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Norman Russell, Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis.

Norman Russell, Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis, Foundations Series, Crestwood, N.Y., St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009, 189pp, $18.00.

The title of the book is based on 1 Cor. 3:9--"We are God's fellow workers"--and describes one of the most significant aspects of Christian spirituality, expressed as synergeia, co-operation between divine grace and human effort. Do not hesitate to read it if you want the pleasure of addressing timeless theological issues within a given time-span. The language employed in the book is accessible yet well-researched and professional. Norman Russell seeks to explain the highly intellectual and spiritual processes that comprise the doctrine of theosis, inviting the reader to be elevated through biblical images and patristic concepts to the visionary/theoretical level of the economy of salvation.

The book tries to translate into everyday Christian life the concept of theosis, which summarizes the whole economy of salvation. For the last couple of decades, theosis has become more widely used among Christians. Norman Russell points to four factors defining such a shift in using the rather obscure term of theosis: "The rediscovery of the teaching of St Gregory Palamas, the impact of Russian religious philosophy, the rediscovery of the spirituality of the Philokalia (a collection of spiritual writings complied on Mount Athos by Makarios of Corinth and Nikodemos the Hagiorite and published in Venice in 1782), and the re-engagement of Orthodox scholars with the early Greek Fathers" (pp. 14-15). One factor that could be added to this list is the intensive exchange and dialogue between Christians of different confessions that made the term theosis a matter of wider public knowledge. Crucial in turning the term theosis into a commonly used word was the renewed study of the Philokalia and certain 20th-century theologians such as John Meyendorff, Vladimir Lossky, Dumitru Staniloae, John Zizioulas and Christos Yannaras, whose thinking about the human person is permeated by the doctrine of deification.

The author explains that theosis has been employed in both an anthropological and an economic sense. Anthropologically, it defines the spiritual growth of human beings towards ultimate fulfilment in God; economically, it concerns the salvific dispensation of God. "Theosis is a restoration as persons to integrity and wholeness by participation in Christ through the Holy Spirit, in a process which is initiated in this world through our life of ecclesial communion and moral striving and finds ultimate fulfilment in our union with the Father--all within the broad context of the divine economy" (p. 21).

The book also offers a concise exposition of the notion of deification in the early church fathers, Irenaeus of Lyon, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolyms of Rome (2nd-3rd cc.), Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ephrem the Syrian (4th c.) and Dionysius the Areopagite (6th c.).

The term theosis, coined in the Hellenistic Christian milieu and linked with the incarnation, aims to express the purpose of the Christian life; it is related to the language of Plato in Theaectetus (176b), which says that the main purpose of philosophy is to become like god as far as possible. The metaphoric language of deification became an expression of a real relationship with God through participation in the sacramental life inaugurated by Christ's death and resurrection. Cyril of Alexandria (5th c.), in his anti-Nestorian polemics, accentuated "Partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet.l:4) as an expression of appropriation of the divine life.

An important step towards the system of essence and energies of God created by Gregory Palamas was the theological reflection of Maximus the Confessor. In the West, theosis became widely known through its hesychast teaching by Gregory Palamas and interpreted by the above-mentioned modern Orthodox theologians. These theologians, although not agreeing on all details of the doctrine of deification, fundamentally are in consensus. The church fathers treated such topics as the vocabulary of deification or the place of theosis in divine economy with slight differences; the book exposes these details.

Chapter one speaks about the meaning of theosis in the economy of salvation, about the transformation of human beings by the power of God. The divine economy is about the reconciliation and glorification of humankind through Christ. The path to this glorification requires human cooperation and response in faith.

The 20 centuries of the Christian era show that the philosophical deductions and archaeological sources cannot answer the question of who Christ was; the "historical Jesus" cannot be recaptured by filtering out the "Jesus of faith". The first Christians looked for the exalted Christ who was to consummate the divine reconciliation achieved by his passion and resurrection.

Theosis is more than "redemption" and "salvation", it is "entering into partnership with God, our becoming fellow workers with him (1 Cor. 3:9). The Orthodox understand theosis in terms of "our recreation in the divine image through our acceptance of baptism and participation in the Eucharist" or "as the fulfilment in God of the entire created order" (p. 53).

The book examines the vocabulary of theosis in the early patristic writings, from Gregory the Nazianzus to Maximus the Confessor. Neoplatonic philosophy influenced the formation of such a vocabulary; however, the idea of theosis had been expressed even before the term came into existence. The early fathers, such as Ireneaus of Lyon or Clement of Alexandria, described deification in the third century. In fact, the church fathers emphasized that the ultimate purpose of the incarnation was the human response to it in the form of theosis. Maximus the Confessor (7th century) identified two ages of the spiritual life (in Ad Thalassium 22, 2): the first age of the interior life is that of the flesh--in other words, the human struggle against the passions; in the second age, human beings experience the transformation of deification by grace.

Modern Orthodox theologians understand theosis as the crowning point of the divine economy and not as one doctrine among others. Norman Russell distinguishes the different foci in understanding theosis among the modern theologians: some of them adhere to the cosmic theology of Maximus the Confessor and of the later fathers; some return to the more biblical focus of Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria. For example, the author notes that John Zizioulas interprets theosis as our adoption by the Father as his sons by grace. Zizioulas gives a more Christological approach to theosis than those Orthodox writers who give priority to the divine energies (pp. 51-52).

The second chapter confirms the biblical foundation of theosis, the church fathers consistently refer to "I said you are gods" (Ps 81:6) and "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4) regarding theosis. Psalm 81:6 appears in patristic writings as early as the second century in Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyon and Clement of Alexandria. The earliest use of 2 Peter 1:4 goes back to Origen in the middle of the third century. Athanasius of Alexandria and Cyril of Alexandria (4th century) complete its patristic use by explaining how human nature is exalted and transformed in Christ.

The third chapter tackles the issue of image and likeness, which is central to Orthodox teaching on theosis. Although some of the church fathers do not make a distinction between image and likeness, such as Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria or Gregory of Nyssa, others, such as Basil the Great, Maximus the Confessor and John Damascene do make this distinction, saying that by the fact of being human we already possess "image", but that through our moral struggle we acquire "likeness". Among modern Orthodox theologians, Vladimir Lossky examined this distinction in depth. Human beings are created in the image of God. That sets up the ontological basis of the human relationship with God; likeness is a realization of the capacity provided by the image. "It is our mirroring of God's beauty, holiness and love in our mind and will. And because God has no limit, we shall continue to grow into likeness of God for all eternity" (p. 91).

The fourth chapter examines how the different strands of the transfiguration developed in the writings of the church fathers. One of the central points in this discussion is the nature of the human experience of God in prayer as a part of the hesychast controversy, which arose in the 14th century between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam of Calabria. Palamas, in his argument, constantly refers to the transfiguration. The light seen on Mount Tabor was a hypostatic symbol: in other words, both a symbol and that which was symbolized. Seeing the light enables one to participate in the divinity. "For the light is nothing less than the uncreated radiance of God--a divine energy accessible to the senses in contrast to the divine essence which always remains beyond our grasp" (p. 98). The iconographic tradition of the transfiguration is rich. The transfiguration is nothing other than theophany, when Christ is witnessed by his disciples. Other examples of seeing the dazzling light illustrate witnessing the fullness of the Spirit of God. According to Cyril of Alexandria, "To see the transfiguration is to see the Kingdom of God" (p. 111). The Archbishop of Albania, Anastasios Yannoulatos, describes theosis as a fundamental human right to become what one was created for (p. 111). This "becoming" is a journey to the deified humanity in Christ that one learns through the transfiguration.

In chapter five, the author deals with self-transcendence and Christian anthropology, what it means to be a human person. A human being transcends fallen humanity by becoming the body of Christ. The author writes that we participate in Christ and receive the gift of theosis, "For we do not possess the potentiality for it by nature" (p. 120). I would suggest that the church fathers, especially those who distinguish between image and likeness, would say that the divine image already offers the potentiality for theosis.

Chapter six focuses on participation in the divine life. It starts with an examination of "participation"/methexis, which in the patristic writings has further connotations than definitions in English dictionaries, which tend to refer to "the fact or condition of sharing with others". Using the example of 2 Peter 1:4, Russell shows (on pp. 65-68) how the New Testament understanding of sharing in the divine attributes has become in Cyril of Alexandria a stronger understanding of participation, suggesting a transition from philosophical idea to theological understanding of reaching true personhood through incorporation into Christ. Origen seems to have made a crucial contribution to the understanding of "participation" in divine nature as one's growth in the spiritual life. Human beings' participation in God is natural because we owe our existence to a cause outside ourselves, but participation in one's spiritual growth is personal. "Our becoming partakers of the divine nature signifies our sharing in the divine attributes of the Son, not through our own efforts but through the initiative of the Holy Spirit" (p. 129). Origen's initial thought was developed in two directions by Gregory of Nyssa and Cyril of Alexandria.

While Gregory identifies three stages on the way to spiritual perfection (light, cloud and darkness), Cyril sees participation in the new life inaugurated by the incarnate Word. Since the flesh of Christ has been deified in union with the Word, the eucharist transforms those who partake in it. It was not until the 14th century that "participation" became a matter of dispute between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam of Calabria. The latter insisted on knowing God through analysis of the phenomena of the world, while the former emphasized a life of prayer and asceticism. Gregory made a clear distinction, which existed long before him in the patristic writings, between the divine essence and energies, treating created beings as participants in these divine powers. Among modern Orthodox theologians, there are two approaches to the essence/energies distinction. Some think of it as fundamental to Orthodox theology (Vladimir Lossky), some express reservations (John Zizioulas), so that the idea of theosis becomes centred on hypostasis/personhood rather than on participation in the divine energies. In fact, these approaches are complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

The final chapter. Union with God, tells us that it was Dionysius the Areopagite who first spoke about "union with God". In his treatise on Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, he explains theosis as the attaining of the likeness to God and union with him (I.3.376A). Dionysius attributes such a possibility to "ecstasy", going out of oneself in the impulse of love. The book here links the Maximian interpretation of the Dionysian "divine powers" with the hesychast "participation in the divine energies". This approach to union with God developed in Byzantine theology was received variously in the 19th and 20th centuries, as can be seen in the Russian religious philosophy and theology of Alexis Khomyakov, Vladimir Solovyev, Sergius Bulgakov and Vladimir Lossky. One of the long-lasting influences from the Russian re-reception of the "union with God" was the enormous interest in hesychastic spirituality in the 20th century. An interesting aspect of this chapter is a comparison of two 20th-century Greek theologians, John Zizioulas and Christos Yannaras, which also brings some other modern Orthodox thinkers into the discussion. The decisive questions in this debate are the personhood of Christ, the relational nature of human personhood, and reaching of the "other" who is God, the reality of divine--human communion.

At the end, the author tries to answer a difficult question: Is it possible for the beautiful doctrine of theosis to be lived out? According to the author's strong conviction, theosis is for all believers, without exception. "To live theosis, then, means to lead our life in an eschatological perspective within the ecclesial community, striving through prayer, participation in the eucharist, and the practice of the moral life to attain the divine likeness, being conformed spiritually and corporeally to the body of Christ until we are brought into Christ's identity and arrive ultimately at union with the Father" (p. 169). Theosis is an ascetic journey inspired by the liturgy and monastic spirituality; it is communion with the incarnate Word.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1758-6623.2010.00072.x

Dr Tamara Grdzelidze, from the Georgian Orthodox Church, works in the Faith and Order secretariat of the World Council of Churches.
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Author:Grdzelidze, Tamara
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2010
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