“Ye are gods” – Theosis!

In the Orthodox faith salvation is likened to a journey which God has set before us to travel. And although it is somewhat of a dangerous journey, with many snares and pitfalls of the enemy, it does not leave us in despair. There is always renewal and rejuvenation through God’s Holy Trinity, via His Church and even creation itself. The loving kindness of God manifests both spiritually as well as existentially, through both the invisible as well as the visible!

In order to truly understand our salvation in Christ we must travel back to the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve made a choice to separate themselves from God. As Bishop Kallistos Ware says in his book The Orthodox Church(p.222), “Instead of continuing along the path marked out for him by God, he turned aside and disobeyed God. Adam’s fall consisted essentially in his disobedience of the will of God; he set up his own will against the divine will…” Bishop Ware goes on to say that because of this disobedience, a new form of existence manifested on the earth, one of disease and death.

God says in Genesis 2:17, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Adam and Eve ate the fruit, and they began to die. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that they became completely separated from God. After the Fall they still remained image-bearers of God, icons of God, if you will! Death, an unnatural occurrence, was assumed by man and thus changed the entire direction of humanity to constantly draw away from the will of God to the will of self.

We now have a weakened will; one that the Greeks call ‘desire’ and the Latins call ‘concupiscence.’ It is this will that needs to be guided back to God so that death can begin to become conquered in the life of the person. This is far different from the modern/western concept of man inheriting guilt from Adam and thus needing to be legally justified from the due punishment. This modern concept deems all of man born in to what much of the west likes to refer to as  “sin nature.” This western concept confuses the very concept of humanity! It is certainly not natural to die. Death is unnatural. The results of the fall are all unnatural and awaiting redemption through Christ.

One way that we begin to conquer our unnatural desire is to begin to shape and mature the will within us. Since we have not been completely separated from the love of God and are still able to function within God’s creative order, even spiritually – if man could not function to any spiritual degree he would be completely demon possessed – we can now chose to have communion with Him, through the avenues that He has now made available; that is, we must will to honor Christ in all that He is, was and ever shall be. This “synergy,” this union between man and God that is now being formed, is an important process in our relationship with God. Because we are born as image-bearers of God we are born and designed to have a relationship with Him, to reconcile our wavering will to His perfect will.

It was Satan that began to thwart the divine relationship and plan of God with His people (Genesis 3).  It was Satan that initiated the crucifixion of Christ, believing that Christ’s death would allow him to triumph over God’s people. As St. Paul says, Christ is our “ransom.” The devil took him as a ransom and now the devil no longer has God’s people in bondage. The New Covenant has destroyed the power of the devil (1 John) and has given us new life in Christ, victory over the powers of darkness.

When St. Paul spoke of the “New Adam” in Romans, he was not merely referring to a new covenant in a legal/judicial sense but was referring to a New Covenant through a new nature, a nature that we can inherit through Christ.

St. Ephrim the Syrian wrote in one of his many hymns:

“All these changes did the Merciful One make, Stripping off glory and putting on a body (Philippians 2:5-7);For He had devised a way to reclothe Adam. In that glory which he had stripped off. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, Corresponding to Adam’s leaves, He put on clothes In place of Adam’s skins; He was baptized for Adam’s sin, He was embalmed for Adam’s death, He rose and raised Adam up in His glory. Blessed is He who descended, put on Adam and ascended!”(Michael J. Christensen and Jeffery A. Wittung, Partakers of the Divine Nature, p.152)

What was first meant to be through Adam we can now have through Christ! We can now become a part of God’s entire creative order in the natural sense. We can become an extension of God’s grace, not in essence of course, but in practice and in sanctity.

St. John Chrysostom refers to our union in Christ: ‘the union is complete, and eliminates all separation.’ Thus ‘we feed on Him at Whom angels gaze with trembling…We are mingled with Him, and become one body and one flesh with Christ’” (John Norman Davidson Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, p. 450).

Man is able – through the incarnate and risen Christ – to conquer the evil one, join in communion with God and begin to become a part of His “divine nature,” as 2 Peter 1:4 puts it. This process within our salvific order is referred to – within the Orthodox Church – as theosis (“deification,” “divinization”). Here is a simple illustration of theosis:

“If you spend time in the Sun, your skin darkens and you get a tan. Your Human Nature hasn’t changed, it has just adapted to being in the Sun. The more tanned you are, the safer it is to be in the Sun without burning. Uniting and communing with God is similar. We are born with a healthy “tan” which we lose due to our living in the world of sin. Theosis is the gradual tanning process to make sure that when we are fully exposed to the “Sun” (God’s grace/divinity), we don’t get a “sunburn”” (anonymous author).

As we become like God in our very occupation of life we can stand in His presence. This means that we can listen to Him, follow Him and be comforted by Him, for He is utterly magnificent and far too majestic and powerful for us to embrace outside of divinization, outside of being prepared.

Saint Athanasius (296-337 A.D.) says this regarding the Orthodox doctrine of theosis:

“God the Logos became what we are, in order that we may become what he himself is,” and that ‘God became Man so that Man could become God” (Athanasius, Incarnation of the Word, in NPNF 2 4:65). This is a rather shocking statement if you are used to western pattern of thought and paradigm.  It may seem that Saint Athanasius is espousing some sort of arrogant notion that we can become supreme, but he is in fact not. He goes on to say, “Albeit we cannot become like God in essence, yet by progress in virtue imitate God” (St. Athanasius, Ad Afros 7). This is important to note because it is not that we are becoming gods in some sort of ontological sense but that we are becomingGod, we are inheriting his grace, His divine energies, thus we are becoming Him. The word “becoming” is fitting because we cannot say that we are acquiring him, for he is not a moveable God. We cannot take away anything from Him. But we can take what he “radiates,” his qualities that manifest amongst his creation, hence what we call “divine energies.” We must be careful though not to think that this spiritual sense involves his authority, for this would mean that we are becoming gods unto ourselves. We do, although, become a part of His body as He lives! As the Apostle Paul puts it, ‘We are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones’ (Eph. 5:30).

Saint Basil the Great (330 A.D. – 379 A.D.) says, “When a sunbeam falls on a transparent substance, the substance itself becomes brilliant, and radiates light from itself. So, too, Spirit-bearing souls illumined by Him, finally become spiritual themselves, and their grace is sent forth to others. From this comes knowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of hidden things, distribution of wonderful gifts, heavenly citizenship, a place in the choir of angels, endless joy in the presence of God, becoming like God and, the highest of all desires, becoming God” (On the Spirit 9.23).

The quote from Saint Basil explains that indeed our becoming God is spiritual and that we do indeed become an extension of God’s grace by sending it forth “to others.” He also likens us becoming God in the sense of eternity. God is eternal and as we commune with him we become prepared for this eternal journey.

The fathers did not of course come up with this paradigm and theology out of nowhere. The Scripture speaks plainly when Jesus says in John 10:34, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’? He was responding to the Jews’ accusation against him with this quote of Psalm 82:6. Christ made a point to the Jews that even those that came before him were partaking of God’s divine nature, becoming gods.

It may help you to think of theosis and “becoming gods” this way: Christ says in Matthew 12:36 that we will be judged by every little word we speak and Saint James in James 3:5 and 6, says that the tongue is like a rudder of a ship and that it can set on fire entire nature. So, even the smallest things that we say and do have drastic impacts on the creative order. We are essentially occupying nature as gods! Not only have we been given dominion over the earth and all of its creatures, as shown in Genesis, but we have been given dominion over ourselves (also shown in the creation account)! We have a will that is so very powerful that it can “set fires.” It seems that what Jesus is saying here is that we should not devalue human nature so as to take proper responsibility to love our neighbor and our enemies. Our judgment on one another is serious and can cause serious things. This is very “God like.” We must not underestimate its nature lest we fall victim to ourselves. In other words, we need to be aware of just how we were created so that we can understand how we fit into creation. We live and move within creation without praying and seeking God, and powerful things happen…all of this because we are created in the very image of God – imago dei! What a powerful rebuke it was for Christ to call out to these people who were rejecting Him and say to them that they had no idea who they were or what they were capable of! Perhaps this can relate to the several times that Christ calls various people in the Gospel accounts, “fools;” as a rebuke to those that cannot see their very identity. Or perhaps we can liken this deification with God (becoming gods) like Saint James says in 1:23, that anyone who does not respond properly after witnessing the Logos, is like a man that looks in the mirror and forgets what he looks like! Our image bears witness to God’s grace in creation (“divine energies”). We bear witness to God’s Spirit (Romans 8:16) but not merely in a ghostly way. We experience God’s grace through interaction with other “images” of God (people) as well as how these people become one with his world. We literally eat his creation (food) and fast from it. We engage all of our five senses with God’s creative order and we can and should experienceHim, spiritually through this order. Theosis is not just hoping that the Holy Spirit inspires us with Bible verses and good teachings. God is manifesting himself everywhere and we need to be sensitive to this. Our interaction with His manifestation amongst other people, especially his Church, needs to meditated on as well as meditated for.

St. Leontius of Cyprus (7th Century) says, “Through heaven and earth and sea, through wood and stone, through all creation visible and invisible, I offer veneration to the Creator and Master and Maker of all things. For the creation does not venerate the Maker directly and by itself, but it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God, through me the moon worships God, through me the stars glorify him, through me the waters and showers of rain, the dews and all creation, venerate God and give him glory” (St. Leontius of Cyprus, Against the Jews and in defense of the icons of the saints, p.93).

One thing that theosis is not, is pantheism, the belief that God “is” everything and so we become of part of that. Pantheism is missing key elements of our God, namely the fact that He is beyond us and is the very creator of us. He remains the “King of kings,” as the Scripture so eloquently puts it. In order not to fall into pantheism many modern Christian do not speak at all about deification (theosis). This is a tragedy! Rather, they speak of God having a relationship with us morally. There are some Protestants that speak of having a spiritual relationship with God, but much of this theology is based on emotionalism and other hysteria.

There are many passages within the Scriptures that show us the principle of theosis, but one that I find rather interesting is Hebrews 12:5-11. It speaks of how God disciplines us and that if we are without the disciplining of God, then we cannot possibly be walking with Him. It goes on to say that God’s discipline yields the fruit of righteousness to those who have been “trained” by it. Communing with God means allowing Him to train us and chastise us! Through this we meet Him and see Him as he reveals Himself to us. The writer of Hebrews seems to state that we can even know that He is close to us by witnessing His discipline.

As Christ tells us that we “reap what we sow,” so other points of Holy Scripture like the one in Hebrews tell us how the creative order surrounds us and works within our lives. Protestants like to call this “sovereignty” and “providence,” when God interacts with us in time and space. But some of the differences in the way Protestants understand our experience with God and the Orthodox understanding is primarily anthropological in nature. As we spoke of at the beginning of this study, man is formed in the image of God and has not been totally cut off from God. Man is able to will toward God because of this imago dei. This gives man oneness and responsibility with God and His creative order. Remember, as Christ said, “ye are gods!”