Johns Hopkins University Press

Athanasius is considered a champion of deification in patristic theology. The Athanasian application of deification, however, presents a number of scholarly acknowledged issues that make comprehensive assessment of this notion in his thought rather troubling. The reason for such incongruity lies in the overlooked theological contextualization that initially lured him to deification. Athanasius develops deification predominantly on the background of Arius’s theology. The Athanasian diatribe against Arius involves deification in two major directions. In the first, relying on a traditional Christian approach for criticism of pagan divinization, Athanasius presents Arius’s theology as the paganization of Christianity. The second direction shows how he construes deification in response to the main deificational propositions of Arius. Four themes emerge most frequently: the full divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit, the deification of Son’s assumed humanity, the role of participation as the process of deification, and divine filiation.


deification, divinization, theosis, Athanasius, Arius

The concept of deification is well attested in patristic tradition.1 Theosis became something a trademark of Eastern Orthodox theology with its advanced development in Byzantine Christianity throughout the Middle Ages and in the twentieth century with the revival of interest in Gregory Palamas and the emergence of the Neopatristic School.2 Deification covers all aspects of Orthodox spirituality ranging from soteriology to political theology.3 Other Christian traditions grew more interested in exploring what a Christian understanding of deification could offer to them.4 [End Page 31]

The popularity and prominence of deification during the beginning of patristic thought is sometimes exaggerated. The emergence of the deification theme had rather humble, even though seminal, beginnings in the first three Christian centuries. The situation noticeably changed in the fourth century, when the deification theme acquired tremendous—if not explosive—popularity. Athanasius here plays the crucial role. Deification in Athanasius emerges as one of the popular aspects of his theology with appeal to a broad audience. Direct references to deification in Athanasius are numerous and significantly surpass preceding Alexandrians: Clement of Alexandria and Origen, who were among the first patristic authors to address deification in an engaging fashion. Hence, Athanasius was praised in Christian tradition not only as the triumphant champion of Nicene theology who almost single-handedly defended the Nicene Trinitarian formula but also as the leading advocate and mastermind behind the Christian understanding of deification. The legendary status of Athanasius as the pillar of orthodoxy, key promoter of proper Trinitarian and deificational tenets, remained intact almost until the twentieth century, and for some it still holds its ground today. However, the theological significance and circumstances that prompted him to utilize deification are more complex than their traditional perception.

For one thing, even whole-hearted supporters for the centrality of deification in Athanasius often have to admit, “with Athanasius we would search in vain for a systematic and well-balanced exposition on the matter.”5 Athanasius seems to argue for deification more than he attempts to explain the precise meaning of this concept. Additionally, in sixty direct applications of deification language,6 only thirty-three are used in a Christian context,7 while twenty-four times deification vocabulary is applied in the context of discussion and criticism of pagan divinization.8 Athanasius once refers to deification in his summary of Arius’s Thalia.9 One reference to deification is made with allusion to the council decree on Paul of Samosata,10 and once in the context of the criticism of Jews.11 [End Page 32]

Athanasius’s extensive application of deification language should not be overstated. Its use in a Christian discourse is not so protuberant as sometimes portrayed. Even the frequency of his references to deification in his corpus is revealing. Athanasius does not use deification evenly throughout his works. Most of his references to deification are in his earliest work—Contra gentes, in his major anti-Arian work— Contra Arianos, and in the First Epistula ad Serapionem.12

The seeming lack of coherency in Athanasian theology in general, and in discourse on deification in particular, is often explained by the polemical nature of his writings. It is a well established fact that for Athanasius, the controversy with “Ariomaniacs” provides a theological fulcrum and makes him, as Brooks Otis long ago remarked, “quite blind” to other heresies.13 It often, and correctly, has been proposed that Athanasius even effectively employs the deification theme in his polemic with Arius;14 however, scholars have not addressed exactly how and to what extent he employs it, especially in the context of his treatment of pagan divinization.

In this essay I argue that Athanasius develops his approach to deification not as his personal theological notion but as a response to Arius’s understanding of deification, which Athanasius finds deficient. I also attempt to reconstruct Arius’s deificational outlook that serves as the background to which Athanasius responds. The Athanasian diatribe against Arius involves deification in two major directions. The first is negative: Athanasius relies on a traditional Christian apologetic approach for criticism of pagan divinization to present the theology of Arius as the paganization of Christianity. The second direction is positive: it deals precisely with what Athanasius thinks about Christian deification. Four topics emerge most frequently: the full divinity of the Son, deification of his human nature, participation as the vehicle of deification, and divine filiation. All of them are pointed to undermine Arius’s theology of the Son.


Athanasius, with acute spiritual intuition, often accurately identifies troubling issues and their negative implications, but he frequently lacks adequate speculative theological sophistication to address them in a comprehensive and systematic fashion. Athanasius develops his theological views while responding to his opponents’ main theological points that he finds troubling. Thus, his response often addresses the opponents’ argumentation but frequently lacks a broader assessment of the disputed [End Page 33] issue that would go beyond what Athanasius sees as traditional and scriptural precepts. The fact that he uses deification is a good indication that he not so much develops his original perspective on the issue as he attempts to refute what he considers as wrong deificational axioms proposed by his opponents, namely Arians. In other words, it indicates that Arius elaborated on the deification theme first.15 This also helps to explain why Athanasius repeatedly addresses only a certain set of issues related to deificational discourse while ignoring its other implications. Deification per se does not seem to concern him as much as he is concerned with the refutation of deification in Arius. Additionally, it explains some uneasiness in modern scholarship with regard to Athanasius’s treatment of deification: his ambiguity of meaning as well as the concept’s unsystematic and uneven presence.

Apart from the polemical aspects of his appeal to deification, Athanasius is cautious, if not reluctant, about calling Christians gods, and here we might have a glimpse into his personal perspective. This reluctance to call human individuals gods might serve as one additional indication that the emphasis on deification was not his original insight but was his response to the circumstances of theological controversy and the use of deification by Arius. When Athanasius refers to human individuals as gods he usually does so following exegetical contexts that ask for it.16 His personal uneasiness with deification also elucidates why he often tends to pair deification statements with explanatory notes,17 or makes synonymous parallelism of deification with divine filiation,18 renewal,19 enlightening,20 revitalization,21 immortality,22 and sanctification,23 as if some additional clarification is required. [End Page 34]

Almost all of Athanasius’s deificational references are found in his criticism of pagan divinization and in his insistence on the full divinity and consubstantiality of the Logos and the Holy Spirit with the Father. Apart from the role of the Son as the deificational agent, deification of the Son’s humanity after the incarnation is repeatedly emphasized. This is why the significant bulk of deificational remarks are in Contra gentes, Contra Arianos, and the First Epistula ad Serapionem. Overall, Athanasius’s approach to deification is more an argument for the Godhead of the deifier than the status of the deified. Out of thirty-three uses of the concept of deification in Christian discourse, in thirty-two, Athanasius in one or another form emphasizes the deifying agency of the Son and the Holy Spirit rather than the deified state.24 In other words, Athanasius does not strive for a systematic and comprehensive treatment of deification. His exposition is inspired by his response to Arius’s theology. This is why theological precision seems to be missing if one wants to assess deification as an independent and self-standing aspect of Athanasian theology.


The anti-Arian application of deification in the context of Athanasius’s criticism of pagan divinization might not be immediately apparent; however, his criticism of pagan divinization carries great significance for further development of anti-Arian polemic. The use of deification vocabulary in the context of pagan divinization, as was noted earlier, constitutes a significant chunk of the entire application of deification in Athanasius. Contra gentes offers the uttermost case in this regard of the entire Athanasian corpus. In this treatise, we find twenty-two references to deification but none of them have Christian application. All references to deification in Contra gentes are descriptive or critical of pagan practice of divinization25 At first glance, Contra gentes together with De Incarnatione present a rather traditional Christian apologetic renunciation of Greek religion where Athanasius does not make any direct references to Arius. It can be argued, however, what Athanasius effectively achieves there is laying the groundwork for the identification of Arian teaching with [End Page 35] paganism—the identification that he explicitly affirms in his later works.26 In Contra gentes and De Incarnatione, Athanasius, by condemning pagan religion, establishes how the same false principles govern Arian teaching and render it on the same level.

When Arius states that the Son “before he was begotten or created or defined or established, he was not” and that “he is from nothing,”27 in Athanasius’s perspective would indicate nothing else but that Arius worships a creature. In this regard he is not different from pagans, who divinize creation instead of the Creator.28 Even if Arius insists that the Son is different from the rest of creation: “an immutable and unchanging perfect creature of God, but not as one of the creatures—an offspring,”29

Arius still advocates worship of a creature. Arius’s acknowledgment of the Son’s divine status does not save his teaching from being equated with paganism either. If the Son is God, but whether of subordinate divinity to the Father, or ontologically separate from the Father, then Arius remains vulnerable to the accusation of polytheism. For Athanasius, polytheism, divinization, and worship of elements of Creation and created beings constitute the key characteristics of Greek religion, and therefore, the teaching of Arius that postulates similar tenets cannot be reconciled with true Christianity. It cannot even be considered as Christian.

One more important deificational and anti-Arian implication in Contra gentes is related to the proper requirement for deification to occur: “Those who make gods should themselves be gods, for the maker must be better than what he makes.”30 Any created being, regardless of the status and metaphysical positioning, cannot be a proponent of deification because it, as being created, itself would be in need of salvation.31 For Athanasius, there can be no other source of true deification but authentically divine, uncreated, and eternal being.32


Critique of pagan divinization in an anti-Arian context presents an effective, theologically connoted rhetorical application that, however, does not directly address what Arius might have taught on deification. When it comes to an assessment of Arius’s position on deification we are faced with several obvious challenges. The first [End Page 36] is the meager amount of extant works of Arius. Except for three letters,33 some fragments of another letter,34 and lengthy quotations in Athanasius from the Thalia,35 we not only do not have any other surviving works, we do not even know their titles.36

Secondly, Arius does not address deification directly in his extant works. Any additional material that can help to expand our knowledge of Arian theology comes from an exclusively polemical context. However, driven by polemical necessities to refute key disagreements and doing it in a repetitive manner, Athanasius proves to be indispensable for the reconstruction of what Arius taught, including deification. Athanasius, in conjunction with Arius’s extant writings, allows tracing a certain logic of Arian metaphysical and soteriological trajectory that not only permits the possibility for the presence of deification in Arius’s theology but also helps to outline the main features of the Arian deificational perspective.

To begin with, it should be noted that not everything Arius relates about deification is in opposition to Athanasius’s views. There are a number of deificational issues that Arius and Athanasius have in common. They would not necessarily disagree on the basic attributes that characterize the divine nature. For both men God is eternal, uncreated, immutable, unchangeable, immortal, and incorruptible. For them the deification of a human individual never can be understood in terms of identification with whom the Godhead is in his substance. This impossibility is projected in ontological, metaphysical, and epistemological perspectives. In the ontological sense, a human individual never transforms human nature into divine nature but instead becomes a god as much as is possible for one of a created nature. In the metaphysical sense, a deified person never is elevated to the same level with God. In the epistemological sense, both Arius and Athanasius agree on the essential incomprehensibility of God in himself. Most importantly, Arius and Athanasius would agree that the Son is the savior and deifier. Deification constitutes one of the core aspects of their soteriology but by all means does not downplay other approaches to salvation.37 In spite [End Page 37] of these commonalities, their presuppositions are different. A significant part of their deificational discourse, precisely, is preoccupied on nuancing these differences.

The deificational trajectory in Arius is closely connected with his theology of the Son. For Arius, the Son was created before all the ages with demiurgic and salvific purposes. Everything else was created through the Son. Even though the Son “was not before he was begotten,” he could be claimed to be eternal, because “the Son [was] begotten timelessly before everything.”38 Besides, he created time itself. The Son also can be called God because of the special act of his generation. The Son “alone was caused to subsist [ὑπέστη] by the Father”39 “and received life, being, and glories from the Father, which came into existence simultaneously with him from the Father.”40 Arius explicitly refers to the Son as God.41

At the same time, the Son’s eternity and divinity should not be confused with the true aseity of God the Father. The Father alone is genuinely eternal and unbegotten.42 The Son’s divinity is derivative—the Son was made God. Similarly, with his divinity and other designations as the Logos and the Wisdom, the sonship itself as the result of God’s volitional causality has an adoptive quality—he was made a son. Thus, being the Son of God and God, the Son is not consubstantial with the Father, which means that the Son’s ousia or hypostasis is different from the Father and unique only to him. In the Letter to Alexander, Arius explicitly acknowledges the existence of three different hypostases with a more or less detailed discussion of the differences between the Father and the Son.43 Athanasius confirms Arius’s position and cites from the Thalia, “The Substance of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are divided in nature, estranged, detached, alien, and nonsharers in one another.”44 However, contrary to what Athanasius often wants his readers to believe, the Son obtained his divine and filial status at the moment of his creation, but not as the result of his virtuous life and obedience to God while he was incarnated. Only Christ’s human nature went through soteriological redemption. Arius explicitly denies any implication of adoptionist Christology. For him the Son was not promoted to his sonship and divine status at the later date but was so from the beginning. The Son is a truly unique creation of God, not like any other creature he is offspring, “for the Father, having given to him the inheritance of all.”45

The begetting and adoption were one act of God’s will. In this sense the Son is uniquely the only-begotten (μονογενής) Son of God. The Logos is the Son of God and God by the virtue of his creation but not merit, and in virtue of his existence he never violated his elevated status. This is why the Son in his own way is “an immutable and [End Page 38] unchangeable perfect creature of God.”46 The Son’s immutability and unchangeability are not identical with immutability and unchangeability of the Father. In the Son they are derived qualities that only sustain the stability of his created divinity. They are, however, qualities that secure the highest possible perfection for a created being and in such way, in Arius’s view, make him a reliable savior of humankind but separate from the unbegotten Father. The Son, who for Arius is creator of the world and savior of humankind by proxy of the Father, is the true and only Mediator between God (the Father) and humankind. If the Father is Creator and source of salvation in principle, the Son is so de facto.

Maintaining the traditional Christian understanding, Arius affirms Christ’s incarnation to fulfill his divine purpose.47 Moreover, although Athanasius’s and Arius’s presuppositions and consequent deificational expressions regarding the incarnation of the Son are different, they are in agreement on the basic understanding that characterizes the state of the incarnate Christ: the pre-existent Son assumes humanity. What sets them apart is the created divinity of the Son, which joined humanity at the incarnation. According to Athanasius, for Arians it was impossible to accept that the true God can join the human body.48 In the light of Arius’s understanding of total otherness and super-transcendence of God, incarnation might be seen as a violation of the divine simplicity as it adds another substance to his essence and makes him a compound being. The main reason for this impossibility, however, lies in the protection of the unbegotten divine substance from any participation or association with human existence, suffering, and death. If the Son is ontologically related to the essence of God or consubstantial with it, then God the Father becomes a participant in Christ’s suffering and death. Because Christ, for Arius, is a created God, his substance is different and separate from the Father’s; thus, there is no ontological confusion for the Son to be incarnated. Arius cleverly maintains the traditional Christian understanding of creation and salvation as coming from God while protecting the integrity of the Father as the true God from any substantive involvement in the suffering of Christ, and so avoids any implications of patripassianism.49

The Son’s special status that elevates him above the rest of creation, but does not detach him from ontological createdness, presents several advantages in Arian theology and serves as the culminating point of his understanding of deification. Firstly, it provides an unprecedented sense of intimacy between the Son and rational beings. Even though the Son is above the remaining creation, the Son and other rational beings share a common ontological ground. The Son’s ontological status [End Page 39] is not different in kind, but different only in the degree.50 This ontological kinship between the Son and rational creatures combined with metaphysical differentiation that emphasizes the most elevated status of the Son makes him, for Arius, perfectly situated both as creator and as savior. It preserves participatory relationality between the agent of salvation and objects of salvation and provides them with teleological perspective while protecting, as was noted above, the super-transcendent status of the Father from patripassianism. As God the Father to the Son is utterly transcendent and only to some extent communicative, but hardly participatory, the rest of the rational beings cannot have any direct access to him.51 However, rational creation is not deprived from participation in the divine. If there is no direct participation between authentically divine and created natures apart from some level of communicability of the Father and the Son, the rest of creation still can participate in the Son both on ontological and soteriological levels.

The creation of the Son as God sets the precedent for the rest of creation—the Logos as God and the Son of God is simultaneously the object and subject of deification and divine filiation. In this case the Son is intricately suited to be the agent of deification and divine filiation because he is the recipient of the same qualities. He is the deifier and the prototype of the deified state. He is the source of divine filiation and the model of an adopted son. Precisely because of his creaturely unique divine status and sonship, divine filiation and deification become available to human beings. He as the Son of God and God lays the groundwork and provides the possibility for divine adoption and deification of human beings by becoming one of them in the Incarnation where his highest created status became joined with human nature. By setting an example of virtuous living, through his suffering, death, and resurrection52 the Son brings his human nature in utter conformity with himself as an act of moral perfection and redemptive transformation. As the result, the Son can bestow on humans what he has had from the beginning. For Arius, deification is Christification in a literal sense.53 Human beings, by sharing ontological createdness with the Son, can be elevated to the highest possible state represented by the Son and have his share of divinity and sonship. The level of this soteriological participation is aimed at full identification with the Son. The possibility of identification does not jeopardize the unbridgeable gulf between unbegotten God and creation because for Arius there is only one kind of deification. The deifier and deified never leave the realm of createdness. [End Page 40]

Already Alexander of Alexandria complains that Arius states, “We too are able to become sons of God, just as he [Christ].” As Alexander continues, “For he [the Son] does not have by nature something special from other sons (for they say that no one is by nature Son of God). . . . As if both a Paul and a Peter would persist at improvement, then their sonship would differ in no way from his [Christ’s].”54 Even though Alexander, as Athanasius after him, dismisses the importance of the elevated creaturely perfection of the Son in Arius and assigns to the Son mutability, he is correct to see ontological trajectory in Arius’s theology that provides ground for attainment of full identity between the Son and deified human beings.

Athanasius with reference to Jn. 17:11, 20–23 also cites Arians, who insist that human beings can achieve the same state of union with the Son as he is one with the Father.55 From the further discussion in Athanasius it becomes clear that this oneness with the Son is expressed in the sense of full identification. Athanasius, who understands oneness of the Father with the Son in homoousian sense, strongly objects to this aspect of Arian theology that he equates with the temptation of the devil who imagined himself to be God.56


Already in Athanasius’s response to the Arian understanding of human identification with Christ that he mentions in Ar. 3.17 and that occupies him in Ar. 3.18–25 it is possible to trace the outline of the main issues he employs in context of deification. All of them are developed in response to Arian propositions and aimed to “stop the Arians from any longer thinking that they shall be as the Son.”57 In conjunction with his other references to deification four main subjects emerge most frequently:

  1. 1. the full divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit that qualifies them both as deifiers;

  2. 2. the first act of deification is the deification of Son’s assumed humanity;

  3. 3. the role of participation as the process of deification;

  4. 4. divine filiation.

These four issues do not exhaust all aspects of Athanasius’s implementation of the deification theme, but they are the most representative. [End Page 41]

1. The Full Divinity of the Son

Athanasius consistently maintains an important soteriological axiom that anyone cannot be saved by any other being but God. Therefore, for the Son to be the principle of deifying power, or more precisely Deus deificator, he must be fully divine and consubstantial with the Father. Otherwise, the Logos is merely a creature and incapable of being a deifier. This anti-Arian line of argument penetrates all aspects of Athanasian theology. The point of true deification for Athanasius is rooted in true and full divinity of the Son. Thus, the Son, who is the Savior, does not require any deification for himself, because he is the true God, and because he is God he can deify others.58

We find particular expression of this soteriological axiom in the deification exchange formula. Irenaeus in the second century was the first to articulate the reciprocal principle of the formula59 readily picked up by ante-Nicene fathers.60 In Athanasius it receives traditional solidification. The classic example of the deification exchange formula already attested in Athanasius’s early work De Incarnatione: “For he [the Logos] became a human being [ἐνηνθρώπησεν] that we might be made gods [θεοποιηθῶμεν].”61 With various minor alterations the deification-exchange formula repeatedly reappears throughout the Athanasian corpus.62 This soteriological causality of God’s incarnation and its deifying effects on human beings postulated not exclusively in the context of deification, but also in deification-related aspects, such as incorruptibility and immortality,63 divine filiation,64 sanctification,65 and even ability to learn from the incarnated God how to love the truth and hate the lawlessness.66 In all instances the main impetus of the deification exchange formula is to underscore the full divinity of the Son as the only condition for any possibility of human deification and this impetus is pronouncedly anti-Arian.

The full divinity of the Logos in Athanasius is contrasted with Arius’s theology of the generated Son. If the Son is created, regardless of what Arius might preach about his special status, the Son is not different not only in his ontological foundation but also in his metaphysical standing from any other rational being who is made a god through participation and made a son through grace. Even though the terminology of participation in the context of the Father–Son interaction might only be implicitly [End Page 42] applied to Arius, placed in the context of Athanasius’s terminological preferences the generated Son, as any other created being, cannot be God in any other way but through grace by participation.67 Therefore, as any created being, the Son would not have any metaphysical privileges of divine excellence.

2. The Deification of the Son’s Assumed Humanity

It is not surprising that after emphasizing the full divinity of the Son the first theological aspect of Christian deification in Athanasius is connected to deification of Christ’s human nature. Emphasis on deification of human nature of Christ aims to oppose and render as meaningless Arius’s teaching on the pre-temporal generated divinity of the Son. The Son for Athanasius is uncreated God from eternity. He has the same Godhead as the Father. This is why only Christ’s humanity undergoes deification after the Incarnation.

Deification of the Son’s humanity is closely intermingled with the deification-exchange principle and the beginning of human salvation in general:

The Word was made flesh in order to offer up this body for all, and that we partaking of His Spirit might be deified [θεοποιηθῆναι]—a gift which we could not otherwise have gained than by His clothing Himself in our created body, for hence we derive our name of ‘people of God’ and ‘people in Christ.’ But as we, by receiving the Spirit, do not lose our own proper substance, so the Lord, when made man for us, and bearing a body, was no less God; for He was not lessened by the envelopment of the body, but rather deified [ἐθεοποιεῖτο] it and rendered it immortal.68

Athanasius does not tire of reiterating this idea. The first act of salvation is the renewal and redemption of Son’s humanity.69 The Son’s humanity was not only deified and saved, but it also was sanctified70 and glorified.71 The body of the Logos is clearly acknowledged as intimately belonging to him and as a recipient of grace.72 It was perfected and redeemed.73 In other words, after the Incarnation the Son experienced all that is necessary aspects for his human nature that any other human being would need to go through in order to be deified.74 By doing so Athanasius [End Page 43] emphasizes the need for redemption for all created rational beings, which also would imply the need of redemption of the Son, as Arius understood him. Additionally, it contrasts the direct interaction of two different ontological realities—divine-un-created and human-created, with Arius’s contextualization of deification exclusively confined within the created realm. If for Arius the generated Son is simultaneously the deifier and deified, in Athanasius the agency of deification and the subject of deification are two different ontological realities. In other words, in Athanasius, the deification of Christ’s humanity straightforwardly points to consequences of divine– human union—the effect of uncreated God on created human nature, whereby the presence of God assumed human nature is deified, glorified, sanctified, justified, and so on, while still remaining created. In Arius, this aspect of incarnation, while sort of acknowledged, is immensely confusing. In Arius, we deal with the Incarnation of the most divine creature—the Son, who advances within the imperfect human nature, thus, redeeming the human one and making it identical with his original state of being. What is the ultimate outcome of such interaction? Does the Son retain the two created and ultimately identical natures, perfect and perfected? Or, does his acquired human deified nature dissolve into his original state of being? Perhaps two indistinguishable natures in Christ blend together so intimately that they project one identity? It remains a mystery how two created and subsequently identical natures in Arius blend together. This is a significant flaw in his soteriology, while in the Athana-sian perspective we clearly observe communion of two different—ontologically and metaphysically—natures in the person of Christ.

3. The Role of Participation as the Process of Deification

While deification of Christ’s human nature amply demonstrates that his human nature underwent the same process necessary for any created nature in order to be redeemed, the process of deification itself in Athanasius often is analogous with participation. In Athanasius we can observe the general tendency to depict activity flowing from God to humanity in terms of deification language while the movement of human beings toward God is in terms of participation.75 The significance of participation for Athanasius has several anti-Arian implications. It delineates the distinction between beings that are κατ´ οὐσίαν and κατὰ μετοχήν. Among the members of the Trinity who relate to each other by substance there is no participation. Only once by slip of the stylus Athanasius calls the Son partaker of the Father’s substance.76 Otherwise participation language in Athanasius is consistently applied to [End Page 44] describe the relationship between uncreated and created.77 In the context of creation, participation for Athanasius has a connotation of dependency, both ontological (God is the source and sustainer of any existence) and soteriological (God is the source of redemption). Thus, participation is indicative of interaction of ontologically dissimilar natures.78 Therefore, participation presupposes access to a reality that is external to one who participates. It is precisely because of participation that any identification with the object of participation is impossible.79

Because of the ontological dissimilarity those who participate cannot communicate or transmit the status of the being they participate in to any other. This presents one of the core, redundantly repeated, arguments of the anti-Arian polemic in Athanasius. If the Son is a creature, he has to be God by participation.80 If he is deified, he cannot deify others. At the same time, nobody can be deified by anyone lesser than God himself. The Son must be fully God to make deification of human beings possible.81

If creation participates in God ontologically and soteriologically, God in the ontological sense does not participate in anything because he is not lacking anything.82 In a soteriological sense God participates in creation. The role of participation follows the logic of deificational reciprocity classically stated in the deification-exchange formula: “The Word of God was not changed, but remaining the same he assumed a human body for the salvation and benefit of humankind—so that sharing in the human birth he might enable humankind to share the divine and spiritual nature.”83 The importance of the Incarnation does not signify the possibility for a creature to participate into the highest creature (the understanding of the Son in Arius) in order to obtain some idea of God, but reciprocity of God’s participation into humanity that allows human beings to renew and advance their ability to participate directly in God. Participation embraces human fellowship with the Trinitarian totality of God.84

The clearly outlined function of participation as a form of communication between God and creation helps to remedy any metaphysical confusion of the creation process postulated by Arius. If, according to Athanasius, Arius teaches that the Son partakes of the Father while functioning as creator for the rest of existents who in turn participate in the Son, then how do we know that we participate in the Son and not in the stuff that the Son partook of from the Father? If inadvertently we [End Page 45] still participate in God the Father, who is the creator in the most authentic sense as opposed to Arius’s generated Son there is no need for an intermediary semi-divine creature to facilitate creation as well as salvation.85

4. Deification and Divine Filiation

Because Arius raises serious concerns regarding the divinity of the Son and the status of his sonship in relation to the Father, deification became one of the central issues intricately intertwined with divine filiation. In Athanasius we find explicit attestation for synonymous interchange of divine filiation with deification in a pronouncedly anti-Arian perspective. As was already discussed above, the created divinity of the Son in Arius allows for intimate human identification with him. Saved human beings become children of God and gods as the Logos is the Son of God and God. Evaluating Arius’s idea of deification and divine filiation, Athanasius agrees with the logic of Arius’s conclusions. However, if for Arius human deification and divine filiation aim at the promotion of human beings to unprecedented equality with the Son, for Athanasius they become synonymous with the demotion of the Son and nullification of the Arian deification and divine filiation. As a creature, being deified and adopted, the Son becomes “one among others and having fellowship [with God] as the rest.”86 Athanasius often overplays this argument by downplaying the Arian understanding of the perfect state of the pre-existent Son by equating him with the level of mere human beings; however, in the metaphysical scheme where there is only God and creation it fits perfectly. Being one of many, the Son in the Arian perspective cannot for Athanasius fulfill his role as savior, deifier, and agent of divine filiation.87 Against this background Athanasius develops his understanding of divine adoption that closely parallels in form and argumentation his explicit references to deification.

The difference between natural and adoptive sonship in Athanasius corresponds with the difference between true divinity and the deified state. As the Logos for Athanasius is consubstantial with the Father, he is the ontological or natural Son of God, which perfectly qualifies him to be an agent of divine filiation, while those who became adopted as children of God are so only by the grace and participation.88 In his reinforcing repetitiveness Athanasius does not fail to link divine filiation with deificational reciprocity of the exchange formula: “If we become sons by adoption and grace, then has the Word also, when in grace towards us He became human being [ἄνθρωπος], . . . reasonably was He therefore called both our Brother and [End Page 46] ‘First-born’ [Rom 8:29].”89 The Son of God became the Son of Man so that human beings might become children of God.


Comparison of Arius’s and Athanasius’s views on deification reveals one important metaphysical contextualization that significantly influences their conclusions. For Arius, metaphysical stratification begins with God (the Father), then moves to the uniquely positioned Son who is below the Father but above the rest of creation, and then on the third metaphysical layer Arius places the creation. The Son, for Arius, is literally a Mediator between the Father and the rest of creation, by the fact of his ontological entity, his metaphysical positioning, and by his roles as creator and savior. The Son is the providential, soteriological, and teleological center. This mediatory placing of the Son also indicates that any communication of created rational beings with divine reality stops at the level of the Son. Thus, the basic Arian deificational scheme proposes an ontological difference between the Father and the Son that in turn allows ascending identification for human individuals to obtain the same state of being in which the Son was created, with the exception of fulfilling roles of creation and salvation as those roles are more characteristic of functionality rather than representative of ontological properties. Besides, their functional purpose has already been fulfilled by the Son. Arius’s approach to deification is essentially Christocentric. It is Christification in the literal sense. The soteriological process in this scheme aims for rational beings to be elevated to the status of the Son, while protecting the Father from being compromised by any direct interaction with creation, which is important for Arius in order to avoid any implications of patripassianism.

Athanasius’s perspective runs on the reverse presuppositions. His ontological and metaphysical understanding is straightforward: there is God and there is creation, nothing is in the middle. As far as God is concerned, there is identity of the substance between the Father and the Son who both have the same Godhead. The Son’s mediatory role actualizes only through his Incarnation that by itself does not upset Athanasius’s metaphysical outline. Therefore, any idea of identification for created beings with the Son in an ontological sense is absolutely impossible, as it implies the identification with the Father. There is an unbridgeable ontological difference between God in his Trinitarian being and the rest of creation that excludes any possibility of ontological equation between truly divine and created realms. Human individuals can only become partakers of the divine nature, not possessors. They are adopted children of God and made gods only by grace. As three members of the [End Page 47] Trinity can be representative agents of deification, deification rather than Christification becomes the more suitable term for the Athanasian perspective. Athanasius’s approach to deification is essentially theocentric.


The soteriological trajectory of Arius and his implementation of deification touched a nerve in Athanasius that influenced and shaped his own approach to the subject. The perceived danger of Arius’s teaching was exacerbated by the apparent similarity of foundational premises that define deification in Arius with traditional Christianity. For example, Arius is careful to set a limit beyond which human beings cannot advance. Deified persons never become gods in the same sense that true God (the Father) is God. A strong monotheistic aspect of Arius’s theology effectively protects the Father from any implications of patripassianism and at the same time does not restrict Arius from construing an inspirational Christocentric soteriological perspective, where the Son is savior and deifier. Through the Son—his Incarnation, death, and resurrection—human beings are redeemed, can participate in divine reality, and become deified.

The role of the Son in deification is intricately connected to his metaphysical positioning at the top of creation, which renders him both divine and created. This allows Arius to portray the Son’s hypostatic reality as distinct from the Father and project the most possible soteriological unity between the saved human individual and the savior. Deification for Arius is a transforming experience that elevates the deified human individual through the salvific grace to the state that the Son occupies originally by the status of his creation. The aspects of apophatic theology closely connected with logical dialectic in Arius’s theology could be one of the factors that made his theology both appealing and assertive but most of all comprehensive and conclusive for common Christians. Christ who became human and paved the way for humankind to be united with him in the climax of full identity creates a tremendous sense of unprecedented intimacy.

In his turn, Athanasius effectively capitalizes on Arius’s tripartite metaphysical scheme as a deficiency that in his opinion excludes any form of direct communication between creation and God (the Father). For Arius, rational beings can participate only in the Son, while the Son alone has a causal form of communication with the Father. In Athanasius’s perspective such super-distancing of the Father from involvement with creation subsequently would undermine any possibility of deification or render it inefficient. Employing participation, Athanasius effectively justifies his metaphysical perspective in opposition to Arius. The dichotomized metaphysical principle that in Athanasius describes reality as divided into uncreated and created, eliminates any need for the intermediation of semi- or deutero-divine being and establishes a direct line of communication through participation between God [End Page 48] and rational beings. Participation is the bridge between creation and God. Creation, which also includes humanity of Christ, participates in God both ontologically and soteriologically while God participates in creation as its redeemer. This reciprocal interaction, classically expressed in the deification-exchange formula, serves as the main presupposition for human deification. Human individuals are only made gods and adopted children of God who never become identical with Christ, but who have a direct line of communication with God in his Trinitarian reality and can be partakers of the divine nature. Athanasius’s approach to deification might not be comprehensively sufficient, and it does not cover all aspects of deification. Nevertheless, it becomes an effective weapon in his anti-Arian arsenal.

In the context of an Athanasian polemic with Arianism, the deification theme emerges with unprecedented frequency that significantly contributes to its popularization and enhances its rhetorical and theological application. As ironic as it might be, Arius and his teaching were inadvertently responsible for the popularization of the deification theme in the fourth century as well as for the unending fascination of Christian minds with theosis. [End Page 49]

Vladimir Kharlamov
Independent Scholar

I would like to express my gratitude to Matthew Gruchow for his indispensable help with proofreading this article.


1. For general surveys, see Jules Gross, The Divinization of the Christian according to the Greek Fathers (Anaheim, CA: A & C Press, 2002); Édouard des Places, Irénée H. Dalmais, and Gustave Bardy, “Divinisation,” in Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique (Paris: Beauchesne, 1957), 3:1370–98; Ivan Popov, “The Idea of Deification in the Early Eastern Church,” in Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology, vol. 2, ed. Vladimir Kharlamov (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 42–82; Henri Rondet, “La divinisation du chrétien,” Nouvelle Révue Théologique 17, nos. 5–6 (1949): 449–76, 561–88; Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

2. See Norman Russell, Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009).

3. See, for example, Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998); idem, The Vision of God (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983); Dumitru Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality: A Practical Guide for the Faithful and a Definitive Guide for the Scholar (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2003); Aristotle Papanikolaou, The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012).

4. See for example, David Vincent Meconi and Carl E. Olson, eds., Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2016); Myk Habets, Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009); Arthur M. Allchin, Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in Anglican Tradition (Wilton, CT: Morehouse-Barlow, 1988); and Mark S. Medley, “Participating in God: The Appropriation of Theosis by Contemporary Baptist Theologians,” in Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology, vol. 2, ed. Kharlamov, 205–46. For perspectives on deification in the Reformers, see the essays on Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley in Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions, ed. Michael J. Christensen and Jeffery A. Wittung (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 189–229.

5. Gross, Divinization, 163.

6. Athanasius’s favorite word for deification is θεοποιέω and its numerous derivatives. He also twice uses ἐκθειάζω.

7. De Inc. 54.3; De Decr. 14 (twice); De Syn. 51.1–2 (4 times); Ar. 1.38, 1.39 (3 times), 1.42, 1.45, 2.47, 2.70 (4 times), 3.23, 3.33, 3.34, 3.38, 3.39, 3.48, 3.53 (twice); Ep. Serap. 1.24 (twice), 1.25 (3 times); Ep. Adelph. 4; Ep. Max. 2.

8. C. Gen. 8, 9 (6 times), 12 (3 times), 13, 18, 20, 21 (twice), 24, 27, 29 (twice), 40, 45, 47; De Inc. 49.2; Vit. Anton. 76.

9. Ar. 1.9.

10. De Syn. 26.4.

11. Ep. Serap. 4.11.5; Athanasius Werke 1.1.4 (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010), 593.

12. Cf. Russell, Doctrine of Deification, 166.

13. Brooks Otis, “Cappadocian Thought as a Coherent System,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 12 (1958): 105.

14. Hamilton Hess, “The Place of Divinization in Athanasian Soteriology,” Studia Patristica 26 (1993): 373; Keith Edward Norman, “Deification: The Content of Athanasian Soteriology” (PhD diss., Duke University, 1980), 77–78; C. R. Strange, “Athanasius on Divinization,” Studia Patristica 16:2 (1985): 342–46; Russell, Doctrine of Deification, 167.

15. Emile Mersch was the first in modern scholarship to suggest the presence of deification in Arius in his Le Corps Mystique du Christ, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1936), 1:382. Independently from Mersch, Maurice Wiles likewise suggested the possibility of deification in Arius, see Wiles, “In Defence of Arius,” Journal of Theological Studies 13 (1962): 346–47, and The Making of Christian Doctrine: A Study in the Principles of Early Doctrinal Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 107–8. Rowan Williams also indicated, “Arians claimed to take theōsis no less seriously than Nicenes” (Arius: Heresy and Tradition [rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2002], 241; cf. idem, “The Logic of Arianism,” Journal of Theological Studies 34 [1983]: 73–74). Robert Gregg and Dennis Groh propose an interesting case for deification among Arians (Early Arianism: A View of Salvation [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981], esp. 50–70). However, their emphasis on adoptionist Christology in Arius is misleading. See also C. W. Mönnich, “De Achtergrond van de arianse Christologie,” Nederlands theologisch tijdschrift 4 (1950): 378–412, esp. 407.

16. Especially when dealing with Ps. 81:1, 6 (LXX) and Jn. 10:35; see for example, De Inc. 4, Ar. 1.39, Ep. Afr. 7, Ep. Serap. 2.4. Cf. Russell, Doctrine of Deification, 168.

17. A good example is the first occurrence of the deification-exchange formula in De Inc. 54.3, where, after presenting the ground for deificational exchange, Athanasius runs an explanatory sequence of the main characteristics of the deified state that a human individual can obtain because of Christ’s full divinity and incarnation, such as immortality, incorruptibility, and ἀπάθεια. See also Ar. 3.53.

18. Ar. 1.38–39; Ep. Serap. 1.25.5.

19. Ar. 2.47.

20. De Syn. 51.1.

21. De Syn. 51.1.

22. Ar. 3.48.

23. Ar. 3.39.

24. In twenty-seven instances it is the agency of the Son (De Inc. 54.3; De Decr. 14 [twice]; De Syn. 51.1–2 [4 times]; Ar. 1.38–39 [4 times], 1.42; 1.45, 2.47, 2.70 [4 times], 3.23, 3.33, 3.34, 3.38, 3.39, 3.53 [twice]; Ep. Adelph. 4; Ep. Max. 2.). In two instances it is the deifying agency of the Holy Spirit (Ep. Serap. 1.24 [twice]). In one place, referring to deification three times, Athanasius emphasizes the deifying cooperation of the Son with the Holy Spirit (Ep. Serap. 1.25). Only once, the deifying agency is not discussed (Ar. 3.48).

25. C. Gen. 8, 9 (6 times), 12 (3 times), 13, 18, 20, 21 (twice), 24, 27, 29 (twice), 40, 45, 47. Outside of C. Gen. Athanasius applies deification terminology in a context of pagan divinization only two more times—De Inc. 49.2 and Vit. Anton. 76.

26. Ar. 1.10, 2.14, 3.16; Ep. Adelph. 3–4; Vit. Anton. 69. See also Ar. 1.3–4.

27. Ep. Eus. 5 (Urk. 1. 5); Opitz, 3.1:3; William G. Rusch, ed., The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 30, henceforth Rusch.

28. C. Gen. 8.

29. Ep. Alex. 2–3 (Urk. 6. 2); Opitz, 3.1:12; Rusch, 31.

30. C. Gen. 9; Athanasius, Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione, ed. Robert Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), 26–27. Henceforth Thomson.

31. Ep. Adelph. 8.

32. See, for example, Ar. 2.41, 59.

33. Arius’s extant letters: (1) Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia (Ep. Eus.=Urk. 1), Opitz, 3.1:1–3; Epiphanius, Pan. 69.6; Theodoret, HE 1.4; (2) Letter to Alexander of Alexandria (Ep. Alex.=Urk. 6), Opitz, 3.1:12–13; Athanasius, De Syn. 16; Epiphanius, Pan. 69.7.2–8.5; twice in Hilary, Trin. 4:12–13 and 6.5–6; (3) Letter to the Emperor Constantine (Ep. Const.=Urk. 30), Opitz, 3.1:64; Socrates, HE 1.26; Sozomen, HE 2.27.

34. Constantine’s letter to Arius and Arians written in 333 preserves some fragments from a letter of Arius that is no longer extant, which probably was written to Constantine: Urk. 34; Opitz, 3.1:69–75; Athanasius, De Decr. 40.1–24 (Opitz, 2.1:38–40). Epiphanius in Pan. 69.9.3–6 preserves some excerpts and a brief summary of this letter.

35. There are two passages that are generally accepted as more or less authentically representing the Thalia: Ar. 1.5–6 and De Syn. 15.3. See also, Ar. 1.9; Ep. Aeg. Lib. 12; and De Decr. 6.1.

36. Cf. R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318–381 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 5–6.

37. For example, Athanasius’s treatment of sanctification, incorruptibility, glorification, perfection, immortality, participation in God, and divine filiation also are important aspects of his soteriology closely connected, but not necessarily totally inclusive of deification.

38. Ep. Alex. 4 [Urk. 6.4]; Opitz, 3.1:13; Rusch, 32.

39. Ep. Alex. 4 [Urk. 6.4]; Opitz, 3.1:13; Rusch, 32.

40. Ep. Alex. 3 [Urk. 6.3]; Opitz, 3.1:13.

41. Ep. Eus. 4 [Urk. 1.4] and Ep. Const. 2 [Urk. 30.2].

42. Ep. Alex. 2 [Urk. 6.2].

43. Ep. Alex. 4 [Urk. 6.4].

44. Ar. 1.6; PG 26:24; Rusch, 68.

45. Ep. Alex. 4 [Urk. 6.4]; Opitz, 3.1:13; Rusch, 31.

46. Ep. Alex. 2 [Urk. 6.2]; Opitz, 3.1:12; Rusch, 31.

47. Ep. Const. 2 (Urk. 30. 2); Urk. 34.14, 32. Cf. Athanasius, Ep. Adelph. 1.

48. Ar. 3.27.

49. Urk. 34.29. Cf. Hanson, Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, 121, and his essay, “The Arian Doctrine of the Incarnation,” in Arianism: Historical and Theological Reassessments, ed. Robert Gregg (Philadelphia Patristic Foundations, 1985), 181–212.

50. Ar. 2.23; De Decr. 6 and 9–10.

51. The emphasis is on communication rather than participation. Any participation between unbe-gotten and created entities finds unwelcome reception in Arius’s theology as it indicates for him some form of partition of authentic divinity. This explains why Athanasius relies on participation so heavily in his exposition of deification.

52. Ep. Const. 2 (Urk. 30. 2).

53. This also might be the reason why we do not find any direct application of deification vocabulary in Arius.

54. Ep. Alex. 11, 13–14 (Urk. 14.11, 13–14); Opitz, 3.1:21; Rusch, 35.

55. Ar. 3.17, cf. De Decr. 6.

56. Ar. 3.17.

57. Ar. 3.24; PG 26:373; NPNF2 4:406.

58. Ar. 1.38–39, 3.38. Cf. Ar. 1.16; De Syn. 51.

59. Haer. 4.33.4, 5. pref., 5.16.2.

60. Tertullian, Marc. 2.27; Clement of Alexandria, Prot. 1.8.4, Paed.; Origen, C. Cel. 3.28; Methodius of Olympus, Symp. 1.4.

61. De Inc. 54.3; Thomson, 268–69 (slightly modified).

62. De Inc. 13.7–9, 16.1; Ar. 2.47, 2.70, 3.34, 3.40; De Decr. 14; Ep. Adelph. 4; Ep. Max. 2; Ep. Epict. 6; Vit. Anton. 74.

63. Ar. 1.48, 2.74, 3.33, 3.57. Cf. Ar. 2.14.

64. Ar. 1.38–39, 2.59, 2.61.

65. Ar. 1.47, 3.39.

66. Exp. Ps. 44.8.

67. See Ar. 1. 5–6, 9, 39.

68. De Decr. 14; PG 25:448; NPNF2 4:159 (slightly modified). See also De Inc. 20.4–5; Ar. 1.42, 3.33, 3.38–39.

69. Ar. 2.61.

70. De Inc. 17.5, 43.6; Ar. 1.47.

71. Ep. Adelph. 4.

72. Ar. 1.45.

73. Ar. 3.23.

74. De Inc. 9.1–2.

75. For a detailed assessment of participation in Athanasius, see Alan Kolp, “Participation: A Unifying Concept in the Theology of Athanasius” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 1975); and Jeffrey Finch, “Sanctity as Participation in the Divine Nature according to the Ante-Nicene Eastern Fathers, Considered in the Light of Palamism” (PhD diss., Drew University, 2002), 257–375.

76. Ar. 1.15–16; see Kolp, “Participation,” 188–96 and 213.

77. See for example, De Syn. 48.5.

78. De Syn. 53.

79. Ad Afr. 7.

80. Ar. 3.15; Ep. Aeg. Lib. 13.

81. Ar. 2.41, 2.69–70, 3.19, 3.24, 3.40; De Decr. 14; Ep. Serap. 1.24, 2.4.4–5; C. Gen. 46; Ep. Afr. 7; Ep. Max. 2; Ep. Adelph. 4; De Syn. 51.1–2.

82. Ar. 1.28.

83. Vit. Anton. 74; PG 26:945; The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, ed. Robert C. Gregg (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 85 (slightly modified). See also Ar. 3.40, 3.57; Exp. Ps. 44.8.

84. Ep. Serap. 1.30.6–7; 2.15.1.

85. De Decr. 24.5.

86. Ar. 1.49; PG 26:113; NPNF2 4:335. See also Ar. 1.46, 3.61; De Decr. 22.5.

87. Ar. 2.72; De Decr. 22.5.

88. Ar. 1.34, 1.37, 1.39, 1.43, 2.50, 2.59, 2.64, 2.72, 3.19; De Decr. 31.4; Ep. Serap. 1.25.5.

89. Ar. 2.61; PG 26:277; NPNF2 4:381 (slightly modified). See also Ar. 2.59.

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