In Christian theology, particularly in Eastern Orthodox theology, theosis (written also: theiosis, theopoiesis, theōsis; Greek: Θέωσις, meaning divinization, deification, or making divine) is the process of transformation of a believer who is putting into practise (called praxis) the spiritual teachings of Jesus Christ and His gospel. In particular, theosis refers to the attainment of likeness to or union with God, that is the final stage of this process of transformation and is as such the goal of the spiritual life. Theosis is the third of three stages; the first being purification (katharsis) and the second illumination (theoria). By means of purification a person comes to illumination and then sainthood. Sainthood is the participation of the person in the life of God. According to this doctrine, the holy life of God, given in Jesus Christ to the believer through the Holy Spirit, is expressed through the three stages of theosis, beginning in the struggles of this life, which increases in the experience of the believer through the knowledge of God, and is later consummated in the resurrection of the believer, when the power of sin and death, having been fully overcome by the atonement of Jesus, will lose hold over the believer forever. This conception of salvation is historical and foundational for Christian understanding in both the East and the West.
Eastern Christian theology
St. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote, "God became man so that man might become god." [the second god is always lowercase] (On the Incarnation 54:3, PG 25:192B). His statement is an apt description of the doctrine. What would otherwise seem absurd—that fallen, sinful man may become holy as God is holy—has been made possible through Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate. Naturally, the crucial Christian assertion, that God is One, sets an absolute limit on the meaning of theosis: it is not possible for any created being to become (ontologically) God, or even part of God (the henosis of Greek Neoplatonic philosophy).
Through theoria, the contemplation of the triune God, human beings come to know and experience what it means to be fully human (the created image of God); through their communion with Jesus Christ, God shares Himself with the human race, in order to conform them to all that He is in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. As God became human, in all ways except sin, He will also make humans god, in all ways except his divine essence. St Irenaeus explained this doctrine in Against Heresies, Book 5, in the Preface, "the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through his transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself."
St. Maximus the Confessor wrote, "A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to deification of human nature is provided by the incarnation of God, which makes man god to the same degree as God himself became man.... Let us become the image of the one whole God, bearing nothing earthly in ourselves, so that we may consort with God and become gods, receiving from God our existence as gods. For it is clear that He who became man without sin (cf. Heb. 4:15) will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine nature, and will raise it up for his own sake to the same degree as He lowered himself for man's sake. This is what St Paul teaches mystically when he says, '...that in the ages to come he might display the overflowing richness of His grace' (Eph. 2:7)."(page 178 PHILOKALIA Volume II)
For many fathers, theosis goes beyond simply restoring people to their state before the Fall of Adam and Eve, teaching that because Christ united the human and divine natures in Jesus's person, it is now possible for someone to experience closer fellowship with God than Adam and Eve initially experienced in the Garden of Eden, and that people can become more like God than Adam and Eve were at that time. Some Orthodox theologians go so far as to say that Jesus would have become incarnate for this reason alone, even if Adam and Eve had never sinned.
All of humanity is fully restored to the full potential of humanity because the Son of God took to himself a human nature to be born of a woman, and takes to himself also the sufferings due to sin (yet is not himself sinful, and is God unchanged in being). In Christ the two natures of God and human are not two persons but one; thus a union is effected in Christ between all of humanity in principle and God. So the holy God and sinful humanity are reconciled in principle in the one sinless man, Jesus Christ. (See Jesus's prayer as recorded in John 17.)
This reconciliation is made actual through the struggle (podvig in Russian) to conform to the image of Christ. Without the struggle, the praxis, there is no real faith; faith leads to action, without which it is dead. One must unite will, thought, and action to God's will, his thoughts, and his actions. A person must fashion his life to be a mirror, a true likeness of God. More than that, since God and humanity are more than a similarity in Christ but rather a true union, Christians' lives are more than mere imitation and are rather a union with the life of God himself: so that the one who is working out salvation is united with God working within the penitent both to will and to do that which pleases God. Gregory Palamas affirmed the possibility of humanity's union with God in his energies, while also affirming that because of God's transcendence and utter otherness, it is impossible for any person or other creature to know or to be united with God's essence. Yet through faith we can attain phronema, an understanding of the faith of the Church. A common analogy for theosis, given by the Greek fathers, is that of a metal which is put into the fire. The metal obtains all the properties of the fire (heat, light), while its essence remains that of a metal. Using the head-body analogy from St Paul, every man in whom Christ lives partakes of the glory of Christ. As St John Chrysostom observes, "where the head is, the body is also; for by no means is the head separated from the body; for if it were indeed separated, there would not be a body and there would not be a head".
The journey towards theosis includes many forms of praxis. Living in the community of the church and partaking regularly of the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, is taken for granted. Also important is cultivating "prayer of the heart", and prayer that never ceases, as Paul exhorts the Thessalonians (1 and 2). This unceasing prayer of the heart is a dominant theme in the writings of the Fathers, especially in those collected in the Philokalia. The "doer" in deification is the Holy Spirit, with whom the human being joins his will to receive this transforming grace by praxis and prayer. This synergeia or co-operation between God and Man does not lead to mankind being absorbed into the God as was taught in earlier pagan forms of deification like Henosis. Rather it expresses unity, in the complementary nature between the created and the creator.
Western Christian theology
Latin-Rite Catholic views
“To restore man, who has been laid low by sin, to the heights of divine glory, the Word of the eternal Father, though containing all things within His immensity, willed to become small. This He did, not by putting aside His greatness, but by taking to Himself our littleness. . . . The humanity of Christ is the way by which we come to the divinity.” (Thomas Aquinas, Compendium of Theology, §1-2)
"Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking of the Divine Nature, which exceeds every other nature. And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace. For it is as necessary that God alone should deify, bestowing a partaking of the Divine Nature by a participated likeness, as it is impossible that anything save fire should enkindle." (Summa Theologiae I-II.112.1 co.)
In Roman Catholic theology, theosis refers to a specific and rather advanced phase of contemplation of God.  The process of arriving to such a state, or moving toward it (as arrival there is not necessary for salvation, but rather an end result of salvation), involves different types of prayer which are recognized as beneficial. Various stages of prayer life are recognized as being likely to occur should a person respond to faith by moving along the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. See ascetical theology.
Some western writers refer to theosis using the same implications given above. It is common to find western writings that flatteringly suggest that eastern spirituality uniquely manifests theosis, and that by implication their own tradition never attained to the idea. This may be a case of rhetoric obscuring fact. Under different terminology the western spiritual traditions, which also reach to the origins of Christianity (in the East), share the objective of sharing in the life of God. Some Catholic writers consider it lamentable that the term theosis is not used more extensively in western theology (usually, the term "divinization" is preferred by Western Catholic writers).
Although the West has generally given due credit to Eastern insight into deification (theosis) from a western point of view, the theological differences between western formulations and understanding and Eastern is somewhat rhetorical. But there is also a slight difference in the idea of theosis itself. In the West there is a tendency to see it as the highest level of union (in the purgation, illumination and union model for deification).
Virtually all spiritual writings of any consequence during the Middle Ages, and all modern books published in the West that take seriously the Western historical tradition on this matter, manifest overt awareness of all the issues comprised in theosis, more commonly known as deification.
Whether or not eastern liturgies are more conducive to theosis is also at issue. In the West there has been much debate about the merits of the Mass of Paul VI, and some traditionalist Catholics claim that the Tridentine Mass is particularly conducive to the sort of prayer life that leads one along the path of theosis. This issue is moving toward resolution with the recent re-introduction of the ancient medieval liturgy into general currency in the Catholic West through Pope Benedict XVI's motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.
Out of the English Reformation, an understanding of salvation in terms closely comparable to the Orthodox doctrine of theosis was recognized in the Anglican tradition, for example in the writings of Lancelot Andrewes, who described salvation in terms vividly reminiscent of the early fathers:
- Whereby, as before He of ours, so now we of His are made partakers. He clothed with our flesh, and we invested with His Spirit. The great promise of the Old Testament accomplished, that He should partake our human nature; and the great and precious promise of the New, that we should be “consortes divinae naturae”, “partake his divine nature,” both are this day accomplished.
Protestants are generally less aware of the doctrinal line of thought of theosis, except for Methodists and Wesleyans, whose religious tradition has always placed strong emphasis on sanctification. Generally speaking, the Methodist/Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification is roughly equivalent to the Catholic/Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis. Early during the Reformation, thought was given to the doctrine of union with Christ (unio cum Christo) as the precursor to the entire process of salvation and sanctification. This was especially so in the thought of John Calvin.
Henry Scougal's work The Life of God in the Soul of Man is sometimes cited as important in keeping alive among Protestants the ideas central to the doctrine. In the introductory passages of his book, Scougal describes "religion" in terms that evoke the doctrine of theosis:
- "... a resemblance of the divine perfections, the image of the Almighty shining in the soul of man: ... a real participation of his nature, it is a beam of the eternal light, a drop of that infinite ocean of goodness; and they who are endued with it, may be said to have 'God dwelling in their souls', and 'Christ formed within them'."
Theosis as a doctrine developed in a distinctive direction among Methodists , and elsewhere in the pietist movement which reawakened Protestant interest in the asceticism of the early Catholic Church, and some of the mystical traditions of the West. Distinctively, in Wesleyan Protestantism theosis sometimes implies the doctrine of entire sanctification which teaches, in summary, that it is the Christian's goal, in principle possible to achieve, to live without any (voluntary) sin (Christian perfection). In 1311 the Roman Catholic Council of Vienne declared this notion, "that man in this present life can acquire so great and such a degree of perfection that he will be rendered inwardly sinless, and that he will not be able to advance farther in grace" (Denziger §471), to be a heresy. Thus this particular Protestant (primarily Methodist) understanding of theosis is substantially different from that of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican Churches. This doctrine of Christian perfection was sharply criticized by many in the Church of England during the ministry of John Wesley and continues to be controversial among Protestants and Anglicans to this day. Most Protestants do not believe in Christian perfection as Wesley described it and most Protestants also do not use the term theosis at all, though they refer to a similar doctrine by such terms as sanctification, "adoption as sons", "union with Christ", and "filled with the Spirit". Dietrich Bonhoeffer echoed the convictions of Athanasius when he wrote "He has become like a man, so that men should be like him." (The Cost of Discipleship, 301)
Nevertheless, similarities of doctrine notwithstanding, within the whole of the conception of the Christian life which the idea of "theosis" is intended to comprehend, differences of doctrine are disclosed especially in differences of practice, between the East and West, and between Orthodoxy and Protestantism.
Latter-day Saint views
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as "The LDS Church" or "The Mormon Church," and its people as "LDS," "saints," or "Mormons"), exaltation or eternal life is premised on the doctrine that "The Father has [an immortal, glorified] body of flesh and bones, as tangible as man's; the Son also." The Holy Spirit, however, exists as a "personage of Spirit" enabling it to "dwell in us." (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22) These three Beings make up the Godhead, each of them separate and distinct, yet unified in the Father's plan for the salvation of his children.
Latter-day Saints believe that all human beings are children of God, and have, therefore, as children of God the Father (see Heb. 12:9) the divine potential to become as their Heavenly Father is, and to be exalted to godhood, in the same way that God the Father 'exalted' His Only Begotten Son Jesus Christ. This theological concept is derived from both Biblical interpretation, declared revelations (Doctrine and Covenants 76) and a sermon by Joseph Smith called the King Follett discourse.
Based upon the Book of Acts the LDS Church teaches that Jesus was exalted by God (See Acts 5:29-32). Exaltation is to become, through the Atonement of Christ, a 'joint-heir' with Jesus Christ, in all that the Father possesses; meaning that, God the Father makes each man a being like himself, perfect in power, authority, dominion, glory, attributes, knowledge, wisdom, might, &c, yet eternally subordinate to and worshipping God the Father.
Christian Universalist views
There has been a modern revival of the concept of theosis (often called "Manifest Sonship" or "Christedness") among Christians who believe in universal reconciliation, especially those with a background in the Charismatic Latter Rain Movement or the New Age and New Thought movements. The statement of faith of the Christian Universalist Association includes theosis in one of its points.
Some Charismatic Christian universalists believe that the "return of Christ" is a body of perfected human beings who are the "Manifested Sons of God" instead of a literal return of the person of Jesus, and that these Sons will reign on the earth and transform all other human beings from sin to perfection during an age that is coming soon (a universalist approach to millennialism). Some Liberal Christian universalists with New Age leanings also share a similar eschatology.
- Related terms: Consecration, Deification, Sanctification
- Entire Sanctification (Also known as Christian perfection, a Methodist Protestant doctrine similar to theosis)
- Exaltation (Mormonism)
- Holiness movement
- Christian Universalism
- Apotheosis (a non-Christian idea which compares human greatness to godlike status)
- Beatific vision
- Vladimir Lossky
- Unio Mystica
- John of the Cross
Notes and references
- "Theology and Mysticism in the Tradition of the Eastern Church" from The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, pgs 8-9, 39,126, 133, 154, 196
- "Theology and Mysticism in the Tradition of the Eastern Church" from The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by V Lossky
- Ninety-six Sermons by Lancelot Andrewes, page 109
- The Life of God in the Soul of Man by Henry Scougal, page 13
- See http://greater-emmanuel.org/jg/2006/jg_06_02.html, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYCO8Gv4PP8, and http://www.christianuniversalist.org/articles/beyondhell.html
- http://www.christianuniversalist.org/faq.html#faith, http://www.christianuniversalist.org/articles/divinization.html
- See http://www.hearingthetruthofgod.com/id69.html and http://www.hearingthetruthofgod.com/id349.html
- September 5
- Anstall, Kharalambos (2007). "Juridical Justification Theology and a Statement of the Orthodox Teaching," Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ". Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Lossky, Vladimir (1997). The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 978-0-913836-31-6.
- Gross, Jules (2003). The Divinization of the Christian According to the Greek Fathers. A & C Press. ISBN 978-0-7363-1600-2.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church. Pauline Books & Media. 1994. pp. 116. ISBN 978-0-8198-1519-4.
- Book extract Nonviolent Atonement and the Victory of Christ by Brad Jersak, 2007
- Eastern Orthodoxy and Theosis
- Orthodoxwiki article
- Some themes in Christian Mysticism
- Deification - online issue of Affirmation & Critique devoted entirely to the topic of theosis
- Luther and Theosis by Kurt E. Marquart (Concordia Theological Quarterly, July 2000)
- Theosis & Sanctification: John Wesley's Reformulation of a Patristic Doctrine by Michael Christensen
- God and Mankind Have Become One Race by NIKOLAOS P. VASSILIADIS
- Partakers of God by Panayiotis Christou
- King Follet Discourse at Brigham Young University
- Journal Of Discourses archive, Brigham Young University