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Theosis: a possible pathway

Stu McGregor
Sunday, 14 August 2016

If I were to say that the point of Christianity is to become a god, I would be surprised if it didn’t bristle on one level. It seems so far out of the monotheistic theology that Christianity holds so important. “There are no other God’s before me” etc…

While what we will think about today is not going to challenge that, we are going to challenge the limits or scope of monotheism. 

Perhaps a better thing to say is that maybe we ought to reclaim the word divinity for all of creation. That the divine is not what lies beyond the veil of our understanding, rather all of creation, including us is enmeshed with it. Rather than being separate from it, we are blind to it and can’t recognise it.

Divinity is perhaps more appropriately known as what flows from God, it manifests in words like sacred, holy and glory. There’s a sort of supernatural aspect to it where to speak of something like love as divine, draws us into a sense of something greater than ourselves—a love that draws a vector back to the centre of God. 

You will be all too familiar with the story of how the disciples were out on a boat one night, crossing to the other side. Jesus had just instructed them to do so and left them to it because he needed some space with God. It had been a huge day.

Many of us have been at big Christian events where we believed healings and supernatural events were taking place. Whatever we think about what took place, you’ll remember how you felt after. Especially if it was us who helped in it. Sometimes you might have run a successful something at cityside and known that something cool just took place. You know that feeling afterwards? How the atmosphere was thick with satisfaction and the world felt eerily ok for a few hours? Do you remember the gentle buzz and excitement that you may have been party to or witnessed something extraordinary? 

That’s how the disciples felt that night. It was straight after they’d witnessed a miracle where Jesus fed nine to fifteen thousand people with five loaves, and two fish. They had witnessed healing of the sick and they were going back into town for a good night’s sleep.

As they ventured out, having said a cheery goodnight to Jesus, they set out onto the lake. The wind started to rise and the waves began to chop, and they found that they were not making much headway at all. After struggling against the wind for a few hours one of them looked out onto the lake and saw an apparition coming towards them—they were petrified. Only ghosts walk on water. As it came closer they Jesus saw they were afraid and he shouted to them “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 

Peter shouted back, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus said, “Come!”

I don’t know how long the pause was between the command and for Peter to start getting ready. I’ve no idea if he took off his clothes (just in case) and edged himself to the water, or if he took a run and a leap. But what the gospels tell us is this: “So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.”

You know how the story ends though, there’s a gust of wind and he sinks. And here we are inclined to draw the lesson, well if we have faith….our western evangelical tradition has taught us to go straight for application to us today. But in the early centuries of Christianity there was a much more interesting way to read scripture. The thing that some of the church fathers focussed on was “hey wait, rewind freeze, there.” Picture of Peter with his feet on the water before the wind picked up. Zoom. Enhance. Full frame picture of Peter’s face. What is his expression?

His expression is the one when you are thinking “Holy toledo, I’m walking on water!”

And the theologians back then asked, “Wait what? He began to walk on water? What has just taken place here?” What changed Peter to possess the same properties as the Christ, if even for a moment? Is it possible that for this brief moment, Peter was physically like Jesus? And they say that yes, at this point, Peter was sharing Union with God .

This is the essence of Theosis. 

Theosis is the understanding that human beings can have real union with God, and so become like God to such a degree that we participate in the divine nature. 

It’s argued that instances like this with Peter, where his body takes on characteristics of Christ—the one that can appear in the middle of a locked room—or Moses taking on the Glory of God when he came down from Mt Sinai after spending time with God. It’s argued that these are examples of this union. Where the separation between humankind and divinity is overcome and this union takes place. It’s where the image of God in us overwhelms our corruption and approaches full actualisation.

Some of the texts that are used to support this include 2 Peter 1:4:

Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.

or even 1 Peter 1:16, “Because it is written,
Be holy as I am holy”

Jesus even talks about it in the Gospel of John 10:31-39:

The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled— can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.


Now I’m a bit of a newbie at Theosis, but as I was researching ideas on the Body of Christ, the term came up again and caught my attention. Especially when I saw the three stage process that is often associated with it that seemed to be an excellent map of how we can structure our spiritual journeys. I think there’s an intentionality in theosis where we can approach the trials and triumphs of life with a perspective that these are just part of our path—not in the fatalistic sense where whatever will be will be, nor in the deterministic sense where everything happens for a reason. Rather in the sense of our response taking us toward God or away from God. Theosis is actually what we were created for which means we can have a much more comprehensive view of our place in the world if we see our right place as God’s divine agency in this world.

Take this quote from Gregory of Nyssa, a theologian from the 4th Century:

The physical beauty of the world is tied to the purpose of a human’s life. [They are] to share it with God, to behold and enjoy it, and to know its Maker through it. [Humankind] was created to be ruler and beholder of the divine manifestation in the universe.There is something of God in creation so valuable that God created [humankind] to witness it. [Humankind] did not “fall” into the world, but was created for it (indirectly) and it for them.

Theosis has an answer for what are we created for, how we fit into the whole of Creation, and furthermore, a way forward through the disconnect that we find such a problem with

In theosis there are three phases. We can take them as an arc of our whole life, or at a more granular level as we wrestle with different areas of our life, or even as part of a constant cycle.

first, the purgative way, purification, or katharsis;

in order to receive, the soul must first be emptied, of attachment to sin, of attachment to creatures and of attachment to self.

I guess the question is what we do with the word sin here. It follows a very traditional (as in thousands of years old) understanding of how life is. As humans we feel disconnected from creation and each other. In point of fact, we promote it. Yet often when we pause and reflect we catch a glimpse of something much greater, that calls us to reconnect. As Christians we describe this with the fall, then the Cross/resurrection and ultimately, the eschaton. The disconnect is characterised by sin—for the sake of this discussion could be defined as anything that lays waste to goodness. Seeing ourselves as fundamental to the woes of this earth kinda hits the mark I reckon. and the question is what do we do about it?

This is an all too familiar place for many of us. It’s a process of genuine reflection on ourselves with an eye to purging that which is a stumbling block for us. This purging must operate at a ruthlessly honest level if we are truly to work through it and the rewards may not be there to be reaped for quite some time. It’s a place where faith is established—faith in God and God’s goodness. It’s our faithfulness to this at times untested promise or knowledge that we must hold on to. And as such we exercise ourselves accordingly through contemplative practises. It could be various prayer methods, it could be morning devotions, it could be memorising scripture, it could be simple meditation and breathing. But the point is, when we get discouraged with our practise that it’s not yielding results, not to give up—because it is at that moment that our faith is being tested.

Whichever way we go, our sinfulness or disconnectedness is what is being addressed. 

second, illumination, the illuminative way, the vision of God, or theoria

What is required for continued growth is God's intervention in the soul to root out the vestiges of sin and to enlighten the soul about the truth beyond what meditation has accomplished. Through our practise in the first phase, and through the purging of earthly distraction that results we may encounter this second phase in God’s timing. From what I’ve read it can take a long time in phase one before God will open up the second and then the third. The delay is focused on faith first and then the light will shine in our darkness.

As one writer puts it, “This Dark Night of the Senses, as St. John of the Cross calls it, purifies the soul and enters it upon the way of holiness and mystical prayer.” But the illumination opens us up to the purification that has come from the purge. It is in this phase that we are open to gaining deeper understanding of the divine truths and insight into God. but even so, in order for the third phase, which is the unitive phase, we must go through what St John of the Cross calls “the Dark Night of the Senses”. 

This is where our spirit is purified and is often accompanied by material turmoil through sickness and poverty, human abandonment. After this trial we will find Union with God in the third phase.

third, sainthood, the unitive way, or theosis.

The human will, flooded with the experience of God's goodness, is no longer capable of turning away from God. It is captured by the beauty of the Bridegroom. Any imperfections in its moral life are just that, the indeliberate frailty of nature… This is the point where we would reach Sainthood in this earthly realm. When we read the Eastern Orthodox statements around this we gain a picture of the life that we are most ably designed for. A life filled with divine insight, wisdom and strength. Where things of earthly satisfaction pale in comparison to the desire to be in union with God. 


Theosis then gives us a framework that allows intellectual engagement, allows for our own agency in our salvation and provides us with the mechanism to become the Body of Christ in a palpable way. Done together, it must be easier.

Theosis gives some tangible hope to the way our lives are working out. It can give a framework that brings some kind of sense back to our faith and our practises. There’s a connection with the created order, where God becomes accessible, where we see ourselves as part of everything around us, where there’s a cosmic spiritual activity that we can get caught up in to become the new creation. We become deified, drawn into the divine nature—not as part of the Trinity, but still sharing in the union of divine/material. 

It may not resonate with you, but if it does and it provides a way forward for your faith, then perhaps it’s worth exploring.

I’ll put some links up in bits for you to explore more if you want.