He was made man that we might become god (Athanasius of Alexandria, De Inc, 54.3).
Many individuals these days, both in the Catholic Church (especially in America) and in Protestant ecclesial communities, tend to make the claim that the Virgin Mary is not deified, was not deified at the very instance of her conception, and has never been deified. Such a claim seems to be originating from the deep-seated fear, likely Protestant in origin, that the Holy Virgin is being worshipped with the worship that should be reserved for God alone, instead of just being honored as the Mother of God. Both, however, are wrong in their above-referenced claims. They are also wrong in their comprehension and use of the terms deification and worship.
What is worship?
Two kinds of worship exist: the worship of latreia and the worship of proskynesis (Bartolo-Abela, 2017). Latreia is the worship that is reserved only for God, whereas proskynesis is the relative worship that can be legitimately given to the saints. Proskynesis is more commonly understood by the people as veneration. However, it is still worship, even though not the kind of worship that should be reserved for God alone.
What is deification?
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).
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, Dei Verbum, 1965).
The Most High knew that Adam wanted to become a god, so He sent His Son who put him on in order to grant him his desire (Ephraim the Syrian, Nisb. Hymns, LXIX.12).
According to Dionysus the Aeropagite, deification is defined as “the attaining of likeness to God and union with Him so far as is possible” (EH 1. 3, PG 3. 376a). Maximus the Confessor called deification “the invocation of the great God and Father, the symbol of the authentic and real adoption, according to the gift and grace of the Holy Spirit, thanks to the bestowal of which the saints become and will remain the sons of God” (Ad Thalas 61, PG 90, 636C; Scholia 6, ibid. 644C). Thomas Aquinas stated that deification allowed “this name God [to be] communicable, not in its whole signification, but in some part of it by way of similitude so that those are called gods who share in divinity by likeness, according to the text I have said, ‘You are gods (Ps 82:6)’ (Summa Theologica, Response to I.13,9).
Gross (1938/2002) explained that deification, [the] “divinization of the Christian is not an identification with God [but] an assimilation, a very eminent restoration of the original divine likeness [whereby one] participates by grace in the perfections that God possesses by nature . . . 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 (p. 272). Aquinas further elaborated 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” (Summa Theologica, 2.1:112.1).
The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary
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).
According to Pius IX (1854), “From the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate and from whom, in the blessed fullness of time, he would be born into this world. Above all creatures did God so love her that truly in her was the Father well pleased with singular delight. Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints, so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully.
“And indeed it was wholly fitting that so wonderful a mother should be ever resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin that she would triumph utterly over the ancient serpent. To her did the Father will to give his only-begotten Son — the Son whom, equal to the Father and begotten by him, the Father loves from his heart — and to give this Son in such a way that he would be the one and the same common Son of God the Father and of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was she whom the Son himself chose to make his Mother and it was from her that the Holy Spirit willed and brought it about that he should be conceived and born from whom he himself proceeds” (Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus, para. 1-2).
Note: This would become known as the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the Catholic Church, a dogma that was implicitly and not-so-implicitly held also by the early Fathers of the Orthodox Church, namely the Byzantine Fathers.
Is it not written in your Law: I said, ‘You are gods?’ (Jn 10:34).
We are gods, not so by nature, but by grace. ‘But as many as received him he gave power of becoming sons of God.’ I made man for that purpose, that from men they may become gods. ‘I said: You are gods, all of you sons of the most High’ (Jerome of Stridon, Hom, 14).
When God was born to be man, the purpose was not that the Godhead should be lost, but that, the Godhead remaining, man should be born to be God (Hilary of Poitiers, De Trin, 10.7).
As can be seen from the above, the Virgin Mary is deified, was deified at the very instance of her conception, and has always been deified. Otherwise, she would not have been sufficiently worthy of being the Theotokos, the bearer of the sinless Word. The eternal Father Himself attested to Mary’s deification at the beginning of all time (Gn 3:15), as did her Son during the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:4) and the Archangel Gabriel during the Annunciation (Lk 1:28).
That having been said, the Virgin Mary is not God, nor has she ever been (or claimed to be) God. Deification does not mean that one becomes a god by nature – that is an erroneous understanding of deification; a false understanding borne of fear if not miseducation.
Deification is “God’s perfect and full penetration of man” (Staniloae, 2002, p. 362) and “all who share in this [divine] light are referred to as deified . . . above nature and virtue and knowledge . . . [as] this grace effects this ineffable union” (Gregory Palamas, 1338/1983). Hence as the Virgin Mary is, was, and will always be the Immaculate Conception, she is, as Palamas (2005) stated, the epitome of deification.
- Bartolo-Abela, M. (2017). Icons as resistance: Challenging the new iconoclasm in the Catholic Church.
- Dionysus the Aeropagite. EH 1. 3, PG 3. 376a.
- Gregory Palamas. (1338/1983). The triads in defense of the holy hesychasts.
- _____. (2005). Mary the Mother of God: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas.
- Gross, J. (1938/2002). The divinization of the Christian according to the Greek Fathers.
- Maximus the Confessor. Ad Thalas 61, PG 90, 636C.
- _____. Scholia 6, ibid. 644C.
- Pius IX. (1854). Ineffabilis Deus.
- Staniloae, D. (2002). The experience of God: Orthodox dogmatic theology, Vol. 2, The world: Creation and deification.
- Thomas Aquinas. (1225-1274). Summa Theologica.