Athanasius's Doctrine of Divinization 

The Word ``was made man so that we might be made God'' (De Inc 54.3; Robertson 65). What did Athanasius mean when he used the word theopoie_? Literally, this word means ``to make God'' or, more politely, ``to make divine.'' Can humans be made God? Even though the Arian controversy was, at a fundamental level, about whether a spirit being could be made divine, Athanasius used the word theopoie_ casually, seemingly with little thought for the potential it had to contradict his main argument. If mortal humans can be made God, why couldn't the Word himself be made a God? ``For Arius, Jesus...becomes God only in the way that every saint may be deified'' (Rusch 17).

Despite the potential for confused concepts, Athanasius did not take time or space to explain what his word theopoie_ meant. He took it for granted that his readers knew what he meant and agreed with this doctrine. The Arians must have agreed with it, because Athanasius could use it as the starting point for an argument: ``For man had not been deified if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were very God'' (Orat 2.70; Robertson 386). ``If, by a partakability of the Spirit we shall become partakers of the divine nature, it would be madness then afterwards to call the Spirit an originated entity, and not of God; for on account of this also those who are in him are made divine. But then if he makes man divine, it is not dubious to say his nature is of God'' (Ad Serap 1.24; Egan 161-162).

Background of Athanasius's doctrine

Athanasius could use this concept because it was part of his cultural background. The Greek moralists and ancient mysteries taught that a person may be deified by contemplating the eternal and eliminating the sensuous (Harnack 2:10, 337). Since the Greeks considered some of their ``gods'' to be of human origin, it was not strange to think of a theopoi_sis. Platonists, Stoics, and Cynics all spoke of something divine within humans (ibid., 1:119). Plotinus taught that purification led to deification (González 349).

Since many early Christians were influenced by Plotinus and NeoPlatonism, divinization found its way into Christianity with the support of Psalm 86:6 and 2 Peter 1:4. This was aided by the ``elasticity of the concept `theos' '' (Harnack 1:119) --- Origen could speak of many supernatural theoi (Rusch 15). The term theopoie_ was simply not well defined. Divinization was never ``adequately defined in the creeds and dogmas of the church'' (Pelikan 2:34). ``Clarification of the term `deification' had to await the resolution of the conflict over the deity of Christ'' (ibid. 1:155).20 The concept did not ``really mean anything, for it was impossible to understand it in any serious sense'' (Harnack 4:290).

Pelikan points out a problem: ``The church could not specify what it meant to promise that man would become divine until it had specified what it meant to confess that Christ had always been divine'' (1:155). In orthodox theology, they cannot be divine in the same way. ``The idea of deification in the Greek fathers had run the danger of obscuring the distinction between Creator and creature'' (ibid. 1:345). ``Some Fathers feel the boldness of the formula; but that is very rare'' (Harnack 3:164).

Despite its vagueness, the concept was widely known and used and believed. ``The definition of the salvation of man as his deification was a standard element of Eastern theology'' (Pelikan 2:46). ``After Theophilus, Ireneæus, Hippolytus, and Origen, it is found in all the Fathers of the ancient Church'' (Harnack 3:164 note 2, which also cites passages from Ephraem, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Apollonarius, Macarius, Pseudo-hippolytus, Dionysus the Areopagite, Sophronius, Leo of Russia, and Gennadius. Lampe (631) includes most of the above and Maxentius, Basil, Cyril, and Epiphanius.

Athanasius was working with a widespread but loosely-defined tradition with roots in preChristian philosophy. Irenaeus mentioned the concept several times, with only brief explanation (evidence that he assumed that his readers would be familiar with the term). He noted that Christians could be called God: ``There is none other called God by the Scriptures except the Father of all, and the Son, and those who possess the adoption'' (Against Heresies, book IV, preface, section 4; AnteNicene Fathers 1:463). We are human in the beginning, but ``at length gods'' (IV 38.4; ANF 1:522). We are raised up ``to the life of God'' (V 9.2; ANF 1:535).

In Alexandria, Clement wrote, ``the Logos of God had become man so that you might learn from a man how a man may become God'' (Prot 1.8.4; Pelikan 1:155). Origen connected the concept with union with God: ``From Him [Christ] there began the union of the divine with the human nature, in order that the human, by communion with the divine, might rise to be divine'' (Cels 3.28; ANF 4:475). ``Identification with Christ would lift the believer through the human nature of Christ to union with his divine nature and thus with God and thus to deification'' (Pelikan 1:155; Orat 27.13; Cels 3.28).

Athanasius qualifies the doctrine

In his use of this concept, Athanasius is closer to Irenaeus and Clement than to Origen (Robertson 65). In several places, echoing Clement, Athanasius said that Christ became man so that man might become God, or gods, or divine, or exalted.21 What did he mean? At least once he felt ``the boldness of the formula'' and clarified in his third treatise against the Arians: ``To become as the Father is impossible for us creatures.'' ``There be one Son by nature...we too become sons, not as He in nature and truth, but according to the grace of Him that calleth, and though we are men from the earth, and yet called gods, not as the True God or His Word.... We are sons, not as the Son, as gods, not as He Himself. '' (Orat 3.19-20; Robertson 404-405). Similarly, in Orat 1.37 he briefly noted that we are children by grace, not by nature. We are like the Son ``not in essence but in sonship, which we shall partake from Him'' (De Syn 53; Robertson 479).

If we cannot be gods by nature or essence, in what way are we to be like God? ``We are as God by imitation, not by nature'' (Orat 3.20; Robertson 405). Jesus did not mean ``that we might be as God,'' but that we should imitate him (Orat 3.19; Robertson 404). ``Albeit we cannot become like God in essence, yet by progress in virtue imitate God'' (Ad Afros 7; Robertson 492).

Immortality, incorruptibility, and impassibility

But imitation or moral virtue is only a minor aspect of theopoi_sis. More frequently Athanasius connects the concept with immortality and, in keeping with 2 Peter 1:4, incorruptibility and impassibility. These three concepts are frequently found together, but we can discuss them one at a time. Athanasius connected immortality with divinization in several places: ``As the Lord, putting on the body, became man, so we men are deified by the Word...and henceforth inherit life everlasting'' (Orat 3.34; Robertson 413). Because we partake of the divine nature, we will ``reign everlastingly'' (Orat 3.40; Robertson 415). After Christ's resurrection from the dead, his ``flesh had risen and put off its mortality and been deified'' (Orat 3.48; Robertson 420). ``Whereas what is human comes to an end, what is divine does not. For which reason also when we are dead...he raises us up'' (Easter letter 29, fragment 2; Robertson 550). Harnack frequently mentions immortality as part of the concept;22 others also mention it.23

Athanasius also mentions incorruption as a result of divinization. Sometimes this means an incorruptible body, i.e., an immortal one, and sometimes it means one that is free from sin and its corruptions. Sometimes it is not clear which facet he has in mind. Here are passages in which the former seems to be meant: ``The flesh, corruptible as it was, should no longer after its own nature remain mortal, but because of the Word who had put it on, should abide incorruptible. For as He, having come in our body, was conformed to our condition, so we, receiving Him, partake of the immortality that is from Him'' (Orat 3.57; Robertson 425).

Divinization also produces an incorruptible mind: ``By his dwelling in the flesh, sin might perfectly be expelled from the flesh, and we might have a free mind'' (Orat 2.56; Robertson 378). ``He let his own body suffer...and thenceforth the flesh might be made impassible and immortal...that henceforth men might for ever abide incorruptible, as a temple of the Word'' (Orat 3.58; Robertson 425). Jesus Christ calls on humans ``to direct their still existing freedom to obedience to the divine commandments, thereby restoring...freedom, so that humanity is thus rendered capable of receiving incorruptibility'' (Harnack 2:271).

Closely associated with an incorruptible or sinless mind is the concept of impassibility or not feeling the (sinful) passions of the flesh. This has obvious roots in preChristian philosophy.24 To Origen and Clement, ``the ethical and religious ideal is the state without sorrow, the state of insensibility to all evils.... The created spirit attains its likeness God and eternal the victory over sensuousness'' (ibid. 2:337-238).

Athanasius continued the concept: ``The Word...`carried' my affections,...and so I became free from them.... Men, their passions as if changed and abolished in the Impassible, henceforth become themselves impassible and free from them forever'' (Orat 3.34; Robertson 412). ``He let his own body suffer...and thenceforth the flesh might be made impassible and immortal'' (Orat 3.58; Robertson 425). ``The Lord became man...that He might Himself lighten these very sufferings of the flesh and free it from them'' (Orat 3.56; Robertson 424). ``We by his sufferings might put on freedom from suffering and incorruption, and abide unto life eternal'' (Ad Max 4; Letter 61.4; Robertson 579).

Spiritual union with Christ

How is divinization achieved? Athanasius simply attributes it to the incarnation: ``He deified men by Himself becoming man'' (Orat 1.38; Kelly 378). ``He deified that which He put on'' (Orat 1.42; Robertson 331). ``Being God, He [the Son] has taken to Him the flesh, and being in the flesh deifies the flesh'' (Orat 3.38; Robertson 414). Athanasius usually includes a qualifier or a conditional tense, but the above three quotes simply state it as fact that all humanity has been deified by the incarnation. Human nature has been altered by the fact that the Son of God was once in union with it. The underlying assumption is that there has been some communication of properties, and this assumption is in accordance with Platonic thought.25

Athanasius usually includes a qualifier on the concept of divinization: Only Christians are divinized. The Word has united himself with humanity, making divinization possible, but it is also necessary for individuals to unite themselves with divinity in a spiritual union. Athanasius's ``doctrine of the deification of the Christian in Christ...implies the mystical body. We are in Christ...for we have been united with God'' (Pelikan 1:404, citing Orat 1.39; 2.69-70). Both Irenaeus and Origen discussed union with the divine.26

To effect our divinization, we must be united with Christ. ``As the Lord, putting on the body, became man, so we men are deified by the Word as being taken to Him through his flesh, and henceforth inherit life everlasting'' (Orat 3.34; Robertson 413). ``They have this grace [you are gods] from the Father only by partaking of the Word through the Spirit'' (Orat 1.9; Rusch 70). ``Because of the Word in us we are sons and gods'' (Orat 3.25; Kelly 378). ``I am from the earth, being by nature mortal, but afterwards I have become the Word's flesh'' (Orat 3.34; Robertson 412). ``We, receiving Him, partake of the immortality that is from Him'' (Orat 3.57; Robertson 425). ``Man, being united to Him, may be able to which come from God'' (Orat 4.6; Robertson 435). ``By partaking of Him, we partake of the Father'' (De syn 51; Robertson 477). Psalm 86:8 is said to refer to those who had ``become partakers of the Word'' (Ad Afros 7; Robertson 492). We are ``partakers of the Godhead of the Word'' (Ad Epic 6; Robertson 572). ``We are receiving the Body of the Word Himself'' (Ad Max 2; Letter 61.2; Robertson 578).

The concept of union is illustrated by the idea that we are made Word because of our union with the Word: ``In the Christ we are all quickened; the flesh being no longer earthly, but being henceforth made Word [log_theis_s], by reason of God's Word who for our sake `became flesh' '' (Orat 3.33; Robertson 412). Similarly, we are made sons because of our union with the Son. ``As an alternative to the idea of divinization (theopoi_sis), Athanasius often uses that of adoption as sons (huiopoi_sis)'' (Kelly 378, citing Orat 1.38, 3.25). We are like God ``in sonship, which we shall partake from Him'' (De Syn 53; Robertson 479).

Our union with the Godhead is through Christ, and that is effected through the Holy Spirit: ``The Word became flesh in order...that we, participating in His Spirit, might be deified'' (De Decret 14; Kelly 377). ``We are divinized by intimate union with the Holy Spirit, who unites us to the Son of God'' (Pelikan 1:379, citing Orat 2.59 and Ad Serap 1.23-24). ``By participation of the Spirit, we are knit into the Godhead'' (Orat 3.24; Pelikan 1:216). There is ``sharing'' by the Holy Spirit ``of the Son with us.''... By a partakability of the Spirit we shall become partakers of the divine nature'' (Ad Serap 1.24; Egan 161-162). By the Holy Spirit ``the Word makes divine these originated things'' (Ad Serap 1.25; Egan 166). All this is done at baptism, which unites us to the Godhead and makes us a child of God (Orat 2.41; 1.34).

Later developments

I have taken the space to quote Athanasius at length, to demonstrate that his doctrine, although not specifically defined in any one passage, is described in enough detail to know what Athanasius meant by the term theopoie_: through union with Christ via the Holy Spirit, we receive immortality and we escape the corruption of sin. Since these are divine attributes, it is described as divinization.

However, later theologians mixed the concept with mysticism. This causes confusion when historians apply 10th century concepts to Athanasius.27 Part of the doctrinal change was lexical. Athanasius used the terms theopoie_ and theopoi_sis; most other Eastern theologians used not only theopoie_ but also the_sis,28 and the latter word especially acquired mystical connotations. The Cappadocians seem closest to Athanasius's concept, although ascetic concepts may have played a more prominent role.29

Dionysus the Areopagite shifted the concept further into mysticism (Pelikan 1:345, 2:46, 259-260). Maxentius connected it with knowledge and contemplation (ibid. 2:10-12). This was sometimes taken to excess, as when Psellus claimed that a deified person had the power to deify someone else (Pelikan 2:247). The Nestorian Patriarch Timothy had to warn ``that this did not mean that `we become sons of God by nature or that we are worshiped by all men as [our Lord] is.' Babai likewise rejected...any suggestion that `we are sons of God as he is and are to be worshiped through our union with God the Logos' '' (Pelikan 2:46). Gregory Palamas had to argue that deified persons did not become God by nature and essence. These excesses could have been avoided by a careful reading of Athanasius.

Divinization was a common doctrine in the East; it had only a small influence in the West. Irenaeus had it, as noted above. Hilary had something similar: ``The Word God became flesh in order that...the flesh might be elevated to God the Word....  He...elevates us to the nature of His Godhead'' (Trinity 1.11, 13). Harnack gives us an intriguing note: ``The idea of deification is also found in Western writers, especially Augustine.... Augustine brought it to an edifying end'' (3:165 n. 2). Harnack, however, did not bring the topic to an edifying end, because he tells us nothing about what Augustine did with the topic!

Although I have used many pages for this exploration of the topic of divinization, it is not a theological legacy of Athanasius. It is only a footnote, an appendix. The later doctrine in Eastern churches owes much more to Dionysus and Maxentius than it does to Athanasius.




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20 I do not think that the term was ever fully clarified. Athanasius clarified it somewhat, but then the concept was changed by Dionysian mysticism (Pelikan 1:345).

21 ``The Word became man so that we might be deified'' (De inc 54.3; Kelly 378). ``The Word became flesh in order...that we, participating in His Spirit, might be deified'' (De Decret 14; Kelly 377). ``The Word of God...took a human body for the salvation and well-being of man, that having shared in human birth He might make man partake in the divine and spiritual nature'' (Vita Ant 74; Robertson 215). ``He himself has made us sons to the Father, and deified man, having become man himself.... Being God, he later became man, that instead he might deify us'' (Orat 1.38-39; Rusch 101-102). ``Being God, He [the Son] has taken to Him the flesh, and being in the flesh deifies the flesh.... If that He might redeem mankind, the Word did come among us; and that He might hallow and deify them, the Word became flesh'' (Orat 3.38-39; Robertson 414-415). ``The Son of God became man so as to deify us in Himself'' (Ad Adelph 4; Kelly 378; Letter 60.4).

22 ``The salvation presented in Christianity consists in the redemption of the human race from the state of mortality and the sin involved in it, that men might attain divine life.... The highest blessing bestowed in Christianity is adoption into the divine sonship, completed in participation in the divine nature, or more accurately, in the deification of man through the gift of immortality.... Theopoi_sis and athanasia [immortality] are often expressly combined'' (3:164). ``The apotheosis of mortal man through his acquisition of immortality (divine life) is the idea of salvation which was taught in the ancient mysteries. It is here adopted as a Christian one'' (2:10-11). ``The Greeks in the main did not connect any clear conception with the thought of the possession of salvation...further than the idea of imperishableness'' (3:165 n. 2). ``The highest blessing bestowed in Christianity is the deification of human nature through the gift of immortality'' (2:240).

23 ``The final goal and result of this saving knowledge, this forgiveness, and this rescue from death was `deification' (the_sis)'' (Pelikan 1:155). ``Jesus can make us like God, which means, for Athanasius, make us immortal and give us eternal knowledge'' (Rusch 23). ``As the immortality that we have lost consisted in existence according to the Image of God, and was therefore an existence similar to that of God, the salvation that we now need is a sort of divinization (theopoi_sis)'' (Gonzalez 297). `` the sacrament of regeneration by which the divine image is renewed. The participant becomes an heir of eternal life, and the Father's adoptive son'' (Kelly 431).

24 ``The mind that has freed itself from the sensuous and lives in constant contemplation of the eternal is also in the end vouchsafed a view of the invisible and is itself deified'' (Harnack 2:337). The Greeks ``regarded the Gods as passionless, blessed men living forever'' (ibid. 1:119). ``The gift of immortality...includes...a blessedness devoid of suffering'' (ibid. 3:164). Ascetics supposedly had ``a foretaste of the future liberation from the senses and deification'' (ibid. 3:166).

25 ``Like Athanasius, too, [Gregory of Nyssa] translates the Biblical idea of solidarity into the language of Platonic realism. The whole of human nature, he claims, constitutes at it were a single living being'' (Kelly 381, citing Or Cat 16). Cyril's argument ``was influenced by the Platonic realism which affected the thought of Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa. Human nature was treated as a generic whole, so that when the divine Word assumed it at the incarnation it could reasonably be said, `by virtue of the flesh united to Him, He has us all in Himself' '' (ibid. 397, citing C Nest 1, In Ioh 1.14).

26 In Irenaeus, ``the sole way in which immortality as a physical condition can be obtained is by its possessor uniting himself realiter with human nature, in order to deify it `by adoption' '' (Harnack 2:241). In Origen, ``identification with Christ would lift the believer through the human nature of Christ to union with his divine nature and thus with God and thus to deification'' (Pelikan 1:155; citing Orat 27.13; Cels 3.28). ``From Him [Christ] there began the union of the divine with the human nature, in order that the human, by communion with the divine, might rise to be divine'' (Cels 3.28; ANF 4:475).

27 Rusch (23), for example, attributes to Athanasius the idea that divinization gives us ``eternal knowledge'' --- which seems to have little basis in Athanasius's writings.

28 The_sis is not listed in the exhaustive Index Athanasianum compiled by Guido Müller, nor does Lampe list any occurrences. For the_sis, Lampe cites Gregory of Nazianzus, John of Damascus, Dionysus the Areopagite, and Maxentius most frequently. Pelikan (1:155) implies that Clement of Alexandria used the_sis, but this may be an anachronism.

29 ``Many of Gregory's [of Nyssa] conceptions remind one of the Enneads of Plotinus, especially his teaching on purification as leading to deification'' (Quasten 268).


Written December 1993.