Theosis (Eastern Christian theology)

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Icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent (the steps toward theosis as described by John Climacus) showing monks ascending (and falling from) the ladder to Jesus StJohnClimacus.jpg
Icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent (the steps toward theosis as described by John Climacus) showing monks ascending (and falling from) the ladder to Jesus

Theosis (Greek : θέωσις), or deification (deification may also refer to apotheosis , lit. "making divine"), is a transformative process whose aim is likeness to or union with God, as taught by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Catholic Churches. As a process of transformation, theosis is brought about by the effects of catharsis (purification of mind and body) and theoria ('illumination' with the 'vision' of God). According to Eastern Christian teachings, theosis is very much the purpose of human life. It is considered achievable only through synergy (or cooperation) of human activity and God's uncreated energies (or operations). [1]

According to Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos), the primacy of theosis in Eastern Orthodox Christian theology is directly related to the fact that Byzantine theology (as historically conceived by its principal exponents) is based to a greater extent than Latin Catholic theology on the direct spiritual insights of the saints or mystics of the church rather than the apparently more rational thought tradition of the West. [2] Byzantine Christians consider that "no one who does not follow the path of union with God can be a theologian" [3] in the proper sense. Thus theology in Byzantine Christianity is not treated primarily as an academic pursuit. Instead it is based on applied revelation (see gnosiology), and the primary validation of a theologian is understood to be a holy and ascetical life rather than intellectual training or academic credentials (see scholasticism). [2]


Athanasius of Alexandria wrote, "He was incarnate that we might be made god" (Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν). [4] What would otherwise seem absurd—that fallen, sinful man may become holy as God is holy—has been made possible through Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate. Naturally, the crucial Christian assertion, that God is One, sets an absolute limit on the meaning of theosis: even as it is not possible for any created being to become God ontologically, or even a necessary part of God (of the three existences of God called hypostases), so a created being cannot become Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit nor the Father of the Trinity. [5]

Most specifically creatures, i.e. created beings, cannot become God in His transcendent essence, or ousia, hyper-being (see apophaticism). Such a concept would be the henosis , or absorption and fusion into God of Greek pagan philosophy. However, every being and reality itself is considered as composed of the immanent energy, or energeia, of God. As energy is the actuality of God, i.e. his immanence, from God's being, it is also the energeia or activity of God. Thus the doctrine avoids pantheism while partially accepting Neoplatonism's terms and general concepts, but not its substance (see Plotinus). [5]

Maximus the Confessor wrote:

A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to deification of human nature is provided by the Incarnation of God, which makes man God to the same degree as God Himself became man. ...Let us become the image of the one whole God, bearing nothing earthly in ourselves, so that we may consort with God and become gods, receiving from God our existence as gods. For it is clear that He Who became man without sin (cf. Heb. 4:15 ) will divinize human nature without changing it into the Divine Nature, and will raise it up for His Own sake to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man's sake. This is what St[.] Paul teaches mystically when he says, "that in the ages to come he might display the overflowing richness of His grace" (Eph. 2:7 ) [6]


Through theoria (illumination with or direct experience of the Triune God), human beings come to know and experience what it means to be fully human, i.e., the created image of God; through their communion with Jesus Christ, God shares himself with the human race, in order to conform them to all that He is in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. As God became human, in all ways except sin, he will also make humans "God", i.e., "holy" or "saintly", in all ways except his Divine Essence, which is uncaused and uncreated. Irenaeus explained this doctrine in the work Against Heresies , Book 5, Preface: "the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself."

As a patristic and historical teaching

For many Church Fathers, theosis goes beyond simply restoring people to their state before the fall of Adam and Eve, teaching that because Christ united the human and divine natures in Jesus' person, it is now possible for someone to experience closer fellowship with God than Adam and Eve initially experienced in the Garden of Eden, and that people can become more like God than Adam and Eve were at that time. Some Byzantine Christian theologians say that Jesus would have become incarnate for this reason alone, even if Adam and Eve had never sinned. [7]

All of humanity is fully restored to the full potential of humanity because the Son of God took to himself a human nature to be born of a woman, and takes to himself also the sufferings due to sin (yet is not himself sinful, and is God unchanged in being). In Christ the two natures of God and human are not two persons but one; thus a union is effected in Christ between all of humanity in principle and God. So the holy God and sinful humanity are reconciled in principle in the one sinless man, Jesus Christ. (See Jesus' prayer as recorded in John 17.) [8]

This reconciliation is made actual through the struggle to conform to the image of Christ. Without the struggle, the praxis, there is no real faith; faith leads to action, without which it is dead. One must unite will, thought, and action to God's will, his thoughts, and his actions. A person must fashion his life to be a mirror, a true likeness of God. More than that, since God and humanity are more than a similarity in Christ but rather a true union, Christians' lives are more than mere imitation and are rather a union with the life of God himself: so that the one who is working out salvation is united with God working within the penitent both to will and to do that which pleases God (Philippians 2:13).

A common analogy for theosis, given by the Greek fathers, is that of a metal which is put into the fire. The metal obtains all the properties of the fire (heat, light), while its essence remains that of a metal. [9] Using the head-body analogy from Paul the Apostle, every man in whom Christ lives partakes of the glory of Christ. As John Chrysostom observes, "where the head is, there is the body also. There is no interval to separate between the Head and the body; for were there a separation, then were it no longer a body, then were it no longer a head." [10]


Theosis is understood to have three stages: first, the purgative way, purification, or katharsis; second, illumination, the illuminative way, the vision of God, or theoria ; and third, sainthood, the unitive way, or theosis. Thus the term "theosis" describes the whole process and its objective. By means of purification a person comes to theoria and then to theosis. Theosis is the participation of the person in the life of God. According to this doctrine, the holy life of God, given in Jesus Christ to the believer through the Holy Spirit, is expressed through the three stages of theosis, beginning in the struggles of this life, increasing in the experience of knowledge of God, and consummated in the resurrection of the believer, when the victory of God over fear, sin, and death, accomplished in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is made manifest in the believer forever. [11]

Ascetic practice

The journey toward theosis includes many forms of praxis, the most obvious being monasticism and clergy. Of the monastic tradition, the practice of hesychasm is most important as a way to establish a direct relationship with God. Living in the community of the church and partaking regularly of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, is taken for granted. Also important is cultivating "prayer of the heart", and prayer that never ceases, as Paul exhorts in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. This unceasing prayer of the heart is a dominant theme in the writings of the Fathers, especially in those collected in the Philokalia . It is considered that no one can reach theosis without an impeccable Christian living, crowned by faithful, warm, and, ultimately, silent, continuous Prayer of the Heart. [12]

The "doer" in deification is the Holy Spirit, with whom the human being joins his will to receive this transforming grace by praxis and prayer, and as Gregory Palamas teaches, the Christian mystics are deified as they become filled with the Light of Tabor of the Holy Spirit in the degree that they make themselves open to it by asceticism (divinization being not a one-sided act of God, but a loving cooperation between God and the advanced Christian, which Palamas considers a synergy). [13]

This synergeia or co-operation between God and Man does not lead to mankind being absorbed into the God as was taught in earlier pagan forms of deification like henosis. Rather it expresses unity, in the complementary nature between the created and the creator. Acquisition of the Holy Spirit is key as the acquisition of the Spirit leads to self-realization. [14]

Western attitudes

Western attitudes have traditionally been negative, not towards divinization itself (which is also part of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church), but towards the ways in which divinization is supposed to happen according to Byzantine theology. In his article, Bloor highlights various Western theologians who have contributed to what he calls a "stigma" towards theosis. [15] Yet, recent theological discourse has seen a reversal of this, with Bloor drawing upon Western theologians from an array of traditions, whom, he claims, embrace theosis/deification. [15]

The practice of ascetic prayer, called Hesychasm in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Byzantine Catholic Churches, "is centered on the enlightenment or deification (... or theosis, in Greek) of man". [16]

Hesychasm is directed to a goal that is not limited to natural life alone and goes beyond this to deification (theosis). [17]

In the past, Roman Catholic theologians generally expressed a negative view of Hesychasm. The doctrine of Gregory Palamas won almost no following in the West, [18] and the distrustful attitude of Barlaam in its regard prevailed among Western theologians, surviving into the early 20th century, as shown in Adrian Fortescue's article on hesychasm in the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia . [19] Fortescue translated the Greek words ἥσυχος and ἡσυχαστής as "quiet" and "quietist". [20]

In the same period, Edward Pace's article on quietism indicated that, while in the strictest sense quietism is a 17th-century doctrine proposed by Miguel de Molinos, the term is also used more broadly to cover both Indian religions and what Edward Pace called "the vagaries of Hesychasm", thus betraying the same prejudices as Fortescue with regard to hesychasm; [21] and, again in the same period, Siméon Vailhé described some aspects of the teaching of Palamas as "monstrous errors", "heresies" and "a resurrection of polytheism", and called the hesychast method for arriving at perfect contemplation "no more than a crude form of auto-suggestion". [22]

Different concepts of "natural contemplation" existed in the East and in the medieval West. [lower-alpha 1] [23]

The twentieth century saw a remarkable change in the attitude of Roman Catholic theologians to Palamas, a "rehabilitation" of him that has led to increasing parts of the Western Church considering him a saint, even if uncanonized. [24] Some Western scholars maintain that there is no conflict between Palamas's teaching and Roman Catholic thought. [25] According to G. Philips, the essence–energies distinction is "a typical example of a perfectly admissible theological pluralism" that is compatible with the Roman Catholic magisterium. [25] Jeffrey D. Finch claims that "the future of East–West rapprochement appears to be overcoming the modern polemics of neo-scholasticism and neo-Palamism". [26] Some Western theologians have incorporated the theology of Palamas into their own thinking. [27]

Pope John Paul II said Catholics should be familiar with "the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches", so as to be nourished by it. Among the treasures of that tradition he mentioned in particular:

the teaching of the Cappadocian Fathers on divinization (which) passed into the tradition of all the Byzantine Churches and is part of their common heritage. This can be summarized in the thought already expressed by Saint Irenaeus at the end of the second century: God passed into man so that man might pass over to God. This theology of divinization remains one of the achievements particularly dear to Byzantine Christian thought. [28]

See also


  1. John Meyendorff wrote:
    The debate between Barlaam and the hesychasts can probably be best understood in the light of their different interpretations of what St. Maximus the Confessor used to call "natural contemplation" (physikē theōria) or the new state of creative being in Christ. Barlaam – and also medieval Latin tradition – tends to understand this created habitus as a condition for and not a consequence of grace. Palamas, on the contrary, proclaims the overwhelming novelty of the Kingdom of God revealed in Christ, and the gratuitous nature of the divine and saving acts of God. Hence, for him, vision of God cannot depend on human "knowledge". [23]

Related Research Articles

Hesychasm Contemplative prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Church

Hesychasm is a mystical tradition of contemplative prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Based on Jesus's injunction in the Gospel of Matthew that "whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you", hesychasm in tradition has been the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God.

Jesus Prayer Short formulaic prayer esteemed and advocated especially within the Eastern churches

The Jesus Prayer, also known as The Prayer, is a short formulaic prayer esteemed and advocated especially within the Eastern churches: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The prayer has been widely taught and discussed throughout the history of the Orthodox Church. The ancient and original form did not include the words "a sinner", which were added later. It is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice, its use being an integral part of the eremitic tradition of prayer known as hesychasm. The prayer is particularly esteemed by the spiritual fathers of this tradition as a method of cleaning and opening up the mind and after this the heart (kardia) and bringing about firstly the Prayer of the Mind or more correctly the Noetic Prayer and after this the Prayer of the Heart. The Prayer of the Heart is considered to be the Unceasing Prayer that the Apostle Paul advocates in the New Testament. Theophan the Recluse regarded the Jesus Prayer stronger than all other prayers by virtue of the power of the Holy Name of Jesus.

Gregory Palamas Greek monk and archbishop

Gregory Palamas was a Byzantine Greek theologian and Eastern Orthodox cleric of the late Byzantine period. A monk of Mount Athos and later archbishop of Thessaloniki, he is famous for his defense of hesychast spirituality, the uncreated character of the light of the Transfiguration, and the distinction between God's essence and energies. His teaching unfolded over the course of three major controversies, (1) with the Italo-Greek Barlaam between 1336 and 1341, (2) with the monk Gregory Akindynos between 1341 and 1347, and (3) with the philosopher Gregoras, from 1348 to 1355. His theological contributions are sometimes referred to as Palamism, and his followers as Palamites.

In Christian theology, divinization, or theopoesis or theosis, is the transforming effect of divine grace, the spirit of God, or the atonement of Christ. Although it literally means to become divine, or to become god, most Christian denominations do not interpret the doctrine as implying an overcoming of a fundamental metaphysical difference between God and humanity, for example John of the Cross had it: "it is true that its natural being, though thus transformed, is as distinct from the Being of God as it was before".

Contemplation Profound thinking about something

Whilst in the life of the intellect 'contemplation' refers to thinking profoundly about something, in the religious life contemplation is a kind of inner vision or seeing, transcendent of the intellect, facilitated by means of practices such as prayer or meditation.

John Savvas Romanides was an Eastern Orthodox priest, author and professor who had a distinctive influence on post-war Greek Orthodox theology.

Essence–energies distinction Theological concept central to current Eastern Orthodoxy

In Palamite theology, there is a distinction between the essence (ousia) and the energies (energeia) of God. It was first formulated by Gregory Palamas (1296–1359) as part of his defense of the Athonite monastic practice of hesychasmos against the charge of heresy brought by the humanist scholar and theologian Barlaam of Calabria.

Vladimir Lossky 20th-century Russian theologian

Vladimir Nikolayevich Lossky was an Eastern Orthodox theologian in exile from Russia. He emphasized theosis as the main principle of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Eastern Orthodox theology is the theology particular to the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is characterized by monotheistic Trinitarianism, belief in the Incarnation of the essentially divine Logos or only-begotten Son of God, a balancing of cataphatic theology with apophatic theology, a hermeneutic defined by a polyvalent Sacred Tradition, a concretely catholic ecclesiology, a robust theology of the person, and a principally recapitulative and therapeutic soteriology.

Mystical theology

Mystical theology is the branch of theology that explains mystical practices and states, as induced by contemplative practices such as contemplative prayer.

Tabor Light

In Eastern Orthodox Christian theology, the Tabor Light is the light revealed on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration of Jesus, identified with the light seen by Paul at his conversion.


Palamism or the Palamite theology comprises the teachings of Gregory Palamas, whose writings defended the Eastern Orthodox practice of Hesychasm against the attack of Barlaam. Followers of Palamas are sometimes referred to as Palamites.

Nicodemus the Hagiorite

St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite or St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain is a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He was an ascetic monk, mystic, theologian, and philosopher. His life's work was a revival of traditional Christian practices and patristic literature. He wrote ascetic prayer literature and influenced the rediscovery of Hesychasm, a method of contemplative prayer from the Byzantine period. He is most famous for his work with St. Macarius of Corinth on the anthology of monastic spiritual writings known as The Philokalia and his compilation of canons known as the Pedalion. He was canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 1955.

Theological differences between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church

The Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have been in a state of official schism from one another since the East–West Schism of 1054. This schism was caused by historical and language differences, and the ensuing theological differences between the Western and Eastern churches.

Nepsis Eastern Orthodox concept of wakefulness

Nepsis is an important idea in Orthodox Christian theology. It means wakefulness or watchfulness and constitutes a condition of sobriety acquired following a period of catharsis.

Christian contemplation Christian practices which aim at "looking at", "gazing at", "being aware of" God or the Divine

Christian contemplation, from contemplatio, refers to several Christian practices which aim at "looking at", "gazing at", "being aware of" God or the Divine. It includes several practices and theological concepts, and until the sixth century the practice of what is now called mysticism was referred to by the term contemplatio, c.q. theoria.

The Triads of Gregory Palamas are a set of nine treatises entitled "Triads For The Defense of Those Who Practice Sacred Quietude" written by Gregory Palamas in response to attacks made by Barlaam. The treatises are called "Triads" because they were organized as three sets of three treatises.

History of Eastern Orthodox theology

The history of Eastern Orthodox Christian theology begins with the life of Jesus and the forming of the Christian Church. Major events include the Chalcedonian schism of 451 with the Oriental Orthodox miaphysites, the Iconoclast controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries, the Photian schism (863-867), the Great Schism between East and West, and the Hesychast controversy. The period after the end of the Second World War in 1945 saw a re-engagement with the Greek, and more recently Syriac Fathers that included a rediscovery of the theological works of St. Gregory Palamas, which has resulted in a renewal of Orthodox theology in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Hesychast controversy

The Hesychast controversy was a theological dispute in the Byzantine Empire during the 14th century between supporters and opponents of Gregory Palamas. While not a primary driver of the Byzantine Civil War, it influenced and was influenced by the political forces in play during that war. The dispute concluded with the victory of the Palamists and the inclusion of Palamite doctrine as part of the dogma of the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as the canonization of Palamas.

History of Eastern Orthodox theology in the 20th century

20th century Eastern Orthodox theology has been dominated by neo-Palamism, the revival of St. Palamas and hesychasm. John Behr characterizes Orthodox theology as having been "reborn in the twentieth century." Norman Russell describes Orthodox theology as having been dominated by an "arid scholasticism" for several centuries after the fall of Constantinople. Russell describes the postwar re-engagement of modern Greek theologians with the Greek Fathers, which occurred with the help of diaspora theologians and Western patristic scholars. A significant component of this re-engagement with the Greek Fathers has been a rediscovery of Palamas by Greek theologians; Palamas had previously been given less attention than the other Fathers.



  1. Bartos 1999, p. 253; Kapsanis 2006.
  2. 1 2 Vlachos 1994.
  3. Lossky 2002, p. 39.
  4. Athanasius 2011, sec. 54.3, p. 167.
  5. 1 2 Lossky 2002, pp. 29–33.
  6. PHILOKALIA , Volume 2, page 178).
  7. Lossky 2002, ch. 1.
  8. Mathewes-Green 2009, p. 12.
  9. Popov 2012, p. 48.
  10. Chrysostom 2012, p. ???.
  11. Lossky 2002, pp. 8–9, 39, 126, 133, 154, 196.
  12. Kotsonis, John (2010). "Unceasing Prayer". Retrieved 10 January 2017.
  13. Maloney 2003, p. 173.
  14. Kapsanis n.d.
  15. 1 2 Bloor 2015.
  16. Chrysostomos 2001, p. 206.
  17. Fortescue 1910; Horujy 2005.
  18. Fortescue 1910.
  19. Andreopoulos 2005, p. 215; Fortescue 1910.
  20. Fortescue 1910, p. 301.
  21. Pace 1911.
  22. Vailhé 1909, p. 768.
  23. Meyendorff 1983, pp. 12–13.
  24. Pelikan 1983, p. xi.
  25. 1 2 Finch 2007, p. 243.
  26. Finch 2007, p. 244.
  27. Ware 2000, p. 186.
  28. "Pope John Paul II, Orientale Lumen". Retrieved 16 January 2018.


Further reading