Changing the Whole Person

Michael Glerup Part 15 of 20

Ancient Wisdom for a Modern Age


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To appreciate the early Christian writers position on transformation, it is helpful if the reader is sympathetic to the theological assumptions under which these writers worked. Early Christian writers operated under the assumption that God’s action in history (particularly the Incarnation), God’s teaching, and God’s being along with the practices of the church (baptism and Eucharist) produced genuine knowledge that if applied properly (discernment) under the right circumstances (holiness of life) may affect personal transformation. this transformation encompassed the whole person—affective, intellectual, moral, and social. the Greek term most often used to describe this transformation was theosis, that is, deification. The choice of this term was deliberate and directly challenged pagan usage of apotheosis, in which human beings, particularly emperors, advanced to the rank of the divine. For the early Christians, it was abundantly clear that human beings belong to the created order. as created, human beings remained finite whereas God was infinite.

Incarnation and Deification

Very early in the church’s reflection on scripture, the concept of deification was associated with the doctrine of the Incarnation. Athanasius’s formula, “the Word of God… became human so that we might become God” was one of the more famous examples. Athanasius reasoned that humans are most unlike God in the fact that they sin and die. Yet Christ became a human being in order to redeem humanity from sin and death. Consequently, in doing so, Christ makes humans Godlike, that is, deifies humanity. In addition, human beings, originally created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26) lost their rootedness in that divine image because of sin. Athanasius taught that it was through the Incarnation that the image of God was renewed, “The Word of God came in his own person, in order that, as he is the image of the Father, he might be able to restore man who is in the image.” As such the Incarnation affirms the image character of humanity and opens up the possibility of our development/transformation into the likeness of God.

Maximus the Confessor (580–662) one of the few great theologians and spiritual writers recognized equally in the Eastern and in the Western Christian tradition built on these formulations. A good summary statement of Maximus’ spiritual theology is found near the beginning of his discourse on the Lord’s Prayer written sometime before 630.

In becoming incarnate, the Word of God teaches us the mystical knowledge of God because he shows us in himself the Father and the Holy Spirit.… He bestows adoption on us when He grants us that birth and deification which, transcending nature, comes by grace from above through the Spirit. The guarding and preservation of this in God depends on the resolve of those thus born: on their sincere acceptance of the grace bestowed on them and through the practice of the commandments, on their cultivation of the beauty given to them by grace. Moreover, by emptying themselves of the passions they lay hold of the divine to the same degree as that to which, deliberately emptying Himself of His own sublime glory, the Word of God truly became man.

Maximus grounds transformation in the redemptive work of God in Christ. For Maximus theosis, which is the result and the intention of the incarnation, was the goal of the spiritual life. The kenosis (self-emptying) of the Son reveals the nature of God as love and as such is the model of personal transformation. Human transformation is then a grace enabled participation in the Son’s self-emptying by the self-emptying of the passions (desires distorted by self-love.)

Maximus theology of transformation appreciates to the role of both knowledge and practice. God’s redemptive action in Christ was not merely a restoration to an Edenic innocence; it was the bestowal of a new status, as adopted children of God. The dignity of this new status accomplished by Christ is the basis for any meaningful Christian formation. In addition this new status must be continually cultivated by the practice of the commandments. Commandments refer not only to the Decalogue, but more fully to the Beatitudes in the Sermon of the Mount. For it is in the beatitudes that Christ himself—that is, his beauty—is markedly described. As a result, as one practices the commandments, one conforms to Christ, and the beauty given by grace is cultivated from God’s image into Christlikeness, which is transformation.

Spiritual Progress

There is no better tool for assessing spiritual transformation than the quality of our love, particularly love of our neighbor who has become our enemy. Maximus suggest that the clearest proof of our love for God “is a genuine disposition of voluntary goodwill towards one’s neighbor.” The seeds of this love are with us at our spiritual adoption. These seeds are cultivated through grace-empowered practice in order that they yield their full fruit… Christlikeness. This progress takes shape in our daily interactions but much of the work involved takes place internally.

An excellent example of this progression is available in step 8 of John Climacus’ The Ladder of Divine Ascent,

One day I saw three monks insulted and humiliated in the same way at the same moment. The first felt he had been cruelly hurt; he was distressed but managed not to say anything. The second was happy for himself but grieved for the one who had insulted him. The third thought only of the harm suffered by his neighbor, and wept with the most ardent compassion. The first was prompted by fear; the second was urged on by hope of reward; the third was moved by love.

Each monk followed the scriptural injunction to not sin in their anger. Similarly, each monk did not return insult for insult. The first monk, not practiced in the Christian life, performed the minimum requirement of the commandment in that he did no harm. The second monk also did no harm but instead of mulling over his humiliation and hurt he turned his attention to the promised reward “that you may be sons of your father in heaven.”(Mt 5:45; cf. Mt 5:9). The third monk, as Climacus states, was moved by love. He had internalized the cruciform love of God to such a degree that his spontaneous response was one of compassion. This is a love that is particular to our Father in heaven, who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteousness and the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:45) This monk became “perfect [as his] heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48.) Maximus describes this way of love, as divine and deifying. It is divine because its source is the love of God which has been poured into our hearts (Rom 5:5). It is deifying because we become like God as we participate in the cruciform love that God has for us.

Perfection as Perpetual Progress

Gregory of Nyssa, the younger brother of Basil of Caesarea, was the last of the great Cappadocians. He was born around 335 in Cappadocia, a rather desolate region to the northeast of modern Turkey. In 372, he was appointed bishop of a small Cappadocian town called Nyssa in what is now south central Turkey. Soon afterwards Arian opposition forced Gregory into exile in 376. He stayed in exile until the pro-Nicene Emperor Theodosius I replaced Emperor Valens upon his death in 379.

Unlike the social world in which we inhabit, of cell phones, computers, and technologies in which change is the norm, the ancient world considered change a defect. Philosophically, change, was considered as deterioration from a state of initial perfection. As result the possibility of growth, either towards good or evil, was considered problematic. But it is here, in this particularity of the ancient world, that Gregory developed a theory of perpetual progress that altered the thinking of his day, and provides us a helpful conceptual framework for understanding human capacity for transformation.

Gregory makes some key observations in regard to change: first, change can take place in one of two directions for good or for ill. Second, change involves two different sorts of activity. Change for ill involves a cyclic movement or repetition. This is the sort of change we see in nature and in our physical body. As an example, each day we become thirsty or hungry, we eat and drink until that need is satisfied. The next day we wake up, experience hunger and the cycle of hunger and satiety begins again. Our current culture of consumerism is based on this cyclic or repetitious pattern. We identity a need, and then we purchase a product that we think will satisfy this need. Soon afterward we find out that it does not and we look for another product that will… it does for a time and then the cycle begins anew. Another characteristic of this type of movement is its illusionary quality. In this variety of movement, we are moving but we never make any progress. Gregory uses the image of climbing through sand to illustrate this type of progress—no matter how big your strides or strenuous your effort, your feet constantly slip back to the bottom. Motion conceived in this manner then is immobility. No matter what the amount of energy is expanded the person remains essentially unchanged.

The second type of change is a change for the better. It is the sort of movement that is described by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:18, as a change, or better yet, a transformation “from glory to glory.” In this movement, our changeability is not a liability, because we have the possibility of growing into the Good. Gregory makes the important observation—it is a mistake to imagine perfection as a state of complete immobility in restored innocence. Perfection is progress itself: the perfect man is the one who is continually making progress. This progress does not have a limit because the object of its desire, the Trinity, is limitless. Another way to describe it, when we experience God in his infinity, we experience the paradox of the deep satisfaction of God’s presence and yet at the same time we experience God’s absence because he remains constantly beyond us. In the previous paragraph, physical nourishment was offered as an example of cyclic motion—repetitious of filling and emptying, with no increase in capacity. In contrast is spiritual nourishment, which increases the capacity of the soul that receives it. Consequently, in the sphere of the spirit, the soul can grow perpetually; filled to its capacity, it can always receive more. Unlike our experience of consumerism in which we are filled and then left with a sense of dissatisfaction, unending growth into Goodness or Beauty implies no sense of dissatisfaction or fatigue.

Gregory states:

For man does not merely have an inclination to evil; were this so, it would be impossible for him to grow in good, if his nature possessed only an inclination towards the contrary. But in truth the finest aspect of our mutability is the possibility of growth in goodness; and this capacity for improvement transforms the soul, as it changes, more and more into the divine.

And so my discourse has shown that mutability of our nature which appears so terrifying as a pinion in our flight towards higher things, and indeed it would be a hardship if we were not susceptible of the sort of change which is towards the better. One ought not then to be distressed when one considers this tendency in our nature; rather let us change in such a way that we may constantly evolve towards what is better, being “transformed from glory to glory,” and thus always improving and ever becoming more perfect by daily growth, and never arriving at any limit of perfection. For that perfection consists in our never stopping in our growth in good, never circumscribing our perfection by any limitation. On Perfection.


The early church writers, like Paul, addressed the ancient yearning for godlikeness by insisting that deification was accomplished through Spirit-enabled participation in the love of God as revealed in the kenotic love of the incarnate Word of God. Deification (theosis), then, is the process of transformation into the image of God which is fully displayed in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6.) This transformation embraces the whole person—affective, intellectual, moral, and social—and will continue beyond our earthly existence.

Michael Glerup, PhD, serves as Research and acquisitions editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS), a twenty-eight volume patristic commentary on scripture. ACCS, published by InterVarsity press, is an ecumenical project promoting a vital link of communication between the varied christian traditions of today and their common ancestors in the faith. Read more at
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