God became man so that men might become god.
“For the Son of God became man so that we might become god“ – Athanasius
So what sense do we make of the above quote by Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria? It sounds a bit outrageous to the average western Christian. Becoming a god? Isn’t that what the Mormons promise themselves after a lifetime of taking part in temple ordinances and putting on “sacred underwear”?
But strange as it may sound to some ears, this doctrine has been at the heart of Eastern Christian theology and spiritual practice for nearly its entire history. I will try to give an explanation, but the reader is asked to understand that it is very daring for anyone such as myself to talk about theosis, for that is what we are talking about, without first having tasted it, which I cannot claim to have done.
But with that in mind let me clarify right off the bat some things that theosis is not. Theosis is not the same as pantheism. The essence of our human nature is not replaced by divine nature. Or as Bishop Kallistos Ware puts it, “we are able to affirm a direct or mystical union between man [sic] and God… but at the same time we exclude any pantheistic identification between the two: for man participates in the energies of God, not the essence. There is union, but not fusion or confusion. Although “oned” with the divine, man still remains man; he is not swallowed up or annihilated, but between him and God there continues always to exist an “I-Thou” relationship of person to person.” (The Orthodox Way, p. 23)
The doctrine of theosis–also known as deification, divinization, or partaking of the divine nature–can be scripturally rooted mainly in Psalm 82:6 (Now I say to you, “You are gods, and all of you children of the Most High) and in 2 Peter 1:4 ( about being “partakers of divine nature.)
For Christians in the Orthodox East Théōsis is salvation. Although this doctrine of theosis has come to be neglected in the West, there was a time that it was clearly taught in the Western Church. As late as the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas taught “full participation in divinity which is humankind’s true beatitude and the destiny of human life” (Summa Theologiae 3.1.2).
In the Anglican tradition an understanding of salvation in terms closely comparable to the Orthodox doctrine of theosis exists in the writings of, among others, Lancelot Andrewes who described salvation in terms that bear the shadow of the early fathers: “Whereby, as before He of ours, so now we of His are made partakers. He clothed with our flesh, and we invested with His Spirit. The great promise of the Old Testament accomplished, that He should partake our human nature; and the great and precious promise of the New, that we should be “consortes divinae naturae”, “partake his divine nature,” both are this day accomplished.”(Ninety-six Sermons, page 109)
We move toward theosis by prayer, meditation, moral living, and, most particularly, participation in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.