Beyond Justification 5 – What does deification mean?

First, I think there is one sentence from the article, Beyond Justification, that highlights the proper place within our understanding for this discussion.

Theosis is not just the “goal” of salvation; it is salvation in its essence and fulfillment.

In other words, if we are not united with God, if we do not come to live and share and move – to dance – in the communal life of the triune God that I tried to outline in my earlier post, then in what sense have we been saved at all?

This is where the largely juridical categories most often used in the Christian West tend to break down. While the details will vary, most in the Christian West tie salvation to some legal declaration by God that one is not guilty. This declaration tends to be labeled justification and thus salvation is largely equated with being justified. Once salvation itself is linked to whether or not you have attained a certain legal or forensic status, the preeminent question becomes how one attains that status. Thus, the Western categories of thought about God’s work with humanity through Christ tend to be as follows (with salvation predominantly tied to the first category):

Justification ==> Sanctification ==> Glorification

However, with only a few exceptions among primarily the early Latin Christian writers, this sort of perspective on salvation and these categories in particular did not come into being until the rise of Western scholasticism, marked most notably by Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas. The Protestant Reformation (and later Radical Reformation) disputed the mechanics for achieving these categories but largely accepted the categories themselves. This is a central reason why the Orthodox will often comment that in their eyes Roman Catholicism and Protestantism seem more like two sides to the same coin. Justification, understood as a legal status, is associated with salvation itself. Sanctification is seen as a process of moral improvement over time, as the development of personal righteousness in reality, a progressive development in our condition. Glorification is then seen as the final state freed from the influence and presence of personal sin. The specific category names may vary, but that is generally the perspective today of the Christian West.

This perspective is not even vaguely similar to that of the Christian East. Justification is not much discussed at all and when it is, it is typically discussed in an existential rather than a juridical sense.

God’s initiative and action in the creation of humanity according to his image, and in the incarnation, Cross, and resurrection are of universal significance to humanity and cosmic significance to creation as a whole. Orthodoxy understands justification in Christ as restoring to all humanity the potential for immortality and communion with God lost in the Fall. This is because all human beings share the human nature of Jesus Christ, which was restored in the resurrection. … Salvation does not consist in an extrinsic “justification” – although this “legal” dimension is fully legitimate whenever one approaches salvation within the Old Testament category of the fulfillment of the law (as Paul does in Romans and Galatians) – but in a renewed communion with God, making human life fully human again.

Salvation is not the declaration of a legal change in our status. Rather, drawing deeply on John 14-17, the letters of John, Hebrews, and much of Paul that is underemphasized in the West (especially Ephesians and Colossians), salvation is seen as union with God. God desires us to join and participate in the perichoretic dance of the Trinity in total union with God and with each other. This is the telos of humanity. The Fathers of the church explicate this beautifully. St. Irenaeus of Lyon writes (Against Heresies):

So, then, since the Lord redeemed us by his own blood, and gave his soul for our souls, and his flesh for our bodies, and poured out the Spirit of the Father to bring about the union and communion of God and man—bringing God down to men by [the working of] the Spirit, and again raising man to God by his incarnation—and by his coming firmly and truly giving us incorruption, by our communion with God, all the teachings of the heretics are destroyed.

For when the mixed cup and the bread that has been prepared receive the Word of God, and become the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, and by these our flesh grows and is confirmed, how can they say that flesh cannot receive the free gift of God, which is eternal life, since it is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and made a member of him? As the blessed Paul says in the Epistle to the Ephesians, that we are members of his body, of his flesh and his bones. He does not say this about a [merely] spiritual and invisible man, for the spirit has neither bones nor flesh, but about [God’s] dispensation for the real man, [a dispensation] consisting of flesh and nerves and bones, which is nourished by his cup, which is his blood, and grows by the bread which is his body.

And, of course, we have the words of St. Athanasius (On the Incarnation):

Much more, then, the Word of the All-good Father was not unmindful of the human race that He had called to be; but rather, by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred, and corrected their neglect by His own teaching. Thus by His own power He restored the whole nature of man. The Savior’s own inspired disciples assure us of this. We read in one place: “For the love of Christ constraineth us, because we thus judge that, if One died on behalf of all, then all died, and He died for all that we should no longer live unto ourselves, but unto Him who died and rose again from the dead, even our Lord Jesus Christ.” And again another says: “But we behold Him Who hath been made a little lower than the angels, even Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He should taste of death on behalf of every man.”

He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. He Himself was unhurt by this, for He is impassable and incorruptible; but by His own impassability He kept and healed the suffering men on whose account He thus endured. In short, such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves. One cannot see all the waves with one’s eyes, for when one tries to do so those that are following on baffle one’s senses. Even so, when one wants to take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, one cannot do so, even by reckoning them up, for the things that transcend one’s thought are always more than those one thinks that one has grasped.

The Word, the eternal Son, assumed humanity that we might become God. Or, in the more commonly heard English translation of the statement. God became man that we might become God. This is salvation in the Eastern Christian mind. Yes, we are freed from the penalty of our sins. We are forgiven. But that is merely the starting point. That frees us to receive grace, that is to receive the life and energies of God, so that we can grow in communion with God and with each other. We are not saved until we fully participate in the life of the Trinity and in the life of every other true human being.

Salvation is thus utterly synergistic, but not in the merit-based sense that the term typically has in the West. Rather, since salvation is at its core relational in nature, it is synergistic by nature. A relationship, by definition, is two way. A monergistic relationship is an oxymoron. Our participation is empowered by God through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus, through the gift of the presence of God within us in the seal of the Holy Spirit, and through the intertwined physical and spiritual mystical communion with God and with each other in many forms, but exemplified and rooted in the Eucharist. When you understand this, you understand why the Orthodox say things like, “The only thing you can do alone is go to hell.

But what a glorious vision of salvation this is! At it’s best in the Western sense, salvation still leaves us outside God, at most observing God. We are closer, of course. We can observe something of the dance of the Trinity. But we do not participate within it. We do not become one with God and with each other in the sense that Jesus taught. Sadly, as N.T. Wright has noted, the West has become so dualistic that often what is presented as the ultimate condition of salvation looks a whole lot more like Plato’s happy philosophers than anything recognizably Christian. We’ve reduced it to something small and ultimately boring. And that is truly sad, for the Christian story of what it means to be human and of our ultimate salvation is the best one you will ever find. I’ve explored many such stories and they pale in comparison.

In truth, as in my post on the Trinity in this series, my words here barely scratch the surface of this topic. It is just that deep and that rich. I’m at best an infant in my understanding. But hopefully I’ve exposed some of the beauty. I think there are a few more things I want to say in this series. We’ll see how many more posts that will entail.

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