Redemption and Deification

The establishment of The Saint-Serge Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris in 1925 was something of an anomaly in the history of theological education, with far reaching effects on the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, and on the relationship between the two “sides” or “lungs” of Christianity.


The founders of the theological school in Paris were Russians who had fled the persecution of Christians in the upheaval after the Communist Revolution of 1917.  Eventually, Paris became a place for these emigrants to gather.  What did they gather to do?  It is amazing that after losing everything, these persecuted Christians set up a theological school.  They were motivated by the desire not to lose the richness of the Russian, Orthodox, Christian tradition.

And this desire also affected the Catholic theologians who began to take notice of these Russians in their midst.  Men such as Jacques Maritain, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Jean Danielou–giants of Catholic theology–developed friendships with these men from the East, Sergei Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov, Nicholas Afanasieff, and Vladimir Lossky.  These friendships bore fruit in the Church, especially in the theological vision of Vatican II, a vision shaped by the Catholic theologians named above, who were in turn shaped by the “rediscovery” of the common Fathers of East and West.

The desire to reencounter our brothers from the East has been expressed repeatedly by the popes of the second half of the twentieth century.  Saint John XXIII represented the pope in Bulgaria and Turkey (where there were many more Orthodox than Catholics) as well as France (which saw the theological revival mentioned above).  We think of Paul VI’s historical meeting with the Patriarch of Constantinople in the Holy Land in 1964, which will be commemorated in a few days when Pope Francis goes to the Holy Land.  Lastly, we think of the famous phrase of Saint John Paul II, that the Church must “breathe with both lungs”.

As an example of the enrichment of theology by the encounter with the East, I would like to outline some of the thoughts of Vladimir Lossky in the essay “Redemption and Deification” from his book In the Image and Likeness of God.


Lossky begins with the famous phrase of the Fathers, “God made Himself man, that man might become God,” a phrase that is familiar to both Eastern and Western Christianity.  He comments, “The descent of the divine person of Christ makes human persons capable of ascent in the Holy Spirit.”  The phrase that “man might become God” is what is called in Christian, especially Eastern Christian, tradition “deification”.  But how does it work?  How does salvation happen to us?

In the West, especially those of us who live in a Protestant context, we tend to think of salvation as “redemption”.  The theology of redemption has taken on an exclusively juridical connotation, “I have been purchased by the Blood of Christ,” which we can hear in almost every Protestant praise and worship song.  Lossky comments that this juridical understanding of salvation, as something bought on our behalf by someone who was capable of paying the price (a divine Person, Christ), must be balanced.

The first balance comes from the many other images that Scripture uses to describe Christ’s role: the pastoral (Good Shepherd), the military (Christ conqueror), the medicinal (Christ heals our sick nature), the diplomatic (Christ outwits the devil), and above all the physical/biological (the Vine and the branches).

The second balance, a specifically Eastern emphasis, is the role of the Holy Spirit, who not only sets us free from our bondage but renews, transforms, transfigures, “deifies” us.  “We must, above all, recover the true place of the dispensation of the Holy Spirit, distinct but not separable from that of the Incarnate Word.”

Lossky sees that Western theology, when he was writing in the 1940s, had rediscovered the first balance with the image (and reality) of the Church as the Body of Christ.  The Body of Christ is an organic-physical-biological image, along the lines of the Vine and the branches, which helps us understand ourselves in relation to Christ and to one another.  Saint Paul spoke of the Church as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12), and the image had a history in theology through the Fathers, the Middle Ages, and finally in the Encyclical of Pope Pius XII (1943) Mystici Corporis Christi.

Are there any dangers in the image of the Body of Christ?  Lossky notes that the image must be balanced if it is not to lead to a loss of our individual, personal identity and destiny.  He says the theology of the Body of Christ should not lead to “a Christian totalitarianism” in which I lose myself; there is a matching spirituality that would seem to abolish our ego-centrism by abolishing our ego.  That is not Christian spirituality.  Or in the language of Lossky, that is a separation of Christ from the Spirit–a huge danger, seeing that the Son and the Spirit cannot be separated in God’s plan of salvation for us.


Here, we arrive at the second balance: the Holy Spirit is the personalizing force in the Body of Christ.  I do not belong to the Body of Christ as a part of a whole, just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three parts of “God”.  The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.  The natural unity and the personal multiplicity of God go hand in hand.  This is the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.

It is also the Mystery of the human person, made in the Image and Likeness of God.  My individual nature is incorporated into the Body of Christ, a new nature, a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).  But this does not mean that my personal uniqueness is abolished.  In fact, the Holy Spirit “hypostatizes” me–that is makes me really who I am in the Body of Christ, gives me my “place”, because the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life.  Lossky states:

The Son has become like us in the incarnation; we become like Him by deification, by partaking of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, who communicates the divinity to each human person in a particular way.  The redeeming work of the Son is related to our nature. The deifying work of the Holy Spirit concerns our persons.  But the two are inseparable.

We live in a world of having to choose between one option and another, either this or that.  But the Mystery of the Trinity (and of us who are made in the image of the Trinity) is the Mystery of both/and.  We may be tempted in two directions: either the unity of nature in the Body of Christ (which could suppress our individual personalities) or our personal freedom in the Holy Spirit (which could sever our link to my brother or sister in the Lord).  But what God has united in the Mystery of salvation, we cannot separate.

The image of Pentecost is important here.  We see the same flame that comes down from Heaven, but which rests on the heads of the Apostles (and Our Lady) in individual flames:

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2: 3-4)

The Person of the Holy Spirit always tends toward unity in the Body of Christ, a unity that does not overpower our individual, free choice to belong and participate in that unity.  The Person of the Son (Christ) does not want to limit our freedom in the Spirit: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Unity and freedom.  Nature and personality.  This is the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.  It is the Mystery of the God who is Love.  “And the Love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5:5)  Therefore, it is also the Mystery of the human person in the Church which is  “in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 1).

Veni Sancte Spiritus, Come Holy Spirit!


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