Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπισεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν
He became man, that we might be made god.
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This is perhaps the most quoted sentence from any of the Church Fathers. It was written by St. Athanasius the Great, Patriarch of Alexandria, in the Fourth Century, in his theological treatise, On the Incarnation. This month we commemorate St. Athanasius, along with his successor, St. Cyril of Alexandria, on January 18.
St. Athanasius was born in Egypt during the height of Christian persecution within the Roman Empire under Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. He came of age just as St. Constantine the Great rose to power and legalized Christianity within the empire. As a young deacon he travelled with the Patriarch of Alexandria to Nicea, where the First Ecumenical Council took place in 325. There he defended the Church against the heresy of Arianism, which falsely taught that Jesus Christ was not God in the same way that God the Father was. He introduced the phrase “of one essence with the Father” (homoousios to patri), which we recite in the Creed every Liturgy.
After the Council of Nicea, St. Athanasius returned to Egypt where he was elevated to the patriarchal throne in 328. He remained as the chief shepherd of the Church in Egypt until his death is 373. During his time as patriarch he endured five exiles, lasting a total of 17 years. In one of his exiles he joined the early desert fathers: St. Anthony the Great, St. Makarios, and others. He wrote The Life of St. Anthony, which introduced the Christian world to the life of desert asceticism and monasticism.
In 367 he was the first Church Father to write a list of the 27 canonical books of the New Testament – as opposed to the heretical books that pretended to be authentic teachings of the Church. His list eventually became the New Testament as we know it today. In addition, St. Athanasius wrote several treatises defending the Faith against heresy.
Yet St. Athanasius’ most enduring words are these, “God became man, that we might be made god.” His words are enduring because they are shocking: We can become god? Yes, though further clarification is needed. We do not become God in the same essence; we don’t join the Holy Trinity and disappear into God. However we also don’t become gods that are separate from God Almighty, like the pantheon of gods in Greek mythology.
Rather St. Athanasius is describing the process of theosis or deification – the way in which humans become united to God. That union is so intimate that we truly become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Just as we receive the very Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and have His Body and Blood intermingled with our own body and blood, so we can become intimately united to God eternally. Yet this unification is not a one-time event; it is a life-long spiritual journey, the result of which Jesus Himself described, quoting in John 10:34 from Psalm 82: “I have said: you are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.” We become adopted into God’s family, as His sons and daughters. And that makes us brothers and sisters of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. It means that we become like God. We take on His attributes as our own, while still retaining our own unique identity.
God became man, that we might be made god. God has joined Himself to us, taking on our human nature.