Deification—Theosis—Salvation in Church Tradition:
This page is a work in progress. I have included quotes from various Orthodox Church Fathers & authors. More will be added as time allows.
Deification, The Orthodox Study Bible (OSB), p. 1692:
Deification is the ancient theological word used to describe the process by which a Christian becomes more like God. St. Peter speaks of this process when he writes, “as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life & godliness…you may be partakers of the divine nature” (1:3, 4).
What does it mean to partake of the divine nature, & how do we experience this? To give an answer, let us first address what deification is not, & then describe what it is.
What deification is not: When the church calls us to pursue godliness, to be more like God, this does not mean human beings become divine. We do not become like God in His nature. That would not only be heresy, it would be impossible. For we are human, always have been human, & always will be human. We cannot take on the nature of God.
St. John of Damascus makes a remarkable observation. The word “God” in the Scriptures refers not to the divine nature or essence, for that is unknowable. “God” refers rather to the divine energies—the power & grace of God that we can perceive in this world. The Greek word for God, theos, comes from a verb meaning “run,” “see,” or “burn.” These are energy words, so to speak, not essence words.
In John 10:34, Jesus, quoting Psalm 81:6 (LXX) / 82:6 (MT), repeats the passage, “You are gods.” The fact that He was speaking to a group of hypocritical religious leaders who were accusing Him of blasphemy makes the meaning doubly clear: Jesus is not using “god” to refer to divine nature. We are gods & that we bear His image, not His nature.
What deification is: Deification means we are to become more like God through His grace or divine energies. In creation, humans were made in the image & likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) according to human nature. In other words, humanity by nature is an icon or image of deity: the divine image is in all humanity. Through sin, however this image & likeness of God was marred, & we fell.
When the Son of God assumed our humanity & the world of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the process of our being renewed in God’s image & likeness was begun. Thus, those who are joined to Christ, through faith, in Holy Baptism begin a process of re-creation, being renewed in God’s image & likeness. We become, as St. Peter writes, “partakers of the divine nature” (1:4).
Because of the Incarnation of the Son of God, because the fullness of God has inhabited human flesh, being joined to Christ means that it is again possible to experience deification, the fulfillment of our human destiny. That is, through union with Christ, we become by grace what God is by nature— we “become children of God” (John 1:12). His deity interpenetrates our humanity.
Historically, deification has often been illustrated by the example of a sword in the fire. A steel sword is thrust into a hot fire until the sword takes on a red glow. The energy of the fire interpenetrates the sword. The sword never becomes fire, but it picks up the properties of the fire.
By application, the divine energies interpenetrate the human nature of Christ. When we are joined to Christ, our humanity is interpenetrated with the energies of God through Christ’s glorified flesh. Nourished by the Body & Blood of Christ, we partake of the grace of God— His strength, His righteousness, His love—& are enabled to serve Him & glorify Him. Thus we, being human, are being deified.
From the Holy Scriptures:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, & I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, & You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, & that the world may know that You have sent Me, & have loved them as You have loved Me.
For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.
2 Corinthians 3:18
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.
2 Peter 1:2–4
Grace & peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God & of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life & godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory & virtue, by which has been given to us exceedingly great & precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
1 John 3:2-3
Beloved, now we are children of God; & it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.
1 John 4:17
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world.
From the Fathers:
Irenaeus of Lyons [120–202 AD], Irenæus against Heresies, Book 5, Preface, ANF Vol. 1, p. 526:
but following the only true & steadfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.
Clement of Alexandria [153–193–217 AD], The Instructor, ANF Vol. 2, p. 234:
But let us, O children of the good Father—nurslings of the good Instructor—fulfill the Father’s will, listen to the Word, & take on the impress of the truly saving life of our Savior; & meditating on the heavenly mode of life according to which we have been deified, let us anoint ourselves with the perennial immortal bloom of gladness—that ointment of sweet fragrance—having a clear example of immortality in the walk & conversation of the Lord; & following the footsteps of God, to whom alone it belongs to consider, & whose care it is to see to, the way & manner in which the life of men may be made more healthy.
Hippolytus of Rome [170–236 AD], The Discourse on the Holy Theophany, ANF Vol. 5, p. 237:
The Father of immortality sent the immortal Son & Word into the world, who came to man in order to wash him with water & the Spirit; & He, begetting us again to incorruption of soul & body, breathed into us the breath (spirit) of life, & endued us with an incorruptible panoply. If, therefore, man has become immortal, he will also be God. And if he is made God by water & the Holy Spirit after the regeneration of the laver (ref: the Baptismal Font, & hence Baptism) he is found to be also joint-heir with Christ after the resurrection from the dead.
St. Macarius of Egypt (295-392 AD), Fifty Spiritual Homilies of St. Macarius the Egyptian, Translations of Christian Literature: Series I: Greek Texts, p. 123:
He who brings his soul into subjection, & is angry with himself & with the desires that beset him, is like one who subdues an enemy’s city. This man is permitted to come to good measures of the Spirit, & is rewarded through the power of God with the pure man, & is made greater than himself; for such an one is deified, & made a son of God, receiving the heavenly stamp upon his soul. For His elect are anointed with the oil of consecration, & are made men of rank & kings.
St. Macarius of Egypt (295-392 AD), Fifty Spiritual Homilies of St. Macarius the Egyptian, Translations of Christian Literature: Series I: Greek Texts, p. 185:
2. Question: When the Holy Ghost comes, is not the natural desire eradicated along with the sin?
Answer: I have already said that sin is eradicated, & man recovers the primal fashioning of the pure Adam. Man, however, by the power of the Spirit & the spiritual regeneration, not only comes to the measures of the first Adam, but is made greater than he. Man is deified.
Athanasius of Alexandria [296/8—373 AD], Four Discourses against the Arians, ANF Vol. 4, p. 386:
For therefore did He assume the body originate & human, that having renewed it as its Framer, He might deify itin Himself, & thus might introduce us all into the kingdom of heaven after His likeness…For therefore the union was of this kind, that He might unite what is man by nature to Him who is in the nature of the Godhead, & his salvation & deification might be sure.
Athanasius of Alexandria [296/8—373 AD], On the Incarnation of the Word, # 54, NPNF 2.4, p. 65-66:
§ 54. The Word Incarnate, as is the case with the Invisible God, is known to us by His works. By them we recognize His deifying mission. Let us be content to enumerate a few of them, leaving their dazzling plentitude to him who will behold.
As, then, if a man should wish to see God, Who is invisible by nature & not seen at all, he may know & apprehend Him from His works: so let him who fails to see Christ with his understanding, at least apprehend Him by the works of His body, & test whether they be human works or God’s works. And if they be human, let him scoff; but if they are not human, but of God, let him recognize it, & not laugh at what is no matter for scoffing; but rather let him marvel that by so ordinary a means things divine have been manifested to us, & that by death immortality has reached to all, & that by the Word becoming man, the universal Providence has been known, & its Giver & Artificer the very Word of God. For He was made man that we might be made God; & He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; & He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality. For while He Himself was in no way injured, being impassible & incorruptible & very Word & God, men who were suffering, & for whose sakes He endured all this, He maintained & preserved in His own impassibility. And, in a word, the achievements of the Savior, resulting from His becoming man, are of such kind & number, that if one should wish to enumerate them, he may be compared to men who gaze at the expanse of the sea & wish to count its waves. For as one cannot take in the whole of the waves with his eyes, for those which are coming on baffle the sense of him that attempts it; so for him that would take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, it is impossible to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, as those which go beyond his thought are more than those he thinks he has taken in. Better is it, then, not to aim at speaking of the whole, where one cannot do justice even to a part, but, after mentioning one more, to leave the whole for you to marvel at. For all alike are marvelous, & wherever a man turns his glance, he may behold on that side the divinity of the Word, & be struck with exceeding great awe.
Basil of Caesarea [329-379 AD], On The Spirit, NPNF Vol. 8, p. 16:
Hence comes foreknowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of what is hidden, distribution of good gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the chorus of angels, joy without end, abiding in God, the being made like to God, and, highest of all, the being made God.
Gregory the Theologian [329-391 AD], Oration #29, NPNF 2nd Series Vol. 7, p. 308:
But afterwards for a cause He (Christ) was born. And that came was that you might be saved, who insult Him & despise His Godhead, because of this, that He took upon Him your denser nature, having converse with Flesh by means of Mind. While His inferior Nature, the Humanity, became God, because it was united to God, & became One Person because the Higher Nature prevailed … in order that I too might be made God so far as He is made Man.
Gregory of Nyssa [335-384 AD], The Great Catechism, #25, NPNF 2.5, p. 495:
…only now He Who holds together Nature in existence is transfused in us;…in order that our nature might by this transfusion of the Divine become itself divine, rescued as it was from death,…
St. Mark the Monk (5th c.), Letter To St. Nicholas The Solitary, Philokalia, Vol. 1, p. 155:
All the penalties imposed by divine judgment upon man for the sin of the first transgression—death, toil, hunger, thirst & the like—He took upon Himself, becoming what we are, so that we might become what He is. The Logos became man, so that man might become Logos… In His great love for man He became like us, so that through every virtue we might become like Him.
St. Diadochos of Photiki (5th c.), On Spiritual Knowledge & Discrimination: One Hundred Texts, #89, Philokalia, Vol. 1, p. 288:
(This is one of my favorite explanations of deification from the Church Fathers!)
Divine grace confers on us two gifts through the baptism of regeneration, one being infinitely superior to the other. The first gift is given to us at once, when grace renews us in the actual waters of baptism & cleanses all the lineaments of our soul, that is, the image of God in us, by washing away every stain of sin. The second—our likeness to God—requires our cooperation. When the intellect begins to perceive the Holy Spirit with full consciousness, we should realize that grace is beginning to paint the divine likeness over the divine image in us. Artists first draw the outline of a man in monochrome, & then add one color after another, until little by little they capture the likeness of the subject down to the smallest details. In the same way the grace of God starts by remaking the divine image in man into what it was when he was first created. But when it sees us longing with all her heart for the beauty of the divine likeness & humbly standing naked in its atelier, then by making one virtue after another come into flower & exalting the beauty of the soul ‘from glory to glory’ (2 Corinthians 3:18), it depicts the divine likeness on the soul. Our power of perception shows us that we are being formed into the divine likeness; but the perfecting of this likeness we shall know only by the light of grace. For through its power of perception the intellect regains all the virtues, other than spiritual love, as it advances according to a measure & rhythm which cannot be expressed; but no one can acquire spiritual love unless he experiences fully & clearly the illumination of the Holy Spirit. If the intellect does not receive the perfection of the divine likeness through such illumination, although it may have almost every other virtue, it will still have no share in perfect love. Only when it has been made like God—& so far, of course, as this is possible— does it bear the likeness of divine love as well. In portraiture, when the full range of colors is added to the outline, the painter captures the likeness of the subject, even down to the smile. Something similar happens to those who are being repainted by God’s grace in the divine likeness: when the luminosity of love is added, then it is evident that the image has been fully transformed into the beauty of the likeness. Love alone among the virtues can confer dispassion on the soul, for ‘love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Romans 13:10). In this way our inner man is renewed day by day through the experience of love, & in the perfection of love finds its own fulfillment.