Thursday, March 20, 2008

Theosis and Love

Maunday Thursday is the day Christians remember the command Jesus gave to the disciples at the last supper: "A new command I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

There is a long tradition in Christianity of something called theosis - which means "making divine". Essentially, the idea is that participation within the love of Christ - of loving others as he loved us - causes us to become god-like.

Most of the Christians I know get uncomfortable when I talk about theosis - of becoming divine, but the earliest theologians of the church thought theosis is a very important part of understanding what Christianity is about. They said crazy stuff like:

"God became human so humans would become gods." (Athanasius, 4th Century)

"...the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that he might bring to us even what He is Himself." (Iranaeus, 2nd Century)

I suspect the discomfort with theosis is because the idea of human divinity seems like blasphemy. Humans instead should be relegated to distorted and corrupt creatures. But what would happen if we began to take the teachings of these early church fathers seriously - that Christ brought to us what He is Himself, and heals our wounds as part of the forgiveness we are offered?

No early church father seriously thought that we would become God. But they did believe we would become divine. St. John of the Cross puts it best, "[We become divine] not because the soul will come to have the capacity of God, for that is impossible; but because all that it is will become like to God, for which cause it will be called, and will be, God by participation." (16th Century)

Maunday Thursday reminds us that we are God by participation. That we love as Christ loved. That we sacrifice ourselves as Christ sacrificed. That we take up our Cross, being the vandalized images of God that we are, and look forward to our rebirth as divine creatures. We are called, with this command to love, to be God by participation.


Tracy P. said...

I like the word "theosis"--never heard it before. I like the sort of broadened perspective this brings to the observation of Holy Week. It seems helpful as I think about the fact that each time Lent/Holy Week/Easter come around, I am in completely different places personally and spiritually. One thing I must say about being raised in a liturgical tradition is that I sort of felt the pressure to be on a spiritual high around the holy days. Which is not hard if you are not spiritually aware at all at other times of the year, but if you are on a daily spiritual journey, these times can just as easily be among the dryest. But if part of the reason for being dry is that you are weary from participating in the divine nature of pouring yourself out in love, Christ, in His passion, is a real place of refuge.

Benjamin said...

I think theosis is fascinating. It is a large part of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and disagreement over how it works was a strong factor in the split of the Eastern Church from the Western Church (i.e., the Great Schism) in 1054. Keep in mind, most of the churches that Paul planted would have been in the eastern church - and most of the leaders coming out of those churches were anathematized by the western church, from which Protestantism sprung. Kinda makes you think, huh?

It think your statement about spiritual dryness during holy week is funny. I say that because my friends from a sacramental tradition would say that your dryness is the result in participation in something that draws you into the life of Christ, which was also spiritually dry and stressful during that week. I would say that your just stressed out, but what do I know?

I have been thinking about being "hid with Christ in God" lately as well, which goes with your idea of refuge - and, now that I think about it, with the idea of the burning bush.

Good stuff.

chrisJ said...

Hey Ben,

So would you say that Adam and Eve where in this theosis state before the fall. I will have to do more reading on this subject. I tend to think of it in terms of being restored to original created status. I have never thought of the divine nature of it.

chrisj said...


Yes Paul did work with the Eastern Churches but you will have to map out century by century on new theological stance and traditions to get a big overview. I might do that one day.


Benjamin said...

If I am forced to think about Adam and Eve in a literal way, I tend to side with Irenaeus that God created them "very good" as raw material for future maturity. In other words, they were immature humanity and the fall was more of a childish disobedience than a full-blown rebellion. In an Irenaeun way, I see human history as the maturation of humanity into the divine likeness, which will culminate in marriage (union) with Christ. That means that before the fall Adam and Eve were not as able to participate in theosis as those who came afterwards, simply because humanity was immature. Of course it's more complicated than this, but that's the paragraph version.

The western tendency to see Adam and Eve as "types" which rebelled and took all of humanity with them in a catastrophic "Fall", resulting in "original sin" is primarily Augustinian in its origin. While there are some things I really like about Augustine, I think Irenaeus' understanding of creation holds up better.

That being said, Irenaeus has problems, too.

I totally agree with you that the theology of the eastern (and western!) churches changed over time, and those changes must be taken into account when studying the Great Schism. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that our gut reaction as protestants that Eastern Orthodoxy is pure heresy needs to be tempered. I mean, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, of the Trinity, and of the incarnation of Christ were primarily the result of the work of the eastern church.

It seems to me that the legacy those eastern church fathers left in their churches needs to count for something.