I wrote a lot here over the holidays about parallels between early Quakers and Orthodox deification ideas, but I've been quiet for a while. Why? Well, Angelika got me the incredibly rich The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition, Norman Russell's dense but powerful survey of the development of Orthodox views.
It's not easy reading - there's just too much going on. While Russell provides a lot of background on theological and philosophical issues contributing to the story, it's simply a lot to take in. Russell's own perspective as author is sometime a bit confusing as well, as he sounds relieved (to me) when he discusses deification as a metaphor rather than reality, but also sounds very excited when he reaches the conclusion, discussing deification in the work of Maximus the Confessor and very briefly in Gregory Palamas. Given the contentious nature of the subject, however, that doesn't seem particularly troubling.
Over the course of reading, it became pretty clear that while there are parallels between Orthodox thought and Quaker thought, there are also strong divergences. The main practical barrier is, I think, the Orthodox emphasis on the sacraments - baptism and the eucharist especially - as critical means toward connecting with Christ and with God. Quakerism's non-sacramental approach would simply be a non-starter for most of this theology.
I do think that, while the Orthodox writers and Russell would probably disagree, Quakers could consider convincement parallel to baptism, and gathered meeting parallel to the eucharist. However, I'm not sure how far that can be pushed without breaking.
The other major barrier is that the Orthodox approach depends strongly on a very well-developed Christology, a Christology honed by years of contention with Arians, Gnostics, Nestorians, Monophysites, Muslims, and many others. These writers are either part of the conversation which led to the development of the Trinity or building on that conversation explicitly. Quakers, on the other hand, didn't spend a huge amount of effort in this space, and their contemporaries often accused them of confusing God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
As those two pieces are pretty much the foundation of Orthodox thought on the subject, there are limits to the parallels that can be drawn. However, it does seem clear that these writers and early Quakers drew on similar verses in similar ways, and I'll use some quotes from Russell to suggest paths worth exploring in Quakerism.
I'll start with something Russell says about an earlier writer on the subject:
Gross... denied that deification was an importation from Hellenism, claiming instead that it was a biblical idea in Greek dress, the equivalent of the Western doctrine of sanctifying grace... he saw the doctrine of deification fundamentally as the re-expression by the Greek Fathers in the language of their own culture of two themes already present in the New Testament, namely, the Pauline teaching on mystical incorporation into Christ, and the Johannine idea of the incarnate Logos as the source of divine life. (5-6)
This story strikes me as one with deep parallels to the early Quaker experience. Yes, even the early Quakers were much later, and responding in some ways against the existing Christianity of their day. (In that, though, they're not too different from the Greek fathers, who were often also writing in opposition.) The early Quakers' quest for "Primitive Christianity Revived" is in some ways similar to the Orthodox avoidance of innovation. Fox and other Quakers practically breathed the language of the Bible and spoke it back out, constantly seeking inspiration from Scripture and finding in it a promise of further inspiration from the Light.
There's an open question of whether Orthodox or Quaker beliefs come directly from the Bible, something that Russell asks:
Did Paul have an idea of deification? He uses various expressions for participatory union - 'in Christ', 'with Christ', 'Christ in us', 'sons of God', and so on, but does not isolate 'participation' for special consideration. Moreover, these expressions are images. 'Deification' as a technical term only emerged later when Paul's metaphorical images were re-expressed in conceptual language. The same may be said with regard to the Johannine writings, which reveal an approach to participatory union with Christ not unlike that of Paul. (11)
My reading, as I've said before, is that the New Testament lights up in a very different way when I read it now, seeing many more connections between humans and God (and Christ, and the Holy Spirit) than I'd seen previously. God remains unknowable, transcendent - but at the same time can be approached, transforming us.
The first few chapters of the book are excellent reading for anyone approaching these questions, whether or not they are interested in the Orthodox formulation specifically. The section on deification and the Greeks has some fine moments, my favorite of which is Roman Emperor Vespasian's deathbed quote, "'Vae, puto deus fio' ('Oh dear, I think I'm becoming a god')". The section on Judaism has a fascinating look at Enochic Judaism, a branch best known for the Dead Sea Scrolls, but also accessible through 1 Enoch and the canonical letter of Jude.
The section on early Christianity is fascinating, starting with Paul and then looking at Jewish and Johannine Christianity. While Paul seems less and less popular a figure these days, the language of participation he uses throughout his letters (and which the pseudo-Pauline letters emulate) is a central discussion of Christ's transformation of the believer. The section on Jewish Christianity focuses on Hebrews, a book I was surprised to find George Fox used regularly in his writings. Johannine Christianity came with a story I hadn't realized, though perhaps one that adds flavor to the description of John as "the Quaker Gospel":
The pre-Gospel community had strong Palestinian connections rooted in the eyewitness testimony of the Beloved Disciple. The Gospel was written in about 90 CE, when the community had been expelled from the synagogues (John 9:22), the 'Jews' were its opponents, and 'the world' stood for those who preferred darkness to light.
The divided Johannine community portrayed in the Epistles belongs to a third stage. There were now two groups who were interpreting the christology and ethics of the Gospel differently. The secessionists drew on the Fourth Gospel's high christology, with its emphasis on the pre-existence of God's son. They were convinced they were sinless and already enjoyed intimacy with God.
As a corrective, the author of 1 John stresses the need for ethical behavior and for following the teaching of the earthly Jesus. His pessimistic remark that the world is paying heed to his opponents (1 John 4:5) suggests that the secessionists were enjoying greater success.
Finally the Johannine community was dissolved. The secessionists moved in the direction of Gnosticism, taking the Fourth Gospel with them, while the remainder was absorbed into the Great Church.... With the corrective of 1 John, the Gospel was accepted early into the canon of the New Testament... (87-8)
The secessionists sound much like the Ranters early Quakers opposed, though the charges leveled against them also echo the charges leveled against Quakers.
Other early Christians developed these ideas in ways that connect to other aspects of Quakerism:
In both Justin [Martyr] and Irenaeus becoming a 'god' is a way of expressing a realized and internalized eschatology. Participation in immortality and incorruption is not postponed to the eschaton but attained in principle as a result of the believer's incorporation into Christ through baptism. (113)
It's not a simple match for Fox's "Christ is come to teach his people himself," but it's not that far a leap from it. (Now I need to re-read Apocalypse of the Word again!)
One final point I'd like to make before leaving Russell hinges on the basic question of the Incarnation: why did Christ come? That basic question gets thousands of variations in answer, but in this context there are some interesting options:
We see Irenaeus moving towards the tantum-quantum or 'exchange' formula, namely, that the Son of God 'became what we are in order to make us what he is himself. (106)
The 'exchange' formula has its roots in Pauline thinking: though Christ was rich, 'yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich' (2 Cor 8:9; cf Phil 2:6-8). The 'exchange' signifies precisely that: an exchange of properties, not the establishment of an identity of essence. He who was Son of God by nature became a man in order to make us sons by adoption (AH 3. 19. 1). Our sonship by adoption, which is effected by baptism, endows us with one supreme property in particular: the Son's immortality and incorruption.
There is nothing automatic, however, about our progress towards incorruption and immortality. It depends on our moral behaviour and on our participation in the sacraments, which together attain the divine likeness, morality being linked with the freedom and the sacraments with the life of the divine likeness.... (108-9)
Irenaeus... holds that God himself has intervened directly in human life through the Incarnation in order to bring the created realm into a close relationship with the divine. The sons of the Most High who are 'gods' are those who have received the grace of adoption. This is then used by Irenaeus to support the reality of the Incarnation. If Christ had not really become human, there could be no true baptism with its bestowal of incorruption and immortality. The inward renewal and transformation of the Christian was only possible if the Incarnation was real....
The notion if not the language of participation... is fundamental to him. For Irenaeus, created things are fundamentally inferior to the Creator. But in Christ the created is united with the uncreated, and we in turn are related to the uncreated through Christ. The Incarnation is part of a larger economy that enables us to participate in the divine attributes of immortality and incorruption and attain the telos which had been intended for Adam. (112-3)
There's a lot there to consider - and I think the early Quakers were asking these kinds of questions, much to their peers' discomfort. They may not have started with an intricate theological framework, but they came to similar places by reading the same Scripture and following slightly different paths.
I suspect that readers with an interest in deification per se will be vastly better served by reading Russell's works than my excerpts and thoughts, but at the same time I think I've only just started on a path that proved very fruitful for the founders of Quakerism.
(And no, I don't expect to convert to Orthodoxy, despite my enjoyment of their ideas. The overlaps are fascinating, but the difference are also very real.)