Wednesday, March 25, 2009

An Assessment of the Eastern Orthodox Doctrine of Deification from a Reformed Perspective

To the Reformed ear, the word deification, or theosis, conjures up all sorts of negative undertones. The pagan notion of actually and ontologically becoming gods immediately arises from Western spectacles. Emperors and heroes in the ancient world, especially in the Greek culture, are said to have undergone such a process that they were transformed into deities and were worshipped accordingly. This would be a warranted presumption if taken from a strictly Hellenistic conception. But as Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen points out, “It was not a Christian word first, nor was it only employed by Christians even after they made it central. But they cleaned it up and filled it up with a Christian meaning.” In other words, the early Christians made use of a foreign and pagan concept by transforming it in a way that corresponded with Christian vocabulary and theology. Therefore, Reformed Christians ought not to be afraid of such language, instead they must learn the meaning behind it. Correspondingly, the Eastern Church must likewise learn the Reformed language. Despite the fact that this is primarily written for Reformed people to informed them of the doctrine of deification, nevertheless, it is of benefit to Eastern Orthodox who may want to see the commonality and differences between the two positions. A complementary reciprocity of learning is required for any helpful discussions. In doing so, the results will be fruitful as dialogues between the two sides emerge. What this paper intends to accomplish is to present a concise assessment of the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis in order to evaluate points of agreement and contention with the Reformed tradition. Firstly, the historical and theological dimension of theosis will be examined accordingly, but focusing largely on the latter for the purpose of this paper. Secondly, we shall investigate the fundamental issues that unite and separate Orthodoxy and the Reformed on this crucial issue.
The idea of deification in the ancient world was utterly pagan in nature, but the origin of the word in the Christian world dates back to Clement of Alexandria, who was the first to utilize it writing. However, he did not see a need to articulate a technical definition; as a result, no formal explanation was given until the sixth century when the need to clarify its meaning arose. It was at this time when Dionysius the Areopogite gave a definition. Russell tells us that Dionysius defined it this way: “…‘Deification (θέωσις) is the attaining of likeness to God and union with him so far as is possible.’” Furthermore, no theological discourse with regards to deification was presented until the time of Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century. Since then, it has been a central doctrine in the Orthodox Church, but has been mostly forgotten or lost in the West.
Although there have been many contributors to the doctrine of deification in the history of Christianity, two important figures in its development will be considered. First, Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-200) was one who made a pivotal step into the formulation of this doctrine. His understanding of the incarnation of Jesus Christ may have been a key to the idea of deification. Irenaeus described the relationship between the incarnation and deification in this way: “How shall man pass into God, unless God has passed into man?” In other words, the incarnation was the initial action that God took to divinized humanity. God could not have begun such a process unless He Himself became man, this is central in Irenaeus’ view of salvation. Interestingly, Irenaeus is thus forced to conclude that Christ necessarily had to die at an old age to secure the salvation of the elderly. It is important to note here that Irenaeus is not at all denying the Creator and creature distinction between God and man, as it may appear at first glance. Jonathan Hill tells us, “The fundamental distinction between Creator and creation is never abolished, but we can share in the divine qualities and the divine life.”
Second, another important figure in the advancement of theosis is the church father Athanasius (c. 293-373). His primary contribution to the doctrine is his famous ‘exchange formula,’ which stated, “He (Christ) became human that we might become divine.” It is essentially another way of phrasing what Irenaeus previously stated. Theosis is the pathway in which humanity is once again set forth in the right track to divinity; the track that humanity wandered away from in the Fall of Adam. It is an ongoing process back to the union that humans were created to participate in.
The transition from the historical aspect of deification to its theological aspect is to simply further developed the doctrine’s internal components. What exactly does the word theosis convey? Here, we will explore the following: the means by which deification is accomplished and centrality of deification in salvation.
What are the means by which the church is deified? This is an important question before us. According to Orthodox antiquity, deification is entirely wrought by the Holy Spirit as a result of God’s grace. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the agent by which all the benefits of deification—i.e., immortality, incorruptibility, and Christ-likeness—are gained by believers. Or, to put it in another way, “… the Orthodox regard[s] theosis as being, first and foremost, the result of the Holy Spirit’s activity in people.” Cyril of Alexandria, for example, recognizes that the Holy Spirit plays a pivotal part in our union with God. Russell, speaking of the role of the Holy Spirit in Cyril’s theology, mentions, “Participation in the Spirit conforms us to Christ, and enables us to be ‘described as children of God and gods.” Still, a further question remains: How does the Holy Spirit confer the benefits of deification onto the church?
Fairbairn answers the above question straightforward, he says, “To the Orthodox, the primary means by which the Holy Spirit works to give grace and deify people are the church’s sacraments and human effort.” We see here the centrality of the church sacraments. They are means by which the Holy Spirit dispenses grace in the life of the church—the Reformed tradition would refer to the sacraments as “means of grace.” The idea of grace flowing from the sacraments is too often times ignored or even denied in the broad evangelical landscape, where the sacraments communicate nothing more than mere symbols or remembrance.
Baptism, according to the Orthodox position, is a means by which the Christian begins the process of deification. Unlike its Evangelical counterpart, who sharply insist on the prior experience of conversion before the event of baptism, Orthodoxy sees an inseparable marriage between the water (physical) and reality (spiritual). And the Eucharist (Communion) is the sacrament that brings believers into the life of Christ by uniting them to the Father and one another; it is the supreme expression of the church’s union with the incarnate Son of God. There is real presence and union with Christ in the Eucharist. Bishop Kallistos Ware explains, “… the Orthodox Church believes that after consecration the bread and wine become in very the Body and Blood of Christ: they are not mere symbols, but the reality.”
Human effort also plays a significant role in the deification of believers. Here, Orthodoxy takes a synergistic position, where God does His part and man does his part, in the deifying of man. In other words, the means by which believers are deified is one of participation. Man’s free will must be exercised for any progress to occur. Orthodox theology essentially makes human autonomy the preeminent substance that God will never impose upon. Vladimir Lossky strongly affirms this view, he maintains, “God becomes powerless before human freedom; He cannot violate it since it flows from His own omnipotence. Certainly man was created by the will of God alone; but he cannot be deified by it alone.” It is important to note here that Orthodoxy maneuvers itself away from the Pelagian heresy by asserting that good works alone do not merit union with the incarnate Christ. Good works are means that the Holy Spirit uses transform believers, but they are not of themselves meritorious.
By now it is apparent that the Orthodox Church’s understanding of salvation revolves around the doctrine of Theosis. Orthodoxy ultimately centralizes the human process of divination in the salvific purpose of the Triune God. To say it differently, the process of becoming more Christ-like is salvation. The change that is wrought upon believers is much more emphasized in Orthodoxy. Nassif thus correctly distinguishes, “…the East adopted a ‘transformational’ model that places emphasis on who Christ is (i.e., the person of Christ, his resurrection, and his triumphant victory over sin and death—the Christus Victor theme).
As mentioned above, the word deification need not be a dreadful word to the Reformed ear. If properly understood, one may see words in the Reformed tradition that are quite equivocal to its meaning. Don Fairbairn points us to a few terms, he says, “…deification corresponds somewhat to concepts which evangelicals describe using the terms sanctification, eternal life, and fellowship or relationship with God.” What then can the Reformed Christian learn from the Orthodox understanding of deification? In light of the previous discourse about theosis, let us therefore answer this crucial question by analyzing the major principles that Reformed Christians can affirm and reject.
Reformed Christians heartily agree with the principle that deification, or sanctification, to use a more familiar term, is an ongoing process by which believers are transformed into the image of Christ. Reformed theologians have always maintained this to be the case. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes this principal as the process by which believers “more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life.” According to Orthodoxy, deification remains largely imperfect—the process of divination will not be completed in this life. The same idea is present in Reformed theology. Here, this shared theological conviction distinguishes the two sides from the error of Christian perfectionism —the view that believers may earn a perfect status in the sight of God. However differently grace is defined by both sides, it remains clear that the process theosis, or sanctification, is credited entirely as the work of the Holy Spirit. This remains a significant agreement that separates and disassociates the two traditions from Pelagianism, which too many Evangelicals have fallen victim of. Reformed and Orthodox alliance may serve as a loud warning to the rest of Evangelicalism to reevaluate the role of grace in their personal transformation and growth.
Furthermore, the central role of the sacraments in the transformation of believers is another important theme shared by the respective positions. An element in the evangelical world that is almost all together absent. Reformed theology, like Orthodoxy, sees a real mystical union with Christ that occurs in the bread and wine, not mere symbols of commemoration. And course both sides would sharply separate themselves from the Roman Catholic doctrine transubstantiation.
However much concurrence this discourse between Orthodox and Reformed theology, regarding deification, has produced, many sharp and significant theological disagreements, like the role of human effort and sacraments, exist. But the focus here will be largely on the overarching function of deification in salvation—this is where the central difference lies. Before we move forward, it is important to ask whether this soteriological antithesis even matters. In the Reformation, the issue of salvation would have mattered immensely. The place where people stood was a church-splitting consequence. Today, however, the same cannot be said about the modern evangelical world; it is more concerned with personal piety, prosperity, and therapy, instead of the universal and object reality of the church’s salvation in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. For those who recognize the magnitude of our salvation in Christ, will also perceive that our theological conclusions will greatly affect the way we view the Gospel. Consequently, our differences will separate us for the cause of the Gospel. Michael Horton keenly explains, “Our disagreements lie at the heart of our confession, not at the periphery.” Others are convinced that both positions can in fact be harmonious rather than contentious. Kärkkäinen argues, “The New Testament canon itself gives legitimacy to various conceptions of salvation.”
Orthodoxy, as already mentioned, centralizes deification in salvation. Transformation is the dominant theme upon which salvation rest, whereas the emphasis in Reformed theology is in justification or the “transactional” dimension of salvation. However, Nassif claims that both camp do not reject either theological concepts, rather they simply emphasize one above the other. Kärkkäinen is further convinced that there may be ecumenical convergence between both sides, due to the fact that deification and justification do not annul one another. He rejects the idea of distinguishing between justification and sanctification, the way Reformation theology does. For Kärkkäinen and others, justification (the declaration of God that sinners are righteous on account of Christ’s righteousness) is deification.
Others remain hesitant to affirm such a conclusion, however. With such assertions made by Kärkkäinen and others, Horton rightly criticizes such an understanding as “collapsing justification with sanctification.” The confusion and blurred lines between justification and deification has monumental consequences for the church’s right standing before our holy Creator. Granted that our deification is our justification, as some suggest; what difference does it make? The most important thing to not here is that if this is true, then completely deified life will never occur in this lifetime. Thus, R. Scott Clark concludes, “If justification is divinization, then we are not justified.” For the Reformers, however, justification is the root by which the fruits of deification, or sanctification, flow from. The mistaking of one for the other is an error of colossal significance.
Moreover, for the reason that Orthodoxy, it is argued, understands justification differently than that of the Reformers, it never really affirms the doctrine at all, but actually denies it. Fairbairn notes George Florovsky’s critique of the way Martin Luther understood justification. He (Florovsky) says, “For Luther ‘to justify’ meant to declare on righteous or just, not ‘to make’ righteous or just—it is an appeal to an extrinsic justice which in reality is a spiritual fiction.” Is this not essentially the same argument that Rome used at the time of the Reformation? It is a denial of the “…purely forensic declaration based on the imputation of Christ’s ‘alien righteousness.’” Furthermore, Florovsky’s assertion strips any personal dimension in the Reformation view of justification. A legal declaration does not necessarily mean that there is no personal dimension in the event. Take for instance the idea that God “adopts” us. Adoption is clearly a legal matter, but it is also incredibly personal, as deification is personal.
Much more can be said about the theological agreements and disagreements between Orthodoxy and Reformed Christianity regarding deification. We have seen places where the two traditions can indeed stand alongside one another in the theological surface, but there are other places where parting ways may be the best option for the sake of the kingdom. Yet, it does not follow that dialogues between the two theological perspective ought not to continue. There is yet undiscovered theological landscapes that both sides can learn from one another. Let us explore in humility, patience, and love to the glory of God in the Gospel of our Lord.


Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit Church and New Creation. Edited by John Bolt. Translated by John Vriend. Vol. 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2008.

Clark, R. Scott. "Iustitia Imputata Christi: Alien or Proper to Luther's Doctrine of Justification?" Concordia Theological Quaterly, 2006: 269-310.

Fairbairn, Donald. Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Fairbairn, Donald. "Salvation as Theosis: The Teaching of Eastern Orthodoxy." Themelios, 1998: 42-54.
Hill, Jonathan. The History of Christian Thought: The Fascination Story of the Great Christian Thinkers and How They Helped Shape the World as We Know it Today. Downers Grove , IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. One With God: Salvation as Deification and Justification. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004.

Nassif, Bradley, Michael Horton, Vladimir Berzonsky, George Hancock-Stefan, and Edward Rommen. Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.

Russell, Norman. The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. London, England: Penguin Books, 1997.

Westminster Confession of Faith. glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 2001.


mark said...

Thanks for this post. I too, have been reading Orthodox theology from a Reformed perspective for a little while now and am thankful for the venture into the Orthodox realm of thought.

If you are able to afford the time, I'd love to hear your thoughts on Calvin and Iconography. I feel his work on the 2nd commandment was fairly polemic of his time, and wonder if there is some Incarnational thought which we may be able to glean...?

Brian said...

Thanks Mark. I am likewise thankful for your interest in Orthodox theology. This semester (I am taking a class with Dr. Bradley Nassif) is actually my first encounter with Orthodoxy. I haven't really looked into Calvin's view on iconography/2nd commandment, but it is certainly an interest of mine. Dr. Nassif recently commented that "Calvin did not understand the arguments that Orthodoxy was making." I thought that was telling enough for me to investigate for myself, but other theological investigations have preoccupied my time as of late. As soon as I make any progress I will certainly update you.

Do you have any thoughts on Orthodoxy's view of the Fall? I am leaning to the idea that they may hold a semi-pelagian view, but I am not certain.

mark said...

Hi Brian,

That's quite interesting to hear - I'd be keen to hear more about Dr. Nassif's engagement with the Reformed position on it. Interestingly, I just came across this article which might interest you: It's David Van Drunen who engages exactly these issues. I've only just skimmed it now, but he seems to suggest that Calvin's argument was fairly polemic (he notes that Calvin didn't engage with the Incarnation in his treatment of it!), but proposes a different angle on thinking about the issue. I'm going to print it off and have a good read soon!

With regard to Orthodox's view of the view, I think you may be right. Reading Kalistos Ware's book, The Orthodox Church (he goes into a bit of depth on it), I saw that he disagreed with the Augustinian account of sin. This is the position that Calvin and the Calvinists took on sin and "Total Depravity" could be described as an Augustinian position. Thus, I think you're right, that the Orthodox position could be described as Semi-Pelagian. I'd be fascinated to hear how Dr. Nassif understands the effect of the Fall to be on the human will! Could make for a lively discussion!

Much love in Christ,

mark said...

Oh, the bit that got cut out was:



PuritanReformed said...

I think the very term "theosis" sounds troublesome especially in light of the New Age One Word Spirituality.