The Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis, or deification, is one that is alien to Christianity in the west, and to many observers may seem heretical at first glance. The closest western doctrine to Theosis may be the Wesleyan concept of Christian Perfection, a controversial idea in western Christianity which gained little traction. Theosis teaches that the goal of sanctification is to be made one in the spiritual energies of God (to become God), Christian Perfection teaches that the goal of sanctification is to be free of sinful desires. Both share the same means, but disagree on the goals.
The best way to explain theosis is to go all the way back to the beginning. In Genesis 1:26 it says humanity was created in the image and likeness of God. The Greek fathers took this to mean that the fall removed the likeness of God within humanity, but humanity retained the image. What theosis is at its barest understanding is fully realized humanity which has regained the likeness of God. (Deification, 189)
What does it mean to regain the likeness of God, and how is this accomplished? To put it in the words of Athanasius, “[Jesus Christ] became man that we might become divine.” (Placher, 95) To retain the likeness of God is to become divine, or as others have put it, to become gods. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite elaborates saying, “deification is the attaining of likeness to God and union with him so far as is possible [emphasis mine].” (Russell, 1) How does one join in union with God “so far as is possible?”
St. Maximus the Confessor explained, “love, the divine gift perfects human nature until it makes it appear in unity and identity with the divine nature.” (Placher, 96) Here the western mind takes a leap and equates theosis with the concept of sanctification, or “The act and process by which people or things are cleansed and dedicated to God, ritually and morally.” (Sanctification, 613) But there is a distinction. According to Stephan Finland and Vladimir Kharlamov, “simply replacing theosis with sanctification is an attempt to supplant Patristic theology with standard Reformation language. Theosis is seen as the telos (goal) of salvation and existence.” (Finland and Kharlamov, 5) So to describe theosis as the sanctification of the Eastern Orthodox Church would be wrong, it is far more nuanced than that.
So how is theosis possible, how does one become a god yet still retain a semblance of Christian orthodoxy? The answer is the incarnation. “The incarnation is the definitive and unique doctrine of Christianity. Further, without the incarnation, there would be no theosis. Christians are meant not only to learn from the life of the divine Son, but to reproduce the pattern of spiritual progress that he revealed, even to the point of taking on the character of God!” (Finland and Kharlamov, 4) It is hard to comprehend this with our puny, Enlightenment soiled minds, but in the neo-platonic mindset theosis was born in humanity was viewed as a universal, as an abstract concept that individuals are a part up. Perhaps it would be best to say that individuals are made up of humanity, rather than humanity being made up of individuals. If Christ is indeed the God-Man, fully God and fully Man, that would change the makeup of humanity, infusing it with a life giving injection of divinity. William Placher put it this way, “to use a very weak analogy, when someone not of royal blood becomes a king, perhaps a bit of that royal prestige might rub off on his relatives.” (Placher, 95)
This is not to say that humanity is instantly deified. It means humanity merely has the potential to be deified through God’s energeiai, or divine energies, and good works. It is here that the western mind hits a road block. What does it mean to speak of God’s energeiai? In Eastern Orthodoxy there is a strong focus on the absolute incomprehensibility and transcendence of God, something many western Christians would feel right at home with. However, the belief in theosis would seem to contradict this. Also, to completely unite with God would seem to break down the doctrine of the Trinity. This is why Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite said that humanity may attain union with God “as far as it is possible.” There is a distinction placed between God’s ousia and God’s energeiai. Ousia is greek for substance, and is that which is essentially God, the persons in the Trinity take part in the ousia. God’s energeiai is his love, energy, or light. It is that which is immediately accessible to humanity. As Gregory Palamas put it, “The divine and uncreated grace and energeiai of God is, being indivisibly divided, like the sun’s ray, which warms and lightens and vivifies and increases its own splendor in what it enlightens, and shines forth in the eyes of its beholders.” (imid, 97)
The idea of God’s energeiai as light may be literally in Eastern Orthodoxy. In the greek mind “evidence of superhuman power could suggest a human being who had joined the gods, as well as a god in human form.” (Russell, 16) When Hesychast monks claimed that they had experienced the divine energeiai as light Gregory Palmas argued, “When God is said to have made man according to His image, the word man means neither the soul by itself nor the body by itself, but the two together.” Meaning that physical means could be used to partake in the divine energeiai, but also that energeiai could be shown in physical form. (Placher, 99) Jesus Christ had his Transfiguration, Moses had to veil his face after talking to God on Mount Sinai, Arsenius the Great had his face similarly glorified, Saint Seraphim was known to be physically glorified. (The Orthodox Church)
This logic is all for naught without scriptural support. As already mentioned, Jesus Christ, the God-man, underwent the Transfiguration. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me, and I am in you…” (New Revised Standard Version, Jh 17: 20-21) Throughout the Pauline Epistles Paul speaks of being “in Christ.” (The Orthodox Church) But perhaps most convincing is Second Peter, “Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.” (2 Pt 1:4)
John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection (or Entire Sanctification) is a bit more straightforward than the twists, turns, and nuances in theosis. In fact, it is very straightforward, though misunderstood by many because of the terminology. John Wesley split “salvation” into two portions. First, there is Justification and Sanctification, in this portion the Christian is granted a new heart and the zeal to serve God. If this task is completed, then by faith, and just as immediate as Justification, the Christian may experience “Entire Sanctification.” (Sangster, 27)
In the words of John Wesley this “Entire Sanctification” or Christian Perfection is “that love of God and our neighbour, which implies deliverance from all sin.” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection) Or, to be so far perfect as not to commit sin. (Outler, 267) It should be understood that when Wesley speaks of “Perfection” he does it in the sense of the medival Latin word “perfectus” which means “faultless”, or to be unimprovable. Not in the sense that people today would take it. (imid, 30) To clarify what Christian Perfection is and is not, John Wesley explained that the Christian does not maintain perfect knowledge, so he or she may err. Yet they do not sin willingly. (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection) He said in a letter that the Christian:
“… loveth the Lord his God with all his heart, and serveth Him with all his strength. He loveth his neighbour (every man) as himself; yea, as Christ loved us. … Indeed, his soul is all love, filled with the bowels of mercies, kindness, meekness, gentleness, longsuffering. And his life agreeth thereto… whatsoever he doeth, either in word or deed, he doeth it all in the name, in the love and power, of the Lord Jesus. In a word, he doeth the will of God on earth, as it is done in heaven.” (Sangster, 28)
Christian Perfection shares many of the proof texts used to defend theosis. It looks to Paul’s “in Christ” language, as well as to Ezekiel 36 which states, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” (Ezk 36: 25-27)Which is as straightforward a description of Christian Perfection one can find in the Old Testament. Lastly, for our purposes, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48)
What is most interesting, however, is that Wesley himself took inspiration for Christian Perfection from the Greek Patristics. In A Plain Account he says that, “It is the circumcision of the heart from all filthiness, all inward as well as outward pollution. It is a renewal of the heart in the whole image of God, the full likeness of Him that created it.” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection) This language is similar to that used in theosis, which as mentioned states humanity retains the image but lacks the likeness. He studied the works of Macarius, Gregory, and Ephraem, as well as the works of Spanish and Latin mystics. (Outler, 31) indeed, “If Wesley’s writings on perfection are to be read with understanding, his affirmative notion of “holiness” in the world must be taken seriously – active holiness in this life – and it becomes intelligible only in the light of its indirect sources in early and Eastern spirituality.” (imid, 252) When the works of the Patristics first made it into Britain John Wesley began studying them, and was most enamored by “their description of “perfection” (τελειωσις) as the goal (σκοπος) of the Christian in this life.” (Outler, 10)
So what are the similarities and differences between the two doctrines? What is similar is that they are both finite goals of sanctification. Or to put it in other words, both perceive the telos of sanctification to be within reach in this life. However, to Wesley Christian Perfection was something to be attained now, while theosis is mostly attained in death, and theosis is a gradual process, while Christian Perfection is instantaneous when it occurs (though one may fall from that state). (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection) They share the language of “imago dei” and the “likeness of God”, but Wesley never seems to consider likeness as a form of Godhood. Salvation to Wesley is to be free of sin, in theosis salvation is to be one with God, in so much as possible. While it may be that Wesley privately held this view, he never promulgated it. Sin to Wesley was not some sort of gulf between man and God, it was, “a voluntary transgression of a known law.” (Sangster, 71)
Seeing as Christian Perfection does hold to an idea of oneness with God’s divine energies, there is no physical dimension. A person entirely sanctified does not have magical powers, nor is he or she filled with light. Both ideas also differ in mental state. To Wesley an entirely sanctified person is unconscious of sin. Yet Eastern Orthodoxy does not hold that. According to Timothy Ware:
“the fact that a man is being deified does not mean that he ceases to be conscious of sin. On the contrary, deification always presupposes a continued act of repentance. A saint may be well advanced in the way of holiness, yet he does not therefore cease to employ the words of the Jesus Prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’. Father Silvan of Mount Athos used to say to himself ‘Keep your mind in Hell and despair not’; other Orthodox saints have repeated the words ‘All will be saved, and I alone will be condemned’. Eastern spiritual writers attach great importance to the ‘gift of tears’. Orthodox mystical theology is a theology of glory and of transfiguration, but it is also a theology of penitence.” (The Orthodox Church)
But in the end, both hold to the same means by which one can achieve theosis or Entire Sanctification. To Wesley, one follows the Law, being loving the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Wesley would say that one does this using the Means of Grace, or “outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.” (Means of Grace) These Means of Grace are, prayer, studying the Bible, Holy Communion, Fasting, Fellowship, Healthy living, doing good, visiting the sick and those in jail, feeding and clothing people, earning, saving, and giving, and finally opposition to slavery. (Mission: The Works of Mercy) The Eastern Orthodox would agree. Timothy Ware said, “If a man asks ‘How can I become god?’ the answer, is very simple: go to church, receive the sacraments regularly, pray to God ‘in spirit and in truth’, read the Gospels, follow the commandments.” (The Orthodox Church) and, “deification is not a solitary but a ‘social’ process. We have said that deification means ‘following the commandments’; and these commandments were briefly described by Christ as love of God and love of neighbour.” (imid) Exactly the same.
Christian Perfection and theosis are both Christian doctrines which speak of an attainable goal in salvation; they agree on the means, but not on the ends. Christian Perfection teaches that one may become so sanctified that they love God with their whole being, and love their neighbors as themselves. The Eastern Orthodox would agree, but then go farther saying that one partakes in the divine energeiai of God, and may undergo even a physical transformation. Both are a very important element of Christianity that deserves a deep look.
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Wesley, John. A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. GBGM-UMC. 5 May 2008
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