Mystical Doctrines of Deification

Case Studies in the Christian Tradition

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Rob Faesen, John Arblaster
  • New York, NY: 
    , June
     230 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mystical Doctrines of Deification is one of two books edited by John Arblaster and Rob Faesen based on contributions from the annual conference of the Mystical Theology Network hosted by KU Leuven, Belgium, in January 2015; the other book is Theosis/Deification: Christian Doctrines of Divinization East and West (Peeters, 2018).

The conference brought together a range of established and emerging theologians, including prominent churchmen such as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny. The conference—and these books—demonstrates the centrality of deification (also known as “theosis” or “divinization”) within the development of the Christian theological tradition. The popularity of this idea has been limited until recently; medieval mystics of the Rhineland and the Low Countries have always been acknowledged to espouse deification, but have generally been seen as anomalous in the Western tradition.

To be sure, great negativity toward the idea has been expressed by prominent Protestant theologians Adolf van Harnack and Karl Barth. While much work in the last two decades has changed the impression of deification—indeed, Louise Nelstrop claims in her contribution that “gone is von Harnack’s belief that deification was an obscure doctrine” (137)—Arblaster and Faesen note that such prejudices still exist among academic theologians as seeming like a “radical-sounding theological idea,” which is found “only in some rare cases [and by] mystics of questionable orthodoxy” (1).

The editors have chosen chapters on “lesser-known figures and sources in the medieval tradition . . . to foster and engage in the ongoing retrieval of medieval contemplative Christian theology,” and have also included chapters “on better-known figures in the tradition . . . [which] treat their subjects from innovative and contemporary perspectives” (2-3). For the sake of brevity, I have selected two chapters to focus on, which demonstrate the range of topics found within this volume.

Martin Laird provides a fascinating chapter examining an unexpected pairing: Gregory of Nyssa’s Homilies on the Song of Songs and Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm. In considering deification in Gregory’s Homilies, Laird adds to John McGuckin’s argument that, despite the lack of “technical vocabulary of theosis such as theopoieo or sunapotheo” (35-36), it is a central concept. Laird focuses particularly on the use of two metaphors, the fountain and the arrow, which Gregory uses to demonstrate the human person being—in Gregory’s words—“changed into something divine” (36). The bride of the Song of Songs drinks from the fountain of the bridegroom and, in doing so, “becomes a fountain” herself (36). Gregory explains the kiss of the bridegroom as a drinking from such a fountain, resulting in the manifestation of revelation by means of her speech which is both divinized and divinizing.

Laird skillfully guides the reader through Gregory’s fountain metaphor before explaining that this can be clearly seen as an example of deification as it provides a paradox, which is related to Gregory’s Christology, and that it links union with baptism. Laird provides similar clarity in explaining Gregory’s use of the metaphor of the wound of love as a clear sign of deification. The bride is penetrated by the sweet arrow of love, which Gregory uses to signify the indwelling presence of the Trinity. Gregory interprets the archer as being the Son and the tip of the arrow as being faith; Laird explains that “both the spirit-moistened arrow and the archer indwell her” (38). This results in the bride herself becoming the arrow that penetrated her. In what Laird describes as a “stunning coincidence of opposites,” the bride is “both at rest in the arms of the Beloved and at the same time shot forth.”

Again, the bride becomes something divine, even though in this instance no language of deification is used. Laird then provides a useful link with Annie Dillard, pointing out that Dillard structures her Holy the Firm  (HarperCollins, 1977) in terms of salvation history, moving from creation to resurrection. In discussing the consecration of the eucharistic wine she is carrying, Dillard “is interiorly transformed into the eternal shimmer of the double face of union.” Laird makes a useful contribution in demonstrating similar modes of deification presented in two very separated writers, although it is perhaps surprising that they make no use of key examples of previous scholarship on Dillard and mysticism, for example, Sue Yore’s The Mystic Way in Postmodernity (Peter Lang, 2009).

Another impressive chapter is Patrick Ryan Cooper’s examination of John of Ruusbroec’s two abysses of man and love, which demonstrates how the two abysses work together. Just as Laird emphasizes Gregory’s sense of deification through the paradox of simultaneous movement and stillness, Cooper argues that, for Ruusbroec, the “abyss facilitates well the synthesis of active charity and restful contemplation, as its point of singularity and resting stillness simultaneously upholds love’s perpetual movement of erotic demand and whirling glory” (101). Such abysmal love (afgrondiger minne) is a central component of Ruusbroec’s understanding of the abyss and deification; Cooper claims that by “constructively retrieving” figures like Ruusbroec “who more robustly account for love’s distinctly erotic dimensions,” and argues from this that we can more fully understand in “safeguard[ing] and uphold[ing] the dignity and honour [of] the gift of espousal love” (101).

While more needs to be done to explain why the erotic dimensions of premodern Christian thinkers should be linked specifically to espousal love (and not love more generally), Cooper adds to the existing scholarship on viewing divine-human love as erotic, such as Werner Jeanrod’s A Theology of Love (T&T Clark, 2010), Virginia Burrus and Catherine Keller’s Towards a Theology of Eros (Fordham University Press, 2006), and—with specific reference to Christian mysticism—Louise Nelstrop’s “Erotic and Nuptial Imagery,” in Edward Howell and Mark McIntosh’s Oxford Handbook of Mystical Theology (Oxford University Press, 2020).

This book is a valuable addition to the continued repopularization of mysticism and the retrieval of such premodern figures, continuing the strong work of Routledge’s “Contemporary Theological Explorations in Mysticism” series, this being the 8th volume. Likewise, it further underlines the central place that Arblaster and Faesen hold within such scholarly trajectories, especially with regard to deification.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Hahn received his PhD from the University of St Andrews in Medieval Mystical Theology.

Date of Review: 
July 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Arblaster is Postdoctoral Researcher at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, KU Leuven and the Ruusbroec Institute, University of Antwerp. His research focuses on the doctrine of deification in the mystical literature of the late medieval Low Countries. With Rob Faesen, he co-edited A Companion to John of Ruusbroec (Brill, 2014) and Mystical Anthropology: Authors from the Low Countries (Routledge, 2017). He has published several articles and book chapters, including a contribution to the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Mystical Theology (OUP). He is co-convener (with Louise Nelstrop and Simon D. Podmore) of the Mystical Theology Network.

Rob Faesen is Professor of the History of Spirituality and Mysticism at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, KU Leuven, the Ruusbroec Institute, University of Antwerp, and the School of Catholic Theology, Tilburg University. He has published extensively in the field of medieval mysticism, but also in Jesuit history and spirituality. He was a member of the editorial team responsible for the new critical edition of the works of John of Ruusbroec, and has authored and co-authored numerous contributions.


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