Theosis and the Dialogue of Truth

Feast of St. Panteleimon the Great Martyr & Healer

Florovsky_Square_5.jpegFOR THE LAST two years I’ve been emphasizing the importance of a “Dialogue of Love” (see our review of an important book by the same title). I think we’ve done a good job at embodying and facilitating this at Eighth Day Institute. As we continue forward I’d like to propose an equal emphasis on the “Dialogue of Truth.” As we all know, differences and divisions are real. We can’t pretend they aren’t. The question is, how shall we deal with them?

In a letter between the Reformed theologian T. F. Torrance and the Orthodox theologian Fr. Georges Florovsky  (Jan. 25, 1950), while discussing their different views about Church Order and the Eucharist, Torrance exclaims: “I do wish I could spend several days with you going over all the relevant passages in the Scriptures and the Fathers of the first four centuries on these matters—that is the only way to come to a closer understanding, is it not?” I believe Torrance is right. And the theme for this year’s Inklings Festival is a perfect occasion to provoke this kind of ecumenism.

Themes for our annual Eighth Day Symposium and our annual Inklings Festival are usually chosen by committee. Not this time. When I invited Dr. Ralph Wood to speak, he was not only excited to join us, but he already knew what he wanted to speak about. And I loved his proposal. Consequently, we gathered in Wichita, KS to discuss theosis, a theme dear to Eastern Orthodox Christians but not widely known or understood beyond Orthodoxy. In recent years, however, this has been changing. Indeed, theosis has even become somewhat of a popular topic among Catholics and Protestants. To retrieve a doctrine that is grounded in the scriptures and affirmed in the church fathers, especially the Greek fathers, is a very good thing. But this doctrine offers us an excellent opportunity to supplement our “Dialogue of Love” with a “Dialogue of Truth”.

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Although clearly affirmed in the scriptures and the fathers, the doctrine of theosis was not fully articulated and synthesized until the fourteenth century in the writings of St. Gregory Palamas. St. Gregory was canonized by the Orthodox Church less than a decade after his death, and his work was affirmed in a series of councils during his lifetime (1341-1351). Orthodox Christians accept these councils as authoritative (some even refer to them as the Fifth Council of Constantinople or the Ninth Ecumenical Council); Roman Catholics do not; most Protestants are simply unaware. Led by Palamas, these councils were responding to a controversy about prayer and the vision of God (called the Hesychastic Controversy, from the Greek word hesychia which means “stillness” or “silence”).

To succinctly summarize (and over-simplify) the debate, Fr. John Meyendorff describes the life of Palamas, an Athonite monk and later Archbishop of Thessalonica, as dedicated to defending one basic truth: “The living God is accessible to personal experience, because He shared His own life with humanity.” But defending this simple truth involved a complex debate about a range of other topics such as the role of philosophy in salvation, methodology of prayer (with an emphasis on the role of the body), the distinction between the essence and the uncreated energies of God, knowledge of God (cataphatic and apophatic theology), and the experience of God in His uncreated light. A serious ecumenical discussion of theosis, then, must involve a deeper conversation than a mere affirmation of the famous dictum by St. Athanasius the Great: “God became man so that man might become God.”

Unfortunately, our time at the Inklings Festival is very limited. Three hours of lectures do not allow us to do justice to Torrance’s wise council to spend a couple days studying the scriptures and the fathers to reach a common understanding of theosis. But we can initiate a conversation and become aware of the wider context of the doctrine and the controversies surrounding it. And we can continue the conversation after the festival.

Please heed Torrance’s advice: find a friend or a group of friends (try to find an Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant!) and read and discuss the Words from the Fathers included in our most recent issue of Synaxis (3.2: A Society of Gods? Theosis in the Inklings; complementary to Inklings Lectures registrants and Eighth Day Members—become an Eighth Day Member today for your copy!). And then move beyond the short excerpts and read and discuss St. Gregory Palamas. I suggest you begin with the Classics of Western Spirituality edition of The Triads and supplement it with any number of secondary books reviewed in Synaxis 3.2 by Eighth Day Books.

For now, however, let us listen to the words of St. Basil the Great (d. 379) and St. Gregory Palamas (d. 1359):

When a sunbeam falls on a transparent substance, the substance itself becomes brilliant, and radiates light from itself. So too Spirit-bearing souls, illumined by Him, finally become spiritual themselves, and their grace is sent forth to others. From this comes knowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of hidden things, distribution of wonderful gifts, heavenly citizenship, a place in the choir of angels, endless joy in the presence of God, becoming like God, and, the highest of all desires, becoming God.  ~St. Basil the Great

He who said that the angels contemplate the eternal glory—I mean St. Gregory Nazianzus—has shown that it is an error to identify the eternal glory of God with the imparticipable essence of God. We have here a proof that the eternal glory of God is participable, for that which in God is visible in some way, is also participable. But the great Denys has also said: “The divine intelligences move in a circular movement, united to the unoriginate and endless rays of the Beautiful and Good.” It is clear, therefore, that these unoriginate and endless rays are other than the imparticipable essence of God, and different (albeit inseparable) from the essence. In the first place, that essence is one, even though the rays are many, and are sent out in a manner appropriate to those participating in them, being multiplied according to the varying capacity of those receiving them. . . . Furthermore, the essence is superessential, and I believe no one would deny that these rays are its energies or energy, and that one may participate in them, even though the essence remains beyond participation.  ~St. Gregory Palamas

May the unoriginate and endless rays of the Beautiful and Good—the participable glory of God—fall upon us, illumine us, and make us brilliant, everlasting splendors. Indeed, let us become more like God, and dare we say with St. Basil and St. Gregory, become God.

Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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  • Erin Doom
    commented 2016-07-28 17:41:26 -0500
    Rick, I’m sorry we didn’t do a better job at the lectures for those new to the doctrine of deification. I hope you and other attendees will read the “Inklings Reflections” and tbe “Words from the Fathers” in the most recent issue of Synaxis, which was distributed to everyone who attended the lectures. They offer a great place to begin studying this “strange” doctrine. And I do intend to organize a follow-up reading group in Wichita for locals like you to dig deeper…that will be later in the fall.
  • Rick Carter
    commented 2016-07-28 09:13:20 -0500
    I feel compelled to make a few comments about Dr. Woods talk on Theosis. I was raised Baptist. Forty years worth. My wife and I then moved to the Episcopal church and then to Catholicism. At no time did we ever hear the word theosis or the concept of this subject. So, when Dr. Woods gave his talk it would have been helpful if he had explained the concept more simply for us new to the idea. My wife became visibly upset at the idea of us “becoming” gods. The gentleman behind us muttered that this was “new age” and stated that soon we would be channeling Shirley Maclean and left the lecture. I spent Saturday afternoon and some time Sunday educating myself on the idea with the help of Father Ware and the Catholic Catechism and now I have come to understand the concept.
    I admire Dr. Woods for his knowledge but I felt he missed the mark on the subject for us who were new to this idea.
    Rick Carter