St Augustine retains a controversial place within Christian theology: not only was he involved in several controversies in his own time, certain theological inclinations often referred to as “Augustinian,” with the very content of these inclinations and their subsequent theological orthodoxy, are still debated. Augustine is praised by some for his discussions regarding grace, but is shunned by the same readers for passages wherein Augustine retains a commitment to baptism being connected to forgiveness. He is also widely praised for his work against Pelagianism, but is often critiqued for saying too much or going too far in its doctrine of grace, diminishing the freedom of the will. He is considered a Saint and an early Church Father within Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, but some Orthodox theologians refer to him as the “the fount of every distortion and alteration in the Church’s truth in the West.” Poor, misunderstood Augustine, who is both loved and hated! Beneath all of this controversy is an aspect of Augustine’s thought which has been largely overlooked through theological history and analyses of Augustine: the Bishop of Hippo’s doctrine of theosis.
What is Theosis?
Augustine’s theology of theosis, otherwise known as deification, resonates with the larger Christian tradition of humanity becoming like God by grace and not by nature. It is necessary to look to other figures to set the parameters for theosis within Christian theological discourse to contextualize Augustine’s observations in order to see if Augustine does, in fact, have such a doctrine of deification.
In the language of 2 Peter 1:4, those who are united in Christ “may become participants of the divine nature” (γένησθε θείας κοινωνοὶ φύσεως; NRSV). St Athanasius is often credited with one of the most popular explanations of salvation in terms of theosis – that “God became man so that men might become gods” – although it is perhaps better rendered as “For he was incarnate that we might be made god.” There is an implicit logic at work here that needs teasing out, although Athanasius’ remarks here are not as clear as what one finds in later tradition. Athanasius himself admits that “the achievements of the Savior, effected by his incarnation, are of such a kind and number that if anyone should wish to expound them he would be like those who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves.” As if taking up Athanasius’ challenge centuries later, St Maximos the Confessor attempts to articulate the connection between the Incarnation and deification:
“A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to deification of human nature is provided by the Incarnation of God, which makes man God to the same degree as God Himself became man… Let us 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. For it is clear that He Who became man without sin will divinize human nature without changing it into the Divine Nature, and will raise it up for His Own sake to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man’s sake.”
There are three points from Maximos that will form the basis for our discussion regarding Augustine: (1) the incarnation is the “warrant” for deification; (2) the reciprocal act of God becoming human and humanity becoming gods; (3) an articulation of both the union of and distinction between the Divine and human. The first point picks up on Athanasius: there is an inherent relationship between the “lowering” of God and the divinization of humanity. The second point builds upon this Athanasian foundation: by “consort[ing] with God,” we “become gods,” and this language most likely harkens back to 2 Peter 1:4 where we “become participants of the divine nature.” As per the third point, although Maximos asserts that man is made God “to the same degree as God Himself became man,” humanity is not changed into the Divine Nature (as Maximos points out) as if to become co-equal with God. God is the source of any and all deification, as we are “receiving from God our existence as gods.” If humanity were to become co-equal with God, then that would shatter the uniqueness of the Triune God. This framework and “logic” of theosis is admittedly a mature and later theological development, but its articulations will provide a reference for interpreting Augustine.
Augustine and the Logic of Theosis
While theosis as a soteriological motif is mostly associated with the Greek Patristic and Eastern Orthodox tradition(s), Augustine is no stranger to the Latin term deificare (“make a god, deify”), which he used “as one metaphor among many possible images of divine union” throughout his works. We must now turn to several passages in Augustine that approach and include this language of deification. The first passage comes from a collection of Augustine’s sermons that were recently found in 1990 by Francois Dolbeau known as Sermo 23B:
“We carry mortality about with us, we endure infirmity, we look forward to divinity. For God wishes not only to vivify, but also to deify us. When would human infirmity ever dared to hope for this, unless divine truth had promised it?”
Augustine’s language is explicit here: our mortality and infirmity shall be discarded for divinity. It is God’s desire – and promise(!) – to not only bring humanity into existence, to give humanity life, but to raise humanity into a new mode of being. Augustine continues his train of thought within the sermon, stating:
“Still, it was not enough for God to promise us divinity in himself, unless he also took on our infirmity, as though to say, ‘Do you want to know how much I love you, how certain you ought to be that I am going to give you my divine reality? I took to myself your mortal reality.’ We mustn’t find it incredible, brothers and sisters, that human beings become gods, that is, that those who were human beings become gods.”
Some elements here are noteworthy: humanity’s deification is dependent upon God’s own divinity, the original and unrepeatable source that is the divine nature. Here, Augustine also points out the reciprocal act of God taking upon the “mortal reality” of humanity, the act which forms the foundational certainty that God is going to give humanity the “divine reality.” This is, of course, a reference to the Incarnation. Some interpreters may find such language, due to its literary context being a sermon, merely a rhetorical device, hyperbolic language that has no place within Augustine’s actual theology. However, that is far from the truth, as Augustine follows this logic within one of his treatises entitled On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants:
“‘For the Word, which became flesh, was in the beginning, and was God with God.’ But at the same time His participation in our inferior condition, in order to our participation in His higher state, held a kind of medium in His birth of the flesh; so that we indeed were born in sinful flesh, but He was born in the likeness of sinful flesh — we not only of flesh and blood, but also of the will of man, and of the flesh, but He was born only of flesh and blood, not of the will of man, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God: we, therefore, to die on account of sin, He, to die on our account without sin. So also, just as His inferior circumstances, into which He descended to us, were not in every particular exactly the same with our inferior circumstances, in which He found us here; so our superior state, into which we ascend to Him, will not be quite the same with His superior state, in which we are there to find Him. For we by His grace are to be made the sons of God, whereas He was evermore by nature the Son of God; we, when we are converted, shall cleave to God, though not as His equals; He never turned from God, and remains ever equal to God; we are partakers of eternal life, He is eternal life.”
Augustine triumphantly proclaims that Christ’s incarnation is a mystical demonstration, for human nature could be joined to God! God participates in humanity’s inferior condition in order that humanity can participate “in His higher state” – divinity. The Incarnation thus becomes the “warrant” and foundation for theosis. Christ, as the Word-in-flesh, makes theosis possible because the Incarnation unites the human with the divine. Humanity may ascend to a “superior nature,” though this nature “will not be quite the same” as the Trinitarian God. Augustine carefully and poetically parallels the language of our “superior state” with Christ: we will be made children of God through grace, whereas Christ is by nature the Son of God.
The last phrase is vital: “we are partakers of eternal life, He [Christ] is eternal life.” If Christ is the eternal life that Christians partake of, then humanity partakes of Christ, who is God-in-flesh. Again, Augustine is careful to draw a distinction between the Creator and creation, the Deifier and the deified. While maintaining this distinction, the bishop of Hippo is also comfortable with explicit theosis formulas (akin to St Athanasius) as he preached in one of his Christmas sermons: “A far brighter hope has beamed forth upon the earth – life in heaven promised to the dwellers on earth. To make us believe this, we were first asked to accept a thing more unbelievable. Designing to make gods of those who were men, He [Christ], who was God, was made man.” Again, the link between Incarnation and humanity’s deification in Augustine’s theology is made explicit. To reiterate, all of this fits in with the passage from Maximos and the elements necessary for deification: (1) the incarnation as the “warrant” for deification; (2) the reciprocal act of God becoming human and humanity becoming gods; (3) an articulation of both the union of and distinction between the Divine and human.
One could object that Augustine does not hold to any type of theosis based on this passage from On Nature and Grace:
“For my own part, I am of this opinion that the creature will never become equal with God, even when so perfect a holiness shall be accomplished in us, that it shall be quite incapable of receiving any addition. No; all who maintain that our progress is to be so complete that we shall be changed into the substance of God, and that we shall thus become what He is, should look well to it how they build up their opinion; for myself I must confess that I am not persuaded of this.”
Those opposed to Augustinian deification by grace can thus go back and interpret Augustine’s statements regarding deification through a figurative or metaphorical lens or simply criticize Augustine for being hypocritical or changing his views on the concept of theosis. However, the above passage does not negate Augustine’s statements regarding deification; rather, it supports the third point discussed above: there is a union of and distinction between the Divine and human. We do not become “gods” as equal to God, but rather participants in God’s divine nature. Augustine’s main concern is that some may take theosis too far: “the creature will never become equal with God.” Such a statement may have been made to explicitly deter others away from Pelagian doctrine, who interpreted 2 Peter 2:14 as a passage that supported their hyper interpretation of theosis.
St Augustine: East or West?
Augustine held to theosis as the soteriological telos of humanity. Those who draw hard soteriological lines between the West and East will no doubt be challenged by Augustine’s statements regarding theosis (as well as Martin Luther’s emphasis on “Christification”). Orthodox priest-theologian Andrew Louth recognizes that the “theme of deification… is still significant for Augustine,” an observation that baffles those who attempt to overplay the theological differences between “East” and “West” in the early centuries of Christianity. Rather than making sweeping general statements about a Church Father because of his reception in later theological traditions (whether one agrees with these traditions or not), it would be more proper to read and understand Augustine in his own words and take serious his own theological emphases. That being said, there are plenty of passages in Augustine’s corpus that have been overlooked and, especially for Eastern Orthodox, well worth reading. If Augustine is to be fully recovered in modern theological discussions, then his emphasis on the theosis of humanity must be taken into consideration.