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Partakers of the divine

I'm going to spend a few posts exploring the Eastern Orthodox idea of "deification" to see how it is similar to - and where it differs from - early Quaker beliefs. For this part of the discussion, I'll be using Timothy Ware's excellent The Orthodox Church as a more detailed source of broad information on Orthodoxy.

The opening of his section on 'Partakers of the Divine Nature' is a reasonably clear explanation of the foundations of deification:

The aim of the Christian life, which Seraphim described as the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God, can equally well be defined in terms of deification. Basil described the human person as a creature who has received the order to become a god; and Athanasius, as we know, said that God became human that we humans might become god. 'In My kingdom, said Christ, I shall be God with you as gods.' Such, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, is the final goal at which every Christian must aim: to become god, to attain theosis, 'deification' or 'divination'. For Orthodoxy our salvation and redemption mean our deification.

Behind the doctrine of deification there lies the idea of the human person made according to the image and likeness of God the Holy Trinity. 'May they all be one,' Christ prayed at the Last Supper; 'as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, so also may they be in us. (John xvii, 21). Just as the three persons of the Trinity 'dwell' in one another in an unceasing movement of love, so we humans, made in the image of the Trinity, are called to 'dwell' in the Trinitarian God. Christ prays that we may share in the life of the Trinity, in the movement of love which passes between the divine persons; He prays that we may be taken up into the Godhead. The saints, as Maximus the Confessor put it, are those who express the Holy Trinity in themselves.

The idea of a personal and organic union between God and humans - God dwelling in us, and we in Him - is a constant theme in St. John's Gospel; it is also a constant theme in the Epistles of St. Paul, who sees the Christian life above all else as a life 'in Christ'. The same idea recurs in the famous text of 2 Peter: 'Through these promises you may become partakers of the divine nature (i, 4).

It is important to keep this New Testament background in mind. The Orthodox doctrine of deification, so far from being unscriptural (as is sometimes thought), has a solid Biblical basis, not only in 2 Peter, but in Paul and the Fourth Gospel. (231-2, paragraph breaks added)

Quakers haven't spent that much time discussing the Trinity, though Fox wrote a bit about it. I doubt that the early Quakers had as developed a theological argument for their claims of unity with the divine, though they did cite many of the same verses, and the Gospel of John is sometimes called the "Quaker Gospel".

There's much here that's similar to (early) Quakerism, but also the beginnings of divergence.


This presentation is very interesting, and it's helpful to let the Eastern Orthodox speak for themselves, but some of their ideas seem very different from things I personally value in the Friends tradition.

My impression of the EO is that they almost conflate Christ's words about people being in unity with the Father and His purpose (John 17:21-22) with being unity with the Father and Him in divinity. Now, at least today, evangelical Friends (with which I'm associated) are very clear on the distinction between human beings and the divine. Yet, I hope to learn more about what early Friends said about this subject.

Also, Paul Negrut, an evangelical, has written that Orthodoxy describes God by saying what He's not (see Ngrut, 32). This language seems to make God seem less personal than Friends are used to.

Also, Negrut claims that the EO view of deification comes through energies provided through sacraments, or, as they would say, "mysteries" (see Negrut, 33-34). I don't think that there's enough room for God ministering to us apart from sacraments in their theology, espcially with their lack of emphasis on speaking positively about what God gives us.

Friends, in my view, have a lot to offer other in terms of emphasizing God's transcendance as well as His nearness. He comes and works inwardly in the heart, to bring His acceptance and forgiveness. Speaking of God in these terms seems to be more consistent with explicit biblical language about God's dealings with people and less dependent on impersonal ideas about God's dealings that are specific to the EO tradition.

Paul Negrut, "Searcing for the Apostolic Church: What Evangelcials Should Know about Eastern Orthodoxy," in Christian Research Journal, vol. 20, no. 3 (Jan-March, '98): 26-35.

John P writes:

"My impression of the EO is that they almost conflate Christ's words about people being in unity with the Father and His purpose (John 17:21-22) with being unity with the Father and Him in divinity."

I think you're partly too soft here and partly too hard. I don't think it's an "almost" (too polite), but I also don't think "conflate" is the right word. Reading John 17, it seems clear that the unity described is simply unity, with no limitation to purpose.

I'll look for the Negrut article, but I strongly recommend exploring various angles on Christianity (including early Quakers) by examining them directly, not by reading pieces written by people trying to protect you from them. (Or in Negrut's case, change them.)

A few of your other concerns may be addressed in my followup article.