By continuing to browse our site you agree to our use of cookies and our Privacy Policy.


Fathers of the Eastern Church

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Orthodox doctrine of theosis, according to John Paul II, is perhaps the greatest gift of the Eastern Church to the West, but one that has largely been ignored or even denied.[1] The Eastern fathers of the Church believed that we could experience real and transformative union with God. This is in fact the supreme goal of human life and the very meaning of salvation—not only later, but now and later. Theosis refers to the shared deification or divinization of creation, particularly with the human soul where it can happen consciously and lovingly.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390) emphasized that deification does not mean we become God, but that we do objectively participate in God’s nature. We are created to share in the life-flow of Trinity. Salvation isn’t about replacing our human nature with a fully divine nature, but growing within our very earthiness and embodiedness to live more and more in the ways of love and grace, so that it comes “naturally” to us and is our deepest nature. This does not mean we are humanly or perfectly whole or psychologically unwounded, but it has to do with an objective identity in God that we can always call upon and return to without fail. Some doctrine of divinization is the basis for any reliable hope and any continual growth.

Remember what I shared last week about stages and states. Divinized people live in a grateful state of their undeserved union with God, but that does not always mean their stage of human development is without very real limits and faults. This is a distinction that the West, with its dualistic mind, seemed unable to make.

This is how a few ancients and contemporaries understand theosis:

Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373): “The Son of God became man that we might become god…. [It is] becoming by grace what God is by nature.” Athanasius is almost directly quoting St. Irenaeus (125-203) who taught the same.

Maximus the Confessor (580-662): “The saints become that which can never belong to the power of nature alone, since nature possesses no faculty capable of perceiving what surpasses it.” [2]

Olivier Clement (1921-2009), an Orthodox scholar: “The purpose of the incarnation is to establish full communion between God and humanity so that in Christ humanity may find adoption and immortality, often called ‘deification’ by the Fathers: not by emptying out our human nature but by fulfilling it in the divine life, since only in God is human nature truly itself.” [3]

J. A. McGuckin, an Orthodox scholar: “In speaking of fullness of communion as the ‘true life’ of the creature, deification language shows that the restoration of communion is at root one and the same movement and motive of the God who seeks to disburse the gift of the fullness of life to his rational creatures.” [4]

Full salvation is finally universal belonging and universal connecting. Our word for that is “heaven.”

Gateway to Silence:
We are one.

[1] Pope John Paul II, Orientale Lumen: Apostolic Letter on the Eastern Churches (1995).
[2] Maximus the Confessor as quoted by John Meyendorff, St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 1974), 39.
[3] Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New City Press: 2013), 37.
[4] J.A. McGuckin, The Strategic Adaptation of Deification in the Cappadocians, appearing in Michael Christensen, et al. eds., Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Tradition, (Baker Academic: 2007), 96. (Partakers of the Divine Nature book is the best summary I have read on the subject of theosis.)

Image credit: “Trinity” (detail), c. 1410, Andrei Rublev. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

The work of the Center for Action and Contemplation is possible only because of friends and supporters like you!

Learn more about making a donation to the CAC.