Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Rigid Truths I: Sin, Grace and the Necessity of Deification

This is the first in a series of articles titled, 'Rigid Truths.' It is a response to the noxious nonsense being peddled in Catholic circles today that we not be rigid in our thinking about divine truths. On the contrary, we preach and teach Christ crucified, in light of God's unchangeable Revelation. The truths revealed by God are not fluid and changeable according to the whims of man. The first article focuses on the rigid reality of the necessity of God's grace and divine sonship in the true 'Imago Dei.'  

Sin, Grace and the Necessity of Deification
Matthew J. Bellisario 2018

And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26)

The Imago Dei

The book of Genesis reveals that man was made in the image and likeness of God, the Imago Dei.  From the earliest times the Church has viewed this image not primarily as something physical, but something contained in the substance of the soul, the intellect and the will. The ability of man to grasp principles, understand reality, deliberate on what he has learned and put them into free action is unique among all creatures. This is the basic essence of the Imago Dei.

The Imago Dei however goes to a deeper level in humanity than this basic explanation, because the reality of the intellect and freewill presuppose a teleology in man. By the mere fact that man can learn, and act freely tells us that man can act towards an ultimate end. The proper ultimate end of course being God: to whom all men are created to return. This reality must also mean that there is a way that man can realize this end. This is by divine filiation, made possible by the incarnation of Christ. This image of God in man also allows man to love and interact in friendship, the highest of these being the friendship of God. This friendship results in sonship.

Although all men are created in the Imago Dei, not all men are truly sons of God, for they must possess divine friendship to be so. Thus, St Thomas Aquinas viewed this imago in three distinct categories.[1] The first being man as he was created with an intellect and will, the second, those who are infused with supernatural grace and are thus sons of God, and finally those who are blessed in heaven reaching their end in the Beatific Vision. By grace and divine filial friendship then the imago is perfected and reaches its proper end in the Beatific Vision.

The Origin and Consequences of Sin

Knowing that man must possess this grace and divine filiation, we must consider the obstacles to obtaining this end. The primary obstacle that must be overcome is what the Church calls ‘Original Sin.’ Adam and Eve, our first parents in the order of creation, (actual historical figures,) passed on to us the consequences of their choice to disobey God: “…the teaching authority of the Church proposed with regard to original sin which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam in which through generation is passed onto all and is in everyone as his own" (Humani Generis 37).[2] Thus, we must understand that consequently as we are all sons of Adam, we are all subject to a fallen nature. The great Saint Ambrose of Milan wrote, “Before we are born we are stained by contagion, and before seeing the light we receive the injury of our very origin, we are conceived in iniquity.”[3] What are the consequences of this ‘Original Sin’?

Through the sin of Adam every person inherits the consequences of his sin, making every man after him sons of Satan rather than sons of God. Saint Irenaeus rightly wrote, “the first Adam became a vessel in his (Satan's) possession.”[4] Traditionally there are two major consequences that are passed onto everyone concerning their relationship with God. The first being a loss of ‘Original Justice’ and the second the inheritance of the propensity to sin, or concupiscence. The loss of Original Justice means that man is no longer a friend of God, no longer possesses a filial relationship with God and is thus in Satan’s possession like his father Adam. This is often referred to as a “state of death.”[5]  

Included in man’s fallen nature is the loss of grace which orders man’s love towards God, and thus we have a propensity to act for our own interests rather than God’s. We tend to put our will above the will of God. An additional consequence is that our intellect has been darkened and this contributes to our inclination to sin.

Although man is fallen, he is still free to act and although his intellect is weakened, it still possesses reason, common sense and conscience which allows him to choose good over evil. True Christianity does not teach the total depravity of man’s intellect and will as do many of the pretended “reformers” of the sixteenth century. Man can indeed act in natural virtue, is able to deduce basic truths about his existence and can deduce from reason the existence of God.[6] Although man can naturally come to these conclusions using his natural reason, there is no natural way for man to return to this filial relationship with God. Being that man has an intellect and can act to obtain an ultimate end, how is possible for this breach to be repaired with God?

 Sin, Grace and Deification in the Early Church

The idea of man’s separation from God by sin being repaired by the infusion of grace along with man’s cooperation with grace is a commonality among all the spiritual masters of the early Church. This reparation however, was not to be done in isolation, but by one’s participation in the Church established by Christ through the apostles. It is important to recognize the importance of Christ’s incarnation and the establishment of His Catholic Church as the foundation for man’s possible reconciliation with God. The only known way for man to become a son of God is through the Sacrament of Baptism. This Sacrament is the entry way to the Church by a special grace which cleanses the soul of ‘Original Sin’ and the loss of ‘Original Justice’. It also cleanses the soul of one’s personal sins and the consequences due to sin. Baptism can be received when a person is first born or later in life when grace disposes a person to receive it. In addition to these graces one also receives the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Along with this man’s cooperation is needed to foster more grace. This is done by engaging the intellect in prayer and catechesis. As one grasps certain truths about God they begin to love Him more and begin to develop a habit of prayer. This habitual intellectual effort guided by the will and grace, combined with the reception of Most Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Confirmation, one continues to grow in grace and the love of God. Thus, the intellect, will and grace work together for an end, holiness and union with God.

Once man is in the state of grace however, due to his concupiscence which remains after Baptism, he may still use his own will to sin against God. Adults may have developed habitual vice before coming into the Church which makes them weak against sins of habit. Certain sins known as mortal sins can separate one from the sonship of God after Baptism. If this happens a man can freely recognize his fault, repent and resolve not to commit the sin again and receive grace through the Sacrament of Confession. This Sacrament is known as a “second baptism” which reconciles one in the sonship of God. Knowing that we are still prone to sin, all the spiritual masters advise that we undergo voluntary asceticism to help subdue our impulse towards sin.

Man cooperating with God’s grace then begins to choke out sinful habits by practicing good habits, known as virtue. Man receives certain gifts of the Holy Spirit through the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. The Cardinal Virtues of Prudence, Justice and Temperance along with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord all operate in man while he is in a state of grace. The effectiveness of which they operate in each person depends on how each person is disposed towards God. A high level of holiness through grace usually comes by a gradual process of God transforming the person through personal experience in prayer, meditation, reading Sacred Scripture, the reception of the Sacraments and ascetical practices ranging from the basic practice of the virtues to acts of penance. Saint Gregory the Great wrote that our growth in the spiritual life, “…depends on our disposition: to the degree that you develop your struggles for piety, to the same degree also the grandeur of your soul develops through these struggles…”[7] This inevitable struggle then is focused on our pursuit for the love of God.

There are three basic stages of this process called by various names by the spiritual fathers. They are sometimes broken up into smaller stages, but in general we have the beginner, the advanced and the perfected. They are also commonly called purification, illumination, and perfection. The beginning stage known as the purgative is where one begins to follow Christ, mostly out of servile fear and begins to purify themselves of vice. The second stage called the illumitive stage is where they have purged away mortal sin but still struggle with venial sin and thus enjoy the ways of God in an imperfect manner. The final stage known as the unitive way is where a man is perfected and lives only to please God and usually involves a high level of prayer known as contemplation. The process described is known as deification, divinization or theosis. All the spiritual fathers teach this transformation of the individual although using different terms to explain it. Clement of Alexandria illustrates this idea “...the Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become God.”[8] This mandatory process is how one partakes of the divine nature of God[9], which is the only possible means one can obtain the Beatific Vision. Although a man may do good things, even go to Mass, if they are not being deified through grace, they are not children of God. St. Augustine rightly says, “All who do not love God are strangers and antichrists. They might come to the churches, but they cannot be numbered among the children of God.[10]

Moral Theology and Deification in the Thomistic Tradition

In addition to the order of deification, it is important to study man’s moral action in relation to God as man’s ultimate end in Aquinas’ thought. This will shed further light on the previous quote of St. Augustine, whom Thomas quotes more than any other Father in his Summa Theologica. Although moral theology is sometimes presented as a type of ethics, this is a superficial presentation. Moral theology entails how man acts in relation to his proper ultimate end, God. The proper ordering of one’s actions is of the utmost importance when it comes to the salvation of man through deification. “St. Thomas teaches that everyone must order all of his actions to a single ultimate end.”[11] Man is either doing one of two things, directing all his actions with grace towards God or without grace to some lesser worldly end. Moral theology helps explain how man maintains his actions ordered towards God which makes deification possible.

Concerning sin, the Church teaches what actions are morally licit and which are not. Since acts of the intellect are directed to discovering truth[12], it is an obligation for man to inform his intellect as to what these consist. Those who do not seek out the truth of proper moral action are culpable for being negligent. Man’s habitual action aligns himself closely with what he perceives and wills to be his ultimate end. Those who orient themselves towards God will act for the good of that end, even if only virtually. The same for those whose ultimate end consists of something other than God.
Mortal sin, a sin involving grave matter, full knowledge and consent is a sin that objectively separates man from God. When this happens man’s ultimate end is no longer God, but something other than God. This constitutes in a loss of divine filiation. A person who commits adultery for example severs his or her relationship with God. Until, with the help of God’s grace, that person reconciles themselves through the Sacrament of Confession they will not inherit the Beatific Vision. They will instead spend the rest of eternity rejecting God in hell. Venial sin on the other hand, although spiritually damaging depending on its severity, does not sever man from the filial love of God. This means that man’s ultimate end remains oriented towards God, again even if their actions are only virtually directed towards this end, even regarding the act of venial sin.

Virtual acts are those that are not specifically directed at the end, but which make up a consistent order, or do not prohibit one from obtaining the ultimate end. For example, although a person may have as his end for the day as going to a guitar show, not all his actions are directly oriented towards this end. He may stop to eat on the way, and this does not prohibit him in obtaining this end. Other actions like driving a car to the event are directly related to the end, (again not obstructing) but assisting in completing that end. This explains why bad people can do “good” things. While a man may have as his ultimate end worldly pleasure, he may do an apparent good like giving money to the poor or helping a cripple across the street. This act however is not a true act of supernatural charity, only one of natural virtue, his orientation remains aimed at worldly pleasure. His act of feeding the poor is a virtual act aimed at his ultimate end of worldly pleasure. His direction can only be changed by an act which redirects his life towards God as the ultimate end. Much like repenting and going to confession reorients a person towards God, mortal sin does the opposite. In Thomas’ mind deification relies on the intellect and will of man directing his life towards God as his ultimate end and remaining directed to this end.

The Necessity of Deification in the Imago Dei

“…with fear and trembling work out your salvation. For it is God who worketh in you, both to will and to accomplish, according to his good will.” (Philippians 2:12-13) In closing we need to emphasize the necessity of deification in the salvation of the soul and man’s proper return to Imago Dei through divine sonship. Many Catholics today put their focus and struggle on the world. Little thought is given to putting effort and struggle into a relationship with God. If we were to ask most Catholics today if most people they knew who have died have inherited divine sonship in heaven most would reply in the affirmative. It is apparent, however, from our brief study that the Church teaches that salvation and the restoration of the true image and likeness of God in divine sonship is directly linked to the process of deification, which few today seem to put into practice. “There are lots of those who speak but few who do.”[13]

“[The Father’s Son], His offspring, the First-begotten Word, should descend to the creature, that is, to what had been moulded, and that it should be contained by Him; and, on the other hand, the creature should contain the Word, and ascend to Him, passing beyond the angels, and be made after the image and likeness of God.”[14]


Ambrose of Milan, Defense of the Prophet David
Augustine of Hippo, Sermon on 1 John
Aumann, Jordan, Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1985
Cessario, Romanus, The Image of God and the Sacraments of the Church: The Practice of Divine Friendship. The Dominican Torch: Spring 2007
Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation 1
Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies
Jenson, Steven J., Sin A Thomistic Psychology. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018
Maximus the Confessor, Chapters on Love
Pius XII, Humanis Generis. St. Peter’s, August 12, 1950
Vatican I Council, Canon 2:1 On Revelation. April 24th, 1870

[1] Romanus Cessario, The Image of God and the Sacraments of the Church: The Practice of Divine Friendship (The Dominican Torch, Spring 2007)
[2] Pope Pius XII, Humanis Generis (St. Peter’s, August 12, 1950)
[5] Rev. A Nampon S.J. Catholic Doctrine as Defined by the Council of Trent (Philadelphis, Peter F. Cunningham & Son), 204
[7] Jordan Aumann, Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition (San Francisco, Ignatius Press1985),  49
[8] Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation 1 (ANF 2:174)
[9] 2 Peter 1:4
[10] Saint Augustine, Sermon on 1 John 4:4-12
[11] Steven J. Jenson, Sin A Thomistic Psychology (Washington D.C., The Catholic University of America Press, 2018), 17
[12] Ibid P82
[13] Maximus the Confessor, Chapters on love 4:85
[14] Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies Book V Chapter 3

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