A credible presentation of Redemption today

by Philip Kariatlis*

"God became human so that human beings may become God"
(St Athanasius).


In the history of theology, one can detect quite different, but not necessarily opposing emphases in the understanding of redemption (ie the way God redeems humanity and the world) in the Western and Eastern Churches. In the past the Roman Catholic Church has tended to understand redemption in terms of legal, juridical and forensic categories. In his famous book, which has influenced all subsequent treatments on redemption, Anselm argued that the sin of humankind had offended God and that the justice of God could only be served by making a 'satisfaction' or just payment of the penalty. Moreover the various Protestant Churches have understood redemption in terms of 'penal substitution' models. In the Orthodox Churches, especially with the patristic revival in the middle of this century the doctrine of the redemption has been linked up with the Incarnation of Christ and deification.

In Orthodox theology, redemption is not seen in juridical terms, whereby one is simply redeemed from the wrath of God and granted an extrinsic justification as a result of the fall. Whilst the consequences of the 'fall' must not be downplayed, redemption, nevertheless must not to be understood merely as forgiveness of sins and humanity's reconciliation to God. Eastern theology sees redemption in positive terms whereby one is actually called to really participate in the personal and divine energies of the Trinity as a result of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Or to put it another way, redemption is a gracious and divine gift which is bestowed by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the Church today, granting all faithful, a personal experience of Christ who in turn leads us to God, His Father. It is this paper's contention that, even though there are a host of redemption models (such as ransom, propitiation, adoption, reconciliation, forgiveness, deliverance) which Western theology tends to highlight, the Eastern perspective must also be taken seriously so that a credible presentation of redemption might once again adequately confirm the wonder of God's saving acts in history. Therefore it is the purpose of this brief paper to outline the Orthodox understanding of redemption. And the importance of the Incarnation and the doctrine of deification are foundational for approaching the mystery of redemption today.

The Incarnation

The way redemption is understood greatly affects our theology of the Incarnation. If redemption, for example is understood merely in terms of justification or sanctifica-tion, then the Incarnation simply took place so that Christ could justify or sanctify humanity both from the ancestral sin of the world and our own personal sins. Archbishop Stylianos has rightly pointed out, however that such a conception of the mystery of the Incarnation, whilst not erroneous as such, is nevertheless juridical and mechanical. It makes God dependent on the mishaps of human adventure since God is understood to have incarnated, not freely as part of His pre-eternal will, but only in reaction to the sin of the world so as to rectify the human predicament gone wrong. It is as though the Incarnation was an accidental event on the part of God so as to restore divine-human communion which had been broken. Such an understanding, however, deprives God, Archbishop Stylianos rightly argues of the magnitude of His love and providence.1 If, on the other hand redemption is comprehended in terms of deification then the Incarnation is necessary, with or without the world's 'fall' since God's Logos would have become human (ie hypostatically uniting Himself with human nature) so as to deify or intimately unite Himself with the entire created cosmos. Far from being seen as a remedy to a sinful world, the Incarnation is now understood as the fulfillment of God's plan of communion with the entire cosmos He loved so much (cf Jn 3:16).

In the East, therefore the fact that the Word became flesh and died for us has not meant that humankind has simply been justified from God's anger, but rather that it has assumed an intimate and hypostatical unity2 with divinity itself. The essence of our redemption lies in the lifting up of human nature into an everlasting communion with the divine life which was realized by Christ's redeeming work. The whole emphasis of the Greek fathers centered upon this foundational conception: the Incarnation of the Word as the fulfillment of God's entire redemptive process. The whole destiny and history of humankind was on its way to being fully realized in the Incarnation. The Incarnation is not to be seen as a reduction of Christ's divinity to put right the world which had 'missed its mark' but on the contrary, a lifting-up of human persons, the deification or theosis of human nature. The East has always seen the Incarnation as the union of divine majesty with human frailty and therefore the ultimate redemptive act of God.

As it has been stated above, the Greek fathers saw the Incarnation as that which began the whole process of our redemption. But more than that, the fathers spoke of the original destiny of human nature as one leading to a hypostatic union with the divine Logos in Christ - ie our deification. Christ, who as the perfect union of divine and human3 opened the way for our human nature to participate in the divine. For this reason many fathers interpreted the Incarnation of the Logos not as a simple consequence of the fall, but as the fulfillment of the original will of God - namely that in the person of the Logos, human nature was capable of being united with the divine. In his book, Deification in Christ, Nellas wonderfully summed it up in this way:

"Christ is not the result of an act of Satan. The union of the divine and human natures took place because it fulfilled the eternal will of Cod..... Prior to the hypostatic union of the divine nature with the human, man even before the fall was anterior to Christ, a fact which means that even then, in spite of not having sinned, man had need of salvation, since he was an imperfect and incomplete "child". This teaching lies at the core of the theology of St Irenaeus. Human nature could not have been completed simply by its tendency; it had to attain union with the Archetype. Since Christ is "the head of the body, the Church" (Col. 1.18), a fact which means in patristic thought that Christ is the head of true humanity, as long as human nature had not received the hyposta-sis of the Logos it was in some way without real hypostasis - it lacked real substance".4

Nellas indicated in the strongest possible way that the deification of humanity, even if humanity had not sinned, needed the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures of Christ in the Logos - ie the Incarnation.

The hypostatic union of divine and human accomplished in Christ, was the very foundation of the deification of humanity. Since Christ took on human nature and bestowed upon it the fullness of grace, He made humanity capable of ascending to God. Therefore St Athanasius could say that "God became human so that humanity may become God".5 It is the gift of the Incarnation which gives humanity the possibility of deification. Since the first Adam went astray and deprived himself of the gratuitous gift of union with God, the Second Adam, the divine Logos achieved this union of the two natures in his person. Therefore the Incarnation of Christ does not simply redeem humanity from the effects of the fall but completes the pre-fallen nature of humanity by deifying it. For the fathers, the deification of Christ's human nature became the vessel by which our human nature too could be deified. This is the basis of the theology of deification which is found in the fathers. Meyendorff also described it in this way:

"The hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ is the very foundation of salvation, and therefore of deification: in Christ, humanity has already participated in the uncreated life of God because the 'flesh' has truly become 'the flesh of God'".6

The above quotation clearly states that the incarnation is the presupposition for God's ultimate redemptive act in deifying the entire world.

Such is the fundamental position of the Incarnation of the Word for a credible and contemporary teaching on redemption. The Incarnation of the Logos has opened to all human persons the possibility of restoring their unity with God. And the death of Christ was effective in humanity's redemption, not because it satisfied a transcendent Justice which required retribution for humanity's sins but because it was the death of the Son of God in the flesh (ie, in virtue of the hypostatic union). Fr Georges Florovsky wrote that

  • "the death of the Cross was effective, not as a death of an Innocent One, but as the death of the Incarnate Lord".7
  • The Orthodox notion of redemption is clearly not simply an act to satisfy a legal requirement, but one which destroys death by his death and opens the way for our immortality. For this reason many fathers would view the mystery of the Incarnation independent of the 'fall'. This hypostatic, complete mingling of created and uncreated natures without division or confusion had as its immediate consequence the deification of the nature created in Christ and by extension human nature in general. And it is to this doctrine of deification that we now turn

    Deification - the human destiny

    For the Eastern fathers, the formulation of the doctrine of 'deification', affirmed the reality of humanity's innermost hope as "belonging to God". St Gregory Nazianzus argued that the root of a person's true greatness and calling lay in being "called to be a god".8 Elsewhere, St Basil the Great insisted that "the goal of our calling is to become like god".9 The ultimate redemptive destiny of humanity is none other than to attain likeness to God and union with Him. Deification denotes a direct union and a total transformation of the human person with the living God by divine grace. St Basil the Great said that human beings are nothing less than creatures that have received the order to become gods.10 The descent (katavasis) of God has offered the created order the capability of ascending (anavasis) to the Divine in the Holy Spirit. For the Eastern fathers, deification is God's greatest gift to, and the innermost goal of human existence. Although the term does not occur in the Holy Scriptures, the Greek fathers believed that it was a fitting theological term affirming the command of 2 Peter 1:4 - ie "to become participants of the divine nature". Regarding deification, a seventh century father, St Anastasius of Sinai, writes the following:

  • "Deification is the elevation to what is better, but not the reduction of our nature to something less, nor is it an essential change of our human nature. A divine plan, it is the willing condescension of tremendous dimension by God, which He did for the salvation of others. That which is of God is that which has been lifted up to a greater glory, without its own nature being changed".11
  • This is an important statement because it rejects all forms of pantheism.

    Now, the patristic tradition has always sought to stress the importance of the process of deification in reference to redemption. As a result of the enhypostasia of the second Person of the Trinity, Christ's humanity, in virtue of the communicatio idiomatum [communication of attributes, divine and human] is a deified humanity, which does not lose its human characteristics in any way. In fact, on the contrary these human attributes become more real since they model the divine according to which they were created. For the Eastern patristic tradition, the basis of humanity's deification is clearly found in the hypostatic union between the divine and human natures of Christ. These divine energies in Christ, as a result of the 'communication of attributes' reach all those who live a life literally in Christ. Ultimately redemption means deification which is the supreme goal for which humankind was created.


    All that has been said thus far necessitates a theological synthesis between the Western and Eastern theologies of redemption. Despite the Western understanding of redemption in terms of penal substitution or satisfaction models this article has examined the Eastern understanding of redemption - a redemption which ultimately calls all of the created order to deification by grace. What is called for therefore today is a complementary understanding of redemption so that the fullness of humanity's true existence might be realized. Only when the Orthodox understanding of redemption is taken seriously can the whole ideal of redemption be credibly presented today. All too often, the West speaks of juridical models at the expense of other models. On the other hand, the East is all too often tempted to speak of redemption solely in Incarnation and deification terms. All Biblical perspectives are necessary for a complete and wholistic understanding of redemption. In a world where our struggles often seem hopeless, where our life seems meaningless because death is ever present, the good news and foundation of our hope is that Christ has overcome death and granted life in the tombs.12 The Incarnation of the Logos offers us a "life in Christ" empowering us to live as Christ, to love as Christ, to serve as Christ and to be one with Christ.

    1. Lectures delivered at St Andrew's Theological College, 2004
    2. By hypostatic union is simply meant the union in the person or hyposta-sis of Christ of the natures of divinity and humanity.
    3. cf. the teaching of Chalcedon (451AD) on their teaching of Christ: "Following the holy fathers we teach with one voice that the Son of God and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same (Person), and he is perfect in Divinity and perfect in Humanity, true God and true Man. This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son (of God) must be confessed to be in two natures, without mixture and without change, without separation and without division."
    4. P. Nellas, Deification in Christ, pp.37-38.
    5. De Incarnatione verbi 54, P.G. 25, 192B.
    6. J. Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas, p.182.
    7. G. Florovsky, The Lamb of God', Scottish Journal of Theology, (March, 1961), p,24.
    8. Funeral Oration for St Basil, P.G. 36, 560A.
    9. On the Holy Spirit 1.2.
    10. On the Holy Spirit, 1.2.
    11. Concerning the Word, P.G. 89, 77BC. 66
    12. An Orthodox hymn of the Resurrection.

    *St Andrew's Theological College,
    Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia

    Return to homepage (framed) | Return to homepage (no frames) | Return to home page