Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition

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Jared Ortiz
Studies in Early Christianity
  • Washington, DC: 
    Catholic University of America Press
    , January
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Christian theological traditions use the term “deification” (Greek theosis) to refer to a process of transformation in which believers are united with God and share so deeply in divinity that they become like God, taking on the attributes of immortality, incorruptibility, and holiness of life. Proponents of deification are usually careful to affirm that it is accomplished only by grace, so that believers participate in the divine nature while remaining distinct from it as creatures who are perpetually dependent on their Creator. Although deification has long been identified as characteristic of Eastern Christianity, in recent decades scholars have sought to establish a basis for the doctrine in Western Christian theology and spirituality, as well.

In his introduction to this volume, editor Jared Ortiz modestly claims that it is “a first step along the way” (2) toward a companion to Norman Russell’s The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2004). It would be more accurate, however, to describe this book as a great leap forward in the study of deification in early Latin Christianity. After reading this book, no one could ever again suggest that the doctrine of deification was absent from the Western tradition, or merely incidental to it. As Ortiz writes, deification clearly held a place of “structural significance” in the theology of the Latin Fathers (4), although often not as fully developed or explicitly thematized as the doctrine of theosis came to be in Eastern Christianity. In both East and West, the theology of deification is often present even when the technical terms for it are absent.

The first essay in the volume is the editor’s very useful study of deification themes in the early Latin liturgies of initiation and Eucharist. The last essay is a brief but comprehensive comparison of the Greek and Latin traditions on deification by Norman Russell, who argues convincingly that the two have much more in common than has usually been acknowledged. In between are twelve chapters on individual patristic authors—or in one case, two authors. Along with the expected studies of major theological figures such as Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, and Leo the Great, the volume offers chapters on The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, Novatian, Hilary of Poitiers, Peter Chrysologus, Benedict and Gregory the Great (together), and Boethius, whose Consolation of Philosophy is unique among the works studied here for making no explicit reference to Christ. The treatment of each author is grounded in careful analysis of the primary texts, in conversation with recent scholarship, and in most cases is undertaken with the author’s entire corpus in view (the exceptions are Augustine, where the focus is on the eschatological implications of his several exegetical treatments of Genesis, and Gregory the Great, who is treated primarily as the author of the Dialogues).

From chapter to chapter, many common themes emerge, such as the famous “exchange formula” (God became human so that humans might become divine), participation understood in the Platonic sense of that term, adoption as God’s children by grace rather than nature, and restoration of the divine image and likeness. As the contributors to this volume make clear, all of these shared themes were rooted in the patristic authors’ common biblical heritage, including such key texts as Psalm 82 (Vulgate 81):6 (“You are gods”), 2 Corinthians 8:9 (“though [Christ] was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich”) and 2 Peter 1:4 (“partakers of the divine nature”). But at the same time it is fascinating to observe the great variety of images, metaphors, and theological emphases that appear in the different authors whose works are under consideration here.

As readers of this volume will learn, Tertullian used the legal concept of the sequester (a person who held possession of disputed property until rightful ownership could be determined) to speak of Christ as mediator between God and humanity, while Novatian employed the mercantile language of loaning and borrowing to explain how Christ’s divine nature could gain experience of the human condition and then convey divinity to humans in return. Hilary of Poitiers understood Christ’s transfiguration as an “anthropophany” of glorified humanity. Augustine wrote of deification as rest, so that those saved in Christ actually become the Sabbath promised to appear in the world to come. Jerome saw virginity as a process of angelification, while Benedict’s Rule taught monks to contemplate the divine Christ present in their midst in the person of the abbot, in the monastic community including the youngest and the sick, and even in the visiting guest. What all these patristic authors had in common was the conviction that salvation is more than just a juridical declaration of pardon or a restoration after a fall; for all of them, to be in Christ is to be united with the power of divinity for a personal and ecclesial transformation that begins in this life and is completed only in the next.

A primary reason that this collection of essays serves so well as a comprehensive survey of Latin patristic theologies of deification is the high degree of conformity in format and style that is maintained throughout the volume. Each chapter title highlights a central theme in the patristic author’s approach to the subject, followed by a standard form of subtitle: “Deification in [Name].” At the end of each chapter there is a section marked “Conclusion” that briefly summarizes the main points of the argument, and extensive bibliographical footnotes point the reader to the most important recent scholarship. Both the editor’s introduction and Russell’s concluding essay comparing Eastern and Western approaches highlight the distinctive contributions of each patristic author.

The resulting volume is an authoritative and stimulating compendium that will be of interest both to historians of early Christianity and to contemporary theologians in search of a reliable survey of a significant but heretofore understudied line of development in Latin patristic thought.




About the Reviewer(s): 

Arthur Holder is professor of Christian Spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA.

Date of Review: 
December 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jared Ortiz is Assistant Professor of Religion at Hope College, MI.


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