Athanasius wrote that Christ “was made man that we might be made God” (On the Incarnation, 54). I have read that Irenaeus, Clement, Hilary, and Ephrem the Syrian all said similar things. Here I want to briefly explore the notion of theosis (also known as deification or divinization).
Peter wrote with the hope that we might become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). What is this partaking, and what is theosis?
Theologian Andrew Hofer said in a podcast episode that theosis is “what happens when our nature, made to the image of God, is taken up in the life of grace, as the beginning and preparation for heaven’s glory, by the sanctification given in the Holy Spirit to go through the Son, as we dare to approach our Father.”
The Orthodox Study Bible says this about deification: “This does not mean we become divine by nature. If we participated in God’s essence, the distinction between God and man would be abolished. What this does mean is that we participate in God’s energy, described by a number of terms in scripture such as glory, love, virtue, and power. We are to become like God by His grace, and truly be His adopted children, but never become like God by nature.… When we are joined to Christ, our humanity is interpenetrated with the energies of God through Christ’s glorified flesh. Nourished by the Blood and Body of Christ, we partake of the grace of God—His strength, His righteousness, His love—and are enabled to serve Him and glorify Him. Thus we, being human, are being deified.”
In the Eastern view, the Spirit communicates the energies of God to us, restoring the likeness to God spoken of in Genesis 1. This restoration is founded upon the person and work of Christ. Humanity is not changed ontologically; we do not become God. The Creator-creature distinction is maintained. However, this doctrine goes beyond the usual Protestant understanding of sanctification; the divine life is imparted to humans. But similar to how Protestants discuss sanctification is the notion that the process of theosis is not completed in an individual’s life but rather at the time of the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead. A high (or perhaps just biblical) view of glorification would at least include something that sounds like theosis (also see Philippians 3:21). However, the doctrine of deification, as historically expressed, begins in the present life. It also doesn’t require the Eastern essence-energies distinction to view theosis as a true reality in the life of the believer.
The Eastern account of theosis better uses the Incarnation and life of Christ than we do in the West. While we have a high focus on the Crucifixion and Resurrection (which is great), this is often to the neglect of the Incarnation and the role it plays in restoring humanity to unity with God. This brings great depth to the participationist view of Paul and our union with Christ (frequently seen in Paul’s “in Christ” language). When patristic writers spoke with theosis language, it was often with a view of the Incarnation being the source of this exchange benefitting humanity (Christ becoming man that we might “become God”). Thinking seriously about the Incarnation and participation also seems to be a fitting application of the concept of atonement in Leviticus, which has a strong purification aspect. Clearly there is a connection between theosis and the recapitulation theory of atonement.
In light of the point on union with Christ above, theosis seems to give us a solid foundation for understanding how we reflect Christ every day: Robert Rakestraw writes that “The Christian who experiences this transformation develops a remarkable God-given assurance that she is actually thinking the thoughts of God, doing the works of God, and at times even speaking the words of God. These energies and ministries of God in the Christian yielded to her Lord are the natural outcome of the life of God in the soul.” Rakestraw then points out that Paul states that those in Christ have the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) and speak “words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (2:13).
One of my concerns in the conversation surrounding theosis is that 2 Peter 1:4 is quoted and then followed by verses or explanations about adoption that I don’t think provide a firm foundation for the doctrine. However, I have compiled a list of texts that I think we could argue provide insight into or dimensions to theosis: 2 Pet. 1:4; Eph. 3:19; 1 Cor. 2:16; 2 Cor. 3:17–18; 8:9; Col. 2:9-10; Jn. 15:1–17; 17:23; Gen. 1:26; 1 Thess. 5:23–24. While patristic writers often quoted Psalm 82:6, I am not convinced that this verse provides support for the doctrine.
Carl Mosser has written that “no major Western theologian has ever repudiated the doctrine of deification.” Significant research, both in terms of book material and academic writing, has been done on Jonathan Edwards and theosis. For example, James R. Salladin recently wrote Jonathan Edwards and Deification: Reconciling Theosis and the Reformed Tradition.
Going back to the time of the Reformers, John Calvin wrote that “…we await salvation from him not because he appears to us afar off, but because he makes us, ingrafted into his body, participants not only in all his benefits but also in himself.” Now, potentially by contrast, on 2 Peter 1:4 Calvin did write, “But the word nature is not here essence but quality. The Manicheans formerly dreamt that we are a part of God, and that, after having run the race of life we shall at length revert to our original. There are also at this day fanatics who imagine that we thus pass over into the nature of God, so that his swallows up our nature. Thus they explain what Paul says, that God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28) and in the same sense they take this passage. But such a delirium as this never entered the minds of the holy Apostles; they only intended to say that when divested of all the vices of the flesh, we shall be partakers of divine and blessed immortality and glory, so as to be as it were one with God as far as our capacities will allow.” Regardless, Calvin poses an interesting case study on this doctrine. Additionally, the new Finnish interpretation of Luther finds theosis to be central to Luther’s theology, even if its frequency in or centrality to Luther’s thought is significantly overstated.
In sum, theosis is not at odds—at all—with the Protestant doctrine of justification; theosis is merely a “strong” version of sanctification and inner renewal. Theosis also shouldn’t be viewed as some sort of “abstract” concept. I’m not necessarily well-read on the subject, but I’ve read enough that I think the concept of mystery is significant here. And as a Reformed Christian who enjoys Calvin’s explanation of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper (with a high emphasis on the Spirit and on mystery), I can sit in the mystery in this subject as well. God’s goal is that we image Him. Part of the process of our restoration is us partaking in the divine nature and knowing that the Spirit is doing a deeper work of transformation in us than we can fully understand.