To understand the roots of the doctrine of deification for Athanasius, it is necessary to examine both Hellenistic and Hebrew thought, as well as the development of the concept in early Christianity. By the fourth century the interrelationship between Christian doctrine and classical culture had become quite complex, and there is no clear-cut line of ancestry connecting θεοποιη-σις in the writings of the Bishop of Alexandria to Homer or Plato on the one hand, or to Moses and Jesus on the other. Harnack set the general tone for modern scholarship's evaluation of Athanasius as having liberated Christianity from Greek philosophy through his biblical concerns, but this has not gone unchallenged.1 Specifically in reference to deification, Bousset characteristically asserted, "It is perfectly clear that this ideal of deification stems from Hellenistic piety."2 But it may be the cautious balance of Gross which best assesses the situation, although it leaves the question open-ended. Writing of the Patristic doctrine in general, he proposes that "the idea of deification served as a connection between Hellenism and Christianity."3
To explicate this relationship, we will examine, although somewhat cursorily, the concept of the deification of man in paganism, both religious and philosophical, especially in the Greek culture of late antiquity. After considering the biblical roots of the doctrine, we will turn to Rabbinic Judaism and Philo, and finally the Fathers themselves, with special emphasis on Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. An investigation so vast in time and space must necessarily be limited in detail, but our aim is primarily to ascertain and illuminate the literary background to Athanasius' leading soteriological motifs. Such a survey also dictates a rather heavy reliance on secondary works concerning the topics and personalities discussed, but this technique may be of value as a guide to further investigation.
Homer reflects the widespread Greek religious belief that one of the primary characteristics of divinity is immortality, so that θεος and αθανατος are often synonymous.4 Consequently, Homer declares that the immortal gods are very different from men.5 The religion of Homer had no idea of a soul naturally immortal; the shades of the dead in Hades had no substantial existence.6 This means that, despite the few men who had been received into Olympian divine happiness and deathlessness, the desire to be like the gods is the greatest presumption and sin.7
But the real first principle of the religion of the Greek people is this—that in the divine ordering of the world, humanity and divinity are absolutely divided in place and nature, and so they must ever remain. A deep gulf is fixed between the worlds of mortality and divinity.8
This, combined with a general indifference to the fortune of individuals on the part of the gods, results in a pessimistic outlook in early Greek religion: ". . . life is only a shadow. And after? After, there is no more than a shadow of a shadow."9
But if Homer recognized certain heroes of the past who overcame the usual fate of mortals, Hesiod exhibits a more refined pessimism with regard to the present, fifth age of man. Sunk in toil, grief and evil, men no longer have the prospect of a deification, or even a blessed life on the "isles of happiness."10
Only the gods above are eternally happy. But Greek religious thought did not remain in this impasse. The solution was assimilation to God (ομοιωσις θεου), the attainment of godhood which brings immortality.11 Thus Festugière sees two trends in Greek thought: the warning against the desire for deification as υβρις (in Hesiod, Pindar, and the tragic dramatists), and the longing to free oneself from the passions of the flesh, the tyranny which enslaves true being.12
Although at first deification was ascribed to a choice few, in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE the cult of the heroes and the dead was expanded, along with the growth in the idea of the immortal soul.13 Nevertheless, until the rise of the Mystery Religions, an actual exaltation to the level of the gods was confined to heroes or rulers such as Alexander.14 An eternal θεωρια and immortality could be enjoyed in the Elysian Fields or the Blessed Isles, but this is not full deification.15 Talbert has called attention to the distinction between "eternals," who were gods from the first, and "immortals," who were not always gods, but were for various reasons taken up to heaven, immortalized and given a place among the gods.16
That antique religion is known for its characteristic stress on personal deification is largely due to the rising popularity of the Mystery Religions.17 Although our knowledge of these cults, as well as their relationship to Christianity, is hampered by the absence of sufficient early texts, it is clear that the immediate goal of the mystic was escape from the mire of mortal life, and that this immortality "consisted in a happiness equal to that of the gods, i.e., immutable and without end."18 While initiation into the mysteries of Eleusis only implied deification,19 the cults of Dionysius, Orpheus, Isis and Mithras were more extravagant in their promises.
The notorious orgiastic rites and feasts of the Dionysian cult symbolized the attainment of union with the god.20 Orphism was also centered on sacred feasts, but included purification aimed at liberation of the soul from the body.21 The doctrine that the nature and origin of the soul were entirely divine is seen for the first time in Orphism, and divinization became a restoration to the original state of purity from materiality.22
Initiation into the Isis cult was a ritual reenactment of the death and rebirth or resurrection of the god, based on the annual fertility cycles of nature.23 The mystic is reborn to a supernatural life and becomes the equal of the immortals.24 Mithraism, although its ritual was based on the Persian rite of Taurobolium,25 had a basis which was much more ethical than the other mysteries. Whereas the earlier version tended to make salvation entirely a divine gift to the initiate,26 Mithraism promised an abode of blessedness in the realm of the stars, the result of an ascent through the seven heavens, from the power of both ritual and moral purification.27
More explicit deification texts are found in the Hermetic Tractates, which promise godhood through knowledge: τουτο εστι το αγαθον τελος τοις γνωσιν εσχηκοσι, θεωθηναι.28 The leitmotif of the Hermetic writings is salvation from ειμαρμενη by means of a divinization through gnosis, which is achieved not by ritualistic means, but an intellectual liberation and vision (θεα) of God, while still in the body:
Χαιρομεν οτι εν σωμασιν ημας οντας απεθεωσας τη σεαυτου θεα.29
This "vision of God . . . gives an intimate personal insight into ultimate reality . . . which delivers man from ειμαρμενη."30 Similarly to Orphism, the Hermetic view of the divine origin of the soul implies some sort of pre-existence. After getting rid of the body, the essential man ascends through the heavenly spheres to the Ogdoad, and finally comes to God himself. While the divinization promised by the mysteries is more one of belonging and protection, in Hermeticism, "a direct and immediate contact, approaching identification," is established between the mystic and his god. It is a reabsorption of man into the Divine One from which he had gone out.31 This mystical pantheism goes beyond the Greek concept; the devotee is "not only the παις θεου, κατα πανθ ομοουσιος; he is himself θεος,"32 so that "every distinction between the divine and human appears erased in this entire religious outlook."33
In summary, Greek religion, under the influence of the mystery cults, prepared the ground for the idea of the immortality of the soul and overcame its original pessimism with the promise of a divine and eternal blessedness in the realm of the Gods, based on a restored likeness or assimilation. Theology and dogma, however, did not arise from Greek religion but from philosophy.34
Both the sharp awareness of human frailty and perishability in contrast to the divine, and the ideal of assimilation to God are found in Plato.35 Platonism is dominated by a spirit-matter dualism which separates the ideal world of true reality, being in itself, from the perishable and changeable world of becoming, perceived by the senses. "God" is in some sense a personification of the abstract realm of static and unchangeable Ideas,36 without beginning, center or limit.37 This implies a profound separation between God and man, so that fellowship in the sense of becoming one with Deity is excluded: θεος ανθρωπω ου μειγνυται.38
On the other hand, although all materiality is foreign to God, man is a mixture of body and soul. The latter's essence is "pure," immaterial or spiritual, as well as unoriginate, but not quite on the Ideal level of unchangeability. Nevertheless, its powers of thought and reason make it akin to "the Good" by nature, and thus able to comprehend.39 By means of "purification" the soul reveals itself as divine and is thus rendered godlike even on earth.40 The goal of Platonic teaching is to be set free of the mortal and corruptible, so that the soul enters into the union with the divine by likeness to it, outside time and space.41 Since the natural resemblance of man to God resides in his rationality, or δαιμων, it is by exercising this faculty that we are raised to heaven: by thinking thoughts αθανατα και θεια, immortal and divine, we partake of immortality.42
The crucial passage in Plato referring to the assimilation to God is in the Theaetetus 176A–B, and this became the Platonic proof-text for deification, widely cited by generations of Christian and pagan philosophers. Because evils have no place among the gods, Socrates says in the dialogue, they cluster about the earth and mortal natures.
Therefore we ought to try to flee from hence as quickly as possible. Now to flee thus is likeness to God as far as possible; and this likeness is to be just and holy by means of prudence.43
The importance of this passage is in its juxtaposition of several crucial concepts. Assimilation, or becoming like God, is a process of "fleeing" the material, sensual world, through a rational holiness and righteousness. Nevertheless, there is a limit to this ομοιωσις; it is only κατα το δυνατον.44
This limitation, which assumes an ontological duality, was seized upon by the Christian Fathers, since, by preserving monotheism, it allowed them to develop the idea of deification along Platonic lines, and required that they take into account this spirit-matter dualism. The tension between the idea of deification through assimilation to God and the ontological separation from him is expressed in the Platonic idea of the εικων, or material image, as opposed to the archetypal Idea. The prototype of an image or copy exists on a higher level of reality, and each level derives its worth by its degree of resemblance to the level above it.
This doctrine of imitation is . . . applied to the relation of God the Divine soul to other souls. . . . Plato uses the same kind of terminology to describe the imitation of souls to God as he does to account for the imitation of forms by things.45
Although one would expect the model for man to be the Ideal Form of true manhood, in practice God is the "ensoulment" of the virtues, such as justice, wisdom, temperance, and courage, which man must imitate.46 But just as the gap between sensible and Ideal Forms can never be bridged, man never reaches the level of God's perfection. "The image remains an image, it never becomes a reproduction. The image is both like and unlike. . . ."47 As Ladner points out, in Platonism "image" denotes something inferior to the archetype, while "likeness" indicates close resemblance, and "must have been congenial to Christian thinkers who desired to make use of Platonic formulations in order to illustrate the closest possible relation between the creature man and the creator God."48
Thus Plato advocated an imitation or assimilation to God based on the participation of man in the virtues of "God."49 Through this imitation ευδαιμονια can be achieved; man becomes like God insofar as he fulfills his potential and is happy.50 'Ομοιωσις θεου, the transformation through just conduct and knowledge of the divine, is the means to the reward of eternal life.51 This ethical and intellectual emphasis formed the basis for a "spiritualized" deification for those who no longer believed in the old gods.52 It represented an advance in humanistic terms over the vagaries and pessimistic fatalism of Greek religion, but the reliance on self-control and intellectual ascent made it elitist, a prospect primarily for the αριστοι.53 In this respect Platonic philosophy carried on the tradition of the cult of the hero or ημιθεος, transferring deification from the mythic υπερ ανθρωπος or θειος ανηρ to the φιλοσοφος.54 Despite the drawbacks and inconsistencies of this Platonic view of deification, the connection which he "established between the ideas of being, divinity and immortality," as well as the equation of assimilation with deification, "exercised a strong influence on the later conceptions of salvation," including those of the Church Fathers.55
Nevertheless, this influence was not direct. Plato's doctrine was filtered down through and interpreted by a host of followers, students, and compilers. The first of these was, of course, Aristotle, who urged man to strive for immortality (αθανατιζειν) through partaking of divinity through his νους.56 Despite his view of Deity as even more impersonal than that of Plato, "Aristotle reaffirmed the conception of Plato, according to which true happiness consists for man in his assimilation to God, in his deification."57 Nevertheless, Aristotle seems to exclude a personal, conscious immortality, so that the content of deification was considerably reduced.
The Stoics inherited the tradition of a deification through philosophy, and the basis of this was a filial relationship to God as the "Father" of all men. Thus Aratos, in his Phaenomena (v. 5, cited by Paul in Acts 17:28) testifies, "we are of his race."58 But this filiation is really a metaphor, expressing the harmony of the cosmos, and divinization is watered down to the ευδαιμονια of an ethical naturalism which ultimately dissolves into pantheism; "all distinction between Godhood and manhood is given up."59
A marked tendency to pantheism is also found in Neoplatonism, whose principal theme is the ascent and return of the soul to the One.60 Like Plato, Plotinus believed that we resemble God because of our νους, which is κατ' ουσιαν εικων θεου.61 Assimilation to God means to become like the Nous, or the world of Forms, in goodness and beauty.62 But since Plotinus "has adopted the Aristotelian view that mind in act is the same as the object of its thought," assimilation implies a union or identification: "So we are not so much to resemble as to become Gods."63 Elsewhere this is described as becoming pure intellect (νους).64 By casting off impurities, the soul regains its original divinity, which is necessary for illumination or contemplation of the One, through resemblance, absorption and submergence of the self into the infinite immensity of the divine.65
Thus Plotinus was less restrained than Plato in his view of the possibilities of deification, although Merki's idea that Plato urges only becoming like God, while Plotinus proposes a return to Godhood is an exaggeration, since Plotinus' "Vergöttlichung" is actually a Platonic process of γνωθι σεατον.66 The goal of mystic union is achieved by the individual's own efforts: detachment from works of the flesh, asceticism and charity, as well as contemplation, are the means of rising above everything corporeal and sensible.67 Thus, although Neoplatonism influenced the Christian concept of God which Athanasius professed,68 the pantheistic tendency which implied a virtual annihilation of human personality, combined with a basic self-sufficiency and elitism, rules out the conclusion that pagan philosophical deification was the primary source for his doctrine.69 However much they may have appropriated the language and intellectual constructs of their Hellenistic cultural milieu, the Fathers looked to their Biblical tradition above all for their inspiration.
In examining the "biblical roots" of the Patristic doctrine of deification, the primary intent of this section is not an exegetical study of the biblical text itself. Whether or not the concept can be described as endemic or even consistent with the Bible would require a separate volume; the question here concerns which biblical texts or ideas are important as sources or background for Athanasius' soteriology. In other words, what scriptural passages could lend themselves to a deification interpretation? This disclaimer is needed because one group of modern scholars has denied any scriptural warrant for the doctrine and terminology of deification in the Fathers. "There is nothing in either the Old or the New Testament which by itself could even faintly suggest that man might practice being a god in this world and actually become one in the next," writes Butterworth.70 When this premise is accepted, the conclusion is inevitable: it must be attributed solely to Greek influence. In a similar vein Bousset, following Reitzenstein, had traced the Christian doctrine entirely to the analogous phenomena in a "whole array of religions" in pagan Hellenism. Such a doctrine would be "very difficult, and indeed even impossible, to conceive of on the soil of the Old Testament Jewish religion or of the authentic gospel of Jesus."71
But such an assertion starts from the specific Hellenistic definition and terminology of deification, and then concentrates only on the parallels or similarities in the Church Fathers. However, this methodology obscures and distorts the Patristic doctrine. "It is a fact," Faller points out, "that the Christian doctrine of deification never appears in the same form as in paganism."72 Since deification has a different content for the Fathers than for their pagan religious and philosophical counterparts, several scholars have seen the biblical influence as primary.73 Faller traces deification to the psychological, ethical and sacramental thinking of the Old Testament, especially in the concept of the image of God in man.74 The Fathers, asserts V. Ermoni, were careful not to introduce any doctrine which could not be found to some degree in holy scripture.75 Lattey criticizes Butterworth directly for his denial of any scriptural warrant for deification, even in Paul.76 The "good news" of Christianity, writes Gross, fulfills both the Jewish aspirations of divine filiation and the Greek ideal of deification, so that even though the specific terms denoting deification are not found in the New Testament,
it is nevertheless certain that the reality which they express is found there: by and in Christ united to God, becoming an adopted son of God, living a life truly divine, assured a blessed incorruptibility, the Christian is assimilated to God and participates in the divine nature as far as possible for a human creature.77
This was the hope which the Fathers took up and adapted to their milieu, founded on Paul's doctrine of the death and exaltation of Christ as the basis of salvation and John's incarnate Logos as the principle of divinization.
To assert that deification is incompatible with the Bible on the basis of the differentiation between the divine and human found therein is to impose an ontological standard on the text which was not there originally. Stauffer asserts that the Semitic concept of God has to do primarily with power, not metaphysical being. Immortality "is simply a presupposition of this lordship," so that "the emphasis is on the dynamic definition rather than the metaphysical."78 Although the Septuagint had greatly subdued the anthropomorphisms of the Hebrew Scriptures, "the personal nature of God" was very much "a living reality" to the earliest Christians.79 Matthew 5:48 calls God τελειος "not in the sense of metaphysical speculation, but in terms of moral perfection."80 God is "faithful," meaning that his goodness is unfailing, but nowhere is he described as "unchangeable" in an ontological sense. The glib assumption that the Bible's "sharp distinction" between God and man precludes deification is ill-conceived; in fact, this is an example of Greek philosophical metaphysics read into the text. The irony is that it was the Church Fathers themselves who worked at reconciling such philosophical principles with the biblical revelation, while at the same time they were expounding a soteriology of deification.81
Perhaps the most fundamental biblical text which was used to support this explanation of salvation was the Genesis account of the creation of man. The overall force of the description of humanity as being formed "in the image and likeness of God" (LXX: κατ' εικονα και καθ' ομοιωσιν θεου), is to differentiate him from other living things: he is distinctly on a higher, more divine level.82 Although von Rad asserts that man is "dust and ashes" before God's holiness, so that "the witness to man's divine likeness pays no predominant role in the Old Testament,"83 this view is belied by the repetition of the phrase in Genesis 5:1ff., 9:6, and even Psalm 8:4ff.: ". . . thou hast made him a little less than God ( yhiloa ), and dost crown him with glory and honor."84 Although man, in the image of God, was certainly subordinate to him, the Old Testament ascribes a greatness to him by virtue of his creation,85 and this was used to the utmost in Patristic soteriology.
Gross describes the situation of original humanity in the Genesis account to be one of divinization, since, in addition to being in the image and likeness of God, Adam and Eve had the possibility of immortality from the tree of life, provided they remained obedient.86 Although the Old Testament never speaks of the image of God in man being lost (cf. Gen. 5:3f.), the restoration to the original state of creation became a major theme of Patristic soteriology.
Despite the monotheistic stress on Yahweh's sovereignty, many instances can be found in the Old Testament which apply the epithet "gods" to men. By far the most prominent of these for the Christian doctrine of deification was Psalm 82:6 (LXX 81:6). Although the context of this passage seems to apply to judges who represented God despite their mortality (cf. vss. 1 and 7), the use of the phrase, 'Εγω ειπα, θεοι εστε by Jesus in John 10:34–36 clearly justified a much broader interpretation on the part of his followers. The early Church always understood Psalm 81:6 as asserting that men were originally created as gods and meant to occupy that rank, until the Fall brought on sin and mortality. Thus Christ's mission was to help fulfill their true destiny.87 Other examples of the title of divinity applied to men include yhla ynb in Genesis 6:2; Moses in Exodus 4:16 and 7:1; the judge or place of judgement in Exodus 21:6 and 22:7ff.; and the anointed king in Psalms 2:7, 45:7, and 110:1–3 (cf. Isaiah 7:14, 9:6).88
In the New Testament, εικων connotes the presence of the original in the image. "When Christ is called the εικων του θεου in 2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15, all the emphasis is on the equality of the εικων with the original."89 Hebrews 10:1 sharply distinguishes the εικονα των πραγματων from the σκιαν των μελλοντων αγαθων, but Romans 1:23 charges idolaters with exchanging the δοξα of the immortal God for the mere ομοιωμα εικονος of men or animals. Paul promised (Rom. 8:28–30) that the elect would be restored to the image of Christ, which is "identical with the δοξα, with the divine essentiality which is now present in Christ."90
Paul has been uniquely the object of controversy over the issue of deification, since Reitzenstein saw a Hellenistic influence in passages such as Romans 8:30, which connects justification with glorification, and which Reitzenstein compared to Hermetic deification.91 Bousset was more cautious, since Paul scrupulously avoided the taint of pantheism.92 But Paul's radical downgrading of the flesh and pessimistic outlook on the state of humanity, based on a Greek spirit-matter dualism, was seen by Bousset as favorable to a gnostic type of deification, which aimed at liberation or purification from the flesh.93 In reaction to the Hellenistic categorization of Paul's "mysticism," Schweitzer insisted emphatically that deification has no part in it.94 Writing against the theses of Reitzenstein, Bousset and Loisy, H. A. A. Kennedy saw Paul's emphasis on individuality as precluding any mystical absorption into the deity.95
But the exclusion of pantheism by Paul does not rule out a doctrine of Christian deification, which is neither pantheistic nor polytheistic, since the redeemed are always subordinate to God, no matter how much they share in his glory. The importance of this point for the Fathers cannot be over-emphasized. "There was no question of worship, as in the pagan deification of rulers."96 Lattey, defending the basis of Clement of Alexandria's doctrine of deification, analyzes Paul's doctrine of salvation as resting on the syllogism that (1) Christ is God, and (2) the Christian is united to or identified with Christ–εν χριστω.97 Thus the Christian is deified, as Colossians 1:18–20, 2:9–10, and Ephesians 4:11–13 signified for Clement.98 Lattey asserts that
. . . the identification of the Christian with Christ was the central doctrine of St. Paul, and . . . he understood this as necessarily bringing with it deification.99
Thus, Gross, also anticipating the later Patristic interpretation of the Apostle, sees a deification mysticism centered on Christ as the most characteristic element of Paul's soteriology.100 The union with Christ comes with baptism, which is an assimilation to his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3–5).101 According to Philippians 3:10, II Corinthians 1:7, and Romans 3:16–18, the followers of Christ partake of his passions in order to share his glory.102 The inheritance of eternal life promised to those who endure includes perpetual fellowship with God (I Thessalonians 4:17), and a glorious body (Philippians 3:20–21; I Corinthians 15:42–44). This crown is beyond all comparison or experience (II Corinthians 4:16–18; I Corinthians 2:9; Romans 8:18). Although Paul did not specifically use the deification terminology of the later Fathers, his soteriology, promising that Christians would be συγκληρονομοι χριστου, was readily appropriated by his successors, both ecclesiastical and heterodox, as justification for the doctrine that man may "become a god."
Another aspect of Pauline thought which the Fathers used in their explication of deification was the corollary to becoming heirs of God–divine sonship.103 The idea that we should be "children of our Heavenly Father" permeates the New Testament, and was one of the major themes of Jesus' preaching. Its roots are in the Old Testament metaphor of Israel's sonship, expressed in a covenant of tenderness and protection on the part of God the Father, and of fidelity and love from the people.104 Jesus deepens the Old Testament sense of God's Fatherhood to include all humanity, but called upon men to establish a spiritual sonship by repentance and moral perfection.105 The goal is "eternal life" in the eschaton (Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:30), in which the righteous will "shine as the sun" (Matthew 13:43; = Daniel 12:3). They will feast with the Patriarchs (Matthew 8:11; cf. Isaiah 25:6), and, being filled with goodness, will see God and be called his sons (Matthew 5:6–9). Gross describes this Synoptic picture of divine filiation as "a certain participation in the glory and indefectible happiness of God . . . up to the threshold of a mystery according to which the Christian is assimilated to the divine nature."106
This line of thinking is further developed by the Fourth Gospel, which advocates a spiritual rebirth enabling believers to become children of God (John 1:12–13, 3:5, cf. 11:52). Here Jesus promises that his followers will do even greater works than he has done (14:12), prays that they will be one even as he and the Father are (17:11, 20–23), and is going before them to prepare a place of rest for them (14:2).
But, for the Fathers, the most obvious Johannine reference to deification is I John 3:2: we are now the children of God, but shall be like him when he appears, seeing him as he is.107 The context of this statement, an exhortation to moral purity, recalls the subtle but powerful theme of imitatio Christi which John's gospel delineates: the Son does what he sees the Father do (John 5:19 ff.), and should be believed for the works he does, which prove that the Father is in him (10:37f.; 14:10f.). Whoever thus believes will do these same works of God, and even greater ones (14:12), because of the love that binds them to God (17:26).108
The idea of moral perfection through imitation of God goes back to Israel's covenant (Lev. 19:1–2), reiterated in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:48): Yahweh's "Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy," is echoed by Jesus' "Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect." Because of the emphasis on obedience to divine authority, this is not the same idea as Plato's advice in Theaetetus 176B,109 although the concepts were quickly equated by the Fathers, raised in a Platonist intellectual milieu.110 The idea of imitation was also seen in Jesus' phrase ακολουθει μοι, while Paul exhorted his readers to be μιμεται (Ephesians 5:1; I Corinthians 11:1; I Thessalonians 1:6; Philippians 3:17; cf. 4:9).111 This was an ethical application of the idea of the divine image in man. According to Paul, the destiny of Christians was to become συμμορφους της εικονος του υιου αυτου (Romans 8:29) or την αυτην εικονα μεταμορφουσθαι απο δοξης εις δοξαν (II Corinthians 3:18).112
The passage cited as the most explicit New Testament reference to deification, and which was seized upon as the epitome of the soteriological teaching of Paul and John, is in II Peter 1:3ff.113 Unfortunately the text is somewhat obscure and thus controversial, but the promise of a sharing of participation (κοινωνια) in the divine nature (θειας φυσεως) clearly combines the moral effort of man with the surpassing gift of God. It goes beyond imitation, since it "consists, in fact, of making man to live in the 'eternal glory,' in the same life as God . . . in short, to deify him."114
The eschatological fulfillment of this promise (II Peter 1:11) is similar to other New Testament passages which hold out the prospect of exaltation to the divine life.115 Hebrews 12:18–23 speaks of the city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and the company of angels. II Timothy 2:12 promises a joint reign with Christ if we endure, while Revelation 1:6, 5:10 and 20:6 similarly describe the kingdom over which the saints will reign jointly with Christ in the age to come.
The brief sampling of biblical passages undertaken here does not exhaust the soteriological content of the Christian scriptures, but it is abundantly clear that, for anyone seeking it, there was ample material in the revealed word upon which to construct an explicit doctrine of deification, and this is precisely what the Fathers did. If they resorted to the language of their culture to express this doctrine, they perceived the content as being primarily biblical, and they were careful to avoid the pitfalls of both polytheism and pantheism.
Before considering the development of deification among the early Fathers, however, it will be of some interest to examine Jewish sources contemporary with the rise of Christianity, to determine whether they contain any doctrine parallel to this distinctive Christian soteriology.
For the most part, Jewish religious thought moved in a direction which tended to exclude any thought of placing man on a level of fellowship with God. Especially in the face of developing Christology, Judaism increasingly stressed monotheism and divine transcendence.116 God's overwhelming majesty would permit no approach by imperfect human nature, so that communion with him tended to be mediated by the Law, angels, or the expected Messiah, rather than by direct revelation.117 Stauffer concludes that "later Judaism considers it extremely important to exclude any idea of an intermingling or interfusion of the divine and the human."118
At the same time, Judaism maintained a fairly high estimate of man, based on his creation in the image of God. Jewish art "scrupulously avoided" representations of man, since this would indirectly violate the second commandment. "The crucial reason was that man is in the likeness of God . . . so that a depiction of man is a depiction of the image of God."119 Although strongly opposed by Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Akiba's school extended this further, reading ya as "God" in several Old Testament texts, based on Exodus 15:3 ("The Lord is a man of war").120
But the mainstream of Jewish thought drew ethical implications from Genesis 1:26f., rather than using it as a basis for speculation on the nature or form of God.121 "To be the image is to be worthy," writes Kittel. "The concept can be taken in this individual ethical sense because there is no inclination to give it a speculative meaning and content."122 The natural outcome of this ethical interpretation was to connect the creation of man in God's image to the imitation of God, based on Leviticus 19:2. Although this charge to be holy as is God was originally put forth as the basis for Israel's status as the people of God, rabbinic theology tended to interpret it as an exhortation to individual ethical perfection.123 The imitatio Dei became the fundamental principle of Jewish ethics, based on the connection of Genesis 1:26f. with Leviticus 19:2.124
The whole Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy thus bids Israel to imitate God. On this idea a whole Code of moral perfection is built up; on no other idea is the Rabbinic scheme of the God-like life so thoroughly worked out.125
The imitatio Dei or following in God's ways was second only to the recognition of God as the aim of the Haggada, which Marmorstein describes as "the best teacher to make the human divine and the Divine human."126 Although this does not approach the classic Patristic Incarnation soteriology, it is evident that the idea of an elevation of man to God's level of holiness is not entirely at odds even with rabbinic teaching of the early Christian centuries.
The most explicit examples of rabbinic thought suggesting deification are concerned with the prophets, and, as one might expect, the foremost of these is Moses. The main theme of the Tanhuma is "God shares his glory with those who fear him," and the aura of light surrounding Moses' face is the manifestation of this.127 Another Midrash asserts that Moses was made a "god" in heaven and imbued him with divine fiery substance.128 Elsewhere Moses is understood as a "second God," the "God of the lower world,"129 while Samaritan sources invested Moses with God's name ( yhla).130 A similar divinization is described of Enoch131 and Elijah.132 In fact, Moses' glorification may be seen as "a prototype, as in Philo, of the ascent to heaven which every disciple hoped to be granted. . . ."133
Hellenistic Judaism, if we may use that oversimplified category, was more receptive to Greek modes of thinking. Georgi, writing on Paul's opponents in II Corinthians, argues for a Hellenistic-Jewish diaspora theology which incorporated ontological categories into Old Testament theology, making possible a close relationship of communion with the divine.134 For Wisdom, the fact that the Creator made us "an image of his own proper being" means that ο θεος εκτισεν τον ανθρωπον επ' αφθαρσια (Wisdom 2:23).135 The pessimistic view of Ecclesiastes is rejected in favor of a doctrine of a future life in which the righteous will triumph. They are being tested and refined through their present suffering (3:4ff.). The righteous shall live forever in peace and love as the sons of God (5:15; 3:3, 9; 5:5). They shall receive a glorious kingdom, and shine forth as rulers with the Lord (5:16; 3:7f.; 6:17–20). This is an assimilation of man to God, but it is not, like the Greek ideal, purely a human achievement.136 In addition, the stress on immortality and fulfillment in the afterlife knows nothing of a Greek mystical ascent and union.137 Gross calls this individual incorruptibility, which brings one to an eternal place near God, "une véritable déification de l'âme—sans le mot. . . ."138
But the most prominent and explicit advocate of deification was Philo, who combined Greek and biblical thought in making the imitation of God the fulfillment of the image of God in man.139 Völker names the highest goal of Philo η προς θεον εξομοιωσις through προκοπτων μιμησις θεου.140 Philo went further than Wisdom in explicitly rejecting any resemblance to God in man's physical being. It is rather κατα τον της ψυχης ηγεμονα νουν, which makes man, in a sense, a god.141 Man attains to divinity by escaping the bodily prison,142 an idea which Goodenough describes as Philo's basic departure from normative Judaism.143 He also subscribed to the Stoic ideal of απαθεια,144 which is the means to an ecstatic union in which the soul is "transformed into a divine being, to the point of becoming akin to God and truly divine."145
Like the Rabbis, Philo took Moses as his prime exhibit. Moses' ascent was a deification, which gave him a share in the divine nature and an enthronement in heaven which designated Moses as a "god"—connecting Exodus 7:1 with the deifying ascent to God on Sinai.146 Moses' exaltation is here also the prototype of a mystical ascent of the soul and union with God, which brings the crown of virtue to the one who makes it to the goal. Goodenough says of this crown that is has the value of deification, of "identification with the divine nature." That is, "the man who wins in this struggle, Philo admits, is deified insofar as any mortal can be deified."147
Philo actually had more influence on Christians, who preserved his writings, than Jews of the following centuries, who were wary of his open avowal of Hellenistic ideals. His goal of mystical deification can be found in a line of development from Origen through Gregory of Nyssa, and culminating in the great mystical vision of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. It cannot be said that Philo was a significant source for the classical doctrine of deification, however. The point of this selective glance at Jewish sources is not to assert any representative doctrine or establish direct relationships to Patristic soteriology, but to further corroborate the observation that a deification rationale is possible on the basis of biblical presuppositions. It is to a brief survey of the development of this soteriological motif in the Fathers up to the time of Athanasius that the remainder of this chapter will be devoted.
Gross classifies the second and third centuries of the Christian era as the formative period for the doctrine of deification, in which the rough outlines were sketched.148 It is the period of the great Christian Apologists, concerned with defending or reconciling Christianity vis-à-vis pagan culture. Because of this thrust, deification language has been attributed to the pressure to outdo their pagan opponents in superlatives describing Christian salvation,149 or simply to explain Christian concepts in terms that pagans could understand, i.e., in a missionary endeavor. This latter explanation is that of Harnack, who saw the ascendancy of deification as a result of the waning hope in the establishment of the earthly kingdom of God.150 The disillusionment with life, or "failure of nerve," so prevalent in this era, nourished the desire for transcending the weakness and vagaries of mortality, and "becoming like God" seemed to offer the most promise.151
While this psychological/sociological basis for deification may be valid as far as it goes, Harnack's criticism of the doctrine as a betrayal of the pristine faith in its crass promise of physical redemption misses the profound religious value, as Mme. Lot-Borodine points out. It "affirms the original unity of human nature as immortal, incorruptible and divine."152 It is based on the biblical idea of the creation of mankind in the image of God, and the fulfillment of that image through the imitation of godliness combined with the distinctively Christian idea of redemption initiated by God's grace in sending his Son to overcome death and sins. Whereas pagan deification tends to be elitist or aristocratic, based exclusively on individual effort, Christianity was open to all who would submit themselves to that grace and persist in moral virtue through "Christ who strengthens."153 Moreover, the Fathers did not simply give up their eschatological hopes for a Greek ideal of human perfection. "Pure earthly happiness is never the goal of imitatio dei in the Fathers."154 Deification is only fulfilled in the Resurrection, which makes man immortal and imperishable, like God.
But however much Christianity differed from pagan philosophy and religion, the explication of the doctrine of deification was a long process of apologetic and theological reflection as well as scriptural exegesis. Athanasius acknowledged his debt to a number of earlier teachers, naming several of the Alexandrians, especially Origen, but also Ignatius.155 It is with the Apostolic Fathers that the beginnings of the Patristic doctrine of deification are discernible.
In general, the Apostolic Fathers are non-speculative, although they tend to speak of salvation in terms of immortality and incorruption. Clement of Rome urges righteous works based on our formation in the χαρακτηρα of his own image.156 Ignatius, whose aim was to "attain to God" or have "a part in God," emphasized the salvation formulae of John and Paul.157 Participation in the salvation of Christ would bring incorruption and eternal life.158 Both Gross and Dalmais describe this as an incipient divinization without the word, an exaltation of man to an incorruptibility of "quasi-divine being."159
Justin cautiously stresses the dependence of the human soul on God in opposition to the idea of its natural immortality: only God is αγεννητος και αφθρτος.160 However, by imitation of his goodness, men may participate in the incorruption of the Logos and enjoy fellowship with God.161 Men were "made like God, free from suffering and death," and on this basis "all men are deemed worthy of becoming gods and of having power to become sons of the highest."162
Likewise Tatian rejected the Greek idea of the natural immortality of the soul, but man participates in the celestial image through the grace of a divine spirit, which was lost through the Fall.163 The soteriological problem is to regain the divine image through the help of the Logos or Holy Spirit, bringing την κατα θεον συζυγιαν and enabling us to partake of immortal happiness and eternal life.164
Athenagoras subscribed to a Middle Platonic spirit-matter dualism in his rejection of the pagan deification of matter. The eternal God is apprehended by mind and reason,165 which implies that the νους is ontologically akin to God.166 Although the authorship of de resurrectione has been called into question in recent years, the attempt there to reconcile the idea of an immortal soul with the resurrection of the flesh through a participation in the divine nature167 seems based on the same ontology.
But Theophilus made a significant advance by mediating between the two positions on the natural immortality of the soul: man was not created immortal; otherwise "God would have made him a god." He was created "capable" of immortality according to his obedience, the capacity to progress and develop to that perfection of godhood.168 This capability for either progression or destruction shows both our resemblance to God and our difference from him by nature. Following Paul, he quotes Aratus ("We are of the family of God")169 without precisely defining the relationship, but the responsibility is clearly ours to choose our own destiny. As gods in embryo we are given the incentive to progress, become perfect and assume godhood (θεος αναδειχθεις).170 Theophilus is the first to expressly state that man's intended destiny is γενηται θεος,171 which includes immortality, incorruption and the heavenly life.
Meanwhile, the orthodox Fathers were not the only Christians developing a deification soteriology. Gnostic (re-)divinization through esoteric knowledge of the inner principle in man and its relationship to the transcendent Pleroma had more in common with Greek ideas than Christian resurrection, universalism, and morality.172 More significant because of its basically orthodox theology is the Montanist conception of salvation, which Benz describes as an "Uebermensch" ideal. He cites the report of Epiphanius:
Montanus says . . . in his so-called prophecy, Why do you call the Uebermensch (τον υπερ ανθρωπον) the saved? For, he [the Holy Spirit] says, the righteous shall shine forth an hundred-fold more than the sun, and the small among you who are saved shall shine forth an hundred-fold more than the moon.173
Benz interprets the reference to the μικροι as the simple believers of the sect, while the Prophet is Montanus himself, called υπερ ανθρωπος, for whom the designation "saved" is rejected as insufficient; he is placed on the level of God.174 However, this is not final, eschatological deification, or even the blasphemous hybris which Epiphanius sees, but the means of new revelation: the heart of the υπερ ανθρωπος is as a lyre upon which the Holy Spirit plucks.175
Finally, the pseudo-Clementine literature, usually classed as stemming from a Jewish-Christian piety, held to a bodily conception of εικων which implied an anthropomorphic theology.176 In view of the stress on Incarnation and the bodily resurrection in the classic doctrine of deification, such a variant may have some significance. It remained for Irenaeus, however, to develop a comprehensive doctrine of deification.
Irenaeus is particularly important to understanding the background of Athanasius' soteriology, since he centered his doctrine on the Incarnation as the means of raising man to the level of divinity. Although he remained cautious in his vocabulary, and never actually used the word θεοποιησις or θεωσις, he prepared the way for Athanasius both in the role of the Son and the Spirit. "Athanasius would merely explicate divinization by bringing out the clear implications of the writings of Irenaeus."177
Anticipating the soteriological concern of Athanasius, Irenaeus maintained that our salvation would not have been secured unless it was God himself who accomplished it.
And how shall man pass into God, if God had not been caused to pass into man?178
The Logos of God, Jesus Christ our Lord . . . was made that which we are, in order that he might perfect us to be what he is.179
He hath bound and united man to God.180
The development of this concept, in terms of the well-known theory of recapitulation by the Saviour, reversing Adam's fall through his entire life and passion, may be attributed in part to the struggle against Gnosticism. It was both a challenge to their docetism and a refutation of their pneumatic soteriology: for Irenaeus, Christ deified human nature in its entirety, including the flesh.181
Irenaeus' anthropology is based solidly on the imago Dei in man, which makes him "capax incorruptionis et immortalitatis." Against the Gnostics, Irenaeus argued that it was the complete person, not just the πνευμα, which carried the image and likeness of God.182 Although he did not consistently distinguish between εικων and ομοιωσις, he tended to refer the former to the body, and the latter to the mind and Spirit.183 The image is inherent in the nature of man, but the likeness is a superadded grace of the Spirit, which man has lost through the Fall, so that he now lives irrationally and apart from the Spirit, estranged from God.184
But man's disobedience did not thwart the plan of salvation; in fact, the Fall was part of that overall scheme which culminated in the Incarnation.185 "The original destination of man was not abrogated by the fall, . . . the fall was intended as a means of leading men to attain this perfection to which they were destined."186 First of all, it enabled man to experience hardship and sin in order to increase his awareness and valuation of the good.187 It also helped him to recognize the source of his blessings,188 especially in the appearance of Christ, who fulfills the destiny of man.
This brings us to another important aspect of Irenaeus' doctrinal system. While only God himself is ingenerate and incorruptible by nature,189 the human soul was created not as a perfected god but as a being capable of unlimited progression towards godliness. "From the beginning we are first made men and then gods."190 Thus the work of salvation was a gradual fashioning of man to the full realization of ομοιωσις to God, whereas he is now only ordained to become such.191 Being in a state of metaphysical infancy, man was not yet capable of bearing the perfection of deification, but each person, at whatever point in his progression, is capable of being added upon.192
The rate of progression is dependent upon the believer's response to the Saviour. Deification is not automatic; man is required to attain moral perfection in this life through imitation of Christ.193 This includes faith, charity, baptism, and participation in the "divinity-bearing Eucharist" which "produces incorruption; that is, divinization."194 Irenaeus also, "more than any other writer of the second and third centuries," emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in deification.195 The relationship between the Spirit of God and man's individual spirit is not altogether clear in Irenaeus, but this does seem to provide a means of assimilation and union.196
The content of deification for Irenaeus amply justifies the use of the idea. It includes immortality, which tends to be the most prominent characteristic in polemical contexts. Although Harnack characterized Irenaeus' apotheosis of mortal man through his acquisition of immortality as "the idea of salvation which was taught in the ancient mysteries,"197 Irenaeus' idea of immortality as the victorious action of God in resurrection is far removed from the Hellenistic doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul.198 Irenaeus insisted that the soul's immortality is by grace, not nature.199 More importantly, he held to a general resurrection of all flesh, albeit to differing degrees of glory or punishment.200 This means that immortality alone does not constitute deification for Irenaeus; mere existence does not imply the blessedness of the divine life.201 Only "the perfect" or "the spiritual" are joined to God,202 and even among them there are gradations of exaltation.203
This personal communion or fellowship with God includes eternal life in the fullest sense, incorruptibility, an inheritance of glory, and "the full knowledge and enjoyment of God."204 The visio Dei is the epitome of this soteriology: "For Irenaeus, to see God is the equivalent of being divinized."205 Irenaeus sets forth the standard Patristic attitude: contemplation of God constitutes the spiritual life, and the culmination of that life is the direct vision of God face to face, which is only possible for a fellow being—one who is like God.206
Bousset, seeing the Johannine basis of this "mystical piety," categorizes it as Hellenistic:
When Irenaeus says so flatly that we are to change from being men to being gods, the connections with a piety rooted in polytheistic soil are no longer to be denied.
It is perfectly clear that this ideal of deification stems from Hellenistic piety.207
Lawson criticizes this as simplistic, based on the assumption that the Johannine literature is decisively Hellenistic, as opposed to Paul's concentration on release from sin. John's ethical/sacrificial soteriology "is not confined to Hellenistic divinization."208 Furthermore, Irenaeus' recapitulation is a development of Paul's Adam-Christ motif, so that the Johannine doctrine of the Word made flesh and the Pauline doctrine of the second Adam were never more closely connected than in Irenaeus' works.209 Even Harnack sees the great merit of Irenaeus in having worked out his soteriological system "by the aid of simple and essentially Biblical ideas."
. . . he succeeded in sketching a history of salvation, the gradual realising of the οικονομια θεου, culminating in the deification of believing humanity, but here he always managed to keep his language essentially within the limits of the Biblical.210
Irenaeus' achievement set the tone for the Patristic doctrine of deification for centuries to come. By starting with an optimistic anthropology which emphasized man's likeness to God and unlimited potential, he was able to describe his destiny in maturation as becoming a god without ceasing to be man. In fact, as Wingren points out, the Irenaean view "makes it impossible that man's human form of existence should be left behind in his 'deification.'"211 God's existence is not a "different existence;" man's true nature is in fact divine, and is gradually fulfilled when he becomes God: "When man becomes like God he is in actual fact becoming man."212 Irenaeus' dictum that "there is none other called God by the Scriptures except the Father of all, and the Son, and those who possess adoption,"213 actually points to the fallacy of Bousset's charge of a polytheistic tendency. Irenaeus thinks of the deified Christian as adopted into the relationship of sons and heirs, but remaining clearly subordinate to the Father.214 Except for the inclusion of the physical aspect of man's being in the image of God and the view of a progressive, almost evolutionary ascent of man from creation through the Fall to redemption,215 Athanasius follows Irenaeus in the major features of his anthropology-soteriology. Especially crucial was his focus on the Incarnation as the key to man's exaltation.
The first thing that strikes us when we examine Clement's soteriology is his unreserved use of deification terminology. "Clement is the first who uses the term θεοποιειν to designate the deifying action of the incarnate Logos in the Christian."216 θεοποιησις became the most common Patristic denomination for full assimilation to God and exaltation into the divine realm.
Clement is also noted for his stress on the pedagogical function of the Incarnation, and this shows up in his references to deification:
The Logos of God was made man in that you might learn from a man how to become a god.217
Clement conceives of God as basically Νους, and thus locates our image of the divine in the mind and reason, not in the body.218 However, like Irenaeus, his view of man, even though a creature, was positive. In his proper nature, he was created for immortality, although, not being consubstantial with God, he was not yet perfect and had to acquire virtue by the exercise of his free will.219
This development of perfection is assimilation to God, the fulfillment of the ομοιωσις intended for man in Genesis 1:26. Thus, for Clement, "the idea of the εικων was indissolubly linked with the effort after ethical progress, and Clement asserts that it is incumbent upon the 'gnostic' to develop this εικων into ομοιωσις."220 By following the precepts of the Logos, deification can be all but achieved on earth.
. . . he who obeys the Lord and follows in the prophecy given by him, will be perfected in the image of the teacher, walking about in the flesh as a god (εν σαρκι περιποδων θεος).221
The idea is basically that of Plato's Theaetetus 176A-B, which Clement quotes with approval, since it harmonizes with Deuteronomy 13:4 and Luke 6:36.222 Clement's concentration on such virtues as restraint, self-sufficiency and impassibility definitely indicate his leanings towards philosophical ideals, however much he tried to harmonize these with Christian scripture.223 Although he rejected the suggestion that created things are evil in themselves, he held out the goal of απαθεια or complete detachment and purification from sensible objects, an advance over moderation (μετριοπαθεια).224
Clement's goal of gradual ascent leaves little room for the eschatology of the New Testament; salvation is primarily a matter of paideia and of gnosis. To know the Father is eternal life through participation in his incorruption: "And to be incorruptible is to participate in divinity, but revolt from knowledge of God brings corruption."225 The first step is to know oneself, for "if one knows himself, he will know God, and knowing God will become like God."226 Eventually this knowledge will bring the true gnostic to immortality, incorruption and "the beatific vision face to face."227
Although Clement is one of the most Hellenized of all the Christian Fathers, his view of deification retains basic differences from that of paganism. He never loses sight of the metaphysical distance between God and man, and differentiates between our sonship by adoption and that of the Logos by nature. Despite his description of the perfected soul's immediate ascent to God at the death of the body, full deification required a bodily resurrection.228 His elitist attitude, which separated the gnostic from the mere believer, nevertheless remained open-ended in principle: all can attain perfection, since gnosis is built upon faith.229 Lattey, in his rejoinder to Butterworth, concludes that while Clement was "to some extent conditioned" by his Greek environment, "nevertheless in the main he appears to be moving along the high road of Christian tradition."230 But before this tradition reached Athanasius, it passed through the mind of one more Alexandrian: that greatest of Eastern theologians, Origen.
Origen was more reticent than either Clement before him or Athanasius in the following century in his use of deification terminology,231 but his influence on the latter was of the first magnitude. Athanasius held Origen in high esteem,232 and Bernard called his influence on the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria "the clearest, the most frequent and the most acknowledged."233 Although we cannot hope to do justice to the vast theological structure that is Origenism, the elements of his thought which reappeared in Athanasius' soteriology need to be considered.
Origen is noted for his cosmological concern in relating the created order to God, evident in his doctrine of the pre-existence of souls and the eternal generation of the subordinate Logos or δευτερος θεος, the Mediator between God and the cosmos.234 Although Origen assures Celsus that God's attributes or immateriality, impassibility, omnipresence, unity, etc., are in line with the highest concepts of Greek philosophy,235 he is not infinite in the sense of being incomprehensible to himself or devoid of care for humanity.236 This theology decreases the transcendence of God from man; although we are not ομο-ουσιοι τω θεω,237 our souls are by nature spiritual and reasonable, the εικων of the pure Νους that is God.238 This is the meaning of Genesis 1:26f.: only the soul is made after the image of God, not the body.239
Every mind which shares in intellectual light must undoubtedly be of one nature with every other mind which shares similarly in this light . . . that is, of the divine nature.240
However, men are not themselves εικονες, but only κατ' εικονα; the Logos alone is the true imago Dei.241
Like Irenaeus and Clement, Origen distinguished between εικων and ομοιωσις. The latter was not given at creation except potentially; full resemblance or assimilation required moral and intellectual progress. "The highest good, toward which all rational nature is progressing . . . is to become as far as possible like God."242 It is the "image" which gives man the capability of progressing to become like God; ομοιωσις is the fulfillment of that image.243
The decisive step in humanity's progression is the Incarnation, and Origen developed this doctrine along Irenaean lines to approach that of Athanasius.244 The assumption of human nature, both soul and body, was for a soteriological purpose,
that from him there began that union of the divine with the human nature, in order that the human, by communion with the divine, might rise to be divine, not in Jesus alone, but in all those who not only believe, but enter upon the life which Jesus taught, and which elevates to friendship with God and communion with him every one who lives according to the precepts of Jesus.245
Like Athanasius, Origen specified that it was the human nature of Jesus which was thus deified; the Logos was not affected.246 He saw in Christ's baptism a figure of the Incarnation, in which the Logos assumes the humanity into his deity, washes and purifies it from sin, and binds it to himself through the Spirit.247 Thus just as the Son is God (θεος) by participation in God himself (ο θεος), others become gods by participation in him.248
The pattern of Christ must be followed by us:
. . . if He who once was man is God, you too must be like him, for we shall be like him and we shall see him as he is. You too must become a god in Christ Jesus.249
It is required of man to do all he can to imitate Christ in order to be assimilated to God.250 Although we are now subordinate to angels, when we are made perfect, we will not only be equal to them and ascend to thrones, dominions, powers and principalities but we will be like God himself, providing we are virtuous and act according to reason. Thus we are taught to be perfect and holy like God. For "the same virtue belongs to all the blessed, so that the αρετη of man and of God is identical."251
Origen is less than crystal clear on the extent to which flesh is involved in deification. Despite his specification of Christ's body as well as human soul as the objects of this exaltation, including the resurrection,252 at other times he speaks in Platonic tones of the body as a hindrance to attaining a likeness and union with God:
We must either suppose that the God of the universe is clothed with a body . . . or . . . we are compelled to accept one of two alternatives, and either despair of ever attaining the likeness of God if we are destined always to have bodies, or else . . . we must live in the same condition in which God lives.253
This seeming contradiction is reconciled by Origen's interpretation of Paul's discussion of the spiritual body in the resurrection, which he implies excludes flesh and blood. Thus neither Christians nor the scriptures assert that the same bodies, without a change to a higher condition, will be resurrected.254 In fact deification transcends human nature, which is by definition corruptible; it consists of "raising man above the level of human nature, and causing him to pass into a better and more divine condition, and preserving him in it."255 For Origen, resurrection was not a mere revivification of the flesh preserved from further corruption, but a new, purer "spiritual body" which had little in common with the earthly corpse, and seems to become progressively more ethereal. Of all the Fathers, Origen is perhaps the least sympathetic to a "physical theory of redemption."
On the contrary, the essence of deification is the intellectual contemplation of God by the mind:
. . . the νους, which has been purified and raised above all material things, to have a clear vision of God, is deified in its vision (εν οις θεωρει, θεοποιειται).256
True knowledge requires the knower to be assimilated to the known.257 The beginning of the way of the gospel is to do justice, but the end is contemplation, which will be achieved when "it comes to rest at last in the so-called restoration of all things."258 This contemplation is itself a purification, and it goes hand in hand with the active practice of virtue to work divinization.259 Consistent with this connection of the imitatio Christi with contemplation is the maxim that since no one but the Son knows the Father, all must become sons and be united to the Godhead.260 Although this does not destroy the distinction between God and the deified creature, such a gnosis has been described as a "Christian mysticism of deification."261 It was this contemplative predilection which made Origen so influential for generations of later mystics, including Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius, whose concept of deification shows its Origenistic ancestry.
Although Athanasius is not considered an important contributor to the development of mysticism, his emphasis on contemplation and the final direct visio Dei, as well as Christian ascesis in the imitatio Christi, promulgated themes related to Origen's doctrine of deification. This was especially significant in the development of the monastic movement. Despite a different understanding of the resurrection and the relationship of the image to the likeness of God in man, Athanasius' doctrine of deification was to a large extent a development of certain strains of Origen's writings, especially the soteriological interpretation of the Incarnation and the relationship of man's εικων to the archetype, the Logos.
Despite his criticism of Origen's cosmology, Methodius of Olympus carried on much of the same doctrinal structure with regards to redemption, so that Loofs sees Athanasius' soteriology as combining elements of Methodius and Irenaeus.262 "Every believer must, through participation in Christ, be born as a Christ."263 Methodius set the tone for Eastern soteriology in describing blessedness and incorruptibility as the prime characteristics of the θεια φυσις in the life to come.264 Man was originally created immortal, the entire man being the image of God himself, and deification is primarily a restoration to its original condition.265 A similar idea of restoration or renewal was crucial to Athanasius, especially in his earlier works.
In Latin Christianity, deification terminology was always somewhat suspect, but Tertullian shows the influence of Eastern theological formulations.
God held converse with man, that man might learn to act as God. God dealt on equal terms (ex aequo agebat) with man, that man might be able to deal on equal terms with God. God was found little, that man might become very great.266
But Tertullian's acknowledgment of the scriptural warrant for deification terminology also subtly betrays his caution on the topic: "Scripture has not been afraid to designate as gods human beings who have become sons of God by faith."267
Although he did not elaborate the doctrine, the most explicit Western exponent of deification in the pre-Nicene period was Hippolytus, who "saw in the divinization of man the ultimate end of creation as well as redemption."268 The creation of man in God's image means he is capable of Godhood, but deification is the result of knowledge, baptism, and the Holy Spirit, and makes us joint heirs with Christ after the resurrection:269 οταν θεοποιηθης αθανατος γεννηθεις.270
Hippolytus' cultured retention of Greek witnesses to the pervasive theology of the Eastern Church, which included a deification soteriology. By the fourth century both the terminology and general outlines of the Christian version of deification were well established. Although reinforced by certain motifs from Hellenistic religion and philosophy, and emphasized by the apologetic/missionary dialogue with that culture, the biblical basis of the doctrine remained foremost, at least in the minds of its Patristic exponents. They had elaborated on the close spiritual kinship of man to God, but rejected the idea of the soul's pre-existence as a man-made speculation. Pagan rituals were condemned in favor of the authoritative Christian sacraments. The need to develop ethical perfection was affirmed, but only in imitation of Christ, in whose grace it was possible to develop the virtues of godliness and through whose incarnation and passion man could overcome sin and its most threatening consequences, death and estrangement from God. Because the Logos of God had united divinity to humanity, the prospect for the participant in Christ could only be described in the loftiest terms: he was to share in the sonship, glory, and eternal life of the Savior. But it was Athanasius who became the classic spokesman for this doctrine of θεοποιησις. Throughout his long and stormy career as the spiritual leader of the orthodox in Egypt, he adhered to this soteriology as tenaciously as he did to its corollary, the absolute and essential divinity of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. In his writings are to be found both the strengths and strangeness of the doctrine of deification.