Part 1 (of many) 🙂
“Before I knew Christ, I did not know the possibilities of what I could become.” (St. Cyprian, 3rd c)
For one reason or another, the Coptic Orthodox Church has experienced an “anti-deification” movement recently without understanding what the term or what the doctrine actually professes, often times than not.
People often become disgruntled or defensive when the mere word is said – as if a newly reformed heresy arose and the Church must keep such wrong teachings outside of its doctrine.
Deification (also known as theosis in Greek) is a Christian Orthodox doctrine and it is essential to our salvation, otherwise we have all fallen short of what it means to be human and Christ-like and have completely disregarded the main purpose and restoration of Christ’s incarnation for our lives.
Frequently, when speaking about the subject, names of clergy and books are tossed about in either opposition or defense of the term – often times without again understanding of its Orthodox doctrine and teaching.
I will say that knowing mere titles of books or certain events have at times contributed to our lack of theological knowledge (we quote names or books without knowing our theology as a whole).
I believe there are a number of other contributing factors why deification (theosis) is often been a point of debate and confusion recently. Such issues will not be discussed here, as I believe it is more pertinent to understand the doctrine in its true essence of Orthodoxy. And consequently, I hope such issues of debate will eventually cease and theosis will be experienced and lived by all.
I will present a series of blogs on the subject – excerpts from my Masters’ thesis on theosis written about 3 years ago at Oxford. I hope in this platform, it will be one of many places that we begin (and continue) to learn, seek and research more about the doctrine as revealed through the Trinity in the Scriptures, as experienced in the lives of the saints, and written about by the Fathers of the Church.
The earliest Christian patristic witness to the notion of Christian deification is found in Justin the Martyr (100-165 A.D.) in his Dialogue with Trypho, where he polemically defends the truth about the Christian faith to his Jewish counterpart Trypho. He states that the Christians are the “true children of God” because it was affirmed prophetically by the Spirit, when it was said they are “sons of the Highest.” This latter reference is a clear allusion to Ps. 82.6, and unlike what some scholars may infer that early Christian writers were borrowing the idea of deification from Greco-Roman Philosophy,  Justin and later patristic authors interpreted this Old Testament text as a prophesy of the Christian salvation that was promised.
The doctrine of deification essentially has its primary theological origins from the Alexandrian tradition. Alexandria, being one of the main hubs of philosophy and intellectual sophistication in the first few centuries, produced eclectic minds, each of whom reflected their own understanding and interpretation of what it was to be like God and how one can attain to do so. Beginning primarily with Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.), the doctrine developed extensively until it reached its climatic formation in the writings of Cyril of Alexandria (376-444 A.D.), before Alexandria took a major turn in history after the Council of Chalcedon.
In the Church of Alexandria today, there have been many debates and fiery discussions in recent times regarding this taboo-ified topic of deification, in which many of these instances the doctrine has been spoken with minimal historical and theological knowledge and thorough study of the topic.This has resulted in a misconceived and skewed perception of its theology and effectively, placing a hovering stigma on its theological implications and scriptural bases. If one sets aside these past nuances, I believe one will better and more clearly understand the Church of Alexandria’s extensive contributions on the topic.
One may ask, how did a church that principally established the doctrine of deification reach such a far-reaching point from its original patristic understanding in modern times? To answer this, one would have to study how Alexandrian theology developed and was influenced overtime, from the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) to the Arab Invasion (641 A.D.) until the present age. But for the sake of inquisition, it can be surmised that this stigmatized perception of deification is most probably due to linguistics and insufficient availability in the vernacular language of Egypt for a clear and accurate translation from the Greek term theosis (θέωσις).
As the Church still pays great respect, allegiance and honour to these fathers, especially those of Athanasius and Cyril, in doing so, the Church must also accept all of their theological contributions that have formed and established Alexandrian theology until this day. I hope to bring new light to the topic, or rather, revive what has been said on deification from these Alexandrian fathers.
So, then we come to the point – what is ‘theosis’?!
In simplicity, it is a divine grace bestowed on humanity to be like Him in everything, apart from becoming or transforming into His divine nature or essence.
It was bestowed upon us from the start of man’s creation – created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26):
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”
καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεός ποιήσωμεν ἄνθρωπον κατ‘ εἰκόνα ἡμετέραν καὶ καθ‘ ὁμοίωσιν
The right of our creation is based on being an “image” of Him (ikona in Greek, where “icon” comes from) and “like” Him.
Later in Chapter 2, Genesis describes man becoming a “living being” (ψυχὴν ζῶσαν) when God breathed into Him the “breath of life”:
Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
καὶ ἔπλασεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν ἄνθρωπον χοῦν ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς καὶ ἐνεφύσησεν εἰς τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ πνοὴν ζωῆς καὶ ἐγένετο ὁ ἄνθρωπος εἰς ψυχὴν ζῶσαν
Thus we can say, the definition of the human being means one who is made in the “image and likeness of God” and has the breath of God living inside him. Humanity is a deified creation – a creation that is like God.
Adam was a deified being, but also had the opportunity for never-ending growth (as St Gregory Nyssa defines it as ekpektasis – meaning – eternally becoming like God in this life and in the kingdom to come).
Why is it never-ending? Because as Christians we profess God is unlimited and uncontainable, and if we were made according to the image and likeness – that image is limitless – meaning, we have the potential to always grow more like the divine. This never ceases because if it did, human’s then can say we attain to be fully like God, or equal to God, which is impossible and theologically erroneous. The creature can never contain or be equal to the Creator, or the creature then becomes no longer a creature and the Creator ceases to be a Creator.
When humanity falls short of being this “image and likeness” of God, we fall short of being fully human. As many of the fathers spoke of Adam’s sin – they stated that he lost the likeness of God and ruined the divine image by departing from God (he never lost the full image or he would have returned to dust immediately). By sin, we loose our potential of becoming what we were originally made to be.
Thus, when sin entered into the nature of humanity, it not only brought death, but it disfigured this deified creation – it disfigured and transformed man into something less than what he was made and purposed for – as the image and likeness of God. Thus, if we live a life against the standard of what it means to be human – we find ourselves not achieving our potential.
The journey of deification being like God now is a restoration to the fullness of our humanity – our potential of being God-like, something Adam failed to do, and can only be achieved in Christ (this will be further discussed). In our Orthodox understanding of theosis, man’s whole life is to achieve union with God – constantly and progressively, it is not achieved over night. Our growing towards this union means that we are being like God, which as the Fathers say, is developing the image of God that was given to us.
Theosis is the embarking of the true Christian life – the one who lives according to his birth-right of being human – and this journey leads us “from glory to glory” (2 Cor 3:18), to sanctification, to holiness, and unfathomable wonder that God granted His creation this mystical gift to be like Him and sharers in His divine image by grace.
Much more to come on this subject 🙂
 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 124 (124.4).
 Carl Mosser, ‘The Earliest Patristic Interpretations of Psalm 82, Jewish Antecedents, and the Origin of Christian Deification’, The Journal of Theological Studies, 56/1 (2005), 30-74. Mosser traces back and analyses how the earliest Christian authors interpreted Psalm 86.2 and whether these writers were utilizing this text in juxtaposition of pagan or philosophical understandings of deification. He concludes that this was not the case and the doctrine “does not represent the climax of a syncretistic affair between Christianity and Hellenism.” (p.73) There are clear Hellenistic influences in many of these authors, but it cannot be surmised that their formation of language and methodology affected and controlled their theology. Also see Normal Russell’s Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford: 2004), where he states that the language and usage of deification can attest that its Christian usage preceded pagan usage rather than following it as it is often assumed. It would most likely require another thesis to correspond and analyze the philosophical and Hellenized influences on such fathers, and for this study’s purpose particularly, the Alexandrian fathers, and see how their school of thought was shaped and influenced. But in simplicity, deification is based on a clear Scriptural notion of man’s intimate and unique relationship with God as Trinity.
 Ibid., p.54.
 The present day Arabic equivalent to theosis is tehlee ensan, which connotes that man becomes like gods in essence and not by grace, a strikingly different notion to what it is in the Christian understanding.
Recommended reading: (a more extensive reading list on this subject)
Achieving your Potential in Christ by Fr. Coniaris (simple read)
Divine Grace by Fr. Tadros Malaty (he speaks extensively about deification as divine grace – from p. 20.)