A Christian goal of true godliness

The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition
May 13, 2005

St Basil the Great, in his treatise on the Holy Spirit, attributes to the power of the Holy Spirit "foreknowledge of the future, understanding of the mysteries, apprehension of what is hidden, distribution of good gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the chorus of angels, joy without end, abiding in God, being made like God, and, the highest goal of all, becoming a god".

This idea that the goal of the Christian life is to become a god - deification - might seem odd in a monotheistic religion such as Christianity. Nevertheless, in the tradition of the Greek East, deification became the preferred term for the goal of the Christian life. In other Christian traditions, such language is muted or even denied: muted in the tradition of the Catholic West and often denied in Protestantism. Western scholars have in the past often sought to present the Greek tradition of deification as a relic of Hellenic paganism, while in the 20th century, Russian Orthodox Christians, fleeing the Russian Revolution, in their encounter with the traditions of the Western Christendom, frequently presented the doctrine of deification as a distinctive facet of their Orthodox tradition. In turn, Western Christians have often been fascinated by the doctrine of deification.

The interest has, for the most part, expressed itself in articles and chapters in books, the only sustained treatment hitherto being a book by Jules Gross, published in French on the eve of the Second World War, which appeared in an English translation only in 2002 ( The Divinization of the Christian according to the Greek Fathers ). Gross sought to respond to the attack on deification by Adolf von Harnack, a Lutheran historian of theology, a fact that constrained the approach of his work.

What is needed is a thorough discussion of the ways in which the Greek Fathers present the goal of the Christian life in terms of "becoming god" or "participation in God", a discussion that explores what roots this notion might have in classical, Jewish and scriptural sources, the various contexts in which it is used and how it develops into the doctrine that came to be the hallmark of the Byzantine tradition. This we now have - and more - in this marvellous book.

Originating in a doctoral thesis, it has evidently developed a great deal since then, for Norman Russell presents his subject with the assurance of a master. He begins by making some valuable distinctions. Instead of conceiving too quickly of a "doctrine of deification" (as Gross tended to do), Russell sees here a metaphor used in a variety of ways; he distinguishes nominal, analogical, ethical and realistic uses, that is, to explain how humans can be called gods (as in Psalm 81:6, cited in John 10:34), or by way of analogy, or indicating a "divine" form of life, or to express the nature of the transformation involved in human engagement with God. This sense of the different functions of the concept of deification runs through the book.

Another important element is Russell's analysis of the language used by the Greek Fathers: not that he falls foul of any "etymological" fallacy, rather he brings out the variety of Christian language and how the eventually most widespread use - theosis and the verb theoo - seems to be a coinage of Gregory of Nazianzus. His discussion proceeds historically, with the first two chapters looking at the classical background (apotheosis, mystery religions and, most important, philosophical religion and Egyptian hermeticism) and the Jewish background (not simply Philo, whose influence is undeniable, but also the apocalyptic tradition, with its ideas of visions of the throne-chariot of God and passage to the heavenly choir).

Then follow a series of chapters beginning with the New Testament and early Christian theology, where participatory union with Christ is often expressed in terms of sharing in His communion with God; two fundamental chapters on Alexandrian Christianity, in which Russell makes effective use of the notion of a conflict between the scholastic and the episcopal traditions, the latter becoming dominant in the Constantinian era; a deceptively slight chapter on the Cappadocian Fathers; then one on the monastic synthesis, culminating in Maximus the Confessor; the epilogue focuses on a few significant later figures, including Gregory Palamas, and hesychast spirituality, and a brief look at modern approaches to deification.

There are two appendices: one on deification in the Syriac tradition and in Augustine (one on the Coptic tradition would have been interesting, too) and an extended summary of Russell's findings on the Greek vocabulary of deification. He displays not just understanding of the material, but also a clear awareness of the field of patristic studies, and how questions such as the pressure for dogmatic definition in the 4th century or conflicts within monasticism over "Origenism" bear on the topic of deification.

In short, this is a masterpiece of what historical discussion of Christian doctrine should be: historically acute and theologically perceptive. His final pages on modern approaches to deification are noteworthy for the attention given to the revival of the doctrine of deification in modern Greek theology. Oddly, he misses the school of Finnish Lutherans who have argued the importance of deification in Martin Luther. Nevertheless, the closing pages make it clear that the doctrine of deification is a matter of lively concern in modern theological discussion.

Andrew Louth is professor of patristic and Byzantine studies, Durham University.

The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition

Author - Norman Russell
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 418
Price - £70.00
ISBN - 0 19 926521 6

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