What is Theosis?

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

Theosis is man’s union with God, wherein we participate in the uncreated energies of the Trinity.  We do not become what God is in his essence, but we are invited to participate in his energies. This is the purpose and goal for which we were created.  Theosis can only be attained in Christ, through the working of the Holy Spirit, as we freely cooperate with the Father’s unmerited grace.  The path to theosis involves participation in the sacraments, participation in the ascetic struggle, and culminates in the vision of the uncreated light of God.

In the Beginning:
Theosis as the original purpose for man

God’s glory and power are manifested by all of creation (Ps. 19; Rom. 1:20).  Yet from the very beginning, man—as the pinnacle of creation—was intended to manifest God’s glory in an intimate and unique way.  In addition to attributes such as holiness, wisdom, personality, and intelligence—attributes applicable even to angels not made in the imago Dei—additional qualities were granted to man, setting him apart as a unique ikon of God.  As God has dominion over the cosmos, man was given dominion over the earth.  And since God (though a single substance) exists in community (Trinity), so the original human couple was of a single substance (Adam’s flesh) which existed in community (male/female).  Out of all creation, God chose man to be made in His own “image” and “likeness” (Gen. 1:26-27).  We were created in community, and we were given dominion.  We were granted both relationship and rule (Gen. 1:27-28).

“You shall be as gods . . . “

The serpent told Adam and Eve that they could “be as gods” (Gen. 3:5).  Ironically, he was telling the truth.  The sinful temptation was to pursue theosis in the wrong way.  The forbidden tree provided special “knowledge”, but knowledge alone is not sufficient for deification.  Nor can we attain unity with God by rebelling against Him.  The serpent suggested that self-will and self-exaltation were the appropriate methods for scaling the heights of divinity.  But the opposite is true.  Humiliation leads to exaltation.  The true path to theosis is kenosis (self-emptying).  One must go down, in order to go up.

Of course, Christ alone displayed kenosis in the ultimate sense.  Man can only participate in kenosis in a derivative fashion, as we imitate the humility and self-emptying sacrifice displayed by Christ.  The kenosis of Christ is referenced in Philippians 2:7-8, where we read that Christ “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”  In the same passage, the followers of Christ are instructed to imitate him (Phil. 2:5).  Thus I use the term “kenosis” in reference both to Christ and to his followers.  When spoken of Christ, “kenosis” refers to the ultimate humility and self-emptying which Christ displayed. When spoken of Christians, “kenosis” refers to their imitation of his humiliation and self-emptying.  Christ’s kenosis was necessary to bring about the theosis of man.  And man’s imitative kenosis is required—through the humility of the ascetic struggle—in order to attain theosis.  Thus kenosis and theosis are two sides of the same coin.  Humility leads to deification.

Theosis in the Old Testament:
deification illustrated at Eden, Sinai, and in the Psalter

We see the first shadows of kenosis/theosis in the first two chapters of Genesis, prior to the fall.  Adam possessed holiness, personhood, and dominion over the earth, yet was still only partially able to show forth the imago Dei as intended, because he did not yet have a companion made from the same substance as his own body.  Adam, without Eve, could not reflect the community-in-unity of the Trinity.  Adam’s path to completion was not found through an autonomous ascent, but instead was found through humble submission to God, submitting to a state which prefigured death and bloodshed.  Adam sacrificed consciousness to go into a deep sleep, and he sacrificed the very integrity of his body, as he underwent a divine surgery which may well have involved the shedding of blood.  Adam gave of himself so that Eve might have life.

The First Adam was wounded in the side so he could have a bride (Gen. 2:21).  Similarly, the Last Adam was wounded in the side so that he could have a bride (John 19:34).  Thanks to Adam’s kenosis, Eve was able to live with him as a community-in-unity, and they were thereby able to manifest the image of God.  Thanks to Christ’s kenosis, the Church is able to live with him in unity, and we are thereby able to participate in the divine life of the Trinity.  Christ’s kenotic humiliation was prefigured in Eden, as was man’s reward of theosis.

“So when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.” (Exodus 34:30)

We again see a picture of kenosis/theosis in the life of Moses.  Moses was the most humble man on the face of the earth (Num. 12:3).  And this superlatively humbled man is the one whom God chose to exalt over all His people.  God spoke with Moses face-to-face (Ex. 33:11), and thus the face of Moses shone with the uncreated light of God (Ex. 34:30; cf. 2 Cor. 3:13).  Like an iron in the fire begins to glow brightly, as if it were itself made of fire, so did Moses shine forth with God’s uncreated light, as if he himself were made of it.  This is a picture of theosis itself.

In the Psalter, we find some explicit testimony to theosis:  “God stands in the assembly of gods; in the midst of them he will judge gods … I said you are gods, and all of you sons of the Most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes” (Ps. 81:1,6-7).  This text is a locus classicus for the doctrine of theosis (quoted far more often than 2 Peter 1:4 in the majority of extant early patristic writings).  As Jesus points out in John 10:33-36, the phrase “I said you are gods” was spoken “to those to whom the word of God came.”  Thus one of the criteria for becoming “gods” is reception of the word of God.  And this point brings us back to Christ, the living Word of God.  In Psalm 81, the recipients of God’s word reject His word, and thus “die like men”.  But in John’s Gospel, those who accept Christ (the Word) are given “power to become the sons of God” (John 1:12).  Any person created in the image of God has the potential for theosis, but the realization of this goal is in the hands of the individual, because the individual can choose either to accept the word of God or to reject it.  We can accept the Word, or we can reject Him.  God’s part is to actively work in us, and our part is to humbly submit to His work.  Thus God and man both have an operative role in man’s path toward theosis.  This is synergia.

Theosis in the New Testament:
deification illustrated at the Transfiguration and in the epistles

The Transfiguration of Christ

In Orthodox literature, and also within the iconographic tradition, the Transfiguration scene serves as a central image used to convey the doctrine of theosis.  As St. John Chrysostom said in regard to the Transfiguration of Christ, “It means he allowed a brief glimpse of the Godhead and showed them the indwelling God” (Selections from Various Homilies, 21).  Perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in Scripture, we see the veil between heaven and earth lifted, as the disciples of Jesus see Him shine with the uncreated light of God’s glory.  Moses and Elijah are seen shining, too, as a reminder that even mere men (not just the God-man) have the potential for deification.  This scene also reminds us that the law and the prophets themselves (typified by Moses and Elijah) only find their full glory and meaning when interpreted in the light of Christ’s Incarnation.  Thus, in a sense, the Mount of Transfiguration illustrates not only the theosis of men, but also the divinization and glorification of the entire Old Testament economy.

St. Maximus the Confessor and many other Orthodox theologians have noted that the Transfiguration may have had more to do with a change in the viewers, than with a change in that which was being viewed.  Jesus (and presumably Moses and Elijah) were already permeated with the uncreated light of God . . .  the mount just happens to be the place where the three chosen apostles were permitted to see this reality for the first time.

The ecclesial dimension is also important.  The Transfiguration was not a solo experience.  Three were shining with the uncreated light, not just one.  And three witnessed the Transfiguration, not just one.  This is a reminder that the path to divinization is not just for isolated individuals, but is for the Church as a whole.  We are saved in community.

In modern Orthodox writings, one of the most frequently referenced texts is 2 Peter 1:4, where we are told we can become “partakers of the divine nature”.  (A few prominent Church Fathers in the first five centuries discussed this text as well, namely Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril of Alexandria.) The extended passage, especially as translated in the Jerusalem Bible, highlights the necessity of synergia in the process of theosis:

By his divine power, he has given us all the things that we need for life and for true devotion, bring­ing us to know God himself . . . you will be able to share the divine nature and to escape cor­rup­tion in a world that is sunk in vice.  But to attain this, you will have to do your utmost your­selves, adding goodness to the faith that you have, understanding to your goodness, self-control to your understanding, patience to your self-control, true devotion to your patience, kind­ness towards your fellow men to your devotion, and to this kindness, love. (2 Peter 1:3-7, emphasis mine).

The reality of synergia cannot be stated much more explicitly than it is in this passage:  “you will be able to share the divine nature . . . But to attain this, you will have to do your utmost yourselves”.  The possibility of deification is clear, as is the individual’s personal responsibility for attaining it.  The importance of the upward ascetic struggle is paramount.  Theosis is a gift, but it is only given to those who fervently seek for it.

Theosis in Practice:
our participation in Christ

Christ is God, so being Christ-like is being God-like.  Thus our path to deification is synonymous with our participation in him and our conformity to him.  We are incorporated into Christ by the sacraments, and we are conformed to Christ through ascetic struggle.  The ultimate culmination of theosis is finally realized in the eschaton, when “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3:27)

Baptism is how we first “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).  Baptism incorporates us into Christ, uniting us with both his death and resurrection.  This dual aspect of baptism reminds us that the path to theosis is kenosis.  The cross comes before the crown.  These aspects are brought together concisely in Paul’s epistle to the Romans:

Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. (Romans 6:3-7)

In this passage, we are explicitly told that baptism connects us to the death of Jesus, and thereby to the resurrection of Jesus.  And since our baptismal death in Christ brings us to a place where “the body of sin might be destroyed” so that “we should not serve sin”, the ascetic struggle is implied as well.  Baptism is the first step of deification.

Our baptism is completed by chrismation.  In the water, we were baptized into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  In chrismation, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And to receive the Holy Spirit is to receive God.  The Spirit prays within us, sanctifies us to make us holy, and works constantly to conform us to the image of Christ.  The Holy Spirit supplies the power which fuels our path to theosis.

“We all are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:17)

The Eucharist is our participation in Christ par excellence.  In Holy Communion, we eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.  Since the blood of Jesus is the blood of God (Acts. 20:28), we actually partake of God whenever we come to the chalice.  We are the body of Christ, because we all partake of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:17).  We are what we eat.

Participation in the sacraments is necessary, but not sufficient.  In addition to dying with Christ in baptism, and partaking of Christ in Holy Communion, we must also imitate Christ in our daily ascetic struggle toward holiness.  If baptism is how we first “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27), then holy living is how we continue to “put on Christ” on a daily basis:  “But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the
lusts thereof
” (Rom. 13:14).

If we humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, in time He will lift us up (James 4:10).  To follow Christ is to follow a willing path of humility, and the more we follow him, the better we see him.  To see him is to know him in his humility and in his sufferings.  Thus “we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18).  To be like God is to be like Jesus.  And to be like Jesus involves suffering.

Norman Russell has written a helpful introduction to the Orthodox doctrine of theosis.

In the Incarnation, Christ transformed humanity itself.  By taking on human flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity became the Second Adam, uniting deity and humanity perfectly within a single Person.  Theosis is our appropriation—through Christ—of this transformed humanity.  He became what we are, so that we might become what He is.

And since man is the pinnacle of creation, man’s theosis results in the redemption of the entire created order:

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Rom. 8:20-21)

The mystery of theosis is contained within the mystery of the Incarnation.  The infinite gap between the created and the uncreated has been bridged in the person of Christ.  We do not become what God is in his essence, but we are invited to participate in his uncreated energies.  As St. Athanasius said, “God became man, so that man might become a god.”

About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in Holy Baptism, Holy Chrismation, Holy Communion, Icons, Theosis. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to What is Theosis?

  1. tpkatsa says:

    I read through this quickly so I apologize if I might have missed it, but it is important to add that when we talk about theosis, divinization, and so on, we are absolutely NOT suggesting, saying or implying that man actually becomes God in His essence (hence the distinction between essence and energies). Man can never become God in His essence, which is utterly unknowable. We are called to become “by grace what God is by nature.” But we never actually become God, or gods, or “merge” with God, not to mention any of that far-eastern foolishness we sometimes hear about.

    While united to Christ we remain created human beings; God remains the wholly uncreated Divine Being. That is the great mystery of union with Christ. Because we share human nature with Him, and He shares the Divine Nature with the Father, we are able to “partake of the Divine Nature” through union with Him. Yet God remains wholly unknowable and unfathomable (recall the Divine darkness on Mount Sinai).

    This needs to be emphasized for your non-Orthodox readership out there. I have met people that are under the impression that Orthodox Christianity is a sort of far-eastern take-off on Western Christianity, a sort of Christianity merged with Zen Buddhism or Hinduism, etc. where Jesus makes us little “gods” (Ps. 82:6). That is emphatically NOT the case!

  2. tpkatsa says:

    Ah yes, I see it now… “We do not become what God is in his essence.” Good… This cannot be overemphasized in our discussions of theosis with non-Orthodox.

  3. Travis Steele says:

    This may seem like an odd comment but I wanted to share a story that has new meaning based on a picture attached to this post, The Ladder of Devine Assent. About 10 years ago I was bringing food to the homeless in San Diego, and I left an area where we where sharing the gospel and talking about life, I be came physically unable to move, for what seemed like eternity, but I believe was only a few moments, and I saw these black figuers flying over me there had to be a hundred of them, I was fearful but calm. Since this happened I have only shared this with a couple other people, I wrote it down and drew a.picture, and never seeing the painting stated above, the demons in the painting were exactly what I saw that night. They did not harm me but I never knew why I saw them, but that painting brings clarity to the vision. Its funny how the Holy spirit interveins in our lifes.

  4. tpkatsa says:

    Interesting story Travis. Would love to see that picture if you can share. The Ladder of Divine Ascent is at once a beautiful and fearful icon. It reminds us that although God provided the way we have to stay on it, and that’s not easy. Jesus said, narrow is the way that leads to life and few find it. Satan is the temporary prince of this world but Christ God reigns victorious.

    • Travis Steele says:

      When I get home I will try and scan it, the picture didnt do the experience justice, it was as though I saw the temporary reign of the prince and when the church is doing what it was commanded to do, the enemy does not like it.

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