A Common Faith

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There are doubtless many differences to be found between groups of Christians – though there is probably more that all Christians share than not. Orthodox Christianity generally holds to those doctrines that were at one time universal and continues to be a watershed of classical Christian faith. It is interesting that some things that many think of as distinctives of Orthodox Christianity have a wider attestation than most people know. These common essentials are often blurred by an emphasis on distinctives or the fact that certain things which have remained central within Orthodoxy have become marginalized in other places.

Perhaps no single doctrine is more classically expressive of the Orthodox faith than the doctrine of the Divine exchange (divinization or theosis). First offered in its most classical form by St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century (though there is ample Scriptural support for the doctrine), it is generally stated: God became man so that man could become god. This same statement of faith, in varying forms can be found in fathers, both East and West.

Daniel Keating has produced a small book on the topic: Deification and Grace. He says:

Following Irenaeus – and probably dependent upon him – we find wide attestation to this formula throughout the patristic period. It is noteworthy that some form of this expression can be found in writers from Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch, Syria, North Africa, and Rome….

St. Clement of Alexandria:

the Word of God became man, that you may learn from man how man may become God.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria:

For he was made man that we might be made God…and…he himself has made us sons of the Father, and deified men by becoming himself man.

St. Gregory the Theologian:

Let us become as Christ is, since Christ became as we are; let us become gods for his sake, since he became man for our sake.

St. Gregory of Nyssa:

…the Word became incarnate so that by becoming as we are, he might make us as he is.

St. John Chrysostom:

he became Son of man, who was God’s own Son, in order that he might make the sons of men to be children of God.

St. Ephrem the Syrian:

He gave us divinity, we gave him humanity.

St. Hilary of Poitiers (in the West):

For when God was born to be man the purpose was not that the Godhead should be lost, but that, the Godhead remaining, man should be born to be god.

St. Ambrose of Milan:

For [the Son] took on him that which he was not that he might hide that which he was; he hid that which he was that he might be tempted in it, and that which he was not might be redeemed, in order that he might call us by means of that which he was not to that which he was.

St. Augustine of Hippo:

God wanted to be the Son of Man and he wanted men to be the Sons of God.

Pope St. Leo the Great (5th century):

[The Savior] was made the son of man, so that we could be the sons of God…and…He united humanity to himself in such a way that he remained God, unchangeable. He imparted divinity to human beings in such a way that he did not destroy, but enriched them, by glorification.

Even in Protestant writers…

Martin Luther in a Christmas sermon:

For the Word becomes flesh precisely so that the flesh may become word. In other words: God becomes man so that man may become God.

John Calvin, rather eloquently:

This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.

This is a wonderful testimony, of almost universal appeal, to one of the central tenets of the Christian faith. Often obscured by other doctrinal formula, it remains central in the Christian East, where the principle of exchange – that God took upon Himself our human condition that we might share in His divinity – runs throughout the whole of doctrine.

Keating’s book is a refreshing read. It was a Christmas present to me from Fr. Alvin Kimel (aka the Pontificator). My deepest thanks.

27 Responses to “A Common Faith”

  1. Dean Arnold Says:

    My father, eventually a Presbyterian Calvinist, wrote his doctoral dissertation for Dallas Theological Seminary entitled, “The Pauline Doctrine of Progressive Sanctification.”

    It was his own intuitive attempt at Theosis, I’m guessing, not knowing he had 20 centuries of support behind him (Well, the first 15, anyway).

    The rest of his ministry was in large part an attempt to teach and model the fact that you can’t just pray or prayer or assent to a creed: you have to walk it out and become more Christlike for the whole thing to be legit. I think he could see the achilles heel in Prostestantism on this issue.

    On another note, I couldn’t find you email. They all got bounced back. I had an unrelated question, so I’ll ask it here:

    I’ve been posting on a message board for about ten years. (Regarding an NBA basketball team, the Indiana Pacers. Whatever.)

    We got the news today that a guy who posts on another board, “PacerFan” died. Ok. Slightly sad. Then we got the news that he goes by the name “Sixthman” on our board. We all know who he was. More said. But, obviously, not overwhelming.

    What does it mean in this modern age of digital interaction with persons, when we “know” someone but never interact with them in body or voice? I just got to wondering what to think of it, and if there is an Orthodox perspective.

  2. Brit Windel Says:

    simply brilliant. i am taking a class and this topic of specific foundational union between the differing forms of Christianity came up. and it was interesting that we as well proclaimed the truth that it is in the foundational truth that all of us rest. that we rest upon the ‘cornerstone’ being Christ and that upon him we all rest drawing ever nearer.

    very interesting quotes. some more beautiful than others…but truth and grace none less

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    Dean,

    Good to hear from you. Go to Stanneorthodoxchurch.org our parish website and use the contact there. It’ll give you the email address (which I don’t post on the blog). Be glad to hear from you.

    Thoughts about your friend, and “virtual relationships.” I could do a whole post on this, but I’ll spare you. I think that part of what is “godlike” about human beings is this capacity we have, even a need and a drive, to raise things to the level of personhood – and that given half a chance we’ll do it. Even if the relationship has no physical presence for us, we still can do this. It’s not as good as the relationship we know of each other that has the “whole person – body as well as soul” but it’s still something we human beings do. We do it to pets, we’ll do it to cartoons, etc.

    I think this is a good impulse and completely in keeping with something good in us.

    It’s opposite is the sinful drive to “depersonalize” which is something we do all too frequently – turning another person into less than person and objectifying them (usually so we can hurt them, etc.). Idolatry essentially has this component. It does not deal with God as person, but as object – which (though I know many do not understand this) is quite opposite of icons, where the person is not objectified but revealed to us. But that would take quite a post. Good to hear from you and hope all is well. May your friend pacerfan, may his memory be eternal.

  4. artisticmisfit Says:

    We honor some of the Western saints in our litany at vigil and on Sundays and on their feast days. Have you read The Scandal of the Incarnation by St. Iraeneus?

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    That particular volume is a selection from his major work Against the Heresies (almost an impossible read by itself). Von Balthasar (Roman Catholic theologian very favorable to most things Eastern) did the selection of the texts for that volume. I have not read it, though I’ve read a good bit in the larger work and other things of Irenaeus. In many ways I’m not sure that theology has much more to say than is found in Irenaeus. As Church fathers go he is head and shoulders above many. Utterly foundational. I’m glad you know the work you cited. Have you read it? Did you like it? I’m probably done for the evening. Prayers and bedtime await. Many blessings. It’s later here in the East.

  6. NewTrollObserver Says:

    John Wesley also adopted Orthodox theosis, though with some alteration and dilution, but his brother Charles seems to have been more fully immersed in it, undiluted, unadulterated. A 1750 hymn (click on my name) written by Charles went:

    Heavenly Adam, life divine,

    Change my nature into Thine;

    Move and spread throughout my soul,

    Actuate and fill the whole;

    Be it I no longer now

    Living in the flesh, but Thou.

  7. LynneA Says:

    In talking about deification, I find that the explanation in the Orthodox Study Bible helps. (“Deification,” in 2 Peter):

    “We do not become like God in His nature. That would not only be heresy, it would be impossible….Deification means we are to become more like God through His grace or divine energies.”

    The same article also says that “St. John of Damascus, writing in the eighth century, makes a remarkable observation. The word ‘God’ in the Scriptures refers not to the divine nature or essence, for that is unknowable. ‘God’ refers rather to the divine energies–the power and grace of God which we can perceive in this world. The Greek word for God, theos, comes froma verb meaning ‘run,’ ‘see,’ or ‘burn.’ These are energy words, not essence words.”

  8. Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Wednesday Highlights Says:

    […] Theosis. […]

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    New Troll Observer,

    When I was an Anglican seminarian in the ancient days, a portion of my seminary’s library had originally been gathered in England from scholars who made donations. One of its treasured volumes, which I had a chance to look through from time to time, was a volume of St. Gregory the Theologian, in Greek, that had belonged to John Henry Newman. It had his notes scribbled in the margin. I suspect someone could supply us with a Newman quote that would fit well with these others.

  10. Michael Bauman Says:

    In one way, it is not surprising at all that such unanimity should exist. It is after all what we are made for–union with God. Even some of the non-Chrisitan new age “self actualization” is focused on the same end (they just don’t quite know it).

    Fr. Stephen’s point at the end though is even more telling: “This is a wonderful testimony, of almost universal appeal, to one of the central tenets of the Christian faith. Often obscured by other doctrinal formula, it remains central in the Christian East, where the principle of exchange – that God took upon Himself our human condition that we might share in His divinity – runs throughout the whole of doctrine.”

    Unfortunately, I don’t think we can ignore that fact that the exchange does not appear to be central to many other Christian traditions at least in modern practice. Neither can we ignore the fact that we often allow the centrality of the union with God in our tradition to be obscured by worldly priorities.

    As ususal Father Stephen gives us a trenchant reminder of what our business really is.

  11. handmaid Says:

    I am currently reading His Life is Mine by Archimandrite Sophrony. As you have written this post Fr. Stephen, I am in Chapter 10: Through Dark to Light, in which Fr. Sophrony says:

    The Creator of the universe rejoiced more over man than over the glorious choir of the heavenly bodies. Man is more precious than all the rest of the cosmos. Man, completed and perfected, is wondrous, even as God is wondrous. He is immortal and supra-cosmic. He is more than a microcosm – he is a micro-theos. For the eternal Logos of the Father to be made flesh ‘in the likeness of man’ (Phil.2:7) means that, with the gift of His love, man in turn may become like God, even to identity.

    Between God and man there is and must be commensurability in spite of all that is non-commensurable. To dismiss this idea of commensurability would make it totally impossible to interpret any form of cognition as truth – that is, corresponding to the reality of Primordial Being. If man by nature of his spirit is not “like unto God”, then neither could God have been made man. In the lofty bliss of His all-perfect Being God, infinite goodness, desired to bestow this bliss ‘outside’ Himself, and so He created a world of reasonable beings. He did not create them for a part only of His bliss – any element of limitation would indicate unlikeness and rule our eternal unity with God on the highest plane.

    The doctrine that man may become god-like, entirely, not just to a certain degree, lies at the root of our Christian anthropology.

    Thank you for your posting Fr. Stephen, it is very timely for me personally. I wanted to share this because nobody can flesh things out like Fr Sophrony!

  12. The Boar’s Head Tavern » Says:

    […] than inerrancy: It is not often that you see an Orthodox individual quoting Calvin approvingly. Fr Stephen Freeman did that today…. Note – he also quotes Luther approvingly. That is not so uncommon😉 […]

  13. artisticmisfit Says:

    fatherstephen, That is interesting you went to Anglican seminary. I recently met a Anglican or Reformed priest who introduced me to Newman. It is interesting how these ideas circulate. He is a friend of mine on Facebook, I may send you his profile… Sometimes I find the Anglicans are far more charitable than the Orthodox for some reason.

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    artisticmisfit,

    I could draw no generalizations on charity. There are good and bad in all places.

    Handmaidleah,

    Fr. Sophrony, indeed one of my favorite modern writers in Orthodoxy, goes further and deeper than most. I tend to hesitate to publish or comment on some of his work (I would include the passage you quoted) simply because, though I know it is true, it is also almost too wonderful to hear and for some, too wonderful to digest. So I tend to stay in the shallows (it’s where I swim anyway). At the moment I simply want to pray better than I do now.

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    Michael,

    I think your last thought is spot on. We do share much in common, but many things that are central to Orthodoxy have become peripheral elsewhere and this is where our difficulties between one another lie. I would say that Orthodoxy is both “the absence of one-sidedness” (to quote Serge Verhovskoy of blessed memory) but also being properly centered. When rightly understood, all Orthodox theology and canon law, etc., has the single purpose of the salvation of man and the glorification of God. It is a centering that keeps things where they should be. Whenever an Orthodox presence forgets this, it needs to be drawn back to the center and refocused.

    On that matter, a friend of mine has begun producing some t-shirts and similar items, some of which offer very clear reminders of very simple and valuable truths. I’ll be running a post on it very soon. I think most readers will appreciate what they see. And it’s fun.

  16. artisticmisfit Says:

    Fr Stephen and Handmaid Leah,
    I was given A monk of mt athos and teaching from the holy mountain by Archimandrite Sophrony about St. Silouan the New of Mt. Athos, the person who gave it to me is a parishioner of your see cathedral in Dallas, TX, Fr. Stephen. There are various people around the internet who have had contact with Archimandrite Sophrony, and some of them have a relationship with him.

  17. fr john w fenton Says:

    Piggy-backing on Michael’s comment and Fr Stephen’s reply, it seems to me that while other Christians will see theosis (deification, unio mystica, vergöttichung) as a doctrine among doctrines (usually fitted, somewhere, within sanctification in the Western schema), for the Orthodox theosis is not so much a doctrine as a governing principle. At least, that seems to be the argument of St Maximos the Confessor.

  18. handmaid Says:

    Okay, back into the kiddie pool!🙂
    splashing happily with the swim wings on!
    asking your prayers!

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    To all,

    Don’t get me wrong. Father Sophrony is probably the best thing I’ve read in modern Orthodoxy. Pretty much the whole of my spiritual formation has been at the hands of people who are spiritual children, grandchildren, etc., of his. I have nothing but unabashed praise for his work. Read it, digest it. My only caution was to say, that I recognize frequently in his books, that I am reading something that is over my head (this happens a lot when you’re reading the work of a saint, and I do not doubt that he is a true saint – though not yet canonized). Read an enjoy and may he pray for us all to be vessels of the faith he espoused and embodied.

    I will add, that if you ever have a chance to go to St. John the Baptist in Essex (his monastery), go. I would be there tomorrow given the opportunity. The week I spent there summer a year ago is probably the most blessed spiritual time I’ve ever known.

  20. artisticmisfit Says:

    Fr. Stephen, You are not the only priest to say that Fr. Sophrony is over his head. I don’t get that, but ok…

  21. Fatherstephen Says:

    I do not mean he was over his own head, but over mine. When something is over my head, it means that I can read it, and possibly understand it intellectually, but that it is well beyond anything I know by experience. That is all.

  22. artisticmisfit Says:

    I know that, I am sorry, I am a poor writer apparently. I meant you are not the first priest to admit that Archimandrite Sophrony is over his head, meaning your head, or the other priest’s head.

  23. Further Notes on a Common Faith - Newman « Glory to God for All Things Says:

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  25. God became man, that man become God. « The Society of St. Seraphim of Sarov Says:

    […] John Calvin: “This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.” [source] […]

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