Other posts in this series:
Part 1: Vocabulary
Part 3: Theosis and Orthodox Doctrine

Contemporary Orthodox theologians sometimes pay more attention to the doctrinal foundations of theosis than to its biblical roots. This is less a symptom of neglect than a consequence of the fact that the Fathers did not neglect the Bible in their doctrinal formulations. Neither feeling the need nor the desire to reinvent the wheel, contemporary theologians usually head straight for what may well be the most memorable and oft-repeated of Patristic sayings: “God became man so that man might become god.” Athanasius of Alexandria is the favorite authority for this saying (On the Incarnation 54.3), but one also finds nods to Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria.

Irenaus, Clement, and Athanasius link “becoming god” with the prior event of God becoming human—the Incarnation. I’ll have more to say about this connection later, but for now it suffices to say that these Fathers provide the simplest conceptual definition of theosis—“becoming god.” They do not use the actual word theosis.

Neither the word theosis nor any of the technical words and phrases typically used to express the concept have direct equivalents in the Bible.1 The closest biblical parallel to the idea of participation in God is 2 Peter’s reference to becoming sharers of the divine nature through the glory and excellence of Jesus (2 Pet 1:4),2 but the Fathers rarely cite this passage.3 The most frequently cited text in discussions of becoming god is Psalm 82:6 (81:6 in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures). A single verse is admittedly a weak foundation for an entire tradition, even by the standards of patristic exegesis, so let’s look more closely at this psalm in its historical, canonical, and traditional contexts.

In its original historical setting Psalm 82 may have had in view one of several possible scenarios:

  1. The assembly of gods (Psalm 82:1 TNIV) could represent a council of divine beings who are truly gods. Such scenes are common in Ancient Near Eastern literature, less so in the Hebrew Bible. In this case the Psalm would envision a council of gods who are essentially equals but administratively subordinate to the presiding God of Israel.<

  2. The assembly of gods could represent a council of angelic beings like the “sons of God” mentioned in the book of Job (1:6; 2:1; 38:7). In this case they would not be considered gods in the same sense as the God of Israel, being both essentially and administratively subordinate to the God of Israel.

  3. The assembly of gods could represent a council of earthly authorities who bear the title ‘gods’ by virtue of their official status as earthly counterparts to heavenly rulers.

Whoever or whatever these ‘gods’ are, the God of Israel appears to hold them directly responsible for the plight of the poor and oppressed (verses 2–5), a situation that will become the cause of their downfall. Their exalted status will be revoked and they will die like human beings (verses 6–7). The psalmist speaks in his own voice in the final verse, pleading for God to execute this judgment.

In a tradition that probably dates to the Second Temple period,4 Psalm 82:6 had come to be read by some Jews as referring either to the giving of the Law at Sinai or to the exalted status of the first humans. Verse 7 was interpreted as referring either to the incident involving the Golden Calf or to Adam’s transgression. Verse 1, on the other hand, was taken to be an account of the coming judgment, where the assembly of ‘gods’ could refer either to an angelic council or to the community of saved persons.

When understood in this sense as envisioning the future community of saved persons, the image of the assembly of gods in Psalm 82:1 (TNIV) implies the restoration in the end of something that was somehow lost in the beginning: a filial relationship with God. A few short lines thus transform the biblical theme of fall and restoration into a drama of apocalyptic dimensions. It is no wonder that aspects of this tradition show up in sectarian literature like 11QMelchizedek (from the Dead Sea Scrolls) and the Gospel of John.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus quotes the first half of Psalm 82:6 during a dispute with some disgruntled Judeans who had accused him both of blasphemy and of making himself out to be God (John 10:33–34). Interestingly enough, he introduces the quotation as though it belongs to the Law, a curious error if “Law” refers strictly to the five books of Moses (Genesis–Deuteronomy). Either he is using the term “Law” rather loosely, or, what seems more likely in view of the apocalyptic tradition sketched above, his introduction of the quotation as coming from the Law already reflects a particular reading of the Psalm as a commentary on the Law.

The gist of Jesus’ argument is that he ought not be accused of blasphemy for claiming the title “Son of God” when scripture indicates that those to whom the word of God came (in Eden? at Sinai?) were not only called “sons of the Most High” (in the portion of the psalm that he does not quote), but even ‘gods’. His remark that “the scripture cannot be broken” anticipates the objection that his quotation does not actually come from the Law. In effect, he preempts such an objection by reminding his opponents of what is presumably their own view: that the Law and the Psalms belong to a unitary whole.

The emphasis on Jesus’ works in the framing verses cleverly plays on an ancient commonplace assumption that one’s deeds should match one’s words (John 10:32; 37–38). Jesus basically tells his opponents that his works confirm his claim to the title “Son of God,” but readers familiar with the Gospel of John may detect the irony in this response. John does not indicate that Jesus’ claim to divine sonship is legitimate merely because the word of God came to him and is proven by his works. John signals from the beginning that Jesus is the word and that the word is God (John 1:1), a claim that Jesus echoes in the statement “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).<

The irony of Jesus’ remarks in John 10 escapes his opponents, who lack the wider perspective afforded to the Gospel’s readers. In their rush to bring charges against him, his opponents not only fail to see that the word of God has come to them, they also fail to perceive the apocalyptic implication of this event: the way is now open for them become ‘gods’ and “sons of the Most High.”

Readers steeped in the theology of the creeds may fail, in similar fashion, to observe that Jesus’ claim to divine sonship in John 10 is not exclusive. Even if he is the only begotten Son of God, all those to whom he comes can be made ‘gods’ and sons of the Most High by the power of his word (compare the emphasis on divine speech in Psalm 82:6 to the near-rhythmic outbursts of divine speech in Genesis 1).

I expect that informed critics of the Orthodox theosis tradition would not disagree with this conclusion, but they might remain suspicious of the role accorded to human effort in the tradition. I’ll have more to say about such criticisms later. For now my point is to indicate that Psalm 82:6 is much more than an ad hoc prooftext. If we maintain that the patristic concept of “becoming god” arose organically from exegesis of Psalm 82 then we ought also appreciate the observation that at least one Jewish tradition—in which the earliest Christians (and arguably Jesus himself) participated—already read Psalm 82 as concise and authoritative commentary on the biblical theme of fall and restoration.

Next up: Theosis and Orthodox Doctrine.

  1. Including Athanasius’ preferred term, theopoiesis.

  2. No less an evangelical luminary than J. I. Packer once suggested that Peter’s amanuensis (scribe) was prone to embellishment—an easy but problematic dismissal of 2 Peter 1:4 (“‘Outside the Church There is No Salvation’: An Orthodox and Evangelical Exchange,” discussion sponsored by the Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, St. Paul’s Orthodox Church, Irvine, CA, 1999).

  3. Important exceptions include the Alexandrians—Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril—and, much later, the Athonite monk and Archbishop of Thessaloniki, Gregory Palamas (Norman Russell, Fellow Workers With God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis, pp. 65–69).

  4. Carl Mosser, “The Earliest Patristic Interpretations of Psalm 82, Jewish Antecedents, and the Origin of Christian Deification,” Journal of Theological Studies 56.1 (2005): 30–73. Mosser has provided a link to his article. Non-specialists may find it a tough slog, but worth the effort.