How Catholics Have Always Believed and Taught Deification

by Jared Ortiz

Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox all have an unfortunate habit of thinking that deification is somehow the exclusive provenance of the Orthodox. This claim is unfortunate not only because it has no basis in reality, but because it blinds us to the riches to be discovered in the tradition and because it slows down ecumenical progress.

The Reformed theologian Carl Mosser has done the most interesting work on how we all came to adopt such an odd prejudice (see his essay here). The details are too complicated for a short post, but let me summarize briefly.  Many people know that Adolf von Harnack, the great Protestant historian of dogma at the turn of the twentieth century, proposed a theory about the development of Christian doctrine which cast the tradition primarily as one of decline. Starting from the simple moral teachings of Christ, Christian doctrine became corrupted due to the pernicious influence of Greek philosophy. What many people don’t know is that Harnack argued that the main culprit in this decline was the doctrine of deification which early Greek Christians imported from the pagans.  While the west was only mildly infected with this doctrine, it became, he claimed, the defining feature of eastern Christianity.

Harnack’s thesis became standard for Protestants, though parts of it were adopted by Catholics and Orthodox as well.  Importantly, the Orthodox—many of whom had recently migrated west after the Russian Revolution—modified his argument in an important way. They accepted the idea that deification defines eastern Christianity, but for them, rather than being evidence of a great apostasy as Harnack taught, deification was the mark of true believers. For the Orthodox, then, western Christians were the apostates who 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.

Happily, there are an increasing number of correctives to this false account (see recent books by Keating, Meconi and Olson, Cooper, Hofer, Arblaster and Faesen, Spezzano, and Papanikolaou and Demacopoulos, and the important essay by Fokin). The latest contribution to this literature is a volume I had the privilege to edit, Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition, recently published by The Catholic University of America Press. This volume shows that deification is an integral part of the theology of all the major figures of the Latin tradition: Perpetua and Felicity, Tertullian, Cyprian, Novatian, Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Peter Chrysologus, Leo the Great, Boethius, Benedict and Gregory. It shows that far from being foreign to the Latin Church, deification is a native and extensively developed element of her thought and practice.

When I began this project, I thought the surest way to establish this would be to see if early Latin Christians were praying for deification: lex orandi, lex credendi, that is, what the Church prays reflects and determines what she believes. What I found was a wealth of Latin liturgical literature on deification. For example, there is the famous Christmas prayer recorded in the Verona Sacramentary: “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” (Ve 1239). A form of this prayer made its way into the regular prayers of the Mass so that even today at every Latin rite liturgy a priest prays, “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.”

More than just praying for this divine exchange, Latin Christians understood the sacraments to effect it. The instances could be multiplied at some length, but let me take just a few samples from diverse sources. “Taken up by Christ and taking on Christ,” Pope Leo the Great strikingly says, “we are not the same after the purification of Baptism as we were before it. Instead, the bodies of those reborn turn into the flesh of the Crucified” (Sermon 63.6).  The anointing and handlaying rite (later called “confirmation” in the West) augments our participation in God’s life. In the prayers for the Chrism Mass in the Gelasian Sacramentary, we hear that God will make the anointed “partakers of eternal life and sharers of heavenly glory” (GeV 388). Finally, the Eucharist brings about a communion with God that transforms us. Pope Gelasius says, “Certainly the sacraments of the body and blood of Christ, which we receive, is a divine thing. On account of this and through the same ‘we are made partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4)” (De duabus naturis in Christo aduersus Eutychem et Nestorium, 14).  Here we find the substance of Latin Christian hope. As Augustine says, “We carry mortality about with us, we endure infirmity, we look forward to divinity. For God wishes not only to vivify us, but to deify us” (Sermon 23B).

Augustine is one of the few Latin authors who actually used the term “deify.”  This Latin reticence was even noticed by the ninth-century theologian, John Scotus Eriugena, who also recognized the pervasive presence of deification in the Latins. “While the use of the term deification is very rare in Latin books,” he says, “we certainly find the meaning (intellectus) in many of them” (Periphyseon, 5). A careful study of the Latin Fathers confirms Eriugena’s observation: most Latin authors, while not using the terminology, hold deification as an essential part of their theology which they engage in creative and interesting ways.

The Latin Church has always believed and taught deification because deification is biblical; because it is a structural part of the Church’s theological vision from the beginning; and because through the liturgy and the sacraments Latin Christians have experienced it, prayed for it, and tasted it.  Hopefully, we can finally let go of the idea that deification belongs only to the east. As Norman Russell so eloquently argues in the final essay of the volume, deification is part of a common Christian tradition.

Jared Ortiz is Associate Professor of Religion at Hope College and author of You Made Us for Yourself: Creation in St Augustine’s Confessions (Fortress Press, 2016) and editor of Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition (The Catholic University of America Press, 2019). He is also founder and executive director of the Saint Benedict Institute.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.