Other posts in this series:
Part 2: What the Bible Says About Theosis
Part 3: Theosis and Orthodox Doctrine

In view of the recent surge of Protestant interest in the Orthodox understanding of theosis, especially among Evangelicals, I thought I would pull together a few remarks on the subject, with the caveat that the views and opinions expressed in what follows distill my own scarcely comprehensive reading and imperfect (in)experience.

Although contemporary Orthodox Christians see themselves as heirs and transmitters of the Patristic and Byzantine tradition, reading the Church Fathers can be intimidating at first; the amount of material to sift through is immense, the learning curve is steep, and the most accessible translations are sometimes incomplete or outdated. Fortunately, Norman Russell’s Fellow Workers with God now provides a clear and readable primer on “Orthodox thinking on Theosis.”1 A glance at some of the older, still influential surveys of Orthodox Christianity illustrates why Russell’s contribution is important. Let’s start with the vocabulary.

Popular introductions to Orthodoxy and surveys of Orthodox theology do not always include clearly marked chapters dedicated to theosis.2 If they provide indices they may not include an entry for theosis or, if they do, it will likely point back to the entry for deification. In addition to theosis and deification, readers will also encounter more complex phrases that generally seem to cover the same territory, like union with God or participation in God.

Deification and theosis are basically synonyms. I’m not entirely sure what combination of factors has influenced an increasing preference for theosis among Orthodox theologians over the past decade or so,3 but I would guess that the flowering of eastern patristic and Byzantine scholarship in the past century, initiated by Russian émigrés like Vladimir Lossky, Georges Florovsky, and John Meyendorff, has encouraged Orthodox theologians both to use the language of the Fathers and to distinguish their views from western conceptions of deification.4 It is also possible that, in their encounters with Evangelicals, the Orthodox have found that theosis does not set off Evangelical warning bells quite so quickly as deification.5

Whether union with God and participation in God are basically equivalent to theosis depends on whether one views theosis as the goal of human life (“union”) or as a process (“participation”). As of this post, the Wikipedia article on “Theosis” tends toward the former, describing theosis as only the final stage of a three-stage process leading to union with God. Russell remarks, however, that theosis is both … and.6

There is a certain unresolved but vital tension between these two aspects of theosis. Again, my guess is that Protestants’ fear of theosis is sometimes confirmed by their reading of Orthodox theologians who emphasize theosis as the goal of Christian life, which can be (partially correctly) interpreted as implying that theosis is something for which one must work. Theosis as a process may have more in common with what Protestants typically think of as sanctification. In either case a number of qualifications are necessary to prevent Orthodox thinking on theosis from sliding into pantheism or undifferentiated monotheism. Before we go there, however, stay tuned for a look at what the Bible says about Theosis.

  1. There is no shortage of scholarly books and essays on the subject, including Russell’s indispensible study ofThe Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition Andrew Louth’s short essay on “The Place of Theosis in Orthodox Theology” is among the more accessible treatments (pp. 32–44 in Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions, edited by Michael J. Christensen and Jeffery A. Wittung). The full text of the late Panagiōtēs K. Chrēstou’s Partakers of God is available here.

  2. Exceptions include Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, with a chapter on “The Way of Union,” and Daniel Clendenin’s Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective, with a chapter entitled “The Deification of Humanity: Theosis.” In what is still the most popular introduction to Orthodoxy, Timothy (Metropolitan Kallistos) Ware’s The Orthodox Church, Ware discusses deification in a subsection entitled ‘Partakers of the Divine Nature’ (the links will take you to an older edition; my printed 1997 edition has been revised to incorporate inclusive language, among other things—“humankind” instead of “man”, etc.). So, the issue is not whether Orthodox theologians discuss theosis, inevitably they do, but how they define and present it (see note 6 below).

  3. This shift can be observed quite clearly in the successive editions of a short book by Archimandrite George, Abbot of St. Gregorios Monastery on Mt. Athos. In three editions from 1992 to 2001, the English version was entitled The deification as the purpose of man’s life. The title of the most recent 2006 edition is Theosis: the true purpose of human life (note also the use of inclusive language).

  4. Although the language of the Fathers is not necessarily uniform, at least initially. Carl Mosser has recently recommended using theopoiesis instead of theosis to characterize the perspective of early Church Fathers like Irenaeus, Athanasius, and others. For quick reference, Peter J. Leithart has provided a summary of Mosser’s views.

  5. As a transliterated Greek word, theosis has both a technical ring and the quality of being what Mosser (see note 4 above) might call “an exotic flower.” See Mosser’s exchange with Michael J. Gorman in the comments section of Gorman’s Cross Talk post on Protestants’ Fear of Theosis. Mosser’s comments concerning my own criticism of his position are also worth a look.

  6. In his introduction to Fellow Workers with God Russell quotes four contemporary Orthodox theologians, each of whom offers a different perspective on deification or theosis (pp. 19–21). These four perspectives can be classified according to two distinct emphases. Russell harmonizes these emphases in his description of theosis as “both the goal of the divine economy and the process by which the economy is worked out in the believer” (p. 21).