What is Theosis?

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What might Christians of the Reformation tradition think of claims like these about the nature of salvation?

Theosis (or deification) refers to a view of salvation guided by the conviction that the final glorification of humanity is union with God. Language of “becoming God” is one of the chief ways the church fathers, especially of the Greek tradition, speak about salvation. Salvation is entry into the divine life in communion with God. This doesn’t involve the destruction of the human creature and its disappearance into God. Rather, deification means that fellowship with the Holy Trinity is the culmination and perfection of creatureliness. Today, theosis is the typical view of salvation taught by the Eastern Orthodox Church.

For a short post like this one, it’s crucial to remember that not all of this can be attributed to particular figures of the Christian tradition. There isn’t a universally accepted doctrine of deification that can be ascribed to figures as diverse as Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Thomas Aquinas. With this in mind, a few things can be said.

It’s important to distinguish theosis from the more general framework with which many church fathers understood the relationship between God and creation. However, theosis complements the view of the creator-creature distinction, which we might name “participation.” What this means is that all created being participates in God such that it is extended outward from God’s own being. God creates by sharing of himself. 

This isn’t the same concept as emanation, as one would find in pagan Neoplatonic philosophers like Plotinus. Participation as early Christian theologians understood it relies on the doctrine of creation out of nothing. When God creates, he does so out of the surplus of his own boundless life. It’s precisely because God is infinite that he can share of himself without ceasing to be God, transcendent over all things.

Theosis expands upon this more general framework for understanding the creator-creature distinction. What this involves is a view of salvation in which sin signals a lack of something: goodness, closeness to God, virtue, and so on. Sin and evil don’t have an independent reality of their own. Instead, sin and evil remind us that something is missing. You could liken it to a page torn in half: the imperfection of the page isn’t that you scribbled all over it to make it indecipherable, but that the meaning of the words has been lost. To repair the torn page, you don’t need an eraser, but must make the page whole once again.

If we think about sin like this, fallen creatures lack the fullness of goodness and virtue God intended for them. They haven’t lost all of it – that would mean complete destruction. God upholds and provides for his fallen creation despite sin and evil. In salvation, God perfects humanity and all of creation by restoring or completing what was lost in the fall. The famous words of Athanasius make sense now: God became man so that man might become God. Christ is the eternal God and the sinless human, a second Adam who shares with us the life of his resurrection. In the resurrection, God’s creative work comes to completion. And to share in Christ’s resurrection is also deification: the image, goodness, and life of God have now been perfected in us.

If Luther is right, the problem with people isn’t that they lack goodness but that they have far too much of it.

This is a very brief description of theosis. What, however, might Christians of the Reformation tradition think of claims like these about the nature of salvation? It’s important to note that this construal of the creator-creature distinction – that of participation – is taken up by the theologians of post-Reformation orthodoxy, both Lutheran and Reformed. It’s also easy to find references to the early church’s language of “becoming God” in their theological writing. 

But from the standpoint of Luther’s theology and the core convictions of the Lutheran Reformation, a good place to begin an evaluation of theosis is with the nature of sin and how this shapes our understanding of salvation. If sin is merely a lack of goodness, does this really comport with Scripture’s portrayal of the problems of our world and ourselves? If Luther is right, the problem with people isn’t that they lack goodness but that they have far too much of it. Luther calls this the “ambition for divinity,” and it is the first sin offered to Adam and Eve in the garden.

Like the church fathers, Luther knows that there’s a natural human desire for God that is incomplete. But Luther inverts the whole framework itself: this yearning for completed goodness isn’t a lack that must be satisfied but is the very form of sin that must be destroyed. Sin, now, is a very real thing – not just an absence. And Luther notices that sin and evil in Scripture aren’t just unfulfilled desires for wholeness but are very real antagonists and actors in the drama of God’s fallen creation. The world, the devil, and the old sinful self are enemies which must be defeated and destroyed. Indulging them would be the opposite of salvation.

Perfect fellowship with God isn’t to become deified, but to quit trying!

The cross now, for Luther, is where all these antagonists meet. The death of Christ is the end of the sinner, the destruction of Satan’s power, and the end of the law’s condemnation. The atonement brings to an end Adam’s first quest to become God. The resurrection of Christ – and God’s justification of the godless – aren’t the completion of imperfect fellowship with God, cracked virtue, or mediocre goodness. God imparts a totally new life and new righteousness that are alien to the reality of life under sin. God’s grace doesn’t perfect nature; it remakes what the judgment of the law has first destroyed.

While it’s surely biblical to call salvation fellowship or communion with God, Luther’s grand reversal of things puts a rather different accent on what that really means. Perfect fellowship with God isn’t to become deified, but to quit trying! With the natural desire for goodness and divinity vanquished, human beings are freed to become truly human. Released now from captivity to the conceited power struggle over divinity, creation made new in Christ is free for the first time not to be God.

The seemingly impossible task of self-improvement is over because the self-improvement project was the problem the whole time. Now, you no longer have to fixate on yourself. That wasn’t going to get you anywhere. Now, the Christian remade in Christ can live for others without having to capitalize on the neighbor for one’s own gain. Luther’s doctrine of justification is good news for sinners. It means that salvation isn’t a process of maintaining holiness but the gift of new life that we could never expect or anticipate.