Theosis is less a doctrine than a practical outworking of the doctrine of the Incarnation.1 In that sense it is a response to the question posed most famously by Anselm of Canterbury, but already a millenium old before he formulated it: Cur deus homo? Why the God-Man? Anselm proposed that human beings had violated God’s honor and consequently incurred a debt that no one could possibly repay. By taking on human flesh and voluntarily suffering a penalty he did not deserve, Jesus not only satisfied that debt but stored up a treasury of merit that far exceeded any future debt: the gift that keeps on giving.
Anselm’s theory of satisfaction set an important precedent for later conceptions of the Incarnation and Atonement in Western Christendom, but it is neither the only nor the earliest response to the question posed by the Incarnation. According to Irenaeus of Lyons, Jesus Christ is “the only true and steadfast teacher, the Word of God … [who] became what we are in order to draw us to himself” (Against Heresies 5, Introduction). Clement of Alexandria says that “the Word of God became human so that you may learn from a human how a human may become god” (Exhortation to the Greeks 1.8.4). Similar sayings abound in the Fathers.
The theme of teaching and discipleship provides a helpful way to think about theosis. For many of the Eastern Fathers the Incarnation teaches not only that human nature can be deified but that deification is ultimately what God intended for human beings. I looked at some of the key scriptures supporting this view in my last post, but more can be said about how the Fathers read the Bible through the lens of the Incarnation. This Christological way of to reading is especially remarkable in certain early interpretations of Genesis 1, where the acts of creation are understood not merely as past events but also as anticipating the future perfection of God’s creatures. “God does not judge the beauty of His work by the charm of the eyes,” says Saint Basil the Great:
and He does not form the same idea of beauty that we do. What He esteems beautiful is that which presents in its perfection all the fitness of art, and that which tends to the usefulness of its end. He, then, who proposed to Himself a manifest design in His works, approved each one of them, as fulfilling its end in accordance with His creative purpose (Homilies on the Six Days of Creation 3.10)
In the Greek text of Basil’s Bible, God does not see that what he has created is merely ‘good’ but that it is literally ‘beautiful’. Beauty is in the eye of the Beholder, says Basil, and what God beholds is the final perfection of his creatures. Elsewhere Basil describes creation as “both a school and a training ground where the souls of human beings should be taught, and a home for beings destined to be born and to die” (Homilies on the Six Days of Creation 1.5).
If this world in which we live is both a school and a training ground, then who is our Instructor? Ignatius of Antioch celebrates Jesus as the one person who perfectly demonstrates the integrity of words and deeds thought to be a key virtue of successful teachers. For Ignatius, Jesus is the example for all who desire to teach:
It is good to teach, if the one who speaks also acts. There was one Teacher who spoke and it happened. And the things he has done while remaining silent are worthy of the Father.2 The one who truly possesses the word of Jesus is able even to hear his silence (hesychia), so that he may be perfect, so that he may act through his speech and be understood through his silence. Nothing escapes the notice of the Lord, but even the things we hide are near to him. Therefore we should do everything as though he were dwelling in us, that we may be his temples and he our God in us, as in fact he is, and he will appear before our eyes. For which reasons let us love him justly (To the Ephesians 15.1–3).
The goal of Orthodox hesychasts (those who practice what is called the prayer of the heart) is not merely to know God abstractly, through doctrinal or theological propositions, but truly to possess the word of Jesus and to hear His silence, to unify speech and action so perfectly that they pray unceasingly (1 Thess 5:17) and even without words (Rom 8:26–27), and finally to see the deifying light of the Transfiguration.
Despite the title of Norman Russell’s indispensable survey of *The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition. ↩
On the speech and silence of Jesus in this passage, see my forthcoming essay: “Hearing God’s Silence: Ignatius of Antioch and the Music of the Spheres” in ed. Ellen Aitken and John Fossey, Late Antique Crossroads in the Levant (full publication information to follow). ↩