Deification and Sonship According to St Athanasius of Alexandria: Part II

Deification and Sonship According to St Athanasius of Alexandria: Part II

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This is the second part of Fr. Matthew’s series. Click here to read Part I and Part III.


If in De Incarnatione the goal and purpose of the incarnation is identified with deification (theopoiesis), in his later works Athanasius more frequently links it specifically with adoptive sonship (huiothesia). Athanasius’ earliest exposition of this doctrine of adoptive sonship appears to be in his De Decretis (chapters 3 and 7), written sometime between 346 and 356 in defense of the Nicene definition. Unlike the oft-quoted exchange formula of De Incarnatione 54.3, Athanasius’ later formulations have an explicitly Trinitarian character:

On this account has the Word become flesh, that, since the word is Son, therefore, because of the Son dwelling in us, He may be called our Father also; for ‘He sent forth,’ says Scripture, ‘the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying Abba, Father.’ Therefore the Son in us, calling upon His own Father, causes Him to be named our Father also (Contra Arianos IV, 15.22).

In his letter to the Egyptian bishops in 356, Athanasius will count huiothesia as amongst the four “instructions and gifts of grace” given us by Christ, together with prayer, power against demons, and “that exceeding great and singular grace,” “knowledge of the Father and the Word Himself, and the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Ad Episcopos Aegypti, I.1). According to Athanasius, the Spirit of adoption and of freedom gives the Christian fearlessness to confess the truth.

The divine sonship of believers is an adoptive one, which could not subsist apart from the incarnation of the only-begotten Son. This is a truth to which the Arians have been blinded: “Thus hearing that men are called sons, they thought themselves equal to the True Son by nature” (Contra Arianos III: 25.17). In the face of this confusion, beginning with his work De Decretis, Athanasius strictly distinguishes between natural and adoptive sonship: only Christ is Son of God by nature, being homoousios with the Father, whereas we are sons by grace, through the indwelling of the Word.

It is this sonship by grace for which man was created; but being an adoptive sonship and not a natural one, its attendant inheritance can be lost through rebellion: “Since they were not sons by nature, when they altered, the Spirit was taken away and they were disinherited; and again at their repentance that God who thus at the beginning gave them grace, will receive them, and give light, and call them sons again” (Contra Arianos I, 11:33). There is thus a distinct moral dimension to adoptive filiation in Christ, attaching “to each according to the practice of virtue,” “on the ground of observance of the commandments” (De Decretis, III.10; V.20), which is an imitation of Christ in his relation to the Father (Contra Arianos I, 25.19-22). Nevertheless, sonship remains a gift which cannot be attained by moral effort alone, but only through baptism into the Trinity, in which the believer is taken up into the relationship between the Father and the Son: “for with such an initiation we too are made sons verily, and using the name of Father, we acknowledge from that name the Word in the Father” (De Decretis, 5.31). 

For Athanasius, theopoiesis and huiothesia are two closely related tropes indicating the same salvific reality:

Adoption therefore could not be apart from the real Son, who says, ‘No one knoweth the Father, save the Son, and He to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him.’ And how can there be deifying apart from the Word and before Him? Yet, He saith to their brethren the Jews, ‘If He called them gods, unto whom the Word came.’ And if all that are called sons and gods, whether in earth or in heaven, were adopted and deified through the Word, and the Son Himself is the Word, it is plain through Him are they all. And He Himself before all, or rather He Himself only is very Son (Contra Arianos I, 11.39)

Athanasius shows a noted preference for the language of Scripture: “the tokens of truth are more exact as drawn from Scripture, than from other sources” (De Decretis, 5.32). Yet if the language of adoption bears with it a more explicit reference to the biblical text and possibly a more personal character, the language of “deification” has a unique strength in clarifying the authentic teaching of Scripture in the context of the Arian controversy, in that it underscores the divinity of the Son as of one essence (homoousios) with the Father, and thus the reality of our participation in the life of God through the Son. Only if the Son is of one being with and “proper to” (idion) the Father are we able to be deified by partaking of the Son.

This deification is equally inseparable from the Son’s “inhomination” (enanthropoiesis) and assumption of the human “body.” According to Athanasius, Christ is the “Way” and our “High Priest” on account of his having assumed humanity (Expositio Fidei, 4). Unlike the Arians and semi-Arians who saw the Logos as inherently and eternally priest and mediator (and therefore subordinate to God), for Athanasius as for the Apostle Paul, it is “the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5) who “ministers the things of God to us, and the things of ours to God” (Contra Arianos, IV.6). In the indivisible unity of his incarnate dispensation is to be found both God’s Word to us and our perfect and vicarious response to God.

It is Christ’s sharing in our humanity that is the “root” of our reception of the fullness of his divinity: “Just as the branches are of the one essence with the vine, and are from it, so we also having our bodies homogenous with the Lord’s body, receive of His fullness (Jn. 1:16) and have that body as our root for resurrection and our salvation” (De Sententia Dionysii, 10). Adoption as sons thus depends on relationship to Christ’s body: “Because of our relationship to his body we too have become God’s temple, and in consequence are made God’s sons, so that even in us the Lord is now worshipped, and beholders report, as the Apostle says, that God is in them of a truth. As also John says in the Gospel, ‘As many as received him, to them gave he power to become children of God” (Epistle 61). Athanasius employs the term “body” (soma) in a three-fold sense, referring at once to the body on the Cross, the Eucharist, and the Church. These together form the created medium of our deification:

It is plain that the Word has come to be in us, for He has put on our body. ‘And Thou Father in Me;’ for I am Thy Word, and since thou art in Me, because I am Thy Word, and I in them because of the body, and because of Thee the salvation of men is perfected in Me, therefore I ask that they also may become one, according to the body that is in Me and according to its perfection; that they too become perfect, having oneness with It, and having become one in It; that, as if all were carried by Me, all may be one body and one spirit, and may grow up unto a perfect man. For we all, partaking of the Same, become one body, having the one Lord in ourselves (Contra Arianos III, 25.22).

For Athanasius, then, deification is a reality thoroughly and inseparably Christocentric, eucharistic, and ecclesial. It is the reality of sonship, effected in the Eucharist within the one body of the Church, by which we have access to the Father through the one High Priest and Mediator Jesus Christ.

Read part III >>>


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Fr. Matthew Baker

Fr. Matthew Baker of blessed memory was a priest of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston and a PhD candidate in Systematic Theology at Fordham University.