Becoming Like God: An Evangelical Doctrine Of Theosis

JETS 40/2 (June 1997) 257-269

Robert V. Rakestraw

In one of his letters, Athanasius, the fourth-century defender of the faith, made his famous statement that the Son of God became man "that he might deify us in himself."{1} In his great work, On the Incarnation, he wrote similarly that Christ "was made man that we might be made God."{2} This is the doctrine of theosis, also known as deification, divinization, or, as some prefer, participation in God.{3}

While the concept of theosis has roots in the ante-Nicene period, it is not an antiquated historical curiosity. The idea of divinization, of redeemed human nature somehow participating in the very life of God, is found to a surprising extent throughout Christian history, although it is practically unknown to the majority of Christians (and even many theologians) in the West. In Orthodox theology, however, it is the controlling doctrine. Furthermore, "it is not too much to say that the divinization of humanity is the central theme, chief aim, basic purpose, or primary religious ideal of Orthodoxy."{4} With the growing interest in Eastern Orthodox/Evangelical rapprochement, it is essential that theosis studies be pursued. Evangelicals may receive considerable benefit from a clear understanding and judicious appropriation of the doctrine. This is so particularly in light of the crying need for a robust, biblical theology of the Christian life that will refute and replace the plethora of false spiritualities plaguing Church and society.


It is not easy to give a definition of theosis, since so many aspects of Christian truth are utilized by those who advance the teaching, and different writers and traditions emphasize different truths. The word "theosis" is the transliteration of the Greek word meaning "deification"--being made God. Our English word "apotheosis" has much the same meaning.{19} In his definition, contemporary Anglican priest Kenneth Leech builds upon the words of Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), considered to be perhaps the most creative of Byzantine theologians and the most helpful formulator of the doctrine of theosis. Leech writes that according to Maximus, "deification is the work of divine grace by which human nature is so transformed that it `shines forth with a supernatural light and is transported above its own limits by a superabundance of glory'."{20}

Archbishop Basil Krivocheine, expressing the thought of St. Symeon the New Theologian, writes:

Divinization is the state of man's total transformation, effected by the Holy Spirit, when man observes the commandments of God, acquires the evangelical virtues and shares in the sufferings of Christ. The Holy Spirit then gives man a divine intelligence and incorruptibility. Man does not receive a new soul, but the Holy Spirit unites essentially with the whole man, body and soul. He makes of him a son of God, a god by adoption, though man does not cease being a man, a simple creature, even when he clearly sees the Father. He may be called man and god at the same time.{21}

A more Westernized definition comes from Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, the deceased evangelical Anglican clergyman, biblical scholar and theologian in the Reformed tradition. Like a fair number of older Anglicans, he understood and saw considerable value in the doctrine of theosis. Commenting on the words of Athanasius that we quoted at the start of this paper, Hughes notes that while Athanasius did not clarify in every reference what he intended by his concept of deification, he made it quite clear from his writings as a whole that he did not have in mind a transformation of the human into the divine, an ontological or essential change of humanity into deity.

Hughes goes on to explain, correctly I believe, what Athanasius did mean, and in so doing gives us a useful definition of theosis as

the reintegration of the divine image of man's creation through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit conforming the redeemed into the likeness of Christ, and also of the believer's transition from mortality to immortality so that he is enabled to participate in the eternal bliss and glory of the kingdom of God.{22}

Above all, theosis is the restoration and reintegration of the "image" or, as some prefer, "likeness" of God, seriously distorted by the fall, in the children of God. In this life Christians grow more and more into the very likeness and character of God, as God was revealed in the man Jesus Christ.

This is more than the customary Protestant concept of sanctification, however. In theosis, while there is no ontological change of humanity into deity, there is a very real impartation of the divine life to the whole human being--body and soul. Lutheran Ross Aden observes that Orthodox theologians, such as John Breck, use the expression "communion with God" to mean "ontological participation." In contrast to Lutheranism, "the Orthodox hope of salvation in its broadest sense is more than hope of a divine sentence of 'not guilty' or even of a beatific vision; it is `human participation in the being of God . . . a total sharing in the Triune life.' . . . Created in the image of God, human beings are called to become like God by realizing the potential for ontological sharing in the life of God," yet never in such a way that theosis means sharing in God's essence (nature). "Lutherans and Orthodox would agree that the essence of God is utterly transcendent and therefore inaccessible to any created reality."{23}

G. I. Mantzaridis of the University of Thessaloniki writes in a recent work that deification is God's greatest gift to man and the ultimate goal of human existence.

It is that which from the beginning has constituted the innermost longing of man's existence. Adam, in attempting to appropriate it by transgressing God's command, failed, and in place of deification, met with corruption and death. The love of God, however, through His Son's incarnation, restored to man the possibility of deification:

Adam of old was deceived:

wanting to be God he failed to be God.
God becomes man,
so that He may make Adam god.{24}

The Greek Fathers and St. Gregory Palamas incorporate a strongly "physical" view of theosis, which derives the deification of human nature from its hypostatic union with the incarnate Logos of God. This view "does not imply any mechanical commutation of humanity, but an ontological regeneration of human nature in the hypostasis of the incarnate Logos of God, accessible to every man who participates personally and freely in the life of Christ."{25}

Concerning the time factor in divinization, Vladimir Lossky writes:

The deification or theosis of the creature will be realized in its fullness only in the age to come, after the resurrection of the dead. This deifying union has, nevertheless, to be fulfilled ever more and more even in this present life, through the transformation of our corruptible and depraved nature and by its adaptation to eternal life.{26}

With regard to those who receive this gracious gift, Krivocheine gives the thought of Symeon:

While remaining a spiritually conscious state and clearly felt by the one who receives it, divinization will always remain an awesome mystery, surpassing all human understanding and unobserved by most people. Indeed, the ones who are granted it are rare, although all the baptized are called to it. It is their fault if they deprive themselves of it.{27}

John Meyendorff speaks of the never ending nature of deification.

Man is not fully man unless he is in communion with God. . . . However, because God remains absolutely transcendent in his essence, man's communion with Him has no limit. It never reaches an End, which would be a dead end. God is both transcendent and inexhaustible. . . . In Christ [according to Palamas], man enters into communion not with "the God of the philosophers and the savants" but with the one who in human language can only be called "more than God."{28}

While the doctrine of divinization or theosis is associated primarily with the Orthodox churches of the East, it has similarities with the teaching about sanctification in the West. As noted above, however, the two are not identical. In the Western churches, as Bray notes, the concept of the imitation of Christ is the closest analogy to the theosis doctrine of the East. In Orthodox theology, while we are called to imitate Christ, we are also called to manifest the energies of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit who proceeds from the Father rests on the Son and becomes his energies. The Spirit then, by adopting us as sons of God, makes accessible to us the spiritual power which belongs to Christ.{29} Eastern writers stress, however, the distinction between God's essence and his energies. According to theosis proponent Timothy Ware (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia), "union with God means union with the divine energies, not the divine essence: the Orthodox Church, while speaking of deification and union, rejects all forms of pantheism."{30}

Orthodox churches also work more with the incarnation than with the crucifixion of Christ as the basis for man's divinization. This is not to say that Christ's atonement is minimized in the work of redemption,{31} but that the intention of the Father in creating humanity in the first place, and of joining humanity to divinity in the incarnation, is so that human beings might assume Godlikeness, and be imagers of God in his divine life, character, and actions.

1. Athanasius, Letter 60, to Adelphius, 4. See also sect. 3 and 8. NPNF, 2nd Series, IV, pp. 575-578.
2. Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54. NPNF, 2nd Series, IV, p. 65.
3. A. M. Allchin titles his book on theosis Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in Anglican Tradition (Wilton, CT: Morehouse-Barlow, 1988).
4. Daniel B. Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), p. 120.
5. Daniel B. Clendenin, "Partakers of Divinity: The Orthodox Doctrine of Theosis, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37:3 (1994):365-379.
6. Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
7. G. L. Bray, "Deification," in Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, J. I. Packer, ed., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988), p. 189.
8. Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV, 4, Lecture Fragments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 28.
9. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Baltimore: Penguin, New ed., 1993), pp. 231. See also Rowan Williams, "Deification," in Gordon S. Wakefield, ed., The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), p. 106.
10. Other theosis texts are Gal. 2:20 and I John 4:16. See Panayiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1987), pp. 23-25, 35-39, 127, 139. Books published by St. Vladimir�s Seminary Press are strongly supportive of theosis theology.
11. Irenaeus, Against Heresies V, I, 1. ANF I p. 527.
12. Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, X, 2. ANF I, p. 424.
13. Epistle to Diognetus X. ANF I, p. 29.
14. St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity IX, 4-5. NPNF, 2nd Series, IX, p. 156.
15. St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity IX, 38. NPNF, 2nd Series, IX, p. 167. See also X, 7 (pp. 183-184). A very helpful work on Hilary is by Philip T. Wild, The Divinization of Man According to Saint Hilary of Portiers (Mundelein, IL: Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary, 1950).
16. Williams, "Deification," p. 107.
17. Williams, "Deification," p. 107. Thomas C. Oden notes that the traditional distinction between incommunicable and communicable attributes clarifies how the soul may partake of the divine nature: there can be godlikeness by participation in the communicable attributes, such as grace, mercy, and longsuffering, but there is no possibility of finite creatures being made infinite, invisible, pure spirit, etc. (Life in the Spirit [Harper San Francisco, 1992], pp. 208-209). Winfried Corduan similarly explains how in Eckhart the believer is said to possess the nature of God ("A Hair�s Breadth From Pantheism: Meister Eckhart�s God-Centered Spirituality," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37:2 [1994], pp. 263- 274, esp. pp. 269-271).
18. Williams, "Deification," p. 106.
19. See articles in G. W. H. Lampe, ed., A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1961-68).
20. Kenneth Leech, Experiencing God: Theology as Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 258. Theosis writers speak often of the concept of glory--the supernatural light of God's essence that may be, in some way, manifested in the children of God. See Vladimir Lossky, The Vision of God (Bedfordshire: The Faith Press, 1963), pp. 129-137; and Kallistos Ware, "The Hesychasts: Gregory of Sinai, Gregory Palamas, Nicolas Cabasilas," in Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold, ed., The Study of Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 251-53.
21. Basil Krivocheine, St. Symeon the New Theologian (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1986), p. 389.
22. Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, The True Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 281.
23. Ross Aden, "Justification and Sanctification: A Conversation Between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy," St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 38:1 (1994):96-98. See also John Meyendorff and Robert Tobias, ed., Salvation in Christ: A Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1992). While theosis theologians do not espouse a fusion of deity with humanity in deified believers, they at times do speak of ontological change in them. Jaroslav Pelikan observes that in the Cappadocians there does seem to be some sort of a fundamental ontological change in the theosis experience (Christianity and Classical Culture [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993], p. 318. Krivocheine states that in the thought of St. Symeon, deification refers to "an ontological rather than to a purely spiritual transformation, although Symeon does not pretend that man abandons his created nature when he becomes a god through adoption" (St. Symeon the New Theologian, p. 390). On the distinction between God and man, Johannes Quasten writes that while for Athanasius one of the major themes in his divinization theology is Christ's granting of immortality to humankind, this is not accomplished by changing humanity into deity, but by suffering death for us in his body and by conjoining the divine nature with the human (Patrology, Vol. III: The Golden Age of Greek Patristic Literature [Utrecht: Spectrum, 1975], pp. 71-72. Andrew Louth notes how basic the ontological gulf between God and humankind was to Athanasian theology ("The Cappadocians," in Jones, et al., ed., The Study of Spirituality, pp. 161-162).
24. Georgios I. Mantzaridis, The Deification of Man (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984), pp. 12-13.
25. Mantzaridis, The Deification of Man, p. 31.
26. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1976), p. 196.
27. Krivocheine, St. Symeon, pp. 389-390.
28. John Meyendorff, The Byzantine Legacy in the Orthodox Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1982), pp. 188-189.
29. Bray, "Deification," p. 189.
30. Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 232. For Gregory Palamas' thoughts on the essence and energies of God see Lossky, The Vision of God, pp. 127-129, and Ware, "The Hesychasts," pp. 250-251.
31. See, e.g., Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 8-9.

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