Theosis, an all-encompassing vision of Christian life

Last night I lectured on St Gregory of Nyssa in my course “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy”. A certain amount of time had to be spent on his Trinitarian theology not least because my own interpretation has changed as a result of Fr John Behr’s detailed analysis in The Nicene Faith, Part 2, contrary to my previous understanding as informed by Met. John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (a book I’ve mentioned here many times).

I wanted, this time, to expand it outwards from triadology to that which we call “mysticism”, partly because mystical questions keep arising in question time, partly because St Gregory of Nyssa is chiefly famous of late for his “mysticism”, partly because one of the first patristic texts I read was The Life of Moses.

And as I thought about mysticism and the Trinity and the Life of Moses, I couldn’t get the little word theosis out of my head. Theosis, the Greek word for “deification”. You’ll meet this word everywhere in Orthodox circles. Its foundational statement is in Sts Irenaeus and Athanasius: God became man so that man might become God. Theosis, however, is more than just a slogan or saying. And it’s more than just the mystical activities of ascetics like the Cappadocian Fathers and the monks of the desert or mediaeval Mt Athos. It is, ultimately, the all-embracing soteriology and endpoint of all Christian theology for the eastern tradition.

For Gregory, it is stated in terms of participation (he rarely actually uses the word theosis), which is how a modern Orthodox will describe its meaning. We are called to participate in the divine life—the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reigning on high of the God Word whose life now continues in the Church, the Body of Christ, is the central act of the drama of theosis. Not only are our sins washed away through the waters of baptism and by the blood on the cross—which St Gregory and the rest of the Fathers affirm—we are enabled and empowered to be united to God and to know him more and more fully all the time.

St Gregory argues that the pursuit of perfection, the path of sanctification, is itself part of this participation, not just activities we today would call “mystical” or “contemplative”. Sanctification itself, effected by the power of the Holy Spirit, is a participation in the divine life. And, as I’ve stated here before, twice in fact, since perfection and holiness are attributes of God, and God is infinite (St Gregory is one of the first to actually argue for the infinity of God), then the path to perfection is itself infinite. This endless journey of perfection is called in Greek epektasis (acute accent on the second e). Epektasis for Gregory is what other Greek thinkers would call theosis, I would wager.

Whereas contemporary Protestant ideas of salvation tend to parse it into helpful categories such as: justification is God setting us free from the penalty of sin; sanctification is God setting us free from the power of sin; glorification is God setting us free from the presence of sin—theosis sees it as all of these and more. Salvation is entering into and participating in the life of God most high through the intervention of God in the incarnation. God is present and available to us today because Jesus died on the Cross. We meet with him through righteous acts, through prayer, through the Eucharist, through meditating on the words of Scripture. And we will never cease growing in perfection and getting to know Him more because He Himself is infinite, and our perfection itself is merely a participation in His life.