A comprehensive history of the doctrine of deification is not possible in the limits of this study, and it may be presumptuous to attempt even to delineate the major trends of thought after Athanasius. In this final section we can only glance briefly at a few of the leading exponents of deification, and highlight their relationship to Athanasius.
Because of its importance in the Christological debates of the following years, the doctrine of θεοποιησις did not die with Athanasius in 373. Apollinaris' Christology was based firmly on Athanasian soteriology, since, "He was convinced that, our redemption is imperilled."1 The link between his Christology and soteriology is most apparent in his view of the Eucharist, in which the believer literally partakes of the divine nature by ingesting the Sacrament.
The holy flesh is one nature with the Godhead, and infuses divinity into those who partake of it. . . . we are saved by partaking of it as food.2
At the same time, the epigrammatic refutation of Apollinaris by Gregory of Nazianzus was entirely based on Athanasian presuppositions, "the Deity being made man and the man deified" in the Saviour.
For that which he has not assumed, he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.3
It is apparent that Gregory was familiar with Athanasius' Incarnation soteriology, in which the deification of mankind is brought about by the union of God and humanity. As we shall see in this section, deification is a presupposition with the Cappadocians and Alexandrians following Athanasius, rather than a startling innovation or dangerous speculation. Like Athanasius, they use it as an argument for the divinity of the Son and Holy Spirit without apology, and are not concerned with defining or defending the doctrine in itself.4 Deification continued to be the watchword of soteriology in Eastern Christianity even up to modern times, being especially stressed by Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus.
The eventual rejection of deification by Western Christianity was foreshadowed by the Antiochenes, especially John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia, whose moralistic literalism and two-nature Christology challenged the Alexandrian understanding of divinizing grace bestowed through the Incarnation. Even before their time, there are indications of disaffection with the doctrine. Jerome argued that the phrase "ye are gods" from Psalm 81:6 refers to all men, not just kings and princes, since "Our humanity is of one quality;" i.e., different from the nature of the Son of God. His polemic indicates a growing and influential segment of Christians who were, at best, uneasy with the implications of deification.5
But it was Augustine who delivered the decisive blow to the idea that man's intended destiny was to become "like God." Despite the traces of deification language which remain scattered widely in his writings, the stress on the absolute oneness and otherness of God by the Bishop of Hippo developed the theology of grace as opposed to nature to its logical conclusion. Man, as creature, becomes totally dependent on divine grace and election in an individual sense, and the condition of salvation is one of adoration and praise in the enjoyment of God's presence, but not participation in the divine nature itself, which remains radically beyond human comprehension. Deification terminology survived on the periphery of Western orthodoxy in the form of mysticism, but its goal of ecstatic union, which always seemed, at least to its critics, in danger of lapsing into pantheism, increasingly developed along lines independent of Athanasius' conception of salvation.
Most of the characteristic features of Athanasius were carried on by the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil of Caesarea, his friend Gregory of Nazianzus, and his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa. Basil did not dwell on the concept of deification, but did espouse a resemblance to God from creation as the basis of salvation through restoration. In his discourse On the Spirit, he explained that the Spirit's work in man is to extinguish the passions of the flesh, which "have alienated it from its close relationship to God." This purification is a "return to natural beauty," a "cleansing [of] the Royal Image and restoring its ancient form."6 Thus the Spirit gradually lifts up the soul, which advances from grace to grace. Basil anticipates a glorious heritage as the outcome of this exaltation:
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, and being made like to God, and, highest of all, to become God (θεον γενεσθαι).7
Gregory Nazianzus, as we have already indicated, followed Athanasius even more explicitly in his focus on the Incarnation as the keystone of salvation. In a celebrated passage on the paradox of the commingling of divine and human natures, he seems almost to paraphrase Athanasius on deification:
He came forth then as God with that which he had assumed, on person in two natures, flesh and spirit, of which the latter deified the former. O new commingling; O strange conjunction! The Self-existent comes into being, the Uncreate is created, that which cannot be contained is contained, by the intervention of an intellectual soul, mediating between the Deity and the corporeality of the flesh. And he who gives riches becomes poor, for he assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the richness of the Godhead. He that is full empties himself, for he empties himself of his glory for a short while, that I may have a share in his fulness. . . . What is this mystery that pertains to me? I had a share in the image; I did not keep it. He partakes of my flesh that he may both save the image and make the flesh immortal.8
Nazianzus' equation of the paradox of incarnation with that of deification imbues his writings with a distinctive stamp, a leit-motif of wonder and thanksgiving for God's gracious condescension.9 However much we may attribute this to rhetorical hyperbole, Gregory's assertion of the supreme exaltation of the deified Christian is perhaps the strongest and least qualified of all the Fathers.10 The union of God and humanity in Christ means that "I may become God as far as he became man."11
Gregory combined this grace-by-incarnation soteriology with a moral-ascetical ascent ideal, but with none of the reservations over this combination which plagued Athanasius due to the Arian scheme of salvation. Christians, in "the hope of salvation and glory besides, press on yet more unto perfection, and to that affinity which arises out of virtues."12 He envisioned a gradual ascent, through the development of virtues, which culminates in bridging the gap between God and man.
. . . it behooves us, having already practiced one part of the virtues, to grasp at another, and to aim at yet another, until the end, and that deification for which we were born, and to which we aspire, inasmuch as we cast a mental glance across the gulf between the two worlds, and have in expectation a reward commensurate with the magnificence of God.13
This ascent is based, in the first place, on the divine image in man, which inclines us to God and enables us to both see and experience his splendour. Yet our Maker will complete his work when we leave the temporal world for the eternal, when God "will remake us again after a loftier fashion."14 This transformation begins at baptism,15 but continues through a life of ascesis and participation in the death and burial of Christ, "that you might rise with him, and be glorified with him and reign with him."16 In enumerating the prerogatives of Christians, he speaks of them as almost entirely transcending human, earthly things, knowing no limit, either in ascending or in deification, to whom belong the heavens and the thrones, clothed with incorruptibility and απαθεια, yet possessing the everlasting and ineffable enjoyment of pleasure.17 It is not difficult to see how Gregory earned his reputation as an orator; one can almost hear him exulting in the glorious promise of an everlasting crown and divine inheritance of glory.
It is with Gregory of Nyssa, however, that we come to the most profound and philosophical of the Cappadocians. His great system of God's plan of salvation is in many ways a revival of Origen, and is on a comparable level of cosmic grandeur in its universal vision. We cannot aspire to add to the volumes of scholarly analysis on Nyssa's writings; our aim here is to point up the aspects of his soteriology which seem closely related to Athanasius.
Nyssa was perhaps the most optimistic of all the Fathers in his anthropology. God's purpose in creating us was "to offer every one of us participation in the blessings (καλων) which are in Him," beyond all our greatest imaginings.18 Man was "fashioned in such a way as to fit him to share in this goodness" by blending the divine and earthly natures, so that "he was endowed with life, reason, wisdom and all the good things of God."19 Gregory subscribes to the creation ex nihilo view, but for him this implies more the participation in divine being than the ontological separation from God.20
Nyssa was even more emphatic than Athanasius in his picture of mankind as god-like before the Fall:
Empowered with God's blessing, man held a lofty position, he was appointed to rule over the earth and all the creatures on it. His form was beautiful, for he was created as the image of the archetypal beauty. By nature he was free from passion, for he was a copy of him who is without passion. He was full of candor, reveling in the direct vision of God.21
Gregory followed the Bishop of Alexandria in not distinguishing between εικων and ομοιωσις.22 He also utilized Athanasius' description of the pure soul as the mirror in which God is reflected, as also the concept that the image of God in man makes possible the beatific vision, on the Platonic principle that only like can see like: to be is to know.23
The focus of this likeness to God was exclusively the soul since Nyssa, like Origen, was strongly influenced by Platonic dualism.24 The soul is "stable and unalterable,"25 and free from passion and impurities, being alien to evil.26 The soul is equated with mind or νους, which is omnipresent in us as individuals and in humanity as a race.27 Like God, the mind is incomprehensible in essence and manifests diversity in unity.28 It is "the speculative, critical, and world-surveying faculty of the soul," which is its "peculiar property by virtue of its very nature," and this divine excellence is "blended with a certain ineffable power."29 The expression that man was created "in the image of God" sums up all the attributes of deity. "For the likeness implied in the term 'image' comprehends all the divine attributes."30
This was a nature fit for royalty, as an image of the almighty Ruler of the cosmos. Clothed with virtue and arrayed with the sceptre of immortality and the crown of righteousness,31 it needed only to develop its virtues and powers through the exercise of free will.32 Thus the changeability of human nature is not a weakness per se, since birth, growth, continuance and even death do not alter the basic identity of a person.33
Consistent with this, the Fall, which Gregory views as a mythic event or having occurred simultaneously with creation, is not seen as a catastrophic loss of the capacity for divinity. It is manifest in our admixture with the animal or bodily element, whence passions and irrationality arise, but "the intellectual takes precedent to the other," as the Genesis account of creation indicates by differentiating male and female, or sexuality, only secondarily.34 Our "animal generation" and the consequent sullying of our nature with evil, however, only means that "the divine image does not at once shine forth at our formation, but brings man to perfection by a certain method and sequence."35 Thus, in spite of the fact that "human life is at present in an unnatural condition,"36 there is nothing in man's constitution which is opposed to the principle of virtue.37
While such an optimistic anthropology might seem to obviate the need for the Incarnation, Gregory uses it in quite the opposite manner. It is because of his high estimation of human nature that he could acknowledge the possibility that God himself could enter into it without being sullied.38 His development of this theme has a peculiarly Athanasian ring to it:
Not from another source, but from the lump of our humanity came the manhood which received God (ο θεοδοχος ανθρωπος). By the resurrection it was exalted along with the Godhead.39
Likewise Gregory's Platonic realism is evident when he speaks of the Incarnation as the union of God and humanity which deifies the latter. God
united himself with our nature, in order that by its union with the Divine it might become divine (ινα τη προς το Θειον επιμιξια γινητα θειον), being rescued from death and freed from the tyranny of the adversary. For with his return from death, our mortal race begins its return to immortal life.40
In his sacramental theology, Nyssa considers baptism essential for participation in this θεοποιησις, similarly to Athanasius, but he is even more explicit in regards to the Eucharist. By the Eucharistic elements, God unites his divine flesh with the partaker, so that he may share in incorruptibility.41
The focus of the restoration of humanity, however, is on the resurrection and immortality, but this is hardly a "physical redemption" for Gregory. His concern with αφθαρσια and απαθεια recalls most closely Origen, although it may have been mediated through Athanasius.42 The soul is not affected by death, since it is not composite and cannot be dissolved.43 But even if someone cherishes his body he need not fear separation from it, since the resurrection body will be "woven again out of the same atoms," although "not indeed into this organization with its gross and heavy texture, but with its threads worked up into something more subtle and ethereal."44 Humanity as a whole, at the end of time, will be "changed from the corruptible and earthly to the impassible and eternal."45 The body is not simply restored to its old state but is given "great and splendid addition" by God, so that incorruption, power, glory and a spiritual body, in accordance with I Corinthians 15:42–44, are the characteristics of our "spiritual and passionless existence."46
As with Athanasius, the resurrection is universal,47 but Gregory, as is well known, goes even further, following the lead of Origen in the assertion that ultimately all will be saved and evil eradicated. God does not desire to punish us, but to purge our wills until evil no longer exists.48 Nevertheless, immortality and freedom from evil do not constitute deification in themselves. Gregory envisions an eternal expansion and progression of the individual soul, according to its desire for the good, ever approaching an infinite God who seemingly ever recedes into that infinity. This allows for wide differentiation in the degrees of glory, since the capacity of the soul expands as it progresses.
. . . all things must be assimilated to the Divine Nature in accordance with the artistic plan of the author. . . . Indeed, it was for this that intelligent beings came into existence. . . . The all-creating Wisdom fashioned these souls, these receptacles with free wills, as vessels for this very purpose, that there should be some capacities able to receive his blessings and become continually larger. . . . Such are the wonders that the participation in divine blessings works; it makes him into whom they come larger and more capacious . . . and he never stops enlarging. The fountain of blessings wells up unceasingly, and the partaker's nature, finding nothing superfluous and without use in that which it receives . . . becomes at once more desirous to imbibe the nobler nourishment and more capable of containing it; each grows simultaneously, both the capacity . . . and the supply.49
Such a capacity for eternal progression is not found in Athanasius, but does recall Irenaeus.50 The basis of this principle in both, however, is the ontological difference between man and God. Man's creaturely nature is defined as "becoming" as opposed to God's, which is "Being," so that human nature always remains capable of change, in contrast to its divine archetype.
Now change is a perpetual movement from one state to another. . . . [When] towards what is good, in this the advance has no limit, since no end of the course being traversed can be reached. (προοδος στασιν ουκ εχει, διοτι περας ουδε του διεξοδευμενου καταλαμβανεται.)51
There are two important results of this interpretation of human nature. The first is that Nyssa is allowed more latitude in emphasizing ethical striving and the development of virtue, although perhaps at the expense of divine grace. This is especially evident in his treatise On Virginity,52 but the call to separate oneself from the passions permeates his writings.53 Within the context of this general salvation, Nyssa adheres to a belief in reward (or degrees of perfection) according to individual merit. Greater effort brings increased blessing.
For not all who are granted a renewed existence by the resurrection will enter upon the same new life. Rather will there be a great difference between those who are purified and those who lack purification. . . . Now purity is closely related to freedom from passion, and . . . blessedness consists in this freedom and passion.54
Secondly, and even more significant for our study, Gregory's exclusion of unchangeability from deification largely overcomes the paradox of Athanasius' soteriology. Whereas for the Bishop of Alexandria perfection is static, a state of being in which the ontological distance from God can never be lessened, for Nyssa the essential difference with God is the very means of approach and assimilation: changeability allows limitless growth and progression. God is still God, but θεωσις or θεοποιησις means that while we never reach his infinite level of being, we never cease to develop godliness or to enjoy him to our full capacity, which is itself always expanding.55
This limitless vista means that Gregory cannot fully define the content of deification; "the promised blessings . . . defy description," as I Corinthians 2:9 says.56 Paradise will not be like this life, but belongs to "unspeakable mysteries."57 Along with the biblical phrases of living with Christ, being glorified with and reigning with him,58 he emphasizes the visio Dei and the enjoyment of the Good, which is God's presence.59 The Divine Being will supply every need, since
Becoming by this assimilation to the Good all that the nature of that which it participates is, the soul will consequently . . . be itself also in no lack of anything.60
So intense will the divine likeness become, that our minds will not only be filled with light but begin to emit it as lights themselves, according to the promise that "the righteous shall shine forth as the sun" (Matthew 13:43).61
Gregory's doctrinal achievement is an impressive one, since he is able to overcome the major drawbacks of both Origen and Athanasius. If his soteriology has been largely overlooked due both to the modern fascination with his mystical tendencies62 and the orthodox reservations about his universalism, he remains one of the truly great and influential theologians of the Patristic era. A full exposition of his doctrine of deification remains to be written.
Cyril of Alexandria was the most active and forceful successor to Athanasius, holding the bishopric from 412 to 444. Although best known today for his polemics in the Christological debate, especially against Nestorius, the heart of his doctrine was his soteriology, understood as the deification of man. In this he was the true disciple of Athanasius, and in broad outlines reproduces his doctrine faithfully.63 By his time, even more so than with his fourth-century predecessor, deification language was so engrained into the thinking of Eastern Christianity that it needed no defense and little explanation. It was the common assumption, for instance, of the Pneumatomachians, as well as their orthodox opponents; the sanctification which Christianity assured is deification.64
Cyril's anthropology reproduces the thought of Athanasius with only minor differences in emphasis. His starting point and anchor was in the Genesis account of man's creation "in the image and likeness of God (κατ' εικονα και καθ' ομοιωσιν θεου)." Where Athanasius seemed to ignore the question of the distinction made by his predecessors between εικων and ομοιωσις, Cyril emphatically rejected it.65 He seems a little confused by Athanasius' semantic distinction between "the image" and "in the image" (κατ' εικονα),66 but the implications Athanasius drew from this are found in Cyril. Specifically, the creation ex nihilo meant that our original incorruptibility was a super-added grace and not by nature, in contrast to God.67 Our image and likeness are not on the same plane as the Son, i.e., by nature, but by participation.68
The image/likeness to God was located exclusively in the soul by Cyril, following the pattern of all the Alexandrians and Cappadocians. He was especially insistent on this point against the anthropomorphism which threatened to subvert Egyptian monasticism.69 The content of that resemblance to God, according to Burghardt's analysis, is the soul's reason, its freedom, dominion over irrational creation, sanctification, incorruptibility and sonship.70 Cyril was relatively optimistic in his estimate of man, whose nature was created with "a natural appetite for, and knowledge of, everything that is good," as a result of the light of Christ referred to in John 1:9.71 Similarly, his free will was oriented towards good works, in accordance with Ephesians 2:10.72 Primarily, however, the image and likeness of God in man is "according to virtue and sanctification." Burghardt sees two aspects to this: an ontological holiness and a dynamic virtue, which combines the grace of receiving the Spirit with virtuous living.73 Despite Burghardt's attempt at tidy categorization, "Cyril finds it difficult to separate αγιασμος and αρετη, the ontological and the dynamic, in his theology of the image."74
The most significant fact of the Fall for man is the loss of the Spirit, or the "ontological holiness" of our original endowment. Although this allows a host of evils to be associated with man, "no damage has been wrought to his nature."75 The problem of redemption is basically one of restoration: man, who is now unholy, must regain the Holy Spirit in order to become again "like God."
The means of this restoration is the Incarnation, as well for Cyril as for Athanasius. Like Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril bases his exposition of the Incarnation on a generic realism which allows the divinization of mankind:
[The Logos] lowered himself in order to lift to his own height that which was lowly by nature, and he bore the form of the slave, though by nature he was Lord and Son, in order to transport what was slave by nature to the glory of adoptive sonship, after his own likeness (ομοιοτητα). . . . Therefore, just as he became like us, that is, man, in order that we might become like him, I mean gods and sons, he takes to himself what is properly ours and gives us in return what is his. . . . We mount to a dignity which is supernatural (υπερ φυσιν) through our likeness (ομοιωσεως) to him; for we have been called sons of God, even though we are not sons by nature. . . . But the Son, as it were mingling himself with us, bestows on our nature the dignity that is properly and peculiarly his own.76
Like Athanasius also, this realism regarding human nature does not mean for Cyril that individuals are automatically sanctified by the grace of the Incarnation, and that further divine help becomes superfluous for us.77 As a good churchman, Cyril stressed the need for faith, repentance, baptism which allows the believer to receive the Holy Spirit and be spiritually sanctified,78 and participation in the Eucharist, which sanctifies him bodily.79 Partaking of the Eucharistic elements is contact with the Logos, and this contact deifies us.80
Cyril follows Athanasius in his stress on participation and adopted sonship by grace, as opposed to the Sonship by nature of the Logos.81 Also like his Alexandrian predecessor, he sees adoptive sonship as a superior state to the original one at creation. Man is more intimately united to God since Christ's immutability is transmitted to us so that the Spirit is now a "stable gift."82 While Athanasius made "no studied effort to link . . . sonship with the image of God in man," Cyril's most characteristic and original achievement in this regard, according to Burghardt, is "to fathom the depths of our divine sonship and to link it intelligibly to its archetype, the Christ who is God's only Son and yet the first-born of many brethren."83
Although for Cyril deification never changes our essential nature, it does transfigure us so that we resemble uncreated nature. For the soul, this entails a beauty and dignity "above the creature," a conformity with Christ and a relationship to the Father as children of God. For the body, it means that incorruptibility and impassibility are planted as seeds, to mature and bear fruit in the resurrection.84 At that time our spirit will be filled with "a certain divine and ineffable light," which will bring us all knowledge, culminating in the "perfect knowledge of God" by seeing him face to face, which will full us with overflowing joy. Our bodies, raised to take part in that happiness, will be "spiritualized," which means freed from material passions and concerns, glorified along with Christ.85
Thus, for Cyril, deification is the image of God in us restored and enhanced by the Incarnation, summoning us to "divine adoption, to glory, to incorruptibility, to endless life, to participation in God through the Spirit, to the kingdom of heaven."86 This is basically a recapitulation of the soteriology of Athanasius. Although he likewise did not present "a perfectly coherent synthesis" of the doctrine of deification,87 he is, "with the exception of St. Athanasius, the teacher whose authority was most frequently appealed to and most decisive in defining the orthodox teaching."88
This is not to say that Cyril contributed nothing of significance beyond Athanasius. On the contrary, it was precisely this reliance on Athanasian soteriology which made him such an adamant defender of the hypostatic union of the God/Logos and human nature. The Alexandrian stress on the unity of the two natures heightens the reality of deification. If man was to become divine, then God really had to be united with humanity into one being, a union which would raise human nature to the level of God. Thus
our Saviour had to be, at the same time perfect God and fully man: God, to divinize us, man so that what was divinized was the entire human nature, because "that which has not been assumed has not been saved." This demonstrates the interdependence of soteriology and Christology.89
With Cyril, in the context of an explicit Christological struggle, Athanasius' soteriology of deification became a primary factor in the working out of the doctrinal synthesis which was approved at Chalcedon.
The Antiochenes, however, including Cyril's most ardent opponents, were not oblivious to soteriology, but their concern was more with moral development in the perfect man Jesus.90 For this reason, they insisted on the necessity of clearly distinguishing between the divine and human natures, even after the union. Christ was the prototype and forerunner of our salvation, "the firstborn of every creature," into the newness of life. Confusion of the natures would not only involve the Godhead in suffering on the cross, but make redemption irrelevant to man, since such a Saviour would be another entity than man. Theodore of Mopsuestia was the primary spokesman for this two-nature Christology:
. . . The Godhead was separated from the one who was suffering in the trial of death, because it was impossible for him to taste the trial of death if [the Godhead] were not cautiously remote from him, but also near enough to do the needful and necessary things for the human [nature] that was assumed by it.91
Because of its association with Alexandrian Incarnation Christology, deification was played down by the Antiochenes. John Chrysostom, at least in his later works, described salvation as assimilation to God by the active practice of virtues, especially Christ-like love or charity. But this is as far as he would go; he repudiated the practice of calling this assimilation a "divinization" as non-scriptural.92
In fact, all of the Antiochenes, with the exception of Theodoret of Cyrus, shunned explicit deification language in their adoptive sonship Christology.93 Theodore of Mopsuestia rejected the idea that the Incarnation of the Logos represents the restoration, even on a higher level, to humanity's original state.94 Man's being in the image of God consists of his domination of the world and creatures,95 not in the qualities of godliness. Only in the resurrection is man renewed, since a son of God must be immortal.96 He stresses that assimilation to Christ is to the "assumed Man," rather than the divine nature. Redeemed man is conformed to the likeness of the resurrected humanity of Christ; he can never be "like God," or participate in the divine nature.97 When the scriptures speak of men as "gods" it is only a manner of speaking; "they receive this title by the grace of God."98 He does stress adoptive sonship, requiring immortality and impeccability, which results in fellowship with God through obedience.99
As exemplified by Theodore of Mopsuestia, the two-nature Christology of the Antiochenes goes hand in hand with their rejection of the traditional understanding of salvation as the deification of human nature. As Gross puts it, "the doctrinal climate of the School of Antioch was not very favorable to theopoiesis."100 W. de Vries has pointed out that the insistence on keeping the human nature of Christ separate from his divinity means that redemption "cannot consist in participation in the divine life." Our exaltation is thus considerably restricted.
But if this does not really mean divinization—the man Christ is indeed not really God—then neither can our sharing in the good things of Christ really confer on us the consortium divinae naturae.101
There has been a revival of interest in recent years in Theodore of Mopsuestia's thought, which seems related to the emphasis in contemporary theology on the humanity of Christ. If this is the case, it may shed light on the Church's rejection of Antiochene Christology, since it threatened to devalue salvation by pulling back from deification. The strength of Athanasius' appeal was in his soteriology: Christians in the Hellenistic world required a powerful Saviour, not a compatriot, for such high stakes. Nevertheless, the Antiochene disaffection with the long-held doctrine of deification signals a recognition of the inconsistencies which it entailed in Christian doctrine, and parallels the reluctance of Western Christianity to embrace such an extreme soteriology. It is to the contemporary doctor of the Latin Church, Augustine, that we turn for the decisive step away from deification.
Despite their different understanding of or emphasis on the nature of Christ's redemptive work as primarily a ransom for sin rather than restoration or recreation in the original image of God, the West could not completely ignore the concept of deificatio, "since it was part of the accepted revelation."102 Leo the Great, in fact, probably owes his influence at Chalcedon to the fact that his soteriology largely conformed to the Eastern type. He is described as the "great western doctor" of the Incarnation
which alone can lead to the renewed God-likeness in man. Much as the Greek Fathers he sees the essence of redemption in the divinization of man, the possibility of which was brought about by Christ's taking on human nature.103
The Roman Mass still contains remnants of the deification idea. During the Ordo, while the priest mixes water with the wine in the chalice, he prays:
O God, who has marvellously created the dignity of human nature and more marvellously has reformed it, grant us by the mystery of this water and wine to be sharers of the divinity of Him who deigned to become a participant in our humanity, Jesus Christ.104
Although the context of this liturgical excerpt is Eucharistic, the formulation is strikingly reminiscent of Athanasius, and seems to stem from the same soteriological tradition.
But, as Gross points out, the key to redemption in the West was gratia; it functioned much as deification did in the East.105 That is, the relationship between these two dynamically related concepts, at least in terms of emphasis, was reversed for Latin Christianity. The champion of this doctrinal relationship which emphasized grace at the expense of Eastern soteriology is, of course, Augustine, and Pelikan flatly states,
The divergences between the Eastern and Augustinian definitions of Christianity were expressed in connection with this doctrine of deification.106
Augustine did not simply throw overboard the language and concept of deification; he deferred to it in several instances. When he spoke of our reassimilation to God, alluding to the Genesis 1 account, he referred to this reformation as deification.107 Likewise, he could describe the Incarnation in terms of Athanasian soteriology: "He who was God became man so as to make those who were men gods."108 But it is apparent, from the qualifications and explanations which Augustine invariably attached to such language, that he was uncomfortable with the thought, and it represents little more than a concession to traditional formulations. At best it is a secondary motif for Augustine, giving precedence to redemption from sin and the bondage of Satan.109
Augustine, conscientious philosopher that he was, was bothered by the Plotinian quotation of Theaetetus 176B in the Enneads I.2.3, which omitted the qualifier κατα το δυνατον.110 The Platonists, he insists, should admit that gods are not per se ipsus beati, but only by their participation in the supreme God.111 He had to make allowance for the Scriptural promises of a divine inheritance for redeemed man, but his preoccupation with grace, justification and sanctification finds little room for the θεωσις of the Greek Fathers. "A deification doctrine of the Greek type was certainly far from Augustine's mind."112
Two examples will illustrate Augustine's concern. The first has the ring of Athanasius' later writings, but lists only immortality as the content of such redemption:
For God wishes to make thee a god; not by nature, as He is whom He has begotten, but by his gift and adoption. For as by his humanity he was made partaker of thy mortality, so by that exaltation does he make thee partaker of his immortality.113
The other passage, referring to Psalm 82 and the Johannine writings, while conceding that the adopted sons of God will become fellow-heirs with Christ, nevertheless subtly but firmly maintains the difference in quality between the Saviour and the saved. Although the passage is long, it deserves to be quoted extensively, since it is Augustine's most explicit discourse on the subject:
It is evident, then, that he hath called men gods, that are deified of his grace, not born of his substance (ex gratia sua deificatos, non de substantia sua natos). For he doth justify, who is just through His own self, and not of another; and he doth deify, who is God through himself, not by the partaking of another. But he that justifies himself deifies, in that by justifying he makes sons of God. "For he hath given them power to become the sons of God" (John 1:12). 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. For the only Son of God, God and one God with the Father, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, was in the beginning the Word with God, the Word God. 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 favour they should come to him, and be fellow-heirs with Christ. . . . We are therefore in hope, not yet in substance. "But we know," he says, "that when he shall have appeared, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (I John 3:2). The only Son is like him by birth, we like by seeing. For we are not like in such sort as he, who is the same as he is by whom he was begotten: for we are like, not equal: He, because equal, is therefore like.114
Is this really at odds with the Greek doctrine?
Although we have cited most of the references to deification by the Bishop of Hippo, in the perspective of his prolific corpus of writings these seem pitifully insignificant. But there is more to it than a statistical neglect. Augustine's theology was not compatible with the view that man could become "like God" in any concrete sense. His concept of the divine was developed in the direction of transcendence so that the tensions in Athanasian soteriology would have been outright contradictions for Augustine. As it was understood by the Greek-speaking Christians, in fact, he rejected θεοποιησις as a possibility for man, since there can be no substantial communion between divine and human nature.115 In contrast to the Eastern view of human nature as derived from God's Being and bearing the imprint of his hand, the nothingness from which Adam was created connoted deficiency and estrangement for Augustine; "it is already a predisposition to imperfection, if not to sin."116 The East, however, always on guard against a Gnostic denigration of the created order, insisted that material things were not evil in themselves, but only appeared such when man abnormally attaches his desire to them. Augustine was never able to completely abandon the Neo-platonic and Manichean influence from before his conversion. His relatively pessimistic view of creaturely human nature, deriving its being ex nihilo, shows traces of both.117
But the most far-reaching concern of Augustine was the corollary to his anthropology—the nature of God. In his theology, the ultimate reality of Deity is radically unapproachable and inaccessible to the mind of man.
We are speaking of God; is it any wonder if you do not understand? For if you do comprehend, he is not God. Let there be pious confession of ignorance, rather than a rash profession of knowledge. To reach God by the mind in any measure is great blessedness, but to comprehend him is altogether impossible.118
Augustine's writings are everywhere imbued with allusions to God's transcendent qualities, but even these superlatives, while they are beyond human knowledge or comprehension, are not adequate to describe God.119 God's transcendent ineffableness is more justly characterized in paradox: most hidden and yet most present, ever active while always at rest, who can grieve for wrong without suffering and be serene in anger.120 But perhaps the most decisive thing that Augustine could say about God was that he was one: absolute, simple, undifferentiated unity, even in Trinity.121 As one champion of his tacit rejection of deification put it, Augustine had the advantage of starting from a real and absolute monotheism, so that there was no possibility that human nature could be so transformed as to "become God."122
It is apparent that Augustine, by recognizing the logical incompatibility of the language of deification with theological ontology, achieved a greater consistency in his emphasis on salvation by grace, however limited such a soteriology might be. A detailed analysis of the content of Augustine's soteriology would be enlightening, but is unfortunately beyond the scope of this study. To a certain extent, however, it appears that Augustine misunderstood the Eastern doctrine as implying either pantheism or polytheism.123 No Greek Christian had any illusions about human nature becoming ομοουσιος with God, but by distinguishing between God's essence and his "essential powers," the Greek Fathers could still describe the goal of creation and the Incarnation as a real θεοποιησις. But Augustine's judgement, however much it misconstrued the Greek doctrine, remained decisive for orthodox Western Christianity. Even perfect righteousness, he cautions, cannot make us equal to our Creator.
Those who think that we shall be brought so far as to be changed into the substance of God, and be made altogether what he is, must support their opinion as they may: for my part I do not believe it.124
One of the surprising things about Christian deification is that it was so seldom regarded as a threat to monotheism, either by its proponents or detractors. The deified Christian is always subordinate to God himself, even though he inherits, jointly with the Son, all that the Father can offer in glory, exaltation, knowledge and beatitude. Thus Gross, in his study of Patristic deification, discounts the danger of polytheism but sees, notably from the Cappadocians on, a tendency to pantheism or absorption of the individual into God.125 This becomes especially evident in the development of Christian mysticism, since almost without exception the mystics themselves take pains to disavow pantheism in defense of their own orthodoxy.126
Although, as we have noted, Gregory of Nyssa, following certain themes in Philo, Origen and Neo-platonism, revealed a mystical bent in his thinking,127 it was Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite who became the inspiration for generations of later Christian mystics. He was a firm advocate of deification, which he defined in mystical terms:
Reasonable salvation . . . cannot otherwise occur than by the deification of those who are saved. Now deification (θεωσις) is, as much as attainable, assimilation to God and union with him (η προς θεον, ως εφικτον, αφομοιωσις τε και ενωσις).128
More emphatically than Athanasius or any of his predecessors, Dionysius tied this assimilation to the contemplation of God, on the principle that "we only behold that which we are."129 Yet Pseudo-Dionysius is equally well remembered for his development of apophatic theology in the Divine Names, and it was by pushing transcendence in this manner that he could avoid the dangers of pantheism.
. . . we behold no deification, or life, or being, which exactly resembles the altogether and utterly transcendent cause of all things.130
Along the same lines, he echoes the Platonic qualification to ομοιωσις, which was now standard for orthodox Christianity:
Moreover, since many, through deification from him, are made gods (so far as the godlike capacity of each allows) . . . yet nonetheless He is the primal God, the supra divine and super-essentially one God.131
Ladner calls this exposition "quite Platonic in spirit . . . that God is similar to Himself and to nothing else, and yet gives the greatest possible similarity with Himself to those who turn to him."132
Pseudo-Dionysius also developed sacramental theology along the lines of mystical deification. Although Cyril of Alexandria especially had already interpreted the Eucharist as "the means by which human nature was transformed and man was made fit to participate in the impassible and incorruptible nature of God,"133 Dionysius included baptism and anointing in this process, an ascent through purification, illumination and union.134 The goal of ecstatic union, even above and beyond the νους,135 carried deification on a road which could not have been foreseen by Athanasius.136
Since he was considered to be the genuine companion of Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34, and because of the translation of his works into Latin, especially by John Scotus Erigena in the ninth century, Dionysius' influence, especially in the West, was enormous. Through this influence on such mystics as Erigena himself, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Victorines, and especially Meister Eckhart, the language of deification survived in Western Christianity.137 For the mystic, deification is the achievement of reality through assimilation to God, since only the divine is ultimately real. The enjoyment of this full reality is "something which infinitely transcends the sum total of its symptoms," a unitive life which can only be expressed in language which sounds blasphemous to the prosaic mind, but which stems "naturally and logically" from the claim that one "partakes directly of the Divine Nature."138
Deification maintained a firm place in the doctrinal system of Eastern Christianity long after its rejection or sublimation in the West. Following Cyril, its most prominent exponent was Maximus the Confessor, the firm opponent of Monothelitism up to his death in 662. As the most prominent scholar on his thought, S. L. Epifanovic, has written, "The chief idea of St. Maximus, as of all Eastern theology, [was] the idea of deification."139 Maximus, in contrast to the soteriological reticence of the Latins, stressed the reality of the divine in deification: "All that God is, except for an identity in ousia, one becomes when one is deified by grace."140 Identity or confusion of natures excepted, everything about human nature is transformed into the divine mode of being.
John of Damascus, often considered the last of the Fathers, is a clear witness to the vitality of θεωσις in the Greek Church of the eighth century. "John of Damascus sees in divinization the summit of salvation,"141 but more decisively than his predecessors he distinguished between the deification of human nature by virtue of the Incarnation and participation of the individual through moral effort. "The common φυσις of all men was deified once and for all in the Incarnation due to the contact with divinity," paraphrases Gross. Individuals, on the other hand, must achieve their deification by the imitation of Christ."142 This ethical striving must be guided and sustained by the Saviour, along with the Sacraments of the Church and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit. John had no qualms about maintaining deification alongside the insistence of the profound metaphysical separation between Creator and creature. In a polemic against the Manicheans he wrote, "there is a greater distance between the seraphim and God than there is between the Evil One and the seraphim."143
In the eleventh century, Michael Psellus maintained the Church's deification soteriology by his distinction between identity with God and likeness, ομοιωσις. The ultimate sense of this likeness, however, meant
the ability to make man divine, to lead him out of the material realm, to deliver him from passions, and to endow him with the ability to deify another—this is the most perfect likeness.144
This doctrine was anchored by Psellus in the Athanasian formula on the Incarnation, and disassociated itself from the Hellenistic ideas of the eternity of matter and pantheism.
The liturgy of Eastern Christianity has always accepted and expressed the highest concept of salvation. The tenth-century hagiographer Simeon Metaphrastes contributed to the Eucharistic prayers in this tradition: "The body of God deifies me and feeds one; it deifies my spirit and it feeds my soul in an incomprehensible manner."145
It is evident that Eastern Orthodox soteriology has not undergone extensive development since the Patristic period, and this has been criticized for the resulting stagnation and degeneration into superstition.146 For the faithful, on the other hand, this resistance to "adaptation" is a mark of God's gracious preservation of revealed and saving truth, entrusted once and for all to His Church.147
At any rate, "Orthodox soteriology remains essentially Christology" of the Athanasian type.148 The "special, central meaning" of the Incarnation is the deification of humanity through the union between God and man in the person of Jesus Christ. "This basic idea runs like a central nerve through all the faith and life of the Orthodox Church."149
Although the details of the process of deification remain somewhat vague or lacking in precision, it is not a mere allegory, nor a metaphor to illustrate communion with God. It goes beyond the renewal of fallen humanity.
The thought which is uppermost in most minds is that human nature, by the grace of God in Christ, reaches such a degree of holiness and perfection that its mystic real communion with God in Christ is so indissolubly penetrated by God, that it becomes like God; its situation and the nature of its union with God become very like the situation of the deified human nature of the Son of God and the union of the two natures in the God-man Christ.150
The working out of this participation in the redemptive action of God is a dynamic of that grace and the cooperative activity of man's faith, which includes conversion from sin, baptism, and a life of holiness in accordance with God's will and grace.151 In this sense also, the Orthodox tradition preserves the Greek Patristic attitude and teaching, and can be called "Athanasian."152
The value of this preservation must be determined by the individual Christian, but the implications of this soteriology cannot be dismissed lightly as Christian υβρις or excessive metaphysical language. In the final analysis, concludes Turner from his study of The Patristic Doctrine of Redemption, all schemes of salvation point to deification, the "Transfiguration" or lifting of human life which is aimed too low, by participation in the very life and character of Deity.153