"I say,'You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;" Psalm 82:6
"Those who partake of the divine nature do so through the promises of Christ who is God. Although the expression is different from Paul's, the content is not: participation in Christ wins incorruption and immortality." N. Russell
Deification in Essense:
Among the Eastern Church Fathers deification is expressed as filial adoption through baptism, and it is iterated that Abba Kyrillos VI (Coptic Patriarch, 1959-71) identified 'the light of baptism,' spotting any non baptized who reported for Eucharistic communion! His mystical company of the Desert Fathers taught that attaining likeness to God comes through Theo-gnosis (knowing God) and kenosis (self emptying). Catholic Mystics describe it as the ascent of the soul to God, the participation of the soul in the divine attributes of immortality. In Summa, it is the transformation of human nature by divine grace.
Although the first mention of deification as a concept was in Irenaeus' infamous exchange formula (God became man that man might become god), it was in Alexandria that the doctrine of deification was fully elaborated and extensively utilized in the defense of its Orthodoxy. Since J. Gross wrote his most comprehensive study of deification, "La divinisation du chrétien d'apres les Peres Grecs," in 1938, discussions of deification often suffer from insufficient historical context and from an obscurity about what deification precisely means and what process does it involve. This attitude has been recently amended by the outstanding Patristic scholar who wrote books about the Desert Fathers, Theophilus and Cyril.
Deification, Divinization, and Theosis:
Why did the terms, Deification, Divinization, and Theosis, based on the biblical expression 'partakers of the divine nature' present such difficulty, for most Protestants and Catholics? Why is the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of Theosis presently engaging the Coptic Orthodox Church, theologians and Clergy in a hot debate? Even when this Church, whose Alexandrine fathers Origen, Athanasius* and Cyril** respectively have initiated, developed and utilized it to defend Orthodoxy against heresies starting with Arianism, all the way to Nestorianism? While Athanasius declares, "The Word became flesh in order, both, to offer this sacrifice and that we, participating in His Spirit, might be deified," Cyril made it the over-riding motif of his Christological defense against the Diophysites. The Alexandrine Church doctrine that by the incarnation, human nature is deified and become participant in the divine nature was Cyril's favorite theme, that he iterated over forty times. Why was Divinization avoided by Apophatic mystics and Diophysite Theologians?
Russell compellingly distinguishes two of the Divinization opponents, "two kinds of writers: those who distinguished in an apophatic way between the essence of God and his operations or energies, and those who employed a Logos-anthropos Christology, which did not depend upon the concept of participation. It is noteworthy that writers of the Antiochene school do not quote '2 Peter 1:4'." Conversely, adds Russell, "the text was used by those who operated with a Logos-sarx Christology (Alexandrine Fathers) and with a doctrine (deriving ultimately from Origen) of a dynamic participation in God. Such a doctrine presupposed a theology which was personalist rather than essentialist, and an understanding of 'nature' which included the attributes of the living God."
Partakers of Divine Nature:
The above verse, quoted from 2 Peter 1:4, was altogether problematic. Used initially by Origen, whose initiatives formed the Alexandrian school, then by Athanasius few times, and later by Cyril repeatedly, but never used again until Maximus the Confessor, quoted only twice. Russell furthers his great book themes, expounding the history of Eastern Church Theology, asking himself, "Why was 2 Peter 1:4 popular with Cyril but not with Maximus (a student of Origen)?
Once he had embarked on his controversy with Nestorius, Cyril needed an alternative way of speaking about deification. Following in the tradition of Origen and Athanasius, he had such an alternative way to hand in the expression 'partakers of the divine nature'. His Christology is one in which the participation of the assumed humanity in the divinity of the Logos, is a key concept. He compares it with the participation of the faithful in Christ; 'corporeally' through the Eucharistic communion, and spiritually through kenotic life. Maximus, with a Capadocian / Dionysian (ps-Areopagite) background, did not participate in the 'Divine Partaking' tradition. While, his Neo-Chalcedonian Christology, revised, was still based on the concept of duality of natures, but in reciprocal communion, had no real appeal for the Petrine text. On the contrary, Cyril's anthropology is analogous to his Christology. Man attains the divinely graced life, not by participation in God as much as by synergy, a mutual reactive relationship between the Lord through Christ and those of the faithful.
Norman Russell on Divinization:
Norman Russell, wrote recently, in an enlightening essay entitled, 'Partakers of the Divine Nature' in the Byzantine Tradition, explaining and defending the Alexandrine based Biblical theology from Origen's First Principles, comparing to Maximus the confessor. He explains, "Among the Greek (speaking) Fathers deification is expressed variously as filial adoption through baptism, as the attaining of likeness to God through gnosis and dispassion, as the ascent of the soul to God, as the participation of the soul in the divine attributes of immortality and incorruption, as the transformation of human nature by divine action, as the eschatological glorification of both soul and body, and as union with God through participation in the divine energies. In Byzantine writers the emphasis falls on the Pauline aspect of filial adoption and incorporation into Christ, the sacraments becoming all-important as the means by which divine life is communicated to the believer."
In my long career as a Catechist and Commentator, it is my first time to be urged to write a review of a theology book without the book being at hand. In a telecom with the Nottingham Patristic, and Cambridge 'Coptic Orthodox' theologian, I proposed this great unbiased scholarly work as a reference for both debating Coptic parties on the subject. Dr. George Bebawi, then praised the Oxford scholar, associating him with the eminent Syriac scholar Dr. Sebastian Brock, and evaluated the book as a 'Doctorate Thesis', carefully reviewed for the benefit of intellectual Christians. His colleague Dr. Andrew Louth, has rightly wrote, "Norman Russell presents his subject with the assurance of a master ... He displays not just understanding of the material, but also a clear awareness of the field of patristic studies ... this is a masterpiece of what historical discussion of Christian doctrine should be: historically acute and theologically perceptive."
A Qualified Review:
"Norman Russell has given us a rigorous account of the historical development of the doctrine of deification and its technical terminology, and at the same time he has offered us clear conceptual categories for distinguishing different approaches to deification in the Christian tradition. The stated subject of this book is "Christian deification from its birth as a metaphor to its maturity as a spiritual doctrine" Daniel Keating
* On the Incarnation (De Incarnatione Verbi Dei)
** The Appropriation of Divine Life in Cyril of Alexandria (Oxford Theological Monographs)