Salvation as Theosis in John 1

Salvation as Theosis in John 1

Theosis or “Christification” is what I’ve come to believe is the end-game of salvation: to be united with God and so be restored in His image and likeness.

St. Athanasius summed it up by saying, “God became man so that man might become divine.” He didn’t mean that we cease being creatures, but that we take on God’s “communicable attributes”—we partake of and participate in God’s righteousness, holiness, immortality, wisdom, etc.

The only way to do this, though, is through Christ — the ever-incarnate Lord. In other words, this isn’t an escape from our mode of existence into some Platonic Form, but rather it is becoming what humans were always meant to be: “Because of the great love which He has for us, Christ became what we are so that we might become what He is”, as St Irenaeus put it. Our union with God is only possible insofar as He becomes (and we remain) human. I’ve done a paltry explanation of what theosis is here, but I hope the main gist has come across. Just as God became human, so we, as humans, are given God the Holy Spirit to restore and, to use St Paul’s language, glorify us (alongside all the Creation).

In John 1, we have this spelled out, but often gloss over it in favor of more standard readings of the text. [Brief caveat: I'm not denying the standard readings, nor trying to modify or change them. I'm noticing that the Scriptures are deep, as deep as the infinite Christ they speak of, and so can bear multiple, non-contradictory readings.] Looking at the first verse will suffice:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The term used for Word, famously, is Logos, a Greek term that has a rich history in the Septuagint and in Greek philosophy (especially that of the Stoics). It has a wide range of meaning, from a word to the logic of a thing to the reason or telos of something’s existence. St Maximos the Confessor uses this last meaning to talk about how the Son, the eternal Logos of the Father, frames all things and draws all things to Himself: the many creational logoi are the one Logos. In other words, the reason / goal / end / purpose / telos of all created things is Christ Himself. It is this last meaning that I wish to explore today.

In the beginning was the Purpose, and the Purpose was with God, and the Purpose was God.

It reads strange, but there is something excitingly biblical about it. Let’s unpack it, starting from the final clause.

The Purpose was God

The Son will, even as His Kingdom has no end, hand over the Kingdom to the Father, so that “God might be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). Indeed, as St Paul says in Ephesians 1:23, Christ already is “all in all” and the Church is the fullness of Him (a verse worth chewing on and chewing on). All of this “all in all” language is the summary of what God is accomplishing in His world, “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment — to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph. 1:9–10). The whole of creation is to be brought into Christ, the one who in His union of natures brings heaven and earth together: His divine nature “divinizes” the Creation. It brings it into participation with God’s uncreated Glory, just as the earthly body of Christ shared on Mt Tabor.

Note that this, again, is not an eradication of the created, but rather a participation in which there is no “confusion, change, division, separation” (The Definition of Chalcedon): God remains essentially God, the creation remains essentially created, but now the creation shares in God’s “energy” (to use the term of the Cappadocian Fathers and the Palamite). To share in God’s glory is what we were created for (Rom. 8:30), what we’ve fallen short of (Rom. 3:23), and therefore what God won’t share with our idols (Is. 42:8).

It is worth noting, as well, that this Glory is the Glory of the Crucified One. To become like God (to share in His image and likeness) is not “knowing good and evil” in the intellectual sense, but in the sense of being crucified to evil with the Good One. There is no “health and wealth” in theosis.

The Purpose was with God

The standard reading, of the Son being the Word, comes out most clearly here. The Purpose — that of uniting all things to Himself — was “with” God the Father. It was, to be a bit more literal with the Greek, “before” Him or “in His Face.” Ephesians 1, which I’ve already quoted, looked at this. Here also is where predestination properly comes in: “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). Whatever else predestination might mean, it means that the Purpose — God indwelling His world and transfiguring it — was with God in the beginning. Even the presence of sin and death and corruption works, somehow and paradoxically, into God’s Purpose being fulfilled. All the Apostles, in all the Epistles, speak of similar things like this: the Christ was with God, as His Purpose, since He is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last” (Rev. 1:11).

In the beginning was the Purpose

Working backwards, this one almost needs no argument: we were created, as seen in Romans 8:30, for glorification (and woe to those who don’t attain to it by faith!). There is no thought here that God meant for something different, but got sidetracked by Adam’s rebellion. Rather, Christ “slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8) meant to bring all things to Himself, things in heaven or on earth (Eph. 1:9–10).

God’s purpose is to fill all the world with knowledge of Himself “as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9), knowledge not being an intellectual exercise, but rather a share in His unending Life (Jn. 1:4): “for this is eternal Life, to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (Jn. 17:3).