Thursday, October 22, 2015

Stump the Priest: Theosis

Question: "Does the Orthodox Church believe Christians are gods in an embryo form? I am troubled by this notion, because it is a fundamental concept of Spiritualism."

We believe that there is only one God in Trinity -- the Creed should be clear enough on that. God is alone God by nature. However, we do believe that we can become divine, or like God, by grace. This is well founded in both Scripture and Tradition.

We are told in Scripture that we will be like God, in some sense:

"Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).

And we are told that we can become partakers of the divine nature:

"Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).

And Scripture speaks of men as being "gods" in some sense (Psalm 81[82]:6; John 10:34-36).

St. Irenaeus (who reposed in 202 A.D., and was taught by St. Polycarp, who was in turn a disciple of the Apostle John), wrote that Christ became "what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself" (Against Heresies, Book V, preface (ANF, p. 526)). This is almost identical to the better known statement from St. Athanasius the Great: "For He was made man that we might be made God" (On the Incarnation, 54, NPNF2, p. 65). Many similar quotes from other Fathers could be cited. This teaching is called "Theosis" or "Divinization."

Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) sums up what this does and does not mean very well:

"Since, then, the union between God and the human beings that he has created is a union neither according to essence nor according to hypostasis, it remains thirdly that it should be a union according to energy. The saints do not become God by essence nor one person with God, but they participate in the energies of God, that is to say, in his life, power, grace and glory" (The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1979), 168).

One cannot read what the Fathers have to say on this subject and conclude that they believed that man could become God in the same sense that the Trinity is God.

Mainstream Protestant theologians have generally recognized that there is nothing objectionable in the Patristic understanding of Theosis, unlike the odd teachings of groups like the Mormons, who actually do believe that men can be gods by nature (see, for example, Mormons and Patristic Studies, by Chris Welborn).

For more information:

Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life, by Archimandrite George of St. Gregorios Monastery, Mt. Athos.

The Illumined Heart: God: Essence and Energies