Over the last few decades there has been growing interest across many theological traditions in an ancient understanding of salvation called deification. This broad resurgence is fueled in part by a number of concentrated studies seeking to correct long-standing opinions that have clouded certain theological luminaries of the past.
David Vincent Meconi’s groundbreaking study on Augustine is a powerful and persuasive account of the fundamental role that deification plays in Augustine’s theology. Augustine is not the burial ground of the glorious legacy of the Eastern Church; he is not the gloomy Western front, entrenched with pessimism, halting the doctrine’s advance. Rather, he carries the torch forward, characteristically, with burning love. Although Augustine uses the word deificare only 18 times in all his works, he weaves the doctrine throughout his writings in a variegated skein of soteriological images and even spins it in unique ways. It would be a methodological error to limit our evaluation of how important this notion is in Augustine’s thought to statistical calculations gathered from an index. Meconi goes as far as saying that at the core of this sprawling theological career runs “one common thread… that out of perfect love, God has become human so as to enable humans to become one with God.”
This article draws on Meconi’s insights and extends them by exploring Augustine’s exposition of Psalm 45, as an example of how deification guided and informed his interpretive project. Meconi points out that Augustine’s use of deification language is “always contextualized by a wider metaphor,” which he groups into four paradigms—recapitulation, divine adoption, the great exchange, and ethical effects. In this sermon, Augustine draws on all four, which suggests that the notion of deification runs beneath this exposition like an underground aquifer watering the whole. This supports the thesis that Augustine’s teaching on deification is not limited to the explanation of a few, curious proof texts, but is interwoven into his whole conception of the Christian life. I will argue that, in Psalm 45, Augustine discerns the fact, means, and issue of deification in a dazzling figural constellation.
Augustine’s Exegetical Method
Augustine approaches biblical interpretation theologically and pastorally, to propound doctrine and promote virtue. This is typical of his times. R. R. Reno has said that for “the patristic tradition as a whole, scripture is the semiotic medium in which God encodes the pattern of the divine economy.” In other words, the Old Testament points prophetically and symbolically to New Testament realities.
Augustine lays out the principles of his interpretative method elsewhere, but they are on full display in this sermon. He says that we are “educated through visible things toward apprehension of the invisible,” that we find “symbol[s] of future realities,” “prefiguration[s],” and “mysteries.” Our minds are “prodded” by verbal hints, “inklings,” and semantic. suggestions. A kaleidoscopic pattern of scriptural passages appears as he turns his thoughts through each phrase. He does not consider his views to be some personal fancy, for they are consonant with the “truth attested by the apostle.” He also pauses at one point to ask aloud, “Let us see how we can also interpret this consistently with the true Catholic faith.” What emerges is a christocentric “spiritual interpretation” that is guided by canonical correspondence and the rule of faith. It should be no surprise then that Augustine confidently asserts that this psalm is about Christ and the Church.
The Fact of Deification
Participation in the “Anointed God”
For Augustine, Psalm 45 celebrates salvation and its entailments. As Augustine proceeds, it becomes clear that his conception of salvation involves more than the deliverance of sinners from their “debt to death;” it involves nothing less than a radical transformation of human beings into sharers of God’s divine nature, which makes them “limbs of Christ” in an “organic unity” with him.
Augustine signals the direction his interpretation will take in his opening comments on the title, part of which reads, “for those things which will be changed.” This refers to a profound transformation “from an old self into a new self” that affects the deepest reservoirs of our nature, identity, and behavior. Augustine counsels his congregation to “reflect on what they once were, and what they are now.” By this time, Augustine had already written his Confessions, where, in a famous passage on his mystical ascent in Milan, he describes what kind of change conversion produces. He hears God say, “Feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.” In physical eating, the food is transformed into the eater; here, the eater is transformed into the food. Union with God doesn’t change God, but it does change those who receive him. Such change is not mere outward, moral reformation, but one that alters the very life that animates us, making us sons of God by grace.
Augustine’s talk of change is clarified by the language of divine filiation. Augustine says, “The devil begot you as an ugly child when he made you a sinner; but God who justifies the ungodly gives you new birth as a beautiful creature.” God’s work of salvation goes beyond justification and actually confers new birth, through which humans receive divine life. Elsewhere, Augustine equates such divine filiation with deification. “He who justifies is the same as he who deifies, because by justifying us he made us sons and daughters of God… If we have been made children of God, we have been made into gods.” Knowing this deepens our understanding of his thought here and indicates how nuanced and oblique Augustine’s vocabulary of deification can be.
Augustine’s meaning becomes transparent when he comes to the theologically suggestive phrase “share with him” [participibus suis]. In a variation on the ‘great exchange’ formula made famous by Athanasius, Augustine says, “Who share with him? The children of men, because he is the Son of Man, who became a sharer in their mortality in order to make them sharers in his immortality.” What is shared here is not simply a commission, but natures. Christ, who is God, shared in what humans are so that humans could share in what God is. To participate in God is the classic language of deification, which unambiguously reveals Augustine’s thought, even though the word deificare is elided. In the City of God, Augustine explicitly associates participation in God with deification: “Then we abandoned the true God, by whose creative help we should have become gods, but by participating in him, not by deserting him.”
Here we see the theological depths behind his pastoral admonition, “Reflect on what you once were, and what you are now.”
The Means of Deification
The Incarnation as “Nuptial Union”
Augustine views the incarnation as the event which makes possible human deification. As Meconi says, “For Augustine, the entire work of the Son’s Incarnation is aimed at our deification.” Augustine repeatedly affirms that humans cannot effect their own salvation or renewal. Salvation can only come through Christ, “our God, our benefactor, that good Word through whom alone whatever we have of goodness is possible.”
Augustine launches into a rich christological account of deification, believing that this psalm “delineate[s]” him “through whom the changes are brought about.” This deifying change stems from the incarnation, where “the nuptial union is effected between the Word and human flesh… [in] the Virgin’s womb.” Christ is the mediator between God and man, not primarily because of a juridicial act he performs, but because of the unity he achieves in his own person as “true man and true God.” Augustine’s presentation takes shape as he pours his orthodox christology into the mold of the text before him. Christ is the good Word that overflows from the Father’s heart—“the coeternal Word of the eternal Father,” “one God,” possessing whatever perfections the Father has, whether power, immortality, divinity, or eternity. But he is also fair beyond all humankind—“human indeed, but beyond all humans,” since “he did not lose his godhead but assumed our humanity.” Augustine cautions his audience, “Do not allow the weakness of his flesh to blind you to the splendor of his beauty.” The unity that Christ achieves in the incarnation spills over the bounds of Christ’s unique person in salvific potentiality for all people.
In a deeply moving passage, Augustine explains how sin not only brought humans into debt, but also “distorted” their very humanity. They are like a “warped beam along a level floor” that cannot “lie flush with the pavement.” The construction metaphor points to humanity’s metaphysical impediment to union with God—“you are twisted out of shape, but he is perfectly straight.” Created to be built into God’s temple, humanity is now deformed and unusable. The deforming force of sin is traced back to a characteristically Augustinian source—self-love. Disordered love deforms us; rightly ordered love transforms us by uniting us to God. In light of the marriage context of the psalm, Augustine shifts back from the architectural metaphor to the aesthetic one—sinful humanity is not only unusable, it is ugly. The solution is the incarnation. Christ straightens and beautifies humanity by assuming its fallen condition. God “reduced” himself and underwent “deformity” for his bride. “She was loved in her ugliness, that she might not remain ugly… he rid her of her ugliness and formed beauty in her.” We should not let the sparkle of Augustine’s rhetoric blind us to what he is doing here. This is another variation of the ‘great exchange’ formula—God assumes our ugliness so that we may assume his beauty. The beauty of the church manifests its deified state, which is sourced in the mutual participation accomplished in the incarnation.
The Issue of Deification
The Church as “the Whole Christ”
Deification has communal contours, issuing in the church as ‘the whole Christ’ (totus Christus). Although Augustine does not use this term here, he cites the two “crucial passages” that he famously bases it on, suggesting that it guides his exposition. As Christopher Beeley says, “For Augustine, the unity of the ‘the whole Christ’ is the central principle of the entire spiritual, ecclesial, and exegetical project.”
As the psalm moves from the king to the queen, Augustine moves from christology to ecclesiology, to the church as Christ’s continuation. Linking the word anointed to the story of Jacob’s dream, Augustine interprets the uniting ladder as Christ, who joins heaven and earth, Head and members, so that “Christ is there, and Christ is here.” Christ is not unrelated to the plight and pain of his members, for he is personally present in, and one with, his mystical body. How else, Augustine asks, could the voice from heaven cry out to Paul, Why are you persecuting me? (Acts 9:4). As Paul learned at his conversion, the pain of the foot is registered by the head and vocalized by the tongue because of the body’s “organic unity.” Christians are more than followers of Christ; they are Christ below, since Head and body constitute one person, one Christ. Augustine says, “The Son of Man is here below, inasmuch as his body is on earth.” The same reality obtains constructively in relation to almsgiving. Citing Matthew 25:40, Augustine reasons that alms given to the church are reckoned as gifts to the king, since “he who is enthroned on high” is “present here below.” Again, this is so because of the two-way traffic made possible by the ladder, which links Christ’s identity with his body.
Psalm 45 is a rich and instructive example of the extent of Augustine’s theology of deification. This essay sought to elucidate some of the ways Augustine utilizes the concept without relying on obvious technical terms. Since Augustine represents such a watershed in Western thought, sending forth streams that still influence currents today, reevaluations of his teaching, especially on a topic so central as the nature and destiny of humanity, can shed light on a vast intellectual and theological terrain. Protestants may especially benefit from this new appraisal of Augustinian soteriology and may even find in it a new source for ecumenical dialogue.
1. David Meconi, SJ, The One Christ: St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification
2. Meconi, Called to be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification, 85
3. Meconi, The One Christ, 88-89
4. R. R. Reno, “Origen,” Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction, 24
5. Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, vol. III/16
6. Augustine, Confessions, VII.10.16
7. Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms 49.2
8. Augustine, City of God XXII.30
9. Meconi, Called to be the Children of God, 88
10. Meconi, The One Christ, 195
11. Christopher A. Beeley, The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition, 241