Deification: Becoming God’s Children

Patristic tradition usually sees a man’s potential for deification in the fact that man is created by God in his own image. Because of this natural affinity, the fathers spoke of a man as potentially a son of God. The process of deification involves the realization of the status of son of God through the process of hyiothesia (“adoption of sons”).The idea is present already in the New Testament. Christ gave power to those who receive him “to become the sons of God” (Jn. 1:12), that the faithful might “receive the adoption as Sons” (Gal 4:5; cf Rom 8:15). This adoption of sons was accomplished through Christ’s incarnation. Athanasius represents one set of ideas when he asserts that “Christ made us the sons of the Father and deified man by becoming himself a man.”

His thought hinges upon the idea of the incarnation: humanity is deified in a natural (physikos) manner, being assumed by God in the incarnation. Due to this understanding – our becoming God’s children as a natural consequence of God the Son becoming man – he uses the concept of hyiothesia as synonymous with “deification”: to be a son or daughter of God is to be deified. Another set of ideas is presented by Basil, who speaks of our adoption not so much through natural deification at the incarnation as through its subsequent effects: the descending and indwelling in man of the Holy Spirit.”   (Nicholas V. Sakharov, I Love Therefore I am, pp. 144-145)


Christ Removes All Barriers to God

Since having Christmas in July (sales!) is popular these days, we can think what this means for us Christians.

“He did not change place, nor did He penetrate or pass over a wall, but, as He Himself showed, He left no barrier standing which could separate us from Him. Since God occupies every place He was not separated from man by place, but by man’s variance with Him. Our nature separated itself from God by being contrary to Him in everything that it possessed and by having nothing in common with Him. God remained Himself alone; our nature was human, and no more.

When, however, flesh was deified and human nature gained possession of God Himself by hypostatic union, the former barrier opposed to God became joined to the Chrism. The difference gave way when God became man, thus removing the separation between Godhead and manhood. So chrism represents Christ as the point of contact between both natures; there could be no point of contact were they still separate.”  (St. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 104-105)

It is not living on earth which separates us from God – it is our own freely chosen sins which separate God from us.  Christ in the incarnation shows divinity is united to our humanity.  We are capable of bearing God in our selves, our bodies, our lives!  We are not separated from God by space or distance, but only by our wills.  God stands at the door of our hearts and knocks waiting for each of us to invite Him into our lives, our hearts and our homes.

“Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”  (Revelation 3:19-21)


Theosis: Creation and Creator Have Become One

Today, the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent, in the Church we honor the memory of St. Gregory Palamas.  As a theologian, St. Gregory is famous for defending the Orthodox faith and explaining how we participate in the Divine Life.  He is noted for having helped explicate the theology of salvation as deification/theosis.  Many Orthodox saints helped to explain theosis, or reveal it through their own lives.  St. Isaac of Ninevah writes:

We give thanks to You, O God, for Your gift to the world, (a gift) whose richness created beings are not capable of describing; seeing that I too am part of that (world), may I not begrudge my portion of thanksgiving which I owe to You. For this reason I will praise You and confess Your name. You have given Your entire treasure to the world: if You gave the Only-Begotten from Your bosom and from the throne of Your Being for the benefit of all, what further do you have which You have not given to Your creation? The world has become mingled with God, and creation and Creator have become one!

Praise to You for Your inscrutable purpose: truly this mystery is vast. Glory to You for Your mysteries which are hidden from us. Make me worthy, Lord to taste of this great mystery which is hidden and concealed, (a mystery) of which the world is not yet worthy of perceiving. Maybe You indicated something of it to Your saints who live in the body above the world and who are at all times above the impulses of the flesh.

O Christ who are covered with light as though with a garment, who for my sake stood naked in front of Pilate, clothe me with that might which You caused to overshadow the saints, whereby they conquered this world of struggle. May Your divinity, Lord, take pleasure in me, and lead me above the world to be with You.

(Isaac of Nineveh: The Second Part, pp. 13-15)

Lost Innocence

A week ago this past Sunday, we had the Gospel Lesson of the Publican and Pharisee  (Luke 18:10-14) .   There were tw0 hymns from the Matins Canon that caught my attention for their theological content.   The first states a simple truth in the Orthodox understanding of what it is to be human.  Humans in this view were not created perfect, but were created with the possibility of perfection, if they chose that way of life.

Adam and Eve are seen in this theological understanding more as innocent children who did not fully understand the consequences of their behavior because they lacked real world experience with evil.  This is why Satan was able to deceive Adam and Eve.  The first two humans were not created with a fatal flaw, nor did they have evil inside themselves.  They were innocent or immature and thus easily led astray by the allurement of temptation.  So the first hymn says:

I was created naked in innocence and simplicity;

then the enemy clothed me with the garment of sin and passionate flesh.

But now I am saved, Maiden, through your intercession.

The sin of Adam and Eve was not to trust God in both protecting them from evil but also leading them toward a beautiful maturity.   Satan promised them something more immediate and they trusted that Serpent whom they hardly knew at all.  God knew the path for Eve and Adam to reach the maturity of theosis, but humans rejected God’s plan and decide to follow the Serpent’s plan to deification.

The second hymn is not actually related to the first, except that both have the the Virgin Mary as part of the plan of salvation.  In this hymn we see clearly expressed the theological interpretation of the Old Testament that Mary herself is the ladder climbing to heaven which Jacob saw (Genesis 28:10-17).  She connects earth to heaven because God descends through her in the Incarnation not only into the earth but also into the place of the dead.

You are the beauty of Jacob, Holy Virgin;

the divine ladder he saw in the days of old, stretching from earth to heaven,

for you bring down the Incarnate God from on high,

and bring mortal men up to heaven.

Mary’s role in salvation is thus foretold by the Old Testament.  God promised to give us the means by which it would be possible for God to be united to humanity and for humanity to gain access to heaven itself.  This promise turns out to be the Theotokos.  In her the incarnation takes place, thus in her is realized the salvation of the world which God had promised from the earliest days of human existence.

Revealing Adam: The Transfiguration

Although the events of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9) fit so well into Orthodox incarnational theology and salvation as theosis, the Feast of the Transfiguration became universally celebrated throughout the Orthodox world relatively late in history.  It was celebrated in certain parts of Orthodoxy, but the fact that it ended up in the middle of the Dormition Fast is one sign that it became popular universally later than other feasts and fasts of the Church.

Be that as it may, the Feast of the Transfiguration does fit nicely into Orthodox theology, bringing together so many elements from the story of creation, the fall and salvation in Christ.  The festal Apostikha hymns especially reveal how the feast reveals the theology of salvation.  First we note in the hymns the claim that it is the pre-incarnate Christ who speaks to both Moses and Elijah.  There is an assumption in Orthodoxy that all of the anthropomorphic encounters with God in the Old Testament are encounters with the pre-Incarnate Christ.


Humans are said in Genesis 1 to be created in God’s image and likeness.  It is assumed in Orthodoxy that it is Christ, the real image of God the Father, in whose image we are made.  Jesus Christ, God incarnate, reveals the original beauty of the image of God in us.  At the transfiguration the three disciples’ eyes were open, and suddenly they saw the image of God in us, but now in all its glory.  Adam and Eve were gloriously created in God’s image and likeness and glorious arrayed in garments provided them by God.


The image of God in Adam and Eve was glorious – like lightening, and that is what the three apostles saw.  They saw how a human is in God’s glorious image, how humanity is supposed to reveal divinity.   This doesn’t denigrate God, but is revealed in a lightening flash where humanity is as bright as the sun.


Christ’s garments shown with this divine light – brighter than the sun.  This revelation comes not in the darkness of the night but at mid-day, the sun is shining brightly.  Yet the divine light in Christ shines even more brightly.  Christ’s very garments are shining with this divine light, just as Adam and Eve’s did in the Garden of Delight.  Christ is showing to the disciples not only what humanity was like in the beginning, in Paradise, but what creation itself was like.


The apostles saw what Adam and Eve had lost through sin and being expelled from Eden.  The saw even the importance of the original garments worn by the first humans and restored by Christ. They saw what the physical creation was capable and what it was meant to be.  They saw the material world once again in communion with divinity as it was intended by God to be.  In Christ, at the Transfiguration, they saw the spiritual world and the physical world reunited, and the material world fulfilling all God created it to be.

God’s Miracle: Loving Us to Death

“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.”   (St. Paul writing to the Ephesians 3:8-10)

The plan of God for the salvation of the world, was also a mystery, hidden from everyone – even the angelic powers didn’t know God’s plan – and yet glimpses of it were revealed through the prophets to God’s people.  Finally, in Jesus Christ the full plan was revealed – the incarnation of God.  St Gregory Palamas writes:

“When the prophet and psalmist was enumerating the different aspects of creation and observing God’s wisdom in them all, he was filled with amazement and cried out while writing, ‘O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom have you made them all’ (Ps. 104:24). Now that I am attempting, if I can, to tell you about the manifestation in the flesh of the Word who made all things, what fitting word of praise will I find? If all things that exist inspire wonder, and their coming out of non-being into being is something divine and greatly to be hymned, how much more amazing, divine and demanding of our praises is it for a being to become god, and not just god, but the God who truly is?

Especially as it was our nature which was neither able nor willing to preserve the image in which it was made, and had therefore been rightly banished to the lower parts of the earth.  That our nature should become like God, and that through it we should receive the gift of returning to what is better, is a mystery so great and divine, so ineffable and beyond understanding, that it remained absolutely unrecognized by holy angels and men, and even by prophets, although they had spiritual vision, and was hidden throughout the ages.” (The Homilies, p 100)

For Palamas, the miracle and the mystery of God is that God made us in His own image, but we scorned that gift.  We didn’t even have to earn that status, God gave it to us and we willfully tarnished it.  Despite this high-handed rejection of God, God still willed that our nature should become like God!  This is so beyond comprehension – pure grace, undeserved.   Even the angels in heaven, according to St. Gregory didn’t know what God had in mind and where God was headed with His continued loved toward humans.

The incarnation has a further and tremendous mystery hidden in it that is revealed in Christ:  the Cross.  Christ dies on the cross.  Christ dies for our sins.  The death of God in the flesh is the revelation of God’s love for us.  While we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  God appears on earth as a man, and dies on the cross in order that we might share in God’s divine and eternal life.  God loves us to death, even death on the cross!

The Theotokos and Theosis

“But the Virgin, by conceiving the Word within her body, ‘deified the human race and made earth a heaven.’ The Word ‘became the Son of Man, sharing in mortality, to turn human beings into sons of God and make them partakers of divine immortality.’ How believers appropriate this within the ecclesial community is illustrated typologically. The incarnate Word gave us baptism as a sacrament and type of his burial and resurrection to deify both the soul and body. His transfiguration opened the eyes of his disciples, showing them that human nature has been deified by union with the Word of God.

We must imitate him in his earthly life to become partakers of his resurrection and fellow-heirs with Christ. Through fasting and  night vigils we are ‘renewed and deified’ in our inner being. This transformation of our human nature, first in the representative humanity of Christ and then in our own person through the life of faith, is thoroughly traditional and patristic.” (Norman Russel in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly: Vol. 50, #4, p 377-378)

Becoming and Being a Christian

St. Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022AD), as with other Patristic writers, understood that the Word of God not only became incarnate in Jesus Christ, but also in some fashion that same Word of God comes to abide in each Christian.  The Christian is the one who is united to God the Word.  The process of being united to Christ and the end result of this spiritual sojourn is referred to as theosis or deification.

In the Baptism service of the Orthodox Church the candidate for baptism is asked both of these question:

“Are you united to Christ?”

“Have you united yourself to Christ?”

Union with Christ is essential to being a Christian from the very start of one’s Christian life.  St. Symeon writes:

“So, brothers, let each of you has bent his mind to the force of these sayings see himself.

If one has received the Word Who has come,

if he has become a child of God,

if he has been born not of flesh and blood alone, but also from God,

if he has known the incarnate Word tabernacling in himself and

if he has seen His glory, glory as of the Only-Begotten of the Father,

then behold! he has become a Christian and has seen himself born again, and has known the Father Who has begotten him, not in word alone but by the work of grace and truth.”

(On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses, pg. 157)

And as the Word dwells in one’s heart, one becomes united to God the Word, being transformed into a disciples of the Son of God.  Saint Tikhon of Voronezh (d. 1783AD) pleads with God to help this personal transfiguration take place:

“Give me ears to hear You,

eyes to see You,

taste to partake of You,

sense of smell to inhale You.

Give me feet to walk unto You;

lips to speak of You,

heart to fear and love You.

Teach me Your ways, O Lord, and I shall walk in Your truth. For You are the way, the truth, and the life.”

(in The Pearl of Great Price, pg. 56)

It becomes even possible for us to see in others this transformation of a person into a Christian, to see God united to that person whose life has been transfigured by their union with Christ our God.  Saint Pachomius the Great (d. 346AD) says:

“If you see a man pure and humble, that is a great vision. For what is greater than such a vision , to see the invisible God in a visible man.”       (in The Pearl of Great Price, pg. 156)

Prophet Moses

When the invisible God becomes united to a Christian, that union becomes visible in the life of the Christian.  We indeed become God-bearers, and others who see this in us become themselves transformed by the experience.  The early Church Fathers expressed this process even more forcefully in the phrase made famous by St. Athanasius the Great (d. ca 337AD), “God became man so that man might become god.”


What is prayer? (III)

This is the 7th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is What is prayer?  (II).

“Prayer is by nature a dialogue and a union of man with God.  Its effect is to hold the world together.”  (St. John Climacus – d. 649AD-  quoted in THE PEARL OF GREAT PRICE, p 48)

In the Orthodox Tradition, prayer obviously is not merely an activity in which Christians occasionally engage.  Prayer, as St. John Climacus says is “a union of man with God” (theosis) whose “effect is to hold the world together.”

Think about that.

Think about what it means for your prayer life.  If we conceive of prayer as presenting a wish list to God, or a shopping list, or a set of demands, then we will never enter into that prayer which is a union between God and humanity.  If we treat God like our personal servant, valet, Genie or Santa Claus whose job it is to answer our prayers (meaning “accede to our demands”), then we never approach union with God.  The reality is God is Lord, and we are supposed to be His servants, not He ours.  We do pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” not “My will be done on earth and in heaven.” 

As noted in the previous blogs,  prayer as a way of life, as the life to which we Christians are invited, is more than just an activity that we occasionally consciously engage in.  If our life is oriented toward our Savior, then all we do becomes prayer, and our lives become part of the transfiguration which creation so eagerly awaits.

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”  (Romans 8:18-24)

“The Kingdom of heaven is within each of us.  To pray is, quite simply, to enter into this inner Kingdom of our heart, and there to stand before God, conscious of His indwelling presence; to ‘pray without ceasing’ is to do this constantly.  Although the full glory of this Kingdom is revealed to but few in this present age, we can all discover at any rate some part of its riches.  The door is before us and the key in in our hands.”  (Bishop Kallistos Ware in ABBA: THE TRADITION OF ORTHODOXY IN THE WEST, p 32-33)

Prayer forms us, informs us, reforms us and transforms us for it is uniting ourselves – heart, mind, soul, body and strength – to the Holy Trinity.  We cooperate with God.  Prayer is synergy in which we become doers of God’s will: “on earth as it is in heaven.”

“Prayer is a struggle for men, both in church and in solitude, even though prayer is a ladder that lifts man up from the dust and an animal existence to God.  But He who, in the flesh, stood with other men at the bottom of the ladder of life, and in spirit at its top, went joyfully to prayer in the synagogue, and spent whole nights in solitude at prayer.”  (St. Nikolai Velimirovic – d. 1956AD  HOMILIES  Vol 1, p 86)

Prayer is also work, It is not a passive enterprise but one which requires our energy, will, desire, and strength.  Prayer is not God alone, or Jesus alone.  It is the Holy Spirit praying in us, with us, and for us.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”   (Romans 8:26-28)

We are God’s fellow workers (1 Corinthians 3:9) who are to work out our salvation with God (Philippians 2:9).

Next:  What is Prayer? (IV)

Theosis: The Unique Theology of Christianity

“For Orthodox theology, God’s becoming human accomplishes not just the moral transformation of humanity (Christ ‘for’ us) but also an ontological transformation (Christ ‘in’ us).

Thanks to God’s assumption of human nature, human nature can be raised from glory to glory to the point of assimilation to divine nature, or theosis (deification). Theosis is an eschatological state, but the process is already underway and can be seen in the radiant lives of the saints. The divine human union in the incarnation points the way to the cultural synthesis of the future by offering the world a better moral and spiritual ideal than the ‘godless human individual’ of modern Western civilization or the ‘inhuman God’ of Islam.”

(Vladimir Soloviev in The Teachings of Modern Christianity: On Law, Politics & Human Nature, Volume 1, pg. 537)