By Rosemarie Scott
Note: Please read this page in its entirety to fully understand this ancient Christian doctrine. The author fears that skimming through it would cause one to miss important points and so perhaps misunderstand this essential belief.
You may download or print it out if you like, as with any other article on this website. You may also quote from it, but please, for the sake of Christian honesty, quote passages in context or at least explain the context fully. This doctrine can be easily misunderstood if not explained carefully. -RS
The most wonderful thing about grace is that it makes us "partakers in the divine nature" through Christ (II Pt 1:4). The little-known Scriptural teaching that we can actually share in the intimate life of the Godhead has many names, including deification, the divinization of humanity and theosis.
What Theosis is Not
Now, we must not confuse this ancient orthodox Christian belief with Pantheism which claims that human beings are essentially divine. Christianity does not teach that we are part of God; we are creatures through and through. Human nature and Divine Nature are infinitely different, not one and the same. So theosis is not an identification of creatures with God.
Since divinity and humanity are infinitely different, the latter cannot evolve into the former either. So theosis has nothing in common with the Mormon doctrine of Eternal Progression, that is, the belief that men can achieve "Godship". Human nature is not embryonic Divine Nature. Finite creatures cannot be transformed into Uncreated, Infinite Divinity.
Nor, for that matter, can God change into humanity or absorb part of creation into the Divine Essence. Even in the Hypostatic Union, which is the closest possible union between God and a creature, Jesus' Sacred Humanity does not become God or visa versa. The Eternal Word remains fully God when He assumes human nature so that the two natures unite in one Divine Person "without confusion, without change, without division and without separation....The difference of the natures is not removed through the union but the property of each nature is preserved" (as the Definition of the Council of Chalcedon states).
Another heterodox view, similar to the Mormon one, was once taught by a sect called the Worldwide Church of God (they have since repudiated it, but some breakaway groups may still hold it). They once believed that the Godhead is not a Trinity, but a "family" or "kingdom" headed by the Father, Who (allegedly) created human beings as a means of "reproducing himself" and extending the "God Family" to include others. When the faithful are resurrected (according to this heresy) they will be divine persons and God will incorporate them into the Godhead itself!
Yet created persons cannot become Divine Persons any more than created nature can become Divine Nature. God does not change (Malachi 3:6); there always has been and always will be only three Persons in God: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No divinized creature could ever become another Member of the Godhead!
So theosis does not entail our humanity becoming divine. It also does not come about by some kind of "annihilation" of our personality or will, as was taught by a seventeenth-century heterodox movement called Quietism. The Quietists believed that the "self" is opposed to God, is the source of all evil, and thus bars us from mystical union with God. So God must annihilate it and replace it with the Divine Will in order to save and divinize us.
But orthodox Christianity rejected the notion that the self is essentially evil - God created it so it must be good. Moreover, grace does not destroy nature, but elevates and perfects it. God intends to divinize-not destroy!-our wills along with the rest of our humanity!
To summarize, theosis is not the belief that we are God, nor that we change into God, nor that God replaces part of us. Like the Incarnation, divinization occurs "without confusion or change" of both human nature and the Divine Nature. If we keep this in mind while discussion theosis, we can avoid any misunderstanding of this truth.
What Theosis Is
Theosis is a union of grace which mysteriously "assimilates" a rational creature to the Creator. The divinized creature is conformed perfectly to the divine image and likeness, permeated with the Life and Love of God and possesses an immediate (though not comprehensive) vision of the Divine Nature and an intimate relationship with the Three Divine Persons. Yet despite the profound intimacy of this union, the creature always remains essentially distinct from God.
Many people have never heard of this ancient Christian teaching, even though Scripture mentions and alludes to it numerous times. Here are some examples:
(By Christ, God) hath given us most great and precious promises: that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature: flying the corruption of that concupiscence which is in the world." (II Peter 1:4)Early Christians saw evidence of theosis in the passages where the LORD calls the judges of Israel "gods" (cf. Exodus 22:28; Psalm 82:1-7; Jn 10:34-36). If the judges of Israel, even the corrupt ones, could receive the title "gods", how much more those who partake of the divine nature by grace?
"For whom (God) forknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of His Son, that he might be the firstborn amongst many brethren." (Romans 8:29)
"We all beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, are transformed into the same image from glory into glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord." (II Corinthians 3:18)
"We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known." (I Corinthians 13:12)
"It hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that, whe he shall appear, we shall be like to Him because we shall see Him as He is." (I John 3:2)
At the end of the first century, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons writes that, in God's plan for us "we are not made gods from the beginning; first we are mere humans, then we become gods"1. Three centuries later, Saint Augustine says that God "hath called men gods that are deified of His Grace, not born of His Substance" 2.
Some Church Fathers even state that theosis makes the elect "God", so to speak. (As we saw above, we cannot become God by nature,; yet in a certain sense the divinized do "become God" by grace since they participate in the Divine Nature). Saint Basil the Great taught that "the highest of all things desired (is) to become God" by the power of the Holy Spirit 3. According to Saint Gregory Nazianzen, the Risen Christ "still pleads even now as Man for my salvation, for He continues to wear the Body which He assumed, until He makes me God by the power of His Incarnation" 4.
Saint Athanasius of Alexandria mentions theosis often in his writings. He even uses it as an argument against Arianism (the heterodox belief that Jesus Christ is not God), by pointing out that Jesus could not divinize us were He not God; "Man could not be deified unless the Word who became flesh had been by nature from the Father and true and proper to him" 5. Theosis must have been a very important and widely believed doctrine among the early Christians for it to be used as a proof of the Deity of Christ!
Athanasius also provides us with perhaps the most concise description of theosis when he writes: "God became human that we might become God" 6.
In the seventh century, Saint Maximos the Confessor writes "let us become the image of the one whole God, bearing nothing earthly in ourselves, so that we may consort with God and become gods, receiving from God our existence as gods" 7. The twelfth century Church Doctor, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, asks "Why should we not become 'gods' for Him who for love of us became man?" 8.
The liturgies of both the Eastern and Western Churches mention theosis as well. On Holy Thursday Eastern Christians sing "In My kingdom, said Christ, I shall be God with you as gods" 9. A prayer before Holy Communion written by Symeon Metaphrastes states "The Body of God deifieth and nourisheth me, it deifieth the spirit and wondrously nourisheth the mind" 10.
In the Western liturgy, as the priest mingles the water and wine at the Offertory of every Mass, he prays "By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity" 11. The Preface for Ascension Thursday states that Christ ascended into heaven "to claim for us a share in his divine life" 12.
Finally, the Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions theosis numerous times:
"The Word became flesh to make us 'partakers of the divine nature'...'For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.' 'The only begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods'" (CCC 460).(See also paragraphs 1129, 1265, 1812 and 1988).
So theosis clearly has a firm basis in Scripture and Tradition, and is thus an important aspect of our faith.
Incarnation and Divinization
Note how many of the patristic texts cited above associate our divinization with the Incarnation of Christ. This is because the latter is both the cause and model of the former. As Jesus assumed our human nature while remaining fully God, so we similarly come to partake of His Divine Nature while remaining fully human. As St. Maximos explains it, "It is clear that He who became man without sin...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" 13. Athanasius makes the same point in reverse:
The Word was made flesh in order to offer up this body for all, and that we, partaking of His Spirit, might be deified...But as we by receiving the Spirit, do not lose our own proper substance, so the Lord, when made man for us, and bearing a body, was no less God; for He was not lessened by the envelopment of the body, but rather deified it and rendered it immortal" 14.Please don't misunderstand; the divinized are not "incarnations" of God just like Jesus. "Incarnation" occurs when a Divine Person assumes a human nature. We are not divine persons, nor does Jesus personally assume the nature of an individual Christian. Theosis simply means that we participate as creatures in God's very nature and life. It parallels the Incarnation because, as the Divine Person of the Word assumed a created nature, so mere created persons may partake of the Divine Nature by theosis.
Created to be "Gods"
Some think that the belief that we can become gods is a lie first taught by the devil in the Garden of Eden: "Ye shall be as gods" he promised Adam and Eve (Gn 3:4). In actuality, theosis is the God-ordained purpose of human existence. God created Adam and Eve in His image so that they could participate in His life. Satan did not make theosis up; he simply convinced our first parents to seek it apart from God. "Created in a state of holiness," explains the Catechism, "man was destined to be fully 'divinized' by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to 'be like God,' but 'without God, before God, and not in accordance with God'" (CCC 398).
As we saw in the last chapter, the Fall damaged, but did not destroy, the divine image in humanity. In redeeming us, Jesus Christ both repairs the damage of the Fall and fills us with sanctifying grace, which elevates us to the state of union with God which our first parents enjoyed before they disobeyed.
The Process of Theosis
God has predestined all the elect to divinization. Theosis is not a special achievement for a "chosen elite", nor does it involve participation in arcane rituals or reception of secret gnosis. There is nothing occult about our divinization; it is simply salvation in full bloom, the natural culmination of our life in Christ.
Divinization begins at Baptism, when God-as-Uncreated Grace elevates the soul by means of sanctifying grace, making her a partaker in the divine nature. The devout soul will grow in grace and deepen her relationship with God through prayer, the Mass, fasting, alsmgiving, works of mercy, devout use of sacramentals, etc. If she practices contemplative prayer she may experience a foretaste of theosis in the "unitive state", the highest state of prayer and the closest one can come to full divinization in this life.
Yet even the unitive state cannot compare with the Beatific Vision, the immediate knowledge of God which the angels and saints enjoy in heaven, and which we may enjoy, God willing, if we persevere in Grace. Since creatures cannot naturally contemplate Divinity, God elevates our minds by means of the light of glory and then unites our elevated intellects directly to the Divine Nature, so that we may see God "face-to-face".
Our intimate union with God will enable us to participate to a limited degree in God's own Knowledge of creation. We will perceive in God the mysteries of the faith, the divine plan for our salvation, and the lives of our loved ones on earth. We, like the rest of the saints, will be able to hear any prayers they address to us and can pray for their needs. And since our divinized wills will be in perfect conformity with the Will of God, we will pray according to God's will for them (I John 5:14-15).
Since the divinized always act according to God's will, their actions are not merely their own, for God works in them "both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Phil 2:13). Thus their actions have a certain "divine" quality. Even as "the actions of Christ are both divine and human, theandric actions, so those of the just man are Godlike, performed at once by God and by man" 15.
(This does not mean that God overrides or replaces the creature's will, as the Quietists thought. It means that the will of a divinized person submits to and perfectly conforms to the Divine Will. It still exists and acts; the Divine Will neither annihilates nor renders it passive. Nor does the limited participation in God's Knowledge make the creature omniscient, for it is only a partial participation. A divinized soul only comprehends that which pertains to herself and to her place in the Divine Plan; the infinite Mystery of God's Nature remains incomprehensible to her finite mind.)
The deified soul is filled with God, permeated with Divine Light, Life, Power, Glory and Love. Yet no confusion or change occcurs between her created substance and the Uncreated Substance of God.Though in intimate contact they remain distinct, so that the creature may enjoy the Beauty of God without the violation of her nature or selfhood.
The Church Fathers compared theosis to the casting of metal in a furnace. As the metal will take on the color and heat of the fire while remaining metal, so the divinized soul radiates the Glory of God and resembles the Holy One as closely as a creature possibly can, yet she remains a creature, essentially distinct in both nature and person.
But theosis will not only affect the soul. At the resurrection the divinized soul will rejoin her former body which, now glorified and incorruptable, will be divinized with the soul and both will enjoy the bliss of Heaven forever.
No Divine Worship
Now theosis does not make us worthy to receive divine worship (latria), for we only participate in divinity, while remaining mere creatures by nature. As we noted above, there are only Three Persons in the Godhead: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They alone are God by very nature, and Mother Church tells us that They alone are worthy of divine worship. No one else - not Mary, nor the angels nor saints - can receive latria.
Though the angels and saints all partake of the divine nature that does not make them Divine Persons! Divinized creatures remain created persons; theosis does not add them to the Godhead as new Members. The Triune God alone deserves our supreme worship, for God is our First Beginning and Last End, who is infinite goodness and perfection. Since no creature, not even a divinized one, fits that description, no mere creature deserves divine worship.
When we reflect on the beauty and glory of these blessed creatures who are immersed and transfigured in God, we can understand why the Church Fathers called them "gods". C. S. Lewis uses the same word to describe such beings in his book Mere Christianity:
(God) said that we were "gods" and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him-for we can prevent Him if we choose-He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said 16.
Return To Top
Return To Top
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON:
See the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Pantheism.
The "Exaltation" Doctrine of Mormonism
For an Evangelical critique of this belief, check out "Can Man Progress to Godhood?". This article even acknowledges the doctrine of deification, a rare occurance in Evangelical circles.
The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Quietism is pretty good, although I personally disagree with the association of "Hesychasm" (Eastern Christian mysticism) with Quietism.
For an Evangelical response to Quietism (which is making a minor comeback in American Evangelicalism under the guise of "the deeper Christian life"), check out the article "Christian" Mysticism from Darkness to Light. Though the article overlooks the biblical doctrine of Theosis, it still presents a fine critique of Quietist philosophy and practice.
Though not mentioned in my article, this heterodox offshoot of Pentecostalism preaches a variation on the "humans are gods" theme which also conflicts with the orthodox Christian concept of theosis. For a critique of their heterodox theology, see An Examination of the Word-Faith Movement.
If you knew the Gift of God (A page dedicated to Theosis)
The Spirit Enables Us to Share in Divine Nature; by Pope John Paul II.
| Return To Top | Last Article on Grace | Next Article on Grace | Joyful Catholicism | Site Index | Home Page |