Sunday, February 13, 2011

"So that man might become God"

In the treatise of St. Athanasius on the Incarnation, we come across one of the most profound but easily misunderstood statements of the Fathers; I am referring of course to St. Athanasius' dictum that "[the Word] was made man that we might be made God," which is found in De Incarnatione 54:3.What did St. Athanasius mean when he stated that man could "become God" as a result of the Incarnation? This question is not an obscure point of theology but strikes at the heart of Christology and soteriology alike; it is especially relevant both because the modern world lacks a general understanding of why Christ came to earth, and because progressive and New Age thinkers tend to wrongly interpret patristic or scriptural phrases such as this in the interest of promoting pantheism (for example, here and here).

The Greek word Athanasius uses here is theopoie, which literally means "to make divine." The phrase was written during the Arian controversy, and it is interesting to note that the Arians must have agreed to this phrase as well, since (a) St. Athanasius mentions it without defining it, assuming that his opponents knew what he meant, and (b) he bases his argument upon the principle, and one cannot make something a starting point for an argument unless both parties agree to it. We can see the concept being used this way in his Letter to Serapion, 1:24, where he says:

"If, by a partakability of the Spirit we shall become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), it would be madness then afterward to call the Spirit an originated entity and not of God; for on account of this also those who are in Him are made divine. But then if He makes man divine, it is not dubious to say His nature is of God."

Remember the Arians denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit as well as the Son. Athanasius uses the doctrine of divinization as a starting point to prove the Spirit's Godhead. Since it is through the Holy Spirit that men become "partakers of the divine nature", as St. Peter says, then the Spirit must Himself be divine, otherwise He would be unable to confer this divinization upon others. Notice that St. Athanasius takes the divinization of man for granted and assumes the Arians believe it, too.

Whereas some have seen this doctrine of "divinization" as a remnant of pre-Christian Greek philosophy, akin to Plotinus and Plato (such as Harnack), I think we can prove that this doctrine of divinization is found throughout the Fathers and can be understood as being original to Christianity without having to bring in Plato and Plotinus to explain it.

It of course has its origin in the words of St. Peter in 2 Peter 1:4, where the Prince of the Apostles says  "By whom he hath given us most great and precious promises: that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature: flying the corruption of that concupiscence which is in the world." We can also find biblical precedents in St. Paul's doctrine of adoption. This concept is elaborated in the Fathers. In the preface to Book IV of Adversus Haereses, St. Irenaeus invokes the exaltation of man in opposition to the Gnostic dogma of the evil of the flesh:

"For whatsoever all the heretics may have advanced with the utmost solemnity, they come to this at last, that they blaspheme the Creator, and disallow the salvation of God's workmanship, which the flesh truly is; on behalf of which I have proved, in a variety of ways, that the Son of God accomplished the whole dispensation [of mercy], and have shown that there is none other called God by the Scriptures except the Father of all, and the Son, and those who possess the adoption" (Adv. Haer., Book IV, preface, iv).

Note that St. Irenaeus leaves out the Spirit when mentioning the divine persons, substituting instead "those who possess the adoption"; i.e., the Church, which is herself made holy through the Spirit. Irenaeus is obviously envisioning a very close union between the faithful and Christ in the Spirit; the Church, as Christ's Body, is so close to Christ in the Spirit that the Church itself is exalted and divinized.

Clement of Alexandria, who preceded Athanasius by over a century, wrote in almost the same terms as the great Athanasius when he stated in his Exhortation to the Heathen: "I say, the Word of God became man, that you may learn from man how man may become God" (Prot. 1). Of course, unless we are already coming at these verses from a pantheistic viewpoint, we understand that this divinization, this "becoming God", does not entail a substantial alteration in our nature; we are human beings, and will always be human beings. In the same work, Clement states that the process of divinization, "becoming God", is nothing other than "becoming a man of God." He says: "But if one of those serpents even is willing to repent, and follows the Word, he becomes a man of God" (ibid).

Therefore, in the Fathers we see a certain ambiguity; sometimes salvation is seen in terms of man "becoming God," at other times of man "becoming like God." Part is this ambiguity comes from the fact that, until the clarification of the Christological controversies of the day, there was not a consensus on what theopoie meant; the Church could not specific what it meant for man to become divine until it worked out what it meant to say that Christ was divine.

Origen sheds some light on the issue in his Contra Celsus, stating that the "divinization" is the result of adoption and is nothing other than the ennoblement of mankind by the commingling of our natures with the divine which was begun in the Incarnation and continued through the sacraments. He says:

"But both Jesus Himself and His disciples desired that His followers should believe not merely in His Godhead and miracles, as if He had not also been a partaker of human nature, and had assumed the human flesh which "lusts against the Spirit;" but they saw also that the power which had descended into human nature, and into the midst of human miseries, and which had assumed a human soul and body, contributed through faith, along with its divine elements, to the salvation of believers, when they see that from Him there began the union of the divine with the human nature, in order that the human, by communion with the divine, might rise to be divine, not in Jesus alone, but in all those who not only believe, but enter upon the life which Jesus taught, and which elevates to friendship with God and communion with Him every one who lives according to the precepts of Jesus" (Contra Celsus 3:28).

The union between God and man that was begun in the Incarnation is thus extended to all men through the agency of the Church. St. Athanasius himself clarifies the doctrine against any possible misunderstanding in several places. His third Discourse Against the Arians is worth quoting at length, for here we see the dogma laid out in full:

"[T]he Saviour says; 'Be merciful, as your Father which is in heaven is merciful;' and, 'Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.' And He said this too, not that we might become such as the Father; for to become as the Father, is impossible for us creatures, who have been brought to be out of nothing; but as He charged us, 'Be not like to horse,' not lest we should become as draught animals, but that we should not imitate their want of reason, so, not that we might become as God, did He say, 'Be merciful as your Father,' but that looking at His beneficent acts, what we do well, we might do, not for men's sake, but for His sake, so that from Him and not from men we may have the reward.

For as, although there be one Son by nature, True and Only-begotten, we too become sons, not as He in nature and truth, but according to the grace of Him that calls
, and though we are men from the earth, are yet called gods , not as the True God or His Word, but as has pleased God who has given us that grace; so also, as God do we become merciful, not by being made equal to God, nor becoming in nature and truth benefactors (for it is not our gift to benefit but belongs to God), but in order that what has accrued to us from God Himself by grace, these things we may impart to others, without making distinctions, but largely towards all extending our kind service. For only in this way can we anyhow become imitators, and in no other, when we minister to others what comes from Him.

And as we put a fair and right sense upon these texts, such again is the sense of the lection in John. For he does not say, that, as the Son is in the Father, such we must become:— whence could it be? When He is God's Word and Wisdom, and we were fashioned out of the earth, and He is by nature and essence Word and true God...and we are made sons through Him by adoption and grace, as partaking of His Spirit (for 'as many as received Him,' he says, 'to them gave He power to become children of God, even to them that believe in His Name'), and therefore also He is the Truth (saying, 'I am the Truth,' and in His address to His Father, He said, 'Sanctify them through Your Truth, Your Word is Truth '); but we by imitation become virtuous and sons:

Therefore not that we might become such as He, did He say 'that they may be one as We are;' but that as He, being the Word, is in His own Father, so that we too, taking an examplar and looking at Him, might become one towards each other in concord and oneness of spirit, nor be at variance as the Corinthians, but mind the same thing, as those five thousand in the Acts, who were as one
" (Third Discourse Against the Arians, 19).

Two points: first, our "divinization" is the process by which we become made like God. This does not happen by any sort of essential change in our nature that would make us gods in our own right or equal to God, as Athanasius goes to pains to explain would be impossible. Rather, it is by 'imitation" and by "taking an exemplar and looking at Him." Second, this "imitation" is not a simple, human imitation, a striving towards perfection by our own powers in the Pelagian sense, but an inner, dynamic imitation that is accomplished "by adoption and grace" as "has pleased God."

In case this is not proof enough that Athanasius means a divinization by adoption, we can also consult his First Discourse Against the Arians, in which he distinguishes between children by nature and children by grace, stating that our divinization is "by participation":

"For what is from another by nature, is a real offspring, as Isaac was to Abraham, and Joseph to Jacob, and the radiance to the sun; but the so called sons from virtue and grace, have but in place of nature a grace by acquisition, and are something else besides the gift itself; as the men who have received the Spirit by participation" (First Discourse Against the Arians, 37).
This is repeated again in his letter to the African churches: "For we too, albeit we cannot become like God in essence, yet by progress in virtue imitate God" (Ad Afros Epistula Synodica, 7).

I think we have established beyond a reasonable doubt what St. Athanasius did not mean by his statement that men "become God." But, if divinization does not itself entail an essential transformation into God, as pantheists would have it, then what do Athanasius, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Irenaeus and all the rest mean by the repeated statements that men cane become "divine" through participation in Christ? This shall have to wait until next time.


JD said...

Is what you are talking about what the Orthodox would call "theosis"? I know an Eastern Rite Catholic priest who said that the "Transforming Union" is the same thing, only that is how a Latin Rite Catholic would call it. He argues that "transforming union" is a better phrase because unlike "theosis" which can easily be misinterpreted into a sort of pantheism, transforming union can't really be twisted into that. All in all a great and informative post you have here.

Boniface said...

Yes, this is theosis, I believe.

Anonymous said...

Actually, there are a couple of problems here Boniface. First of all, the Fathers of the Church for the most part do not base divinization on the passage of Peter that you cite, but instead on Psalm 82: 6 although the passage from Peter is mentioned in the later Fathers. Also, adoption is not that closely related to divinization...

Boniface said...


Right! How could I leave out Psalm 82:6! However, I don't see how you can say that adoption is not that closely related, since St. Athanasius specifically mentions adoption in this context, and since adoption has to do with man becoming a son of god by grace.


I was also a bit mistaken in my earlier comment...this is related to theosis, but not the same thing. Theosis is a more mystical idea, but it is related to this I believe.

HH said...

theosis is essentially the same thing, it is just that in the eastern Church the term theosis has been inseparably linked to hesychasm, asceticism and very deep mysticism , a link that has not been made in the Latin Church. the term more commonly used in the west is 'the unitive way'