Gods in the Making: an Analysis of Deification in the Thought of Athanasius

“He became man, that we might become God,” shouts the wild-eyed preacher with passionate glee; is he a disciple of the New Age movement infiltrating the church? Maybe he is a pantheistic practitioner of Eastern Mysticism eager to introduce Eastern philosophy? The truth is, he is none of the above; the words are not those of a Yogi or New Age mystic but of the early church father and staunch defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy, Athanasius.[1]

Though these words may be out of place in many Protestant churches, they have long found a receptive audience in the sanctuaries of the Orthodox Church. Following in the footsteps of the Eastern Fathers, they still teach the doctrine of deification, so shockingly captured in Athanasius’ famous quote. Though the doctrine of deification, or theōsis, did not originate with Athanasius, he is unique among the early Fathers for making it the centre of His theological system.[2] Because of its centrality to his thought, Athanasius provides a great opportunity to understand deification in history. The purpose of this paper is to interact with his thought and answer two questions: What did Athanasius mean when he spoke of deification? Should it make a difference to our beliefs today? To answer these questions, we will first briefly trace the theme deification in the thought of Athanasius on the incarnation, his explicit teachings about deification, and his thought on how we are deified. We will then briefly analyze Athanasius’ teaching in light of Scripture.  Finally, we will conclude with a summary of the doctrine and its veracity, with some preliminary thoughts on its application to contemporary Protestant thought.

 

Athanasius’ teaching about deification did not emerge out of a void; it was strongly tied to the circumstances of his life. As a young man, Athanasius was a deacon close to Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria.[3] Before he took over the Alexandrian episcopate, Athanasius found himself playing a key role in the controversy over the heterodox teaching of a fellow Alexandrian, the presbyter Arius.[4] Though it was officially condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325, Athanasius’ battles with Arianism would consume the rest of his life and lead to 40 years of hardship, with persecution and exile.[5] In his controversy with Arius, deification became one of Athanasius’ key arguments for Christ’s deity. He argued that for us to be deified in Christ, He could not have been deified Himself. He must have been fully man so that He could taste death for us and unite our humanity to Himself[6] and fully God so that, through our union with Him, we might be exalted and become partakers of the divine nature.[7] It was Athanasius’ contention that only by being fully God Himself could Jesus invite us to partake of His own nature as God.[8]

Because his teaching on deification was so intimately tied to his anti-Arian polemic and incarnational theology, what he has to say is scattered throughout all of his works without a single systematic explication of the doctrine. Though the idea is scattered throughout variegated contexts, there appears to be a few consistent themes throughout that explain what exactly Athanasius meant by deification. The first theme, in which the others consist, is the restoration of the Image of God. Humans, as those created in the image of God, were able to contemplate and have communion with Him,[9] but in the fall, they sought those things nearer to themselves, lost the image of God, and now languished in corruption.[10] Much of Athanasius’ thought on deification can be understood as the restoration of humans to what they were meant to be—the perfect and unblemished image of God. The restoration of this image allows man to know God once again; through this restoration, we “receive the idea of the unseen Father.”[11] In deification, we receive “knowledge of the invisible Father.”[12] Being restored in the image of God, humans are united with God and share in communion with him. Sharing in the divine life and being united with Christ is both deification and the means by which deification happens.[13] Though the restoration of the image is the head under which the rest of the themes are found, the most prominent theme is the perfection of humans;[14] in deification, they become incorruptible, morally pure, and immortal. In the fall we entered into a corruptible state; we are mortal and immoral.[15] Through our union with Christ, Christian deification involves being clothed in incorruption—being freed from sin—and the inheritance of immortality—receiving everlasting life with God.[16]

For Athanasius, this process of deification—being restored to the image of God and so knowing Him, having communion with Him, and being perfected in Him—is something that happens progressively in this life and culminates in the resurrection.[17] Though it is ultimately by grace,[18] it is a work of the Holy Spirit working synergistically with believers as they use the means of grace provided for them (baptism, Eucharist, asceticism, etc.).[19]

 

So far we have looked at what deification was to Athanasius, now we must briefly ask: Is it true? Though the word itself invites all sorts of pantheistic speculation, nothing that Athanasius seems to have taught about deification departs from Christian Theism. Though our deification makes us sons of God by grace and even, in some vague sense, “divine,” we do not come to share in the essence of God.[20] All that remains is to ask if it can be found in Scripture.

The primary text to which proponents of deification, including Athanasius, turn is 2 Peter 1:4. Here we read that by God’s glory and excellence, believers will “become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.”[21] In context, Peter’s focus is on the moral behavior of believers (vv. 3, 4d, 5-7, 8-9),[22] and so most commentators agree that he is  referring to the escape of the believer from the sinfulness of the flesh—God’s gift of moral perfection or at least the ability to fight immorality.[23] Athanasius’ understanding of deification as incorruptibility and immortality is in line with Peter’s thought, for the result of moral perfection is release from the consequences of sin, being freed from death and decay.[24] The other aspects of Athanasius’ thought are nowhere in Scripture associated with being made partakers of the divine nature, but—other than his understanding of the image of God—are attested to under different theological categories.[25]

 

What then is to be made of all of this? For Athanasius, deification is the restoration of humankind to God’s image—meaning that they can know Him, are united in communion with Him, and are being perfected through this unity. It is worked out in this life but will ultimately find its consummation in the resurrection.  Though his understanding of the image of God is not what is intended in Genesis, his understanding of deification as incorruptibility and immortality is a solid inference from 2 Peter 1:4. The rest of his understandings of deification correlate roughly with the Protestant doctrines of adoption, sanctification, glorification, and being in Christ.

Though deification here is consistent with Christian Theism and Scriptural teachings, it would be best to avoid using it as a dominating theological theme[26] or as its own area of soteriology. What deification covers is elsewhere in Scripture referred to by sanctification and glorification. We would be best to use these more consistent Scriptural labels and avoid the possibilities of misunderstanding pregnant in the term deification. That being said, because of the orthodox nature of Athanasius’ thought in this area, discussion of glorification with the term deification could do well for ecumenical discussion with the Eastern Church. Finally, because Scripture does speak of us partaking of the divine nature, we would do well to wrestle through the profound implications of what it means for man to be glorified.

 


Bibliography

Athanasius. “Contra Arianos.” In Bettenson, Henry, ed. The Early Christian Fathers: A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius. London: Oxford University Press, 1956.

———. “Defense of the Nicene Definition.” In Athanasius, and Archibald Robertson. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Vol. 4. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.

———. “De Incarnatione.” In Bettenson, Henry, ed. The Early Christian Fathers: A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius. London: Oxford University Press, 1956.

———. “De Synodis.” In Quasten, Johannes. Patrology: The Golden Age of Greek Patristic Literature From the Council of Nicaea to the Council of Chalcedon. Vol. 3. Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1963.

———. “Four Discourses Against the Arians.” In Athanasius, and Archibald Robertson. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Vol. 4. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.

———. “Letters of Athanasius: 60. Ad Adelphium.” In Athanasius, and Archibald Robertson. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Vol. 4. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.

———. “On the Incarnation of the Word.” In Athanasius, and Archibald Robertson. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Vol. 4. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.

Bauckham, Richard. Jude, 2 Peter. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1983.

Finch, Jeffrey. “Athanasius on the Deifying Work of the Redeemer.” In Theōsis: Deification in Christian Theology, edited by Stephen Finlan and Vladimir Kharlamov. Eugene, Or.: Pickwick Publications, 2006.

Gentry, Peter John, and Stephen J. Wellum. Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2012.

Green, Gene L. Jude and 2 Peter. Baker exegetical commentary on the new testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2008.

Jackson, Samuel Macauley, Lefferts Augustine Loetscher, and Friedrich Armin Loofs, eds. “Athanasius.” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1977.

Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Doctrines. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1958.

Moo, Douglas J. 2 Peter, and Jude: From Biblical Text– to Contemporary Life. The NIV application commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1996.

Murphy, Gannon. “Theosis?” Theology Today 65, no. 2 (July 2008): 191–212.

Neyrey, Jerome H., ed. 2 Peter, Jude: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. 1st ed. The Anchor Bible v. 37C. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Plas, Jan Van Der. “The Deification of Man: The Integration of Theology and Spirituality in Gregory of Nazianzus”. Vancouver, BC: Regent College, 2000.

Quasten, Johannes. Patrology: The Golden Age of Greek Patristic Literature From the Council of Nicaea to the Council of Chalcedon. Vol. 3. Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1963.

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity, A.D. 311-600. Revised 5th Edition. Vol. III. VIII vols. History of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981.

Schreiner, Thomas R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude. The new American commentary v. 37. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman, 2003.

Wahba, Fr. Matthias Farid. “The Spirituality of St. Athanasius According to His Paschal Letters.” Coptologia 18 (n.d.): 81–96.

Weinandy, Thomas G. Athanasius: A Theological Introduction. Great theologians series. Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007.

New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.

 


[1] Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction, Great theologians series (Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), 39.

[2] Jules Gross in, Jeffrey Finch, “Athanasius on the Deifying Work of the Redeemer,” in Theōsis: Deification in Christian Theology, ed. Stephen Finlan and Vladimir Kharlamov (Eugene, Or.: Pickwick Publications, 2006), 104; Fr. Matthias Farid Wahba, “The Spirituality of St. Athanasius According to His Paschal Letters,” Coptologia 18 (n.d.): 87.

[3] Samuel Macauley Jackson, Lefferts Augustine Loetscher, and Friedrich Armin Loofs, eds., “Athanasius,” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1977), 343.

[4] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity, A.D. 311-600, Revised 5th Edition., vol. III, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981), 620.

[5] Weinandy, Athanasius, vii; Schaff, History of the Christian Church, III:633, 887–888.

[6]  Athanasius, Letters of Athanasius: 60. Ad Adelphium,” in Athanasius and Archibald Robertson, Athanasius: Select Works and Letters., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, vol. 4, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2 (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 576; Athanasius, “Contra Arianos,” in Henry Bettenson, ed., The Early Christian Fathers: A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), 404; ibid. iii. 33, in ibid. 399.

[7] Athanasius, “Four Discourses Against the Arians,” in Athanasius and Robertson, NPNF2, 4:316.

[8] Athanasius, “De Synodis,” in Johannes Quasten, Patrology: The Golden Age of Greek Patristic Literature From the Council of Nicaea to the Council of Chalcedon, vol. 3 (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1963), 71–72.

[9] Weinandy, Athanasius, 15, 35.

[10] Ibid., 15; J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1958), 377–378.

[11] Athanasius, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” in Athanasius and Robertson, NPNF2, 4:65.

[12] Athanasius, “De Incarnatione,” in Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers, 404.

[13]  Weinandy, Athanasius, 30, 100–101.

[14] Ibid., 34, 98; Finch, “Athanasius,” 121.

[15] Athanasius, “Four Discourses,” in Athanasius and Robertson, NPNF2, 4:386; Jan Van Der Plas, “The Deification of Man: The Integration of Theology and Spirituality in Gregory of Nazianzus” (Vancouver, BC: Regent College, 2000), 38–39.

[16] Finch, “Athanasius,” 119; Quasten, Patrology, 3:71; Athanasius, “De Inacarnatione,” in Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers; ibid., “Four Discourses,” in Athanasius and Robertson, NPNF2, 4:386, 412–413; ibid., “Defense of the Nicene Definition,” in ibid., 4:159.

[17] Quasten, Patrology, 3:71; Weinandy, Athanasius, 100–101.

[18] Finch, “Athanasius,” 111–112.

[19] Ibid., 111–117; Quasten, Patrology, 3:76; Plas, “The Deification of Man: The Integration of Theology and Spirituality in Gregory of Nazianzus,” 40.

[20] Weinandy, Athanasius, 40, 99.

[21] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[22] Though Bauckham sees ἀρετή (aretē) in v. 3 as being virtually synonymous with δοξα and referring to “the manifestation of divine power,” it is best to follow Schreiner in taking it as a reference to Jesus’ goodness, or moral virtue—both because of its common use in Greek literature and its use in v. 5. Richard Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1983), 178–179; Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, The new American commentary v. 37 (Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 292–293.

[23] Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 294–295; Douglas J. Moo, 2 Peter, and Jude: From Biblical Text– to Contemporary Life, The NIV application commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1996), 43–44; Jerome H. Neyrey, ed., 2 Peter, Jude: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 1st ed., The Anchor Bible v. 37C (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 158; Gene L. Green, Jude and 2 Peter, Baker exegetical commentary on the new testament (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2008), 186–187. Bauckham dissents, understanding it in the Hellenistic sense of entering “the eternal world of ‘the gods’…to become immortal and incorruptible.” Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter, 181.

[24] Neyrey, 2 Peter, Jude, 158.

[25] On the image of God see Peter John Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2012), 190–202.

[26] As in Gannon Murphy, “Theosis?,” Theology Today 65, no. 2 (July 2008): 206.

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