Deification and Sonship According to St Athanasius of Alexandria: Part I
Popular presentations of the Orthodox Christian faith often highlight the doctrine of theosis, or deification, as a distinctive accent of Orthodox theology and spiritual teaching. In the 20th century, owing to the enthusiastic rediscovery of St Gregory Palamas and especially the wide influence of the theology of Vladimir Lossky, this message of deification was most often cast in terms of a “participation in the divine energies.” The phrase from 2 Peter 1:4, “partakers of the divine nature [theias koinonoi physeos]” is also frequently cited as a biblical touchstone for the Orthodox teaching on deification.
While these accents are important, such presentations often fail to do justice to the central point. Unfortunately, the teaching regarding theosis is sometimes presented without robust reference to the evangelical message concerning the person of Jesus Christ and his redeeming work. Likewise, the Trinitarian shape of deification is left obscure. In fact, although certainly crucial, the doctrine of divine energies does not form the central focus of the tradition of patristic teaching on theosis. And only with St Cyril of Alexandria (376-444) did 2 Peter 1:4 come to the fore, owing to the importance of the category of physis in the Christological debates of his time – where the term physis in Alexandrian theology had the sense of concrete “reality” or “truth” (aletheia), rather than ousia, essentia or natura.
Not insignificantly, the most common biblical touchstone for the teaching about deification among the earliest Fathers and ecclesiastical writers – from Sts Justin, Theophilus of Antioch and Irenaeus, to Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and beyond – was a verse from Psalm 82: “You are all gods and sons of the Most High” (Ps. 82:6; cf Jn 10:34-36). This verse was theologically suggestive for its linking of “gods” with “sons,” leading early Christian theologians to develop the doctrine of deification in close association with the New Testament teaching concerning our adoption as sons (huiothesia: Rom. 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5) and being born anew from on high as children of God (Rom. 8:16-17; Jn 1:12, 8:42 et al; 1 Jn 3:2, etc). Here the teaching on deification is fundamentally Christocentric and Trinitarian in character.
St Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373) is frequently cited as witness to the doctrine of theosis. The neologism theosis, however, does not occur in his writings. It was first introduced by St Gregory the Theologian and did not become standard until Pseudo-Dionysius, in the 6th century. St Athanasius’ preferred term is the verb theopoieo, with its corresponding noun theopoiesis. Athanasius’ concept of deification is Christocentric, and primarily a dogmatic weapon against the Arian heresy. Excepting his Life of Anthony and his paschal letters, the ascetical aspects, so important for later tradition, do not predominate and are left largely undeveloped in Athanasius. Athanasius’ anti-Arian articulation of theopoiesis stresses that by participating in the incarnate Son, we participate in God. This participation is closely linked to the atoning work on the Cross, to the Church, and to the Holy Spirit. Athanasius affirms Christ’s divinity by highlighting the difference between the source of deification and its object: the natural sonship of the Logos is contrasted with the adoptive sonship (huiothesia) given to humanity by grace. As with earlier pre-Nicene writers, deification and sonship appear as inseparably united in the theology of Athanasius.
Athanasius On the Incarnation: Deification and Atonement
Athanasius’ first use of theopoieo occurs in his oft-quoted “formula of exchange” found in On the Incarnation 54.3: “He was made man in order that we might be made gods.” Athanasius stresses here the gifts of the knowledge of God, the undoing of pagan idolatry and ignorance, and freedom from death as the fruits of this exchange. Christ “manifested himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality” (De Inc. 54.3).
In the context of On the Incarnation, Christ’s taking of a “body” refers not simply to his human conception in time, but to his suffering the Cross and death. Christ’s body shared the same nature with all of fallen humanity (8.2; 20.2) and was thus mortal: it “could not but die, inasmuch as it was mortal, and to be offered unto death on behalf of all: for which purpose the Savior fashioned it for Himself” (31.4). Yet “by virtue of the union of the Word with it,” this body was also raised from the dead, “placed out of the reach of corruption,” and rendered immortal (20.1-5).
Christ’s death and resurrection have immediate, intrinsic consequences for all mankind. Christ died as a “substitute” (37.7) “in the stead of all,” (9.1; 10.1-2; 20.2), accomplishing not only his own death, but “the death of men” (22.3). Christ healed and restored human nature of its corruptibility not by external means, but from within (44.1-8), by paying the debt of death exacted by the Law (6.2-3; 9.5; 20.5), becoming “a curse” (25.2) while yet being sinless. In this way he put an end to the Law (10.5) and, having risen again, became an “ambassador for all with the Father” (7.5).
While some presentations often wrongly and polemically oppose deification to atonement, for Athanasius deification is closely allied to Christ’s atoning work, understood in clearly substitutionary terms. In the famous formula of deification drawn from the conclusion of On the Incarnation (54.3) – all too often quoted as a slogan, with little regard for context – we are to understand the Son’s whole redemptive assumption of the concrete historical situation of sinful man under the Law and death, as climaxing in the Cross. Moreover, there is a distinctly ecclesiological dimension here. Having suffered death in a manner which — unlike the deaths of Isaiah and John the Baptist — kept “his body undivided and in perfect soundness,” so that “no pretext be afforded that would divide the Church” (24.4), Jesus now takes up his abode “in one body among his peers” (9.4; cf. 9.2-4). Deification, according to Athanasius, is the fruit of Christ’s atoning work, and takes form in the Church.
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