Deification and the Christian Life
Deification - the Meaning
Salvation in its fullness is yet to come. The Father has granted us all the possibility of salvation through His sending of the Son to live, die and be raised again for us. He has poured out the Holy Spirit upon the Church to enable us to grow stronger in that salvation through the offering of our lives. He holds before us the promise that the salvation to which we shall attain is no less than a partaking of the divine nature, (2 Peter 1:4). Future salvation, therefore, is not just about being restored to fellowship with God through atonement, it is also about participation in Christ by the Holy Spirit as we are transformed "from glory to glory."
"But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord."
[2 Corinthians 3:18]
How can it be, some say, that we can partake of the divine nature in this way? God is God and does not impart his nature to anyone else nor can we know him in that ineffable nature. This is true but it is not the whole truth, for if it were, we would always approach God from a distance, as it were, in clouds of ignorance and isolation. Sadly, this is the state of many today who do not know Christ.
The Church, however, has always made a distinction, without separation, between "God-in-Himself" and "God-for-us." "God-in-Himself," in his nature, is utterly unknowable and beyond all human grasp and comprehension. When St. Peter in his Second Letter talks about partaking in the divine nature, he does not mean that our participation in God is at this level; rather he teaches that we can participate in God as He comes to us in his energies, (that is his powers). God’s essence is forever closed to us. No one may look upon God and live. No one may know that which is finitely beyond all knowing. However, the economy of God, his dispensation in loving-kindness to all is to make his dwelling among men by his energies, a Presence which the righteous of the Old Testament referred to the "Shekinah," the cloud of glory. Salvation is allowing these energies, God from God, uncreated not created, to purge us of all things ungodly that we might participate in God Himself. Such is the breadth, length and depth of His Love for us not to leave us as orphans but to take us to Himself. This is why St. Gregory Palamas took such great pains to confront and refute the monk Barlaam of Calabria in the 14th Century. Barlaam had a theoretical and intellectual appreciation of God that did not permit him to entertain the closeness of the Lord Himself by His energies in the human heart. St. Gregory upheld the biblical doctrine of a God who appears to us, transforms us and calls us to dwell in Him and He in us by his energies. As we come to Him in repentance, stillness and trust we are given to see the Divine Light and participate in its enlightenment. This also is our salvation, a gift of the Holy Spirit.
In support of this mystical theology we may see that the Scriptures are littered with references to the theophanies of God to the righteous. Most will recall the reflected glory of the Lord that shone in Moses face when he descended from Sinai with the Law having conversed with God, (Exodus 34:33-35). Just as remarkable is the account of the theophany of the Lord to the Prophet Isaiah in the Temple, (Isaiah 6). Here the glory transformed the prophet from within and cleansed him to announce God’s message to the people. Although the Seraphim were the vehicles of this transformation, God Himself was clearly directly involved; otherwise there would have been no possibility for Isaiah to be purified.
That which was occasional for the prophets in the Old Testament became universal in the Church at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit energised the people of God to become a royal priesthood, a holy nation. The coming of the Holy Spirit in the energies of God has the ability today to transform our humanity into its full potential as God-bearing to the Cosmos. As we participate more and more in the glory of the Lord so shall we be purified and reflect God’s glory. We know this to be true because we have seen Christ as He truly is at the Transfiguration, and not Him only, but ourselves also if we attain to that fullness of salvation in the Last Day.
Probably the most famous account of the deifying power of God in the modern era is the celebrated account of the meeting between St. Seraphim of Sarov and his disciple Nicholas Motovilov in the forests of central Russia in the 19th century.
"After these words I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the centre of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow blanket which covered the forest glade and the snowflakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder."
This account is not exceptional or unheard of in the history of the Church. It is of great antiquity and presents unmistakeable evidence for the transforming power of God in human life. We can go back to the desert fathers and mothers and hear the same biblical message: -
"Abba Joseph came to Abba Lot and said to him: ‘Father, according to my strength I keep a moderate rule of prayer and fasting, quiet and meditation, and as far as I can I control my imagination; what more must I do?’ The old man rose and held his hands towards so the sky so that his fingers became like flames of fire and he said: ‘If you will, you shall become all flame.’"
Nowhere in the Scriptures or the Living Tradition of
the Church shall we find the idea that this experience of salvation as
participation in God by His energies is limited to a small number of
really holy persons. It is the normal and general understanding of
salvation for all. Certain saints in the Church represent this salvation
most unambiguously to us but their witness and calling is neither rare nor
exceptional. It is open to all.
Achieving our Goal
In saying that this salvation is open to all, we do not mean that all the baptised achieve it. Indeed, there is such a parlous ignorance of these matters by many Christians today that such normal and ordinary sanctity has indeed become rare. Our responsibility before God is show how we may attain unto this blessed state by striving for it ourselves.
The "how" is simply enough ... self-giving love, prayer, faith, obedience, humility, watchfulness, worship, the holy mysteries (sacraments), repentance, confession, fasting, self denial, vigils, pilgrimage … all these and more are the indispensable means by which we may advance toward and in our final salvation, not only for ourselves but also for the world we are called to love and serve.
The fact that these means of grace seem sometimes to be so singularly ineffective in Christian life is not of course indicative of any defect in the means themselves let alone God who is the author of them, rather perhaps this reveals a deeper malaise in western post-Christian culture which tends to disable Church life almost without us realising it. All of us can be influenced at deep levels in our hearts by beliefs and practices which linger long after we have repudiated them or which creep up on us in disguise. We may identify two key problems here: - salvation without the Church and salvation by God alone. We know that these are heresies, but we need to know why and we need to know how to correct them.
St. Cyprian of Carthage said that there is "no salvation without the Church." In saying this he wasn’t trying to prop up the Church as an institution through fear of damnation; rather, he understood the Scriptural principle of Israel as a corporate personality. He knew that God made salvation possible by acting in the midst of His People. His People could certainly include persons who were not ethnically Jewish, even in the Old Testament. The boundaries of the Church, now the New Israel, are forever expanding. Nonetheless we become whole; we achieve salvation as persons in our relationships to God and other persons in community.
This community is not any old organisation; it is the Body of Christ, the Church, inspired, convened and energised by the Holy Spirit. Here we may find salvation. This we know without a shadow of a doubt. So, our participation in God, our theiosis, is facilitated by our incorporation into the communion of the deifying Spirit, the Church. Outside the Church we are just lonely individuals, trying, with greater or lesser confidence to make it on our own. Most Christians of course would resist such notions, but there is a more subtle form of the same error; namely that the Church is merely the calling together of faithful individual Christians … much in the same way that I might belong to a golf club in order to play golf. Missing from this idea of the Church is the necessity of belonging to the body in order to find my true identity as a child of God. Man is a social animal and salvation is social as well!
The second error, salvation by God alone, is capable of an Orthodox interpretation but not always given one! It is certainly true that only God can save in the sense that no one other than Christ Himself can release us from the power of sin and death.
"And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." [Acts 4:12]
However, we are not simply saved by "inviting Jesus into our life," "saying the ‘sinner’s prayer’," or by "being baptised in the Holy Spirit." Nor are we saved simply by believing the right things, or by doing this or other religious duty. We are saved in so far as we persevere in the alignment of our wills with God’s will, in the purging and opening up of our capacities by, to and for grace, in the exercise of sacrificial love, in a faith that commends itself to God by works that test its fruitfulness.
This symphony of our energy and will with His as He saves us in and through our struggles and our victories is called "synergeia" in Orthodoxy. It is the joint action of God and Man for a final salvation, theiosis. This joint action is "asymmetrical" in that the power belongs to God and Him alone, but the capacity to appropriate, receive and give, lies with us as we make room for the divine grace to act more and more freely in our lives. There is a mutual reinforcement going on here as our faith makes us stronger to serve God, who in turn strengthens us by His grace for our ongoing Christian life. It is a life long process of either short or long duration.
One of the reasons why so many Christians lives remain ineffective and lacking both in purpose and direction is that the Augustinian legacy in the West has led either to a depreciation of human effort or a placing of too much confidence in it. The Blessed Augustine was surely right to confront the British heretic monk Pelagius who believed that our freedom could procure our own salvation from God. Augustine was wrong, however to claim, especially in his later years, that our wills were utterly compromised and disabled but for divine grace. Many Protestant reformers emphasised this last point in their fear of Pelagianism almost to the point of saying that to do any work for our salvation was an abomination. These quietists (whose only hope of salvation is for God to "do it all" according to his pre-ordained plan) have fatally wounded the western religious mind. In rejecting such heretical notions the secular sphere has instead become thoroughly Pelagian under the influence of the so-called Enlightenment. Western Man’s religious self is inactive and God-absorbed. His secular self, the one he parades in the public domain as the real, practical, "relevant" truth of his existence, has become hyperactive and God-absent. All this has happened simply because the west has lost its former Orthodox understanding of synergeia or synergy. It lost it a long time ago because it ceased to hope.
A return to synergy then means understanding clearly how this is applied to Christ Himself. In Him we have the model of what we are to become by grace, (theiosis for us); but for Him a union which He knew by nature and from all eternity.
For Christ then, possessing both a human and a divine nature in His one Person, the Chalcedonian definition can be extended to cover His wills and powers as well as His natures. This is precisely what St. John of Damascus and St. Maximus the Confessor taught against the Monothelites and their ilk who claimed erroneously that there was only one will or energy in Christ. As it is with Christ, so it is with us except that the divine will and power is united to us not by nature but by grace. In every other respect, the operations of our guidance and empowerment are the same. We freely respond to divine grace and that grace thereby enhances both our freedom and strength to know and serve God at deeper and deeper levels, indeed "from glory to glory." The operation of the divine will on the human will, the divine power upon the human capacity, for Christ and for us is, as St. Maximus taught, "by impulsion, not compulsion." They enhance each other in a complementary way, theandrically, that is: humanly and divinely together, a synergy of powers.
According to this understanding, we must never be tempted to choose between God and Man in salvation terms although the power to save remains with God and the capacity to cooperate remains with Man. Both are necessary partners in the same process. When the divine and the human are unequally yoked then either a graceless salvation by works or a life demeaning pietism results. When both partners are harmoniously balanced and united, then salvation is assisted. This has enormous implications for the Church’s mission, pastoral care and spirituality. Nothing less than the life or death issues of salvation are at stake here. The prize of Orthodoxy is deification, a joy in God that shall never end. The cost of heresy is death and despair. Let us lay hold then of that which Christ offers us and work for those blessings that we can never earn and only He can give. Let us become what we are, but more fully, children of God and heirs of an everlasting and new Creation in the heavens, the New Jerusalem, the Church, prepared as a Bride adorned for her husband to come, Amen.