in the hope of improving our own condition and our lot. We seek immortality in a world which is constantly passing away. In its strongest form this desire is not really to worship God, but to be God.
The desire to be deified is the whole point of the biblical story of the temptation of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3). Like disciples of New Age thinking today, Eve wanted simply to realize her hidden potential to be divine. She was instructed by the serpent how to go about it: by eating the forbidden fruit (following an esoteric “natural” diet?), becoming enlightened, knowing and understanding all things.
Of course the Hebrew story does not mean that Eve ate a literal fruit, but that she desired to experience the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, that is, knowing all things. The story illustrates a process of attempting to gain secret knowledge (gnosis, the origin of the term Gnosticism). Eve would discover her hidden powers, powers which God had failed to reveal to her. Perhaps (is this what the serpent wanted her to believe?) these powers had not been revealed to her before because God wanted to keep her subservient, both to Himself and to Adam, her husband. Or perhaps it was merely an oversight on God’s part, since the will of a truly loving God would naturally be for all human beings to be fully “realized,” and therefore, divine. Thus the desire to know all things, as God knows all things, is portrayed as the highest human aspiration—something good and holy, something God-like, which even God would approve. Unfortunately, it is the serpent who has portrayed divine realization this way; for God Himself had warned Adam and Eve not to attempt to know all things.
In the Christian tradition the story of Eve’s fall illustrates exactly what is not theosis. To seek to be divine ourselves prevents us from truly knowing God. Thus the desire for deification, which may be understood as natural and even as the highest of all human aspirations, the basis of all religious quests, is itself evil. Eve found that the fruit of her desire was not to draw closer to God but to be driven away from the Creator. The reason is that if we are gods unto ourselves, we have no need for any other God. The result is inevitably death, because our nature as creatures is that, whether we like it or not, we are utterly dependent upon God for all that we have and are, including life itself.
Christianity teaches that human beings were intended to share the divine nature from the beginning. This was the purpose of creation itself: we were made in the “image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26). Why, then, were Adam and Eve commanded not to share in the knowledge of good and evil? The answer lies in the fact that we are not gods, but created beings. The phrase “good and evil” means “everything.” But human beings cannot know everything, all that God knows, because we are created.
At the same time, the nature of God is love (1 John 4:16). It is possible to receive divine Love, God’s own nature, just as it is possible to receive life from the Author of Life. We can experience the love which is given by God and which is identical with the Being of God. Thus, in the beginning humanity was not commanded to refrain from the “tree of life” but only from the attempt to know all things, as if we were gods.
The sharing of divine nature which is Love, as God’s image and likeness, does not make us “like” God, which would imply that we remain separate from God and somehow equal to God. Rather, it draws us into God in a mystery of co-inherence. God desires to live intimately with us, to dwell within us, and for us to live in God. Moreover, we are to be living pictures (Greek eikone, icons) of God, in the flesh. Nevertheless we are not God, and God is not identical with ourselves. Furthermore, our sharing the divine nature is not something which can be accomplished from our side, but from God’s side alone. It is initiated by God and is created in us by the Spirit of God.
The Christian doctrine of the fall into sin asserts that the apparently natural desire to be divine is in fact not natural, but a perversion of human nature. It appears natural because from the beginning of time, humanity has been twisted by the desire to replace God, to be gods unto ourselves. Human beings were intended to be creatures who live in the image and likeness of God, sharing the love-nature of God, but not seeking to replace God as our only Father.
Finally, it is significant that Adam and Eve discovered their nakedness after their false enlightenment. The Church fathers have interpreted this element of the story in various ways, but a key is that the first humans were, in effect, discovering their bodies. The fall, and also redemption, involves the body. It is not a matter of escaping the body (the doctrine of Gnosticism) but of healing the relationship of body to soul, and of soul to Mind (nous). Therefore, Christianity rejects the Gnostic diagnosis that all material being is, by virtue of being material, unredeemable; or the Gnostic quest to become all Mind and escape the body altogether.
Summary: ten points of contrast
Now let us return to the advertisements on my desk, from the friend who advocates meditation and from the Master who has become a disembodied spirit who appears on television through certain women. In these advertisements the key point is that we should exercise our human prerogative to be divine. It is something we can and should achieve on our own. The assumption is that if we look deep enough we will discover divine nature hidden within ourselves. This divine nature can be developed through our own personal discipline (though perhaps not without the help of the Master), and then we will then have the satisfaction of living as gods on earth. (In some schemes—for example, in Mormonism—the picture is adjusted slightly, in that those who are deified will live as gods, but not on this Earth.)
It is interesting to explore the assumptions of deification as it has appeared through history. It is a paradox that religions which speak of the inner divine nature of human beings also tend to speak of God as absolutely distant or unknowable, even irrelevant to the human condition or the material world. God—or the divine nature hidden in humanity—is so far above the material plane that God cannot be known by beings of flesh. The material nature of the body, in this way of thinking, prevents human beings from entering into intimacy with the spiritual realm. Thus, while God might be known by pure “mind” or “spirit,” God can never be experienced in this life as divine Person. To know God would require leaving the flesh, either through mortifying it, or through strenuous exercises, or through death itself.
If God or divine nature is above-thought and above-being, and if the divine nature cannot be known to (or in) the material world, then several corollaries follow. These corollaries have all appeared historically in non-Christian religions. Even though they appear to contradict one another, they often coexist within the same religious framework. They are as follows:
God cannot be known in the material world, or to material beings. (Some systems conclude, therefore, that practically speaking, there is no God.)
God exists, but God cannot be known under ordinary circumstances. To know God one must become all “spirit,” either through a discipline or through acquisition of secret knowledge (gnosis).
God (or the divine spirit) is hidden within ourselves and is the only true reality. This inner Self must be discovered carefully through personal development. Therefore…
We ourselves are God.
It is sometimes asserted that Christian theosis is the same as the doctrine of deification as taught by the new religious movements, and essentially the same as Gnostic deification, Hindu Advaita monism, even the Buddhist experience of the Third Body of the Buddha. Such identifications should not be made too quickly. Certainly within New Age, a key point is the assumption that human beings have a divine nature hidden deep within; however, the material world is a hindrance to the realization of this inner divinity, which is essentially spiritual. Historic Gnosticism, the original “New Age,” shared this perspective and taught that Jesus was one of the avatars of divinity (the embodiment of the Logos, one of the Aeons), who came to earth to help humanity realize its inner potential to be divine. It should now be clear that theosis as taught by the Church fathers is entirely different. That is why such early writers as Irenaeus and Justin Martyr wrote so strongly against Gnostic doctrines of deification. Some points of difference may be summarized as follows:
In the Christian tradition God is the Creator and we are creatures of God. God is not “within” us in the sense that we ourselves are divine or take the place of God or are gods. God is never identical with ourselves. Rather, we bear in our flesh the Image of God, and by grace, may grow into the divine Likeness, which is Christ.
The material world, including the human body, is not illusory, but quite real. It is not evil or an impediment to knowledge of God. Rather, it was created by God in order to have a relationship with God and to participate in God. The process of theosis is a transformation of life in the flesh, and is visible in flesh itself: for example, in the light which was visible at the Transfiguration of Christ, transforming even his clothing; and in the miraculous signs which accompany the relics of certain saints.
Christians agree that the essence of God cannot be understood or experienced by any creature. Nevertheless, it is possible to know God personally and intimately in this life. This immediate knowledge of God is made possible by the Incarnation, in which God became flesh in order to redeem flesh.
Knowledge of God is not esoteric or “secret” knowledge available only to some initiates, but is given freely to the whole world. It is ours through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those who receive Christ and are willing to follow Him.
Theosis is the result of God’s own initiative. It is ours through trust (faith) and by participation in the life of the Church. It is not a matter of our own achievement, since it is not within the power of human beings to rise even to full humanity. Therefore, it is not a matter of techniques of meditation or psycho-physical exercises, but of being receptive to the grace of God which is in Christ, and is ours in the sacramental life of the Church.
To be transfigured into the divine image is to become more human, that is, to grow into the fullness of humanity. The transfigured person is, therefore, drawn closer both to God and to the world itself. This occurs in this life, and is evident in our relationship with others and with nature itself. By contrast, in the new religious movements deification ultimately means rejection of the world and withdrawal from the material plane.
The Christian experience of drawing closer to God and being transformed by God (theosis) is humbling and is always accompanied by repentance. The fathers speak of the gift of tears as one of the chief signs of true spiritual transformation. One becomes conscious of being “the least of all and the servant of all.” In the new religious movements, on the other hand, the experience of deification raises up the Self as divine and even all-powerful. The promise is often made that the true disciple can gain power over others and over the world itself. The aim and purpose of deification is to elevate the self and to become a Master.
The Christian experience of theosis is to be drawn into the Love which is the Trinity. Here there is a mirroring in the self of the mystery of the Trinity. In the Trinity, the divine Persons are not confused or mixed with one another; similarly, there is no confusion between the person of faith, and the Creator. We are not God, but we are made one with God. The doctrine of deification, on the other hand, is that there is a merging or union between the self and the divine nature so that there is no “other” at all, no essential difference between self and God, or self and the Absolute (in Buddhist terms, the dharmakaya or Third Body of the Buddha). There is an experience of being “one” with the universe; all enlightened beings are One. By contrast, in Christianity all disciples are unique, with differing gifts. There is a synergy of persons, but not an identity.
Christians locate theosis in Christ. To say this is not enough, since many religious movements speak of “the Christ” or “the Christ-spirit.” Usually Christ is said to be a spirit who has reincarnated in all the great Masters through history. Christians, however, are not concerned with an appearance of God (the “Christ-spirit”) on earth, but with the incarnation of God on earth, which is unique and historical, not an appearance but actual flesh and blood.
Christian theosis takes place through participation in the sacramental life of the Church. Those who truly love Christ love the Church, his own Body. It is, furthermore, the Church of history, with real bishops, priests, deacons, people—not every sect which calls itself “Church.” Any promised “deification” which turns one away from the historic “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” Church, is not deification but a false promise.
For Christians, then, theosis describes the life in Christ. It is humbling, turning us outward in love and joy towards God and towards the world which God has made. It is the gift of life itself. For those who would seek deification on their own, looking inside the human spirit to find the divine, it is important to recall the mysterious words of a Psalm of Asaph: God said, “you are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless you shall die like men” (Psalm 82:6). The goal of the Christian is to die to self, so that we might live in Christ.
1) Brant Pelphrey, “You are Gods: Deification and Divinization in Christian Tradition and the New Religious Movements,” Areopagus, Advent 1989, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 18-23.
2) Prajna Publications, New Delhi, 1988.
3) See for example Bede Griffiths, Return to the Center (Templegate, Springfield, 1976) and The Marriage of East and West (Templegate, Springfield, 1982); Anthony de Mello, Sadhana: A Way to God (Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, Anand, 1985); and the classic Prayer by Abhishiktananda (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1967.
4) Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1997)
5) The use of “men” here is deliberate with regard to Mormon teaching, rather than non-inclusive.
6) In Vol. 3, No. 1 see the following: “Deification in Mormonism” by Rudiger Hauth (pp. 12-17 ), “A Bitter Legacy: the Tragedy of Early Mormonism” by Sharon Pelphrey (34); “Who Is Joseph Smith” (interview, 51-53); and “The God Makers,” a review of the film, by Wally Tope (48-50).
7) The phrase is more stark in English than in Greek. Irenaeus’ sentence, in the Preface to Book V of Adversus hareses (Against the Heresies), is as follows: “For it is thus that thou wilt both controvert them in a legitimate manner, and wilt be prepared to receive the proofs brought forward against them, casting away their doctrines as filth by means of the celestial faith; but following the only true and steadfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcenden love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself” (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, ed., Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 1, Hendrickson, 1995, p.526).
8) Cf. the May, 1999 issue of Tabletalk, the publication of R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries. In a recent private communication Jason Barker, Director of the Southwest Institute of Orthodox Studies which monitors new religious movements, observed that from an Orthodox perspective the most offensive section is the article by Doug Jones entitled, “Is the Protestant Tiff with Eastern Orthodoxy over Redemption Really Just a Matter of Niggling?” Articles like those in Tabletalk have singled out Eastern Orthodox theology as heretical, even though Irenaeus, author of the offensive phrase cited above, was actually a western writer (Lyons is in modern France) and in any case there was no formal division between the Eastern and Western (Roman Catholic) Churches until the eleventh century.
9) Calvin’s awareness and use of Chrysostom was addressed by Rev. Dr. Ian Torrance in a paper given at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in America, in December, 1999. Prof. Torrance has guided graduate students in research comparing the actual percentages of quotations in Calvin’s works deriving from Chrysostom and other Eastern fathers, as over against Augustine. The general dependence of the Reformers on the Eastern fathers (which Luther knew especially through Lombard’s Sentences) will be evident upon reading the footnotes of such works as The Augsburg Confession and Calvin’s Institutes.
10) See BIOLA University’s “Eastern Orthodoxy Task Force Report” online at http://people.BIOLA.edu/faculty/alang/EO/EO.htm. The Task Force was composed of Robert Saucy (chair), John Coe and Alan Gomes. The study does not compare different Protestant interpretations of “justification by faith,” which reflect fundamental differences between Luther and Calvin on issues such as the ordo salutis, human depravity, divine election, and so on, but dealt with the Doctrinal Statement of BIOLA University. From an Orthodox perspective the study also misunderstands Orthodox theology and spirituality, among other things conflating Roman Catholicism with Eastern Orthodoxy.
11) From a brochure advertising BECOMING: A MASTER’S MANUAL by Khit Harding, Adams Publishing Co., Eastsound (Washington, USA), 1986.
12) Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God, Mowbrays, London, 1975, p. 97.
13) For a discussion of Anselm’s substitutionary atonement as opposed to Orthodox perspectives, see Lossky, op. cit., pp. 99 ff.; and Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor,
14) Ephrem the Syrian, Nativity 23:13, cited in Sebastian Brock (tr.), The Luminous Eye, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, 1985.
15) Following baptism and chrismation (confirmation) in the Orthodox Church, the priest says to the newly-baptized, “You are baptized. You are illumined. You are sanctified. You are washed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” An alternate text reads, “You are justified….”
16) In the Letter to the Ephesians, 20 (Cyril Richardson (ed.), Early Christian Fathers, Vol. I, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1953, p. 93).
17) Spencer Kezios, ed., Sacraments and Services Book One, Narthex Press, 1995, p. 19. The Greek term rendered here as “form” is morfwson (morphoson), “shape.”
18) This method is employed by Palamas in the One Hundred and Fifty Chapters and elsewhere. Interestingly, Palamas’ use of this Aristotelian philosophical principle illustrates how Orthodox spiritual theology and the Hesychasts are not “Platonic,” as is often claimed in Protestant writings.
19) See the discussion in Georgios Mantzaridis, The Deification of Man, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, 1984, p. 42 and footnotes.20) This observation is universally held in Orthodoxy. See, for example, Anthony Coniaris, Philokalia: The Bible of Orthodox Spirituality, Light and Life Publishing Company, Minneapolis, 1998, pp. 132 ff.