New book explores the surprising—and often ecumenical—reality of deification

“Deification is not an exotic doctrine,” says Jared Ortiz, “but one found from start to finish in pretty much every major Christian thinker, east and west. The problem is that we do not know our own traditions and have bought into a false narrative about them.”

(Image: Thaï Ch. Hamelin / ChokdiDesign/Unsplash.com)

Jared Ortiz is Associate Professor of Religion at Hope College and founder and executive director of the Saint Benedict Institute. He is the author of You Made Us for Yourself: Creation in St Augustine’s Confessions (Fortress Press, 2016), editor of Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition (The Catholic University of America Press, 2019), and, most recently, editor of With All the Fullness of God: Deification in Christian Tradition (Fortress Academic, 2021), which has chapters by eleven scholars aimed at showing “that deification is an integral part of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and many Protestant denominations.”

He recently corresponded with Dr. Adam A.J. DeVille about his new book and the topic of theosis/deification.

CWR: Tell us about your background

Jared Ortiz: I am a cradle Catholic and adult revert, who studied Great Books at the University of Chicago and St. John’s College before studying Patristics at The Catholic University of America. I have been teaching Catholic theology at Hope College since 2012.

CWR: This is your second book in as many years on the theme of deification. Can you remember what sparked your initial interest in this topic, and why?

Jared Ortiz: I cannot recall when I first learned about deification but I know that I thought it was beautiful and compelling. I wrote my dissertation (later a book) on the theme of creation in Augustine’s Confessions and I kept finding that, for Augustine, creation is inseparable from deification. I ended up writing almost as much on deification as creation.

Deification became a focused study for me in two ways:

First, back in 2012, my friend Carl Olson (editor of this fine site) was slated to teach on deification for a local parish retreat, but had a last minute conflict and asked if I could step in (I lived in Oregon at the time). The response was overwhelmingly positive. I saw right away that deification was a kind of hidden treasure that needed to be shared more widely. That presentation was the seed of my chapter in this current volume.

Second, around the same time, Carl and Fr. David Meconi were editing Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification for Ignatius Press and they asked if I could write the chapter on the Latin Fathers. No one expected that chapter to be very interesting or long, because it was generally agreed that the Latin Fathers didn’t hold to a vision of deification. But I ended up finding a tremendous amount of evidence. A few years later, I organized a workshop on Latin deification at Oxford that eventually became my first edited volume, Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition (The Catholic University of America Press, 2019).

CWR: Recently, we’ve seen a steadily increasing number of books about deification. When I started reviewing and blogging about them over a decade ago, I detected in some Western Christian authors a soupçon  of suspicion, sometimes subtle and sometimes overt: this theosis business was Eastern “exotica” whose underlying theology was a bit dodgy. In more recent treatments, I don’t see that suspicion lingering any more. Is this also your experience—of a decrease in suspicion? And if so, what might lie behind the greater openness of Western authors to deification?

Jared Ortiz: Yes, I agree that the levels of suspicion have gone down over the past decade. You put your finger on one reason for both the suspicion and its decline. When we are told over and over again that “theosis is an Orthodox thing which the West does not have,” then we come to believe it. And since it seems so distinctively Eastern, perhaps we don’t even want it… On the flip side, “Eastern exotica” has become attractive as an alternative to supposed Western rationalism. It is precisely the exotic element that draws some people to deification and even to Orthodox Christianity.

But both of these responses seem wrong to me. Deification is not an exotic doctrine, but one found from start to finish in pretty much every major Christian thinker, east and west. The problem is that we do not know our own traditions and have bought into a false narrative about them.

The increasing number of deification studies means that more and more people are finding the doctrine less exotic. It also means that people see more respected authorities speaking about deification, which lends the doctrine legitimacy. Finally, the increasing number of studies means that there are simply more teachers and students out there who are learning about deification. Knowledge decreases suspicion.

CWR: Given this increase in publications this century, what is special about your book—its unique features?

Jared Ortiz: We wanted to show that deification is deeply and traditionally Christian and that it forms a common heritage for Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. Instead of focusing on individual theologians, we focused on how each tradition has its own resources for thinking about deification. In other words, deification is not an oriental import, but a native good in each tradition. Most of the major Christian traditions are represented and that is another strength of the volume.

CWR: Your introduction boldly proclaims that “deification is as native to the West as it is to the East” before noting it has found a home in “most denominations of Protestantism”. And then your very ecumenical book illustrates this by including Baptist, Anabaptist, Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed writers alongside Orthodox and Catholic contributors. But are there any holdouts, as it were—Christian traditions not represented here that still might maintain some suspicion of the theology of deification?

Jared Ortiz: One must speak boldly to shake people out of their dogmatic slumber. Again, when we believe the false notion that deification is not in the Western tradition, we tend to overlook the places where our authors discuss it. Or, we tend to explain away (or others explain away) those passages rather than seeing them in their context where they are often structural parts of an author’s thought. This is true of Catholic authors as well as Protestant ones.

So many of the Protestant chapters are full of surprises. For example, the Anabaptist essay was one of the more fascinating for me. It shows how some of their early theologians were Monophysites (believed Christ had only one nature) and held to a robust vision of deification. In fact, Monophysitism and deification often are found together which is why some Patristic anti-Monophysite authors, like Cyril and Leo, avoided explicit deification language in their later works.

We also had a chapter from the Pentecostal tradition, but the author had to withdraw for personal reasons. But in that young tradition, you find not a developed theology of deification but a very lived experience of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and a praxis of being filled with all the fullness of God.

But, to get back to your question about why I said that deification is at home in “most denominations of Protestantism.” I said this for two reasons: first, different people count denominations differently, claiming everything from twelve to twenty thousand different denominations. I wanted to show modesty before this difficulty (which I could not adjudicate) and not make any grand claims about traditions that we weren’t dealing with.

Second, the sentence is actually a comparative which claims (perhaps more boldly) that deification is just as much at home in Catholicism and Protestantism as in Orthodoxy. This will scandalize some people, but it is largely true. Deification has not always been the hallmark of the Orthodox faith and, like every other tradition, its emphasis in Orthodoxy has waxed and waned over the centuries. (See Mark McInroy’s “How Deification Became Eastern” for more on this.) Many Protestant traditions have a robust tradition of deification thinking. Still, and this is to your point, even among the denominations represented in our volume, not all of them are equally committed to the doctrine. The Anglican and Reformed chapters are very rich, while the Baptist chapter is a lot more tentative. I was trying to take this variety into account.

CWR: Conversely, which of the Western traditions, in your estimation, has had the easiest time of it recovering the notion of deification and rediscovering a place within its tradition without having, as it were, to re-arrange all the extant furniture?

Jared Ortiz: One thing the book tries to show is that each tradition has deification from the start. Deification is a biblical doctrine and it is found in the Western tradition from the Latin Fathers through Middle Ages. The Reformation does not begin in a vacuum, so the Reformers continue this tradition in different ways. Moreover, the Reformers were reading Latin and Greek Church Fathers. So, while drawing on a common heritage, each tradition has its own resources for rediscovering the place of deification within its own tradition.

But as for specific traditions….

There are some very prominent and vocal Reformed voices who are hostile to deification, but this seems to me a betrayal of the Reformers and the Puritans and Reformed scholastics who followed them. The Anglican tradition also has a robust tradition from the Cambridge Platonists, the early evangelicals, and the Oxford Movement, including pre-Catholic Newman. And who could have anticipated that the Anglican Richard Hooker in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity—with its eminently boring title—would offer such a treasure trove of deification theology. One can also sing Charles Wesley’s hymns (as Catholics have done since Wesley wrote them) and find many deification themes. The Wesleyan vision of sanctification is a rich source for a theology of deification.

Still, I think the Catholic tradition would have the easiest time since the doctrine has never really been lost, as even a quick skim of Olson and Meconi’s Called to Be the Children of God will demonstrate. Every priest speaks about deification at every Mass when he says, “By the mixing of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Deification permeates Vatican II documents and the Catechism and the thought of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Fulton Sheen used to speak about deification on his television show in the 1950s. Pope Pius X used to keep Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s The Soul of the Apostolate at his bedside where he would have read on page 1 that God “decreed that we become divine. Wonder of wonders! This clay, fashioned by Your hands, will have the power to be deified, and share in Your eternal happiness” (italics original).

We could talk about Scheeben and the Council of Trent and the medieval mystics and Aquinas and Bonaventure and the Victorines and Grosseteste and Eriugena and the Latin Fathers and…. I could keep going, but the point is: deification has always been there for Catholics, even if Catholics have not always been aware of it. It is simply a matter of opening our eyes to what is before us.

CWR: Your invocation of the problematic role played by von Harnack’s theories of degradation and decline naturally enough awakened in this former Anglican an immediate question of where Newman is in all this, for his theories of development, of course, have really stood the test of time and even received a semi-official imprimatur from the International Theological Commission of the CDF. But neither the Catholic nor Anglican contributors to this book seem to have paid him much heed (he’s mentioned en passant, but not in the index). Are you aware of any scholarship on Newman (who was, of course, so profoundly steeped in the Fathers) and deification?

Jared Ortiz: Mea maxima culpa. The Catholic chapter is broad and, well, I could only do so much! But, yes, there has been good work done on Newman. I recommend Daniel Lattier’s essay on Newman in Called to Be Children of God and Mark McInroy’s fine essay, “Before Deification Became Eastern: Newman’s Ecumenical Retrieval” in the International Journal of Systematic Theology.

CWR: Your own chapter in the book, “The Whole Christ,” is kind of a mini mystagogy, discussing deification within liturgy, the sacraments of initiation, and sin and its forgiveness—and all this situated within a broadly Christological context. Is it part of your argument that we will misunderstand deification if we just see it as one more add-on (“download the app for your phone!”) to the Christian life, one more “technique” to help us be a bit more moral or spiritual or whatever? Is deification, in other words, properly to be understood as (to use familiar Catholic language) the source and summit of the Christian life?

Jared Ortiz: One thing I wanted to show was that deification was not an esoteric doctrine for experts only, but something that every Catholic has experienced and can experience more deeply every time she goes to Mass. Your pious grandmother is being deified and, if she is in heaven, is already deified.

Every Catholic experiences the sacraments. Baptism makes us not only Christians, but Christ himself (as Augustine says). Confirmation is an infusion of the Holy Spirit—God himself—into our souls. The Eucharist is Christ—body, blood, soul, and divinity—and we are transformed into what we eat. We become more Godlike every time we faithfully partake of the sacraments.

On the back cover, I wrote that we know Christ saved us from sin, but we are less clear on what he saved us for. Deification gives us a way of beginning to understand the glorious destiny God has in store for us. This salvation begins now with our sharing in God’s divine life through the sacraments.

CWR: “While written by scholars, these chapters are not written for specialists” you say early on in the book. Have you given any thought to how, say, busy pastors of parishes, or catechists, or RCIA or spiritual directors might begin to help non-specialists (the proverbial “Mrs Murphy” in the pew as David Fagerberg famously dubbed her) come to a deep understanding of deification?

Jared Ortiz: The volume concludes with two essays from pastor-scholars (one Catholic, one Protestant) who speak about what it means to form Christian disciples in light of their deified destiny. This is another unique feature of the book: two practical chapters on deification!

I think that the language of “deification” and “becoming gods” can be confusing for many people. But, Mrs. Murphy would certainly be drawn to the language of being “a daughter of God.” By being united to Christ the Son, we share in his sonship. We become what he is. We can all meditate on what it means to be part of the body of Christ, to have the Holy Spirit dwelling inside us, and to call God Father. Mrs. Murphy might also meditate on Mary who is called “full of grace” and who, as Mrs. Murphy would certainly believe, was raised body and soul into heaven. After Christ, Mary is the exemplar of deified humanity.

I often share the famous deification image that we are like irons in the fire. God is the fire and we are the iron. The longer the iron stays in the fire, the more it takes on the qualities of the fire until it burns and glows and looks and acts like the fire. The same is true for us the longer we stay in God.

CWR: Having finished this book, what are you at work on now—what projects are in the pipeline?

Jared Ortiz: I am co-authoring a commentary on the Nicene Creed with Dan Keating.


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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 90 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).

8 Comments

  1. With stones in hand facing Jesus he replied, Is it not written in your Law: I have said you are gods? (Jn 10:34). Jared Ortiz perhaps if so inclined Adam DeVille to remain suitably deified need excel at tightrope walking. Theological excess and defect balance required here as in Aquinas’ virtuous mean. Apotheosis is one direction that Mormons, Princeton’s Elaine Pagels’ New Age variety, the Apostle Thomas in The Gospel of Thomas described as an independent deity with realm equal to Christ that has purchase today. Is not the refusal of Christ’s commandments a form of self proclaimed deity? Therein is another form of anthropomorphism infecting Catholicism, the conviction that our intellect is able to determine good and evil conscientiously, independent and valid as arbiters, even if there is essential difference from revelation and doctrine. Defining that essential difference is in contention as we find in Amoris Laetitia. For example, mitigating circumstances, offering our best efforts in a socially integral life pattern, and conscientious conviction. What distinguished Lucifer’s quest for deification was that independence that is not always easy to define. As in Lucifer’s instance his claim to deity was his excellence in the virtues. What caused his lightning hurtle to Hell was his distancing, a claim for independence and personal realm from the author of virtue God. If a theologian perceived himself on par with revelation, that exhibiting intellectual independence a tribute to God’s creativity is he not in effect anthropomorphic? The rule is whether that creative genius is subtlety estranged from dogma. And in that from God. Best to fatten upon on the theological virtues first, which require the gaunt asceticism of humility. We are called to be as perfect as God is perfect. As such deification is a crackerjack idea.

    • “What distinguished Lucifer’s quest for deification was that independence that is not always easy to define”. Yes…

      Blessed Isaac of Stella defines deification only by participation and adoption, and NOT by our nature: “…those who by faith are spiritual members of Christ can truly say that they are what he is: the Son of God and God himself. BUT what Christ is by his nature we are as his partners; what he is of himself in all fullness, we are as participants. Finally, what the Son of God is by generation, his members are by adoption, according to the text: As sons you have received the Spirit of adoption, enabling you to cry, Abba, Father” (Liturgy of the Hours, Fifth Week of Easter, Friday).

    • Yep, my thoughts exactly, Cynthia. I scanned the article, and as there was no clarity on just what he meant by deification, I declined to read it carefully.
      This actually happens often on this website, especially with regards to acronyms.

      • Here’s a good starting point for a definition of deification:

        The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature”: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” (CCC 460)

        There is also this, from my December 4, 2019 interview with Dr. Ortiz, titled “The ancient roots of deification in the Latin tradition”:

        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.

        I hope that is helpful.

        This actually happens often on this website, especially with regards to acronyms.

        Example?

  2. This is not “Vatican II” Catholicism but Apostolic Christianity – may the book have a wide audience, and thank you for the interview.

  3. “And I have given THEM the GLORY that You gave to Me, so that they may be ONE as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they be brought to perfection.” (JN 17:22, 23)
    “that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.” (JN 18:26)
    “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” (JN 14:20). God became man to make men gods. Do we believe that GOD can make us full of joy happy? Can we let go of the feverish pursuit of finding all fulfillment in this life? For it is love that I desire!” (Hos 6:6) We eat the flesh, blood, soul and divinity; we are temples of the Holy Spirit of God; we abide in Him and He abides in us. We are in Him and He is in the Father. Real close to divinization!

  4. Deus qui humanae substantiae dignitatem mirabiliter condidisti et mirabilius reformasti da nobis per huyus aquae et vini mysterium ejus divinitatis esse consortes qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus est particeps ……

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