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.