What is deification? – Response to a question

Deification is the attaining of likeness to God and union with Him so far as is possible (Dionysus the Aeropagite, EH 1. 3, PG 3. 376a).

God, you see, wants to make you a god; not by nature, of course, like the One whom He begot but by His gift and by adoption (Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 166.4).

Deification or the “divinization of the Christian is not an identification with God [but] an assimilation, a very eminent restoration of the original divine likeness [through a process where one] participates by grace in the perfections that God possesses by nature” (Gross, 1936/2003). Deification results in theoria of the uncreated Light (Gregory of Palamas, 1338/1983; Lossky, 2001). Thus deification and its process are directly related to theosis: the vision of the Divine Light (Lossky, 1983, 1997).

Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, 2.1:112.1) maintained that in deification, “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 . . . God alone should deify, bestowing a partaking of the Divine Nature by a participated likeness.” Meanwhile, Gregory of Palamas (1338/1983) said that in deification, “the Paraclete illuminates from on high the man sitting praying in the ‘upper room,’ the highest point human nature can reach, and awaiting the promise of the Father, and catches him up to theoria of the light.” Those who experience theoria arising from the process of deification see “God within themselves as in a mirror” (ibid.).

Deification versus Salvation

Many, especially in modern Western Christianity, tend to commingle the terms “salvation” and “deification” as though they have the same meaning. But this manifests poor understanding of the two terms as originally meant by the Fathers of the Church, because replacing the language and context of “theosis with salvation is an attempt to supplant Patristic theology with standard Reformation language” (Kharlamov, 2010). Deification transcends salvation because it constitutes not just “the forgiveness of sins through the Holy Spirit but man’s participation in the Holy Spirit” (Vlachos, 2010) – two completely different things.

The forgiveness of sins through the Spirit is a regular grace in the lives of Christians who avail themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation, whereas participation in the Spirit results in the actual transformation of human nature by divine transcendence. An accurate example of deification as intended by the Fathers is the narrative of what happened to Seraphim of Sarov (2010) when he was speaking to his spiritual son. It is also the true, inherent meaning of the phrase: “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life” (Paul VI, 1964), in regard to the universal call to holiness within the Church.

Specifically, where references exist “to human participation in divine life, there we assuredly have a claim specifically of theosis. This kind of claim regarding participation in divine life is carefully to be distinguished, however, from the idea of divine indwelling in the human person. Both schemes of sanctification draw on the notion of union, but whereas the latter locates sanctification within the creature and in via, the former [deification] locates it at the level of the divine and insists upon the inseparability of life in via and in patria . . . [A marker of] the doctrine, then, is the union of God and humanity, when this union is conceived as humanity’s incorporation into God, rather than God’s into humanity, and when conceived as the destiny of humanity generally rather than the extraordinary experience of the few” (Williams, 1999).

In deification – as opposed to salvation – “the Spirit transforms the soul to the image of the Logos, the natural Son of God, thus making the Christian an adoptive child of God . . . Affecting, it seems the very essence of the soul, this mysterious conformation is not of a moral nature only but of a physical nature; it is a veritable partaking of the divine nature and of the divine life” (Gross, 1936/2003). Hence salvation is a necessary part of deification but does not, in and of itself, constitute deification as originally meant by the Fathers.

He was made man that we might become god (Athanasius of Alexandria, De Incarnatione 54.3).

Through Christ, the Word made flesh, man has access to the Father in the Holy Spirit and comes to share in the divine nature (Paul VI, 1965, Dei Verbum).

According to Gregory of Palamas (1338/1983), the theologian of the Divine Light, two kinds of deification exist and they both commence in this life. The first kind refers to the “elevation of man to the highest level of his natural powers [by] the divine power of grace [being] active in him. [The second kind refers to that] progress which man makes beyond the limits of his natural powers, beyond the boundaries of his nature, to the divine and supernatural level” (Staniloae, 2005). To pass from the first kind of deification to the second kind necessitates a leap of grace through the goodness of the Father – through Christ, in the Holy Spirit – as “man too works during the first stage, but during the second, only God” (Gregory of Palamas, 1338/1983). Deification starts after purification has occurred, with illumination of the soul being part of the latter stages of deification.

Illumination and Deification

When Adam was created, the Spirit of God robed him in holiness, making him a perfect person. Such perfection, however, was not absolute but relative, in order that Adam and his descendants could “progress peacefully and rise up toward the perfect . . . draw closer to the Unbegotten” (Irenaeus of Lyon, Adv Haer. 3.23.5 [963]). It was progressive deification which was intended for mankind and presented for the working life of our first parent (Gross, 2003). But since the fall, union with God became discontinuous since man became imperfect (Gregory of Palamas, 1338/1983). Thus man becomes deified and “sees the invisible God, to the extent in which his nous [the heart of his soul] has been purified and illumined” (Vlachos, 2010).

Basil of Caesarea (363/1980) maintained that souls who become “illuminated by the Holy Spirit transmit this grace to others and at the same time receive many gifts, including foreknowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of what is hidden, distribution of spiritual gifts, heavenly citizenship, a place in the chorus of angels, joy without end, abiding in God, being made like God, and, highest of all, being made god.”

Is it not written in your Law: I said, you are gods? (Jn 10:34).

He has given us most great and precious promises: that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature (2 P 1:4).

Deification is neither the process of just acquiring the virtues as commonly understood (although this is part of the process) nor the end-state of deification itself (participation in the Beatific Vision after death), because “all who are being led towards participation in the uncreated . . . Light, as well as all who share in this light, are referred to as deified . . . [with deification being] above nature and virtue and knowledge . . . [as] this grace effects this ineffable union” (Gregory of Palamas, 1338/1983). So upon illumination and contingent upon its outcome being embraced, man enters into the latter stages of deification as he becomes “united with God and God dwells within him” (ibid.).

Deification and Theoria

In deification, “man’s body participates in the theoria of God, but he sees the Light and hears God’s voice only after his perceptive faculties have been transfigured by divine grace. His senses are transformed in order to see the Light” (Vlachos, 2010). Not everyone can see the uncreated Light, because “that Light is invisible to those whose senses have not been transformed by the Holy Spirit” (ibid.). But “it is possible, even in the present life, for man to experience his deification already taking place. Palamas and the mystical theologians of Byzantium link this experience with the practice of continual prayer, whose aim is perpetual communion with God and hence the vision of the Divine Light. This light is not a created medium nor a symbol of the divine glory, but an uncreated, natural energy deriving from God’s essence, which, when manifested and united with man, constitutes for him the surest evidence of his deification and the highest form of his knowledge of God” (Mantzaridis, 1984).

Peter of Damascus (1782) maintained that eight stages of theoria exist as follows:

  • First stage – knowledge of life’s afflictions and temptations. True awareness of God’s blessing amidst our trials and tribulations;
  • Second stage – knowledge of God’s graces and beneficence toward us. True awareness of our sins and passions;
  • Third stage – knowledge of our sufferings, both before and after death;
  • Fourth stage – understanding the life of Jesus Christ before His Passion and Resurrection. True knowledge of what the ascetics, martyrs, and saints have said and done.
  • Fifth stage – knowledge of nature and its inner dynamics (logoi; Maximus the Confessor);
  • Sixth stage – knowledge of the uncreated, providential energy of God;
  • Seventh stage – understanding the angels;
  • Eighth stage – theoria of God, the vision of the uncreated Divine Light. Real knowledge of God and true theology.

Stages one to three happen to individuals concerned with practical virtue (praxis) in the spiritual life. This is the state of purification and it is likened to convalescence (Vlachos, 2005). Stages four to eight happen to individuals whose nous – the heart of their souls – has been cleansed and re-opened through illumination. These four stages are likened to healing. Stage eight is related to the era of the eighth day, for “the vision of God is Paradise for the purified, but Hell for the impure” (ibid.). Stage eight was the state of Adam before the fall. Meanwhile, Gregory of Palamas (1338/1983) subdivided the eighth stage of theoria into three separate stages: (1) illumination of the nous, the heart or eye of the soul; (2) theoria, the vision of God; and (3) uninterrupted theoria, the constant vision of God. Illumination of the nous results from what is popularly known as the illumination of conscience or life review.

Isaac the Syrian (2011) maintained that a soul has two ‘eyes’ with which to perceive: one eye comprehends that which is hidden in nature (apprehended theoria), whereas the other eye beholds the actual glory of God, the Divine Light (unadulterated, received theoria). Meanwhile, Basil of Caesarea (363/1980) said that when unadulterated theoria occurs, the prophets see “images imprinted in their governing faculty (the nous) by the Spirit.” Gregory of Palamas (1338/1983) added, “The Holy Spirit settles upon the nous of the prophets and, using this governing faculty as material, announces the future to them, and through them to us.”

Deification and Theology

Deification turns man into a theologian not because he has studied theology intellectually, but because he attains theoria – the vision of God - through grace. Nikitas Stithatos (in Vlachos, 2010) maintained that at this stage of the spiritual life, man “communes with the angelic powers . . . approaches the uncreated Light and the depths of God are revealed to him through the Spirit. This man knows many things which are hidden from others, including mysteries that exist in Holy Scripture.”

References

  1. Athanasius of Alexandria, De Incarnatione 54.3.
  2. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 166.4.
  3. Basil of Caesarea. (363/1980). On the Holy Spirit (D. Anderson, trans.). New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
  4. Dionysus the Aeropagite, EH 1. 3, PG 3. 376a
  5. Gross, J. (1936/2003). The divinization of the Christian according to the Greek Fathers (P. A. Onica, trans.). Anaheim, CA: A & C Press.
  6. Gregory of Palamas. (1338/1983). The triads in defense of the holy hesychasts (J. Meyendorff, ed.). New York: Paulist Press.
  7. Irenaeus of Lyon, Adversus Haereses 3.23.5 (963).
  8. Isaac the Syrian. (2011). Ascetical homilies of St Isaac the Syrian (2nd. rev. ed., Holy Transfiguration Monastery, trans.). Brookline, MA.
  9. Kharlamov, V. (2010). Theosis: Deification in Christian theology (S. Finlan, ed.). Cambridge, UK: James Clarke & Co.
  10. Lossky, V. (1983). The vision of God (A. Morehouse, trans.). New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
  11. Lossky, V. (1997). The mystical theology of the Eastern church. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
  12. Lossky, V. (2001). In the image and likeness of God (J. H. Erickson & T. E. Bird, eds.). New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
  13. Mantzaridis, G. I. (1984). The deification of man: St Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox tradition (L. Sherrard, trans.). New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
  14. Paul VI. (1964). Lumen Gentium, 5 (40).
  15. Paul VI. (1965). Dei Verbum, 2.
  16. Peter of Damascus. (1782). Philokalia, 3108.
  17. Seraphim of Sarov. (2010). On acquisition of the Holy Spirit (Kindle ed.).
  18. Staniloae, D. (2005). The experience of God: The world: Creation and deification. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
  19. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica 2.1:112.1.
  20. Vlachos, H. (2005). The illness and cure of the soul in the Orthodox tradition (E. Mavromichali, trans.). Athens, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery Press.
  21. Vlachos, H. (2010). The science of spiritual medicine: Orthodox psychotherapy in action. Athens, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery Press.
  22. Williams, A. N. (1999). The ground of union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas. New York: Oxford University Press.