This provocative statement, “God became man that man might become God,” is from the church father Athanasius (ca 298–373), and was in his massively influential On the Incarnation. It is one of his best-known quotes.
Let me explain what I’m going to do here. First, I briefly discuss some “recent” highlights of the popular deification discussion. Second, I present a skeletal description of the Johannine and Pauline foundations for the doctrine, and briefly share how I understand them. Third, I discuss what it has done for me, and to me, personally–the effect it has had on my life. Finally, I share some concluding thoughts.
Deification in Recent History
I used to be under the mistaken impression that the doctrine of theosis, or deification, was basically an Eastern Orthodox doctrine. A few years ago, however, I was surprised to find the Athanasius quote highlighted prominently in the first few pages of the Roman Catholic catechism. “God became man so that man might become God.” This statement of Athanasius is not some bizarre, minority opinion held by heretics, non-Christians, and cults. Many church fathers after Athanasius quoted and paraphrased him, and it is still a Catholic and Orthodox teaching to this day.
The closest Protestants come is Wesley’s teaching on Christian Perfection, although variations were taught by a few lesser-known teachers like Witness Lee and John Robert Stevens. In 1975 the Christian Literature Crusade published an excellent book, Destined for the Throne, by Paul Billheimer. Billheimer’s book, however, was too close to “heresy” for the taste of American evangelicals, and Billy Graham assisted in the publication of a watered-down version in 2005. Deification, which is based squarely on scripture, is considered heresy by various cult watch and Christian apologists. I believe that the doctrine’s Mormon expression is among the top reasons for the virtual refusal of Protestant leaders to teach deification, despite its strong Biblical foundation. One popular denunciation of deification was Neil Duddy’s The God-Men: An Inquiry into Witness Lee and the Local Church (IVP, 1981).
Biblical Foundations of Deification: John 17
Sometimes called “Johannine Mysticism,” deification is seen most clearly in the phrase “in Christ,” which occurs in the gospel and the letters. To my mind, the clearest statement is in John 17.
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17)
I am going to remove a few clauses from this passage in order to focus on our union with God and with one another.
The reasons for complete unity are very important; ignoring the intended results of our complete unity undermines the alleged mission of the churches. Jesus repeats almost verbatim one reason why our complete unity is essential: so that the world will believe and know that the Father sent Jesus (that the world may believe that you have sent me, and that the world may know that you have sent me). The second reason our complete unity is necessary is so that the world will know that Jesus has loved us even as the Father loved Jesus.
The main reasons for our unity is so that 1) the world will know that Jesus really was an Apostle of God, that he is totally reliable, and 2) the world will see love incarnate in God’s people. Since there are real-world results from this complete unity, the experience of this unity cannot be something exclusively reserved for the next life.
(Simple observation tells us that disunity in all its forms is a major barrier to the world finding reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ. All the hand-wringing and finger-pointing about our failure to “win the world for Christ” is worse than useless so long as we are unwilling to acknowledge this major, if not central, cause of that failure.)
Biblical Foundations of Deification: Pleroma (fullness, πληρωμα)
The second Biblical description of the deification of the Church is sprinkled through Ephesians and Colossians, and relates to the Pauline use of the word fullness, which in Greek is πληρωμα, or pleroma. The word occurs several times in these letters, and we catch a glimpse (comparing scripture with scripture) of one of the mysteries of God that is, in the sense of inspiring awe, awesome.
First, pleroma is used to describe the deity of Christ. The statement, generally agreed to be one of the strongest statements of the full deity of Christ in the Greek scriptures, is Colossians 1:19: In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form. This, as I said, is one of the strongest, single affirmations of the deity of Christ in the Bible.
Then we have pleroma is applied to the Church, twice in Ephesians as a future reality, and twice in Colossians as a present reality.
First we read, May you experience this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:19) Next comes, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:13)
Notice the two descriptions of that fullness: attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ, and filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. The all-encompassing, complete reality of the fullness of God brimming over in us is unmistakeable. Also notice that there is nothing here to suggest that this occurs in some eschatological future. It seems to me that our experience of love, unity, and faith are located in the here and now.
Then there are two verses which affirm, not the future reality of the fullness of God in the church, but it’s present reality. The first of these follows the statement of the full deity of Christ we looked at earlier. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. (Col 2:9-10)
The second present-tense statement regarding the fullness of God is by far the most astonishing declaration of Deification of any of these.
And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Ephesians 1:22-23)
Let me remove the phrases that obscure the extraordinary use of fullness here: The church is the fullness of God.
So, in John 17 the Church is one with God by virtue of its union with Christ, and in Paul the Church is the fullness of God, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. This is echoed in II Peter 1:4: he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. The word “participate” is κοινωνια, koinonia. Koinonia is variously rendered fellowship, sharers in, partakers of, etc., and is completely congruent with the Johannine and Pauline language describing deification, which is shorthand for “God became man so that man might become God.”
A Little of What has Gone Down for Me
Over the years I have been forcibly confronted by these Johannine and Pauline understandings about three times, and on those occasions my effect was the same. The enormity of the fact stopped me dead in my tracks for weeks, on one occasion for months. Of all the incomprehensible riches in Christ, this is the one that subsumes all others–untrackable, unmappable, inexhaustible. It says in Ephesians, To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.
I was stopped cold. My accomplishment and goals were, as Paul said of his own in his letter to the Philippians, simply σκυβαλα, skubala, just so much shit. My degrees, my shiny little victories, my goals and aspirations, were nothing. My loss of enthusiasm was “spontaneous and unrehearsed.”
I was reminded of those motivational shutdowns recently when I saw something in Corinthians I hadn’t noticed before. The old way, with laws chiseled in stone, led to death, though it began with such glory that the people of Israel could not bear to look at Moses’ face. On those previous occasions, when I caught a glimpse of the mystery of the new covenant, the glory was unbearable.
I haven’t had a beatific vision, but my experience could be compared to the via negativa or the “dark night of the soul,” from what I know of them. I am not a student of the mystics; in most things spiritual I have kept pretty close to the Bible. In that regard I think I may suffer from the Fundamentalist’s Curse. While other things factored in (like bipolar disorder), my subsequent path has been a repentance, or metanoia, from my fleshly intellectual inclinations. Leaving seminary for the third and final time, giving up on a lifelong ambition for pastoral ministry, disposing of my 1,000-book library–these all resulted from a metanoia, changing my allegiance away from the church’s 2,000 year old κοσμος, and over to Christ. As a young fundamentalist I learned that saying “But everybody else is doing it!” just doesn’t cut it.
It’s taken a while, but gradually I’ve pieced together something of what it means for me. First, Jesus the Messiah is my example, not some Perfect Absolute based on Greek philosophy, which is what the early church fathers saddled us with. The kenosis passage in Philippians, with its understanding that Jesus emptied himself, is for me the main key. Jesus emptied himself of his omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, what are supposedly “essential attributes,” but remained God by virtue of the fact that God is love.
In two of my recent posts I discussed the unsearchable riches of Christ. Those contain for me most of what flows from deification. There are other truths and imperatives which result from our union with God in Christ, but those six are a good start.
Ascetic Practices and Protective Caveats
Two final things: for myself, I don’t believe in ascetic practices and abuse of the body as a means of attaining deification. From the point of view of scripture, deification is never an individual experience, it is always in the context of the entire church. The Pauline, present-tense expression of the fullness of God, together with the Johannine expectation of here-and-now effects on the κοσμος, indicate to me that in significant ways they are accomplished facts, just as God has seated us in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. For me, it is not so much an experience to be attained, but a reality to be experienced. The two are not, however, mutually exclusive.
Christian history has hedged this teaching about with a truckload of caveats, stipulations, conditions, and limitations intended to protect us from “going too far,” “getting ourselves into trouble,” and the like. A number of scriptural teachings should insure against dangers and abuse. These include avoiding the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees as well as the temptation to lord it over one another. On the positive side, a firm existential grounding in kenosis, the necessity of suffering, servanthood, and love should give us all protection we need.
To Read More in this Series, click on The Bride of Christ is God.
I was driving to work this morning thinking about God and the day ahead, asking God to take my will and my life, guide me in my recovery, and show me how to live (its my usual morning prayer). My thoughts wondered to the passage that we are seated with Christ in heavenly places. Not in some future state, but now, even as I drove through traffic thinking about the tasks and events ahead.
Coming home geting ready for dinner I read your blog. I thought it really meaningful and expressed what our journey is really all about. That complete perfect and joyful restoration of everything into harmony. Of cource I can’t fully understand this experience, but I trust that from God’s point of view, there may be no waiting for this to happen. And by the way, I always appreciated my Mormon friends and their ideas about theology. I am not saying I will someday be a creator god with my partner, but the idea of union with God seems to be discounted by many believers.
Life is made up of little moments, some are discouraging, but many are encouraging.
Someone observed that the when a person hears a new idea, they say no, they reject it. They need to hear it more than once before they come around. That goes for an activity proposal at church, or a Bible teaching. I’ve seen people reject new Bible teachings over and over. Same goes for union with God. Not heresy, but virtually unknown among rank-and-file Protestants.
Interestingly, in A COURSE IN MIRACLES, Jesus tells us we cannot “become God” because we are already forever a part of God. It is only our dream of separation that makes such a “becoming” seem real or necessary.
This is a topic full of so much meaning and opportunity for growth. It often seems that we think about spiritual realities as things that will happen in the future. Our view of reality is so narrow and limited. I am sure there are many good reasons for this, but as we are asked not to be “conformed” to this present world, it must be essential to expand our ideas and thinking, in order to be “transformed.”
Becoming a Christian in an Evangelical community we heard about being transformed a lot, but it generally boiled down to not dancing, not swearing, attending lots of meetings, really avoiding any behaviors we thought “worldly.” The idea that this new life in Christ meant something other than just more time in heaven was rarely addressed. At least in regards to the quality of our relationships, the reality of what Christ has accomplished for us (being the lamb of God slain “before the foundations of the world”), and other radically different ways of seeing ourselves and the world around us.
I gain so much encouragement and stimulation from these posts. Thank you Ron and Hugh for your take on the subject. In my current fellowship we say that honesty, open mindedness and willingness are essential for our “recovery” or spiritual growth. It is something I am grateful to be reminded of often, as I am prone to take my ideas and worldview as gospel. LOL
There’s value in the civilizing and socializing missions of the church, which accounts for congregations that emphasize social rules. Those came in real handy on the American frontier and with the germanic barbarians, and with my kids. But some people are eventually inclined to go deeper, either introspectively, or evangelistically, or in activism. Learning to tolerate, and eventually embrace, this diversity is tough. I don’t feel nearly as impatient and irritated by other people’s “shallowness” as I used to.
Wait. I take that back. I still get impatient and irritated. Oh, well.
I had to laugh at that. Even for an old reprobate and heretic like me, I have to admit I like external rules and clear lines myself. Yes, you are so right about getting impatient and irritated. I still do this, but not as as much as I used to. I suppose that is either spiritual progress or maybe I just got tired of carrying around all that baggage. Wait, maybe that is spiritual growth! Anyway, I am getting ready to finish my workday and attend a Halloween Dance this evening with clean and sober friends. Not unlike what I did as an Evangelical almost 40 years ago, minus the dancing. LOL. Happy All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day to you.
“…and with my kids”
Thanks Ron. ‘Tis one of our most treasured doctrines. Charles Wesley expresses it beautifully in the hymn “Let Earth and Heaven Combine”.
He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine
He also wrote:
Eager for Thee I ask and pant;
So strong, the principle divine
Carries me out, with sweet constraint,
Till all my hallowed soul is Thine;
Plunged in the Godhead’s deepest sea,
And lost in Thine immensity.
Theosis is the heart-beat of Christian spirituality. That we are human – we know. That we divine – this we realise through faith in Christ, the incarnate Word. The divine Logos became human, so that we humans can awaken the divinity dormant in us. This is a gift of grace which however demands asceticism and discipline, contemplation and compassion from our side.
In a sense the experience of the divinisation of the human is the deepest meeting point of world religions. The divine Spirit brings about divinisation in the hearts of all human persons. Hence there is a sense of the Divine in every spiritual seeker. This is escpecially found in the mystical traditions of all religions, very conspicuously in Vedanta Hinduism, Sufi Islam and Jewish Kabbala.
Dr. Sebastian Painadath SJ, India . posted 30.08.2014
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Thank you for pointing out one of the common threads of the great religions, Dr. Painadadth.
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Love how you’ve fleshed it out on this post
Wish you could have expanded a little more on the closing line then again that may be something more to be lived than to be read about
I’m working on a YouTube series I’m calling “How To Become God” which is based on a very simple idea: if we don’t make the spiritual leap to divinity (or if we don’t attune ourselves to the descent God has already made to us) we perish as a species.
We “heretics” have our work cut out for us
I suspect we have work to fill a lifetime.
Very good site.Thanks.
You can be sure , if the Course in Miracles says something similar it’s a lie. In fact, it’s all a lie. It goes right back to the Garden all over again when the serpent said to Eve: ‘You will be like God Knowing Good and Evil”
The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is EVIL from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.
Consider also that our Lord’s patience brings salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul
also wrote you with the wisdom God gave him. 16He writes this way in all his letters,
speaking in them about such matters. Some parts of his letters are hard to understand,
which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the rest of the Scriptures,
to their own destruction.
17 Therefore, beloved, since you already know these things,
be on your guard not to be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from
your secure standing
Ephesians 5:14 So it is said: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Colossians 2:13 When you were dead in your trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our trespasses,
Stephen, in John 10:34 Jesus reportedly quoted the words of Psalm 82:6. “Ye are gods.”
Now that’s a tangled ball of yarn. But there it is, in both the Old and the New Testaments.
I’m late to the conversion (obviously), and enjoyed the post, but in respect to Stephen John Sponsler’s quoting of Gen 3:5, it’s important to note that God did not disagree with that particular claim (“ye shall be as the gods, knowing good and evil”), but instead affirmed it: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil….” (Gen 3:22). The lie was in the claim that man would not die, not that man would approach God in terms of knowledge of good and evil (become “as one of us”).
Ron think about this,
If God’s name is I Am (which is what God told Moses) and if you were to ask me to confirm my attendance to an event or anything else that would identify me, I would respond by saying “I Am…, that I Am.” Doesn’t this prove that I and God are one? He is me and ‘I Am’ him….God became wo/man so that wo/man can become God-dess. Infinite intelligence and I are the same because all power is in me. The words that I speak…are my power….which is Jesus! Jesus is called the Word. Gods active force. When I send forth my word/s (Jesus in me which is of my father) it/they will not come back void.
It is commonly expressed “what you see is what you get”,but it’s what you “say” is what you get, however too many people do not give heed to the Power from which their words flow. Scripture tells us that Life and death lies in the power of the tongue, that Jesus came that we may have life and have it more abundantly, and that man should not live by bread alone but by every “Word” out of the mouth of God. Again who is the word/s? Jesus. See and read the scriptures as Spiritual history not secular history and you will be like the apostles when Jesus said to them to you is the deeper meaning of the parables given.
I believe in teaching people to give themselves permission to accept their divinity and to own it!! It’s their God given birthright as heirs of the Kingdom.
Just think how much better the world would be if every person saw the truth….that God is and is in every person they meet. 🙂
Me and the father are One. There is only One God, one mind, one body, one Spirit.
Into me I See “Vis Nescia Vinci”
A Power Ignorant of Defeat
The words “I Am…that I Am,” yes, that’s an interesting way of arriving at this truth. The Bible does not teach that there is an unbridgeable chasm between God and humanity. He is closer to us than our own breath, our own minds and hearts.
Bless you in your journey, DJ!
I am very pleased you are taking up this important topic of theosis. You are incorrect about something however. You write, “The closest Protestants come is Wesley’s teaching on Christian Perfection, etc…” Martin Luther discovered and published a document on theosis called Theolgia Germanica. Then, Luther’s own theology was founded on what is often called the happy exchange, which is, Christ takes our sin and gives us his righteousness in return. This is theosis. Much of Luther’s language might seem to downplay it, but that is because it does not take much to move from theosis to a sense of works righteousness. Therefore he emphasized simul justus et peccator, at the same time saint and sinner.
Thanks for the correction, Benjamin.
In terms of “doctrines,” theosis is pretty much the show-stopper. Most other teachings, compared to it, just cover mechanics. Theosis hits the very core of “reality,” and there’s an absolute gulf between God as separate from Creation, and God…Immanent? One, not “in” Us, but indistinguishable from us.
With no lowering of God or elevating of us.
Blows the mind.
Yep! It is a mind blower. Peace and power to you from the One whose Incarnation we celebrate today!
Judge Leon Seyranian found Neil Duddy’s The God-Men: An Inquiry into Witness Lee and the Local Church to be “in all major respects false, defamatory, and unprivileged, and, therefore, libelous.” Duddy wrote the book only to misrepresent the teachings of, and slander, Witness Lee and damage the local churches. The following is a portion of what Witness Lee teaches concerning deification, “In order to be one with God, we need Christ as the Shoot of David to be our redemption and justification; this ushers the Triune God into us to be our life, our inner life law, our capacity, and our everything to dispense Himself into our being to carry out His economy; this is the new covenant, in which we can know God, live God, and become God in life and in nature but not in the Godhead so that we may become His corporate expression as the New Jerusalem.” It is well worth the reader’s time to investigate further the teachings of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee.
God by fully taking on the human experience was willing to be born blind to His divine glory, even thinking He was less than human: a worm.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?”
“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.”
(Spoken through David in Psalm 22:1 and 6.)
In that sense God has emptied Himself of His divine Self-awareness and Life. Undergoing the experience of being nailed to the cross which to God is experiencing being but human, appearing in the sinful flesh:
“O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
God as a human had to grow in divine Self-awareness and thus in favor of Himself as a human and as God:
“And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”
That is still so today, in each one of us.
The four circles on the main sites label;
What is it, and how it was that you came to know of it?
Greg, I designed the four circles many years ago. My theological and cosmological understanding has changed since then, to the point that I would probably no longer generate that design today. At the time, however, it symbolized God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit, and God the Bride (or God the Church).
Confessional Lutherans teach deification. At least I’m learning it in seminary here at Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mankato MN. I’m sure you’d be able to find it in Luther, Martin Chemnitz, or Johann Gerhard. I’ll admit the Mormon doctrine has made it less palatable to preach, but Christmas is one of the best times to preach deification.
God is so one with us that when we think “I” it is God thinking “I” as us.
When we reject that idea because we appear to be but sinful flesh, it also is God rejecting that idea as us for He knows Himself as God, and comparing Himself as a mere human with His Godhead He will not allow Himself such a lofty happy making Self-recognition, because still under the impression and the belief He is but a mere human He will deem Himself unworthy of it.
God is so honest, He would rather be in hell but honest, than in heaven but dishonest.
“Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there..”
Is it possible we so fear heresy that we miss this fullness? Is this why we lose the joy of being in God here and now?