Among the things that “everybody knows” we find the irreparable great gulf fixed between East and West, by which two totally different theologies are expressed in the same Creed, the same scriptures and a shared reverence for the sacraments. Of course, among the things that “everybody knows” in times past were the flatness of the earth, the revolution of the universe around our world, and the simplicity of the amoeba. It seems that common knowledge is a haven for shared and reinforced ignorance of many kinds.
Therefore, it is best to learn the art of skepticism when faced with common knowledge, and to question its certainty in a radical way. Are the basic theological understandings of the East and West really irreconcilable differences? The answer depends upon whether we try to perceive on a genuine level of honest study, or on a caricature (of course the terms East and West are part of the over simplification. But, we all know what I mean). The caricature of the East (so-called, by which really we mean Orthodox) is that it is devoid of any logic, entirely mystical, and that it has no room in it for any concept of the Atonement. This caricature is not entirely due to the prejudice of uninformed Westerners; it is also very much the fault of Orthodox Christians who, mostly living in the West, very much want to be different, above all different rather than Christian. The caricature of the West (by which we mean Roman Catholic, classical Anglican, and many shades of Protestant) is that it has no room for mysticism, is so scholastic that it has no idea of “spirit,” and is only able to see Redemption in a way that is limited to substituionary atonement and nothing more. Certainly the whole idea of Theosis or Deification is only understood by the East- right? This caricature is not due solely to prejudiced Easterners, but to poorly taught Westerners as well, especially those who cannot tell Mormonism from Patristic Christology, or their right hands from their left (and also much cattle).
I suggest that we turn from “common knowledge” to knowledge, which is like turning from being honest to God simply to being honest (to draw from the well of C.S. Lewis). To begin with, the West, and Saint Anselm in particular, did not invent Atonement, and have never taught that God was morbidly and emotionally “pleased” with the sacrifice of Christ; neither has it been taught by the West (or by Saint Anselm in particular) that Christ overcame sin alone, and not death as well. Neither has it ever been taught by the East that Christ’s death on the cross was unrelated to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant prophecy in which the One Man was the Lamb of God upon whose life was placed the iniquity of us all. If either of these two caricatures were true, then neither East nor West would have been remotely Christian, as each would have denied central doctrines of the Faith expressed in the Creed we all share. Perhaps emphasis is mistaken for doctrine, and taste for Creed. For those who are content not only to live with these caricatures, but who wish in every way to represent them by fasting from the common well of Patristic Faith, it is good for one lung to breathe in a little more deeply the blessed state of sin forgiven by Christ’s once for all offering of Himself as the Propitiation for the sins of the whole world (I John 2:2), and for the other lung to breathe more deeply the blessed hope of Deification. But, each lung would be breathing air native to it.
Now, to answer specific questions that modern Western Christians have, Deification is taught in scripture, especially by those haunting words of Saint 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 .” – II Pet. 1: 4. This is not, I say not Mormonism, which teaches that even the Lord Who made heaven and earth was once a mere mortal, and that people can become gods equal to YHVH Himself. Obviously, Christians never have believed such blasphemy; therefore it is not the meaning of the formula of Saint Athanasius, "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." (St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, BOOK: De Decretis, about 325?), or of Saint Thomas Aquinas (those who want to see the great Angelic Doctor as simply a Western scholastic may wish to turn a blind eye): "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Philosopher, Theologian, Angelicus Doctor, BOOK: Opusculum contra errores graecorum, by order of Pope Urban IV 1261-64).
Our Lord quoted the words of Psalm 82: 6, “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.” About these words, the Hebrew language is very clear: Elohim, b’nai Elyon. He used these words in a context about His own Divine Nature as the only begotten Son of God, using the phrase “sent into the world” by which He spoke always of Himself in a unique sense (John 10: 34- 37). No other man has a nature we call “pre-existent.” No one else has been sent into the word, for the rest of us originated here. And, it is only in the context of the Incarnation that we dare speak of Deification, or Theosis. By grace we may become what He is by nature. This has never been understood even to suggest or imply equality, neither that we could ever possess the nature of God as the Wholly Other who is uncreated. It has never been understood to mean that we become omnipotent, omniscient or omnipresent. It has everything to do with adoption as sons through the Incarnation of Christ, sharing in the holiness of God because sin has been overcome by Christ, and becoming immortal due to the victorious death of Christ on the cross and His Resurrection. None of this would be possible if not for the fact that a Man sits at the right hand of the Father, that is, if not for the fact that even now our salvation comes through the Man who is complete in two natures. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, having taken our created nature into his uncreated Person, our time into His eternity. When death entered the physical body of this Man, it was overcome and swallowed up by Life, as a drop must vanish when it falls into the sea.
It is in the context of our Faith in the Incarnation that apparent differences vanish, for in that revelation sin has been taken away on the cross, and death has been swallowed up in victory. Perceived conflicts evaporate like the illusion they have been all along. Our created nature is transformed by grace, deifying man because a Man ever lives who is fully God. The Man who is one with the Father from the beginning is one with us by the gracious will of God; One with the Father by the eternal Nature of His uncreated Person, and one with us in every way, except sin, through His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. And in His love we trust. We are given the deposit now by the Holy Spirit Who came on the Church at Pentecost, so that we can hope to become by grace what he is by nature: holy, eternal and perfect in charity.
The Western Church has never turned away from the doctrine of Deification. Anglicans especially have the teachings of Lancelot Andrewes (about which I suggest the paper by one Rev. Davidson Morse. However, in the link provided, the paper starts on page 9. I do not endorse every opinion contained in the first eight pages of this website, as some of them are simply too optimistic, rather than accurate).