The Problem with Deification (Essay)

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order – Part Two

 In this series, I’m exploring a few of the fundamental assumptions of what I call the “classical” or “imperial synthesis”.  This is the doctrinal mainstream of Christianity as it has developed since the 4th century or so. It’s most representative forms are perhaps the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Calvinist churches, but its assumptions have permeated most forms of Christianity.

My contention is that some of the core doctrines of this synthesis are much more problematic than is often acknowledged. Yet we are still so deeply “within” this synthesis that we rarely directly and frankly question its central ideas.

Last week I looked at the common notion that Scripture is the revelation of God – and the problematic idea that Christianity is somehow at core an exercise in biblical exegesis. This week: salvation as divine transformation.

Salvation as Divine Transformation     

  1. The Idea
  2. The Problem
    1. Theoretical
      1. Where does God’s love rest?
      2. Salvation as progress
    2. Practical
      1. Political Theology
      2. Keeping up appearances
  3. Conclusion

The Idea

This is the teaching that salvation is the progressive and gradual sanctification or “divinizing” of the person, the church, and the cosmos.  It is the idea that God saves or redeems us by permeating the creation and transforming it into its own (properly) divine form.

There are “objective” and “subjective” versions of this teaching. In the former, we speak of God’s concrete “energies” or “grace” as a kind of physical force which is communicated to the world. The church is (usually) understood as the central conduit of this energy. In the latter, we understand divinization more as an internal process whereby our mind/soul becomes increasingly able to perceive the divine reality that surrounds it. Here personal prayer or spiritual revelation is key. But the core idea behind both is the same: salvation is a process of becoming more divine.

I’ll admit that this is one of the most attractive doctrines of the old synthesis (it’s also probably its biggest borrowing from ancient Greek thought, but that’s another post). Humans do unquestionably have a need to connect with the divine – to feel it, to experience it, to live it. This may even be our most important and basic religious need: to look at our world and somehow be able to see it as transparent or permeated by the divine – and to participate in this divinity as a way of ultimately transforming and transcending the world of suffering and death that seems to surround us.

 The Problem

But there are some problems with this idea. They are both theoretical and practical.

 1. Theoretical Problems

 The principal theoretical problem is that deification is simply not a great fit for the Gospel.

 The Gospel is the Good News that God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, has granted us salvation entirely gratis. There are no conditions – not even the slightest. Salvation is a radical gift to sinful and broken humanity, and it is effected through Jesus and Jesus alone. Faith is our hope and trust in this gift of salvation.

Deification can undermine this Good News in two subtle ways.

Where does God’s love rest?

First, it sends us the message – even if unintentionally – that God’s love does not ultimately rest upon us as we are, but instead, only as we are becoming in our movement towards the divine.

The implication is that God can love us fully and completely only when we are divine – like him.

But this has a grotesque implication: God can only love his reflection! It’s as if God is not satisfied with humans as humans. He has to make them “God-humans”, divine humans, before they are worthy of his love.

But the radical message of the Gospel is that God’s full and complete salvation is granted to us precisely as we are. Humans are saved as humans.

I know: proponents of this teaching will counter that humans are only truly human inasmuch as they are divine, deified. But I think this empties the Gospel of its real power and radicality. No. The Gospel proclaims that humans are saved as you and I are right now, as we are empirically, as we perceive it, flesh and blood – even immersed deeply in sin. The Gospel proclaims that it is these humans who are the ones God loves. We don’t have to be “redefined” or “truly human, i.e. divine” to be the object of God’s love. We just have to be us, right now. This is a crazy thought and one the Greco-Roman mind probably couldn’t endure: but the Gospel is crazy, let’s make no mistake!

Salvation as progress

Second, it injects the idea of progress into salvation. It understands salvation as a step-by-step process, a moving up a ladder towards an ever-more divine state.

This idea might at first flatter us. It provides us with an important role to play in our own salvation so that we can imagine ourselves as spiritual athletes or champions advancing ever onwards on the field of spiritual battle.

But it ultimately scuppers the idea that our salvation is a radical gift – something totally from “outside” of us, something totally alien. It instead places new, internal conditions on our salvation. Once again we must meet certain criteria, achieve certain accomplishments, before we are truly saved. “Christ,” it whispers, “has not worked our entire salvation– only a bit of it, the first piece perhaps.” Salvation thus emerges as still somehow a wage for labour rendered, a tit-for-tat reward for work done — a helping-hand for our own work. Christ, it seems, has simply written a job description for us. But we still have to perform.

In other words, Jesus has only introduced a new law, a new set of demands.

So much for a radical gift.

But Jesus is not meant to be a simple means to open up holiness to us, an instrument to enable our divinization.  The Gospel proclaims something much more radical, and much less intuitive: Jesus is our holiness, he is our divinization. God’s grace, his “energies”, his gift, is Jesus. There is no advancing beyond this gift, or building on it, as if Jesus is just one moment or phase in God’s action in the world among others – the starter-motor for our holiness engine. No: Jesus is the absolute entirety of our holiness. We participate or share in this salvific holiness by trusting in it and receiving the promise that God counts it as our own. It is NOT our own, but we trust God’s promise that God wishes to see it as our own. (Salvation is imputed, not infused, in the old theological language.)

The real work of the Spirit is thus not increasing our holiness, and certainly not in inspiring faith in our holiness (God forbid!) – it’s precisely leading us again and again back to trust in what Jesus has done. So faith doesn’t require that we become “little Christs” to be saved, little holy champions; no, it requires that we place our trust entirely on Jesus and his holiness.

This means, incidentally, that, as pertains to our salvation, no humans are objectively holier and “more divine” than any other. The old synthesis was constantly tempted to think that there were different “levels” of Christians. But this is absurd. Surely none of us ever stand before God as anything other than – literally – the greatest of all sinners? And surely God does not think of us in terms of needing less or more mercy? Less or more love? This “holiness elitism” was one of the most objectionable elements of the old synthesis – an unfortunate vestige of the Greco-Roman cult of competition.

 2. Practical Problems

 Despite these serious theoretical issues, it’s in the practical outcomes that the problems of deification become particularly evident.

Political Theology

First and foremost deification can easily transform Christianity into a religion of control.

It compels us to think that in order to be saved we must concretely transform ourselves and our world into something “divine”. This makes us think that we must create the Kingdom here and now. We must be “active” in shaping everyone and everything around us: “baptizing” the world, “purifying” it, “illuminating” it, “reforming” it, etc.

Maybe this doesn’t inevitably lead to coercion and compulsion, but in practice it almost always has. From the medieval papacy to the Byzantine Empire to Calvin’s Geneva or the puritans’ New England, deification has been a ticking time-bomb in Christian political theology: it’s the ultimate rationale for Christian totalitarianism. Deification can convince Christians that God’s salvific work is coincident with the imperative for us to reshape everything around us into its properly divine form. Christianity must thus become a new law, a new socio-political force, and a new culture. And since this culture is divine, it can legitimately be forced upon everyone. And then it is a very small step to it should be forced upon everyone, or must be. The central task of Christianity, in fact, becomes the development and enforcement of the Christian society, the Christian government, the Christian culture. (Hmm… Rome Empire in Christian garb anyone?) And, worst of all, this transformative work is itself understood as the Gospel.

But the Gospel precisely severs salvation from any type of human action. This includes our attempts to transform society into a “Christian” form or to develop any type of Christian institution, including the church! Christians may legitimately organize themselves to promote holiness, justice, or peace, or to foster their own piety and worship. But when we do this the Gospel reminds us that nothing we do ultimately effects anyone’s salvation. There may be many legitimate reasons why we may want to build institutions and exercise control, but salvation is never one of them.

The Gospel thus ultimately relativizes even the most well-intentioned Christian attempt to transform the world – it reveals it to be ultimately a human action, secondary to God’s exclusive working out of our salvation in Jesus Christ.  In this sense, preaching the Gospel is always paradoxically an exercise in giving up control; and receiving the Gospel a moment of profound freedom. No one is ever the gate-keeper of anyone else’s salvation. Christians can still try to reshape the world in many ways, and preach the Gospel to all — but they can do so without a sense of compulsion, and without the need to coerce or control.

Keeping up appearances

The second practical problem is that deification encourages an unhealthy anxiety around performance and “keeping up appearances”. Deification makes Christianity highly dependent upon the practical realization of holiness within the community. This produces a structural tension in churches of the classical synthesis: on the one hand they claim to be truly deified, at least to some degree; but on the other hand, they have to admit that real evidence of this holiness is, at best, uneven. In fact, most do freely admit this – they are not naïve about the reality of human sin. Many have even developed (elaborate!) theologies to explain why this is so. But this disconnect can introduce the phenomenon of a “holy façade” into the church’s life. Communities are compelled to proclaim they are something that in empirical fact they are not.  This introduces a note of inauthenticity into the church’s life.  This in itself is a bad thing, but the real problem emerges when the churches then present this dissonance as a necessary part of the Gospel. The assertion is made that anyone who encounters Christianity must accept this strangely unreal world as an essential element of the Gospel. The typical formulation is that the church (as an institution? idea?) is holy, divine and sacred while its members are not. It is asserted that realizing this – and accepting this – is a sign of mature belief, the very test of faith, and that living with this tension is even healthy and a source of growth.

But this is a very strange idea. It’s completely unnecessary. There is nothing in the Gospel that requires us to believe that the church is holy and divine. On the contrary, we must believe that Christ, and Christ alone, is holy. The Good News is that God has had mercy on us even though we are not holy. So no one needs to assent to an imaginary notion of the holiness of the Christian church to be a Christian; in a way, it’s the opposite – we have to accept that the church and every other human institution is truly sinful. So it’s ok for people to encounter the church as it really is – warts and all!

But churches which espouse deification concede this only with great difficulty. They insist that, somehow, something in the church here and now must remain concretely divine and holy for the church to retain any significance or meaning. As a result, most churches are very touchy about open and systemic criticism, and they develop many mechanisms to avoid and deflect it. Preserving the name and appearances of the church becomes a central task, and even a point of honour. Any slight is to be avoided, as is even the appearance of error or uncertainty.  Indeed, institutional preservation suddenly becomes a tremendous focus of energy, since divinity has been located in the institution.

Today, in a society which values authenticity, self-criticism, and transparency, do I even need to argue that these type of institutional dynamics are harmful? The Gospel should exactly free us from any of this. It allows our communities to simply be themselves: weak, human, struggling – but always looking to Christ.

Conclusion: So, do you have anything good to say about deification?

Sure I do! As Paul says, “much in every way”! I believe in the Spirit’s deifying action, both in our hearts and upon the world. I do think we can have quite real contact with God.  I think Christian should struggle to make progress; I think spiritual exercises are valuable; I think churches are important. And so on.

But I never once place my ultimate trust in any of this.

I always know that as pertains to salvation, all of this is fallible, passing. Ultimately, the only needful thing is Christ himself, and his promise of his totally free gift of salvation to us. I remember that, in the language of the old theology, justification is always radically separate from sanctification.

Next post: Kicking the Gnostic Habit – the Problem with Faith as Knowledge

Comments 5

  1. David, I really love this blog and respect what you do, but you really get this wrong. I don’t like internet exchanges, so perhaps we can meet one day and talk about it, but your understanding of “theosis” is simplistic. On political theology and theosis, do you know my book, “The Mystical as Political”? On process, in short, how exactly to we fulfill the greatest commandment? How do we love God more? Even to the point of loving our enemy and stranger or the one we instinctively feel to be unlovable? Transformation is a combination of will and Grace–in the end we must do things to open ourselves up to God’s love which is always on offer. Best to discuss in person or over phone.

  2. I was definitely with the first post on this series. This one gives a lot of really interesting food for thought, but I suspect the pillar will remain, or at least that it won’t fall as easily as you initially supposed. Although that final section does clarify a lot, and perhaps I ought to reread the post with it in mind, trying to understand the precise distinction you’re making.

  3. David, thanks for getting back to blogging. Your posts are definitely thought-provoking.

    I agree with much of what you’ve said, but isn’t there another way to think about deification? That is, yes, salvation is not something that requires progress, but there can be a progress of realizing salvation in our lives. The fact of salvation does not change, but we can accept and believe in salvation or not at any given moment. We do not need to accept salvation to be saved, but we do need to accept it to realize it in our lives. And so we can be re-evangelized again and again.

    I apologize if I am repeating myself from my previous comments, but this seems to be a recurring theme. I read your posts and ask myself, is the Greco-Roman synthesis that you describe what I’ve learned about Orthodoxy? And in many cases, I reach the conclusion that it’s not. Now, maybe I’ve been catechized by secret Lutherans.

    Thanks again for your thoughts!


    1. David Wagschal Post

      Hi Nicholas! Thanks for your note.

      I think what you are suggesting can work — in a way, it’s the classic Lutheran move of seperating justification and sanctification — as long as when you say “we do NEED to accept it to realize it in our lives” we understand that we “need to” for ourselves, for others, and that’s it. (“God doesn’t need our works, but other people do” is a good saying.) But we still need to be clear that salvation is not dependent upon us realizing anything in our lives — because a) we never really do; b) it’s all about Christ’s actions and “realizations” in his life. This point has to be made very strongly because historically almost all churches of the old synthesis have of course (!) affirmed that salvation is all God’s work, but then bring works in again through the back door by saying that some type of “acceptance”, “assent”, “realization” is still necessary — even if in the slightest possible way imaginable.

      As to “what is the synthesis?” I mostly have the western versions — Catholicism and Calvinism — in mind with these posts, but the Eastern churches would be quite similar on most of these points. However, modern versions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, particularly in the west, are very much influenced by Protestantism, and generally are not terrible aware of this, so you may indeed have a fair bit of Lutheran doctrine in your catechism! I was in the Orthodox church for many years largely because it was possible for me to find a very “Lutheran” interpretation in certain streams of North American Orthodoxy. However, I eventually found that the convolutions necessary to hold the two together became a bit much — and that really I had to come clean that my vision of things was actually quite different. Maybe you’ll find that, maybe not. I would say, however, that I still strongly value the Orthodox tradition, and that one of my dreams would be a theologically reformed Orthodoxy — i.e. one that can maintain the traditional matrix, sensibilities and forms, but built on a more Lutheran theological core. However, most Orthodox are convinvced that the part they’ve got absolutely right is the core theology bit… so probably that dream is far off. (Or is it? You could argue that Bishop Ware’s Orthodoxy is a kind of Orthodoxy reformed by Oxford-movement Anglicanism; and much Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe a kind of Orthodoxy reformed by the Counter Reformation; and there is a lot of existentialism and Barth in modern Orthodox theology… I don’t know. The problem is that none of these “reforms” are open. Their proponents still need to present them as more or less “what The Church has always said” — which suggests to me that they’re still very far from a properly reformed vision, which is totally fine with the church being openly wrong…!)

      Ponder, ponder!

  4. Hi David, thanks for this long response; it was quite helpful. I have been pondering it for some time, but I’m not sure I’ve gotten anywhere. I just wanted to let you know that it was appreciated.

    I definitely see what you mean about the “back door” effect. I think it was Fr. Alvin Kimel who wrote about his experience at one Orthodox Easter when, after hearing St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal sermon–“Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast”–the standard restrictions were recited before communion was offered to the faithful (only receive if you are Orthodox, have fasted, confessed recently, etc.). How jarring!

    Thanks again,

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