The following is taken from a paper I wrote about the doctrine of theosis from the perspective of St. Maximus the Confessor. In my opinion, theosis is the fullest and most beautiful description of our hope and salvation in Jesus Christ. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
In his famous work, On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius writes the following cryptic line, "For he was incarnate that we might be made god." If such a statement were uttered today in a Protestant church in North America, the speaker might very well be cast out of the congregation and accused of being a Mormon. However, language concerning the deification of humanity is still alive in "high church" circles and especially finds its home in the Orthodox tradition. For one familiar with the writings of the early church fathers, this should come as no surprise; the concept of theosis is interwoven throughout many of their teachings.
For Maximus the Confessor, the deification of humanity, understood properly, is the end or goal of the human race. Often in low-church Protestant circles, the Incarnation is only the means by which mankind is restored to its original state in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. The utility of the Incarnation is exhausted at Christ's death when humans were freed from sin and given admittance into heaven. For Maximus, this pattern of thinking barely scratches the surface of the significance of Christ's life, death, and resurrection. Simple restoration to the pre-Fall state is not enough. Though Adam was created without sin, he had not yet received "the immeasurable riches of [God's] goodness to us" (Eph 2:7) that Maximus believes is ultimately revealed at Christ's second coming. "[T]hen God will also completely fulfill the goal of his mystical work of deifying humanity in every respect, of course, short of an identity of essence with God; and he will assimilate humanity to himself and elevate us to a position above all the heavens." Humanity will never be of the same substance as God and therefore never worthy of worship, but it will experience a consistent and never-ending growing in likeness and fellowship with the Godhead. This "deifying humanity in every respect" is what Christ accomplished and is still accomplishing in the Incarnation. To put it another way, humanity’s end is to be fully in sync with the energies of God (the qualities by which we know him such as his love, mercy, patience, humility etc.) while always remaining distinct from his essence.
Before the Fall: Adam's Potential
Norman Russell declares, "[Deification] is the final end of salvation, the attainment of the destiny originally intended for humankind that Adam had in his grasp and threw away." Mankind was never intended to remain static within the Garden. God created Adam with potential that he might grow into a fuller state of humanity. In Ambiguum 7 Maximus wrestles with humanity's finite nature, "For if the divine is unmoved, since it fills all things, and everything that was brought from non-being to being is moved (because it tends toward some end), then nothing that moves is yet at rest." Created beings will not stop moving until they find rest in that which is "ultimately desirable." Because Adam was a created being, he was in motion, but he never achieved his final telos of rest in God. In contrast, he reached for the pleasures of the senses and damned himself and his offspring to wander without rest.
Before the fall, God endowed Adam with stewardship over creation and the creative faculties to cultivate nature in such a way that enhanced its beauty. Had Adam fulfilled his responsibility and found his delight in the Lord, he would have been allowed to remain in the Lord's Sabbath "rest." Considering that it is from this Sabbath rest that the impassible Lord rules over creation, and it is into this rest that believers are invited to enter, this rest should not be taken to mean "inactivity" (Heb. 4:1-13). Instead, when Maximus speaks of finding rest in what is "ultimately desirable" or when the author of Hebrews mentions entering into the Sabbath rest of God, the connotation is one of human flourishing and growth as it participates in divine community. In short, the Garden in Genesis was always destined, even before the Fall, to become the City in Revelation. This was the purpose for which man was created. Maximus explains that, at creation, God blessed mankind "with a certain spiritual capacity for pleasure, a pleasure whereby human beings would be able to enjoy God ineffably." Maximus believes that a rational delight in God is the highest good at which mankind can arrive.
In fact, pleasure derived from the senses has no place in the order of creation. Rather, this sensual pleasure only stirs humans to desire something other than God and subjects them to the enslavement of their passions. Therefore, Maximus (perhaps unintentionally) presents a quasi-gnostic understanding of humanity's make up. The divine is to be perceived and enjoyed rationally and any sort of pleasure associated with the physical senses is a threat.
Although Maximus claims that Adam was created with the ability to rationally enjoy God, he stacks the deck against him in his creation narrative. Perhaps in attempt to juxtapose God's impassability and other eternal qualities against the frailty of human nature, Maximus presents a perspective on creation that, regrettably, implies that mankind intrinsically has a predisposition to sensual pleasure. "But at the instant he was created, the first man, by use of his senses, squandered this spiritual capacity--the natural desire of the mind for God--on sensible things." By making the claim that Adam's first action was a plunge into sin, Maximus inadvertently suggests that God created a being that was only, to borrow Augustine's terminology, posse peccare. Either the temptation for sensual pleasure was so overwhelming that Adam could not resist, in which case one wonders how appealing rational pleasure in God could actually be if Adam did not even consider it, or worse, Adam was created with an inclination toward sinful pleasure.
While trying to make the case for the goodness of the rational over the sensual, Maximus essentially demonizes the original created order. He tries to justify his berating of the human passions by arguing that they were only welded to humanity after the fall. While the passions can be wielded in such a manner that is pleasing to God, this is simply a redemption of something that is not intrinsically good. "The passions, moreover, become good in those who are spiritually earnest once they have wisely separated them from corporeal objects and used them to gain possession of heavenly things." Again sounding somewhat gnostic, Maximus decries any sort of notion of Christian hedonism and denounces pleasures associated with the senses. Mankind was created to be a rational creature, but Adam succumbed to the temptation of the senses and gave birth to humanity's enslavement to its passions.
However, God, in his mercy, introduced an opposing and punitive force to counteract humanity's enthrallment with sensible pleasure; thus, mankind first experienced pain. "[P]ain uproots unnatural pleasure, but does not completely destroy it, whereby, then, the grace of the divine pleasure of the mind is naturally exalted." Therefore, humanity has the ability to recognize the beauty of the rational pleasure which it exchanged for the sensual; however, it has no freedom to consistently delight in that rational pleasure. Mankind has been subjected to a perpetual downward spiral of bondage to the passions. Maximus aptly describes the human condition as follows:
Wanting to escape the oppressive experience of pain we sought refuge in pleasure, attempting to console our nature when it was hard-pressed with pain's torment. Striving to blunt pain's spasms with pleasure, we merely sanctioned against ourselves a greater debt of pain, powerless to disconnect pleasure from pain and toils.
As much as humans desire to distance themselves from pain, their pursuit of pleasure as a balm only results in more pain. Like a virus needing a host, sin pounced upon humanity's liability to passions and propagated itself through means of sexual procreation. Realizing that death is the natural consequence of this enslavement, humanity desperately tried to preserve itself through procreation. However, it only multiplied the disease and further chained itself to sin and death.
In order that mankind might be set free from its bondage and finally able to begin its intended purpose of deification, the Logos of God became incarnate. While retaining his impassibility, the second Person of the Trinity became man and elevated humanity to a position that even Adam had not known.
To accomplish this, Christ had to be born of a virgin. Because Maximus believes that sin is passed on genetically, no one born from the union between a man and a woman can be without sin. Having no earthly father, Jesus was not subjected to the hereditary bondage to evil under which everyone from the line of Adam suffered. Though completely human, he remained distinct from the rest of humanity by not being born of a sexual union. However, because he was still born of a woman, he inherited mankind's "liability to passions." Christ was born into the same state as Adam: "sinless but not incorruptible." However, where Adam failed, Christ succeeded.
Taking a decidedly Christus victor approach to the atonement, Maximus explains how it is possible for Christ "become sin" without ever having "known" sin. Adam exchanged a state of sinlessness for sensible pleasure and inherited corruption. Christ, on the other hand, willing took on the effects of this sin without ever participating in the sin itself. To put it differently, the impassible Logos willingly subjected himself to human passions, but he did not succumb to sensible pleasures. He is the great “high priest” who is familiar with human weakness and temptation and yet without sin (Heb. 4:14-16). Because this was not done out of any obligation but out of the most perfect free-will, Christ began to undo the corruption of human nature. "At the resurrection of Christ, human nature was transformed into incorruption because his free choice was immutable." When he rose from the grave, Christ left buried humanity’s corruption, death, and susceptibility to passions.
Because of this the words of Paul are made possible: "What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Cor. 15:42-44). Christ's work is much more than punitive substitution. Because he overcame humanity's passions, mankind has the opportunity for ontological renewal and enhancement. These are the mysteries of the Incarnation. The events of Christ's life run parallel to that of Adam and his offspring but with different outcomes. Where the free choice of Adam brought about enslavement to passions, the free choice of Christ to subject himself to the danger of passions brought about freedom. Whereas mankind was chained to a life of pain due to the pursuit of pleasure, Christ chose pain that humanity might experience the pleasure of God. Whereas the children of Adam were born as a result of sexual procreation springing from the bosom of passion, Christ was born of a virgin as the result of a passionless conception. Christ was the second Adam who succeeded in the first Adam's failures and then ushered humanity into the throne room of God. Whereas Adam succumbed to the pleasure of the senses and brought forth pain and death, Christ subjected himself to the liability of the passions, resisted, and therefore made rational pleasure and life possible again. The impassable God exposed himself to the human passions that mankind might experience impassibility. Because of the kenosis of Christ, theosis becomes a reality for the believer.
When God stooped down to partake in the life of humanity, he was not permanently emptying himself. Rather, he was temporarily choosing to embrace limitations under which humankind was suffering that humanity might be elevated into the life of the divine. The condescension of God resulted in the exaltation of man. God is still incarnate, and his deification of humanity means that his remaining incarnate is no longer a condescension.
Corrupted humanity enters into this deification through adoption by God via the cleansing waters of baptism. According to Maximus, baptized believers who keep God’s commandments are birthed by the Spirit and granted the ability to kill death. Or, to use Maximus’s words exactly, “Christ, the captain of our salvation (Heb. 2:10), turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin.”
This exaltation of humanity has yet to reach its final consummation, however. Scripture reveals that this is according to the ages that God has assigned for the restoration and deification of humanity. According to Maximus, this is how one is to reconcile passages like Ephesians 2:7 which says that in the coming ages God will show his riches with passages like 1 Corinthians 10:11 which says that the end of the ages has already come. Maximus conceives of these ages as periods dedicated to accomplishing their own individual telos. It is the difference between kairos and chronos in Greek. In 1 Corinthians, the end has already come insomuch as the Logos has been made incarnate and has made it possible for humanity to be released from its enslavement to passions. However, deification is an infinite process that begins in this age and evolves into an ever deepening state of perfection in the next. As Maximus says in Ad Thalassium 22, "But in the ages to come we shall undergo by grace the transformation unto deification and no longer be active but passive; and for this reason we shall not cease from being deified." Currently, the Christian experiences an active struggle with sinful passions. Christ has set him or her free insomuch as he or she is no longer compelled to submit to these passions; but there still remains a wrestling with the passions until Christ returns. It is at Christ's second coming that deification will become "passive" rather than "active." There will no longer be any struggle, but humankind will taste impassibility and finally be at rest. At that time mankind will truly know what it means to be fully human as it is drawn deeper and deeper into fellowship with the triune God.