Dr. Jared Ortiz is Associate Professor of Religion at Hope College, author of You Made Us for Yourself: Creation in St Augustine’s Confessions (Fortress Press, 2016), founder and executive director of the Saint Benedict Institute, and a contributor to Catholic World Report. He is also editor of Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition (The Catholic University of America Press, 2019), a collection of essays that has been praised as “a valuable contribution to the field of Patristic studies.”
CWR: First, how would you define deification?
Jared Ortiz: Let me begin by saying that deification is what the Bible means by salvation. It is the fullest meaning of what it means to be saved by Christ. Even though the idea is biblical, the word “deification” is not. It comes from two Latin words, deus, which means “(a) God” or “divine” or “holy,” and facere, which means “to make.” Many people associate this term with emperor worship, though this is not the word the ancient Romans used to describe the elevation of the emperor to a divine status. Deification is not a pagan import, but a Christian revelation. It is deeply Christological and ecclesiological.
CWR: Say more about the Christological and ecclesial dimension of deification.
Ortiz: Deification refers to our glorious destiny in Christ through the Holy Spirit. It means a real transformation of the Christian into a son of God who shares in God’s very own life. It involves our graced participation, that is, it involves our living a life in the Spirit which both requires and augments our freedom as we grow into the image of God, that is to say, as we grow in godliness. From start to finish, this process involves the sacraments which communicate God’s life to us, the hearkening to the word which melts our hearts and makes them malleable so we might be conformed to Christ, and the communal life where God works in and through us as we encounter Christ in others.
CWR: Is the word “deification” common in the early Church?
Ortiz: No. In one Latin database, words with a deif– root occur only 73 times from the second to the seventh century. There is a burst of the use of this term in the ninth century and again in the twelfth and especially the thirteenth centuries. Still—and this is the essential point—the content of deification is found throughout the writings of all the major Latin Fathers.
CWR: When did you first learn about and become interested in the topic of deification?
Ortiz: I probably first learned about deification from old Scott Hahn cassette tapes I borrowed from a parish library. Deification is a key idea in Scott’s theological vision, which he usually talks about in terms of “divine sonship.”
CWR: And how have you, as an academic, gone about researching and writing about it?
Ortiz: I started to study deification more intensely when I wrote my dissertation on creation in Augustine’s Confessions. I wasn’t looking for deification in Augustine, let alone in a study on creation, but I was surprised time and again that, for Augustine, creation and deification are intimately related. For Augustine, the fact that God created us out of nothing means that we must understand our destiny as deification. My dissertation, now book, makes that argument at length.
CWR: How did your recent volume, Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition, come about?
Ortiz: Interestingly, it started when you and Fr. Meconi invited me to write the Latin Fathers chapter for Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification (Ignatius Press, 2016). When I started that project, a number of scholars told me that my essay would be short because the Latin Fathers didn’t really have a theology of deification. This annoyed me and, honestly, it just seemed wrong. I spent a long summer in the Mount Angel Abbey library and gathered what I saw could be a book’s worth of Latin deification material. I wrote my essay, but knew there was much more to say. A few years later, when I was a young prof at Hope College I put together a three-day twelve-person workshop at the 2015 Oxford Patristic Conference with top-notch scholars from around the world. Each scholar studied a different Latin author. The papers from the workshop were all expanded and included in the volume.
CWR: As you note in the Introduction, many people think that deification is something widespread in the Eastern traditions, but not in the Western tradition. Why this perception? What is problematic or misleading about it?
Ortiz: Let’s start with the second question: the perception that deification is a teaching of the East and not the West is misleading because it is false and has no basis in reality. It is problematic because it reinforces lame prejudices between East and West and also blinds Christians from seeing what is in their own tradition. Every single Catholic priest every single day at every single Mass for as many centuries as we know has said these deification-rich words: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” How can we say deification is absent from the West when it is at the heart of our Eucharistic prayers? Why is it we do not learn about this more frequently except that we have been trained not to see what is before our very eyes?
CWR: But how did we get to this point?
Ortiz: My friend Carl Mosser has done the most interesting work on how we all came to adopt such an odd prejudice (see his essay here). Let me summarize his argument briefly. At the turn of the twentieth century, Adolf von Harnack, the great Protestant historian of dogma, proposed a theory about the development of Christian doctrine which cast the Christian tradition primarily as one of decline. Starting from the simple moral teachings of Christ, Christian doctrine became corrupted due to the influence of Greek philosophy. According to Harnack, the teaching at the heart of this decline was the doctrine of deification. This doctrine, he claimed, became the defining feature of eastern Christianity. The west was only mildly corrupted by it.
Harnack’s influence was such that this thesis became standard. Orthodox Christians (many of whom recently migrated after the Russian Revolution) adopted his argument, but modified it in one essential way. They agreed that deification defines eastern Christianity (something no Orthodox would have said before this), but for them this was not a sign of apostasy, but the mark of the true faith. For the Orthodox, it was western Christians, Catholic and Protestant, who were the apostates because they abandoned the deep truth about salvation. Despite readily available counterevidence, this narrative has dominated scholarly and popular conversations around deification—as well as ecumenical dialogue—up until our own time.
CWR: How do the Latin and Greek Patristic traditions compare on deification?
Ortiz: The Latin and Greek tradition do not differ very much in how they express deification. There is variety and a range of expressions and emphases, but these are similar in each tradition. The great Greek Patristic scholar, Norman Russell, wrote the final essay in our volume comparing Greeks and Latins. He identified five key characteristics which both traditions share. Deification is Christologically driven, ecclesial in nature, eschatological in orientation, and, finally, draws on similar Platonic themes, such as participation, the soul’s ascent to God, and becoming like God through moral and ascetical discipline.
CWR: Can you give some examples of how deification is expressed in the Latin Patristic tradition?
Ortiz: I love the passage from the City of God where Augustine sets the whole trajectory of creation, fall, and redemption in a deification key:
“We wished to be God ourselves when we fell away from him, after listening to the Seducer saying, “You will be like gods.” Then we abandoned the true God, by whose creative help we should have become gods, but by participating in him, not by deserting him.” (City of God, 22.30)
Augustine says this so naturally it is clear that deification ideas are an integral part of his theological vision. Also, there is such a delightful polemic in here as well since Augustine has spent nearly a thousand pages rejecting all the pagan gods only to replace them with true gods, that is, those among us who worship the true God and share in his life.
Leo the Great is a master at what is called “the exchange formula,” which he modeled on the thought of St. Paul who says, “For your sake he become poor, though being rich, so that by his poverty you may become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Throughout all liturgical seasons, Leo uses similar expressions to connect his rich Christology with his understanding of our transformation in Christ. In a Pentecost sermon, Leo has Christ say to us, “I have united you to myself, and I have become the son of man so that you can be sons of God” (Sermon 77.5). In a Holy Week sermon, he says, “Being like unto us and equal with the Father, he lowered his divinity to the human state and lifted his humanity up to the divine” (Sermon 3.2). In other words, God became what we are so that we could become what he is.
Tertullian offers perhaps the most unique and interesting expression of deification when he describes Christ as “sequester.” Tertullian cites 1 Timothy 2:5 where Jesus is described as the “mediator between God and man.” In his early writings, Tertullian translates the Greek mesites into the Latin mediator, but this is problematic in the Latin of his time. Mediator is a legal term which denotes an impartial person who enters into a property dispute between two parties but is independent of both parties. But this is not a helpful way to understand the Incarnation as it would undermine salvation. In his later works, he translates this word with another legal term, sequester. A sequester was one who became the legal owner of the disputed property until the case was settled. In the Incarnation, Christ becomes the legal possessor of humanity whose ownership is under dispute since the Fall. As sequester, Christ has to ensure that his property is restored to its rightful Owner in the best condition which, for Tertullian, meant the full restoration, body and soul, to prelapsarian holiness.
CWR: You wrote the opening chapter, “Making Worshippers into gods: Deification in the Latin Liturgy,” in which you state, “Deification was not the esoteric teaching of a few superior theologians, but a popular teaching that was written in to the very art and architecture of Latin churches and baptisteries.” Can you give some examples of this?
Ortiz: Take the image on the cover of the book. There you find some pretty artistically primitive Latin Christian art which at the same time conveys a number of pretty profound deification themes. The piece is a tombstone with an etching of a young girl. There she is pictured being baptized and receiving an outpouring of grace from a Holy Spirit-infused heavenly font. Note how the water completely ensconces her: she is surrounded, covered, enveloped in divine life.
The scene is framed by images of flora and fauna, the same kind of imagery one finds in baptisteries of this time as well. Why is that? Because in the death of baptism and the death of the faithful one enters into Paradise. The prayers of the baptism liturgy bear this out. One blessing over the baptismal font reads,
Restore the innocence which Adam lost in paradise which his wife let go [sorry, ladies!], which the intemperance of gluttony devoured. Give a healthful draught to men who are upset by the bitterness of the apple; purge the disorders of mortals and with a divine antidote cure their age long distemper. Wash away the filth and squalor of the world: Make a way through the wall of fire which protects the garden of paradise and open a flower-strewn path unto them that return. May they receive the likeness of God which once was lost by the malice of the serpent. (from the Liber Ordinum)
These images and prayers are meant to convey the mystical reality that the baptized are no longer bound to their sins and now enjoy the grace that our original parents had.
Baptisteries were often octagonal and this is not without significance. For Latin Christians, the number eight signified the end times when God “will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). God created all things in six days and he hallowed the seventh day. But unlike the other days of creation, the seventh day has no evening. It opens up into an eternal eighth day. The eighth day was also the day of resurrection, the day after the Sabbath when Christ rose from the dead, and so was a sign of eternal life. In baptism, we enter into this eighth day, the final age of all things. A prayer from the Easter Vigil baptismal liturgy captures this powerfully: “On this night your people are new born and brought forth unto eternal day, the halls of the kingdom of heaven are thrown open, and by your blessed ordinance human conversation is changed to divine” (from the Missale Gothicum).
CWR: Can you give an overview of the chapters?
Ortiz: The book is framed by two synthetic chapters: the first chapter is on the Latin liturgy, particularly the rite of baptism (which included “confirmation” and Eucharist). This is the worship into which all the Latin figures would have been initiated and into which they initiated others. It demonstrates the principle lex orandi, lex credendi, that is, how the church prays reflects and determines what she believes. It also demonstrates that deification is a teaching widely accessible to all Latin Christians. The last chapter is a comparison between the Latin and Greek understanding of deification, the first essay of its kind ever to be written in light of real evidence. The essays in between cover all the major figures of the Latin tradition up to the early seventh century: Perpetua and Felicity, Tertullian, Cyprian, Novatian, Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Peter Chrysologus, Leo the Great, Boethius, Benedict and Gregory.
CWR: Do you have any parting thoughts for our readers?
Ortiz: Deification is our destiny as Christians and our common Christian heritage. It is a teaching that naturally and rightfully belongs to all Christians, including and especially Catholics in the West. During this Advent and Christmas season, pay close attention to the prayers at Mass which are rich in deification themes. You might even catch this ancient and famous Christmas prayer:
God, you who marvelously created the dignity of human substance and more marvelously reformed it: grant us, we ask, to be sharers in the divinity of your Son, Jesus Christ, who deemed it worthy to become a partaker of our humanity. (Verona Sacramentary, 1239)
God has a destiny in store for us that is more beautiful and more wondrous than we could ever imagine. This is available to us in the sacraments and the life of grace that flows from them. Pray that you will be transformed and let God “change you into his likeness, from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).