Theosis is the belief that Christians will participate in the energies of God, but not his essence. God’s energies in Eastern Orthodox theology are how we experience the essence of God as finite creatures since God’s essence is ineffable and incomprehensible. Timothy Ware defines theosis this way:
“Just as the three persons of the Trinity ‘dwell’ in one another in an unceasing movement of love, so we humans, made in the image of the Trinity, are called to ‘dwell’ in the Trinitarian God. Christ prays that we may share in the life of the Trinity, in the movement of love which passes between the divine persons; He prays that we may be taken up into the Godhead. . . . Nor does the human person, when it ‘becomes god’, cease to be human: ‘We remain creatures while becoming god by grace, as Christ remained God when becoming man by the Incarnation.’ The human being does not become God by nature, but is merely a ‘created god’, a god by grace or by status” (The Orthodox Church, 231-32).
This belief is also known as divinization or deification where Christians become gods by grace but not by nature. Roman Catholicism also teaches a form of theosis in its Catechism:
“The Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’: ‘For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.’ ‘For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.’ ‘The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods’” (460).
The last two quotations are from Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas who both believed in theosis in one form or another. The Eastern theologian Maximus the Confessor taught that we become gods in salvation in a qualified sense:
“If we are made, as we are, in the image of God (cf. Gen. 1:27), let us become the image both of ourselves and of God; or rather let us all become the image of the one whole God, bearing nothing earthly in ourselves, so that we may consort with God and become gods, receiving from God our existence as gods” (Philokalia, 2:171).
The first church father to teach theosis appears to be Irenaeus in the late second century:
“For we cast blame upon Him, because we have not been made gods from the beginning, but at first merely men, then at length gods; although God has adopted this course out of His pure benevolence, that no one may impute to Him invidiousness or grudgingness. He declares, ‘I have said, Ye are gods; and ye are all sons of the Highest.’” (Against Heresies 4.38.4).
And so began the history of bad interpretations of John 10:34-36. But Jesus is arguing here that if the term “god” can be applied by God in an ironic sense to human judges who were perverting God’s law, how much more can the term be used to describe himself who is actually God. In wrongly condemning Jesus, the religious leaders of Israel were acting as false judges in the same way that the “gods” of Psalm 82 were.
Theosis was more fully developed by Origen who taught that the divine nature was communicated first to Christ in eternal generation and then to us in salvation:
“And thus the first-born of all creation, who is the first to be with God, and to attract to Himself divinity, is a being of more exalted rank than the other gods beside Him. . . . It was by the offices of the first-born that they became gods, for He drew from God in generous measure that they should be made gods, and He communicated it to them according to His own bounty. The true God, then, is ‘The God,’ and those who are formed after Him are gods, images, as it were, of Him the prototype” (Commentary on John 2.2).
This incorrect view of salvation flows from a wrong view of the fall and fallen man’s bondage to sin. Mormonism, which goes far beyond theosis into the error of explicit polytheism, likewise has a weak view of the fall and a high view of man’s natural abilities. The theology of the church father Origen, who had a tremendous influence on the doctrine of theosis, is closer to Mormonism in many ways than biblical Christianity. He believed that we eternally pre-existed with God before creation and that there is no hell of eternal conscious torment. Origen’s theology had a huge influence on the Eastern Church and there is a universalist strain within Eastern Orthodoxy today. Theosis inadvertently falls into the error of polytheism as the Arians fell into polytheism by making the Son a lesser god than the Father. If we become gods in deification, then there is more than one God regardless of what creative language we use to try to defend a belief in monotheism (Isa 43:10). Theosis collapses all of salvation down into conformity to the image of Christ while overlooking the legal aspects of salvation. If God’s essence is completely unknowable to us, then we cannot know God as Jesus prayed we would (John 17:3). The distinction that should be made is not between God’s essence and energies, but between God’s incommunicable attributes which we will never share in and God’s communicable attributes which we do participate in to a degree.
The most popular verse in the Bible used in favor of theosis is 2 Peter 1:4 which says, “by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” But the “divine nature” in which we partake is not God’s energies, but his communicable attributes as evidenced by the descriptions of personal holiness which follow through verse ten. To be like God in this sense is not to become a god, but to live in holiness in imitation of God. As God is love, holy, righteous, and pure, we share in his love, holiness, righteousness, and purity through the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, sanctification, and eventually glorification.