Dear Friends and Family,
Last week I was asked to give a presentation in Dr Karen Kilby’s class on Christology (the study of Christ) on deification. Deification is a topic that comes up often when you study the early Church. I thought it might be helpful for me to post my presentation here. Please let me know what you think of it and if you have any questions. I will also post a short bibliography I made for the students in Karen’s class of seminal secondary works on the topic of deification.
Karen has asked me to give a brief description of what is and is not deification. It is not surprising that deification has come up so frequently in a course on Christology. Deification was often used in discussions about the Trinity and the Incarnation, being, for the Church Fathers, inextricably tied to these doctrines. Broadly, a doctrine of deification is a way of understanding salvation and redemption. For most of the Church Fathers, deification is what has always been intended for humanity.
The simplest possible definition of deification is that it means Christians become gods, insofar as that is possible. What this might mean I will go into more in a moment, but I wanted first to note that at its core deification quite literally means becoming God.
Tied to Incarnation
The second thing it is important to note at the beginning is that deification is tied to the notion that God became man in Jesus Christ. As Athanasius said in On The Incarnation, ‘He became man that we might be made God.’ The way this is typically seen to work is that when the Logos took on human nature he deified not only his own human nature, but made it possible for all human nature to be deified. This is enough to get on with, for the moment. Now I want to look at what deification does not mean.
What Deification Doesn’t Mean
Losing one’s self/Absorption
The first thing deification does not mean in the Christian tradition, is the total loss of one’s self in the divine. The Christian is not so absorbed into God that they cease to be themselves. This is the kind of deification you see more in Eastern Religions and Neoplatonism, but none of the Church Fathers speak of it in this way.
Becoming a god in a Pagan Sense
Next, deification does not mean becoming a god in some kind of pagan sense. The Christian does not, upon death, like Herakles, become a god to be worshipped by those still alive. For the Church Fathers there is only one true God, and whatever deification means, it does not mean becoming a god in the same way God is God.
Crossing the Creator-creature Divide
Finally, deification does not mean creatures become uncreated. Being a creature is inherent to humanity. Thus, Christians do not become new members of the Trinity, there is still a distinction between them and God, as there must be for only God is uncreated and Creator.
What Deification Does Mean
Now I want to turn to what deification does mean. It is important to remember that what I am doing here is giving a general synthesis of what the Tradition has taught about deification. Reading individual Fathers and theologians you will find different emphases, but, I think, that at the core they all have the same general view in mind.
Becoming Truly Human
The main aspect of what deification means is becoming human, truly human. As I said earlier, deification does not mean ceasing to be an individual, nor does it mean crossing the divide between Creator and creature. Instead, when the Logos became human, he gave humanity the ability to be deified. In his death and resurrection, he defeated the weaknesses somewhat inherent to humanity and so allowed them to transcend humanity as we understand it now and come to humanity as God intended it to be.
The Four Aspects
Finally, I want to give you what I have found to be the form main aspects of deification. These aspects describe how it is humanity is said to be deified. In some ways, looking at these terms gives us the best chance at defining deification. The four aspects of deification, then, are Participation, Transformation, Imitation, and Virtue.
Participation, which is often synonymous with grace, adoption, and union, has two basic definitions. The first is that by having existence all created things participate in God. It is something very passive and inescapable. The second aspect of participation, however, is what allows Christians to be deified. It is in this sense where terms like grace and adoption are helpful for understanding it. Essentially, what Christ is by nature, God and Man, humans can become by participation (or grace, or adoption, or union). This aspect of participation is neither active nor passive, or better yet, it is both active and passive. It is something the Christian both actively does by prayer, contemplation, the Sacraments; and yet is something done to them by God. This active-passivity or passive-activity is inherent to understanding deification. I prefer to use the grammatical middle voice, which usually signifies reflexivity, to understand this paradox.
The next aspect of deification is often tied to participation, namely, transformation. This transformation is in one sense ontological, that is a change in being, for it is a change in human nature. However, as I said before, this change cannot be into something inhuman, but precisely human. This transformation is brought about by participation, as well as imitation and virtue. Also, it is important to note that while, as I said, deification does not mean the loss of identity, transformation does mean being transformed into Christ. This is why, as I shall show in a moment, imitating Christ, and understanding who Christ is is so important.
Imitation is then the next aspect of deification. This imitation means both imitating Christ in his earthly life as well as imitating those who have best imitated Christ. You could view imitation as a subset of participation, a kind of active aspect. However, for the Fathers, even imitation is something that is middle in voice for while it is done actively by the Christian, they are only capable of doing so because of the grace of God.
The final aspect of deification is the acquisition and employment of virtue. This is directly tied to imitation in that the virtues sought out by the Christian are those revealed in Christ, throughout Scripture, and seen in the saints. Essentially, virtue is about orientating one’s self to God and desiring to live a godly life that will aid in being transformed into the image of Christ.
I know this has been a whirlwind run through what deification means, but I think it is important both for understanding the ancient texts we have been reading in this module, as well as why, at least for the Church Fathers, discussions of what the Incarnation means and who Christ is are so important. For them, Christ’s being God has far reaching implications not only for all Christians, but all of creation.
Seminal Secondary Texts on Deification
Christensen, Michael, and Jeffery A. Wittung, eds. Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions. Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2008.
Collins, Paul M. Partaking in Divine Nature: Deification and Communion. London: Continuum International Publishing, 2010.
Finlan, Stephen, and Vladimir Kharlamov, eds. Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology. Vol. 1. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2006.
Gross, Jules. The Divinization of the Christian According to the Greek Fathers. Translated by Paul A. Onica. Anaheim: A&C Press, 2002.
Keating, Daniel. Deification and Grace. Naples: Sapientia Press, 2007.
Kharlamov, Vladimir, ed. Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology. Vol. 2. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011.
Lossky, Vladimir. Orthodox Theology: An Introduction. Translated by Ian and Ihita Kesarcodi-Watson. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978.
Meyendorf, John. Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes. Oxford: Mowbrays, 1974.
Russell, Norman. The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.