“God became human so that human beings may become god” (St Athanasius)
In the history of theology, one can detect quite different, but not necessarily opposing emphases in the understanding of redemption in the Western and Eastern Churches. In the past the Catholic Church has tended to understand redemption in terms of legal, juridical and forensic categories. In his famous book, which has influenced all subsequent treatments on redemption, Anselm argued that the sin of humankind had offended God and that the justice of God could only be served by making a‘satisfaction’ or just payment of the penalty. Moreover the various Protestant Churches have understood redemption in terms of ‘penal substitution’ models. In the Orthodox Churches, only with the patristic revival in the middle of this century has the doctrine of the redemption been linked up with the Incarnation of Christ and deification.
Today in Orthodox theology, redemption is not seen in juridical terms, whereby one is simply redeemed from the wrath of God and granted an extrinsic justification as a result of the fall. Moreover redemption is not merely understood as forgiveness of sins or humanity’s reconciliation to God. Eastern theology sees redemption in positive terms whereby one is actually called to really participate in the personal and divine energies of the Trinity as a result of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This perspective then is hardly negative. It is this paper’s contention that all the above-mentioned models of redemption are biblical, so what is called for is a theological synthesis of the various models. The issue is a difference of emphasis thereby we are not forced to choose between them at the expense of the others. Rather, these models, besides a host of other New Testament redemption models (such as adoption, reconciliation, ransom, sacrifice, forgiveness, propitiation, deliverance) are complementary and must be seen all together. In fact all biblical models are needed so that the wonder of God’s salvific act may be upheld. For the theology of redemption to be credibly presented today a revival of the Eastern perspective must be taken seriously as well and it is to this perspective, that this article will concentrate. It is the purpose of this essay to briefly outline the Orthodox understanding of redemption. The importance of the Incarnation and the doctrine of deification are foundational understanding of the theology of redemption.
In the East, the fact that the Word became flesh and died for us has not meant that humankind has been simply justified from God’s anger, but rather has assumed an intimate and hypostatical unity with divinity itself. The essence of our redemption lies in the lifting up of human nature into the everlasting communion with the divine life which was realized by Christ”s redeeming work. The whole emphasis of the Greek fathers centered around this foundational conception: the Incarnation of the Word as Redemption. The whole destiny and history of humankind was completed in the Incarnation. The Incarnation is not to be seen as a reduction of Christ’s divinity but on the contrary, a lifting-up of human persons, the deification or theosis of human nature. The East has always seen the Incarnation as the union of the divine majesty with human frailty and therefore the ultimate redemptive act of God.
As it has been stated above, the Greek fathers see the Incarnation as that which begins the whole process of our redemption. But more than that, the fathers speak of the original destiny of human nature as one leading to a hypostatic union with the divine Logos in Christ – ie our deification. Christ, who as the perfect union of divine and human opened the way for our human nature to participate in the divine. For this reason many fathers interpret the Incarnation of the Logos not as a simple consequence of the fall, but as the fulfillment of the original will of God – namely that in the person of the Logos, human nature is capable of being united with the divine. The deification of Christ’s human nature made possible our deification as well. In his book, Deification in Christ, Nellas wonderfully sums it up in this way: “Christ is not the result of an act of Satan. The union of the divine and human natures took place because it fulfilled the eternal will of God….. Prior to the hypostatic union of the divine nature with the human, man even before the fall was anterior to Christ, a fact which means that even then, in spite of not having sinned, man had need of salvation, since he was an imperfect and incomplete “child”. This teaching lies at the core of the theology of St Irenaeus. Human nature could not have been completed simply by its tendency; it had to attain union with the Archetype. Since Christ is “the head of the body, the Church” (Col. 1.18), a fact which means in patristic thought that Christ is the head of true humanity, as long as human nature had not received the hypostasis of the Logos it was in some way without real hypostasis – it lacked real substance”. Nellas implies that the deification of humanity, even if humanity had not sinned, needed the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures of Christ in the Logos.
The hypostatic union of divine and human accomplished in Christ, was the very foundation of the deification ofhumanity. Since Christ took on human nature and bestowed upon it the fullness of grace, he made humanity capable of ascending to God. Therefore St Athanasius could say that “God became human so that humanity may become God”. It is the gift of the Incarnation which gives humanity the possibility of deification. Since the first Adam went astray and deprived himself of the gratuitous gift of union with God, the Second Adam, the divine Logos achieved this union of the two natures in his person. Therefore the Incarnation of Christ does not simply redeem humanity from the effects of the fall but completes the pre-fallen nature of humanity by deifying it. For the fathers the deification of Christ”s human nature becomes the vessel by which our human nature too can be deified. This is the basis of the theology of deification which is found in the fathers. Meyendorff describes it in this way:
“The hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ is the very foundation of salvation, and therefore of deification: in Christ humanity has already participated in the uncreated life of God because the ”flesh” has truly become ”the flesh of God”.
Such is the fundamental position of the Incarnation of the Word for a credible and contemporary teaching on redemption. The Incarnation of the Logos has opened to all human persons the possibility of restoring their unity with God. And the death of Christ was effective in humanity’s redemption, not because it satisfied a transcendent Justice which required retribution for humanity’s sins but because it was the death of the Son of God in the flesh (i.e., in virtue of the hypostatic union). Fr Georges Florovsky writes that
“the death of of the Cross was effective, not as a death of an Innocent One, but as the death of the Incarnate Lord”.
The Orthodox notion of redemption is clearly not simply an act to satisfy a legal requirement, but one which destroys death by his death and opens the way for our immortality. For this reason many fathers would view the mystery of the Incarnation independent of the Fall. This hypostatic, complete mingling of created and uncreated natures without division or confusion had as its immediate consequence the deification of the nature created in Christ and by extension human nature in general. And it is to this doctrine of deification that we now turn.
Deification – The Human Destiny
For the Eastern fathers, the formulation of the doctrine of ‘deification’, affirmed the reality of humanity’s innermost hope as “belonging to God”.St Gregory Nazianzus argued that the root of a person’s true greatness and calling lay in being “called to be a god”. Elsewhere, St Basil the Great insists that “the goal of our calling is to become like god”. The ultimate redemptive destiny of humanity is none other than to attain likeness to God and union with Him. Deification denotes a direct union and a total transformation of the human person with the living God by divine grace. St Basil the Great says that human beings are nothing less than creatures that have received the order to become gods. The descent (katavasis) of God has offered the created order the capability of ascending (anavasis) to the Divine in the Holy Spirit. For the Eastern fathers, deification is God”s greatest gift to, and the innermost goal of human existence. Although the term does not occur in the Holy Scriptures, the Greek fathers believed that it was a fitting theological term affirming the command of 2 Peter 1:4 – ie “to become participants of the divine nature”. Regarding deification, a seventh century father, St Anastasius of Sinai, writes the following:
“Deification is the elevation to what is better, but not the reduction of our nature to something less, nor is it an essential change of our human nature. A divine plan, it is the willing condescension of tremendous dimension by God, which He did for the salvation of others. That which is of God is that which has been lifted up to a greater glory, without its own nature being changed”.
This is an important statement because it rejects all forms of pantheism.
Now, the patristic tradition has always sought to stress the importance of the process of deification in reference to redemption. As a result of theenhypostasia of the second Person of the Trinity, Christ’s humanity, in virtue of thecommunicatio idiomatum[communication of attributes, divine and human] is a deified humanity, which does not lose its human characteristics in any way. In fact, on the contrary these human attributes become more real since they model the divine according to which they were created. In Christ’s deified humanity, humankind is also called to participate and to share “in the divine nature of God” (2 Peter 1:4). For the Eastern patristic tradition, the basis of humanity’s deification is clearly found in the hypostatic union between the divine and human natures of Christ. These divine energies in Christ, as a result of the communication reach all those who live a life literally in Christ. Ultimately redemption means deification which is the supreme goal for which humankind was created.
All that has been said thus far necessitates a theological synthesis between the Western and Eastern theologies of redemption. Despite the Western understanding of redemption as penal substitution or satisfaction models this article has examined the Eastern understanding of redemption – a redemption which ultimately calls all of the created order to deification by grace. What is called for therefore today is a complementary understanding of redemption so that the fullness of humanity’s true existence might be realized. Only when the Orthodox understanding of redemption is taken seriously can the whole ideal of redemption be credibly presented today. All too often, the West speaks of juridical models at the expense of other models. On the other hand, the East is all too often tempted to speak of redemption solely in Incarnation and deification terms. Both perspectives are necessary for a complete and wholistic understanding of redemption. In a world where our struggles often seem hopeless, where our life seems meaningless because death is ever present, the good news and foundation of our hope is that Christ has overcome death and granted life in the tombs. The Incarnation of the Logos offers us a “life in Christ” empowering us to live as Christ, to love as Christ, to serve as Christ and to be one with Christ.
Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College