Deification of man in Christianity — 2 — Deification versus salvation / The Church Fathers

by Marcelle Bartolo-Abela

Chapter 3: DEIFICATION VERSUS SALVATION

He was made man that we might become god (Athanasius of Alexandria, De Inc, 54.3).
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, 1965).

Many, especially in Western Christianity, tend to commingle the terms deification and salvation as though they have the same meaning. However, this manifests poor understanding of the two terms as originally meant by the Fathers of the Church. In fact, when the language and context of deification and theosis are replaced with the language and context of salvation, Patristic theology becomes, in effect, displaced by Reformation language (Kharlamov, 2010), with the consequent loss of the original meanings. Salvation is part of deification, but the latter transcends the former as it does not simply constitute the forgiveness of sins through the Spirit descending into man’s soul, but man’s active incorporation into and participation in the Spirit Himself (Vlachos, 2010; Williams, 1999).

On the one hand, the forgiveness of sins by Christ, through the Spirit, is a regular grace in the lives of those who avail themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. On the other hand, participation in the Spirit through divine grace results in the actual transformation of human nature by divine transcendence. A prime illustration of this difference between deification and salvation can be found in Motovilov’s narrative on the acquisition of the Spirit by his spiritual father, Seraphim of Sarov (1831/2010).

Addressing the major difference between deification and salvation, Williams (1999) specified that where references exist “to human participation in divine life, there we assuredly have a claim specifically of theosis. This kind of claim regarding participation in divine life is carefully to be distinguished, however, from the idea of divine indwelling in the human person. Both schemes of sanctification draw on the notion of union, but whereas the latter locates sanctification within the creature and in via, the former [deification] locates it at the level of the divine and insists upon the inseparability of life in via and in patria. [A marker of] the doctrine, then, is the union of God and humanity, when this union is conceived as humanity’s incorporation into God, rather than God’s into humanity, and when conceived as the destiny of humanity generally rather than the extraordinary experience of the few” (p. 32).

It can, in fact, be argued that it is deification as historically understood, not just salvation as commonly set forth by many in the Western Church, that is the implicit meaning of the phrase all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life (Paul VI, 1964, Lumen Gentium, 5.40) in relation to the universal call to holiness of Vatican Council II. This because the Spirit of holiness is none other than the Spirit of deification; He is One and the same. That deification was the original and underlying intent of the above-referenced phrase in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, is evident from the fact that Paul VI (1965) a year later specifically made reference to man’s participation in the divine nature in Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, and not just to mere salvation.

It was not merely salvation that God had in mind for us both since the creation of man and when He sent His only-begotten Son to die for us, but deification — the return of the possibility of our becoming gods by grace (2 P 1:4) both in via and in patria. It is deification, not just salvation, which commences after the purification of man has occurred, with the illumination of the soul and the reopening of the heart of the soul being an intrinsic part of the latter stages of deification. It should also be noted that the epitome of the deification of a created being is the Blessed Virgin Mary (Gregory of Palamas, 2005).

Below is a summary compilation of additional sayings of the Church Fathers on deification and theosis as God’s intent for man.

More From the Church Fathers on Deification

“He makes us partakers of the divine nature in His power” (Ambrosius of Milan, On Christ. Faith, 5.14).

“He Himself has made us sons of the Father, and deified men by becoming Himself man . . . He was God, and then became man, and that to deify us” (Athanasius of Alexandria, Cont. Arian, 1.11.38,39).

“The work is perfected, because men, redeemed from sin, no longer remain dead; but being deified, have in each other, by looking at Me, the bond of charity” (Cont. Arian, 3.25.23).

“The Word was made flesh in order to offer up this body for all, and that we, partaking of His Spirit, might be deified” (De Decret, 3.14).

“He has become Man, that He might deify us in Himself, and He has been born of a woman, and begotten of a Virgin, in order to transfer to Himself our erring generation, and that we may become henceforth a holy race, and ‘partakers of the Divine Nature,’ as blessed Peter wrote” (Lett, 60).

“If the word of God came to men, that they might be called gods, how can the very Word of God, who is with God, be otherwise than God? If by the word of God men become gods, if by fellowship they become gods, can He by whom they have fellowship not be God? If lights which are lit are gods, is the light which enlighteneth not God? If through being warmed in a way by saving fire they are constituted gods, is He who gives them the warmth other than God?” (Augustine of Hippo, On Gospel of John, Trac. 48.9).

“It is evident then, that He hath called men gods, that are deified of His Grace, not born of His Substance . . . If we have been made sons of God, we have also been made gods: but this is the effect of Grace adopting, not of nature generating . . . The rest that are made gods, are made by His own Grace, are not born of His Substance, that they should be the same as He, but that by favor they should come to Him, and be fellow-heirs with Christ” (On Psalms, 50.2).

“The Son of God hath been made partaker of mortality, in order that mortal man may be made partaker of divinity” (On Psalms, 53.5).

“That Godhead equal to the Father was made partaker of our mortal nature, not of His own store, but of ours; that we too might be made partakers of His Divine Nature, not of our store, but of His” (On Psalms, 139.1).

“God wishes not only to vivify us, but also to deify us. When would human infirmity ever have dared to hope for this, unless divine truth had promised it? . . . Our God, the true God, the one God, has stood up in the synagogue of gods, many of them of course, and gods not by nature but by adoption, by grace. There is a great difference between God who exists, god who is always God, true God, not only God but also deifying God, that is if I may so put it, god-making God, God not made making gods, and gods who were made, but not by a craftsman” (Serm, 23B).

“You are already gods” (Serm, 81).

“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, the highest of all, the being made god” (Basil of Caesarea, De Spir. Sanc, 9.23).

“The Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become god” (Clement of Alexandria, Exh, 1).

“I desire to restore you according to the original model, that ye may become also like Me” (Exh, 12).

“They are called by the appellation of gods, being destined to sit on thrones with the other gods that have been first put in their places by the Saviour” (Strom, 7.10).

“What man is, Christ was willing to be, that man may be what Christ is” (Cyprian of Carthage, Treat, 6.11).

“The Son has made beautiful the servant’s deformity, and he has become a god, just as he desired” (Ephraim the Syrian, Nisb. Hymns, XLVIII.17–18).

“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” (Nisb. Hymns, LXIX.12).

“Freedom made hateful the beauty of Adam that he might be god . . . But grace adorned its flaws and God came to be human. Divinity flew down to rescue and lift up humanity. Behold the Son adorned the servant’s flaw, so that he became god as he had desired” (Hymns on Virginity, 48.14–18).

“Who can mold, as clay-figures are modeled in a single day, the defender of the truth . . . be God, and make others to be god?” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Orat, 2).

“While His inferior Nature, the Humanity, became God . . . in order that I too might be made god” (The Third Theol. Orat).

“What greater destiny can befall man’s humanity than that he should be intermingled with God, and by this intermingling should be deified . . . that thou mayest become a god, ascending from below” (The Fourth Theol. Orat).

“He was transfused throughout our nature, in order that our nature might by this transfusion of the Divine become itself divine” (Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Cat, 25).

“The God who was manifested infused Himself into perishable humanity for this purpose, that by this communion with Deity mankind might at the same time be defied” (The Great Cat, 38).

“Just as God stepped out of his nature to become a partaker of our humanity, so we are called to step out of our nature to become partakers of his divinity” (Hilary of Aries, Intro Comm. 2 P).

“He who participates in the divine energy . . . becomes himself, in a sense, Light; he is united to the Light and with the Light he sees in full consciousness all that remains hidden for those who have not this grace. He thus surpasses not only the corporeal senses, but also all that can be known . . . for the pure of heart see God . . . who, being the Light, abides in them and reveals Himself to those who love Him” (Gregory of Thessalonica, Serm. Feast of Pres. Bl. Virgin).

“The object to be gained was that man might become god” (Hilary of Poitiers, De Trin, 9.38).

“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” (De Trin, 10.7).

“Thou hast become God: for whatever sufferings thou didst undergo while being a man, these He gave to thee, because thou wast of mortal mould, but whatever it is consistent with God to impart, these God has promised to bestow upon thee, because thou hast been deified, and begotten unto immortality” (Hippolytus of Rome, Ref. Her, 5.30).

“It is therefore good for you to be in perfect unity, that you may at all times be partakers of God” (Ignatius of Antioch, Eph. 4.2).

“God stood in the congregation of the gods, He judges among the gods” (Irenaeus of Lyon, Adv. Haer, 3.6.1).

“To whom the Word says, mentioning His own gift of grace: ‘I said, Ye are all the sons of the Highest and gods; but ye shall die like men’ . . . it was for this end that the Word of God was made man and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God” (3.19.1).

“Man does not see God by his own powers; but when He pleases He is seen by men, by whom He wills, and when He wills, and as He wills . . . those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of His splendor . . . Men therefore shall see God, that they may live, being made immortal by that sight, and attaining even unto God” (4.20.5, 6a).

“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” (5.Pref).

“As the opinions of certain [persons] are derived from heretical discourses, they are both ignorant of God’s dispensations, and of the mystery of the resurrection of the just, and of the [earthly] kingdom which is the commencement of incorruption, by means of which kingdom those who shall be worthy are accustomed gradually to partake of the divine nature” (5.32.1).

“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).

“He Himself is God, and He hath called me god; with Him is the essential nature as an actual fact, with me only the honor of the name: ‘I have said ye are gods, and ye are all children of the Most Highest.’ Here are words, but in the other case there is the actual reality. He hath called me god, for by that name I have received honor” (John Chrysostom, Hom, 2).

“The man can become god, and a child of God. For we read, ‘I have said, Ye are gods, all of you are the children of the Most High’ (Ps. lxxxii. 6). And what is greater, the power to become both god and angel and child of God is put into His own hands” (Hom. Acts 32).

“All men are deemed worthy of becoming ‘gods’ and of having power to become sons of the Highest” (Justin Martyr, Dial. 124).

“The Word exercises an influence which does not make poets . . . by its instruction it makes mortals immortal, mortals gods” (Disc. to Greeks, 5).

“The man will triumph over the earth. He will be exactly similar to God (hic erit consimilis Deo) who has embraced the virtue of God” (Lactantius, Div. Inst, 6.23).

“The Logos became man, so that man might become Logos” (Mark the Ascetic, Let. Nic).

“It was by the offices of the first-born that they became gods, for He drew from God in generous measure that they should be made gods, and He communicated it to them according to His own bounty” (Origen of Alexandria, Comm. J 2.2,3).

“From Him there began the union of the divine with the human nature, in order that the human, by communion with the divine, might rise to be divine” (Adv. Cel, 3.28).

“We shall be even gods, if we shall deserve to be among those of whom He declared, ‘I have said, Ye are gods,’ and ‘God standeth in the congregation of the gods.’ But this comes of His own grace, not from any property in us, because it is He alone who can make gods” (Tertullianus, Adv. Herm, 5).

“Although Adam was by reason of his condition under law subject to death, yet was hope preserved to him by the Lord’s saying, ‘Behold, Adam is become as one of us;’ that is, in consequence of the future taking of the man into the divine nature [hominis in divinitatem]” (Adv. Marc, II.25).


Originally published at reflectionsforthesoul.com on August 26, 2017.