The Patristic interpretation of the doctrine of salvation as deification (θεωσις or θεοποιησις), that the Christian's ultimate destiny and reward is to become like God, has received scant attention from modern historians of early Christianity. There has been no monograph published in English on the subject, despite its prominence in the doctrinal systems of almost every one of the Greek Fathers from Irenaeus to John of Damascus. It was "by far the most widespread understanding of salvation" in the early centuries of the church Catholic.1 Furthermore, the concept of deification is closely tied to two classic problems of the Patristic period of doctrinal development—the theology of Nicaea, developed by Athanasius, and the Christology leading to Chalcedon, contained especially in the writings of the Cappadocians and Cyril of Alexandria.
This study will concentrate primarily on θεοποιησις in the thought of the Bishop of Alexandria from 328 to 373, whose relentless efforts were largely responsible for the establishment of Nicene orthodoxy. The bulwark of his struggle against the Arian denigration of Christ was his soteriology, which may be summed up in the maxim, "God was made man that we might be made God (θεοποιηθωμεν)."2 A fully divine Saviour was needed to ensure the salvation of mankind, which was understood on both sides as an actual divinization, or exaltation to the level of Deity.
Because of the radical associations of this language to modern theological minds, especially in western Christianity, it has been common to dismiss such a doctrine as a prime example of what Harnack called "the acute Hellenization of Christianity."3 Drawing upon the studies of History of Religion scholars such as Bousset and Reitzenstein, Harnack saw the idea of Deification, combined with that of the Incarnation, as a takeover by the Christian religion of the speculations of the Gnostic fringe, so that it became "the central point of the system, and the simple content of the Gospel was obscured."4 The validity of Harnack's judgement will be evaluated later in this study, but his pronouncement attests to the importance of this relatively neglected doctrine in early Christianity.
Although Harnack's negative line of thinking has been somewhat ameliorated, the basic analysis is still followed by more recent scholars such as the late Brooks Otis, who distinguished between an "Irenean tradition," which "conceives of salvation in quite a physical way: flesh is deified" or immortalized, and the Origenistic tradition, which views deification as the liberation of the soul from the body. Athanasius fits into the former category, that of "physical theosis."5 More searching studies by French scholars such as Jules Gross6 have attempted to investigate the Jewish-Biblical roots of the concept of deification, thus bringing it into a more balanced perspective.
What has been conspicuously lacking in all of these studies seeking to identify the historical background and lines of development of the doctrine is the actual content of deification within the writings of the Fathers themselves. While the fact of the doctrine of deification is undeniable, wrote Ermoni near the end of the last century, "it is infinitely more difficult to know the exact meaning of this expression, or of what deification consists for the righteous."7 What did they envision to be the divine life of the immortalized body and soul? Was it merely a continued existence immune from death, or the unending contemplation of the face of God? This study of Athanasius' soteriology will attempt to show that the concept of Christian deification is much more profound and rich in content than has generally been supposed by dismissing it as simply an exaggerated way of expressing the significance of the physical resurrection. While deification was for the Bishop of Alexandria an accepted truth from which he took his point of departure for debate, "with him we find ourselves in the presence of a theology plainly elaborated. . . ."8 Although he does not systematically explicate his doctrine of salvation, he furnishes perhaps the most explicit material for examining the meaning and content of Patristic deification. Athanasius took seriously the "great promises" in 1 Peter 1:3–4 of glory, knowledge, godliness and participation in the divine nature, as well as the significance of the Pauline prospect of becoming joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). Although, especially in his earlier writings, Athanasius often appears to equate divinization with the bestowal of physical immortality, in other places it is clear that he distinguishes them, so that deathlessness is only the necessary precondition for full exaltation to the divine life.
Despite the majesty of Athanasius' soteriology, there is an inherent problem in his doctrine of deification, stemming from the ontological disparity between Creator and creature. By the fourth century the doctrine of creation ex nihilo was fully established as orthodox, and Athanasius constantly found it necessary to stress that our deification is by the grace of adoption, not by nature. This disparity between ourselves and the God-logos who both creates and deifies us is intensified by the very Arian controversy which led Athanasius to stress the importance of deification in the first place. There is only one Son by nature, the Logos from all eternity, but we were created from the dust of the earth, and are thus perishable by nature. It is this dilemma that must be overcome, and thus it is human nature itself which must be deified so that it transcends its natural state.9
Although the full import of this paradox was not recognized by Athanasius, the Western avoidance of deification terminology betrays a concern over the polar dangers of polytheism and pantheism inherent in Eastern soteriology. Augustine saw clearly the implications of the ex nihilo creation, and his doctrine of God precludes such an exalted destiny for mankind. At the same time, the tendency was towards a view of deification as a mystic and ecstatic union with God, along the lines of Pseudo-Dionysius. But the language of deification is still used by the Eastern Orthodox portion of Christianity, and it is hoped that this study will further an understanding of the Christian hope of a divine inheritance which is all too facilely ill-conceived by Western Christians.