Eastern Orthodoxy: Theosis/Deification

I’ve learned some interesting concepts from class #23: Eastern Orthodoxy.  The podcast is one from the Ancient and Medieval Church History class from Covenant Theological Seminary.  First, let’s have a little background.  (Incidentally, the seminary is a Presbyterian seminary.)

The Eastern Orthodox Church officially split with the Catholic Church in 1054.  The Pope excommunicated the Patriarch in Constantinople, so the Patriarch did the same to the Pope.  There had been some different emphasis on theology for quite some time.  For example, while the Catholic Church claimed that the Pope held all the leadership, the Orthodox Church held a much less central authority.  The Orthodox belief of revelation is that God speaks through these councils, not one central person.

There were seven early councils (such as the Nicene Council.) These edicts of these councils are usually considered scripture in the Orthodox church.  The various Orthodox churches (Russian, Greek, etc) are quite a bit more autonomous.  The Orthodox church even holds out that there could one day be an American Orthodox church, if membership warrants such an organization.

Even before the official split, there were many tensions between Rome and Constantinople.  In the podcast, the teacher refers to Rome as the “Western” church, and Constantinople as the “Eastern” church.  The western church spoke mostly Latin, while the eastern church spoke mostly Greek.  In the West, the church had an emphasis on:

  1. Sin
  2. Grace
  3. Justification
  4. Salvation
  5. Sacraments

The eastern church agrees, but has a larger emphasis on:

  1. Apophaticism – an emphasis on the mystery of God.
  2. Tradition
  3. Theosis
  4. Icons

I’d like to talk about Theosis.  Theosis is a greek word meaning Deification, as in the deification of humanity.  Unfortunately, I do not know the name of the teacher, but anyone can download the podcast to hear him directly.  I’d like to quote the teacher directly.

“[Theosis] is the word that really sums up salvation.  In the West, we talk about sin and justification as a way of understanding salvation.  In the East, the emphasis is on theosis or deification.  We are changed so that we become like God, or Eastern theologians will say it even more strongly than that.  As Athanasius put it, ‘God became man, that man might become God.’  That’s theosis, or deification.

Well, that strikes the western mind as kind of a problematic way to understand theology and to understand the transforming effect of grace.  The eastern mind though sees that as the real purpose of Christ coming into the world, to transform us that we become like him.  In some ways, we can see that if we’re talking about union with Christ, or becoming more and more like Christ or becoming more and more like God.  But in the eastern expression of theosis, it is stated so strongly that Christ became man, that we might become God that most western thinkers pull back from that.  It sounds like a kind of heresy of some sort.  I expect closer examination of the eastern idea of theosis, will reveal that the eastern theology doesn’t for the most part, go over the line, but it uses language that can be suggested of something that western Christians would want to avoid.

The people in the west that pick up this same idea are the mystics, and in the west, they were constantly accused of pantheism.  Because, to the western mind, this kind of language, and this kind of expression goes too far because it tends to blur the distinction between God and his creation.”

I decided to look up theosis on Wikipedia, and found this interesting quote from St Ireneaus (who lived 130-202 AD.)  He is considered a saint in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches.  “St. Irenaeus explained this concept in Against Heresies, Book 5, in the Preface, “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”

It seems to me that mormons have much in common with this idea of theosis.  This sounds quite similar to Lorenzo Snow’s quote, “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.” Comments?


32 comments on “Eastern Orthodoxy: Theosis/Deification

  1. Excellent post my heretical friend!!!

    After I had left Mormonism a couple of years ago I seriously considered becoming Eastern Orthodox for some of the reasons you mention.

    I have an article by Christoforos Stavropoulos a theologian entitled, “Partakers of Divine Nature.” In there he says, “As human beings we have this one, unique calling, to achieve theosis. In other words, we are destined to become a god, to be like God himself, to be united with him.”

    This all sounds very, very, Mormon. However there is an important difference. He says later, “We are transformed into his likeness. However this union is not absolute. It is relative, for it is not the transformation of our essence. Rather, it is natural, ethical, and in accordance with grace. It is the union of the whole person with God as unrestricted happiness in the divine kingdom.”

    I think we could make a distinction between weak theosis and strong theosis. Mormons seem to believe in strong theosis, i.e. our natures will themselves become divine. Eastern Orthodox believe in weak theosis, in that, we attain a likeness with God only in being with him, i.e. our natures do not change.

    Even with these differences the similarities are striking!

  2. My personal belief is that Mormons believe in the concept of becoming “like” god in a sense that he will allow us to partake of His glory and sit next to him on His throne. Also we will be crowned with glory and become kings and priests unto the most high.

    However, God and Jesus will always be superior to us because they have always been God and they created us in the first place and will always be our superior.

    I can’t say that I agree with the quote by Lorenzo Snow that states God was once a man because in the scriptures it says God was and is everlasting…he was always God and will always be God.

    So I would say that my belief is the “weak” theosis that was mentioned in comment number 1.

    Great post!


  3. Some of you know, but there is a similar discussion going on at http://kolobiv.blogspot.com/2008/07/robbery-to-be-equal-with-god.html

    It is interesting to see the different thoughts there. I personally agree that when we become one with God, the hierarchy loses it’s significance. Therefore, weak or strong theosis becomes irrelevant. I think weak theosis is probably easier for most people to comprehend.

  4. Great thoughts. Thank you. I think we have much more to learn about theosis — especially its history.

    For a collection of ancient quotations on the topic, see my essay entitled: Theosis.

    Someday, I am hoping to see a strong LDS scholarly book on the topic. Certainly, several PhD dissertations could be done. There is much analysis waiting to be done.

  5. S. Faux

    Welcome! Thank you so much for the link. I am greatly impressed with your blog.

  6. S. Faux,

    An Occasional Paper was published in 2002, written by Jordan Vajda, OP “Partakers of the Divine Nature” A Comparative analysis of Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization.

    I thought his paper was well researched.

  7. Thanks for the link. I did a google search, and found it available for $9.95. It is interesting to note that the author is not LDS.

    It appears there are some blogs out there commenting on this, but I haven’t had time to read through these yet.

  8. The difference between the two ideas is this. For the Orthodox, we become partakers of the divine nature via the activities or energies of God and not the divine essence, which remains unparticipatable. What are the energies? They are activities such as knowledge, will, divine light, love, etc. We do not become another instance of the same kind of being God is.

    On the LDS view humans become another instance of the same type of being.

  9. Perry, thank you for commenting. It is nice to go to the “source” for this type of information.

    I don’t know if you’ve had occasion to read through S Faux’s list of early church fathers quotes on divinization–they are quite interesting. I am curious as to the Eastern Orthodox position on the resurrection.

    It seems to me (correct me if I am wrong) that all Christians accept that Jesus had a physical, resurrected body, and this is the primary (among other things) reason why Jesus is more than simply a prophet. What importance is the resurrection in the grand scheme of things?

    It seems the mormon view is that God is essentially a resurrected being, but in the trinitarian view of things, the resurrection seems to be relatively unimportant. Can you elain this paradox to me, or is it considered one of the mysteries of God?

  10. MH,

    No, but I have read enough of the primary and secondary sources not to be suprised when seeing such citations.

    From an Orthodox perspective since we do not view the atonement either in terms of satisfaction (a technical medieval term) or penal substitution, we view the resurrection somewhat differently. The atonement was the preservation of the hypostation union in the face of death. That is, while Christ’s human soul and body are divded from each other, they are never divided from his divine person. So he takes death into himself and recapitulates or does over humanity with it thereby removing death as a weapon of the devil. It no longer leads to our annihilation but to our resurrection. A seed must die in order to srpout and so on. Consequently, the resurrection is therefore the vindication or justification of God, Christ and humanity. 1st. God because it vindicates the Trinity from the charge of the devil that God was not omnipotent and could not save all from annihilation while preserving freedom. 2nd it vindicates or justifies Christ specifically from the false charges as well as the power of death. 3rd It vindicates humanity since all humanity now is predestined to exist foreve rin Christ and to be raised and judged. (Rom 3:25, 1 Cor 15:21ff)

    So the resurrection is not a nomological dangler of sorts. It is the capstone to the redeeming work of the Incarnation. Without it there would be no vindication over death.

  11. Perry, thank you for your response. I must say you are using some terms that I am just starting to get acquainted with. Let me see if I understand your position.

    It seems you are saying that Christ’s resurrection proves that death is not final. So, Christ’s resurrection was a victory over death. However, Christ is part of God, which is an infinite being. So in essence, Christ evolves into some form which is incorruptible, and that his essence is not easily described, especially his physical characteristics.

    Is this correct? Also, is the resurrection of man, just a part of man evolving into another more evolved form?

  12. MH,

    Ok, let me see if I can translate more clearly. Ever seen the Matrix? It’s like that, the New Man, Neo, goes into death, goe sinto humanity and heals it from the inside out and triumphs over death. It is not just a proving but an actual doing

    I wouldn’t say that Christ is “part” of God since God lacks parts. And we wouldn’t speak of it in terms of evolution since that would imply that death was natural to humanity, which would be a form of Pelagianism.

    Theosis is like standing on the shore of a river watching it pass by and then jumping in. The river was always river and you are always you, but now you are in it and moving with it.

  13. Hmmm. I’m still not getting it. Are you saying death is not natural to humanity?

    Are there any good websites explaining theosis, trinity, and resurrection from an Eastern Orthodox point of view? They all seem to be very related concepts to me.

  14. Yup, I am saying death is not natural to humanity, but a result of sin.

    Yes,there are a number of good sites and good monographs from various patristics scholars. Most major Archdioceses in the US such as GOARCH, the OCA and the Antiochians have plenty of free articles. And of course there is my website. 😉

  15. […] 9.    eastern orthodoxy theosis/deification […]

  16. Another book “Partakers of the Divine Nature The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions” by Michael J. Christensen and Jeffery A. Whittung. This book contains essays written by many leading scholars. These different essays span about a 1500 year development of the theosis theme in Christianity. Interesting stuff. Hope you might like it.

  17. I’ve been told that my personal beliefs are more Eastern Christianity than Western. Who knew?

    I do find my understandings of Cosmology driving me toward pantheism rather than panentheism, so I suppose I need to look into this to find out which of several heresies I’m actually commiting this time (As your avatar would say, MH, “But still it moves!”)

    More seriously, I think a better model than generations of divinity creating and raising their own offspring is more a set of Russian dolls — level upon level upon unimaginable level interacting with and embedded in the levels above and below them. In this picture, God is not at any level; He’s the whole infinite and uncountable set.

    At least with that heresy, I’m unlikely to lead very many astray.

  18. David, thanks for the info about the book. It sounds like a very interesting read.

    FireTag, as usual, you always seem to look at things from unusual angles. The Russian stacking dolls is an interesting concept. I kind of like that heresy.

    I will say that when I first discovered this topic last year, I was truly astonished to discover a modern branch of Christianity believed in some of the same things Joseph Smith taught. It gave me a whole new meaning of the apostasy. I think deification is a pretty cool concept.

  19. Not sure if there’s a point in replying to a year-old post, but I see a few recents so I’ll hazard a try. I’m on the verge of converting to Orthodoxy (from Protestantism), and I have some Mormon friends, so hence I find myself here. Here’s my take on a few things:

    Theosis can be understood like fire. The fire is the “Godness” of God, his divine energies. But the fire is fire by nature. By “participating” in the fire (sticking your hand in it, for example), a man will be set ablaze. He is on fire. He is not fire by nature, but he becomes fire through participation. It’s kind of a violent image and can’t be taken too far, but that’s the gist of it.

    A deified person does not become God in essence. A person will *always* be a created being and cannot become God in nature. A person will always be a mere creature and subordinate to the Godhead. But a person can be consumed by God’s energies and become, as Orthodox put it, “god by grace”. People can become deified and become a “channel” of God’s divine energy, but a person can never become God, or part of God.

    It’s kind of a complex idea that a human can never understand, but hopefully that explains it somewhat.

    I don’t claim to be an expert on Mormon theology, but from what I understand, the belief is that the faithful become gods-in-nature.

    As to the Trinity, the Father is the fountainhead of deity, and the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, while the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father. The Godhead is One because they all share the same divine essence, yet they are three separate Persons. They are not simple manifestations of the same thing, but are three separate and distinct Persons. Yet they are one in essence and undivided, and co-eternal.

    And as to Resurrection, the Orthodox belief is that death is very much unnatural. The Soul and Body are one organism, and they are not supposed to be separated. We were created to live eternally on Earth, but we have been infected with the disease of sin, and so we die.

    At death, our souls and bodies separate, and this is tragic for the one who dies. Yet, the soul is still alive, hence prayer to the Saints – they are not dead and off in some faraway realm, they are still alive. This is a “one story” universe, they’re not up on the second floor, they are still here – a great cloud of witnesses, as St Paul wrote.

    At the Second Coming, Christ will resurrect everyone, and our bodies and souls will finally be reunited. Our bodies will be glorified and restored to their original state, and we will be judged according to our deeds, as Revelation says. Death and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire, and Satan will be no more.

    There is a great essay called “The River of Fire” by Dr Alexander Kalimaros that explains matters of theosis and death much better than I could.

    Hope this was helpful!

  20. Jeff, thanks for stopping by. This is one of my favorite topics, so I always welcome comments.

    You have some really interesting insights. I remember that the teacher in the podcast said that Eastern Orthodoxy likes to revel in the mysteries of God. I guess my western upbringing makes it hard for me to truly understand all the intricacies of Eastern Orthodoxy, but I continue to be fascinated when I learn more about it. The fire analogy makes a lot of sense.

    I thought you might be interesting in the Mormon concept of “soul”, as it is a little different than your definition. D&C 88: 15 says, “And the spirit and the body are the soul of man.

    The significance of this is that Mormons believe that in the resurrection, the spirit and body are reunited together to form the soul of man. It seems to me that other Christians use the terms soul and spirit interchangeably–these terms are not interchangeable in Mormon thought.

  21. Men commit sin and in so doing their souls fall spiritually into the realm of the Devil and separate from the abode of God. Through the atonement, men are purified from all sin and re-receive the glorified nature they once had before they fell. The regeneration of the soul restores the soul to the divine nature and expands the consciousness, so that God and the entire company of heaven are revealed to the inner man in spirit. The spiritual life is entered into at night with the onset of sleep.

    We are made in the image of God and God is holy. Holy from the Saxon Ha-lig meaning purity or wholeness of light (light without defilement of darkness). Man is light with defilement of darkness and so is unholy and unfit to serve God in the state he requires (righteousness). For union with God man must overcome sin and undergo purification from all pre-existant sin). This calls for self-mastery made possible by prayer and remaining in God’s word. The saints are called overcomers because they will be raised-up (into the upper heavens) and will be exalted above the fallen (in the lower heavens). Unfortunately before this takes place a battle must be fought by the Saints against the devil’s wiles in the spirit through a season of testing. During this affliction or tribulation, some will fall away but others will persevere unto the rapture of salvation.

    Go into a gothic church and look up at the stain-glass windows and you will see scenes of saints fighting the dragon. It’s a symbolic representation of what must happen next in the evolution of the faith. Actually it’s not an evolution, but a return to the spiritual principles as they were originally taught by the prophets and apostles. The men and woman who are prophesied to come in Revelation 5 will be strong and brave and have the knowledge of the truth within them and will demonstrate the truth of their eventual salvation with the same power of miracles signs and wonders which were revealed in apostolic times.

  22. Thanks Sotor. That’s an interesting perspective.

  23. Dear Jeff,
    Another way of looking at the Orthodox understanding of Theosis is that the love of God is like a fire. Those who draw near are wormed and kept safe, but others are burned and set ablaze.
    Another way to look at it is when St. Paul says, “every knee will bow and tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord forever”. For those who love Christ and followed his way in their lives they will but overcome with joy that they may worship God all their life, but for those who hate Him and turned the other way, worshiping Him will be an offal task. Those who hate Him will slowly become more dammed, while those who love Him will become closer to him (hence theosis).
    One of the great saints puts it that if you form a sword and it isn’t formed correctly, it will explode in the furnace that one uses to form the sword, but if it is formed correctly, when the sword enters the furnace it will become a magnificent sword ready for battle. Believing that Jesus is God is only the firs step, not the last. One must grow closer to God that when we worship him forever we must do it with joy and not with hate and malice.

  24. Thanks Steven. This reminds me of an interesting scripture in Isaiah 33:14-15.

    Isa 33:14 The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?”

    Isa 33:15 He who walks righteously and speaks what is right, who rejects gain from extortion and keeps his hand from accepting bribes, who stops his ears against plots of murder and shuts his eyes against contemplating evil

  25. […] received a pingback from my previous post on Theosis from someone at Christian Forums.  I have another post on President Lorenzo Snow’s famous […]

  26. […] been having a heated discussion over at Christian Forums.  Someone there linked to my article on Theosis.  I was a bit nervous, as these types of forums can be not only heated, but strongly biased […]

  27. […] no Catholic church–it was known as the Orthodox Church.  I previously discussed the idea of theosis in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and its similarities to Mormon […]

  28. I find the Bible supports the LDS “Mormon view” in many scriptures. First – We lived in Heaven before coming here:

    Number 16:22 – God of the spirits of all flesh

    Deut. 14:1 – Ye are the children of the Lord your God

    Job 32:8 – There is a spirit in men

    Pslams 82:6 – Ye are Gods children of the most high

    Eccl 12:7 – The spirit shall return unto God who gave it

    Hosea 1:10 – Ye are sons of the living God

    Mathew 5:28 – Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father…

    Acts 17:29 – We are the offspirg of God

    Romans 8:16 – Spirit beareth witness… we are the children of God

    Hebrew 12:9 – Be in subjection to the Father of your spirits

    Eph 4:6 – One God and Father of all

    Jeremiah 1:5
    Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.

    1 Pet. 1:18-20
    Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world but was manifest in these last times for you.

    Note: Again talks about being foreordained before the world. If Christ’s mission was foreordained than who were the people watching this process. US of course.

    Titus 1:2
    In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began;

    Job 38:4-7
    Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? Or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner stone thereof; when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

    Romans 8:29-30
    For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified

    Look what Psalms says:
    Psalms 82:1
    God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.

    Psalms 82:6
    I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.

    Deuteronomy 10:17
    For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward:

    1 Corinthians 3:16-17
    Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.

  29. Ephesians 3:14-15
    For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named

  30. My understanding of Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis is this:

    Salvation is viewed as union with Christ

    We become partakers of the divine nature

    We become like God or godlike by grace not by nature (I think this is where the Orthodox depart from LDS theology).

    This is because the goal of humanity is to bear God’s image. Since the fall, God’s image has been marred and substantially hidden. Even so, humanity is still bears God’s image, so the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity is rejected, as is the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. And deification is the full restoration of God’s image in humanity. This was the purpose of Christ’s work on earth. His life in healing and forgiving. His death and resurrection to defeat the powers of sin and death. And his ascension and exaltation the right hand of God to rule the world. All this was to restore humanity to its original purpose to be God’s image bearers and stewards of his very good creation. So creation is restored with humanity. This is another point of departure with Mormonism. Because, as I understand it, in Mormonism we are taken out of this world to go to another world where we will be gods (perhaps capital “G” gods). In Orthodoxy, salvation is to restore this world not to take us out of it. In fact there are quite a few parallels between Mormonism and early Gnosticism. So any similarities between Orthodoxy and Mormonism are superficial in my opinion. The worldviews of the two are entirely different.

    Orthodoxy is rooted in the Trinity. Orthodoxy is utterly orthodox in Christian doctrine (small “o”). Mormonism is utterly heterodox. And, from an Orthodox perspective, the Mormon claim to be the restoration of Christianity is simply false and can be waved away much more easily than for a Protestant . For those looking to critique Mormonism, Orthodoxy is a very good way to go about this. Instead of the sort of “line-by-line” Protestant critique that is basically circular, Orthodoxy is simply able to outflank Mormon claims. They are not bound by sola scriptura. This is at the heart of Protestant difficulties in dealing with Mormonism. The scripture is part of the Holy Tradition of the church for the Orthodox and is not placed over and against the church. So scripture comes after the church and is a product of the Church, which is guided by the Holy Spirit of course. A Protestant is forced to use scripture as an independent authority because of its doctrine of sola scriptura. Therefore, there is no Holy Tradition with which to interpret it. Therefore, anyone can interpret it (Protestants would disagree with this, but it is essentially true in reality, hence the many denominations). Therefore heterodox religions such as Mormonism are born. For an Orthodox, Protestantism (which adheres to some orthodox doctrines) and Mormonism (who don’t adhere to any orthodox doctrines) are different sides of the same coin. Mormonism is the direct consequence of Protestant reductionism and deconstruction of the Christian faith. Mormons have taken the quasi-gnostic Puritan ideology to their logical conclusions – the disdain for ecclesial authority, the suspicion of flesh (hence very strict rules concerning alcohol, caffeine etc), the dualism (the rapture and total depravity in Puritanism and the personal planets for Mormon gods) etc. Couple this with the Gnostic-like temple worship of Mormons and you have a religion that the Orthodox can just simply look at wave away as not an authentic representation of the Apostolic faith. It is completely foreign to the Apostolic witness. Orthodoxy completely outflanks Mormonism without having to get into the hand-to-hand type of debates fundamentalist Protestants find themselves in.

    This being so, an Orthodox would never say that a Mormon is not “saved”. Salvation, to the Orthodox, is a mystery. Although they see the Orthodox Church as the only true church, they recognize that God’s grace can still be made available outside the church.

    I wonder if anyone here has spoken to the similarity between Mormonism and early Gnosticism. I think this is one of the ways we can see clearly that Mormonism has no historical claims to be apostolic.

  31. […] GODS IN EMBRYO? THE MORMON DOCTRINE OF HUMAN DEIFICATION” by HUGO OLAIZ (probably because I just blogged about it.)  One of the most interesting points to me that Hugo made was Lorenzo Snow’s couplet  […]

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