Oecumenical Grace: Eastern Orthodoxy on Theosis

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“It is too little realized,” write Charles Mœller and Gérard Philips, “that opposition to neo-platonism is as important in the East as that to Pelagianism in the West” (The Theology of Grace and the Oecumenical Movement, p. 6). In the person of Barlaam, Byzantine Christianity confronted a form of Hellenistic apophaticism that rejected the possibility that the baptized can directly and personally experience divinity in their earthly life. In response the Byzantine Church argued that “theology provides the most certain knowledge of God because it is God who is the agent in revealing Himself therein; thus theology, in the context of revelation, becomes an objective and positive mode of cognisance” (p.7). The God who is beyond all being truly communicates himself to man. Here is the import of the Palamite distinction between the incommunicable divine essence and the communicable divine energies. The distinction allows theology to assert the profound truth that God directly shares himself with humanity:

The gulf between the creature and the Creator makes it necessary that the divine energies through which we see God should not themselves belong to the creation. … Of course, the essence of God remains in itself unknowable, for only the three divine hypostases share in it. There is simply a total participation in the divine energy, that is, in that mysterious mode of God’s presence by which He reveals Himself and acts in the believer. The difficult Palamite doctrine of the ἐνεργείαι, at once distinct from God, and yet uncreated, is a systematic way of expressing a simple truth: that the divine life is really given to us. The choice of the term ‘uncreated energies’ emphasizes first that God reveals Himself by acting, which excludes any idea of ‘passion’ in God, and secondly, that since the communication of the divine life is ‘uncreated,’ there can never be any question of making it, by any means whatsoever, the reward of human ‘merit.’ (p. 8)

Deification is nothing less than experience of and participation in the divine life of the Holy Trinity. The baptized know God, not something created by God. The theology of the divine energies thus excludes any suggestion of a created grace. Viewed through Orthodox eyes, the scholastic teaching on created grace appears to deny genuine deification, as if God can only bestow upon his creatures a created supernatural life instead of the uncreated existence that is his.

Mœller and Philips, however, believe that Palamism is ultimately reconcilable with the the scholastic formulation of the mystery of grace:

Without going into the details of this discussion, it is enough to say that the distinction between uncreated and created energies can be expressed in Western terminology by the distinction between the natural and the supernatural. The desire of the scholastics to lay down a doctrine of created grace is explained by their different point of view: the East is concerned … with what it is in God that makes it possible for Him to give Himself; while the West is also concerned—though not to the exclusion of all else—with what it is in man that makes it possible for him to receive and take to himself God and His divine life.  In other words, the East has never attempted a philosophical explanation of deification; and yet if it were satisfactorily described, the doctrine of the habitus would probably be less unacceptable to them; in the same way, catholic theologians, anxious to explain as much as possible about the recipient of divine life, obviously do not deny the ‘uncreated’ character of the life itself; they merely introduce distinctions that are useful to them, but which the East has always distrusted, especially when they are taken from the philosophy of Aristotle. (pp. 8-9)

I wonder whether Mœller and Philips were successful in persuading Fr John Meyendorff, who shared in these ecumenical conversations, of the possibility of reconciling theosis and created grace. I have my doubts.

The authors cite a magnificent passage from St Gregory Palamas, which Meyendorff shared with the dialogue group:

Since the Son of God, in His ineffable love for mankind, has not only united His divine hypostasis to our nature, and taking a body with a rational soul, has appeared on earth and lived among men; but, more, than this—Oh how splendid a miracle!—He unites Himself to the human hypostases themselves, and mingling Himself with every believer by the communion of His holy Body, becomes one body with us and makes us into a temple of the whole Godhead; for the fullness of the Godhead dwells corporeally in Him; how then should He not enlighten the souls of those who partake worthily, surrounding them with light through the divine splendour of His Body which is in us, just as His light shone on the bodies of the disciples on Thabor? It is true that then the body that possessed the source of the light of grace was not yet mingled with our bodies; it enlightened from outside those who approached worthily and caused the light to enter their souls through the sight of their eyes. But to-day it is mingled with us, it dwells in us and, naturally, it enlightens our souls from within. … One alone can see God; that is, Christ. We must be united with Christ—and how close a union it is—in order to see God.’ (pp. 34-35)

In this passage we see Gregory’s concern to join together Incarnation, theosis, and the hesychastic experience of God.  Deification is not restricted to the soul but embraces the whole human being, body and soul.

The Byzantine understanding of theosis emphatically asserts the priority of divine grace: God gives God, and only God can give God. There is nothing human beings can do to merit the gift of participating in the divine nature. It is also clear that Eastern Christianity strongly affirms the reality of regeneration: the believer is not abandoned to an external relationship to the Creator. By faith and repentance he is filled with the Holy Spirit and penetrated and transformed by the uncreated energies. As the authors explain, “It is Christ, God and man, who is present in the being of the redeemed man; it is the mysterious uncreated energies which become as it were the ‘soul’ of the Christian’s life” (p. 10).

(Go to “Roman Catholicism and Created Grace”)

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9 Responses to Oecumenical Grace: Eastern Orthodoxy on Theosis

  1. Michael Bauman says:

    An analogy: I am married to a wonderful woman. We are becoming one flesh. There are times when I sit beside her and the wonder of her is present in my mind and heart, a real thing, not imagination. There are times when all it takes is a remembrance of her to bring that sense of her presence (like now). Yet as close as we are, as much as we share, I will never know her totally.

    There is a central core of her being that only God knows. I will never know her there and probably should never know her there.

    This is just on the human level. But does it not represent a bit of what St. Gregory tells us?

    I hope someone responds to this question as it is not rhetorical. Thank you.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Michael, I don’t know if the following will be an answer to your question; but when I attempt to explain what the Fathers mean by the incomprehensibility of God, I too point to the mystery of love and personhood. To know someone is to know them as unfathomable mystery. But I do not know if this has anything to do with St Gregory’s understanding of the uncreated energies.

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      • kosseyja says:

        Fr Kimel,

        You nicely stated, “God directly shares himself with humanity. . . . Deification is nothing less than experience of and participation in the divine life of the Holy Trinity.”

        May we say that God the Father exercises self-giving by granting Christians/believers the Holy Spirit of adoption through the executive-dispensing authority of the risen Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 2:33; Romans 8:16; Galatians 4:4–6)?

        Can we also infer a new reality of unprecedented sharing and filial participation in divine life from what Jesus explained, “I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God &#8221(John 20:17)?

        Paul recognizes varieties of spiritual gifts, services, and workings/activities “from the same God who produces all of them in everyone” (1 Corinthians 12:4–6). Might we include the concept of uncreated divine energies within this set, too?

        I suggest that these passages support the concept of theosis as participation in the divine life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When theosis specifically becomes actualized (I believe through the perfecting enablement of the Holy Spirit) is divine determination.

        –John

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          John, I know when I am preaching (which I rarely do now), I always stress adoption by grace into the divine Sonship of Christ and rebirth in the Spirit–and thus incorporation into the divine life of the Trinity. This, to me, is the heart of theosis and is the fundamental premise of the eucharistic liturgy.

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      • Fr Kimel,

        I agree with emphasizing our becoming children of God as divine gift. From a preaching perspective, a credible and engaging starting point for teaching theosis is:

        receiving at baptism the Spirit of adoption, who bestows new filial relationship, enablement, and communion with God in Christ

        Appealing conceptually to “communicable divine energies” for theosis is a considerably more daunting challenge.

        –John

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          “Appealing conceptually to “communicable divine energies” for theosis is a considerably more daunting challenge.”

          In the pulpit I do not see the need to ever speak of the “communicable divine energies.” It is sufficient, I think, to speak of being filled with the Holy Spirit.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          In his book The Wound of Knowledge, Rowan Williams writes: “But it is of first importance to bear in mind that ‘deification,’ for Origen, Athanasius, and their successors, did not mean a sharing in the divine ‘substance,’ a quasi-physical participation, but enjoying the divine relation of Son to Father, sharing the divine life” (p. 59). Deification is above all personal union with the Father, in and through the Son, by the Holy Spirit.

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  2. maria says:

    Bless father …

    Helping to “understand” … the not understandable …

    Love with my inner heart in Panagia and risen Lord Christ
    maria

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you! This is splendid! I tend to think of the coinherence of the Hypostasis of the Son, Jesus Christ, with “the human hypostases themselves”, but these accents on union and communication and indwelling inform and explicate that richly!

    The phrasing “the ἐνεργείαι, at once distinct from God” makes me wonder about the ‘relation-in-undivided-distinction’ between “the ἐνεργείαι” and Each of the Enhypostasizing Persons and also the Thrice-Enhypistasized One Ousia.

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