Theosis in the Episcopal Church

In a previous post I wrote about theosis as the human vocation. Theosis, was a central concept and theme within the early church and remains so today in Eastern Orthodoxy. Was theosis lost by the west in the East-West schism of 1054? Where is theosis within the Anglican tradition and more specifically in the American expression of Anglicanism, The Episcopal Church?

Anglicans have always maintained a deep rootedness in the patristic tradition of the early church and, though not always having done it well or consistently, have sought, through the interplay of scripture, tradition, and reason, to profess only the faith of the undivided church. Indeed, John Meyendorff has pointed out that the sixteenth century reformers were not rejecting the catholic faith as much as reacting against an unbalanced expression of the faith.

There is no question, however, that the Protestant reformation has diminished, within the western churches, the early church’s teaching of theosis. Anglicanism, however, nether rejected nor lost theosis. This is clearly seen in the Ascension and Pentecost sermons of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), Bishop of Winchester. Andrewes views the entire Christian life as fulfilling the potential for divinization given to the Church on Pentecost. Through the power of the Holy Spirit Christians, he says, “actually become ‘partakers…Of His nature, the nature of God.’”

In his first Pentecost sermon Andrewes speaks of the “royal exchange” that took place on Pentecost. He says, “Whereby, as before He of ours, so now we of His are made partakers. He clothed with our flesh, and we invested with His Spirit. The great promise of the Old Testament accomplished, that He should partake our human nature; and the great and precious promise of the New, that we should be consortes divinae naturæ, ‘partake His divine nature,’ both are this day accomplished.”

Echoes of Andrewes’ sermon can be heard in the following statement from the Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue (Moscow Agreed Statement 1976). “Christians participate in the grace of the Holy Trinity as members of the Christian community. It is the Church which is filled by the Holy Spirit and it is precisely for this reason that every human person has the possibility of becoming a partaker of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1.4).” While “theosis language” is not normally used by Anglicans, the underlying doctrine such language seeks to express is not rejected by Anglicans and such teaching can be found within Anglican liturgies and hymnody.

Like Orthodoxy Anglicanism prays its theology. The western liturgical practice of using seasonal and festal collects, however, does not always offer consistent visibility to accepted theological doctrine. Within the Episcopal Church theosis in the exchange formula is an established doctrine found primarily, though not exclusively, in the Christmas season collects. The following collects are illustrative of theosis within the Episcopal Church.

  • O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas).
  • Almighty and everliving God, you have given us a new revelation of your loving providence in the Coming of your Son Jesus Christ to be born of the Virgin Mary: Grant that as he shared our mortality, so we may share his eternity in the glory of your kingdom; where he lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for Station at a Creche).
  • O God our Creator, to restore our fallen race you spoke the effectual word, and the Eternal Word became flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Mercifully grant that as he humbled himself to be clothed with our humanity, so we may be found worthy, in him, to be clothed with his divinity; who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for Station at a Creche).

14 thoughts on “Theosis in the Episcopal Church

  1. Don’t forget Anglicanism’s primary champion of theosis, due to his eclectic borrowing from Orthodox & Pietist traditions: John Wesley (along with Charles). Both in John’s preaching & design of societies and in Charles’ hymnody is much of the finest post-Reformation exploration of sanctification.

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    • Thank you for this reminder. I wonder if the modern church has become so narrow in its thinking about atonement that we miss the deeper and more mystical aspects of the church’s theology expressed in both doctrine and hymnody.

      Peace, Mike+

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  2. Somewhat apropos of your point about the presence of theosis language in Anglican hymnody, I thought you might appreciate this quote:
    “Yet surely, if in the future Hymnal of the English Church we are to build an eclectic superstructure on the foundation of the Sarum Book, the East ought to yield its full share of compositions.” (John Mason Neale, Hymns of the Eastern Church, Preface to the First Edition, 1862)
    I owe a great deal of my spiritual awakening and calling to my explorations in eastern theology, and try to infuse my sermons with some of that character, albeit generally without recourse to technical Greek terminology. Actually, thus far I have found it plays generally well to Church of England congregations of all ages.

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    • Samuel that is a great quotation, thank you. I wish Anglicanism would look more to some of the East’s hymnody. I too have been deeply influenced by Eastern theology and use it in my teaching and preaching. I find it consistent with Anglicanism. Seems Anglicanism is at is best when it returns to its patristic roots.

      Peace, Mike+

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  3. I think that one finds an even greater treasure of Anglican writing about theosis in the twentieth century than in ages past. Charles Chapman Grafton and Michael Ramsey come to mind particularly.

    Of course, Anglicanism is rooted in the Reformation on the point of justification. So the question is, can one believe in both theosis and justification by faith alone through grace alone? I tend to think yes, and that this may in fact have been what Luther was teaching if properly understood, but there is nothing explicit within Anglican doctrinal formularies that says as much. It is a challenge for modern Anglicanism to figure out how to become consistent on this. Then again, it is a challenge for modern Orthodoxy to become consistent on the topic of justification.

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    • Fr. Jonathan, I agree with you that there is consistency between theosis and justification. I would even lean towards thinking of theosis as justification. I am perhaps misreading your comment and do not want to misinterpret it but it sounds like you see some opposition or inconsistency between theosis and justification. I would appreciate learning more about this? Thank you.

      Peace, Mike+

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  4. At a picnic last weekend, I met a man who asked what “kind” of priest I was. When I said, “Episcopal,” he lit up and exclaimed, “That’s the closest to Greek Orthodox!” Certainly, my patristics teacher would have agreed with that….
    Blessings, Deborah

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    • Deborah, I like and agree with what that man said. At one time Anglicanism was seen by some and perhaps tried to be “Western Orthodoxy”. We have at least as much in common with Eastern Orthodoxy as with Roman Catholicism.

      I hope you are well. Peace,
      Mike+

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  5. The modern church does indeed miss the mark on the true power latent in Christ’s teachings. As a former atheist, I despised Christianity for it’s shallowness…that is…until I “re-discovered” its origins in the early church. Let’s revive theosis!

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    • Michael, I agree there is hidden in Christianity a deep, powerful, and beautiful mystical tradition. I find this most profoundly in the desert and patristic teachings. My sense is that these ancient teachings are the future of the Church.

      Peace,
      Mike+

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  6. One of my regrets as to the episcopal anglican church of Brazil is the “evangelicalism” influence from the reformed and modern movements churches whose prejudices against the mystical tradition keep people far from great moments experiences, ex.g., the quiet prayer (meditation), traditional hymns, ancient teachings. I believe in a future based on our rich tradition.

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    • Arlinda, I fully agree with you that the future of the church has to include a recovery of the contemplative/mystical tradition and life. It seems that when there has been a flourishing and renewal of the church it has involved a return to the ancient practices. I think we must place spiritual formation and development of the interior life at the heart of parish ministry and priesthood and let that flow out to and guide our works of justice and outreach.

      God’s peace be with you,
      Mike+

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