St. Athanasius is revered for his unswerving defense of the Nicene faith. Against Arian subordinationist theology, Athanasius insisted that the Logos was homoousios with the Father; i.e., fully and eternally divine. Only God could effect the salvation of humanity, an exaltation beyond the limitations of human nature which Athanasius spoke of as deification: theosis or theopoiesis. The Incarnation of the Deity himself raised mankind to be able to share in the very life and glory of the Godhead. Athanasius became the spokesman of the classical doctrine of Christian divinization: "God became man in order that man might become God."
This distinctive Greek Patristic soteriology seems strange, if not blatantly heretical, to our ears, and scholars have tended to dismiss it as a euphemism for immortality and fleshly incorruptibility in the resurrection. Thus deification is commonly described as "the physical theory of redemption." It is the contention of this study that such a limited analysis misses the profound riches of a salvation which "passes all understanding." Deification means to become like God in every possible way.
Athanasius did not invent the idea of deification. Chapter 1 shows that similar language developed in Greek religion and philosophy, and to some extent infiltrated Hellenistic Judaism. But the content of the Patristic doctrine must be seen as primarily biblically based; the Fathers supported their soteriology at every turn by appealing to the revealed text. This is most evident with Irenaeus on whom Athanasius based so much of his Incarnation theology, but also holds for the earlier Alexandrians, Clement and Origen.
Chapter 2 reconstructs the anthropology of Athanasius from his diverse treatises, with particular attention to the meaning of his description of the original creation of humanity in the image and likeness of God. Because of its created, changeable nature, mankind was unstable, and chose to turn away from its exalted birthright to sin and ignorance. This condition set the stage for the Incarnation, which Athanasius interpreted as the uniting of human nature with the very Logos of God, seemingly on the level of Platonic ideal forms.
Such an archetypal union does not automatically deify the individual person, however. Chapter 3 examines the exhortation to moral effort, the imitation of Christ, through which the Christian could participate in the salvation proffered. This does not imply that Athanasius agreed with the Arian view of salvation, in which a creaturely Saviour leads the way in moral progression and ascent to God-likeness. But neither was there room in the Athanasian scheme for quietism or laxity: both the Incarnation and moral effort were needed to fulfill mankind's original destiny.
Chapter 4 delineates the specific components of the divine life. Athanasius apparently assumed a universal resurrection as a free gift to mankind, so that deification, the highest soteriological possibility, goes far beyond the vanquishment of physical death. In addition to its renewal in the image of God, mankind may so far transcend human nature as to possess the qualities and attributes of Deity. These include incorruptibility or unchangeability, impassibility, perfect virtue and purity from all sin, direct knowledge of and communion with God, and an inheritance of divine glory and joint rulership with Christ in the kingdom of heaven forever.
There is an inherent tension in this soteriology which Athanasius never fully resolved. The Arian controversy pushed Athanasius to emphasize both the reality and glory of salvation wrought by God himself and the absolute metaphysical difference between God and humanity. Although Christians could be adopted as children of God by grace, they could never attain the same ontological status as Christ, who was a begotten son by nature, uncreated and eternal. Athanasius condemned the Arians for the idolatry of calling their creaturely Christ a divine being, yet his doctrine of divinization held out just such a prospect for every faithful Christian.
The Appendix briefly surveys the history of the doctrine after Athanasius in both the Latin West and the Greek East, and the continued use of deification language in the latter is noted. The study concludes that Athanasius' soteriology may be a significant point of contact for ecumenical dialogue, in view of his orthodox reputation among all major Christian traditions. Modern ignorance of this important Patristic tenet, which must be attributed in part to scholarly neglect, is an impoverishment of the Christian life and hope.