“For He [God] was made man, so that we might be made God.” This quote hits modern ears like a ton of bricks, reminding us more of Mormons, Pagans, and Word of faith preachers, than orthodox Christians. Yet, it is true, it is historic, and it is biblical. How can this be? How can something so seemingly blasphemous to our ears be true? In truth, we are the odd ones, not St. Athanasius. St. Athanasius was expressing the teaching of scripture and of earlier fathers, this is well-established orthodoxy in both east and west.
There has been a resurgence in protestant circles by such authors as Dr. Jordan Cooper on this topic of “Theosis,” therefore it merits our attention. A foremost teacher of this Theosis is that of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, a theologian writing around the late Patristic age (late-5th to early-6th century). Although other writers before him expressed ideas of Theosis stretching at least back to St. Irenaeus, writing in the 2nd century, who said “if the Word has been made man, it is so that men may be made gods,” St. Dionysius expressed a complete system of Theosis whereby men may become gods. The most important aspect of this Theosis, the chief means by which we become gods, is in the sacraments of the church as performed in her sacred liturgies, therefore this essay will focus specifically on this aspect of St. Dionysius’ theology of Theosis.
Although this topic has not been covered in great detail by secondary sources, the topic of Theosis and St. Dionysius has been, with discussions on the relation of Theosis and the sacraments playing a part within the works. Vladimir Kharlamov has a helpful introduction to the concept of Theosis, with attention to earlier Fathers, Neo-platonism, and Greco-Roman culture which has a chapter on this topic. Norman Russell has a helpful work which surveys Patristic thought on Theosis and has a chapter with a helpful overview of St. Dionysius’ thought on the topic in encyclopedic fashion, which briefly focuses on the sacramental aspect of Theosis.
This paper seeks to show that St. Dionysius the Areopagite taught that Theosis is chiefly attained through the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist in the liturgies of the church, as is seen in his work On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy and in the rest of his corpus. To show this, I will first state the question in the method of the schoolmen, second I will give the intellectual context of earlier Pagan and Christian views of Theosis and Neoplatonism, then I will go through the works of St. Dionysius, defending the thesis and building the specific nuances of his thought on the topic, and lastly, to conclude, I will synthesize the argument and give implications for the Christian life and for Theology in general.
State of the Question
First, the state of the question. At this point, one may wonder how any orthodox Christian, much less two millennia of them, could affirm such a seemingly blasphemous statement that we “become gods.” Such language on the surface may seem sacrilegious, impious, and profane, yet a deeper look at the same will tame its rhetorical flair. When the Fathers use such language of us being/becoming “gods” it ought to be recognized as a statement of rhetorical effect. In St. Dionysius’ own words, he defines Theosis such, “Now the assimilation to, and union with, God, as far as attainable, is deification.” For St. Dionysius, Theosis can be phrased such, we participate in God and therefore become like God. This is not polytheism as it may seem on the surface, but “god” is being used in an analogous rather than a univocal sense. It is expressing in a systematic way the words of St. Peter, “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” (2 Pet. 1:4 KJV) Therefore, the question being asked is not “Do Christians become God?” in a Mormon or Polytheistic sense, “or “Do Christians absorb into God?” in a pantheistic sense, rather, the question is “Do Christians participate in and have union with God, therefore becoming like God, following after His pure example by the Sacraments and liturgies of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist in the thought of St. Dionysius the Areopagite?”
To understand St. Dionysius the Aeropagite’s doctrine of Theosis we must first come to understand earlier Greco-Roman conceptions of Divinization, the philosophy of Neoplatonism, and earlier Patristic uses of Theosis.
The Greco-Roman idea of Divinization is one which is similar, yet distinct from the Christian concept of theosis. In ancient Greek thought the idea itself was dominant. One must only read the Greek poets, such as Homer, or philosophers, such as the Pythagoreans, to see this concept of the Divinization of men. Yet, an important consideration in looking at the Greco-Roman concept of a “god.” A God in their thought is nothing more than a glorified man. They are not transcendent as in our concept of God, but may be seen as really, really powerful men. They have the same temporal, spacial, and all-around limited existence as we do. Essentially, the only significant difference between gods and men was that gods were immortal, that is, that they cannot die (this says nothing about pre-existence, for gods are created in Greek thought). When the Greeks would speak of “Divinization” they would postulate that men would become gods in a univocal sense, in that their existence was lifted to a new sphere of immortal existence and thus would take upon themselves new attributes.
Next, the most important background concept that must be understood is that of Neoplatonism. For, Dionysius drew heavily from the thought of such Neoplatonists as Plotinus and Proclus. Neoplatonism was a philosophical school of late-antiquity which developed from the thought of Plato. The “Father” of this school seems to be Plotinus. To summarize Neoplatonism we must understand four concepts: the One, hierarchy, participation, and mysticism. First, the One, the One was in Neoplatonism “God,” it is the supreme being (to speak analogously) of the universe, the “top” of the chain of being. This language of “the One” is consistent through St. Dionysius’ writings as we shall see, and it usually references to God being the “source.” Second, hierarchy, from this “One,” we have emanate all things which exist. This sets a “chain of being” whereby the higher in the chain emanate to the lower creating a “hierarchy of being.” This is another consistent theme within the writing of St. Dionysius. In fact, it is a foundational concept to understand, for his works are based on this idea of an “ecclesiastical hierarchy.” Third, to participate in the One is the end of existence. We must go up the “chain” back up to the One, participating in the higher realities as a means to participate in it. There is a going out in emanation and a coming back in participation. Further, all things to the degree that they have being and are good participate in the One. This too is a concept which resounds in the thought of St. Dionysius, for in this we achieve Theosis. Fourth, the concept of mysticism plays heavily in the thought of Neoplatonism. The “going back” to the One can be achieved in its fullness in which we have a “mystical experience” of pure goodness which is present in and through the One.
Theosis was present from the beginning of Christian theology in the earliest Church Fathers, yet it received little attention and precision before St. Dionysius’ works. No precise definition of Theosis is set before St. Dionysius and it seems to be more of a rhetorical tool and peripheral issue than a “central dogma” of Patristic soteriology. That being said, it is still used by theologians of the first rank and in crucial theological texts. It is often used in the context of “the Divinity of Christ, immortality and eternal life, the image and likeness of God in human beings, sanctification, redemption, sacramental theology, and general and individual eschatology.”
For the sake of orderliness the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist will be treated individually. Although, in St. Dionysius there is an intimate connection between the two, baptism the birth of a “god” and the eucharist the sustenance and increasing of one’s participation in God. This is the central and controlling mode of Theosis in the thought of Dionysius, in the words of Norman Russell, “in fact [Theosis] is used most frequently in relation to the operation of the sacraments.”
First, the sacrament of Baptism will be treated. There is a major section in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, in Caput. II, which speaks about “Illumination.” “Illumination” is frequently used as an appellation for Holy Baptism in the early church. Thus far in the treatise he has spoken of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy which leads up to God (see: Neoplatonism), and the purpose of this is described as “our assimilation and union with God,” clearly a reference to Theosis. Necessary to enter into this union is “Our preparation for the restitution of the supercelestial rest, which forms the habits of our souls into an aptitude for the reception of the other sacred sayings and doings, the transmission of our holy and most divine regeneration…[which is] the birth in God.” This language of “birth” and “initiation” is clearly referring to holy baptism. “Baptism” is here seen and described as that first movement, that transformation into a life of Theosis. For, according to Dionysius we have union with God and participate in his likeness “in proportion to their aptitude for deification,” which is created in Baptism.
The administrator of Baptism is also important in the mind of St. Dionysius. For, the one who wishes to have baptism first “comes to some one of the initiated, and persuades him to act as his conductor to the Hierarch [Bishop or Priest].” Then, “takes and leads him to the chief Hierarch.” This Neoplatonic idea of “hierarchy” is bleeding through, we participate in the “One beneficent Source” through a “hierarchy” which in the mind of Dionysius is the hierarchy of the church, through the visible means of the sacraments. Through these “sources” the “Divine Blessedness receives the man, thus conducted [in Baptism], into communion with Itself,” that is, Theosis occurs.
Further, Dionysius believes that each symbol within the rite of Baptism points towards theosis as the end of the sacrament. The anointing of the forehead of those who will soon be baptized from the priest is the symbol of a victor, a victor who “ has overthrown, in his struggles after the Divine example, the energies and impulses opposed to his deification, he dies with Christ—to speak mystically —to sin, in Baptism.” The stripping off of the initiate's clothes, the “burial” in water, and the three-fold immersion are all significant in representing the theosis happening. The soul is shown to be separated from the things which united to it before, and then it is covered by water as one is covered in the ground in death. It is done three times, symbolizing the three days in which Jesus laid in the tomb. Interestingly, these death motifs come to full circle at the death of a Christian, as is shown later in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy,
and remember, that during the sacred Birth from God, before the most Divine Baptism, a first participation of a holy symbol is given to the man initiated—the oil of Chrism—after the entire removal of the former clothing; and now, at the conclusion of all, the Oil is poured upon the man fallen asleep. Then indeed the anointing with the Oil summoned the initiated to the holy contests; and now the Oil poured upon him shews the fallen asleep to have struggled, and to have been made perfect, throughout those same contests.
Next, the white garments are put onto the newly baptized. In this he is shown to be like God, to be “manly and Godlike,” and to have a “persistent inclination towards the One” (notice the Neoplatonic language of “the One”). Next, an unction is placed on the newly baptized (to be regarded as confirmation). In this “the sacred and deifying participation of the Holy Spirit” is wrought on the newly baptized and it “unites those who have been perfected to the supremely Divine Spirit.” Then, Dionysius concludes this section on holy baptism by calling it the “Divine birth.” This phrase truly summarizes the thought thus far from Dionysius on the nature of baptism, it is the “birth of a god.” Our initiation into the life of theosis is brought about by holy baptism, wherein our sinful flesh is put to death, we are regenerated, we are united to Christ, and we participate in the Spirit, being made truly “Godlike.”
Directly after this, “the Hierarch calls the man initiated to the most Holy Eucharist, and imparts to him the communion of the perfecting mysteries.” The relationship between baptism and the holy eucharist is between that of birth and perfection. In baptism the life of a god is begun, union and communion with the One is initiated, but in the holy eucharist it is brought into most intimate fruition, with the eating of God. Baptism is that gateway, source, and light of all the other mysteries of the faith. As Dionysius writes concerning the relationship of Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist,
Thus, for instance, with regard to the holy initiation of the Divine birth; since it imparts first-Light, and is head of all the Divine illuminations, we celebrate the true appellation from the enlightening effected. For, though it be common to all Hierarchical functions to impart the gift of sacred light to those initiated, yet it gave to me the power to see first, and through its first light I am enlightened to gaze upon the other religious rites.
Dionysius calls the Holy Eucharist the “initiation of initiations.” It is supremely called “communion,” although all other rites give communion with God because it in a way “completes” all other rites of the church, we have the celebration of the eucharist without baptism, but we never have baptism without the celebration of the eucharist, we have celebration of the eucharist without confirmation, but we never have confirmation without the celebration of the eucharist, and so forth to all the other sacramental rites of the church. In it we reach the heights of communion, sealing all other sacramental rites in the mind of Dionysius.
The Eucharistic service too shows forth the different aspects of our Theosis. The chanting of psalms and recitation of scripture make us meet “for the reception and distribution of every Hierarchical mystery,” wherein we are illuminated to the patterning of our lives after the archetype of the Divine. In our song our souls are “harmonized” with the Divine, and a “habit” is established. The One teaches us through the ecclesastical hierarchy of things Divine. Since there is the principle of the adequacy of the reception of Theosis, those who are uninitiated are then dismissed for they are not yet “in God by Divine Birth,” but they are allowed in the liturgy of the word that they may be “ripe for Divine Birth.” The peace further prepares the faithful for Theosis, “it is not possible to be collected to the One, and to partake of the peaceful union with the One, when people are divided amongst themselves.” In the washing of the hands of the priests the purification necessary to receive God is symbolized,
For it behoves those who approach the most hallowed service to be purified even to the remotest imaginations of the soul, through likeness to it, and, as far as possible, to draw nigh; for thus they will shed around more visibly the Divine manifestations, since the supermundane flashes permit their own splendour to pass more thoroughly and brilliantly into the brightness of mirrors like themselves.
Then, the works of Christ are shown forth in the Eucharistic canon by which we are stirred up to Divine imitation, furthering our Theotic journey back to the One. It is truly the Gospel proclaimed in the eucharistic service which is the means by which we achieve Theosis, for “calling the human race, through this beneficent love of man, into participation with Himself and His own good things, provided we are united to His most Divine Life by our assimilation to it, as far as possible; and by this, in very truth, we shall have been perfected, as partakers of God and of Divine things.” This culminates in the reception of the Holy Eucharist.
In those holy symbols of bread and wine “Christ is signified and partaken,” and it “signif[ies] the indivisible conjunction of their supermundane and sacred union with Him.” There is a true and objective union with God that is affected, a true and visible Theosis. In the thought of St. Dionysius the Holy Eucharist truly is the height of theosis, this, for Dionysius, is expressed in the Thanksgiving after communion. The elements themselves are to be reverenced as “in their essential nature, worthy of thanksgiving.” In this thanksgiving we recognize the “initiation of things Divine” which is affected in the Holy Eucharist, and “recognize their munificent graces.” Lastly, we reach the heights of Dionysius’ language when he writes, “by gazing with utmost reverence upon their most Divine height and breadth in the participation, they will sing the supercelestial beneficent works of the Godhead with gracious thanksgiving.”
As we have thus far seen, St. Dionysius is fundamentally Liturgical and Sacramental in his thought about Theosis. Theosis isn’t separated from the life and hierarchy of the church. Theosis is rather effected within an objective framework with visible, outward elements by which we may know that we have received the “Divine birth” and have true “union and participation.” Each element in the Apostolic liturgy symbolizes the Theosis which is taking place in the liturgy. Further, it also prepares our disposition to receive the Divine life. Lastly, we have seen that this is most explicitly seen in the Dominical sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. In Baptism Theosis is begun, a god is born, the seed of the Divine life is planted within us, and our mortal life is cast off, we are brought into true and objective union with the Divine and we participate in the graces and virtues of the One. In the Holy Eucharist, this is brought to a sacramental culmination whereby we reach the heights of our immaculate participation in the life of God. This seals all other rites and sacraments, and brings them to their fulfillment.
An objection is brought forth by many within the Protestant world (one such example is Dr. Robert Godfrey), “Well, when you speak of Theosis, you use hyper-realistic language of becoming ‘gods,’ yet when pressed you fall back on Dionysius’ definition, but what is meant is a blurring of God and man.” Another objection is that of Ligon Duncan who says that Theosis comes from a later “warped” misreading of “fifth to eighth century Eastern Orthodox theologians on sanctification or glorification.”
The first objection has been adequately dispelled. For, if we are going to charitably engage theologies that we disagree with, we must deal with them on the various terms and definitions which they offer. The Dionysian conception of Theosis in no wise blurs the distinction of God and man, and the Dionysian definition is not something to “fall back on,” but is the definition presented throughout. What is most revealing is Dionysius’ frequent appellation to those who are “divinized” as the “God-like.” Dionysius clearly has in mind a patterning after God, a union with him, and a participation in Him. Not some sort of mixing or blurring.
The second objection is also patently false. Throughout the writings of St. Dionysius this is a common and obvious theme. It is not something that could be misunderstood by any fair and honest reader of the text. This objection likely comes from a misunderstanding of what Theosis is. It misconstrues it into some Mormon-esque doctrine of Polytheism wherein we become gods in a univocal sense, and then compares that definition to St. Dionysius and comes to the conclusion that Theosis is not in St. Dionysius’ writings as it clearly is.
In conclusion, as has been shown Dionysius taught a Theosis by the sacraments through the liturgy. That is, we attain union with, participation in, and mirroring of God, first by the administration of baptism, wherein we are born into Theosis, and then this is sustained and “refreshed” by the administration of the Holy Eucharist. This is clear from a reading of On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, specifically the first three sections.
A survey of Dionysius’ teaching on this topic has two major effects in our theological framework. First, it gives us a point of reference in which to view the development of the doctrine of Theosis. This may be compared to St. Cyril’s “formulation” of Christology. Yes there were those who wrote about it before St. Cyril, but it reached a final form of major patristic development and synthesis at St. Cyril. After him, everyone else was mere footnotes on Cyril’s synthesis. In the same way, Theosis reached its major formulation and synthesis in the writings of St. Dionysius. We may look back at him as the catalyst and source for later reflections on Theosis, acting as “footnotes” of St. Dionysius.
Second, there is great practical effect in the Christian life in a reflection on St. Dionysius’ doctrine. It is no “cold” or “dry” doctrine, but a living one whereby we may gain great fruit. For, it ought to cause all who read it a greater reverence for the ancient liturgy which frames and prepares us for Theosis. Also, it ought to cause in us, first, a greater love for the gift given in our baptism, that we are truly and objectively born into the life of God by baptism. Second, a greater love and devotion towards the Holy Eucharist which is that “source and summit” of our faith, whereby we participate in the Divine life.