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Volume 65 (2008): 158-168


Theosis in Patristic Thought

Abstract: In the current renewal of interest in the deification theme, the consen-
sual and homogeneous character of this concept in early Christian writers is gen-
erally assumed. This article concisely examines the intricate complexity of the
emergence and development of theosis in patristic theology, with acknowledge-
ment of the initially marginal, rhetorical, multidimensional, and often contextu-
alized role of this concept prior to its theological consolidation in
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor in the sixth and
seventh centuries. Important to the Palamite and Neo-Palamite Eastern Ortho-
dox theology, the distinction between the divine essence and energy is not nec-
essarily a representative characteristic of early church fathers.

The deification theme—theosis—finds intricate development in patristic the-
ology. Medieval theologians and magisterial Reformers were also not
strangers to this concept. However, as in post-Enlightenment modernity, the
scholarly emphasis was placed on strictly rationally grounded argumentation,
and most allusions to anything resembling mystical apparitions were elimi-
nated from academic and lay discourse as irrational and unscientific. This ten-
dency eventually led to the disappearance from the scope of theological
analysis of many themes that had been discussed in Christian theology for cen-
turies. The language of deification followed suit. As a result, in lay theology
the term itself might sound to some as blasphemous and too pretentious and
for others totally absurd and non-Christian. Even in patristic studies the lan-
guage of deification for some scholars caused such a disturbance that in a num-
ber of English translations of early Christian texts, passages addressing this
concept were either omitted or replaced with alternative renderings.

Vladimir Kharlamov is assistant professor of spiritual theology at Sioux Falls Seminary in Sioux
Falls, South Dakota, and coeditor of Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology.


4 Apart from survey- type works. The proceedings of the conference were 1. 1970). 15. interest in the notion of deification for the last twenty-five years received particular attention in a number of dissertations and publications that dealt with particular Christian theologians. 2002)." The impact of this alteration of the original faith. Adolf Harnack. Jean Daniélou. nos.3 In the second half of the twen- tieth century."1 On the other end of the spectrum were a number of modern Eastern Ortho- dox theologians who not only supported the concept of deification as gen- uinely Christian but also saw this notion as the representation of the Orthodox approach to the soteriology that was expressed by patristic authors from the beginning. Jean Daniélou accu- rately pointed out the inaccuracy of interpreting the early fathers in light of the later fathers. vol. translated in English as The Divinization of the Christian according to the Greek Fathers (Anaheim: A & C Press. Adolf Harnack and a long line of scholars who followed him saw theosis as one of the crucial con- cepts that influenced the Hellenization of early Christianity and of the trans- formation of the living faith "into the creed to be believed. in which the concept was treated as if it never existed in Christian theology. Another compre- hensive survey on theosis appears in Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. The success of the first Interna- tional Conference on Theosis.2 Between these almost diametrically polarized views of seeing deification as genuinely Christian and understanding deification as only reflecting the Hellenization of doctrine is a more balanced and historically oriented line of scholarship that was introduced by Jules Gross. History of Dogma. Gabalda et Cie. who in 1938 published his extensive study on theosis in the Greek fathers. . held at the Caspersen School of Graduate Stud- ies of Drew University in 2004. 5-6 (1949): 449-76. 3. Rondet. 1957). See also H. 1938). 4. changed "glowing hope of the kingdom of heaven into doctrine of immortality and deification. The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1997). 1370-98.|j^P^T(¿¡^7" Theosis in Patristic Thought 159 Deviating from this radical approach to deification. ecumenical dialogue and the work of John Meyendorff stimu- lated new attention to deification. With regard to these deification theologies. Jules Gross." Nouvelle Revue Théologique 17. 3 (Paris: Beauchesne. The line of historical interest in theosis was further advanced by Norman Russell. 2004). "La divinisation du chrétien. OR: Wipf & Stock. 2. Publication of his revised dissertation marks a significant cornerstone in deification research. introduction to La Déification de l'homme. in Harnack's opinion. 1 (Eugene. vol. Norman Russell. La divinisation du chrétien d'après les Pères grecs: Contribution historique á la doctrine de la grace (Paris: J. selon la doctrine des Pères grecs by Lot-Borodine (Paris: Editions du Cerf. 561-88. 45. indicated increasing academic and lay interest in this topic of Christian spirituality.

as was developed in Christian theology. 2007). 283. where the theme itself supersedes precisely Eastern Orthodox affiliation and becomes more common and appreciated in contem- porary theological discourse.. Above all. according to Pseudo-Dionysius.7 The task of tracing the precise meaning for what patristic writers under- stood as a human being becoming a god is rather challenging. Thus theosis. eds. While emphasis on the physical dimension varies. a gift of 5. these two books cover without redundancy an extensive number of deification- related topics. the sacraments are important tridents of divinization. "Deification in Contemporary Theology. as well as the treatment of this theme by a variety of historical figures from the patristic period. Human longing for union with the divine is a significant element in many religious traditions and not a new concept introduced by Christianity. In some authors. eds.. 1987). The process of theosis that introduces human beings inextricably into the presence of God is. in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press. 6. more often. The complex character of the deification theme can be seen in the comprehensive assess- ment of Anna Williams: [The pattern of deification] asserts the imago Dei and the Incarnation as the basis of deification and construes theosis overwhelmingly in terms of knowledge. participation and union. The interest in theosis comes from different denominational and academic angles. 2006). . along with the Creator's desire that his creatures partake of his own life and goodness. not all traditions would take it so far as to develop a concept of deification with the preserva- tion of human personal identity. the Fathers point to the distinction between Uncreated and created. while entailing a degree of human striving towards virtuous assimilation to God and love of God.160 Vladimir Kharlamov WB^KH^L published recently.5 Stephen Finían and I have edited another recent publica- tion on theosis. there is a broad consensus that participation in divine nature entails bodily incorruptibility. Stephen Finían and Vladimir Kharlamov. light and glory. OR: Pickwick. virtue. remains always a divine gift." Theology Today 64 (2007): 186-89.1. the Middle Ages. human faculties such as the intellect and the ability to love are significant. Letter 9. "a mystery which cannot be taught. Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions (Madison. and up to the modern time. Michael Christensen and Jeffery Wittung. 7. however. Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology (Eugene. NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. See Roger Olson. the Reformation."8 The "mystery" of theosis coincides with the first developments in patristic tradition itself.6 What would have been an impossible task for one scholar. 8. [but] it puts souls firmly in the presence of God.

as there are not any conciliar decisions that affirmed a certain doctrine of theosis. there is no unilateral consensus among early Christian authors about the precise meaning of this notion. As Eric Osborn notes. immortality and eternal life."11 9. the deification theme. sanctification. Therefore. It is not until Pseudo- Dionysius the Areopagite in the sixth century that we find the first theological definition for deification. it could be argued that the notion of theosis is a continu- ously occurring belief that has been present in Christian theology from the beginning. nor were there any dogmatic controversies in the patristic period concerning this issue. is rather a speculative synthesis of thefinalphase of Byzantine theology than an accurate historical representa- tion of this concept's development. . Thus. or more accurately. The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palomas (New York: Oxford University Press. it exists in patristic theology in multiple modes that simultaneously can be present in the writing of the same author. Today | Theosis in Patristic Thought 161 grace.floweringin this Ufe are rare. 1999). to apply the term "doctrine" to deification could be very misleading. in the first five centuries of Christian theology had a very marginal character. a seamlessness between this life and the next. The idea of uninterrupted progression towards God. and it is not until later that the concept itself receives significant attention apartfromother doctrinal or theological matters that were at stake at the time. Modern Eastern Orthodox consensus on theosis. redemption. it seems to be incorrect to speak about the concept of deification as one mode. On the other hand. 198. "It is also wrong to accept the common assumption that this [deification] tradition is homogeneous and that there is close continuity between the ideas of the Greek fathers of the second. 112. The Beginning of Christian Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. and general and individual eschatology. Often the discourse on deification was contextualized within the development of the trinitarian and christological controversies. but hints of theosis in its fullness. the notion of deification. and theosis was addressed on the periphery of such theological issues as the full divinity of Christ. 11. Eric Osborn.9 On the one hand. or at least the idea of such consensus. sacramental the- ology. These elements of Christian theology introduce different aspects related to theosis. 10.10 The explicit language of theosis does not emerge until Clement of Alexandria in the late second or early third century. In other words. 31-32. See The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 1. fourth and sixth century.3 (373D-376A). and even this definition is farfromsatisfactorily defin- ing the issue. the image of God in the human being. rather. 1981). in Pseudo-Dionysius. appears in the work of most Fathers. Anna Ngaire Williams.

It is not uncommon to see in the same patristic author indiscriminate use of participation. until the emergence of Byzantine the- ology in the early Middle Ages very few patristic writers used such terminol- ogy. Partakers of the Divine Nature. This marginal application of the deification theme indicates that it was predominantly used by some patristic authors as a rhetorical tool. Vladimir Kharlamov. Perhaps as the result of Athanasius's (c. and deification vocabulary that is used interchange- ably to relay similar ideas. . Outside of Alexandria and Cappadocia. as I have stated elsewhere: We should not discard the intended shocking effect their deification state- ments would produce on the audience. If during the Middle Ages a similar effect was often provoked by references to the burningflamesof hell. and the restored harmony of the whole creation. eds. rather than its being a customary element of patristic thought. as it still lacked coherent systematic theological treatment. Basil of Caesarea (c. Christian writers often referred to the notion of deification with sort of an appeal to what seemed to be the common knowledge of the Christian com- munity. Emphasis was placed not on what would happen to people if they did not obey the divine commandments.162 Vladimir Kharlamov ^^^^^pToday The concept of theosis grew out of a comprehension of primarily practical soteriological and christological aspects of Christian everyday life and spiritu- ality. Not eternal punishment as retribution for sinful life was emphasized. Even in Cappadocia itself. 330-c. deifica- tion was often a notion of popular theology. in patris- tic writers the attempt to enhance the devotional zeal for spiritual life and the commitment to Christ was carried out by no less shocking. but rather on what awaits them if they reconcile themselves with God. but signif- icantly more positively oriented. It seems to be a personal preference of a particular Christian writer to employ the language of deification in his theology. striking their imagination with powerful and uplifting images. To communicate ideas close to the deifi- cation theme.12 Despite the enthusiasm with which some Christian writers used the termi- nology of deification. but rather eternal life in God. the language of theosis was not unanimously shared.. communion. affirmations. 12. 395) were very cautious in their applica- tion of explicit deification language. Christian writers often preferred to employ the language of participation and communion with God rather than the language of deification. divine therapeutic forgiveness. 330-79) and his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (c. 127-28. "Rhetorical Application of Theosis in Greek Patristic Theology." in Christensen and Wittung. 296-373) influence.

nor was it exclusively an aspect of Christian soteriology. among those who. liturgical-sacramental." the deification theme transformed itself into a deificational worldview. apophatic methodology. shows that it was a gradual process. and anthro- pological dimensions. 528). far from being cognate. theosis was not necessar- ily an element of mystical theology per se. deification dis- course firmly established itself in the context of continuous post-Chalcedonian 13. metaphysical. after 451). in Pseudo-Dionysius. and the for- mation of a specific terminology associated with it. Moreover.3. Pseudo-Dionysius in a similar way applied deification terminology and therefore was the key person in trans- forming the predominantly marginal character of this concept into one of the most prominent independent theological subjects. we do not have any patristic author who would openly object to the use of this notion until Nestorius (b. Theological attention to theosis is closely connected with the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius (c. after 351. Deification became more of a theological issue only during the early Middle Ages. Today | Theosis in Patristic Thought 163 It must also be noted that before Pseudo-Dionysius. and Nestorius in this regard stands more as an exception than the initiator of a steady tendency in patristic tradition to denounce this concept. Trying to be systematic in his exposition. Pseudo-Dionysius not only laid the systematic foundation for speculative mysticism.13 With Leontius of Jerusalem (sixth and seventh centuries). who masterfully and consistently integrated different aspects associated with the deification theme and combined them with a wide variety of other theolog- ical issues. in Pseudo-Dionysius. Nevertheless. More than anyone prior to him." but he also had a significant impact on the further development of both Eastern and West- ern Christian theology where theosis became a distinguished theological topic. as well as those who were more cautious about it or did not use deificational language at all. but in the cosmic orientation of his the- ology. Pseudo-Dionysius did not simply construct the first full-scale deification theology. strongly advocated the concept of deifica- tion. and in his rather complex Greek language enriched Christian vocabulary with such terms as "hierarchy" and "mystical theology. Historical analysis of the development of the deification theme. we encounter the first speculative foundation for the theology of theosis. with explicit ontological. like Athanasius and Gre- gory of Nazianzus (329/30-389/90). Pseudo-Dionysius approached the notion of deification from a theologically systematic perspective. epistemological. Thus. Divine Names 7. where the divine presence is the Cause and the Source for "beauty of the unity and the harmony of the whole. d. . 109.

It is the highest degree of spiritual freedom. Maximus significantly mod- ified this tendency. Maximus effectively incorporated the cosmic perspective of Pseudo- Dionysius into a general framework of traditional elements associated with human deification. Man and the Cosmos: The vision of St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. and by doing so he achieved a more balanced exposition of deification theology where cosmic-liturgical. 15. The unity between God and cre- ation is manifested by grace as the expression of divine philanthropy (love of humankind). NY: St. apatheia) is a well-established tradition of Greek patristic asceticism from Clement of Alexandria on. and thus it is actualized or fulfilled.14 Maximus did not separate the lower parts of the soul and the body from communion with God. As the Logos fully embraced the entirety of human nature. 580-662). 89. christological. as in Evagrius. Further advanced by Maximus the Confessor (c. which has essentially a christological foundation. In Maximus there is no discrepancy between the principle of natural law (the logos of nature) and written (Scripture) and spiritual (incarnated Logos) law. but it also became a deeply integrated goal of the monastic vocation in Eastern Orthodox spirituality. the notion of deification not only found consolidation as the core theme of Byzantine theology. passion- lessness should not be understood as apathy or indifference. Passionlessness is thus not a passive state but a state of active spiritual vigilance. and personal aspects of theosis constitute the essentially soteriological expression. it was understood that impassibility could be achieved by detachment of the intellectual/spiritual properties of human naturefromthe lower ones. "In this way God and [hu]man are united without confusion according to the model of the hypostatic union in Christ. which in the case of humankind constitutes both the restoration of the original. Seeing the ascetic goal for human piety in the form of passionlessness. Maximus the Confessor (Crestwood. which consequently introduced and led not some part. Therefore.164 Vladimir Kharlamov jBBH2gjgy_ christological struggle as a part of technical vocabulary for the so-called neo-Chalcedonian theology. to the obtainment of a deified state. Passionlessness or impassibility (Gk. . Max- imus also incorporates this profulfillment logos-based tendency with a Dionysian understanding of the work of the divine Providence in the world. it made human beings capable of penetrating entirely into God and becoming a god—however. In the context of patristic theology. when human beings are liberatedfromany external or internal factors (passions) that act upon them. prelapsar- ian state and an advancement in deification."15 It is the 14. Often. Lars Thunberg. but the entire human nature. 1985). without any ontological assimilation. the logos of every entity in the cosmos acquires eschatological sig- nificance that manifests itself in obtainment of final perfection. The logos (meaning or principle) of nature is not replaced or transcended by the spiritual law but transfigured.

innate process of human restoration that begins within the context of human earthly life. Ultimately. Further on. At the same time. where divinefiliation. This act of union brings the true reunion between God and humanity. and anthropological dimensions of the soteriological significance of theosis become combined into one unified. if the Logos is the Son of God and God by nature. and likeness to God often is understood as theosis. cosmological. Thus. in the complexity of its stratification. and union with God become essentially integrated aspects of deification. is to be like God. Christ deified his human nature at the moment of the Incarnation. As God. along with everlasting participation in divine glory. only in human beings do these realms cross over and come together. The human being as a microcosm in response to the Incarnation of Christ becomes capable of participating in a mediating role that serves the purpose of reconciliation of opposed poles of the world.|||^|^Το"^τ7 Theosis in Patristic Thought 1 6 5 reciprocal process of divine-human perichoresis. A virtuous life of contemplation and pas­ sionlessness are goals for the obtainment of likeness to God. restoration. is moving toward perfection and deification. when a human being becomes transfiguratively changed and made capable of the ceaseless vision and contemplation of God face to face. he is the only one who simultaneously is the déifier and the deified. Thus. The whole cosmos. both individual and universal. . only a human being dwells simultaneously in the realm of senses and the realm of the soul. and humanity as a collective entity. Deification is possible because of a close connection between Creator and the created intelligible nature of human beings. which is reflected in the image and likeness of God. christological. However. where believers participate in the actuality of the deified body and blood of Christ. For the church fathers.forgiveness. process. Participation in the Eucharist is another pivotal component of the deification process. Christians become children of God by adoption and therefore are gods only by grace. Deificational initiation is commonly identified in patristic theology with the sacrament of baptism—that is. The inner nature of each human being. The spiritual and physical reality of sacraments is understood as adequately appropriated to correspond with the composite (spiritual and biological) con­ stitution of human nature. in a way. deification is an eschatological event. as all of the cre­ ated universe is divided into intelligible-spiritual and sensible-material realms. theosis is a dynamic and. the Incarnation of Christ is the cornerstone of human salvation and cosmic reconciliation. healing. This unique positioning in the structure of creation makes a human a replica of the whole universal arrangement. the sacrament of the divine birth.

If angelic participation is limited to divine energy and grace.166 Vladimir Kharlamov HBBS^ËL They are never gods in an ontological sense. With the increased emphasis on the transcendence of God in patristic the- ology and the explicit endorsement of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo." combined with the idea of the infinite distance between God and human beings. 172. 18. in the true meaning of the term. . Athanasius. some divine attributes. 2 Pet 1:4. later the consensual preference was given to a deified state as one that supersedes the angelic one. 17. a deified human being does not cease to be human. often this tension is exaggerated 16. theosis is not the denial of human- ness but rather its fulfillment. the ability of a human being to participate. The Letter to the Bishops of Africa 7. does not remove the infinite distance between God and a human being. Cf. Son. as the Logos after the Incarnation did not cease to be consubstantial with the Father. In modern scholarship. implies poten- tial and desire for everlasting progressive participation into God. neverthe- less. at the eschatological moment of theosis the human person achieves a state of maturity and perfec- tion through the regenerative grace of God and becomes not only sinless but also incapable anymore of falling into sin. as Norman Russell notes in the context of Athanasius. possesses authentic aseity. Deification. Thus. remain always human beings. John of Damascus. such as immortality and incorruptibility. human beings become "partakers of the divine nature. in divine life might be seen as problematic. Being gods by grace. "Things which partake cannot be identical or similar to that whereof they partake. humans are ontologically transformed or transfigured but. in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. Russell. Athanasius in one place emphasizes.26. and Holy Spirit. "is like a second creation carried out by the Creator. is the only one who is eternal and without generation. If originally a human being was created sinless but with the possibility to sin (which often was understood that Adam and Eve were created in a state of innocence but not perfection). 1998). 4:492. Being a god. The understanding of "reconciled with God" and "deified human. This never- ending dynamic perfection and the obtainment of the vision of God are the main themes of patristic mysticism. or have a share. are ultimately com- municated and permanently installed in the deified human nature. but this time from within. Doctrine of Deification."17 As the result of this participation in the divine nature. that is."16 In some patristic authors the deified human state was depicted as a spiritu- alized or angelic-like existence. On the Divine Images 3. as only God the Father. for example."18 Human deificational maturity. however. See.

is "piece broken off the invisible Godhead. to comprehend God as God is (in other words essen- tially). in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2. in Gregory's opinion the Holy Spirit manifested itself in the lives of Christians on an essentially new level: "[The Spirit] is no longer present only in energy. but rather this 19. I mean our mind and reason. however. 23.59. Gregory of Nazianzus. 7:294. Oration 41.73. through deifying purification. namely.19 Contrary to the com- mon assumption. transcendent singularity of divine nature is not the inaccessible. and he does not want to state the "teaching" of the church on this subject. in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2. Gregory of Nazianzus. 21.1. simple. in divine manifestations in the world. 20. Oration 28.17. Gregory of Nazianzus. Some initial aspects of this distinc- tion had already been proposed by Basil of Caesarea. Gregory Palamas. "The Word became flesh. And this I think is the solution of that vexed problem as to "We shall know even as we are known. associating with us. Neoplatonism. substantially. At the same time. that he might make man capable of Godhead. and only through his oikonomia. 7:383. passive One of Plotinus. after Christ's resurrection and ascension at Pentecost. 22. a human being enhances capability. For Athanasius. of which it has now the desire.11. Athana- sius."23 In current human life. and the image shall have ascended to the Archetype.d ^ Theosis in Patristic Thought 167 in the light of later fourteenth-century Palamite developments in Byzantine theology. Gregory of Nazianzus."22 What would be the result of this substantial presence of God the Holy Spirit in relation to our knowledge of God's essence Gregory leaves open. even during this life. though not to the full degree. Oration 38. strictly speaking. Divine incom- prehensibility is a motivation for the human desire to know God. Carmina 1. PG 37:452. 24."21 Furthermore. God is comprehensible only partially.1. . introduced the distinction between divine essence and divine energy. and dwelling in us. Gregory of Nazianzus writes. Basil does not develop this distinction consistently in his theology. Letter 234. for example. says. but he expresses his opinion: In my opinion it will be discovered when that within us which is godlike and divine. in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2. shall have mingled with its Like [God]. Against Arians 2. 4:380. Basil of Caesarea. Cf. Athanasius.24 Apophatism in patristic theology is not always that of.7."20 Human spirit. absolute. but as we may say. 1 Cor 13:12.8. and neither Athanasius nor the Cappadocians have it. in order to secure the incomprehensibility of divine nature and the knowability of divine action.

and we never will know him. Divine nature is both mysterious and communicable. human participation in the nature of God does not necessarily make this nature knowable. There is a fundamental ontological distinction between the Creator and creation. where the two natures are mediated and united in the person of Christ. We are similar to God. We simultaneously know God. the apophatic aspect of this distinc- tion is intimately connected with God's active involvement in the life of his cre- ation. and human involvement in the life of God. however. Human beings participate in God "as far as possible" for human nature. and he is totally invisible. and at the same time we are substantially different. . Deification for patristic writers essentially is both the actual experience and the mystery. human participation in the life of God is real. and humankind lies not in the ontological differentiation between divine essence and divine energies but in the fact of the Incarnation of the Logos. Frequently. with its com- municable presence in the world. transcendent and incomprehensible in his nature. It is the mys- tery of divine love toward humankind. We see God. We become gods. but never will we be identical with God. Creation for patristic authors is theophany. Nevertheless. we can encounter in patristic thought the paradoxical methodolog- ical interplay of openness and hiddenness of God. God and divine action in the world are beyond human compre- hension. where the separation between God's nature and its activity could not be strictly appropriated.168 Vladimir Kharlamov JD^DSt^Ë^L divine simplicity is the essential manifestation of divine life itself. The communicability between God. and at the same time.

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