Sunday, August 19, 2007

Platonic Orthodoxy

Deification in Christ

The rest of our discussion on Gregory Nazianzen will be devoted to what is the true core of his theology and mysticism, the idea of theosis, deification of the human person. This idea is a cantus firmus of the entire corpus of his discourses, from the First, which was pronounced at the threshold of his career as a preacher, to the Forty-fifth, which was written in his old age. This theme also runs through Gregory’s theological poetry.

The terminology of deification which is employed by Eastern Fathers is borrowed from the Platonic tradition, while the doctrine itself has biblical roots. The idea of people as ‘gods’,[1] the notion of image and likeness of God in the human person,[2] the themes of our adoption by God,[3] our participation in the divine nature[4] and divine immortality[5] - all these notions form the basis of patristic teaching on deification.

We find the idea of the deification of the human person the incarnate Word of God as early as in Irenaeus. According to him, the Word ‘became what we are in order to make us what He is’.[6] ‘The Word (became) man’, says Irenaeus, ‘and the Son of God (became) son of man so that man... might become a son of God’.[7] In other words, through the Incarnation of the Word, the human person becomes by adoption what the Son of God is by nature. This theme was developed by Clement and Origen. In the fourth century it found particular attention on the part of Nicene theologians in their polemic with Arianism. St Athanasius made the formula of Irenaeus even more concise: ‘God became man in order that we may become gods’.[8]

However, it was precisely Gregory Nazianzen who made the idea of deification the foundation-stone of his theology, and it is after him that this theme would become a core of the development of the theological and mystical tradition in the Christian East. As D.Winslow rightly points out, ‘no Christian theologian prior to Gregory employed the term theosis (or the idea contained in the term) with as much consistence and frequency as did he; both terminologically and conceptually Gregory went far beyond his predecessors in his sustained application to theosis’.[9] Already in his first public sermon, the themes of the image of God, assimilation to Christ, adoption by God and deification in Christ become fundamental:

...Let us recognize our dignity; let us honour our Archetype; let us know the power of the mystery,[10] and for what Christ died. Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us. Let us become gods for His sake, since He for ours became man. He assumed the worse that He might give us the better; He became poor that we through His poverty might be rich; He took upon Himself the form of a servant that we might receive back our liberty; He came down that we might be exalted; He was tempted that we might conquer; He was dishonoured that He might glorify us; He died that He might save us; He ascended that He might draw to Himself us, who were lying low in the fall of sin. Let us give all, offer all, to Him Who gave Himself a ransom and a reconciliation for us. But one can give nothing like oneself, understanding the mystery, and becoming for His sake all that He became for ours.[11]

The goal of the Incarnation, says Gregory in his second public sermon, was ‘to make man god and partaker of heavenly bliss’.[12] By His sufferings Christ deified the human person, having mingled human image with heavenly one.[13] The leaven of deification mad human flesh ‘a new mixture’, and the intellect upon receiving this leaven ‘was mingled with God and deified through Divinity’.[14]

Formulae of Irenaeus and Athanasius appear in Gregory’s writings in various modifications:

Being God, You became man and was mingled with mortals: You were God from the beginning, and You became man later in order to make me god, since You became man.[15]

Christ... made me god through the image of a mortal (which He accepted upon Himself).[16]

The Word of the Father was God, but became man, as we are, so that, having mingled with the mortals, He might unite God with is.[17]

...As man, He is interceding for my salvation, until He makes me divine by the power of His incarnate manhood.[18]

Since man did not become god, God Himself became man... in order to reconstruct what was given through what is assumed.[19]

In his Theological Discourses Gregory adds a significant qualification to the formula of Athanasius: God became man ‘in order that I might be made god to the same extent that He was made man’.[20] Thus a direct link is established not only between the Incarnation of God and deification of man, but also between the extent to what God became man and man became god. Gregory adds this qualification in order to oppose the teaching of Apollinarius:[21] if God did not become an entire man, there is no possibility for a man to become entirely god. In one of his poems directed against Apollinarius, Gregory goes even further and places the Incarnation of God in direct dependence on the deification of man: ‘He became man to the same extent that He makes me god’.[22] Recognition of the fullness of the human nature in Christ presupposes the belief in deification of the entire human person, including his intellect, soul and body; and vice versa, the idea of deification presupposes faith in Christ as a human person with intellect, soul and body.

The idea of participation of the body in deification is one of the main points of difference between Christian concept of deification and ins Platonic counterpart, the idea of ‘becoming god’, which we find in Plotinus.[23] In the latter’s philosophical system, the matter always remains evil and opposed to everything divine.[24] Gregory, on the contrary, asserts that in the person of Christ the flesh is deified by the Spirit: the incarnate God is ‘one from two opposites, flesh and spirit, of which the latter deifies and the former is deified’.[25] In the same manner the body of every person who attained to deification in Christ becomes transfigured and deified:

By narrow and difficult way, through narrow gates,

which are not passable for many, with a solemn escort,

Christ leads to God me, a god made of dust,

who was not born god, but was made immortal from mortal.

Together with the great image of God[26] He draws also my body, which is my assistant,

in the same manner as a magnet-stone attracts black iron.[27]

[1] Cf. Ps.81/82:6; John 10:34.

[2] Cf. Gen.1:26-27; Rom.8:29; 1 Cor.15:49; 2 Cor.3:18 et al.

[3] Cf. John.1:12; Gal.3:26; 4:5 et al.

[4] Cf. 2 Pet.1:4.

[5] Cf. 1 Cor.15:53.

[6] Against the heresies 5, introduction.

[7] Against the heresies 3,19,1; 4,33,4.

[8] On the Incarnation 54.

[9] Dynamics, 179.

[10] The term ‘mystery’ (mysterion) here refers to Easter.

[11] Disc.1,4,9-5,12; SC 247,76-78.

[12] Ñë.2,22,14-15; SC 247,120.

[13] PG 37,1313 = 2.94.

[14] Letter 101 (First letter to Kledonios); SC 208,56.

[15] PG 37,971.

[16] PG 37,762.

[17] PG 37,471.

[18] Ñë.30,14,8-11; SC 250,256 (Wickham, 272).

[19] PG 37,465.

[20] Disc.29,19,9-10; SC 250,218 (Wickham, 257).

[21] Apollinarius taught that God in His Incarnation assumed only human flesh, whereas human intellect and soul were replaced in Him by the divine Word (Logos).

[22] PG 37,471.

[23] Enn.1,2,6: ‘Our concern is not merely to be sinless, but to be god’.

[24] Cf. Deck, Nature, 79.

[25] Disc.45,9; PG 36,633.

[26] I.e. soul.

[27] PG 37,1004-1005

The way towards deification

We see that Gregory regards the Incarnation of God as a pledge of the deification of the entire humanity and every human person. But how is this ideal of deification worked out in practice? What is the way towards deification for each particular person?

First of all, the way is through the Church and the sacraments. According to Gregory, the Church is one body, which ‘receives cohesion and consistence by the harmony of the Spirit’ and which is destined to become ‘worthy of Christ Himself, Who is our head’.[1] It is within the Church that the human person can ‘bury himself with Christ, be risen with Christ, inherit Christ, become son of God and be himself named god’.[2] The true Church may not necessarily be numerous, it may be persecuted by heretics, deprived of its buildings and external grandeur, but if Christian faith is preserved in it undamaged, it remains a place of God’s presence, of the deification of the human person, a place where the Gospel is preached and where people ascend to heaven: ‘They have houses, but we the Dweller in the house; they have temples, we have God;[3] and besides it is ours to be living temples of the living God,[4] living sacrifices, reasonable burnt-offerings, perfect sacrifices, gods through the adoration of the Trinity’.[5]

The salvation of the human person takes place in the Church through his participation in the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. In Baptism, he is reborn and recreated by the deifying energy of the Holy Spirit: ‘...The Spirit... deifies me through Baptism... From the Spirit comes our rebirth, from rebirth comes a new creating... He makes us His temple, He deifies, He makes us complete, He initiates us in such a way that He both precedes Baptism and is wanted after it’.[6] As to the Eucharist, here we ‘partake of Christ, partake of His sufferings and His godhead’.[7] While Baptism purifies one from original sin, the Eucharist makes one a participant in the redemption worked out by Christ.[8]

Deification occurs because of one’s love for God. According to Gregory, ‘love for God is a way of deification’.[9] The end of this way is mingling with God, which is deification: ‘I am Christ’s possession: I have become a temple and a sacrifice, and I shall become god, when my soul is mingled with the Godhead’.[10]

The way towards deification also consists of good deeds towards other people: ‘Show your zeal not in evil-doing, but in doing something good, if you want to be god’.[11] Philanthropic activity is assimilation to God: through being generous and merciful a governor can be a god to his subjects, a rich person to the poor, a healthy person to the sick.[12] Deification is not only an intellectual ascent. The entire life of a Christian should become the way towards deification through observing God’s commandments: ‘Be elevated in your life rather than in your thought. The former deifies, while the latter can lead to a great fall. Measure your life not according to a scale of insignificant things, for even if you ascend high, you will always be lower than (what is demanded) by the commandment’.[13]

The ascetical life also contributes to the deification of the human person. Gregory speaks of the virgins as those who ascend to the heights of deification through their bodily and spiritual purity: ‘Around the light-bearing King, there stands a blameless and heavenly choir: those who haste from earth in order to become god, those who are bearers of Christ, ministers of the Cross, despisers of the world, who are dead for earthly things, who are anxious about heavenly realities, who are lanterns for the world, clear mirrors of light’.[14] The ascetical life, however, is necessary not only for virgins and monks: every Christian should be an ascetic, at least to a certain degree, if he wants to reach deification. In his Eleventh Discourse, which was dedicated to the feat of the Maccabees, Gregory admonishes his flock as follows:

If we find enjoyment in the pleasures of the belly, if we take pleasure from transient things.., if we consider this a place for parties and not for temperance, if we hope to find here time for commerce and affairs and not for ascent and, may I dare say, deification, to which the martyrs are mediators,[15] then, firstly, I do not think that this is an appropriate moment... Secondly, I would want to say something more sharp, but will abstain from reproach out of respect to the feast. In any case, this is not what the martyrs are waiting from us, to say the least.[16]

Finally, the way towards deification consists of prayer, mystical experience, ascent of the intellect to God, contemplation of God. ‘What do you want to become?’ asks Gregory of his soul. ‘Do you want to become god, standing in light before the great God, rejoicing with the angels. Then go further, spread your wings and ascend upwards’.[17] Through prayer and purification of mind the human person receives the experience of the knowledge of God; this experience becomes fuller as he comes closer to the goal of deification:

...(God) enlightens our governing faculty,[18] if it is purified, in the same manner as the speed of lightning enlightens our sight. I think that this is in order to attract us to God by something that is attainable, since what is totally unattainable cannot be an object of hope and attention, and in order to precipitate an admiration by what is unattainable, and to cause greater desire by being admired, and to purify by the desire, and to make divine by purification; and, when we have already become deified, to speak with us as God Who is united with gods and comprehended by them and known by them as also He knows those whom He knows.[19]

As we can see, deification, in Gregory’s understanding, is the highest stage of the knowledge of God, when the incomprehensible God becomes comprehensible, so far as this is possible for the human nature. Deification is also the goal of Christian ‘initiation’ through the sacraments. It is the completion of all ethical and ascetical efforts of a Christian. It is the peak of a person’s prayer and mystical life: it is here that unity between him and God takes place. Deification is salvation of the entire person, transfiguration of the intellect, soul and body. Becoming godlike, the human person brings profit not only to himself: he also reveals the Word of God to others.[20] Thus every Christian may contribute towards the attainment of the goal of existence of everything, which is salvation of the humanity, transformation of the universe, entering of all who are saved in the Kingdom of heaven, eschatological deification of all creation.

[1] Disc.2,3,13-17; SC 250,90.

[2] Disc.7,23,10-12; SC 405,240.

[3] This discourse was pronounced in 380 in Constantinople, where all churches were still in the hands of the Arians.

[4] Cf. 2 Cor.6:16.

[5] Disc.33,15,3-13; SC 318,188.

[6] Disc.31,28,9-29,33 (28,9-15; 29,31-33); SC 250,332-334 (Wickham, 295-296).

[7] Disc.4,52,14-16; SC 309,156.

[8] PG 37,462-463 (transl. by P.Gilbert).

[9] PG 37,957.

[10] PG 37,1399.

[11] PG 37,944.

[12] See Disc.17,9; PG 35,976: ‘Imitate... God’s philanthropy. The most divine in the human person is that he can do good. You can become god with no special effort: do not lose your chance of deification’ (these words are addressed to the governor of Nazianzus). See also Disc.14,26; PG 35,892: ‘Be god to someone who is in misfortune, imitating God’s mercy’ (the words pronounced in order to encourage rich people of Caesarea to give alms). We should note that the expression ‘to be god’ in this context is metaphorical, whereas in other places Gregory speaks of real deification.

[13] PG 37,934.

[14] PG 37,538.

[15] The idea that martyrs (saints) are mediators in deification will become very important in iconoclastic epoch and will be further developed by such writers as John of Damascus.

[16] Disc.11,5,17-30; SC 405,340.

[17] PG 37,1437-1438.

[18] I.e. the intellect.

[19] Disc.38,7,12-22; SC 358,116. Cf. 1 Cor.13:12.

[20] Disc.39,10,21-24; SC 358,168-170.

1 comment:

  1. Here is a forthcoming book by Baker titled Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions, Eds. Michael J. Christensen and Jeffery A. Wittung (Baker Academic, Feb. 2008; ISBN#: 080103440X).