Friday, July 21, 2006

Theosis East and West

Robert Hart


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).

16 comments:

Continuing Home said...

I am but a layman and no theologian, and much of what was laid out here loses me (not an unusual experience for me dealing with such matters).

May I focus on what I think is an apparently central element?

"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."

From my limited discussions with a Greek Orthodox friend, I have come to a different understanding of Theosis.

My (mis?)understanding is that it is not "we become what He is", but rather we become able to bear an existance within His presence, period!

The image of one of the Ghosts in Lewis' "The Great Divorce" comes to mind -- unable even to bear the sharp blades of grass under his feet he is asked to make the journey, advised it will become easier as the journey progresses. Right or wrong, this represents my image: it's not quite "The Imitation of Christ" (as expressed in English), it is more (the engineer speaks) "attuning one's life to Christ," or "attuning one's life to being in the presence Christ" which must be unbearable to a completely unrepentant sinner (per Lewis).

Am I right? Wrong? Please educate me!

jmahar said...

Fr. Hart -
Great post. My opinion of the eastern Church has radically changed, especially after becoming Anglican and opening up to the wellspring of tradition. I haven't palyed much with Theosis, so am glad for the chance of an intorduction. Any future posts on the subject would be welcome.
Thanks and Cheers

jmahar said...

Fr. Hart -
Thanks for the post. As I new to traditional churches and thought I am enjoying any encounter with different ideas, which are outside of the protestant world view that I have grown up with. Any future posts on theosis would be welcomes.
Thanks and Cheers

Fr. Robert Hart said...

We cannot share the nature of the Wholly Other from every created nature. but, attributes are given to us by grace. The last words of my little article are "so that we can hope to become by grace what he is by nature: holy, eternal and perfect in charity." These are family characteristics, made possible by grace in the Incarnation and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, not to be perfected until we are clothed in Christ's immortality.

poetreader said...

I've been wanting to respond here for a few days. Finally . . .

There seems a subtle distinction here.

Genesis 3:5 …and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil…

This, of course, was said to tempt the original pair into eating the forbidden fruit and thus falling into sin. And it worked. Original sin was born. And what was the heart of the sin? Independence, the ability to stand on one’s own and to decide for oneself what was good and what was evil. To become as gods (note the plural.), to stand beside God as another god, with decision making powers Ultimately it was self-worship. I think of two songs that have been popular: “I Gotta Be Me” and “I Did It My Way”. There are those in the occult world and among the popular ‘prosperity’ evangelists that take the concept of theosis in such a way as to elevate humans to be godlike in their own right. In Isaiah 14, Satan (depicted as King of Tyre) is quoted as saying, “I will” four times, and is thrown into Hell.

Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his own image . . .

However, that leaves us with the question of “Who is man?” and “What is his destiny?”. In the image of God, the imago dei, not ‘as gods’, but ‘in his image’, it says. We are designed to be the living icons of a living God. We are not God, but, if we were still as we were designed to be, those looking at us would see God. We were designed not merely to be something like Him, but to be indistinguishable from Him -- windows, as it were, directly into the Divine Nature. Theosis, then, is a lot more than merely being able to endure God’s presence, it is belonging there. It is being so much a part of His presence that separation becomes all-but-unthinkable.

This is a concept that both East and West have been wrestling with , neither very successfully as it is a grappling with things eternal and beyond the full understanding of men, with two very different emphases, both of which are essential for the fullness of the Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Faith. The greatest tragedy of the Great Schism is that it produced the appearance that the two schools of thought can exist alone. They cannot.

ed

Kolokotronis said...

You all have what I would call interesting, and distinctly Western takes on Theosis. Theosis is the whole point of the Incarnation. In other words, God became man so that we might fulfill our original created purpose of being both in the "image" and "likeness" of God. I say this full well knowing what +Athanasius and other early Fathers wrote.

The perhaps a bit underdeveloped, or at least not fully worked out, theology of the Cappadocian Fathers in this regard, "I believe in God; God does not "exist", is instructive when thinking about just what Theosis really is. Their thinking was expanded upon by +Symeon the New Theologian in the 11th century:

"'Can a man take fire into his bosom, and his clothes not be burned?' (Prov. 6:27) says the wise Solomon. And I say: can he, who has in his heart the Divine fire of the Holy Spirit burning naked, not be set on fire, not shine and glitter and not take on the radiance of the Deity in the degree of his purification and penetration by fire? For penetration by fire follows upon purification of the heart, and again purification of the heart follows upon penetration by fire, that is, inasmuch as the heart is purified, so it receives Divine grace, and again inasmuch as it receives grace, so it is purified. When this is completed (that is, purification of heart and acquisition of grace have attained their fullness and perfection), through grace a man becomes wholly a god."

Note that +Symeon's conception of Theosis relates to man taking on a type of divine "radiance" through becoming purified. +Symeon's writings also provide us with a confirmation of what the earlier Fathers, for example, +John Climacus in his "Ladder of Divine Ascent" taught about Theosis, namely that it is a process, not a "pow, you're saved" sort of thing.

+Gregory Palamas in the 14th century set the definitions for Theosis, at least for The Church in the East by stating that man, through the process of Theosis, shares in the uncreated energies of God, like the "radiance" +Symeon writes about, if not in the Divine Essence itself.

"Three realities pertain to God: essence, energy, and the triad of divine hypostases. As we have seen, those privileged to be united to God so as to become one spirit with Him - as St. Paul said, 'He who cleaves to the Lord is one spirit with Him' are not united to God with respect to His essence, since all theologians testify that with respect to His essence God suffers no participation.

Moreover, the hypostatic union is fulfilled only in the case of the Logos, the God-man.

Thus those privileged to attain union with God are united to Him with respect to His energy; and the 'spirit', according to which they who cleave to God are one with Him, is and is called the uncreated energy of the Holy Spirit, but not the essence of God."

The concept that Theosis is simply the ability to stand in the presence of God and perceive God for what He really is is a variation, and I think perhaps a bit of a distortion, of some of the writings of various of the Syriac Fathers who held, quite correctly I think, that by grace and the imitation of Christ through dying to the self, the nous or eye of the soul is enabled "to approach the essential light of the divinity that exists above the world." This is certainly a result of the process of Theosis, but not by any means the only one.

Without getting into the distinction between uncreated divine energies and divine essence, a subject which divides The Church to this day, its perhaps best to simply say, remembering that God has no "existence" as we know it (He being the definition of Existence) that Theosis is a process by which, to rework +Athanasius a bit, we become "like God".

Fr. Robert Hart said...

"The greatest tragedy of the Great Schism is that it produced the appearance that the two schools of thought can exist alone. They cannot."

Amen

Warwickensis said...

Quite right, Fr. Hart.

The Eastern Church has always spoken of the need for head and heart to melt into one. St Thomas Aquinas did this, but the Western Church has only taken up his scholastic work. Likewise, too much a grounding in the Mystical leads us to lose practices to apply for the good of those around us.

I pray for an ending of all these schisms and for a unification of the Orthodox Catholic Church.

Kolokotronis said...

"The greatest tragedy of the Great Schism is that it produced the appearance that the two schools of thought can exist alone. They cannot."

Why not? Surely they cannot both be right! There will be a reunion of the particular churches within The Church when they all, theologically, believe the exact same thing, though certainly there is now as there always has been, some limited room for differences in praxis.

From an Orthodox pov, and I suspect from the pov of the Roman Church and those in communion with it, there is no room nor desire for anything like the Elizabethan Compromise.

Continuing Home said...

IMHO it would be a shame for this discussion to disappear under the layers of subsequent posts. Could it be linked from the sidebar?

poetreader said...

Kolokotronis:

Why can't they both be true? My whole point is that neither way of looking at the one reality is, or can be, sufficient. In the unity that God has promised to bring about, Christians will all believe the same thing, certainly, but will they all describe it in the same way? I write poetry. What I write is a definite reflection of what I see, but another writing of the same subject may be as accurate as I in describing it in an entirely different manner. The Elizabethan compromise was, in part an uneasy coexistence of those who considered each other seriously wrong. East and West were once united in accepting each other's different ways of describing the same truth. It could be so again.

Continuing Home:

This topic has showed up in the sidebar and is clickable there, as "Theosis, East and West"

ed

Kolokotronis said...

poetreader:

They can't both be true because Truth is neither relative nor divisble. It doesn't matter one whit how you or I perceive that which has been divinely revealed. If it did we would all be Protestants. All that matters is what The Church teaches founded in Scripture and the consensus patrum. As between East and West, in this matter, Orthodoxy believes that the West fell into a sort of neo Greek paganism with the rise of the Scholastics after Aquinas. The West's concept of God, salvation, human nature, even sin itself, are near 180 degrees off that of the early Church, but are in many ways quite consistent with Greek pagan philosophy. The monk Barlaam thought he could reconcile this sort of Western thought with that of the Eastern Fathers, thus his contentions with +Gregory Palamas. In the end, both East and West rejected Barlaam.

Lex orandi, lex credendi, my friend. How we talk about things can make all the difference.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Kolokotronis wrote:

Why not? Surely they cannot both be right!

People say that about the Four Gospels, and the shallow idea that the differences of emphasis on the part of the eye witnesses somehow must be a contradiction. It all depends upon whether your understanding has yet advanced beyond a superficial stage. Some of the modern Orthodox writers have gone out of their way to produce this kind of superficial understanding of Western theology, and I blame them for finding new ways to do the Devil's work of creating worse and worse division. There is far more common ground than they want to admit or discover. A perfect example is that they cannot ever give a true account of what Saint Anselm really taught, and its roots in Gregory of Nyssa. This brings us back to the subject caricatures and prejudice, which are only worse when touted by partially educated people using academic terminology.

There will be a reunion of the particular churches within The Church when they all, theologically, believe the exact same thing

Here too, since when do all of the Orthodox really believe the exact same thing? In the essentials of the Faith, the Western and Eastern traditions are saying the same thing, but it takes geunine humility and genuine learning to hear the major themes that ought to unite us. I suppose some people may reject the four Gospels for the same reason: They do not all seem to say the exact same thing. The Man, the Lion, The Eagle and the Ox are all one picture: so too, the Eastern and Western Faith of Christ's Church.

By the way, your understanding of Theosis is quite excellent. However, what ever makes you think that it is different from the Western understanding of Deification? I insist, it is not different.

Without getting into the distinction between uncreated divine energies and divine essence, a subject which divides The Church to this day...

To be blunt, this is not an issue that divides East from West, and never has been. I can guess the identity of the man who wrote these words. If you still believe that this is what divides the Church, then you still need to do a lot more reading and learning (beginning with David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite).

As between East and West, in this matter, Orthodoxy believes that the West fell into a sort of neo Greek paganism with the rise of the Scholastics after Aquinas.

The finest Orthodox theologians, which happen to be men of my acquaintance (read that carefully), would tell you to speak for yourself rather than for their Church. Clearly, what you do not understand is classical Western theological teaching (and please do not call Continuing Anglo-Catholics by the misnomer "Protestants"). I do not care how long you were a "Western" Christian before your "conversion." The fact is, you just do not understand the Western theological tradition, or you would bite your tongue before uttering this charge that Western Christians are really pagans. I have heard this before, the caricature that the Western tradition believes in a god, lke Zeus, who is simply a "Supreme Being" rather than transcendent. Hogwash. We worship the same Wholly Other God who cannot be known apart from the Incarnate Christ.

"'Can a man take fire into his bosom, and his clothes not be burned?' (Prov. 6:27) says the wise Solomon. And I say: can he, who has in his heart the Divine fire of the Holy Spirit burning naked, not be set on fire, not shine and glitter and not take on the radiance of the Deity in the degree of his purification and penetration by fire?

Can you not find a better quotation of scripture for this holy subject than a verse about adultery?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

See my newly posted blog, More on East and West.

Kolokotronis said...

Re: Fr. Hart's latest post:

I am at a bit of a loss as to where to start in response to your screed, Father, but I'll give it a try.

"It all depends upon whether your understanding has yet advanced beyond a superficial stage."

I suppose I think that my understanding has advanced somewhat beyond the superficial stage. There are people in Constantinople, Athens, Thessaloniki even Damascus, Rome and New York who agree, but you are of course entitled to your opinion, Father.

"However, what ever makes you think that it is different from the Western understanding of Deification? I insist, it is not different."

At certain points, the Western understanding of Theosis is in sync with that of the East, but in other areas, especially as regards the distinction between essence and energy, the differences are vast. To deny that distinction, to hold that man can share in the Divine Essence, which at least the Latin Church seems to do, displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of our Triune God, in much the same way that the filioque, at least in Medieval theology and popular modern Western theology, did and does. I can't seem to use html here to write in Greek characters the name which appears on every icon of Christ. Transliterated it is "O OWN". As you must know, Father, that's not a term which lends itself to anything approaching a precise translation. That said, it does express, far better than English or Latin, the fully transcendant and ineffable nature of God. And it makes it quite clear, as +Gregory Palamas points out, that created beings will never, ever, share in the Divine Essence. I'd say that was quite a difference, Father.

"To be blunt, this is not an issue that divides East from West, and never has been. I can guess the identity of the man who wrote these words. If you still believe that this is what divides the Church, then you still need to do a lot more reading and learning...."

You can guess all you want, Father, but those were my words and while I certainly know who you are, and who your brother is, I sincerely doubt that you know who I am. It is unfortunate that you are under the impression that the essence/uncreated energies question is not a dividing issue within The Church. This is not to say, at least as between Rome and the Eastern and Oriental Patriarchates, that the matter cannot be resolved by an ecumenical council. It can. What role Anglicanism, in any form, would have in such a council, given the difficulty in determining just what is and is not Anglican theology and praxis these days, is certainly an open question (too bad +J C Ryle isn't still on the scene).

"The finest Orthodox theologians, which happen to be men of my acquaintance (read that carefully), would tell you to speak for yourself rather than for their Church."

Really Father! Am I to be impressed? I haven't a clue who you are talking about, but given your brother's jurisdiction, I can guess. I can also say that they are hardly, at least in the East, considered "The finest Orthodox theologians". Greek Orthodoxy has its share of syncretists and second rate theologians here in the States too. The fact of the matter is, as I said before, you've not a clue who I am or who I speak with on theological matters. I can tell you this, they are all born Orthodox. As for speaking for the Church, I didn't feel I was doing that nor would I presume to do that. The Fathers do just fine in that regard, as do some friends of mine in Constantinople and here for that matter.

"(and please do not call Continuing Anglo-Catholics by the misnomer "Protestants")"

You misunderstood my comment. My point was precisely that you are not Protestants and so should not talk or think like Protestants. By the way, in this regard I am certainly not in the mainstream of Orthodox thought, at least not modern Orthodox thought, which seems to hold that Anglicans are outside The Church and are at best what the Pope has called an ecclesial assembly.


" I do not care how long you were a "Western" Christian before your "conversion.""

Father, I am not a convert. You must have me confused with someone else.


"The fact is, you just do not understand the Western theological tradition, or you would bite your tongue before uttering this charge that Western Christians are really pagans."

I certainly studied it long enough, with Jesuits among others, but I will grant you it was very, very many years ago. My comment about paganism, however, is based in +Gregory Palamas views on the one hand, and a school of modern Greek Orthodox Christian theology presented by Alexander Kalomiros and Fr. John Romanides on the other. I'm sure you are familiar with Romanides but if you haven't read The River of Fire by Kalomiros, which is online, you might want to take a look at it. Kalomiros is rather more "in your face" about these matters than I am, but his pov is worth knowing and understanding if you truly want to understand Orthodoxy at a gut level.

"Can you not find a better quotation of scripture for this holy subject than a verse about adultery?"

Oh Father! You'd have to take that up with +Symeon the New Theologian. Its his quotation, not mine. But Father, can't you see what +Symeon is doing and why he used that precise quote to speak to his monks of Theosis?

All in all, Father, its a shame you felt you had to post your last comments. An Anglican friend, a man I have the utmost respect for, suggested I comment on this blog thread. Given your comments, I think its best if I leave off here.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Kolokotronis wrote:
My comment about paganism, however, is based in +Gregory Palamas views on the one hand, and a school of modern Greek Orthodox Christian theology presented by Alexander Kalomiros and Fr. John Romanides on the other. I'm sure you are familiar with Romanides but if you haven't read The River of Fire by Kalomiros, which is online, you might want to take a look at it. Kalomiros is rather more "in your face" about these matters than I am, but his pov is worth knowing and understanding if you truly want to understand Orthodoxy at a gut level.

I prefer not to understand Orthodoxy on a gut level, but to understand it truly. I will not argue, however, against the fact that Kalomiros and Romanides are skilled at muddying the waters of understanding with gut level "Orthodoxy."

I will not retract one word of anything I have said previously. Kolokotronis sees "Western" theology only in terms of the caricatures and prejudice I have already mentioned. These are false issues, and I repeat that it all depends upon whether our understanding is going to be superficial or in depth. The real question is how much the superficiality is a form of Invincible Ignorance, and how much it is cherished.