By Archimandrite George, Egoumenos (Abbot) of the Holy Monastery of Gregoriou, Mount Athos, Greece
Man is Able to Achieve Theosis
According to the teachings of the Holy Bible and the Holy Fathers of the Church, man is able to achieve Theosis (Deification) because within the Orthodox Church of Christ, the Grace of God is uncreated. God is not only essence, as the West (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) thinks, He is also energy. If God was only essence, we could not be united with Him, could not commune with Him, because the essence of God is awesome and unapproachable for man. As was written: “Never will man see My face and live” (Exodus 33:20). Let us give a relevant example from things human. If we grasp a bare electric wire, we will die. However, if we connect a lamp to the same wire, we are illuminated. We see, enjoy, and are assisted by, the energy of electric current, but we are not able to grasp its essence. Let us say that something similar happens with the uncreated energy of God. If we were able to unite with the essence of God, we would become gods in essence. Then everything would become a god, and there would be such confusion that, essentially, nothing would be a god. In a few words, this is what they believe in the Oriental religions, e.g. in Hinduism, where the god is not a personal existence but an indistinct power dispersed through all the world, in men, in animals, and in objects (pantheism).
Again, if God had only the Divine essence—of which we cannot partake—and did not have His energies, He would remain a self-sufficient deity, closed within himself and unable to communicate with his creatures.
God, according to the Orthodox Christian theological view, is One in a Trinity and Trinity in One. As Saint Maximus the Confessor, Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, and other Holy Fathers repeatedly say, God is filled with a divine Eros, a divine love for His creatures. Because of this infinite and ecstatic love of His, He comes out of Himself and seeks to unite with them. This is expressed and realized as His energy, or better, His energies.
With these, His uncreated energies, God created the world and continues to preserve it. He gives essence and substance to our world through His essence-creating energies. His is present in nature and preserve the universe with His preserving energies; He illuminates man with His illuminating energies; He sanctifies him with His sanctifying energies. Finally, He deifies (theosis) him with His deifying energies. Thus, through his uncreated energies, Holy God enters nature, the world, and human life.
The energies of God are Divine energies. They too are God, but without being His essence. They are God, and therefore they can deify man. If the energies of God were not Divine and uncreated, they would not be God and so they would be unable to deify us, to unite us with God. There would be an unbridgeable distance between God and men. But as God has the Divine energies, and unites with us by these energies, we are able to commune with Him and to unite with His Grace, without becoming identical with God, as would happen if we united with His essence.
So we unite with God through His uncreated energies, and not through His essence. This is the mystery of our Orthodox faith and life.
If Grace Is Created Then Salvation Rises No Higher Than Moral Improvement
Western heretics cannot accept this. Being rationalists, they do not discern between the essence, and the energy of God, so they say that they cannot speak about man’s Theosis (Deification) because God is only essence. For on this basis, how can man be deified when they do not accept that the Divine energies are uncreated, but regard them as created? How can something created deify man, i.e., how can something outside God deify man?
In their fear of falling into pantheism, they do not talk about Theosis (Deification) at all. What then, according to them, remains as the purpose of human life? Simply moral improvement. In other words, if man cannot be deified by means of divine Grace, the divine energies, what purpose does his life have? Only that he becomes better than before, simply to perform moral deeds. We have as our final aim to unite with Holy God Himself. This is the purpose of the creation of the universe. This is what we desire. This is our joy, our happiness, and our fulfillment.
The psyche (soul) of man, who is created in the image and likeness of God, yearns for God and desires union with Him. No matter how moral, how good man may be, no matter how many good deeds he may perform, if he does not find God, if he does not unite with Him, he finds no rest. For Holy God placed within him this holy thirst, the Divine eros (love), the desire for union with Him, for Theosis (Deification), so he has in himself the erotic power, which he receives from his Creator, in order to love truly, strongly, selflessly, just as his Holy Creator falls in love with His world, with His creatures. This is so that with this holy erotic impetus and loving power, he falls in love with God. If man did not have the image of God in himself, he would not be able to seek its prototype. Each of us is an image of God, and God is our prototype. The image seeks the prototype, and only when it finds it does it find rest.
The Light of Tabor and the Challenge of Barlaam
In the fourteenth century, there was a great upheaval in the Church, which was provoked by a Western monk, Barlaam. He heard that Athonite monks talked about deification (theosis). He was informed that, after much struggle, cleansing of the passions, and much prayer, they became worthy to unite with God, to have experience of God, to see God. He heard that they saw the uncreated light that the holy Apostles had seen during the Transfiguration of our Savior Christ on Mount Tabor.
But, having the Western, heretical, rationalistic spirit, Barlaam was unable to perceive the authenticity of these divine experiences of the humble monks, and so, he began to accuse the Athonite monks as though it was they who were deluded, heretical, and idolatrous. In other words he was saying that it was impossible for someone to see the Grace of God, because he knew nothing about the distinction between the essence and the uncreated energy of God.
Then, God’s Grace brought out a great and enlightened teacher of our Church, the Athonite St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki. With much wisdom and enlightenment from God, but also from his personal experience, he said and wrote much which taught, in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Tradition of the Church, that the light of God’s Grace is uncreated; that it is a divine energy. That, in fact, deified men see this light as the ultimate, the highest experience of deification (theosis), and that they are seen within this light of God. This is the glory of God, His splendor, the light of Mount Tabor, the light of Christ’s Resurrection and of Pentecost, and the bright cloud of the Old Testament. It is the real uncreated light of God, and not symbolic as Barlaam, and others like him, believed in their delusion.
Subsequently, in three great Synods at Constantinople, the whole Church justified St. Gregory Palamas, declaring that life in Christ is not simply the moral edification of man, but deification (theosis), and that this means participation in God’s glory, a vision of God, of His Grace and His uncreated light.
We owe great gratitude to Saint Gregory Palamas, because, with the illumination he received from God, with his experience and his theology, he bequeathed to us the teaching and eternal experience of the Church concerning the deification (theosis) of man. A Christian is not a Christian simply because he is able to talk about God. He is a Christian because he is able to have experience of God. And just as, when you really love someone and converse with him, you feel his presence, and you enjoy his presence, so it happens in man’s communion with God: there exists not a simply external relationship, but a mystical union of God and man in the Holy Spirit.
Even now, Westerners consider the divine Grace, or the energy of God, as something created. Unfortunately, this also is one of the many differences that must be seriously taken into consideration in theological dialogue with the Roman Catholics. It is not only the filioque, the primacy of authority, and the ‘infallibility’ of the Pope which are basic differences between the Orthodox Church and the Papists. It is also the teachings on deification and the divine energies. If the Roman Catholics do not accept that the Grace of God is uncreated, we cannot unite with them even if they were to accept all the other points. For who is able to effect deification (theosis), if divine Grace is something created, and not an uncreated energy of the All-Holy Spirit?
Emphasis in the preceding article in the original.
This is an edited version of the first part of a lecture by Archimandrite George of Gregoriou, drawing upon two online sources: Theosis is Possible Through the Uncreated Energies of God and: Deification Is Possible Through The Uncreated Energies Of God.
A preceding part of the same lecture, discussing the Church as the “place of deification,” may be found here: The Church: The Place of Man’s Theosis.
An additional part of the lecture, discussing the need for humility as a prerequisite for deification, can be found here: Qualifications for Theosis (Deification).
About the Author
- Archimandrite George was been the Abbot of St. Gregorios Monastery since 1974. He is well known throughout the Orthodox world both as a theologian and spiritual father. He has written many books and articles on theology and the spiritual life. He reposed in 2014.