Musings on Theosis (Divinization)

Musings on Theosis or Divinization: "God became man so that man might become a god"

Byzantine Icon of St. Athanasius of AlexandriaThe Early Church had many battles with those who deny Jesus' divinity. Because they defended His divinity they had the chance to meditate on what it means for the Logos to become man. One of the great riches that came from their meditations was the teaching that

"God became man so that man might become a god." (cf. St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione or On the Incarnation 54:3, PG 25:192B; also Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 460)

This may sound weird at first because Christianity is a monotheistic religion and this means that there can be no other God than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:

"Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!" (Deuteronomy 6:4)

Both the Christians and the heretics held to this doctrine in the early days of the Church. The Christians wanted to pass on the apostolic tradition that the Logos was God and became flesh (John 1:1,14) and at the same time keep the doctrine that there is only one God. The heretics tried to limit mystery and couldn't understand how there can be three Persons in one God. They put a lot of effort in trying to understand the relationship between God and Jesus Christ while, like the faithful Christians, keeping the doctrine that there is only one God. This led them to assert many erroneous views such as Jesus being a creature or that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are only "modes" of the one true God. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church has faithfully kept the apostolic faith that there are three Persons in one God and rejected the heretics' erroneous views.

Because the Church Fathers believed that the Logos became flesh, this means that the nature of God and the nature of man are united in one Person. What does this imply? One of the answers is that man can be divinized (cf. 2 Peter 1:4; 1 John 3:1-3). This does not mean that man's nature changes into the nature of God. This simply means that man can partake in the divine nature of God. This has been a consistent teaching of the Fathers and even St. Thomas Aquinas. According to Aquinas, the Son is the Eternal Wisdom and "man is perfected in wisdom (which is his proper perfection, as he is rational) by participating [in] the Word of God" (ST III, q. 3. a. 8) and that the reason for the Incarnation is for

"the full participation of the Divinity, which is the true bliss of man and end of human life; and this is bestowed upon us by Christ's humanity; for Augustine says in a sermon (xiii de Temp): 'God was made man, that man might be made God' " (ST III, q. 1 a. 2).

What I would like to reflect on is in what way can we understand the teaching "God became man so that man might become a god." I will not try to get into the theological debate over essence and energies. I know that my Eastern Christian brothers and sisters believe that the divinization of man consists in seeing God's glory or His energies rather than seeing His essence as Aquinas and other Western Christians have taught. Because I do not believe I can bring enough light to the discussion I prefer to be silent on this issue for now. What I would like to do is to give a theological explanation of the teaching.

"God became man"

There can be no ascent of man unless God descends. God is infinitely above man and man by his power cannot form a friendship with Him because of his sin. Throughout history, however, there was a type of relationship between God and man. This was expressed in a contract or a covenant. God made promises to a particular group of people and this particular group made their own promises. Because of man's weaknesses he could not keep up with his promises. But God is not only infinitely above but also infinitely near. His love for man is infinite because He is infinite love. Where man goes He wants to go even if it means becoming weak like him, or even going to the dead with him. Because of His infinite love for us,

"he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:7-8).

The very act of the Incarnation shows what kind of God He is. The Jews have always thought of Him as the Creator of the universe, the One who created the universe out of nothing. He was the great I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Incarnation gives us a greater picture of who God is. In fact, it gives us more than a picture; it gives us a human face. The Incarnation shows that God is a kenotic being, a self-emptying being. But how can God empty Himself without becoming a non-God? It must not be a type of emptying which makes Himself to be a non-God, but a different kind. Thanks to revelation and human experience, there is one kind of self-emptying which is rich in value and that which does not destroy the essence but rather fulfills it or perfects it.

And that is love. Love is a total self-giving of one's self to another. We know from revelation that God is love and that He consists in three divine Persons: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father, the principle without a principle, is the source of origin for both the Son and the Spirit. The Father knows and loves Himself and this generates the Son and the Holy Spirit. He knows Himself and this gives Him an Idea of Himself, which is the Son. The Father knows the Son and loves Him. The Son in turn knows and loves the Father. The love between the Father and the Son generates another Person, who is the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that the Father creates the Son and the Holy Spirit. Because the Father is an eternal Father and this means that His identity necessarily consists of a relationship. So too with the Son. Because the Son is eternal, this means that His identity consists of a relationship. This in turn means that this is an eternal relationship, an eternal self-giving of each other, loving each other in the fullest sense. And that is why the Holy Spirit, the communion between the Father and the Son, is also eternal. The Incarnation, then, reveals the Trinity to us; it reveals to us who God really is. 

The Father could have sent the Son to the world in many ways. It is most appropriate for the Son to become flesh as a Son because being a Son is His very Person. This leads to a Mariology. Because the Son wanted to reveal Himself as a Son, He needed to be born of a woman (Gal 4:4). The Father, however, could not force any woman to accept to become the mother of His Son. The Father had to favor a woman who is willing to give a fiat, an assent, to His will. Through that favor and assent, the Holy Spirit will then dwell in her and she will bear a son called Jesus (see Catholic theologian, von Balthasar). Because of Mary's word, the Eternal Word became flesh. Her Son "will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Luke 1:33). His kingdom will not be limited to a particular group, but to the whole world. He is the Savior of all men (1 Tim 4:10; 2:4,6; 1 John 2:2).

We can see a glimpse of how the Son's relationship with man will be like through His relationship with Mary. The God-man does not treat man as slaves anymore, but as a family member. The relationship between Mary and Jesus was that of a mother and son, a familial relationship. This prefigures how His relationship with the other men will be like. Because of His act of kenosis on the cross as well as His resurrection, He no longer call His disciples slaves but friends. He also reveals them who God is, a Father. He will send them the Holy Spirit who will give us the power to cry out, "Abba, Father" (Romans 8:14-17). Everything that the Father gives will also be given to Him in the end. The relationship between God and man is that of a father and a son because of Jesus Christ with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus Christ came to do the Father's will. Though Jesus Christ emptied Himself for us, He did not do it primarily for us but "to the glory of the Father" (Phil 2:11). This is something which may make us uncomfortable, but it is the truth of the Christian faith. Glorifying the Father is more important than the salvation of a soul. It is true, as St. Thomas said, that the reason for the Incarnation is so that man can fully participate in divinity. But the Eternal Son would not have done so if the divinization of man does not glorify the Father. It is because the divinization of man glorifies the Father that the Son emptied Himself. His obedience to the Father, which glorifies Him, is His primary reason for the Incarnation. There is no better way to glorify the Father than emptying Himself, accomplishing the works the Father gave Him (John 17:4), and obeying Him to death.

Man, a god?

Because God became man, "man can become a god." But what does it really mean to become a god? I believe this is where abstraction must be avoided. There are mysteries which simply cannot be "solved" intellectually. It can only be lived. The best way we can know what it means to become a god is to look at it concretely which means looking at saints.

For example, St. Therese the Little Flower spoke of her "Little Way" and even in her scrupulous moments or dark nights, she still had faith just like Jesus, although in agony in the garden, surrendered his will to the Divine Will. Or take the example of Mother Teresa, who, in a world filled with poverty, helped the poorest of the poor. To think that this is just her human effort is to miss her mission. She had Eucharistic Adoration and Mass everyday and that is where she got her strength from. Finally, we can look at the interior life of St. Paul. He said,

"For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39)

What drives these saints to have such faith? The reason comes from St. Paul: the love of Christ.

We can say that being a god means having a profound "I-Thou" relationship with God. Because the love of Christ moves us to love Him, we no longer think of ourselves but Him. For example, we read from the poem of the Little Flower:

"Dear Jesus! 'tis Thy Holy Face
Is here the start that guides my way;
They countenance, so full of grace,
Is heaven on earth, for me, to-day.

And love finds holy charms for me
In Thy sweet eyes with tear-drops wet;
Through mine own tears I smile at Thee,
And in Thy griefs my pains forget.

How gladly would I live unknown,
Thus to console Thy aching heart.
Thy veiled beauty, it is shown
To those who live from earth apart.

I long to fly to Thee alone!
Thy Face is now my fatherland,
The radiant sunshine of my days,
My realm of love, my sunlit land,
Where, all life long, I sing Thy praise;

It is the lily of the vale,
Whose mystic perfume, freely given,
Brings comfort, when I faint and fail,
And makes me taste the peace of heaven.

Thy face, in its unearthly grace,
Is like the divinest myrrh to me,
That on my heart I gladly place;
It is my lyre of melody;
My rest my comfort is Thy Face.

My only wealth, Lord! is thy Face;
I ask naught else than this from Thee;
Hid in the secret of that Face,
The more I shall resemble Thee!

Oh, leave on me some impress faint
Of Thy sweet, humble, patient Face,
And soon I shall become a saint,
And draw men to Thy saving grace.

So, in the secret of Thy Face,
Oh! hide me, hide me, Jesus blest!
There let me find its hidden grace,
Its holy fires, and, in heaven's rest,
Its rapturous kiss, in Thy embrace!"

The Little Flower is not a theologian but we can see a glimpse of what it is like to be a god. It is to address God personally as a "You." God is no longer an abstract being, but a concrete "You." This I-Thou relationship is not just a fuzzy type of "luv" but a real self-giving, a kenosis. It is dying to one's self. It means one no longer wanting to live as oneself, but to be possessed by God Himself. We read St. John of the Cross saying:

1. I no longer live within myself and I cannot live without God, for having neither him nor myself what will life be? It will be a thousand deaths, longing for my true life and dying because I do not die.

2. This life that I live is no life at all, and so I die continually until I live with you; hear me, my God: I do not desire this life, I am dying because I do not die.

3. When I am away from you what life can I have except to endure the bitterest death known? I pity myself, for I go on and on living, dying because I do not die.

4. A fish that leaves the water has this relief: the dying it endures ends at last in death. What death can equal my pitiable life? For the longer I live, the more drawn out is my dying.

5. When I try to find relief seeing you in the Sacrament, I find this greater sorrow: I cannot enjoy you wholly. All things are affliction since I do not see you as I desire, and I die because I do not die.

6. And if I rejoice, Lord, in the hope of seeing you, yet seeing I can lose you doubles my sorrow. Living in such fear and hoping as I hope,I die because I do not die.

7. Lift me from this death, my God, and give me life; do not hold me bound with these bonds so strong; see how I long to see you; my wretchedness is so complete that I die because I do not die.

8. I will cry out for death and mourn my living while I am held here for my sins. O my God, when will it be that I can truly say: now I live because I do not die?

Death is the condition, the supreme kenotic act. It is when one no longer wants to live apart from the love of God. It is no coincidence that the death of Jesus Christ was the condition for the eternal life of man.

Again, an example from a saint, St. Ignatius of Loyola says,

"TAKE, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my whole will. Thou hast given me all that I am and all that I possess: I surrender it all to Thee that Thou mayest dispose of it according to Thy will. Give me only Thy love and Thy grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will have no more to desire. Amen."

The saint is not concerned with religious experience or even mystical experience. He is simply concerned with the very Person, God. He wants God to take possession of Him and for him to possess God. It means that he becomes the very property of God because He no longer lives, but God who lives in Him (Gal 2:20). Being a god, being a property of God means that God, who is the great I AM, makes the human person, "I am YOURS." You still get to keep your personality, your "I," but it is always seen in relation to God: I am His, or much better, I am YOURS. To partake in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) is to really become a property of God. But even this analysis does not go far enough. God is not an object but a subject. God is a self-subsistent Self. He cannot be treated as if He is an object.

Finally, if gods are properties of God, because He possesses them, that their identity becomes "I am YOURS," then in what way will we possess God? In other words, what will God's identity be like? This is where my musings will end because I believe I have reached the point where I can only say,

"Eye has not seen nor ear has heard." (1 Corinthians 2:9; Isaiah 64:4)


Back to Apologetics Articles

Back to Home Page

About | Apologetics | Philosophy | Spirituality | Books | Audio | Links