On the Real Possibility of Theosis

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your well thought out and articulate description of how people in various strands of Lutheranism understand how to follow Jesus.  I appreciate how you are always trying to find points of contact with other expressions of Christianity.

It certainly is interesting to learn that Luther allowed a continuation of more of the historic tradition than most of his followers eventually did – such as his openness, as you say, to the seven sacraments (I had thought he only tried to continue the Sacrament of Confession among the other five traditional sacraments); his affirmation of Mary as the Mother of God; and his affirmation, as you note, of the Church as our Mother.

It’s also wonderful to see Luther affirming the possibility of a kind of mystical communion with the Lord that can be taken, perhaps, as first steps towards a full-scale understanding of theosis.

In light of allowing that possibility, it seems so sad that, it would seem, he then cuts off that possibility by asserting that no matter how much good we’re doing, we’re always sinning.  For theosis/deification involves the gradual process of being purified from sin, with one’s thoughts and actions gradually becoming more and more free from sin.  It also involves becoming more like the sinless One, through participating in His sinless Energies.

And if I may ask, if everything good that we do is accomplished by grace alone, as you also say Lutherans insist upon, why can’t the Lord’s grace do the job completely?  Why can’t He make it, or arrange it, so that we’re doing the good without concupiscence/selfishness, or any kind or taint of sin?

And if I may further ask, does it make sense for Jesus and all the NT writers to give commandments that can never be completely fulfilled since, as the Lutherans say, all our efforts to obey them will be inevitably tainted with sin?  What sense, then, can we make of Jesus commanding us to “be ye perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48)?

And if I may also ask, if people are convinced that they can do nothing that’s not tainted with sin, how will at least some of them not be tempted to not even try to grow in “holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14), as St. Paul states?

You’re asking all of us about how our traditions can relate to the Lutherans’ understanding of joy, even “fun,” in following Jesus.  Yes, surely, as Nehemiah says, “Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Neh. 8:10); and St. Paul certainly says, “Rejoice in the LORD always, again I say rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).  But yet, as Solomon says, “There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3:4).  Surely whatever the particular circumstances are at the moment will affect our emotional response to those circumstances.

And the Orthodox understanding of “joy in the Lord” is that it’s something very profound and deep, not something superficial or light.  It includes an inner certainty that the Lord is still in control no matter what’s happening around us or with us; this is ultimately what enables us to be joyful, even in the face of tragedy or impending death.  But yet there’s still a tinge of sadness, always, as we make our way through this life—in this world which is so often called “a vale of tears”—due to the grievous tragedies and injustices that abound in this life, in this very fallen world.  This is why the Orthodox often talk about “bright sadness”—a paradoxical expression that reflects the simultaneous reality of a dark world into which the light of Christ is constantly streaming.

Thank you again, Mark, for your insightful contribution to this Conversation.

Yours, in Christ,

David Ford

P.S.  This quote from a 20th century holy Orthodox elder (who lived in Russia and America), I think, is very relevant to our discussion of faith and good works: It goes without saying that good works are essential for success in the spiritual life, for they demonstrate the presence of good will in us, without which there is no moving forward.  In turn, good works themselves strengthen, develop, and deepen this good will” (Archbishop Averky (Taushev), The Struggle for Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society, p. xi).

1 reply
  1. Mark Ellingsen
    Mark Ellingsen says:

    Dear Dave,
    Thanks for the kind words and the dialogue. I think that you are agreeing with me that we belong to sister traditions in the ways we worship, value Sacramental life, and even in Lutheran openness to the Orthodox polity. I was especially excited by your original paper’s claim that grace precedes work, that all we have is a work of grace. For failure to affirm prevenient grace in the Orthodox tradition could be a stumbling block for Lutherans. Have I understood you correctly on that matter?.
    Either way, let’s talk more about your concern that Lutheran endorsements of theosis/
    deification cut off this possibility by the Lutheran assertion that we are always sinning. This really is related to the question of whether progress in the Christian life is possible. The Pietist strands of Lutheranism clearly allow for this possibility (Philip Spener, Pia Desideria, 2). And Luther himself sometimes embraced this possibility (Luther’s Works, Vol.30, p.17). Thus I can endorse your approach as a legitimate Christian alternative. Is there a way you can embrace the realism/pessimism about sin which Lutherans inherit from an Augustinian read of Romans? I have had the impression that sin is often portrayed in your circles as a sickness. I know Macarius the Egyptian (with whom I hang out with a lot here in my Africentric academic home) talks that way at times (Homilies, 4.8). That image is appropriate in my tradition, as Luther occasionally spoke of sin that way (Luther’s Works, Vol.35, p.263). Could we then say that sin is a sickness like drug addiction or in the sense that even the vaccinated can still carry COVID? Would that be as acceptable in your heritage as it would be in mine? If not, let’s look for other areas of convergence to overcome the problems here. I like the idea of “bright sadness.” It has echoes of the “gallows humor” that Lutherans often associate with the Theology of the Cross. It is precisely because of something like bright sadness that Lutherans do not give up on the Christian life when they know that on this side of the Eschaton even their best deeds are mired in sin (scarred by spiritual sickness/addiction).

    In Christian friendship,


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