Theosis: Christ Is Not Our Stepfather

My daughter had a softball game last night. Her first year in team sports has already been a wild ride. She makes mistakes and good plays in equal measure. She forgets the rules but remembers all the cheers in the dugout. Watching her at the plate is a combination of hope and fear.

I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

No matter how much I love my daughter, it can never fully equal the love relationship that she has with her mother. I am a step-parent, while they are one flesh and one blood. They are united completely. A bond exists between mother and daughter that I can emulate and imitate, but never experience as a reality.

There are moments where I get hints of what that bond is like. She sometimes rests her head on my shoulder during a movie. She spots me when I arrive for practice and runs to greet me with a hug. There’s a special singsong way she says my name when she’s feeling extra loving.

In those moments I don’t feel like a step-anything. I feel like Dad.

Orthodox Christians don’t speak much of salvation, at least not the way Protestants do. Salvation is for the Orthodox a process, not an event. We speak instead of theosis, of the gradual taking on of God’s nature through an ever-closer union. This union with God comes through prayer, fasting and good works, as well as the irresistible love of Christ drawing us to Him through grace.

Fr. David Hester defines theosis as “the gradual process by which a person is renewed and unified so completely with God that he becomes by grace what God is by nature.” St. Athanasius sums it up thusly: “God became man so that man might become gods.”

One commenter on this site spoke of our perfection in Christ from the Protestant perspective: “We can be perfect. But not in the sense of pleasing others by what would certainly be a myriad of misrepresented standards. We can be complete in Christ. Full-grown. Complete in our Christian character.” Protestantism would refer to this process as sanctification or holiness.

But theosis is more than acting more like Christ, or behaving more like a Christian. It is what St. Maximos the Confessor called “total participation in Jesus Christ.” It is not an adoption by our heavenly stepfather. It is the complete union of a father to a child.

Protestants might consider this participation in the divine nature as some sort of pantheism, but it is the teaching of the Apostles and the early Church fathers. The Orthodox are careful to separate God’s essence (who He is) and His energies (what we experience). I’d encourage you to read this page for more in depth discussion of theosis.

It is said that when an iron is placed in a hot fire, the iron does not become fire, but it takes on the attributes of fire. This is what we mean when we say we will become like God. We will have a more full, complete union with him. We are not adopted sons and daughters. We shall take on his spirit as he took on our flesh.

We step-parents get a faint taste of that union when our adopted children call us Mom or Dad, and not by our first name. How much greater will that union with God be when we experience the fullness of union with Christ.