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Theosis: The Reason for the Season | Carl E. Olson | December 30, 2008 | Ignatius Insight

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"The Cross of Christ on Calvary stands beside the path of that admirable commercium, of that wonderful self-communication of God to man, which also includes the call to man to share in the divine life by giving himself, and with himself the whole visible world, to God, and like an adopted son to become a sharer in the truth and love which is in God and proceeds from God. It is precisely besides the path of man's eternal election to the dignity of being an adopted child of God that there stands in history the Cross of Christ, the only-begotten Son..." — Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, 7.5.

"Love of God and love of neighbour are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a 'commandment' imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is 'divine' because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a 'we' which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is 'all in all' (1 Cor 15:28)." —Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 18.


What, really, is the point of Christmas? Why did God become man?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in a section titled, "Why did the Word become flesh?" (pars 456-460) provides several complimentary answers: to save us, to show us God's love, and to be a model of holiness. And then, in what I think must be, for many readers, the most surprising and puzzling paragraph in the entire Catechism, there is this:
The Word became flesh to make us "partakers of the divine nature": "For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God." "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods." (par 460)
So that "we might become God"? Surely, a few might think, this is some sort of pantheistic slip of the theological pen, or perhaps a case of good-intentioned but poorly expressed hyperbole. But, of course, it is not. First, whatever problems there might have been in translating the Catechism into English, they had nothing to do with this paragraph. Secondly, the first sentence is from 2 Peter 1:4, and the three subsequent quotes are from, respectively, St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, and (gasp!) St. Thomas Aquinas. Finally, there is also the fact that this language of divine sonship—or theosis, also known as deification—is found through the entire Catechism. A couple more representative examples:
Justification consists in both victory over the death caused by sin and a new participation in grace. It brings about filial adoption so that men become Christ's brethren, as Jesus himself called his disciples after his Resurrection: "Go and tell my brethren." We are brethren not by nature, but by the gift of grace, because that adoptive filiation gains us a real share in the life of the only Son, which was fully revealed in his Resurrection. (par 654)

Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life. (par 1996)

Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God's gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us "co-heirs" with Christ and worthy of obtaining "the promised inheritance of eternal life." The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness. "Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due.... Our merits are God's gifts." (par 2009)
The very first paragraph of the Catechism, in fact, asserts that God sent his Son so that in him "and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life." God did not become man, in other words, to just be our friend, but so that we could truly and really, by grace, become members of his family, the Church. Christmas is the celebration of God becoming man, but it is also the proclamation that man is now able to be filled with and to share in God's own Trinitarian life.


Several years ago I wrote a short article about theosis in which I stated the following:
This doctrine of divinization reverberated dramatically within my heart and mind. As an evangelical Protestant I had not questioned the doctrines of the Trinity or the Incarnation, but neither had I really seriously contemplated the dynamic between mankind and these two greatest mysteries of the Christian Faith. They were facts and truths, but were not, for me personally, the object of prolonged scrutiny. In a real sense, I had not grasped what this data meant for me beyond believing (rightly so) that God loved me and became man. My mental assent to these facts was undeniable, but there remained a rather static and frozen quality to my intellectual and spiritual life as a Christian.

About this same time I also began reading Karl Adam's classic The Spirit of Catholicism, in which he writes that "the Church . . . cannot be contented with developing any mere humanity, or perfection of humanity. This is not the object of her work. On the contrary her ideal is to supernaturalize men, to make them like God." He also notes that "the central fact of the glad tidings of Christianity" is that man is called to "participation in the divine life itself." This was stunning language. It seemed so bold and grand, almost a bit arrogant––wasn't this giving too much credit to man? On the contrary, I soon realized that for so long I had giving far too little credit to the Triune God. But didn't it fly in the face of Scripture, which pointed to our unworthiness before the holiness of God? No, it showed how great of salvation we have been called to receive, "For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust" (2 Peter 1:4)
What I soon discovered, in the course of entering the Catholic Church on Easter Vigil, 1997, is that this language and this manner of contemplating salvation is downright foreign to many Catholics. It is disturbing for some and puzzling to others. For me, it made sense of so many passages of Scripture that I had, as an Evangelical, either passed over uneasily or interpreted as being somehow metaphorical or poetic in nature:
See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. (1 Jn 3:1)

For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. (Rom 8:19)
Well, yes, I thought: of course we are "called" children of God. After all, God loves us and he sent his Son to die for us; in addition, we know that "the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (1 Jn 4:16). But it was all rather hazy. What I knew with most certainly was what I was saved from: sin and death. What I was saved for, strangely enough, was not nearly as clear. To be good, certainly. To do the right thing, yes. But, frankly, there was something missing in the rather standard Evangelical message of salvation I knew so well.


These somewhat random remarks are inspired, in part, by a November 9, 2008, article in Christianity Today. "Keeping the End in View" was written by James R. Payton, Jr., a professor of history at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, and author of Light From the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition (IVP, 2007). On one hand, Payton's article is an interesting and often helpful introduction for Evangelicals to "the strange yet familiar doctrine of theosis." He puts his finger squarely on the problem I grappled with many years ago:
Sometimes, though, the way we talk about salvation makes it sound like little more than a get-out-of-hell-free card. With our emphasis on what sinners like ourselves are saved from, do we know what we are saved for? Is salvation solely about us and our need to be forgiven and born again, or is there a deeper, God-ward purpose?
He then quotes from Against Heresies by St. Irenaeus—the same quote found in paragraph 460 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Later, he writes, "In his mercy, God promised salvation through a deliverer, but for Eastern Orthodoxy, salvation is less about rescue (though it is about that) and more about return. Christ rescues us from our enemies and redeems us to God, so that we get back on the right track to becoming like him." He quotes an Orthodox leader who sums up theosis succinctly: "We become by grace what God is by nature."

This is all well and good. But it was curious to me that no mention was made of the Catholic Church. Nor of any sort of ecclesiology, or the nature of grace, or of the sacraments, all of which are essential to a full and balanced understanding of theosis. Perhaps brevity was the problem as Payton does take up those issues in his book.


Unfortunately, although Light from the Christian East contains much good material, it suffers from a generalized and often unfairly negative view of "Western Christianity," which apparently refers to everything from "Roman Catholicism" to Calvinism to fundamentalism. Payton never acknowledges the existence of the many Eastern Catholic Churches and seems unfamiliar with substantial elements of Catholic theology. Sadly, it seems that for Payton nearly anything having to do with the West or Rome is lacking, deficient, or simply wrong.

He claims that "for all their admitted differences from each other, especially the divide between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism ... [Western Christians] nevertheless approach issues from the same mindset, asking the same kinds of questions and coming up with the same kinds of answers." This is remarkable enough on its own, but he then adds: "In the first place, for all the differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants about how a person can be acceptable to God, both approach the question as basically a legal matter—that of a person standing before God in a divine court of law. Both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism look on this issue as the ultimate question with regard to a person's relationship with God."

If such were the case, however, it would be difficult to understand why the Council of Trent focused so intently on the nature and purpose of justification. In other words, put bluntly, if Luther, Calvin, and Co. were correct in saying that justification was indeed juridical and external in nature, why did the Catholic Church so strongly denounce their teachings? If the courtroom is the final model for a Catholic view of justification, why did the Council of Trent use the language of divine sonship and adoption?
By which words, a description of the Justification of the impious is indicated, as being a translation, from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour. And this translation, since the promulgation of the Gospel, cannot be effected, without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof, as it is written; unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. (Canon 6, ch. IV).
Whereas classical Protestantism taught that justification is a legal, or forensic, term that indicates man is considered righteous in the eyes of God because of Christ's imputed righteousness, the Council of Trent asserted that justification is the actual translation of man from a state of sin to a state of grace, through the person of Jesus Christ and the sacrament of baptism. "In point of fact," wrote Robert W. Gleason, S.J., in his 1962 study, Grace, "it was this very idea of extrinsic justification that lay at the heart of all the Reformers' negations, and this the council decisively rejected, maintaining that man is justified by a justice which is proper and interior to each one, poured into his soul by the Holy Spirit. ... Justification is not only a genuine remission of sins but a profound interior transformation of man by which he is enriched with the presence of the indwelling God, becomes intrinsically just, a friend and son of God, and the heir to eternal life" (Sheed & Ward, pp. 214, 216).


Differences in language, culture, philosophical influences, and theological emphases resulted in distinctions between Catholicism and Orthodoxy when it came to articulating and expressing beliefs about salvation. "This is a distinction not of opposition," Gleason observed, "but of emphasis only, based on a different philosophical orientation" (p. 223). The bottom line is that theosis was not ignored in the West, even if it was sometimes obscured, as A. N. Williams explained in an exceptional article, "Deification in the Summa theologiae: A Structural Interpretation of the Prima Pars", published in 1997 in The Thomist:
As Western theology became more systematic in its structure, more propositional in its form, it tended to lose sight of earlier forms of theological exposition. Deification, even in its patristic form, has become virtually invisible to the eyes of modern Westerners because instead of defining deification, or providing a phenomenological description of the deified, the Fathers use a set of cognates for deification that forms a quasi-technical vocabulary. Three of these terms--participation, union, and adoption--function as virtual synonyms for deification. Others, like grace, virtue, and knowledge, denote means or loci of growth in sanctity that are common to all Christian doctrines of sanctification. Another group, light, contemplation, glory, and vision, are found in medieval and modern Western theologies, but tend to be appropriated either to sanctification (light and contemplation) or consummation (glory and vision), rather than denoting the unity of the two, as they do in a doctrine of deification. The status of this last group becomes further complicated by their use in the West primarily within the tradition of mystical and ascetical theology, a position that leaves them largely ignored by modern theologians.
Deification, Williams notes, was the "dominant model of salvation and sanctification in the patristic period, from Ignatius of Antioch to John Damascene, in the West (in the writings of Tertullian and Augustine) as well as in the East." While an interest in and emphasis on the doctrine of deification, or theosis, did decline in the West, Williams argues that the "conventional wisdom" that this decline took place in the Middle Age is mistaken:
Indeed, the doctrine of deification pervades the Summa. If Western readers have failed to notice it, we may conjecture they have done so for two reasons. The first is that it is precisely pervasive and not localized: one finds no question "Whether Human Persons Are Deified?" in the pages of the Summa. Second, Western readers may be unable to see the doctrine simply because they are unfamiliar with it. Because this model of sanctification has been absent from Western theology for so long, Western readers do not recognize either the paradigmatic structure of the doctrine or the language that traditionally conveys it.
Fast forward from St. Thomas a few centuries to the work of Fr. Matthias J. Scheeben (1835-1888), considered one of the finest German Catholic theologians of the nineteenth century. The Catholic Encyclopedia summarily states, "Scheeben was a mystic." It can fairly said that his book, The Mysteries of Christianity (B. Herder Book Co., 1946, 1964; originally published in German in 1865), originally written when Scheeben was only thirty years old, is a profound examination of the realities of deification, adoptive sonship, and grace, especially in relation to the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Church, and the sacraments. It reflects Scheeben's unique combination of prayerful prose, keen knowledge of patristics, and deep love for St. Thomas. In his chapter on "The Real Presence," Scheeben wrote:
Our substantial union with the God-man is an image of the substantial unity between the Son and the Father. Thus our participation in the divine nature and divine life becomes a reproduction of the fellowship in nature and life which the Son of God has with His Father, as their supreme, substantial oneness requires. ... We must be overwhelmed with the fullness of the Godhead; we must be deified. We must share in the glory that the Son has received from the Father; and this is what really takes place through sanctifying grace and the glory in which it culminates. And if the Fathers indicate the deification of man as the goal of the incarnation of God's Son, this must be true in fullest measure with regard to the Eucharist as the continuation of the Incarnation. (pp. 481, 487-88)
In a similar way, the French theologian Fr. Émile Mersch (1890-1940) situated the doctrine of adoptive sonship within the context of ecclesiology. In The Theology of the Mystical Body (B. Herder Book Co., 1952; originally published in French c. 1940), Fr. Mersch drew heavily upon the early Church Fathers, writing:
The Word is united to us in order to unite us to Him and to transform us into what He is, that is, to make us sons of God, not by nature, like Him, but by grace; to stamp us with His form and character of Son. Thus through One, He has taken up His abode in us all. ... This is the great Christian truth: the Son was made man that in Him and through Him, men might be adopted as sons. By our participation in the only-begotten Son we become adopted sons, truly and "physically." This shows clearly that He is the Son in the full sense of the term, that is, by nature. ... As the Fathers repeat so often, we become by grace what Christ is by nature. Christ is the Son by nature, and He is God because He is the Son. The grace we receive ought to make us sons, that is, adopted sons, who are divinized because we are adopted. Our divinization comes from our adoption, and our adoption is no less sublime than our divinization; the excellence of both is derived from that of the sonship of God the Son. ... Thus we men, who used to be afar off, have been made to come near; (172) (Cf. Eph. 2:13.) we who were strangers and outsiders have been brought inside and welcomed as members of the family. (173) (Cf. ibid., 2:19). Such is the superabundant riches of God's grace that is given to us in the bountiful generosity He has toward us in Christ Jesus. (174) (Ibid., 2:7.) He has made us His own beloved children (175) (Ibid., 5:1) by sanctifying us in His well-beloved Son. (176) (Ibid., 1:6.) (pp. 347-8, 372, 374)
Finally, the noted Swiss theologian, Cardinal Charles Journet (1891-1975), penned a popular-level book (with "study-club questions"!), The Meaning of Grace (Deus Books, 1962), in which he wrote:
Jesus is Son 'by nature,' he possesses necessarily the divine nature, by reason of the identity of his being and nature with the being and nature of the Father. We are sons of God 'by adoption,' we possess the divine nature by a free effect of the divine goodness, by a finite participation in the being and infinite nature of God. Jesus is Son of the Father by eternal generation; we are sons of the three Persons of the Trinity by creation and adoption.

Theosis, deification, and adoptive sonship have received much attention in recent decades from Catholic theologians and scholars. Ressourcement theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Jean Daniélou addressed them in a variety of books and articles. Recent books such as Divine Light: The Theology of Denys the Areopagite, by Dr. William Riordan, and Deification And Grace by Daniel Keating are scholarly studies worthy of attention.

Pope John Paul II's Trinitarian encyclicals—Redemptor Hominis, Dives in Misericordia and Dominum et Vivificantemoften emphasized divine adoption:
For as Saint Paul teaches, "all who are led by the Spirit of God" are "children of God." The filiation of divine adoption is born in man on the basis of the mystery of the Incarnation, therefore through Christ the eternal Son. But the birth, or rebirth, happens when God the Father "sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts." Then we receive a spirit of adopted sons by which we cry 'Abba, Father!'" Hence the divine filiation planted in the human soul through sanctifying grace is the work of the Holy Spirit. "It is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ." Sanctifying grace is the principle and source of man's new life: divine, supernatural life. (Dives in Misericordia, 52.2).
Coming full circle, the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers time and time again to the reality of theosis. "God created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life," it states, "a communion brought about by the 'convocation' of men in Christ, and this 'convocation' is the Church" (par 760). Through the sacraments we are made "children of God, partakers of the divine nature" (par 1692). The foundation of the moral life, the living out of the Christian calling, is found in the theological virtues: faith, hope and love, infused by the Holy Spirit. Those theological virtues "adapt man's faculties for participation in the divine nature" (par 1812). Our prayer to and adoration of the Father is rooted in divine adoption, for "he has caused us to be reborn to his life by adopting us as his children in his only Son" (par 2782).

It is fitting, in speaking of the Catechism and the "reason for the season," to end with this quote, which aptly and beautifully summarizes much of which has been haphazardly presented here:
To become a child in relation to God is the condition for entering the kingdom. For this, we must humble ourselves and become little. Even more: to become "children of God" we must be "born from above" or "born of God". Only when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled in us. Christmas is the mystery of this "marvellous exchange": "O marvellous exchange! Man's Creator has become man, born of the Virgin. We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share our humanity." (par 526)

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:

The Dignity of the Human Person: Pope John Paul II's Teaching on Divinization in the Trinitarian Encyclicals | Carl E. Olson
The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, O.P.
Jean Daniélou and the "Master-Key to Christian Theology" | Carl E. Olson
Was The Joint Declaration Truly Justified? | An Interview with Dr. Christopher Malloy
Why Catholicism Makes Protestantism Tick: Louis Bouyer on the Reformation | Mark Brumley
Are Catholics Born Again? | Mark Brumley

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.

He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers. He has a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas.

He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, their children, two cats, and far too many books and CDs. Visit his personal web site (now stuck in the middle of a major overhaul) at www.carl-olson.com.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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