Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Evolution of Soul: Theosis for the 21st Century PART II

Theosis is the name of a doctrine that originated in the Patristic period. It concerns the claim that Christians are able to be transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit to become more morally and willfully intact; that is, believers are given a co operant grace to participate in the restoration of the moral image of God. It is the “call to man to become holy and seek union with God, beginning in this life and later consummated in the resurrection”[1] and, though often equated with Eastern Orthodox or Catholic theology in contemporary thought, is frequently conceived as something akin to sanctification in Protestant theology.

The word theosis literally means “ingodded”, though it is often translated as deification or divinization. The doctrine is understood to be grounded in Scriptures (Psalms 82:6, John 10:34-35, 2 Peter 1:4, 1 John 3:1-2) and in the Apostolic Tradition according to its principal proponents (Origen, Clement, Ephrem, Macarius, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor). Over time, the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis became defined as a "union (of energies) without confusion (of essence)" in which the essential distinction between Creator and creature eternally remains.[2] As Orthodox Bishop Kalistos Ware writes: "In the Age to come, God is 'all in all,' but Peter is Peter and Paul is Paul."[3]

The doctrine began to gain credence with the axiom-driven support of such enthusiasts as Ireneus, who claimed that “if the Word was made man it is that men might become gods”[4], and Athenasius, who marked the purpose of the Incarnation that “God became man so that man might become God.”[5] Ireneus, in particular, saw “salvation as transformation of humans into partakers of the divine nature”[6] and in later days his thoughts were often accompanied by scriptures such as 1 Peter 1.4 (“Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires”).

The transformation brought about through theosis is multi-faceted, and theosis itself furthers our image and understanding of God. Through theoria, the knowledge of God in Christ Jesus, believers will “come to know and experience what it means to be fully [in the created image of God].”[7] This is a restoration of the moral image of God in humanity. Through communion with Christ, “God shares Himself with humanity in order to conform them to all that God is in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness,”[8] which is the process by which believers are made holy in their character. St. Maximus the Confessor, a proponent and defender of the doctrine of theosis c. 580-682, 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. 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)."[9]

The contemporary view of western Catholics differs slightly from this perspective, however, and sees theosis as a “specific and advanced form of contemplative prayer,”[10] while that of modern Protestants, with the exception of Methodists and some pietists, tends to ignore the term theosis in favor of some version of the doctrine of sanctification or, more commonly, entire sanctification.

Yet those who hold to the doctrine of theosis would mark a distinction between their understanding of divinization as substantively more than the Protestant doctrine of sanctification. For, while theosis boasts no ontological change – i.e. humanity actually becoming fully divine in nature – there is an ontological participation by which there is a “very real participation in the divine life.”[11] “The Orthodox hope of salvation,” says scholar Ross Aden, “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.”[12] According to some scholars the western churches come closest to this kind of understanding through the use of the phrase “the imitation of Christ”[13], the “imitation”, however, is of a different quality than the “manifestation of the energies of the Holy Spirit.”[14]

Theosis is, perhaps, one way in which Protestants [and particularly Evangelicals] may rediscover a healthy emphasis on the ongoing progress of the Christian life which seems all-too-absent from our popular teachings. Though to some it may seem like simply a “re-branding” of Wesleyan sanctification doctrine, I believe there is a richness to this theology that may not be fully represented in our understanding of sanctification; and, one in which we find great meaning and encouragement to follow Christ.

[2] Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995), 168.

[3] Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995), 168.

[4] Against Heresies, Bk. V. Pref. col. 1035

[5] On the Incarnation of the Word, Bk. IV. par 65

[6] Roger E.Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 77.

[9] PHILOKALIA Volume II, page 178

[12] Ross Aden, "Justification and Sanctification: A Conversation Between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy," St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 38:1 (1994):96-98.

[13] Cf. Accessed 7/31/06, who also cites G.L. Bray, "Deification," in Sinclair B. Ferguson, David. F. Wright, J.I. Packer, ed. New Dictionary of Theology (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 1988) p. 189.


  1. You pretty much took the words right out of my mouth concerning salvation/sanctification. From the looks of it, theosis is combining two separate works of God, i.e. salvation through the sacrafice of Jesus Christ, and sanctification through the work of the Holy Spirit. I of course agree with the process, and while the two may occur simultaneously (although sanctification is an ongoing process, where salvation is immediate) they are still two separate processes.

    You say that "Protestants [and particularly Evangelicals] need to rediscover the ongoing process of the Chrisitan life which seems all-too-absent from our popular teachings." I don't know that this is necessarily absent from popular teachings as much as it is absent in the form of practical application by the person.

    The whole theological concept no matter if you look at it as theosis or sanctification (again I see very little difference), still does not necessitate an abandonment of the concept of sin (as stated in your earlier post) in our proclimation of the Kingdom of God. If anything it should push us to follow the example of Jesus on the road to Emmaus where he explained the scriptures concerning himself starting with Moses and the prophets. And Again, your use of terms and process of "spiritual people... in the image of a supreme being... our image has been damaged... we are separated... etc.," will still necessitate an explaination of sin.

  2. About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

    Peace Be With You