“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.”