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Nikos A. Nissiotis

"Secular and Christian Images of Human Person"

Theologia 33, Athens 1962, p. 947- 989; Theologia 34, Athens 1963, p. 90-122.

IV. Becoming Human - Becoming Divine

Deification: a process towards achieving authentic Humanum in Christ

2. Deification: a sharing in God for achieving authentic humanization

It is in this direction that we can approach and try to understand the central meaning of the Image of man in God according to the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, i.e. the «theosis» of the human person. It is too easy to make an interpretation of this notion as signifying a cryptic, ecstatic, mystical and visionary attitude of Orthodoxy in connection with the reality of human person. Theosis is not entirely what I understand that the term «divinization» might signify as pointing to the change of human nature and assumption of another being. Theosis is not «theopoiesis» in the sense of being made divine, though St. Athanasius use the verb also (1). Deification is closer to the Greek term as pointing to a deified nature, which does not lose its identity though it has passed through a transformation of the existential qualities of a being.

This inner change is the stumbling block for human reason because it cannot admit a change within a substance which cannot be objectively detected and analyzed. The appropriate appreciation of this anthropological Eastern doctrine has been made more difficult by the radicalization of sin in the West resulting in the idea of the immense and unbridgeable gap between God and man. But it is well known that many Church Fathers in the West have defended deification as the culminating point of Christian anthropology. E. L. Mascall reminds us of the phrase of St. Augustine: «God wishes to make you a god, not by nature, but by adoption. Thus the whole man is deified» (2) and sees the difficulty as lying in the Western teaching that man has a created natural order and another supernatural order by additional grace without communication between them (3).

The Eastern Orthodox Tradition does not hesitate on the basis of the incarnation to operate a Christological anthropology of “deification”. The permanent guide in Christian theology is the hypo-static union between the two natures, divine and human, in Christ without change or confusion. There is a kind of «mixis», mixture, between the two operated by the Spirit which cannot be similar to any other mixtures we know in the natural order or in philosophy. It is not a totally new being resulting out of this mixture but there are not too separate things remaining after it either. As in the hypostatic qualities amongst the three persons in the Holy Trinity, so it is with the two natures in Christ and so it will be with the possibility for man of union by the same Spirit with God in Christ without losing his identity as man. There is a reciprocal communication of essential qualities without personal identity and nature being changed or affected on each side (4).

Behind this notion of «mixture» there is the reciprocal movement between the Persons of the Trinity and the communication with man on the basis of distinction between essence and energy in the triune divine Being. This is not a speculative doctrine but a reflection on the nature of the dynamic movement in God as it is given in the Bible because of the incarnation. We shall never understand «deification» in the appropriate God-initiated movement unless we focus it in the Trinity and in the communion of God and man realized in Christ.

God is love. That means that God in his ineffable and incomprehensible nature is reciprocal personal movement because love as identity in essence signifies and creates a movement towards other persons of the same essential identity. God as identical with his essence as love is One but he is never alone. He creates persons identical with himself and therefore in communion with himself. The One-ness of God in the identity of love excludes the loneliness of God.

God therefore incomprehensible in his essence becomes more immediately accessible as communicable, because his essence as love becomes a dynamic movement out of which Creation is possible, bearing the same sign in its substance: communication. There is, apart from objective knowledge acquired by observation and analysis, a knowledge caused by the reciprocal movement of persons. This knowledge is the one that God has first of us (Gal. 4,9) so that we can know in Christ communicating by his grace with his nature. It is this knowledge as movement person-to-person (prosopon-pros-prosopon) (I Cor. 13,12) which is the outcome of the essence of God, as love, in communion with man, effected by the Spirit.

It is this kind of movement in God manifested in Christ and actualized by the Spirit, that the Bible speaks about, as the presupposition of being able as human beings, created «according to their Image and after their likeness» (the plural is very significant in this case), to become «partakers of the divine nature» (II Pet. 1,4), because of Jesus who «has given to us all things through the knowledge of him that has called us to glory and virtue» (II Pet. 1,3). Divine essence as love, movement as energy implying personal communion and knowledge resulting from this communion: these are the categories prescribing the nature and function of theosis as the supreme telos of the Christian Image of man manifesting the fact of man's Creation after his Image and after his likeness. Theology and anthropology are interpenetrated and interdependent areas of knowledge and there is no demarcation line between divinum and humanum.

This esoteric, mystical language should not create, therefore, the impression that we are detaching ourselves from the human reality and condition. «Deification» is the strange term for the most immediate reality (consistent with Christology) and experience of life in Christ and in the world, because «theosis» is never meant in the above given interpretation to indicate a hidden transcendental reality. If it is regarded as a mystical trend then mysticism must be understood as the most natural experience of reciprocity and relationship, i.e. knowledge through intrinsic communion with another person. Deification is, in the Orthodox Theology, the initiative of God communicating with man out of his sovereign will and outcome of his love and concern for man. It is not another super-nature of man added by a special transcendent act. Certainly, because the movement originates in God, it is revealed in Christ and realized by the Spirit, it can be characterized as supernatural in a special sense. But it is connected with man's nature as it is in the process of transformation without losing his identity as a human being. His change is within human nature because of the human deified nature of Christ, in which he is called to share by faith and in a concrete way by sacrament and word. The deification of man is ontologically the sharing in Christ's human nature but a nature which is deified. Therefore, deification is an operation in natural man, here and now in history. The nature is conceived as a movement towards a super-naturally natural being in continuous, inner transformation from his manhood to his real and authentic humanity restored in Christ.

Deification is finally in this sense a process of reaching out to authentic humanization. It is the implication that Christ does not reveal only the Verus Deus but he is also the Verus homo. He does not only reveal by his incarnation the movement of God towards man but also that of man towards God. He does not make God known by reason, but he initiates personal communication between God and man, elevating man as participant of divine nature. Becoming really man means becoming divine within a process of deification that remains within the limits of human nature and condition. Human life is permeated by the deified humanity of Christ. As really human, man has his definition in the possibility of becoming partaker of the divine nature.

The process of the humanization towards the humanum is the same process for recovering it in the divinum; by deification, therefore, is a process towards authentic humanization. This exchange of qualities between divine and human does not alter essentially human nature but it restores it to its appropriate order after the image of Christ, who is the Image of God. appearing in the form of a man.

E. L. Mascall can express with the Western precision and clarity what happens in deification in this context. «First», he writes «the super-naturalization which grace produces operates in the very substance of human nature far beneath the level of observable behaviour... second, while it works by transforming man's natural being, grace is directly concerned with his supernatural end and makes his natural end ancillary and contributary to it and, third, intimate as it is, the activity of God at the ontological root of our being by which he keeps us in existence and energizes our nature far more intimate is his activity in us in the supernatural order» (5).


1. St. Athanasius sums up the whole purpose of the incarnation in the act of man's deification. «He (Christ) assumed human nature, so that we might be divinized» («αὐτός γάρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθώμεν»), P.G. 25, 192.

2. Serm. 166, 4. E. L. Mascall, The Importance of Being Human, London (Oxford Univ. Press) 1959, p. 65-66.

3. Ibid. p. 57-58.

4. Gregory of Nazianzus: P. G. 36,140, 93, 165,168. On this subject about «mixis» see Harry A. Wolfson: The Philosophy of the Church Fathers, Cambridge 1964, p. 372-386.

5. B. L. Mascall, ibid., p. 65.

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