In the last post on “theosis,” I simply gave a definition of sorts, referenced a passage from 2 Peter, and then set down some necessary limitations to the notion of theosis. In this post, I’d like to consider theosis more positively. That said, I do not have a handle on Eastern Christian thought. I’m a great fan of reading and grappling with other traditions, as that helps us clear up our own thinking and sometimes shows us where we’ve missed the last ferry from Chappaquiddick. (Don’t worry, we can still dive in and swim across, even if it’s in the middle of the night.) In the case of theosis, however, I think there is something we Western Christians have to glean. Not something completely missing, but maybe an emphasis that’s lacking. As mentioned above, I’m no specialist here, but I do want to work through some ideas. I hope and pray that the thoughts and meditations of my heart will be pleasing to God and prove to be an edification to the body of Christ.
Alright, here are a couple quotes on the doctrine of theosis from Maximus the Confessor on theosis:
God made us so that we might become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4) and sharers in His eternity, and so that we might come to be like Him (cf. 1 John 3:2) through deification by grace. It is through deification that all things are reconstituted and achieve their permanence; and it is for its sake that what is not is brought into being and given existence.
A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to deification of human nature is provided by the incarnation of God, which makes man god to the same degree as God Himself became man. For it is clear that He who became man without sin (cf. Heb. 4:15) will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine nature, and will raise it up for His own sake to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man’s sake. This is what St. Paul teaches mystically when he says, ‘…that in the ages to come He might display the overflowing richness of His grace’ (Eph. 2:7).
A thought or two that come from Maximus: Theosis is the divine purpose of creation. God gave humanity existence so that he could then redeem humanity in his Son. So far: dig. We have this notion similarly explained in what’s called the Covenant of Redemption. In fact, I think that we can find just about everything the doctrine of theosis has to offer in historic Covenant Theology. Moving right along: We have an emphasis on the incarnation, which is excellent. It’s taken as a reverse model for the redemption or deification of humanity. In the pithy words of the great Athanasius of Alexandria, “God became man so that man might become god.” I want to explore this more below, but I’ll make the comment here that I think that the incarnation has some significant limits as a model for theosis. First, in Jesus we have the union of two distinct natures in one person (hence, the hypostatic union) forever. Will the redeemed be given a second nature? I don’t think so. I think that our human nature will be perfected and deified (insofar as that’s possible). Thus, at that point, the incarnation doesn’t serve as a good reverse model. We should say, however, that our access into divinity is through Christ’s humanity, indeed, through his flesh and blood.
Theosis is a process, and a long one at that. Since it’s long, I’ll be brief on each point. It starts with creation. The triune God created humans in his image. Creation, in classic Christian thought, is followed by corruption and then by restoration. Theosis takes the created humanity, which has been corrupted in Adam, and sees it not only restored, but brought into God (higher and better than Adam ever was before the fall).
In the West, we tend to conceive of the salvation process in terms of calling, regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. I dig all that. I think theosis digs it, too. Theosis encompasses that whole process. In fact, I think that the term sanctification, if taken in the broadest salvific way, could more or less be equated with theosis.
Theosis is conceived of in three parts: thoughts, will, and actions. The renewing work of the Holy Spirit renews our minds, wills, and then our lives. The Orthodox theologians speak of praxis, by which they mean the struggle of living out a progressively holy life. Through this struggle, our lives become mirrors of God. But we not only reflect him in our thoughts, wills, and actions, we begin to live in him more and more. The journey toward full theosis includes many forms of praxis, including fellowship in the church, prayer, and participation in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. These forms of praxis are what’s in view in the Reformed tradition in what the Westminster Shorter Catechism calls “effectual means of salvation.”
Now, what can we say about full theosis? One thing we know about God is that he is love. We know this because it’s explicitly stated (1 Jn 4:8), but we would be able to know this also from the triune nature of God. Since the simple God exists in three distinct persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we recognize that there is interpersonal fellowship in the Godhead. We know that there is love in the Godhead. Allah is the eternal loner. Yahweh is the eternal fellowship of love.
Theosis, taken rightly, gets the redeemed into that love and into that fellowship. We don’t glorify and enjoy God forever so much at a distance, but rather with great intimacy. He, as it were, draws us into his own holy, triune fellowship of love. That’s part of the incarnation. God the Son became man, to draw mankind into God. He is the head, and we are his body. In the words of John Calvin, “Until He is united to us [the church], the Son of God reckons himself in some measure imperfect. What consolation is it for us to learn, that, not until we are along with him, does he possess all his parts, or wish to be regarded as complete!” The divine purpose is creation is that, though Christ, the God-man, a fully redeemed humanity should be drawn into God, into his fellowship, into his love, indeed (insofar as it’s possible) into his nature. The eternal state of glorification is much more intimately in God than the typical caricature of clouds and harps would let on. Theosis gets at that eternal reality. It drives home the point: we were created to be redeemed into God, into his very nature.