Sunday, 3 May 2015

Jack Bates: Theosis ‘κατά τὸ ἐφικτὸν': The History of a Pious Hedge-Phrase

In the Greek patristic tradition, the doctrine of theosis—becoming as like God as is possible to finite humanity—was one of the most important soteriological models. Throughout its use in the Christian theological tradition, those who employed the model felt it necessary to modify the phrase with delimiting phrases to preserve the absolute distinction between God and the created order. This paper will trace one of these phrases—“κατά τὸ ἐφικτὸν” (“as far as possible”). Its first extant use in the context of theosis is in Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus, where it functions as a delimiting phrase, clarifying that the likeness to God achievable through ethical imitation is naturally bounded. This use of “κατά τὸ ἐφικτὸν” was appropriated by many important figures in the Greek patristic tradition, including Origen, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, John Chrysostom, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Maximus the Confessor.

Theologians in the patristic and medieval period recognized a tension between the doctrines of theosis and of divine simplicity; according to the latter, God is sui generis, but according to the former, God is in some sense participable. “κατά τὸ ἐφικτὸν” represents a first attempt to resolve this tension, or at least to acknowledge it, and thus stands at the beginning of a theological trajectory that will result in the development of the essence-energies distinction, especially in Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas.

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