Once understood, though, the doctrine is only shocking insofar as one is taken by its beauty.
Indeed, much of the beauty of Orthodoxy, for me, comes from an understanding of the doctrine of deification, as it is the essential core of the Orthodox concept of salvation.
For a quick take of the doctrine there is perhaps no other statement more succinct than the one famously expressed by St. Athanasius: “God became man so that man might become god.”
I should also mention that I was brought up Mormon until about the age of twelve, and when I first heard of deification, particularly as Athanasius described it, I could not help but hear Mormon overtones (hence the “shock”). Mormonism teaches that through spiritual progression a practicing Mormon can eventually become a God—literally, a God of his own planet. The phrase, “As man is, God once was; and as God is, man can become,” is a hallmark of Mormon doctrine and at first glance sounds very much like Athanasius’ statement, but the two are wholly dissimilar for a myriad of reasons.
One of the primary differences is the Orthodox understanding of God’s nature. The Orthodox distinguish between God’s essence and His energies (a distinction that escapes not only Mormonism but a good portion of Protestantism as well).
The main concern in making this distinction is to affirm both God’s transcendence and His immanence; the God who is unapproachable, yet the God who also calls us to dwell within Him (as reflected in Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper: “as You Father, are in Me and I in You, so also may they be in Us,” John 17:21). It is God’s essence that remains wholly transcendent and unapproachable, and God’s energies in which He makes Himself wholly immanent in creation, i.e., both present and approachable.
Timothy Ware’s statement on this is helpful, “God’s energies, which are God Himself, permeate all His creation, and we experience them in the form of deifying grace and divine light.” Thus, God’s energies are not something outside of God, or some form of created energy, but rather God’s very presence. It is His energies which are the “deifying grace” made available to mankind—not to make them Gods by essence, but rather gods by grace. It is in this way that the Orthodox believer understands the scripture which states that “we might become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4).
Another primary difference is the Orthodox understanding of human nature. Again, keeping the distinction between essence and energies is important when gaining a clear impression of deification. Unlike the Mormon doctrine of man becoming a God, and unlike many mystical eastern religions, the union between God and man is such that they never become fused into a single entity. Orthodox theology insists that regardless of how close and intimate the union between God and man becomes, a human being will always retain his or her humanness. As is often said among the Orthodox, ‘the mystery of the Trinity is a mystery of unity in diversity.’ In a similar vein, deification of a human being is a mystery of his or her union with God while remaining distinct from God. St. Maximus the Confessor wrote, “God and those who are worthy of God have one and the same energy,” but not one and the same essence.
When discussing God’s grace the question inevitably arises as to how grace is applied. Does God select individuals for deification according to divine election (something like the Reformed/Calvinist doctrine of predestination) or does the individual earn deification through good works?
This way of examining the doctrine is primarily set in western theological parameters, which assumes that grace is created and granted to man based on the unknowable judgment of God. Some argue that grace is irresistible and allotted to a select few, others argue that grace is resistible and given to all alike. Historically, Orthodoxy was spared this theological tug-of-war due to its understanding of grace and of the nature of man.
As already discussed, the Orthodox believer knows the grace of God to be God’s very presence—His energies—which permeate all of creation. Grace is not created, thus to have God’s grace is to have God Himself. Man, however, is endowed with free will, which allows him the discretion to either embrace God’s grace or reject Him.
Free will is a controversial subject within western Christendom, as well as the philosophic community. But for the Orthodox believer there is no question as to man’s free will, particularly in the sense of man’s agency to choose to follow or turn from God’s grace. When man uses his agency to embrace God’s grace it is called synergeia, or co-operation. Paul uses this term when describing the believer as a “fellow-worker” with God (1 Cor 3:9).
This co-operation by no means reduces deification or salvation to an equation of man earning God’s grace by merit. Nothing is accomplished by man’s works alone; one cannot incorporate oneself into Christ via mere choosing to do so and then performing the “required” good works. But neither is saving grace forced upon anyone by divine fiat. Timothy Ware, again, offers some helpful thoughts on this saying, “the Orthodox teaching is very straightforward, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in’ (Rev 3:20). God knocks, but waits for us to open the door—He does not break it down.”
Deification is synergistic; it is relational. Hence, the individual is called to have a part in the relationship—as a wife to a husband, not as a puppet to a puppeteer. It is considered axiomatic among the Orthodox that faith without works is dead (James 2:17), and that working out one’s salvation is required to actualize deification. Taking an example from the holy sacraments, no amount of human effort could ever change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ; however that does not dismiss one’s obligation to approach the table with repentance and humility.
Lastly, an additional look at human nature is necessary to gain a full-orbed appreciation of the doctrine of deification. Much confusion has turned over the issue of man’s fall and original sin ever since Augustine offered his interpretation of key Scriptural verses, particularly of Romans 5:12, which created new ways of understanding the human condition as reflected in historical western theology.
Without diving into the details leading to Augustine’s conclusions, he essentially introduced the idea that the human race is guilty of Adam’s sin. This is an idea the Orthodox Church has always rejected. Indeed, prior to Augustine the Church had not connected Adam’s sin to a collective guilt shared by the human race. Instead, it was(is) understood that mankind inherited Adam’s corruption—aptly summarized by the word “death.” After the fall the human race was constituted with death rather than life, thus the Orthodox tend to envision mankind as “ill” and in need of a Physician, rather than guilty and in need of a Judge. Each individual is indeed guilty of sin, but they are guilty of their sin, not that of another.
These different ways of seeing the fall and original sin have enormous theological implications. Because the west has traditionally emphasized mankind’s guilt in original sin, the idea of “total depravity” was a theological straight-shot, thus leaving the human race wholly disconnected from God. With mankind utterly divorced from God it was then up to God alone—without any human involvement—to accomplish man’s salvation. This theology, of course, represents only particular branches within western Christian thought, but it serves to highlight how far from Orthodoxy one gets by changing what seems at first to be minor elements in the doctrine of salvation.
By contrast, the Orthodox Church teaches that every human being, even after the fall, retains the image of God in which they were created. This image is a living icon of God. Human reason, free will, moral consciousness, etc., demonstrate man’s kinship with God (i.e., God’s image).
We are His “offspring” and there is a point of contact between God and man located within man himself. This was illustrated by Christ when He said to the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).
Because the kingdom of God is within us we can find God by looking within ourselves. This does not mean that man can simply approach God without God’s grace, but rather because of God’s grace—His very presence—we are invited to search since, again, Christ stands at the door of our heart and knocks.
In summary, deification is the journey from death to life; from sinfulness to righteousness; from autonomy to union with God. Mankind was created for fellowship and union with God. This fellowship and union knows no bounds; because God’s love is infinite, our growth in Him is infinite. In Orthodoxy there is no sense of salvation being a static state of being, or some form of cosmic legal status before God. Instead it is the mystery of “the marriage supper of the Lamb,” where “His Wife did make herself ready” (Rev 19:7).