‘Partakers of the Divine Nature’

Excerpted from The Orthodox Church, by Bishop Kallistos (Ware)

The aim of the Christian life, which Seraphim described as the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God, can equally well be defined in terms of deification. Basil described man as a creature who has received the order to become a god; and Athanasius, as we know, said that God became man that man might become god. ‘In my kingdom, said Christ, I shall be God with you as gods’ (Canon for Matins of Holy Thursday, Ode 4, Troparion 3). Such, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, is the final goal at which every Christian must aim: to become god, to attain theosis, ‘deification’ or ‘divinization.’ For Orthodoxy man’s salvation and redemption mean his deification.

Behind the doctrine of deification there lies the idea of man made according to the image and likeness of God the Holy Trinity. ‘May they all be one,’ Christ prayed at the Last Supper; "As Thou, Father, art in me and I in Thee, so also may they be in us" (John 17:21). Just as the three persons of the Trinity ‘dwell’ in one another in an unceasing movement of love, so man, made in the image of the Trinity, is called to ‘dwell’ in the Trinitarian God. Christ prays that we may share in the life of the Trinity, in the movement of love which passes between the divine persons; He prays that we may be taken up into the Godhead. The saints, as Maximus the Confessor put it, are those who express the Holy Trinity in themselves. This idea of a personal and organic union between God and man — God dwelling in us, and we in Him — is a constant theme in Saint John’s Gospel; it is also a constant theme in the Epistles of Saint Paul, who sees the Christian life above all else as a life ‘in Christ.’ The same idea recurs in the famous text: "Through these promises you may become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). It is important to keep this New Testament background in mind. The Orthodox doctrine of deification, so far from being unscriptural (as is sometimes thought), has a solid Biblical basis, not only in 2 Peter, but in Paul and the Fourth Gospel.

The idea of deification must always be understood in the light of the distinction between God’s essence and His energies. Union with God means union with the divine energies, not the divine essence: the Orthodox Church, while speaking of deification and union, rejects all forms of pantheism.

Closely related to this is another point of equal importance. The mystical union between God and man is a true union, yet in this union Creator and creature do not become fused into a single being. Unlike the eastern religions which teach that man is swallowed up in the deity, Orthodox mystical theology has always insisted that man, however closely linked to God, retains his full personal integrity. Man, when deified, remains distinct (though not separate) from God. The mystery of the ‘Trinity is a mystery of unity in diversity, and those who express the Trinity in themselves do not sacrifice their personal characteristics. When Saint Maximus wrote ‘God and those who are worthy of God have one and the same energy’ (Ambigua, P.G. 91, 1076C), he did not mean that the saints lose their free will, but that when deified they voluntarily and in love conform their will to the will of God. Nor does man, when he ‘becomes god,’ cease to be human: ‘We remain creatures while becoming god by grace, as Christ remained God when becoming man by the Incarnation (V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 87). Man does not become God by nature, but is merely a ‘created god,’ a god by grace or by status.

Deification is something that involves the body. Since man is a unity of body and soul, and since the Incarnate Christ has saved and redeemed the whole man, it follows that ‘man’s body is deified at the same time as his soul’ (Maximus, Gnostic Centuries, 2, 88 (P.G. 90, 1168A)). In that divine likeness which man is called to realize in himself, the body has its place. "Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit," wrote Saint Paul (1 Cor. 6:19). "Therefore, my brothers, I beseech you by God’s mercy to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice to God" (Romans 12:1). The full deification of the body must wait, however, until the Last Day, for in this present life the glory of the saints is as a rule an inward splendour, a splendour of the soul alone; but when the righteous rise from the dead and are clothed with a spiritual body, then their sanctity will be outwardly manifest. ‘At the day of Resurrection the glory of the Holy Spirit comes out from within, decking and covering the bodies of the saints — the glory which they had before, but hidden within their souls. What a man has now, the same then comes forth externally in the body(Homilies of Macarius, 5, 9. It is this transfigured ‘Resurrection body’ which the icon painter attempts symbolically to depict. Hence, while preserving the distinctive personal traits in a saint’s physiognomy he deliberately avoids making a realistic and ‘photographic’ portrait. To paint men exactly as they now appear is to paint them still in their fallen state, in their ‘earthy,’ not their ‘heavenly’ body). The bodies of the saints will be outwardly transfigured by divine light, as Christ’s body was transfigured on Mount Thabor. ‘We must look forward also to the springtime of the body’ (Minucius Felix (?late second century), Octavius, 34).

But even in this present life some saints have experienced the first fruits of this visible and bodily glorification. Saint Seraphim is the best known, but by no means the only instance of this. When Arsenius the Great was praying, his disciples saw him ‘just like a fire’ (Apophthegmata, P.G. 65, Arsenius 27); and of another Desert Father it is recorded: ‘Just as Moses received the image of the glory of Adam, when his face was glorified, so the face of Abba Pambo shone like lightning, and he was as a king seated on his throne’. In the words of Gregory Palamas: ‘If in the age to come the body will share with the soul in unspeakable blessings, it is certain that it must share in them, so far as possible, even now’ (The Tome of the Holy Mountain (P.G. 150, 1233C).

Because Orthodox are convinced that the body is sanctified and transfigured together with the soul, they have an immense reverence for the relics of the saints. Like Roman Catholics, they believe that the grace of God present in the saints’ bodies during life remains active in their relics when they have died, and that God uses these relics as a channel of divine power and an instrument of healing. In some cases the bodies of saints have been miraculously preserved from corruption, but even where this has not happened, Orthodox show just as great a veneration towards their bones. This reverence for relics is not the fruit of ignorance and superstition, but springs from a highly developed theology of the body.

Not only man’s body but the whole of the material creation will eventually be transfigured: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away" (Revelation 21:1). Redeemed man is not to be snatched away from the rest of creation, but creation is to be saved and glorified along with him (icons, as we have seen, are the first fruits of this redemption of matter). ‘The created universe waits with eager expectation for God’s sons to be revealed ... for the universe itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and will enter into the liberty and splendour of the children of God. We know that until now the whole created universe has been groaning in the pangs of childbirth’ (Romans 8:19-22). This idea of cosmic redemption is based, like the Orthodox doctrine of the human body and the Orthodox doctrine of icons, upon a right understanding of the Incarnation: Christ took flesh — something from the material order — and so has made possible the redemption and metamorphosis of all creation — not merely the immaterial, but the physical.

This talk of deification and union, of the transfiguration of the body and of cosmic redemption, may sound very remote from the experience of ordinary Christians; but anyone who draws such a conclusion has entirely misunderstood the Orthodox conception of theosis. To prevent any such misinterpretation, six points must be made.

First, deification is not something reserved for a few select initiates, but something intended for all alike. The Orthodox Church believes that it is the normal goal for every Christian without exception. Certainly, we shall only be fully deified at the Last Day; but for each of us the process of divinization must begin here and now in this present life. It is true that in this present life very few indeed attain full mystical union with God. But every true Christian tries to love God and to fulfil His commandments; and so long as a man sincerely seeks to do that, then however weak his attempts may be and however often he may fall, he is already in some degree deified.

Secondly, the fact that a man is being deified does not mean that he ceases to be conscious of sin. On the contrary, deification always presupposes a continued act of repentance. A saint may be well advanced in the way of holiness, yet he does not therefore cease to employ the words of the Jesus Prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ Father Silouan of Mount Athos used to say to himself ‘Keep your mind in Hell and despair not;’ other Orthodox saints have repeated the words ‘All will be saved, and I alone will be condemned.’ Eastern spiritual writers attach great importance to the ‘gift of tears.’ Orthodox mystical theology is a theology of glory and of transfiguration, but it is also a theology of penitence.

In the third place, there is nothing esoteric or extraordinary about the methods which we must follow in order to be deified. If a man asks ‘How can I become god?’ the answer is very simple: go to church, receive the sacraments regularly, pray to God ‘in spirit and in truth,’ read the Gospels, follow the commandments. The last of these items — ‘follow the commandments’ — must never be forgotten. Orthodoxy, no less than western Christianity, firmly rejects the kind of mysticism that seeks to dispense with moral rules.

Fourthly, deification is not a solitary but a ‘social’ process. We have said that deification means ‘following the commandments;’ and these commandments were briefly described by Christ as love of God and love of neighbour. The two forms of love are inseparable. A man can love his neighbour as himself only if he loves God above all; and a man cannot love God if he does not love his fellow men (1 John 4:20). Thus there is nothing selfish about deification; for only if he loves his neighbour can a man be deified. ‘From our neighbour is life and from our neighbour is death,’ said Antony of Egypt. ‘If we win our neighbour we win God, but if we cause our neighbour to stumble we sin against Christ’ (Apophthegmata (P.G. 65), Antony 9). Man, made in the image of the Trinity, can only realize the divine likeness if he lives a common life such as the Blessed Trinity lives: as the three persons of the Godhead ‘dwell’ in one another, so a man must ‘dwell’ in his fellow men, living not for himself alone, but in and for others. ‘If it were possible for me to find a leper,’ said one of the Desert Fathers, ‘and to give him my body and to take his, I would gladly do it. For this is perfect love’ (ibid, Agatho 26). Such is the true nature of theosis.

Fifthly, love of God and of other men must be practical: Orthodoxy rejects all forms of Quietism, all types of love which do not issue in action. Deification, while it includes the heights of mystical experience, has also a very prosaic and down-to-earth aspect. When we think of deification, we must think of the Hesychasts praying in silence and of Saint Seraphim with his face transfigured; but we must think also of Saint Basil caring for the sick in the hospital at Caesarea, of Saint John the Almsgiver helping the poor at Alexandria, of Saint Sergius in his filthy clothing, working as a peasant in the kitchen garden to provide the guests of the monastery with food. These are not two different ways, but one.

Finally, deification presupposes life in the Church, life in the sacraments. Theosis according to the likeness of the Trinity involves a common life, but only within the fellowship of the Church can this common life of coinherence be properly realized. Church and sacraments are the means appointed by God whereby man may acquire the sanctifying Spirit and be transformed into the divine likeness.