Eastern Orthodoxy: Theosis/Deification

Mormon Heretic catholicism, christ, christianity, doctrine, Early Christianity, LDS, Mormon, mormon, salvation, scripture, spiritual progression, theology 28 Comments

Covenant Theological Seminary is a Presbyterian Seminary.  They have online courses that you can listen to for free!  If you pay tuition, you can get a Master of Divinity Degree online.  I have found the podcasts incredibly interesting.

I’ve learned some interesting concepts from class on Ancient and Medieval Church History.  Session #23 discusses Eastern Orthodoxy.  First, let’s have a little background.  The Eastern Orthodox Church officially split with the Catholic Church in 1054.  The Pope excommunicated the Patriarch in Constantinople, so the Patriarch did the same to the Pope.  There had been some different emphasis on theology for quite some time.  For example, while the Catholic Church claimed that the Pope held all the leadership, the Orthodox Church held a much less central authority.  The Orthodox belief of revelation is that God speaks through these councils, not one central person.

There were seven early councils (such as the Nicene Council.) These edicts of these councils are usually considered scripture in the Orthodox church.  The various Orthodox churches (Russian, Greek, etc) are quite a bit more autonomous.  The Orthodox church even holds out that there could one day be an American Orthodox church, if membership warrants such an organization.

Even before the official split, there were many tensions between Rome and Constantinople.  In the podcast, the teacher refers to Rome as the “Western” church, and Constantinople as the “Eastern” church.  The western church spoke mostly Latin, while the eastern church spoke mostly Greek.  In the West, the church had an emphasis on:

  1. Sin
  2. Grace
  3. Justification
  4. Salvation
  5. Sacraments

The eastern church agrees, but has a larger emphasis on:

  1. Apophaticism – an emphasis on the mystery of God.
  2. Tradition
  3. Theosis
  4. Icons

I’d like to talk about Theosis.  Theosis is a greek word meaning Deification, as in the deification of humanity.  Unfortunately, I do not know the name of the teacher, but anyone can download the podcast to hear him directly.  I’d like to quote the teacher directly.

“[Theosis] is the word that really sums up salvation.  In the West, we talk about sin and justification as a way of understanding salvation.  In the East, the emphasis is on theosis or deification.  We are changed so that we become like God, or Eastern theologians will say it even more strongly than that.  As Athanasius put it, ‘God became man, that man might become God.’  That’s theosis, or deification.

Well, that strikes the western mind as kind of a problematic way to understand theology and to understand the transforming effect of grace.  The eastern mind though sees that as the real purpose of Christ coming into the world, to transform us that we become like him.  In some ways, we can see that if we’re talking about union with Christ, or becoming more and more like Christ or becoming more and more like God.  But in the eastern expression of theosis, it is stated so strongly that Christ became man, that we might become God that most western thinkers pull back from that.  It sounds like a kind of heresy of some sort.  I expect closer examination of the eastern idea of theosis, will reveal that the eastern theology doesn’t for the most part, go over the line, but it uses language that can be suggested of something that western Christians would want to avoid.

The people in the west that pick up this same idea are the mystics, and in the west, they were constantly accused of pantheism.  Because, to the western mind, this kind of language, and this kind of expression goes too far because it tends to blur the distinction between God and his creation.”

I decided to look up theosis on Wikipedia, and found this interesting quote from St Ireneaus (who lived 130-202 AD.)  He is considered a saint in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches.  “St. Irenaeus explained this concept in Against Heresies, Book 5, in the Preface, “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”

It seems to me that mormons have much in common with this idea of theosis.  This sounds quite similar to Lorenzo Snow’s quote, “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.” Comments?

Comments

comments

Comments 28

  1. To quote a fellow over at MADB:

    I don’t think Mormon [exaltation] validly represents theosis. In brief, it is because theosis presupposes a difference in nature between God and man that is bridged by the incarnation. Because Mormonism posits no no such difference, it does not teach deification in the sense properly indicated by the word “theosis.”

  2. Is it really true that LDS theology posits no difference at all in the nature of God and the nature of man?

  3. A very good book on this is “Deification in Christ: Orthodox Perspectives on the Nature of the Human Person” by the Greek Orthodox scholar Panayiotis Nellas (trans: by Norman Russell). His premise, in brief is “we are called to be gods…partakers of the divine nature”. Part one is particularly good.

  4. The quote from MADB provided by Aaron is from Soren, a catholic. Soren is correct. The notion of “theosis” has always presupposed creatio ex nihilo, that there is a deep chasm betwixt God and man (just wanted to use “betwixt”). Therefore, even though there is a sense in which humans are divinized (exalted) there will always be a very significant disadvantage that humans have….they are not eternal in nature.

    It isn’t entirely clear to me why that should be problematic though. Why should the fact that humans were created ex nihilo limit them from enjoying all of God’s abilities?

    If western theologians are uncomfortable with eastern notions of theosis, they are deeply troubled by Mormonisms take on it. Our rejection of creatio ex nihilo takes theosis one step further, drawing man closer to God than traditional Christianity can. They really don’t like that we have blurred the line between God and man.

    So, in one sense we really have restored an ancient Christian idea. But Joseph Smith took that idea and expanded it, modified it, and made it more beautiful. That shouldn’t be surprising.

  5. Granted that Mormonism posits a closer, more familial relationship between God and man than does most other Christianity, I still don’t think we’re justified in suggesting that God and man are homoiousios. Christ is, after all, the Only Begotten of the Father. There is something substantially different between His nature and ours. He’s God, and we’re not. Yet. That we may become like God, doesn’t mean that we share God’s nature before God makes it so.

  6. But I can’t figure out what the substantial difference would be. If we reduce man to his most fundamental core, and we reduce God the Father to his fundamental core, we would arrive at the same fundamental substance….”intelligence”, whatever that is (assuming the tripartite model). God and Man are essentially the same fundamental “species”, for lack of a better word. We are on the same spectrum, with God at one end and sinful man at another. But, the important thing is that we are on the same spectrum, not two different spectrums as traditional Christianity would have us think.

    I realize that there is some merit in remembering that there is a difference between God and man, but that difference is one of degree, not of kind. It is a difference in kind that traditional Christianity insists on. The major contribution Mormonism has made to traditional theosis is to eradicate the God/man dichotomy in terms of kind, and redefine it in terms of degree. It makes a world of difference in the minds of non-LDS.

  7. This hits so many interesting and important points. It starts I think with the LDS notion of apostasy. Most of us grow up hearing something that sounds like “Jesus was resurrected, the church grew under Paul, John wrote Revelations, then it all went dark, poof: apostasy”. And we don’t take it any deeper. The more I’ve read, the more I’ve realized that the apostasy was a process and not a sudden single rupture or event. It must have been incredibly frustrating for Paul and the other Apostles, indeed it shows throughout Paul’s writings: the church was exploding and imploding at the same time. However, one byproduct of this process which Mormons really should try to understand better (not least because it reveals so much that corroborates our own beliefs in restoration), is what exactly happened and what exactly those early 1st to 3rd century Christians in particular believed. One of which is definitely a belief in theosis, which carried right on into the Orthodox church. Another of which is a diverse set of mystery rituals that echo so much of our own temple experience that it becomes in my mind impossible to dismiss Joseph Smith as a quack or mason-copier, and which again have many similarities in the Orthodox church (I recall one Arab Orthodox convert to the church who far from being freaked out when he went to the temple, almost found it boring because the notion of ritual seemed so similar to what he’d grown up with). And reading through the history and the (fairly thin but very important) texts of the mostly post-New Testament but pre-officially-state-religion Christianity is highly illuminating. When I read it, I see a church that didn’t suddenly go out, but which had bits and pieces of authority intact here and there even as others were lost. A shift from reliance on revelation from the Apostles to reliance on councils and debate when it became clear that the Apostolic leadership as known in New Testament times was gone (and a definite period of unease and uncertainty in the interim). And of course one can see that early Christian church grappling with many of the same issues of defining itself and its structures that the modern restored church went through, only with dwindling revelatory guidance instead of a steady level thereof.

    To this end, I highly highly recommend reading Laurence D. Guy’s “Introducing Early Christianity”. http://www.amazon.com/Introducing-Early-Christianity-Topical-Practices/dp/083082698X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1278457854&sr=8-1 He is, if I recall right, a teacher at a Baptist Seminary in New Zealand. The book is an excellent survey by topic of those first 3 centuries or so of Christianity. He is of course a believer in his strain of Christian history and as such he presents the changes from the New Testament through to Constantine as the necessary and natural evolution of the faith. But it is clear he finds most western Christians as lacking in an understanding of what this early Christianity really was all about and wants to clearly show it to them. So to him he’s writing about the first centuries of a birth, but he writes with academic honesty and provides an excellent survey of the facts such that someone who believes in the LDS view can put just a couple bits of our own knowledge/belief between the lines and read it as a pretty darn good history of the process of the apostasy. I found it a fascinating read as a result, especially given that it raised as many questions as it answered: when was local as opposed to Apostolic church-wide authority more decisively lost, what precise authority/role did women have in the temple-like mystery rites, were baptism and endowment-like ordinances wrapped up more or less as one in the New Testament church or was combining them an innovation as the church fell into apostasy? And plenty more. Theosis is just one fascinating early Christian doctrine that lives on in some manner in the Orthodox church from those early days.

  8. “I realize that there is some merit in remembering that there is a difference between God and man, but that difference is one of degree, not of kind. It is a difference in kind that traditional Christianity insists on. The major contribution Mormonism has made to traditional theosis is to eradicate the God/man dichotomy in terms of kind, and redefine it in terms of degree. It makes a world of difference in the minds of non-LDS.”

    I love how you’ve put this. And I love spelling it out to people when asked. I would just add, it isn’t just with Christianity. Islam early on adopted more or less the same distinction, even more firmly in fact.

  9. Non-Arab Arab beat me to the punch – I was just going to quote & paste that same statement. I’ll be repeating that one. It’s one of the best explanations of the difference between “our” view of God and “theirs” that I have heard to date.

  10. James #6 —

    “But I can’t figure out what the substantial difference would be. If we reduce man to his most fundamental core, and we reduce God the Father to his fundamental core, we would arrive at the same fundamental substance….”intelligence”, whatever that is (assuming the tripartite model). God and Man are essentially the same fundamental “species”, for lack of a better word. We are on the same spectrum, with God at one end and sinful man at another. But, the important thing is that we are on the same spectrum, not two different spectrums as traditional Christianity would have us think.”

    But is this really that far from traditional Christian doctrine, which teaches that man was created in the image of God, and many of whose theologians hold that the main sense in which this is true, is that man, like God, is a reasoning, sentient being?

    I truly believe that both Mormons and traditional Christians perceive themselves as having incentives to exaggerate the differences between them, which lead them to believe that they are farther apart doctrinally than they really are. Elder Holland’s mockery of the Athanasian Creed, which he severely misunderstood, comes to mind.

    It is true, in both Mormon theology and traditional Christian, that there is a difference between us, and God the Father or Christ: Christ was “begotten, not created.” He is the Only Begotten, which implies that we are not “begotten” in the same sense. There is a significant difference, although as with most of the mysteries, I don’t come close to understanding exactly what it is.

  11. Thomas, you make an excellent point in that there is an incentive to exaggerate differences.

    Non-Arab Arab … hmm, my parents spent some time in Saudia (about seven years of it) … but, you make some excellent points, ones so solid rather than add more comments I’d rather just say “well done.”

  12. Thanks for your thoughts Non-Arab Arab. You also, Thomas. This is a good discussion.

    Thomas, I’m probably not qualified to discuss traditional Christian views of what it means for man to be made in God’s image. I think you are right that it has something to do with our ability to reason. But also, according to the very popular Calvinist theologian John Piper, the “image of God” refers to man’s ability to “image forth Christ’s glory through everlasting joy in God”…whatever that means. http://www.theopedia.com/Image_of_God

    I think you are right to point out that we shouldn’t exaggerate differences between ourselves and traditional Christianity. But I think you’d also agree that we shouldn’t minimize the differences that do exist. We are different and we ought to embrace it and be proud of it. Joseph Smith introduced a radical new anthropology that allows us to take a unique stand on some very pressing problems in Christian theology (ie theodicy).

    In regard to Christ being the “only begotten”, I generally interpret that to be in reference to the conception of his physical body. For me, that doesn’t suggest that he is somehow fundamentally different than the rest of us. How do you interpret it?

  13. Wow, there are some really impressive comments here.

    #1 – Aaron, I very briefly checked out the MADB board, but I wasn’t there long enough to fully understand the phrase: “difference in nature between God and man that is bridged by the incarnation.” Perhaps the author there is referring to the difference between the Mormon concept of the Godhead, and the Orthodox/Catholic/Protestant concept of the Trinity. Certainly that is a distinct difference between exaltation and theosis. I do disagree with the statement that “Mormonism posits no no such difference”; Mormons agree there is a great difference between the Godhead and Trinity concepts. Perhaps I am misunderstanding something there.

    #4 – James, I agree that western Christians are VERY uncomfortable with both theosis and exaltation, though theosis is more palatable for them for some reason. Western Christians haven’t demonized Eastern Christians since the Crusades, so perhaps that has something to do with a passive acceptance of theosis among western Christians.

    #5 – Thomas, I know you’re making a statement about “homoiousios” – of similar substance, and “homo-ousios” – of the same substance. When you refer to the nature of God, are you referring to the Trinity/Godhead problem, or something else? Perhaps I’m just theologically illiterate enough not to understand why homoiousios and homo-ousios are such critical theological distinctions. Frankly it seems like splitting hairs to me.

    I agree with James in #6–I don’t understand “what the substantial difference would be.” Like James, I think “we are on the same spectrum, not two different spectrums as traditional Christianity would have us think.”

    #7 – Non-Arab Arab–I agree completely with you regarding the Apostasy. It was (and is) a process, not an event. That book sounds interesting. I didn’t know that Islam’s concept of God is more like traditional Christianity’s definition.

  14. What a great discussion that’s gone on so far! I thought I might get a chance to share something I had learned, but everyone seems to have covered things far more eloquently than I would’ve. I think James re 6 (and 4, to an lesser extent) is a pretty concise summary of the distinction between non-LDS Christian views and LDS Christian views.

    I guess I’ll use what has been said to address Mormon Heretic’s response to Aaron’s first comment:

    From what I can tell, the big difference in nature between God and man (that is bridged by the incarnation in non-LDS Christianity) is that God is uncreated, necessary, etc., and humans are created, contingent, etc., Since traditional ideas of God view him as being the ground of being, something necessary for existence itself, this ends up being very different from us humans, who are obviously not necessary for existence itself.

    However, since Mormonism doesn’t have that creatio ex nihilo stuff, there doesn’t seem to be that distinction. If Jesus is something of our “oldest brother,” then whatever distinction that might possibly be is lessened even further (as was mentioned…we’re the same “species.”) (That is what is meant by “Mormonism posits no such difference.”)

    I think that gets into what Thomas was saying re 5 (I’m going to stay far far far away from foreign theological words). In non-LDS Christianity, one big part of the “substantial difference” that makes God God and us not is that God is uncreated…and we are created. We cannot on our own do ANYTHING to change this. (But for theosis it would not be an option?)

    I think this is where all of the miscommunication elsewhere arrives. As Mormons, when we think of “becoming like God,” we aren’t thinking about “uncreated”/”created” because that’s not even factored into our equation. As James talked about in comment 4, we say, “Why couldn’t we enjoy all of God’s abilities even if we were created?” But for non-Mormons, God being “uncreated” and humans being “created” is not just splitting hairs…it’s fundamental to God’s nature.

  15. #14: “I didn’t know that Islam’s concept of God is more like traditional Christianity’s definition.”

    Part of it has definite roots straight from the Qur’an, one of the most famous and oft-repeated statements about God’s nature from the Qur’an being “lam yalid wa lam yuulid” – He does not beget and is not begotten. He’s clearly on a different plane. But as I understand the subsequent development of theology among Islamic scholars, they picked up and ran with roughly the same Greek philosophies which defined the corporeal as lesser stuff than the divine and in turn went on to similarly emphasize the utterly distinct nature of God as opposed to man. The Qur’an gave them more direct material to play that up and I imagine those 3ulama found these existing philosophies to match well with what their scripture said and as such a natural fit upon which to build up the theology. Suggest to any typical religious Muslim today that God has any corporeal or bodily nature similar to man and you will likely quickly find yourself in a very intense disagreement. Pointing out references in the Qur’an to God’s body is likely to result in my experience of claims of symbolism and then an appeal to the other very clear statements such as lam yalid wa lam yuulid. It’s a settled theological matter for the overwhelming majority of Muslims the world over, and one on which I think they’d be surprised to find someone like me claiming them to be very similar to more traditional strains of Christianity on (given the trinity, Christ as Son of God, etc.).

  16. I truly believe that both Mormons and traditional Christians perceive themselves as having incentives to exaggerate the differences between them, which lead them to believe that they are farther apart doctrinally than they really are.

    This is how I see it as well.

    I recently attended an Orthodox service and spent about three hours afterward with the Priest and Reader discussing theology. They brought up the idea of theosis and explained it much like MH has. The Reader was VERY quick to point out that it was different than the concept in Mormonism. I was trying for good relations so I didn’t push him on the issue but I was very puzzled. I think James gets it right with explaining the difference, but it does feel like hair splitting to me.

    Ultimately, though, here’s what gets me. Again, as we’ve discussed so many times on this blog, we’re trying to define Mormon theology. Such an endeavor is problematic at best. On this topic, there are a few quotes from President Hinckley that really blur the whole idea. How can we begin to understand where we differ from the rest of Christianity when we can’t even decide on our theology? Most of the comments here are hearkening back to what Joseph revealed on the topic. Yet the main speech on this particular topic is not only not canonized, but viewed generally with suspicion. My impression of the comments (while admittedly a very great discussion) is that we are trying to explain a very subtle difference based only on what we all sort of collectively perceive as correct.

    For me, this raises an important question: does Mormonism really bring that much to the table of theological discussion? Or is Mormonism more of a culture and way of life?

  17. I really appreciate the links provided here-I wish I had time to read them all, but I will try to make time. andrew, thanks for clearing that up for me. that makes sense.

    I did not know that lutherans believe in theosis. can someone break it down? is it similar to the orthodox view?

    non-arab arab, that is so interesting about islam. as I studied the history of christianity, it is apparent to me the large impact the ottoman empire had on christianity. what we call the dark ages was the age of enlightment in the ottoman world. muslim scholars preserved much of greek and roman philosophy. we are indebted to them for preserving writings of plato and socrates. so it makes sense that these philosophers impacted the muslim view of god.

  18. James, MormonHeretic, and Andrew, @ ## 13, 14, & 15:

    I suppose it depends on which Mormon theology you subscribe to. On the one hand, there is the King Follett Discourse’s “God is an exalted man” and Lorenzo Snow’s “As man now is, God once was.” On the other hand, there are multiple scriptures — both traditional canonical and LDS-specific — that describe God as unchanging, and as a being who has always been God, “from everlasting to everlasting.” (See, e.g., Moroni 7:22; D&C 20:12, 76:4.)

    Scriptures speaks of man as being “created.” Traditional Christian theology considers this to mean creation ex nihilo. Mormon theology breaks with this by declaring that there is something of man that was not created, identified as “intelligence.” (See D&C 93:29; Abraham 3:18.) But this still has to be squared with the scriptural concept of man as a “created” being. The reconciliation seems to be that man is “created” in the same sense that the earth was created — from eternal raw materials. However, there is still a fundamental change in state, from “matter unorganized” into the created spirit of man. And that spirit’s nature is fundamentally different from the unchanging, unchangeable nature of God. It must be changed before it can become like God: Man “must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters.” (Mosiah 27:25.)

    I wonder sometimes if it really is possible to reconcile the Protestant-leaning Book of Mormon, with the revolutionary new concepts taught in the Doctrine & Covenants and uncanonized statements of Joseph Smith. The “neo-orthodox” movement in the Church leans in the former direction. At the same time, I agree with Harold Bloom that one of Joseph Smith’s greatest religious contributions was “a more human God and a more divine man.” (That, and a religious tradition that can keep thoughtful faith alive for a few generations more, against a tide of secularism and idolatry — the substitution of “social justice” and other political concepts for scriptural religion — on the one hand, and the inane fideisms of the fundamentalists on the other hand.)

    In short, I kinda punt on this issue. I come down on the side of “We’re closer to God’s nature than Calvinists would have it — but we’re not God, either, at least not yet.”

  19. Thomas, I can see what you’re saying (re 20), but I think that you really touch upon the difference that persists regardless of the Mormon theology someone ascribes too — the difference between creation from (preexisting) raw materails and creation ex nihilo. I mean, this doesn’t seem like a big deal to us (since you say you can preserve the distinction between us and God…God is unchanging, unchangeable (but then again, this is just one view…)…man has been created, changed…

    But…even this setup is downright heretical in an outside context. It still doesn’t really answer the question, “Well, where did those intelligences come from? How are they co-eternal with God?”

    I think I agree with Harold Bloom (and you) as to Joseph Smith’s greatest religious contributions…but at the same time, I can see why this contribution could be seen as a great offense to God. Making man more divine sounds good, but making God more human sounds quite insulting.

    I wholeheartedly agree that we’re closer to God’s nature in and LDS sense than Calvinists would have it…but then, that explains why Calvinists (and even some who are not) will not even consider us Christians.

  20. Thomas, you say: “It is true, in both Mormon theology and traditional Christian, that there is a difference between us, and God the Father or Christ: Christ was “begotten, not created.” He is the Only Begotten, which implies that we are not “begotten” in the same sense. There is a significant difference, although as with most of the mysteries, I don’t come close to understanding exactly what it is.”

    Once again, this only means that another “man” had begotten us, versus the fact that Christ was begotten by the Father in the “flesh.” It doesn’t matter what the “mechanics” of that are, only that there was a natural process where the Father was the begetter, and Mary was the mother. If you ask me, Brigham Young’s contention that there had to be a “marriage covenant” in place of some sort for this to happen, makes perfect sense, otherwise the Savior would have been illegitimate. Whatever “LAW” was in place, it is certain that it was something analogous to marriage to make whatever process it was legitimate. This, I believe, is a principle at the very core of the Church’s stance on artifician insemination using other men’s sperm, and surrogate mothers using other mothers’ eggs and so on. The Church has never been so much against the invitro stuff as far as I can tell, but tends to have issues with mixing “seed” with those to whom one is not married, in or out of the womb. So regardless of the mode of conception of the Savior’s body, there had to be some sort of “marriage covenant,” necessitating that we take Brigham Young’s words seriously, as far as this law goes. Whether we take the rest of what he said about the mechanics seriously or not, I think is not at the heart of the issue. Literally, as Brigham Young said, Mary had “another husband” regardless of how you look at the mode of conception.

  21. skepticTheist,

    byu professor kathryn daines discussed an odd case of polygamy proposed by brigham young. a couple could not conceive and the wife was concerned about their eternal salvation and asked brigham young if they should stay married.

    brigham proposed a temporary sealing of the wife to another man as a form of levirate marriage (as mentioned in the book of matthew.) the woman had 2 sons by this surrogate father, and they were both sealed to her first (and living) husband. so while I understand the unease with ‘mixing seed’, it seems brigham young was quite progressive on the issue of surrogate parenting and sealings.

  22. SkepticTheist — Interesting. I read “Only Begotten” as referring to there being something different about Christ’s relationship with the Father, in the antemortal existence as well as in mortality. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That wasn’t true of any of us. Yes, Jesus is our Elder Brother in one sense (which the Protestant world also recognizes — at least in their hymns, which occasionally refer to Christ as our brother), but in another sense, He is also our God.

  23. The Mormons’ belief differs with the Orthodox belief in deification because the Latter-Day Saints believe that the core being of each individual, the “intelligence” which existed before becoming a spirit son or daughter, is uncreated or eternal. Orthodox deification always acknowledges a timeless Creator versus a finite creature who has been glorified by the grace of God. The Mormons are clear promoters of henotheism, and the Church Fathers have absolutely no commonality with their view.

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