The following review of this book was published in the quarterly newsletter
of the St. George Orthodox Information Service (note - after their next update, the link will probably not bring up the review):
According to the consistent testimony of the Holy Fathers of the Church, God became man that man might become God. This belief, the belief in the possibility of our deification (being transformed by grace into what God is by nature) – could be said to be a hope that lies at the very heart of Orthodox theology and worship, a hope that is given flesh through the Orthodox veneration of the lives of the saints whose ikons light up the interior of every Church. For each saint in their own unique way shows how human nature can become purified of sin and selfishness to become translucent to the very self-giving life of God Himself so that their very being shines with the glory and love of God.
However, for many outside the Church, the Orthodox belief in the possibility of man's deification can seem a scandalous and even blasphemous notion. Thus Protestant Christians draw attention to the fact that despite its centrality to Orthodox belief, the word 'deification' or 'divinisation' never occurs in scripture hence giving rise to the suspicion (voiced most clearly by the Protestant scholar von Harnack) that it represents some kind of clever piece of Byzantine sophistry. In this lucid and surprisingly accessible book, Orthodox theologian, Stephen Thomas, attempts to repudiate such claims by showing firstly that deification isn't some strange Orthodox oddity and secondly, against these Protestant concerns, that 'the Orthodox teaching about deification is rooted in the Bible'.
He achieves the first aim by showing that deification isn't blasphemous or exotic but is an integral part of the whole Orthodox understanding of salvation in contrast to non-Orthodox theology. For, in many Western non-Orthodox denominations there has been a theological tendency to view human salvation as about simply an external change of legal status, from a sinner deserving the wrath of God to a 'justified sinner' (Luther) deserving of eternal life. However, for Orthodox Christians salvation is more than an external change in status but the wholesale healing and internal transformation of the human person back to the purpose for which humanity was originally created: bearers of not only the image but the very likeness of God Himself. Against some of the misunderstandings of non-Orthodox theology, therefore, it is for this reason that the Church insists that our salvation is necessarily tied up with the hope of our deification, our hope that we might become the sanctified person whom God has called from eternity. In the course of his exposition Thomas draws attention to how the Church's belief in deification reveals what he calls the distinctive 'maximalism' of the Orthodox vision of God, a God whose love and mercy for mankind is maximally, unlimitedly and overflowingly generous through raising and restoring fallen humanity up to real participation in the inner fullness of God's Light and Love. Thus not only does God create us, become man for us, die and rise again for us but also offers each of us the opportunity to share in His very Being.
However, although the Orthodox belief in deification might be internally consistent, many Christians are still suspicious of the scriptural grounds and authority for such a belief. In order to evince his second aim, therefore, Thomas spends some two chapters explaining the Orthodox understanding of revelation, how God reveals Himself to us, and approach to the interpretation of Scripture. I found these chapters to be very informative in sharing the richness of the Orthodox interpretation of scripture, and gradual understanding of God's revelation of Himself to us through the Old and New Testaments. For although the Bible does not contain the word 'deification' the hope of man's sharing in God's nature can be seen throughout scripture by those with eyes to see; eyes that have been opened and transformed by the belief in Christ's Incarnation and Resurrection, like the apostle's on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35).
Thomas thus undertakes a fascinating analysis of the Old Testament's understanding of salvation to show how it points forwards to the Church's confession of the mystery of our sanctification in Christ. Many interesting points follow from this such as the idea that of the Fall of humanity in Adam and Eve represented a false and flawed attempt at self-deification, to try and become God without grace and the taxing exercise of virtue. What again emerges, however, is the way in which the partial vision of God in the Old Testament by a few becomes – through the 'maximalism of God's loving-kindness – a promise extended to all through the coming of God in human flesh.
This leads on to the final chapter of the book where Thomas engages with the event in the Gospels which scripturally reveals the hope of our deification in the story of Christ's transfiguration on Mount Tabor in which the three Apostles see what true restored humanity looks like in the vision of Christ's human body radiating with divine light. Thomas' exegesis of this passage is made even more interesting through the way in which he constructs a multi-faceted perspective on the Transfiguration through narrating the viewpoints of the three Apostles and eye-witnesses that Christ took with him up the Mountain, St. Peter, St. James and St. John. Thomas then goes on to show how their witness of this extraordinary vision, together with Paul's vision of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, transformed their theology and their lives through analysing the epistles that the apostles wrote after Christ's Resurrection. Thus, to take just a few examples that Thomas explores in greater depth, in his second Epistle St. Peter writes that through Christ we might 'escape from the corruption … and become partakers of the divine nature' (2 Pet. 1:4) and John the theologian's speaks more poetically of our 'abiding in the light' of Christ to become children of light bearing the same light that Christ showed on Mount Tabor and finally St. Paul, after his Damascan vision of Christ's light, speaks of our being 'changed into his likeness from one degree of glory into another' (2 Cor 3:18). As these few examples indicate, through his full analysis of the writings of the New Testament Thomas demonstrates, against certain Protestant concerns, that the Orthodox belief in deification is clearly biblically grounded.
Thus although from the dust jacket, scholarly ring of the title and formal presentation of the text it might be easy to overlook Thomas' study as another arcane academic tome, I found Thomas' study to be an ideal introductory book to the faith for interested Orthodox lay people, catechumens and non-Orthodox enquirers. For in the course of exploring the Biblical grounds of the Orthodox understanding of deification, Thomas' provides an accessible and luminously clear account of many basic theological and practical issues of Orthodox belief and practice. Moreover, at the end of the book he has also usefully provided a lengthy appendix with helpful bibliographical suggestions of where the interested enquirer can look next.
Thomas also shows himself to be very pastorally sensitive to the need and difficulties of Orthodox Christians today and together with introductory exposition also provides helpful answers to deeper questions affecting modern Orthodox Christians, such as what Orthodox Christians should think about evolution. It is perhaps only to be regretted that due to its cost and seemingly academic audience, this book will not find its way into the hands of ordinary lay people, but I hope that a subsequent paperback edition, or even on-line publication of certain portions of the text, will allow this book to reach the larger popular audience for which it was obviously intended.
I'll try to write a review of my own once our copy comes in and we have a chance to read it.