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Theosis and the Doctrine of Salvation

Theosis and the Doctrine of Salvation

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Published by Ronnie Bray

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Published by: Ronnie Bray on Aug 27, 2011
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03/10/2013

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Theosis or DeificationThe Christian Doctrine of Salvation
What does the Eastern Orthodox Church mean when it speaks o"deification" or "divinisation" (from the Greek for: ‘to make divine’)?A Protestant, explains:"In keeping with monotheism, the Eastern Orthodox do not teach that menliterally become "gods" (which would be polytheism). Rather, as did manyof the church fathers, they teach that men are "deified" in the sense that theHoly Spirit dwells within Christian believers and transforms them into theimage of God in Christ, eventually endowing them in the resurrection withimmortality and God’s perfect moral character"
1
 Historically, the word was employed both in pre-Christian Greek antiquity,and also in pagan quarters existing contemporaneously with the earlyChristian Church."The use was daring. Non-Christians employed it to speak of pagan godsdeifying creatures. The philosophers Iamblichus and Proclus, the poetCallimachus and the dreaded Julian the Apostate had used it in that way. Itwas not first a Christian word nor always employed by only Christians after they made it central. From within his deep contemplative life and from previous Church Tertullian the Theologian picked it up, cleaned it up andfilled it up with Christian sense. He and his fellow theologians took itcaptive and used it to speak about Christian realities."
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1
Robert M. Bowman, Jr, "Ye Are Gods? Orthodox and Heretical Views on the Deification Of Man".Christian Research Journal, Winter/Spring 1987 (18).
2
Norris, F.W., "Deification: Consensual and Cogent". Scottish Journal of Theology, 49, No. 4, 1996.
 
Therefore, Church Fathers were observant to contrast their views with pagans that used similar language. For example, Athanasius testifies totheosis on innumerable occasions in his writings."We are as God by imitation, not by nature";
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and "Albeit we cannot becomelike God in essence, yet by progress in virtue imitate God.”
4
 Jaroslav Pelikan, Church historian, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History atYale University and recent convert to Orthodoxy, explains:"All of this Christian language about a humanity made divine was a part of atotal Cappadocian system in which the Classical religion of deified men andwomen and of anthropomorphic gods and goddesses was described as ‘thesuperstition of polytheism’ and as the error of those mere mortals who had‘turned aside the honour of God to themselves.Therefore, theCappadocians insisted that it was as essential for theosis as it was for theincarnation itself not to be viewed as analogous to Classical theories aboutthe promotion of human beings to divine rank, and in that sense not to bedefined by natural theology at all; on such errors they pronounced their ‘Anathema!’"
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.It must be remembered that it was in the Christian East where Synodsassembled (fifth through seventh centuries) to establish orthodox doctrineabout the full humanity of Christ; insisting on a true human nature, soul andwill. When one carefully sifts through the Eastern spiritual tradition, muchmore balance than is often supposed between the Cross and the Resurrectionis found to exist. To be certain, Orthodoxy is absolutely clear that our salvation is secured for us on Calvary, as Fr. Georges Florovsky, eminent priest, theologian and scholar rightly notes:"Salvation is completed on Golgotha, not on Tabor, and the Cross of Jesuswas foretold even on Tabor (Cf. Luke 9:31).” Indeed, "the Tabor lightwhich surrounds the risen Christ in His glorious victory over death, ie, inHis saving resurrection, is the light which enters the world by way of thecross, and no other way".
6
 
3
Athanasius, Orat 3.20.
4
Athanasius, Ad Afros 7
5
Pelikan, Jaroslav, Christianity and Classical Culture. Yale University Press, 1993, p. 318.
6
Allen, Joseph J. (ed.), Orthodox Synthesis: The Unity of Theological Thought. St. Vladimir’s SeminaryPress, 1981, p. 162.
 
The liturgical books used in Orthodox worship are replete with references tothe redemptive work of Christ on Calvary. Most Western Christians areaccustomed to catechisms, and while they do not play as great a role inOrthodoxy, they nonetheless exist, and easily provide corroboration of this.For example, in
 A New Style Catechism on the Eastern Orthodox Faith for  Adults
, after quoting 1 John 2:2— 
‘He is the expiation of our sins, and not  for ours only but for the sins of the whole world’ 
 —it states:
"The Sacrifice of Christ is offered because of His love for mankind. Hereplaced the penalties of man, and by His Sacrifice reconciled man withGod. Man’s finite mind cannot comprehend the ‘economy’ of this God- saving deed, which remains a mystery of the ages in that the highest penaltywas imposed on the Innocent One instead of the guilty." 
 
Orthodoxy, in discussions of redemption, employs many other salvificmetaphors besides theosis, and in doing so follows an eclectic approach thatwas operative in the early Church. Evangelical Professor and scholar DanielClendenin offers some much needed corrective to the distorted picture given by some Evangelical commentators:"Theosis and other biblical metaphors for the work of Christ need not beunderstood as contradicting one another. There is no reason that they cannot be seen as complementary. The East emphasises the crucial idea of mysticalunion and divine transformation, while the West tends to stress the believer’s juridical standing before a holy God. Both conceptions, andothers beside, find biblical support and deserve full theological expression."
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Christian themes of theosis and justification not only are not mutuallyexclusive, but in fact flow one from the other.
Historical Treatment?
Despite the fact that "Deification, as God’s greatest gift to man and theultimate goal of human existence, had always been a prime consideration inthe teachings of the Church Fathers on salvation,"
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one could read someEvangelical theologians and commentators and remain unaware that the
7
Mastrantonis, George, A New-Style Catechism on the Eastern Orthodox Faith for Adults. The OLOGOSMission, 1969, p. 90.
8
Clendenin, Daniel, Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective. Baker Books, 1994, p. 159.
9
Mantzaridis, Georgios I., The Deification of Man. SVS Press, 1984, p. 12.

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