Theosis is an essential concept in understanding salvation in the Orthodox Church. Sometimes Orthodox literature will refer to theosis as divinization or deification. It simply means to become like God. This concept is explicitly expressed in the Biblical passage of 2 Peter 1:4. This passage illumines and summarizes theosis as the process whereby man may become partakers of the divine nature. Much has been said by the Fathers in regards to this passage and the doctrine of theosis. This essay will discuss the definition of theosis; in what sense does man become a partaker of “the divine nature”; how the concept of synergia is a part of theosis; and the implications of theosis not only upon man but all creation. A discussion of salvation history will be necessary to fully understand the theological concepts as well.
The goal of the Christian is to become like God. Man was created for this purpose. In Gen. 1:26, “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.” According to the Fathers of the church, this verse begins the understanding of theosis. Man was imprinted with God’s image, and it is this image that enables man to have communion with God and therefore to become like God. However, one soon finds in the creation account that man fell away from this purpose. Although Adam and Eve were created innocent without sin, in some sense they too were to grow in likeness to God. The lie perpetrated upon Eve by the serpent was an attempt to destroy this subvert this process as man reached out to the forbidden fruit in order to “be like God” by man’s own power and method.
One function of the Incarnation was to redeem this process of theosis. As Athanasius stated, “God became man, so that man could become God.” Man was once again sanctified in Christ allowing man once again to become like God through the person of Christ. By Christ taking upon himself the flesh of man, He sanctified it through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven at the right hand of the Father. Man’s nature has been completely sanctified and is now sitting in the heavens at the right hand of the Father. The Incarnation opened the door so that we could become partakers of the divine nature. Just as Christ united man and God in one person, this allows Man to be united with God. It is this process which we call theosis.
One area of confusion in regards to this doctrine needs to be clarified. The question of union can create problems if not explained clearly. In order to fully understand this union, the Fathers of the Church have spoken about God in two ways. The idea of essence and energies helps to understand how God relates and interacts with His creation, and more importantly how God unites Himself with man. God’s essence can best be defined as that part of God which is His internal substance. God’s essence or nature separates Him from all His creation and makes Him transcendent and unapproachable by all. No one can ascertain or “look upon” God’s essence.
Scripturally this is seen when Moses asks to see God, and God says that no man can see Him and live. Because of the unapproachability of God’s nature, the Fathers often speak of God apophatically or in negative. It is easier to speak about what God is not, than to say what God is because language and thought cannot grasp the true nature of God in all its fullness.
Despite the unknowability of God in His essence, it becomes clear through the Scripture that God has chosen to reveal Himself to man. In the example of Moses above, God hides Moses in the cleft of a rock and shows Moses His backside. This display of God illustrates what the Fathers call the energies of God. It is important to note, that just as the essence of God is uncreated, the energies are uncreated as well. The energies of God are as much God as the essence, but they are the manifestations or activities of God’s essence. We can approach God’s essence through His energies. By uniting ourselves and experiencing the energies of God, we are truly participating in God and not just an emanation or creation of God. It is this belief that we can truly participate in God that allows for theosis. The title of this blog is an illustration of theosis. A sword placed in fire takes on the property of fire and glows as evidence of this change, yet it still remains a sword.
God’s grace is offered out to man in order for man to commune and unite with God. However man must reach back and accept God’s grace in order to be transformed and united with God. This human participation in the process of theosis is often referred to by the Greek word, “synergia”. Synergia simply means working together. Man works together with God in order to accomplish theosis. Biblically, this is seen in Mk. 16:20 as the risen Christ is working with apostles to accomplish His will. The two most significant passages are found in First and Second Corinthians. In 1 Cor. 3:9-10, Paul proclaims that he and by extension all Christians are workers together with God and are to work with the grace that God has given in order to accomplish ministry. 2 Cor 6:1, states that Christians are to work with God and that by not working with God is to receive God’s grace in vain.
Synergia should not be seen as man’s feeble attempt to attain favor with God and earn entry into the kingdom. It is God’s grace alone that has the power to transform man into His likeness. Synergia is merely the natural process of Man responding to God’s grace and working with it to accomplish God’s will. This idea does preclude the notion that a person can accept God’s grace and be instantly transformed into God’s likeness. There is effort involved, and synergia is a continually struggle to accept God and reject those things that are not from Him. Another way of understanding synergia is to look to the Incarnation. Just as Christ united man’s will with God will, the Christian is called to do the same by uniting his will to the will of God. Because of Christ’s triumph man is able to do so.
God has provided several means through the Church for man to synergize His will to God’s and thereby be transformed into the likeness of God. First and foremost, theosis takes place as man partakes of the sacraments. Baptism and Chrismation opens the door to theosis and empowers the Christian to unite himself with God. The sacrament of Confession brings the Christian back into fellowship with God so that he can begin to receive God’s grace in full once again. Ultimately, the Eucharist not only provides the power for theosis, but also becomes an icon of the process. Christ offers His own body and blood to the Christian, and the faithful Christian ingests it so that it becomes a part of his own body. This is a picture of the most intimate communion between man and God. God allows His own life to fully penetrate the life of Man in order to transform him into God’s likeness.
Alongside the Sacraments the Christian has many other tools at his disposal that help this process of theosis. These tools are often referred to as asceticism, but are nothing more than such things as keeping God’s commandments, displaying the fruits of the Spirit, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, etc. All these are means to an end goal, which is theosis, and should never be viewed as ends in themselves. As the Christian obeys, prays and fasts, he opens Himself up to more and more of God’s grace and is thereby transformed little by little into the likeness of God.
A note must be made about the role of the Jesus prayer in the process of theosis. Because theosis is an active communion with God, one method of the Church to be more mindful and attentive of God’s presence is to continually pray. This also fulfills Paul’s command to pray without ceasing. The most popular method for accomplishing this task has been the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy one me.” The repetition of this short prayer helps focus the mind and heart on the presence of God keeping the believer in constant communion with God. Constant contact with the life of God purifies the believer and transforms. It must be remember that the ability to use the Jesus Prayer is not the end of the Christian, but merely means to the end. The prayer can also not be separated from active obedience and participation in the sacraments on the Church.
Not only does theosis directly affect man and his moving toward the likeness of God, but it extends to all of creation as well. Strange as this may seem, man’s sin in the Garden brought death into the world (Rom. 5:12). Chrysostom treats this issue in his homily on Rom. 8:19-22 as he explains the creation’s groaning to be delivered from the bondage of death. Death did not only infect mankind, but all of creation, and in some great mystery man’s restoration to communion with God will restore creation as well. Man serves as priest and mediator and sanctifies creation itself as he offers it up to the Creator. Evidence of this future deliverance can be seen in glimpses in the lives of the saints. Stories of their relationship to animals and nature show a return to Eden in many accounts.
The concept of theosis is central to the understanding of salvation. God’s offers Himself to man in order to have communion with God. Communion with God leads to man being transformed into the likeness of God. The image of God begins to shine in order to fulfill God’s ultimate purpose for man’s creation. This is true meaning of theosis. Man must receive this gift of God Himself by opening his heart to God. This working together with God’s grace is often referred to as synergia and is accomplished through the Church in the sacraments, prayer, virtue, asceticism, etc. All creation groans for mankind’s theosis because it promises a deliverance from corruption as well. Theosis is beautiful mystery that displays the sacrificial love of God coming to man to transform him into God’s own likeness.