Indwelling through the Spirit of sonship
Athanasius’ account of deification (theopoiesis) and adoptive sonship (huiothesia) is not limited only to the work of Christ, but also accords a central place to the Holy Spirit. It is not only because it is united to the Word that Christ’s humanity is a deified one, and thus the “root” of our deification, but also because it is a humanity anointed with the Holy Spirit. According to Athanasius, Christ “at once gives and receives [the Spirit], giving as God’s Word, receiving as man” (Contra Arianos I:12.48). He acts as our vicarious representative not only in his death on the Cross and Resurrection, but throughout the whole of his earthly life – not least, in his baptism, when he received the Spirit for us: “When the Lord, as man, was washed in Jordan, it was we who were washed in Him and by Him. And when He received the Spirit, we it was who by Him were made recipients of it” (Contra Arianos I: 11.43).
Only as united to the grace-filled humanity of Jesus do we receive the Spirit of God in an abiding way. But likewise, reciprocally, it is only through the Spirit of sonship abiding in us through baptism that we come to partake of the Son, and abiding in the Son, come to share in the life of the Father. For Athanasius, to be “in the Spirit” is to be “in the Son,” and to be “in the Son” is to be “in God” as an adopted son of the Father. “It is the Spirit then which is in God, and not we viewed in our own selves; and as we are sons and gods because of the Word in us, so shall we be accounted to have become one in the Son and in the Father, because that Spirit is in us, which is in the Word which is in the Father” (Contra Arianos III: 25. 25). The reality of our deification as adopted sons and children of God is grounded in the Spirit’s dwelling in the Son, as the Son dwells also in the Father. Deification thus depends on the consubstantiality (homoousios) of the Son with the Father, as defined by the Council of Nicaea, and likewise the consubstantiality of the Spirit with the Son.
This doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Spirit and the co-inherence of the persons of the Trinity is further explicated by Athanasius with incredible depth and power in his letters To Serapion. In these epistles, written around AD 357 during his third exile, Athanasius establishes the theme of deification as a reception the Spirit of huiothesia (Rom. 8:15) on the firm foundation of a robust Trinitarian theology, informed by a profound sense of what later theology would call the perichoresis of the divine persons. According to Athanasius, the Son is the single eikon of the whole Godhead, whose image the Spirit communicates in making us sons “conformed to the image of the Son” (Rom. 8:29). He writes:
While Christ is the true Son, we are made into sons when we receive the Spirit: “For you have not received,” it says, “the Spirit of slavery that leads back to fear. But you have received the Spirit of sonship” (Rom. 8:15). But when we are made sons by the Spirit, it is clearly in Christ that we receive the title “children of God”: “For to those who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God” (Jn. 1:12)… And when the Spirit is given to us (for the Savior said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn. 20:22)), it is God who is in us… Such being the correlation (sustoichia) and the unity of the Holy Trinity, who would dare to separate the Son from the Father, or the Spirit from the Son or from the Father himself? (Ad Serapion I, 19).
Because of the co-inherence of the persons of the Trinity, when one person of the Godhead dwells in us, the entire Trinity is likewise present: “When the Spirit is in us, the Word who gives the Spirit is also in us, and the Father is in the Word” (Ad Serapion I, 30).
There is a distinct order to this co-inherence amongst the persons of the Trinity. According to Athanasius, while the Spirit “proceeds” or takes his existence from the Father, he “shines forth” from the Word, and “receives” from the Son, as the Son himself receives from the Father. “The Spirit is said to have the same relation of nature and taxis to the Son as the Son has to the Father,” writes Athanasius. “He is ‘proper’ (idion) to the Son and belongs to His being, just as the Son is proper to Father and belongs to the Father’s being.” Likewise, in the mission of the Trinity to the world, this order of being amongst the persons is maintained: the Spirit is sent in the name of the Son, who himself has come in the name of the Father. Thus, “the Spirit is called the Spirit of sonship (Rom. 8:15). And again, while the Son is Wisdom (1 Cor 1:24) and Truth (cf. Jn. 14:6), it is written that the Spirit is the Spirit of Wisdom (cf. Is. 11:2) and Truth (cf. Jn. 14:17, 15:26)” (Ad Serapion I, 25).
In keeping with this order, a two-way movement can be traced within the salvific economy. On the one hand, “Everything that belongs to the Father belongs to the Son; thus, what is given by the Son in the Spirit are the Father’s gifts” – gifts Athanasius identifies with the common energy of the Holy Trinity. Conversely, “it is in the Spirit that the Word glorifies creation and presents it to the Father by divinizing it and granting it adoption” (Ad Serapion I, 26). Huiothesia and theopoiesis are closely linked, essentially identical, and structured in a Trinitarian way. More uniquely, in Ad Serapion, the Spirit’s communication of the Son and his saving activity in creation are dependent on the Spirit’s own eternal “indwelling” of the person of the Son.
Athanasius’ identification of deification with adoptive sonship follows the earliest patristic tradition and is continued in later Fathers, such as St Cyril of Alexandria (e.g. Dial. Trin. 5 and 7; In Jo. 1.9, 4.1, 5.5) and St Maximus the Confessor (Ad Thal. 6 and 63; Or. Dom. 1; Amb. 42). It is likewise integral to the theology of St Augustine of Hippo (e.g., Sermo 192.1; en Ps. 49.1.2; en Ps. 146.5.11 ), who closely resembles St Athanasius in this regard.
This patristic teaching concerning theosis is essentially evangelical theology, a facet of the apostolic and biblical message concerning the person of Jesus Christ and his saving work. There is no false mystification or obscurantism here, no esotericism, and no spiritual elitism whatsoever. Deification, according to the Orthodox teaching, is no more and no less than the adoptive sonship proclaimed by the Apostle Paul: our acceptance and recognition by the Father as his sons by grace, in and through our incorporation into his only-begotten Son by nature, Jesus Christ, in his body, the Church, by way of the Spirit of sonship (Rom. 8:15) – the Spirit of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:9).
This is a work of God effected in and by Jesus Christ through his incarnation and atoning work, received in baptism, continued through a life lived in conformity with Christ and his commandments, and consummated in the Eucharist – the prayer of sonship, wherein we are enabled to call upon God as “our Father,” thus becoming “gods” through worthy eucharistic communion (Maximus, Myst. 20). Finally, this deification and sonship will be revealed in fullness at the glorious future resurrection unto life, “the manifestation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19).
Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).
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