Sunday, April 03, 2011

St. Athanasius' doctrine of Divinization

Last time I blogged about St. Athanasius, we spent the entire post examining the famous doctor's statement that "God became man so that man may become God" and endeavored to show that this concept (called "divinization") ought not to be interpreted in a pantheistic or New Age sense, quoting other statements from Athanasius and other Fathers to establish this fact; thus, we were looking at Athanasius' statements negatively by showing what they do not mean. This time we will examine what exactly St. Athanasius' doctrine of divinization does mean in a positive sense.

Before we go any further, I have two corrections/clarifications to make from the last post. In the first place, I made the statement last time that divinization was basically the same thing as St. Paul's doctrine of adoption, since both have to do with transitioning from sons of Adam to sons of God. Though the concepts are somewhat related, they are not the same thing. St. Paul's doctrine of adoption precedes divinization, and divinization, in turn, presupposes adoption. Adoption as God's sons and daughters is what makes divinization possible, as divinization (of course) is something applicable only to Christians who are born again as God's children. Adoption, as the Council of Trent declared, is nothing other than justification, the "translation from that state in which man was born as a child of the first Adam to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ." Catholic Tradition and Trent see this as occurring in and through the Sacrament of Baptism; Trent continues: "This translation, however, cannot, since the promulgation of the Gospel, be effected except through the laver of regeneration or its desire, as it is written: Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (Council of Trent, Session VI, caput. IV). Divinization is the process that follows upon adoption by which the newly born sons of God become conformed to His image; adoption makes divinization possible.

Second error I need to correct is my statement in the combox that divinization was the same idea as theosis. In this I was incorrect, for the two concepts are different in two very important ways. First, divinization is taught by St. Athanasius to be something normative that all Christians undergo as part of the typical Christian life. Theosis, on the other hand, was something the orthodox monks saw as applicable most perfectly to only those who had renounced the world and were living in a state of monasticism seeking union with God; it is something for an elect few. The second and more fundamental difference, related to the first, is that theosis is primarily a mystical concept, the idea of divinization transformed under the hand of Pseudo-Dioynisius the Areopagite into a mystical doctrine. Divinization, on the other hand, is taught by St. Athanasius as a soteriological concept, concerning itself not with mystical progression through various stages towards union with God in some kind of hesychastic vision, but as a fundamental soteriological statement about what it means for Christians (all Christians) to be saved. This is why the word for divinization (theopoie) is a distinct word from theosis.

Phew. Now that I have amended my errors (hopefully without stumbling into more errors), let us proceed with the main point of this post: what does divinization entail for St. Athanasius?

For St. Athanasius, divinization consists of the ennoblement of mankind by God - the working out of the effects of the grace merited by Jesus Christ on human nature. It is the process by which human nature is made conformable to Christ; since Christ is a divine Person, this process is rightly called "divinization", as in it we witness the glorification of human nature under the divine hand of Christ. Therefore, divinization means positively the perfection and glorification of human nature. In Scholastic thought, the final end of divinization is similar to those conditions of the just in the resurrection, found in the Summa (Suppl.Tertia Partis, Q 82-85).

In the first place, St. Athanasius mentions bodily immortality as the first result of divinization. Athanasius sees the attainment of immortality in a kind of reciprocal exchange between Jesus and humanity: Jesus, in the Incarnation, assumes mortality by putting on human flesh, enabling us to assume immortality by putting on Christ. He says, "As the Lord, putting on the body, became man, so we men are deified by the Word. as being taken to Him through His flesh and henceforth inherit life everlasting" (Third Discourse Against the Arians, 34).

Besides immortality, St. Athanasius also includes incorruptibility in the idea of divinization. This incorruptibility refers not simply to the incorruption of the body (which would then make it the same as immortality), but to the reality that the divinized, resurrected body will be free from all sin and its corruptions. He describes the Crucifixion as occurring so that "men might for ever abide incorruptible, as a temple of the Word" (ibid., 58), hearkening to 1 Cor. 6 where Christians are referred to as God's "temple" in the context of purity and holiness. He says again in the same place:

But now the Word having become man and having appropriated what pertains to the flesh, no longer do these things touch the body, because of the Word who has come in it, but they are destroyed by Him, and henceforth men no longer remain sinners and dead according to their proper affections, but having risen according to the Word's power, they abide ever immortal and incorruptible (ibid, 33).

So incorruptibility, though related to immortality (in fact, we could say that immortality is a result of freedom from sin, since the fruits of sin is death), is not the same; it has to do with freedom from sin and its consequences.  

Finally, St. Athanasius mentions impassibility as the third aspect of divinization, meaning the impossibility of suffering any pain or want, a state of insensibility to evil. A few articles I consulted on this aspect of divinization tried to attribute it to pre-Christian philosophy, especially the philosophy of Plato and Philo of Alexandria. Though these two philosophers certainly taught that the ideal state consisted in being freed from the sufferings attendant upon having a corporeal body, I don't think we necessarily need to look to pre-Christian philosophy for the source of this ideal. We need look no farther than Revelation 21:3-4: 

And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men: and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people: and God himself with them shall be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more. Nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.

This concept is also found in Isaiah 25:8 and Isaiah 35:10 as well,so it is quite biblical. As in the case with immortality, where there is a reciprocity between Christ's putting on mortality and our putting on Christ, so here Athanasius envisions a kind of relationship whereby the sufferings of Christ render us free from suffering. "We by His sufferings might put on freedom from suffering and incorruption, and abide unto life eternal" (Ad Maximus 4 [Letter 61]). Also, we could return to the very rich Third Discourse Against the Arians, from whence many of our quotes have been taken: "He let His own body suffer, for therefore did He come, as I said before, that in the flesh He might suffer, and thenceforth the flesh might be made impassible and immortal" (58). Like much else about the glorification of man in St. Athanasius' writings, this process is grounded in the Incarnation: "The Lord became man...that He might Himself lighten these very sufferings of the flesh and free it from them" (ibid., 56).

One final word on the concept of divinization. Though I thoroughly understand what St. Athanasius means by this concept, I do not think it is a helpful term to use in the modern climate. Because of the inroads that paganism, New Age thought, pantheism and all sorts of man-centered philosophies have made in our culture, I think the terms "divinization" and "deification" are simply too confusing to be used safely. I would never recommend utilizing this term in dialogue with anyone (save the Eastern Orthodox). 

Nor is this only my own opinion. This phrase never did catch on in the western Church, the Latin Fathers being apparently uncomfortable with the term, though perfectly at home with the concept. Even the Greek Fathers began to put qualifications on the terminology in later centuries, apparently sensitive to possible misinterpretations the phrases "divinization" and "deification" could lead to. The eastern Father Babai the Great (551-628) rightly rejected the idea that "we are sons of God as He is and are to be worshiped through our union with God the Logos." The Nestorian Patriarch Timothy strictly emphasized that divinization "did not mean that we become sons of God by nature or that we are worshiped by all men as our Lord is." Even St. Gregory Palamas felt the need to qualify St. Athanasius' doctrine by reminding that deified persons did not become God by nature or essence (I'm sorry, I found these quotes on other sites but was unable to find sources for them, so hopefully they are legit).

Of course, these authors are absolutely correct in their assertions, of course, but the fact that they felt the need over time to increasingly qualify St. Athanasius' doctrine shows the degree to which they must have been a little uncomfortable with the terminology, in my opinion.

At any rate, hopefully these posts on this topic will help shed some more light on this deep but misunderstood teaching of one of the Church's greatest minds.


peet said...
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Neither First nor Last said...

I came from a group of Christians (neither Catholic nor technically Eastern Orthodox) where this doctrine of divinization was upheld as the 'Highest Peak of the Gospel'. Over time, nearly every hymn was recomposed around this idea, every discussion had at it's core this single seed... "God's economy"....

While I understand where the idea of "God became man that man might become God" may be developed from certain passages of scripture, it is of utmost importance that we realize that the only place within scripture wherein these words might be found are in Genesis 3:5, where Satan tells Eve, " shall be like God.."

The truth is, when we start talking like this, we take on the attitude and heart of Satan, and not of God. "I shall be like the Most High" - Isaiah 14:13. This doctrine doesn't win people to Christ, it doesn't cause the sinner to repent or soften hearts to receive a Saviour. It is a dead-end that I can honestly testify leaves men seeking His Glory in themselves, and not giving it to Him.

In Christ,