Partakers of Divine Nature: An Inspiring Presentation of Man’s Purpose in Life According to Orthodox Theology
By Archimandrite Christoforos Stavropoulos
Translated by the Rev. Dr. Stanley Harakas
Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing Company, 1976
Review by Carl McColman
A slender little book less than a hundred pages long, Partakers of Divine Nature is a handy introduction to the theology of theosis or deification, a keystone of Eastern Orthodox spirituality which has been all but forgotten in the west. Several English-language books on theosis are currently in print, but most are academic tomes aimed at the scholar rather than the ordinary practicing Christian. This book is the happy exception; geared toward the average person of faith, it’s accessible, understandable, and short enough to be digested in a single sitting — although I would recommend taking your time with this book, for even though it is written for the non-specialist, it’s subject matter is sufficiently rich in the language of theology as to make it a book better suited for lectio divina (meditative reading) than for a quick, just-the-facts read-through.
Stavropoulos introduces the reader to the concept of deification by surveying how it is derived from passages in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament; then he sketches the theological rationale for Christian belief in the idea of participating in the divine nature through the Holy Spirit’s work of grace. He discusses the role that the sacraments play in effecting the process of theosis, and culminates with a consideration of the centrality of both prayer and love in the life of the deified Christian.
What I found remarkable in reading this book was how, initially, it struck me how ordinary the process of deification is. Stavropoulos presents theosis as a basic element of Christian spirituality; the way one becomes deified is primarily by embracing with commitment and intentionality the ordinary Christian life. Repentance, growth in holiness, commitment to spiritual discipline, and frequent participation in the sacramental life of the church: these are the essential building blocks of deification. Charlotte Joko Beck pointed out that zen is “nothing special,” and the same could be said of theosis. As presented here, it is a basic and mainstream part of the devout life of Christian faith.
But this book is not just an exercise in the fundamentals of religious piety. In the last third of the book, the author begins to provide a sense of just how singular the idea of partaking in the Divine nature really is. Quoting liberally from the fathers of the eastern church, Stavropoulos methodically details how the Eucharist is the essential nutrient of theosis, leading to prayer and love as the splendid fruits of the divinizing process. With language that we in the west would identify as “mystical,” the author drives home an important point: that what has come to be regarded in the west as a singular experience only for the religious elite is still understood in eastern Christianity to be the purpose and destiny of all Christians. Theosis is not just for monks or priests: it’s for everyone.
Several attractive black-and-white illustrations of Orthodox icons are scattered throughout the book, adding to its value as a tool for meditative use.