Deification Through the Cross:
An Eastern Christian Theology of Salvation
by khaled anatolios
eerdmans, 464 pages, $50
As the sacrifice of the Mass is being offered, the priest pours a drop of water into the chalice, praying sotto voce, “By the mystery of this water in wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” At the heart of Christ’s oblation is thus a desired deification, a thirst for theosis, and a share in Jesus’s own eternal filiality before the Father.
Yet the Church’s contemporary understanding of salvation in Christ, as the University of Notre Dame’s Khaled Anatolios offers in his latest book, is “befuddled” at best. Try asking a modern-day Christian what might be meant by such concepts as atonement or deification. Even among scholars, there is a widespread—and mistaken—suspicion that Western and Eastern accounts of salvation are in tension with each other. As Anatolios shows, this misunderstanding has contributed to the current malaise. We need a comprehensive, orthodox theology of salvation. With his unmatchable style and magisterial insights, Anatolios has risen to the challenge.
The deification we long for, as Anatolios emphasizes, is realized through a prior recognition of our absolute need for it; it is a glory attainable only through the honest admission that the Cross of Jesus Christ is the result of our own turn away from God. But the key message of the Cross is about more than healing the wounds of sin; it opens the way to glorification. In Anatolios’s phrase, we are brought by the Cross to a “doxological contrition.” By “doxological,” Anatolios wants readers to see the logic—or, better, the praxis—of the glorification of redeemed humanity promised in Christ. That is why he insists that we cannot understand ourselves truly without the crucified (contrition) and resurrected (doxological) Christ as a mirror. On Calvary is found the perfect realization of Jesus’s healing of humanity’s original rejection of God’s intimacy: not only a restoration to the original integrity of Eden, but something much more as well, the glorification of that same human race in (and as) Jesus Christ, an elevation to eternal fellowship with God. To be judged righteous in Christ, the main thrust of the Western doctrine of atonement, is ultimately to be loved; it is to be brought into a wholeness that no human virtue or effort could attain. The Good News of a crucified savior is fully and finally realized in this remission of sin that opens the way to theosis, the classical term for a real and assimilative participation in the life of God.
To show how this is, these pages rely on the concept of a holy contrition, a sanctifying sorrow for one’s sins. In a way, Anatolios spells out the implications of Gaudium et Spes §22:
The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. . . . Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.
In other words, Jesus Christ shows us not only who God is but who we can be, if we would but abandon our self-love and live in and for him.
Without Christ, our sins and brokenness define us; without Christ, we are surrounded only by destruction and death, doubts and denial. With him we see a path forward, a “way” that brings us low in contrition so that we can be lifted up in newness of life. In the main, Anatolios’s twenty-first-century call to know our divine dignity is nothing new. As a very early (ca. first to third century a.d.) Ode of Solomon proclaimed: “Behold, the Lord is our mirror. Open your eyes and see them in him, learning the manner of your face.”
We can think of this “lifting up” as “Christification,” or as St. Paul puts it, “to clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14). To develop this understanding of the Cross of Christ as opening the way to theosis, the book is divided into two main sections. The first takes up the foundational, mainly patristic, sources for this claim, rooting doxological contrition solidly in the Byzantine liturgy, then in sacred Scripture, and finally in conciliar decrees.
The liturgy immerses believers in the inseparable work of God in Christ on the Cross and in the Resurrection. In liturgy, both death and death’s defeat are re-presented as an exchange of natures, wherein our humanity is not only healed but also “lifted up to the heights of divine glory and seated at the right hand of the Father.” We receive and enter into the Spirit’s promise of a consummate cleansing of our sinful passions, a cleansing that manifests in us “the fullness of trinitarian glory.”
This elevation is also the result of rightly reading and living the gospel. An ecclesial reading of the Scriptures shows us how the consubstantial and perfect imago Dei (Col. 1:15–29; Heb. 1:3) has come as a man to realize the glory meant for all mankind, creatures made ad imaginem Dei. The Scriptures, Anatolios shows, should be read as a coherent whole: an unbroken arc between creation, sin, and full redemption, making up one ultimate and inspired story of salvation.
This unbroken arc continues in the life of the Church. Anatolios’s treatment of the first seven ecumenical councils relies on an orthodox understanding that the Church is the Body of Christ, an extension of Christ’s own divine and human life. All students of theology need to read this chapter carefully. Though Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451) are traditionally brought into the conversations Anatolios seeks, his insights into how the other early councils advance an invitation to deified glory are remarkable and convincing. For example, by presenting the human person as the priest of all creation, empowered to lift up all that is to the Father’s glory, Nicaea II’s (787) defense of icons shows how “the worship of Christ appropriately includes the veneration of all matter with reference to its relation to the materiality of Christ and its inclusion within the worship of Christ.”
Section two treats Anatolios’s thesis concerning the necessary connection between atonement and theosis in a more systematic manner. He discusses the theological implications of Trinitarian glory, humanity’s glory as partaking in that same Trinity, the doxological deformation of human sinfulness, salvation as reintegration into the person of Christ, and then how this concept of doxological contrition can be in fruitful dialogue with contemporary theological movements and thinkers.
The chapters treating the Trinity demand a theological mind and a careful eye. The central concern here demonstrates how the interpersonal glorification of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit constitutes the nature of the triune God—divine persons eternally constituted to love and be loved. That same gift of self is fittingly extended into the created order and defines the way in which angelic and human persons are to understand themselves.
Anatolios next puts to rest the caricatures that have historically pitted an Eastern view of salvation as deifying glorification against Rome’s supposedly legalistic understanding of penal atonement. Ever since the Great Schism of 1054, there has been a debilitating juxtaposition of Eastern and Western theories of salvation. Mutual caricatures harm not only ecumenical relations but, more importantly, our understanding of the gospel. We hear all too often that the West conceives of salvation solely in terms of pardon or forgiveness, “ransomed,” as it were, by Christ’s obedient sacrifice on the cross. But this keeps God at arm’s length. We enjoy the fruit of his love, but do not enter into that love, the promise and invitation that sound so loudly in the Gospel of John.
By contrast, the East supposedly downplays such legalism and emphasizes instead our deifying participation in Christ, which alone renders mortals into gods. However, as Anatolios shows (and a fair reading of figures such as Anselm and the later medievals and early moderns supports), the Greek and Latin traditions should be allowed to speak in one voice concerning salvation, despite their various emphases. The Latin tradition may at times stress atonement, the bridge Christ erects by which we travel from our present sinful bondage to free fellowship with God, while the Greek tradition may highlight the ways in which that fellowship brings us into the glory of God, but both in their own ways proclaim the reality of theosis.
This desire to unite East and West comes through in another, more unexpected place: in Anatolios’s treatment of the implications of human sinfulness. The East’s understanding of sin emphasizes an ontological rupture, that all of creation now “groans” for divine union (Rom. 8:22), to be healed from the divine distance the sin of Adam brought upon all living things. By contrast, the West appears to stress personal fault and guilt. Anatolios unites these two tendencies by using Paul’s Letter to the Romans to show how all sin rests in claims to a counterfeit glory (Gen. 3:5; Rom. 1:28). Our bondage to sin arises because God allows us to be “handed over” to our own attempts at deification. All stand guilty in the doomed project of self-glorification, and the entire human race is in need of contrition, confession, and conviction. This is why the Christ has come to impart his Holy Spirit. As the New Adam, the Christ now saves all of creation through the free participation of all Adam’s children (think Laudato Si') in his Spirit, as man is renewed as the good steward he was created to be.
In his suffering, Christ enjoys the most perfect vision of the Father’s glory, flowing from the greatest possible wisdom and love imaginable. His suffering is real (Matt. 27:46), but his crucifixion allows the ultimate limit of love (1 John 4:10) to be revealed, and thus to be recognized by those who in no way deserve it. In this way, the Cross not only reintegrates—brings peace to our souls, which are rent by sin’s futile endeavors—but elevates us to the divine life for which we were created. Anatolios develops this thesis in subtle conversation with the Thomistic tradition, focusing primarily on Matthias Scheeben (d. 1888) and Nicholas Cabasilas (d. 1392). He also engages fruitfully with liberation theology, René Girard’s mimetic theory, and penal substitution theories of atonement.
I began the review with a line from the Mass; let us conclude there as well. In her second Eucharistic prayer, the Catholic Church prays to the Father in gratitude, “giving thanks that you have held us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you.” This thanksgiving makes me wonder whether Anatolios has more work to do. He has provided a magnificent account of what God has done for us in Christ’s Cross and Resurrection. But how do we minister to God himself? How is the Almighty in need of our paltry assistance? The answer is anticipated in this book. Only in God’s taking creation personally—hypostatically—to himself in Christ are we able to minister to God, because only in the Son’s assumption of the human condition can we, heirs of Jesus Christ, find him in need, as Matthew 25 tells us. This extends theosis to the world, for in our acts of charity, we come to realize how extensive the Body of Christ really is. It stretches beyond the visible walls of the Church and into the streets and gutters and shelters of a world so broken that doxological contrition can be its only real remedy. This is where Khaled Anatolios takes us; this is precisely what Christ’s Church needs today.
David Meconi, S.J., is associate professor of historical theology at Saint Louis University.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?