D. Charles Pyle
Abstract: In this paper, I cite several statements of the Early Christian Fathers with respect to the doctrine of deification, giving evidence that this doctrine had wide geographical distribution among both orthodox and heretic alike from the early post-apostolic period to the end of the third century with little variance of wording and no evidence of being formulated through councils of any kind–something that could only have occurred so early in time if deification of man were actually a doctrine taught early on in the pages of Christian history presently lost to us.
Using a combination of my own observations and those of non-LDS biblical scholars, I give brief commentary on a few Greek New Testament passages that appear to contain concepts conducive to a belief in the doctrine of deification–notwithstanding the fact that the full implications of the doctrine of deification either had not yet been revealed or not made public during the composition of the documents of which our current Greek New Testament text is comprised.
No End to Controversy
“As man is, God once was; as God is, man may be.” This couplet, alliterated by President Lorenzo Snow, together with the earlier King Follett Discourse and the Discourse on the Plurality of Gods and other teachings by the Prophet Joseph Smith have been a major source of controversy from the beginning. We find that notwithstanding the majority of the saints accepted the teachings, some actually being awed by the doctrines taught, opposition did come from a select few. The first known opposition, so far as I am aware, to certain of the doctrines taught in those and a few unrecorded sermons originated from the authors of the Nauvoo Expositor. These persons quoted scripture that they felt opposed the doctrines of various sermons of Joseph Smith and made other claims and charges in an effort to get others to believe that Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet.1
Today, Latter-day Saints are lambasted left and right for believing the doctrines that were taught since the days of Joseph Smith, namely, the ideas that God was once a man and that man could someday become like God–becoming gods themselves as others had done before. Controversy has even been found to exist among members of the Church because there are several differing views and explanations offered in relation to the doctrines. The reason for these differences of opinion is that there is not much that is revealed upon that subject. We have a few statements contained in our canonized scriptures and the various statements of Joseph Smith and others as attempts to exposit the meaning of the doctrine of deification as taught in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other than that, we really do not know a lot about it, precisely as President Hinckley has suggested in recent interviews with the media.
Many Latter-day Saints, particularly recent converts from Evangelical Protestant backgrounds, either have been embarrassed by what critics have said of the LDS doctrine of deification (otherwise known as the doctrine of eternal progression) or have been silently contemplating the cost of believing it and remaining members of the Church. Evangelical critics of the Church have tirelessly told us that it is not possible for us to become gods and that the Bible clearly and expressly forbids belief in this doctrine.
Others have attempted to cause doubt by implying that if the doctrine of eternal progression were really true, the Book of Mormon would somehow contain the full doctrine within the pages of that great text.2 They ask why the doctrine is not explicitly spelled out in the New Testament. They make the irrational claim that there is no evidence that so-called “Historic Christianity” taught any sort of doctrine of deification and that “Mormons” have no ground in believing any aspects of the doctrine of eternal progression because of this.
As a result, many recent converts are concerned about the doctrine of eternal progression and do not quite know what to make of it. Thankfully, most members of the Church do not have concerns about this doctrine and see the logic of it when examined in the full context of Latter-day Saint belief. For those who do have concerns, I hope that this paper will be of benefit to them as well as others outside the Church who doubt the truthfulness of the gospel as taught in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of what they may have heard from our detractors.
Getting a Few Things Clear
There are several items that the author believes must be made clear before proceeding with this subject.
Firstly, the apostasy began almost at the beginning of the Church in that early dispensation, the most notable mass-exodus of members being during the time of the very ministry of Christ.3 Even the leaders of the early Church were well aware that a time of testing was soon to come and that after their departure, the flocks of the Church would be overrun with wolves bringing damnable heresies with them.4 That such was indeed happening even in the days of the Apostles themselves was recorded in the Bible.5
Evidence that things had even gone so far that there were individuals claiming ordination to Apostleship in Christ’s Church to lend support to their campaign to alter the Church from within is also found there as well.6 Additionally, the Church was badly fragmented from the beginning as disagreements on various doctrinal points caused divisions among the various groups. As a result of all this, it should not be expected that every doctrine of the early Church would be preserved in its pristine form among the writings of the early fathers of the Church.
Nor should it be expected that each of the fathers taught every aspect of doctrine with which we are familiar. As the metaphysical ideas that were advanced by various writers began moving toward the formulation of the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, for example, of necessity the understanding of the doctrine of deification became subtly altered as well. On the other hand, it should be expected that a number of fairly close parallels should be found among those writings–especially among the earlier fathers of the early Church–if Joseph Smith is to be believed.
Secondly, we are dealing with what we now have of the Greek text of the New Testament. In the course of recent research, I have come to believe that few, if any, of the words of much of the Greek text are original. I feel that recovering the original words of the New Testament (especially as contained in the Gospels) is an impossible task because much of our current Greek text is translation material deriving from Aramaic originals. We can only hope that the translators of the Aramaic originals preserved the correct meanings of the originals in the Greek New Testament translations they have left us.7
Thirdly, we do not know precisely what was revealed to the Church or even all the details concerning numerous doctrinal points because we have but a handful of extant texts. Others are yet missing,8 as the text of 1 Corinthians 5:9–a notable example of Paul referring his readers to a yet earlier but no longer extant letter he had written to them–demonstrates, while those extant collectively maintain that there was much more that was known by both Jesus and the Apostles than was committed to the Church or people in general via the writings we now possess in our current New Testament corpus.9
Allow me to digress for a moment. There are Evangelical writers who, of course, would disagree with the assessment that there are missing texts from the Bible. Most noteworthy of these is Norman Geisler, who, while giving his opinion as to why he believes the New Testament is complete, dogmatically insists that 1 Corinthians 5:9 could not possibly refer to a lost book of the New Testament as his sixth example that such is not the case is:
the letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9), which may refer to 1 Corinthians itself by a device known as an ‘epistolary aorist,’ which stressed the urgency of the message, a device Paul used elsewhere in the same letter (1 Cor. 9:15). There is simply no evidence that any inspired apostolic work is missing from the New Testament.10
The last sentence in the above citation is quite dogmatic for Geisler, especially after his previous use of words like may, perhaps, etc! As to the epistolary aorist, it is possible that it may refer to the letter being written. That is certainly the case with the example that Geisler provides in 1 Corinthians 9:15 (which is lexically the same form of the verb as that found at 1 Corinthians 5:9). This is also true of the text of verse 11. However, he has misused what the scholars have said about the epistolary aorist and, most of all, what scholars have said about 1 Corinthians 5:9. Geisler definitely ignored the remainder of the argument as summarized in the last sentences of the following:
There are a number of problem texts in which the epistolary aorist may refer to the portion that the author is presently composing (thus, truly epistolary), or to the epistle as a whole, or to a previous portion of the epistle just completed (thus, immediate past aorist). Sometimes, in fact, the aorist may refer to a letter written on a previous occasion. For a few of these texts (which have obvious exegetical implications), cf. Rom 15:15; 1 Cor 5:9; Eph 3:3; Phlm 19; 1 John 2:21.11
There is little room for Geisler’s dogmatism when the stronger probability exists for a previous letter. Further conducive to my point, there is one other exegetical consideration for 1 Corinthians 5:9 contained in the book just cited. Previous to the above quote, Wallace writes that “Paul had previously written to the Corinthians and is here reminding them of that letter.”12 Allow me to take this one step further than did Wallace in that example. Context is everything when it comes to properly interpreting a text. In the passage, Paul clearly refers to something that he had written–a quote not found in any previous portion of the letter. Paul wrote:
I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.(1 Corinthians 5:9-10, emphasis mine)
Verse 9 is the original comment by Paul, while verse 10 comprises a clarification of verse 9, the message that was written previously (which does NOT appear in the previous text in 1 Corinthians). In addition to the exegetical considerations that strengthen the LDS position that 1 Corinthians 5:9 refers to a lost letter of Paul, we must consider the content of verse 11.
Previously, Paul stated that he had written that the Corinthian saints should not keep company with those who are immoral but could not avoid them all as that would require them to leave the world. He then uses the epistolary aorist in verse 11 to give emphasis to what he is now writing–that the Corinthian saints should not associate with members of the Church who may be involved in such immorality and that they should be put out of the Church (1-7, 13):
But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. (1 Corinthians 5:11)
I wish to comment upon the first phrase of the passage just cited. The Greek text underlying the English phrase But now I have written unto you is nun de egraya umin nun de egrapsa humin. The material that follows this phrase is Paul’s clarification of his previous instruction. Nun de Nun de (English: But now) is often used throughout the New Testament to contrast situations, conditions or instructions which are based upon those conditions or situations. Paul thus appears to contrast his previously written instruction with the new instruction:
But NOW I have written to you to not associate with–nor even ever to eat with–anyone identified as ‘brother’ who is sexually immoral, covetous, idolatrous, or who is a reviler, drunkard or robber. (1 Corinthians 5:11, translated from the Greek)
Paul understands that it would be difficult for the saints to avoid immoral people in everyday life but encouraged them to keep purity in their own Christian community by purging it of corrupt individuals.
Further, the construction of the entire text of 1 Corinthians reveals that much of it appears to be a response to what the Corinthian saints wrote in reply to an earlier Pauline letter. He also alludes to further introductory letters that he would write for each of the persons designated to carry the collection to Jerusalem (16:3–letters that are also now lost to us, contra Geisler). We are not alone in our interpretation of 1 Corinthians 5:9. A.T. Robertson, in his Word Pictures of the Greek New Testament, plainly wrote of the passage:
1Co 5:9 – I wrote unto you in my epistle…. Not the epistolary aorist, but a reference to an epistle to the Corinthians earlier than this one (our First Corinthians), one not preserved to us. What a “find” it would be if a bundle of papyri in Egypt should give it back to us?13
The 5:9 passage is rendered in The Amplified Bible: “I wrote you in my [previous] letter not to associate [closely and habitually] with unchaste (impure) people” [brackets and parentheses in original]. The introductory material to The New English Bible version of 1 Corinthians concurs:
This is apparently the second letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians. The previous letter, mentioned in 5.9, is lost (unless 2 Cor. 6.14-7.1 is a surviving fragment), but the Corinthians’ reply to that letter provides the subject matter for chs. 7-16 of the present letter.
“The Introduction to the Letters of Paul” in the New Jerusalem Bible clearly declares that: “There had been an earlier letter than these two canonical ones [1 and 2 Corinthians], 1 Co 5:9-13, but the date at which this first letter was written is unknown and it has not survived” (p. 1854, brackets mine). Let us also consider how J.B. Phillips rendered 1 Corinthians 5:9-11:
In my previous letter I said, “Don’t mix with the immoral.” I didn’t mean, of course, that you were to have no contact at all with the immoral of this world, nor with any cheats or thieves or idolaters–for that would mean going out of the world altogether! But in this letter I tell you not to associate with any professing Christian who is known to be an impure man or a swindler, an idolater, a man with a foul tongue, a drunkard or a thief. My instruction is: “Don’t even eat with such a man.”14
While it is true that one could conceivably infer (on relatively weak ground, that is) that the passage at 5:9 refers to a portion of Paul’s letter that we now know as 1 Corinthians, the construction of the sentences in 5:9-11, the structure of the letter as a whole, the lack of any previous source of the quotation in the passage or instruction in the current letter in any previous portion of the text thereof, the usage of the words, and the careful consideration given to the passage by more honest exegetes, we can conclude that Geisler is most likely incorrect and that the greater possibility exists (a much more likely possibility based upon what is presented above) that the passage does in fact refer to a previous letter written by Paul.
Furthermore, other scholars note the differences in tone in certain sections within what we now know as Second Corinthians. Many of these scholars believe that this “second” letter is really a compilation of parts of at least two or more other letters of Paul to the Corinthians which are no longer extant.15 Geisler seems to be either miserably behind in his biblical scholarship or perhaps deceptive in his failing to mention it in an apparent effort to avoid weakening his case. There is no room whatever for Geisler to make the dogmatic declaration that “there is simply no evidence that any inspired apostolic work is missing from the New Testament.” He either ignores or is simply unaware of the evidence that is available for lost epistles of Paul.
It is also possible that he has fallen back upon what many of the commentators of the 1800s had to say on the issue. His motive simply seems to be one of disallowing any possibility of the correctness of LDS thought with respect to an appeal to the concept of lost books of the Bible as support for an open or incomplete canon rather than one of determining the true meaning of our Biblical text. His preconceived notions seem to come into play here rather than true scholarship–a truly unfortunate happenstance for an otherwise regarded scholar.
…It is Not Yet Made Known What We Shall Become
The actual beginning of the teaching of the full doctrine of deification is shrouded in mystery. Many documents of any real historical value were lost early on. Only tiny fragments of many of the earliest of these works, aside from those extant in our current text of the New Testament, exist today. What happened to the rest of them is unknown at present. We know that John lived until at least 110 CE (perhaps as late as 117 CE), when sometime after this he disappears from the scene.16
It is believed that sometime between 96 and 98 CE, John wrote a general epistle to the Church, a portion of which reads:
Beloved, now are we the children of God, and it is not yet made known what we shall become. We know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him just as he is. And everyone who has this hope upon him is purifying himself just as that (one) is pure. (1 John 3:2-3)
John is not more than general in what is entailed in this likeness to Christ except that it was something that could be hoped for, something that would result in action, and that the thing hoped for would be that the children of God would be as Christ now is. The Greek text here seems cautiously worded. Although it was generally known in the Church that there really were many beings that were given the title “gods” in the heavens and earth,17 it does not seem that the ramifications of such thought had yet been clearly understood by the New Testament saints–at least from the various public texts that we now possess.
Whether John was involved in the dissemination of the early doctrine, known among the ancients as qeopoihsiV theopoiesis or qeosiV theosis (English: godmaking or divinization or deification), is not certain at this time. Whether there were any further revelations given to the Church before the disappearance of John cannot be said with any degree of certainty, either. If there were any further revelations to John, they are no longer extant–as it is with what was the real First Letter to the Corinthians, now lost to us.
What is of interest to note, although this paper is not the place to discuss in any in-depth fashion the ideals of a past Judaism, is that various concepts related to this very same teaching seemingly have some affinity with early Jewish texts found in the Talmud18 and in various Midrashim, one of which reads:
The Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future, call all of the pious by their names, and give them a cup of elixir of life in their hands so that they should live and endure forever….And the Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future reveal to all the pious in the World to Come the Ineffable Name with which new heavens and a new earth can be created, so that all of them should be able to create new worlds . . . The Holy One, blessed be He, will give every pious three hundred and forty worlds in inheritance in the World to Come . . . To all the pious the Holy One, blessed be He, will give a sign and a part in the goodly reward, and everlasting renown, glory and greatness and praise, a crown encompassed in holiness, and royalty, equal to those of all the pious in the World to Come.19
In the Christianized prophecy of Adam in the third chapter of the Syriac Testament of Adam, a document contemporary to early Christianity with portions believed to have been written sometime between 100 and 150 CE, we find that the concept of deification appeared to have been well understood by the author of that work. In it, the author has Adam clearly tell his son, Seth, what the Messiah spoke to him in the garden of Eden after he had partaken of the fruit in which death was hiding. According to this document, Adam hears from the Lord:
Adam, Adam, do not fear. You wanted to be a god; I will make you a god, not right now, but after a space of many years…. And I will set you at the right hand of my divinity, and I will make you a god just like you wanted.20
Both Heterodox and Orthodox Alike
What makes this all most interesting is that this doctrine of deification was taught by both heterodox and orthodox Christians alike, with little variation of wording between the various groups before the fourth century. Further, the doctrine was so geographically widespread through the Church at such an early date that it stands to reason that the doctrine had to have been advanced very early in Christian history, and accepted by the mass of Christians throughout the farthest reaches of the Church. The doctrine is found in the writings of fathers in regions from what is now known as Lyons, France, to Carthage, a city in Africa.
It is even found in writings of the fathers throughout the first eight centuries of Christian history, albeit with some necessary alterations of meaning after the final decisions concerning doctrines such as the Trinity–a doctrine with which the doctrine of deification became increasingly incompatible until it was discarded for a time by the Western Church and further redefined and/or discarded by certain of the Churches of the East.
All that can be shown at present, is that the most important teachings relative to the doctrine appear to emerge fully developed from within or shortly after the time of John’s mortal ministry, that persons involved with close disciples of John and other early Christian writers were among the first recorded Christian examples of this doctrine of deification,21 and that the doctrine spread quickly throughout the Church at a very early date. It is also of much interest that the doctrine of deification did not seem to have gone through the development process and series of councils that such doctrines as the Trinity did. Every early writer who had anything in-depth to say about the subject of salvation mentioned some aspect of the doctrine of the deification of man as well.
One thing is certain: a doctrine of deification quite similar to our own with respect to the nature of man was part and parcel of the doctrinal structure of “Historic Christianity,” if such a thing as “Historic Christianity” can be said to exist. Of this fact, one non-Mormon optimistically mused:
One can think what one wants of this doctrine of progressive deification, but one thing is certain: with this anthropology Joseph Smith is closer to the view of man held by the Ancient Church than the precursors of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin were, who considered the thought of such a substantial connection between God and man as the heresy, par excellence. We must remember here that for the Ancient Church salvation stood in direct correlation to embodiment. Athanasius, the great Bishop of Alexandria, the head of the Church in all Egypt, summarized the Christian doctrine of salvation in the words, “God became man so that we may become God.” The goal of salvation is deification, and Athanasius invokes in this context the words of Jesus: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”22
Some examples of the doctrine from the heterodox position are found in such texts as the Nag Hammadi Library, a collection of Gnostic writings originating from the first to the third centuries. From one of these writings we read that:
The divine Word is God, he who bears patiently with man always. He wished to produce humility in the exalted. He (Christ) who has exalted man became like God, not in order that he might bring God down to man, but that man might become like God.23
Similar teachings can be found in the Gospel of Philip and in other of the Nag Hammadi texts as well. Quite similar to the above citation from The Teachings of Silvanus are the teachings of Irenaeus and his student, Hippolytus. For Irenaeus, there was no fear in claiming that “our Lord Jesus Christ, who did through his transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”24 It is clear from the context of his own writings, some of which will be covered later, that he intended to indicate that we would attain to that which Christ was understood to be at that time by Irenaeus. His student, Hippolytus, was not far behind him in similarly claiming:
Now in all these acts He [Christ] offered up, as the first-fruits, His own manhood, in order that thou, when thou art in tribulation, may not be disheartened, but, confessing thyself to be a man (of like nature with the Redeemer), mayest dwell in expectation of also receiving what the Father has granted unto this Son… And thou shalt be a companion of the Deity, and a co-heir of Christ, no longer enslaved by lusts or passions, and never again wasted by disease. For thou has become God;… And provided thou obeyest his solemn injunctions, and becomest a faithful follower of Him who is good, thou shalt resemble Him, inasmuch as thou shalt have honor conferred upon thee by Him.25
Hippolytus was quick to add that God could not be diminished in any way by doing this, “having made thee even God unto His glory.”26 Earlier, Justin the Martyr, sometime between 130 and 150 CE, also seems to have been familiar with the doctrine. Of interest to us is the manner in which he interprets LXX Psalm 81:1, 6-7 (equivalent to our Psalm 82:1, 6-7). It is the same manner in which a great many Latter-day Saints and the early fathers almost unanimously use the text. Justin, in the process of proving that Christ is called God in the Old Testament, writes:
‘God standeth in the congregation of gods; He judgeth among the gods…I said, Ye are gods, and are all children of the Most High’…let the interpretation of the Psalm be held just as you wish, yet thereby it is demonstrated that all men are deemed worthy of becoming “gods,” and of having power to become sons of the Highest.27
In an earlier writing, Justin also maintained: “And we have learned that those only are deified who have lived near to God in holiness and virtue.”28 Time and again, we find the fathers citing the equivalent to our Psalm 82 as one of the starting points for discussion on the doctrine of deification. These passages of text from the early fathers are far too numerous to quote here but I will give a few additional passages relevant to the early Christian ideal of qeopoihsiV theopoiesis or deification.
Concerning the future state of man, Irenaeus, as found in our English version, stated that notwithstanding man’s imperfection: “by their continuing in being throughout a long course of ages, they shall receive a faculty of the Uncreated, through the gratuitous bestowal of eternal existence upon them by God.”29 Unfortunately, this text does not convey the full thought of Irenaeus, which is actually much stronger than that found in most of our current English translations. The Patristic Greek text of this same passage reads:
kata de to paramenein auta makroiV aiwsi, dunamin agennhtou proslhyetai, tou qeou proika dwroumenou autoiV thn eisaei paramonhn. kata de to paramenein auta makrois aiosi, dunamin agennetou proslepsetai, tou theou proika doroumenou autois ten eisaei paramonen.
A better translation of this text is:
But by continuing through long ages, they shall assume (the) power of the Unbegotten (One), by gratuitously having been given to them eternal existence by God.
The phrase certainly indicates something much stronger than the previous translation. It becomes clear that, for Irenaeus, it was possible for man to become eternal and that by continuance through long ages it would be possible for one to assume or take to oneself the very power, might, and ability of God. Irenaeus continues:
For we cast blame upon Him, because we have not been made gods from the beginning, but at first merely men, then at length gods; although God has adopted this course out of His pure benevolence, that no one may impute to Him invidiousness or grudgingness. He declares, “I have said, Ye are gods; and ye are all sons of the Highest.” But since we could not sustain the power of divinity, He adds, “But ye shall die like men,” setting forth both truths–the kindness of His free gift, and our weakness, and also that we were possessed of power over ourselves. For after His great kindness He graciously conferred good [upon us].30
Irenaeus then rhetorically asks:
How, then, shall he become a God, who has not as yet been made a man? Or how can he be perfect who was but lately created? How, again, can he be immortal, who in his mortal nature did not obey his maker? For it must be that thou, at the outset, shouldest hold the rank of a man, and then afterwards partake of the glory of God.31
Clement of Alexandria, known anciently as Titus Flavius Clemens, also taught very clearly the doctrine of deification. Far more interesting to us is that many of his words have close parallels with many of Joseph Smith’s thoughts in his sermons dealing with the doctrine of eternal progression. His writings also appear to contain more references to this doctrine of deification and a more comprehensive description of the system of “lords many and gods many” in heaven than those of any other early Christian writer–a salient fact that offended the sensibilities of the editors of his translated works in the Ante-Nicene Fathers series.32
Like Joseph Smith’s comment to the effect that we must learn how to become Gods as those who have done so before us, Clement, in his section on degrees of glory in heaven, reflects:
But such a good conscience preserves sanctity towards God and justice towards men; keeping the soul pure with grave [or, serious] thoughts, and pure words, and just deeds. By thus receiving the Lord’s power, the soul studies to be God.33
Clement also mentions three abodes or dwelling places which are designated and appointed for those who would be saved according to their worth as believers. The third or highest of these chosen abodes is reserved as an inheritance for those alone who would “attain to ‘a perfect man'” and are brought to the “just inheritance of the lords and gods.”34 For Clement, as for Paul, the person who struggles to maintain virtue is a true athlete who does so in the stadium of the world. God proscribes the contest, Jesus awards the prize, and angels and gods are the spectators in a contest, the battle against the passions of the flesh.35 Eventually, those who overcame their passions and sins, and were freed from any punishment that they would have merited, and obtained knowledge would learn that knowledge:
Leads us to the endless and perfect end, teaching us beforehand the future life that we shall lead, according to God, and with gods;… After which redemption the reward and the honours are assigned to those who have become perfect… Then become pure in heart, and near to the Lord, there awaits them restoration to everlasting contemplation; and they are called by the appellation of gods, being destined to sit on thrones with the other gods that have been first put in their places by the Saviour.36
Tertullian, otherwise known as the founder of Latin Christianity before his departure into Montanism, also taught the doctrine of deification in Carthage, Africa, and in surrounding areas. He taught that Adam, coming to be under law subject to death as a result of his partaking the forbidden fruit, was pronounced by the Lord to have become like “one of us” because of the “future taking of the man into the divine nature.”37 However, man could not obtain this goal upon his own merits, as he was later to clarify:
Truth, however, maintains the unity of God in such a way as to insist that whatever belongs to God Himself belongs to Him alone. For so will it belong to Himself if it belong to Him alone; and therefore it will be impossible that another god should be admitted, when it is permitted to no other being to possess anything of God. But indeed we do, and shall continue to do–only it is from Him that we receive it, and not from ourselves. For we shall be even gods, if we shall deserve to be among those of whom He declared, “I have said, Ye are gods,” and, “God standeth in the congregation of the gods.” But this comes of His own grace, not from any property in us, because it is He alone who can make gods.38
Origen was not far behind in his doctrine of deification. Where he differed was in his view that at some future time no one who was resurrected would have a corporeal nature, not even Jesus Christ. This extreme view came about because of his intense hatred of the idea that God might have a corporeal body. He seemed to have felt that the then-existing church’s doctrine of deification was not compatible with his view of God’s incorporeality unless all would someday become incorporeal. I will not cite that material here as it belongs elsewhere in this paper. In spite of this, Origen felt that people should not be concerned about the existence of many gods when they so often spoke of one God. He taught:
We have to say that God on the one hand is Very God (Autotheos, God of Himself); and so the Saviour says in His prayer to the Father, “That they may know Thee the only true God;” but that all beyond the Very God is made God by participation in His divinity…. And thus the first-born of all creation, who is the first to be with God, and to attract to Himself divinity, is a being of more exalted rank than the other gods beside Him, of whom God is the God, as it is written, “The God of gods, the Lord, hath spoken and called the earth.” It was by the offices of the first-born that they became gods, for He drew from God in generous measure that they should be made gods, and He communicated it to them according to His own bounty…. Now the God of the universe is the God of the elect, and in a much greater degree of the Saviours of the elect; then He is the God of these beings who are truly Gods.39
Concerning the creation of man and his potential future, Hippolytus taught:
For if He had willed to make thee a god, He could have done so. Thou hast the example of the Logos. But if thou art desirous of also becoming a god, obey Him that has created thee, and resist not now, in order that, being found faithful in that which is small, you may be enabled to have entrusted to you also that which is great.40
I could cite a great number of additional texts from additional writers of this pre-Nicene period but do not have either the time or space here. Suffice it to say, there are a great many writers who taught the selfsame things that I have presented to you here. Never let another critic of the Church tell you that so-called “Historic Christianity” never taught that the saints could become gods via obedience to the gospel and the grace of the Almighty God.
…We Know that When He Appears, We Shall be Like Him.
What should be noted is the repeated use of certain words and phrases among the writings of the early Christians. In the writings the authors have a tendency to refer to various scriptures and phrases contained in the Greek New Testament text. These early writers refer to the saints becoming united with God, obtaining the glory of God, sharing, partaking, or being taken into the divine nature, re-attainment of the image of God, attaining to the perfect man or attaining to the fullness of God and becoming co-heirs with Christ.
In every case, these phrases and concepts actually derive from the Greek New Testament text in various books of scripture. There are several texts in the Septuagint or Greek Old Testament conducive to this doctrine as well, but space limitations and the subject of this paper do not permit discussing them here. For space considerations, we cannot discuss all of the New Testament passages here, either. Notwithstanding, each of the points that underlie the doctrine are found strewn throughout the Bible–although primarily the Greek New Testament.
Romans 8:17 teaches us that we, children of God are sunklhronomoi de cristou sunkleronomoi de khristou or co-heirs with Christ. Paul further taught that we would inherit all things (Romans 8:31-32). This is confirmed in that we were to be like Christ according to verse 17 of chapter 8 of Romans and Revelation 21:7, in receiving all things from the Father, just as Jesus received all things from his Father (John 16:15). What is most interesting about this chapter is the text found at Romans 8:29, which speaks of our being conformed to the image of God’s Son. One scripture which identifies Christ as the image of God is 2 Corinthians 4:4. Christ is the image of God because he is exactly like the Father and resembles him, as is explained elsewhere. One biblical scholar writes of Romans 8:29:
Rom. 8:29 declares that, “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image [symmorphous tes eikonos] of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” The passage presupposes that Christ is the image of God. In Christ God is really present. Again symmorphos means that we shall not only be similar to or like Christ but that we shall come into the same realm of power as he. We shall be identified with the same substance as he, and enter into the same essential nature as Christ…. Nevertheless, within this relationship Christ retains separate identity (“the firstborn among many brethren”, cf. Also 2 Cor. 3:18).41
2 Peter 1:4 is another scripture that is conducive to the doctrine of deification. We must keep in mind as we consider this scripture that there are three natures talked about in the Bible. These natures are the human nature, the nature of angels, and the divine nature. Mankind is as he is because of his nature. Angels are as they are because of their nature. The divine nature is the nature that makes God what he is. You will now understand the significance of this passage of scripture. The scholars who wrote the notes in the New Jerusalem Bible described somewhat about what was represented in this verse:
An expression of Gk origin. Unique in the Bible and surprising by its impersonal tone. The author expresses by it the fullness of divine life in Christ, the communication by God of a life which is his own. For the basic idea see e.g. Jn 1:12: 14:20: 15:4-5; Rm 6:5; 1 Co 1:9f; 1 Jn 1:3b. It is one of the starting-points for the doctrine of ‘deification’ in the Gk Fathers.42
2 Peter 1:4 is all the more interesting because of what it says. The key phrase in the text is genhsqe qeiaV koinwnoi fusewV genesthe theias koinonoi phuseos
genhsqe genesthe represents us. You may become refers in the plural to his readers and hearers, essentially indicating that we will become.
koinwnoi koinonoi also represents the saints. It means common sharers.
qeiaV theias represents divinity. The word is usually used to refer to God or to the nature of God.
fusewV phuseos represents nature, composition, attributes, etc., and often refers to growth.
Taken together this text represents the thought that we will be the common sharers of the nature that makes God what he is. Of course, commonly sharing with God what makes him divine and makes him God makes us divine in like manner. We are then to be gods in a very real sense if we are to take this scripture literally.
We are specifically told that the glory that was given to the Lord would then be given to us (John 17:22) and that we would obtain the glory of Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:14).
The Bible tells us that those who overcome will sit on the throne with Jesus Christ just as he overcame and sat down on his Father’s throne (Revelation 3:21). To sit someone on your throne, in the ancient world, indicates an equality of authority, as it was with Jesus in relation to the Father.
The Bible also tells us that we would be united to God and with each other (John 17:21-23) through Christ.
The Bible also tells us that we shall be filled with all the fullness of God and Deity. Colossians 2:9, often used to prove the deity of Christ, also provides the key for interpreting Colossians 2:10. Jesus received all the deity bodily, and we are, by means of him, ones having received a fullness as well. If we receive the fullness of the deity in us, what will we become? Consonant with this are scriptures that we will receive and be filled with all the fullness of God (John 1:16; Ephesians 3:19). Remember, Jesus is Deity because he is filled with all the fullness of deity. Should we receive the same reward, what will that make us? Further supportive of this interpretation is the claim of Paul at Ephesians 4:13, that we would come “unto a perfect man” unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, meaning that we could eventually possess the same measure of the fullness that Christ possessed.
We are also told in 1 Corinthians 6:2-3 that the saints would judge the world and that the saints would also judge angels. There are scholars who hold that the Greek word for judge indicates ruling rather than merely judicial powers or privileges and that the word rendered world in our Greek text of this passage could also be rendered cosmos or universe. If correct, this text would seem to say that the saints would rule over the angels and the universe, making judicial decisions, indicating a power or authority that only God has at present, which will one day be given to his people.
Finally, the last scripture that I wanted to cover for now is 2 Corinthians 3:18. In this verse of scripture, we are told:
But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
In this verse of scripture, we find the following:
Beholding as in a glass is the Greek katoptrizomenoi katoptrizomenoi which indicates ones looking into a mirror. We will thus see the glory of the Lord reflected from us as if looking into a mirror. The reason that this is occurring is because of the change indicated by the Greek thn authn eikona metamorfoumeqa ten auten eikona metamorphoumetha.
thn authn ten auten, an adjectival phrase giving emphasis to the noun that follows it in the text. The same.
eikona eikona from eikwn eikon image
metamorfoumeqa metamorphoumetha we are being transformed (into). The word indicates an inward and outward change from one state to another, i.e., a metamorphosis. In other words, we are being transformed or changed into the very same image represented by Christ whom we would mirror, who is the image of God because he is so like him. This is also our goal according to Paul. As this occurs, looking at ourselves in the mirror will be like looking at the Lord himself, in the process of change from glory to glory.
Who Teaches Forms of this Doctrine Today?
The doctrine of deification is still taught in various forms with some modification among the Eastern Orthodox and has been part of Roman Catholicism since Vatican II, although this is not quite as well known. For instance, item number 460 of the Catechism adopted at the Vatican II Council reads:
The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature:” “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”43
It is of further interest to read from a book entitled Partakers of Divine Nature. The introduction of this book, which is essentially a how-to book on achieving theosis or becoming a god, reads in part:
As human beings we each have this one, unique calling, to achieve Theosis. In other words, we are each destined to become a god; to be like God Himself, to be united with him. The Apostle Peter describes with total clarity the purpose of life: we are to
become partakers of divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
This is the purpose of your life; that you be a participant, a sharer in the nature of God and in the life of Christ, a communicant of divine grace and energy–to become just like God, a true god. Man, according to St. Basil, is a creature which has received the command to become a God. “He has been ordered to become God,” says Gregory of Nazianzos (“Funeral Oration for St. Basil,” Patrologia Graecae (P.G.) 36, 560A). God is not united except with gods, St. Symeon the New Theologian noted epigrammatically.
Theosis! What does this deep and profound word mean? It means the elevation of the human being to the divine sphere, to the atmosphere of God. It means the union of the human with the divine. That, in its essence, is the meaning of Theosis.44
Of course, the Latter-day Saints also teach a form of the doctrine of deification, believed by them to be–with respect to man at least–a restoration of the original doctrine. However, Latter-day Saints take it one step further than most of the early fathers were willing to go.
The Final Step–the Logical Conclusion from the Doctrine of Deification
For the Mormons, not only could man become God, but God himself was once a man. There is little available to show that any of the early Christians believed or understood this doctrine. Interesting examples are found in the Armenian literature. This material shows that at least some Christians may indeed have had a belief that God was once a man.
In one translation of an ancient Armenian Christian document which Michael Stone entitles “Concerning Adam, Eve and the Incarnation,” we find, following Eve’s telling Satan that they would die if they ate the fruit of the tree, that the serpent replies, “That is not so! God was a man like you. When he ate of the fruit of this tree he became God of all.”45
Interestingly, there is biblical scripture that can be used to some degree to support concepts conducive to the idea that God was once a man. One of these is John 5:19-20. It can be surmised the Father showed Christ a vision of his own experiences so that Christ could carry these details out. There is also scripture that can used to potentially support the idea that God could have a physical body. One of these is Hebrews 1:3. Christ could only be the exact representation of the Father if the Father himself possessed a body of some sort. In fact, some who wish to avoid what I feel is the plain meaning of Hebrews 1:3 actually go so far as to separate the natures of Christ or declare that the passage could not possibly infer that the Father is embodied.
Those who criticize this meaning thus, however, do not take into account the fact that there is not one portion of the passage that differentiates between the divine or human nature of Jesus. Secondly, the particle wn on indicates being, i.e., the present state of existence of Jesus from the perspective of the author of Hebrews. It has absolutely nothing to do with only Jesus’ previous state or of only a portion of his supposed dual nature. It only speaks of his total existence as a person.
Further, many grammarians have severely misunderstood the Greek apaugasma apaugasma (English: [active] effulgence or radiance; [middle, passive] reflection) in this passage to have the active sense. The Greek kai kai (English: and) is here a coordinating conjunction which combines the first and second parts (the second part being of a passive character) of a parallel couplet. Due to this fact, as much as the Evangelicals wish doggedly to hold to their interpretation, the Greek apaugasma apaugasma should be understood as having a passive sense.
Why? Because the second portion of the couplet indicates that Jesus is the exact representation of the Father’s substantial nature, not that he is synonymous with that nature. Since this passage is a couplet, with the second portion being passive in nature, the first portion must be understood as having a passive sense as well. Thus, Jesus is properly to be seen as he “who is the reflection of the glory (of God) and the exact representation of the substantial nature of him (i.e., the Father).”
In short, the glory of God reflects from Jesus rather than having Jesus as its source, according to the theology of the author of Hebrews. Thusly, Jesus exactly represents God as he exists in all aspects of Jesus’ existence. The passage does not allow differentiation of Jesus’ divine and human natures in relation to God. Quite the opposite is in view here, although I doubt that Evangelicals will wish to agree with my assessment of the passage. Nevertheless, if it is true that Jesus is the exact representation of the Father’s substantial nature in all aspects, the Father must have possession of a physical body. Otherwise, Jesus is not and could not be the exact representation of the Father, for the two would differ. This fact is further strengthened by another pertinent fact: the Father is never said to be bodiless in any place within the text of the Bible. That was for a later generation to develop.
In relation to this, although he did not believe that God had a physical body and believed that all would become incorporeal in time, Origen surmised:
For if in the end the life of the Saints is to be assimilated to the life of God, we must either admit that the Lord of the universe is clothed with a body and that he is enveloped in matter as we are in flesh; or, if it is unbecoming to suppose this…we are reduced to the following dilemma. Either we shall always have bodies and in that case must despair of ever being like God; or, if the blessedness of the life of God is really promised to us, the conditions of His life must be the conditions of ours.46
There is much more that can be said on this subject but time and space precludes that at this time. Suffice it to say that the concepts conducive to belief in the doctrine of deification are found throughout the Greek New Testament text. It is my hope that Latter-day Saints, investigators and others may come to understand that this doctrine is not one to be ashamed of notwithstanding we do not have all the answers at this time. We should rejoice in the doctrine and take time to ponder the great and precious promises that the Father has in store for us, being eternally grateful that he desires to share with us this great glory and honor that he now possesses.
1 Compare “Preamble,” Nauvoo Expositor, Vol. 1, No. 1 (June 7, 1844), 1-2.
2 The reason for the apparent lack of texts concerning deification is adequately answered by 3 Nephi 26:1-12, which says that only the lesser things [basic teachings] are to be found in the text of the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, there are those texts which do hint at the doctrine or at least provide concepts conducive to belief in the doctrine of deification or eternal progression. One of them is found at 3 Nephi 28:10, where the disciples are told that they would be as Christ, who is as God is, and that they would be filled with a fullness of joy like both God and Christ.
3 This apostasy en masse occurred because Jesus’ first followers did not wish to comprehend what seemed to them too difficult to understand. See John 6:59-69.
4 Acts 20:29; 2 Thessalonians 2:3; 1 Timothy 4:4; et al.
5 Galatians 3:1; 4:6; 1 Timothy 1:6; 2 Timothy 1:15; 1 John 2:18-19; Jude 1:4; et al.
6 See, for example, 2 Corinthians 11:12-15 and Revelation 2:2.
7 See my forthcoming paper entitled, “If Our Lord Spoke Aramaic, Why Do We Have His Words in Greek? The Gospels as Tradition and Translation Literature.” Compare some of the same concepts in the writings of George Lamsa. While Lamsa is often extreme, much of what he says does seem to have some merit with respect to the text of the New Testament. His primary thesis that the Peshitta Aramaic text of the Bible is the original text is mistaken in many respects because the Peshitta seems to have many clear dependencies upon both the Septuagint and Greek New Testament. I do not think the Peshitta to be the original based upon these facts.
8 One notable reference to many writings that we now no longer have can be shown by Luke’s statement that many took it in hand to write down the things that were believed among the early saints who delivered these things to the saints (Luke 1:1-2). None of these doctrinal writings written by those that were “eyewitnesses” and inspired “ministers of the word” are any longer in existence.
9 See, for example, Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10; John 16:12, 29, 20:30, 21:25; 1 Corinthians 3:1-2; Hebrews 5:10-14; and Revelation 10:1-4. It should be noted that there are those who would attempt to reinterpret several of these passages to say something that they do not actually say. Some also are of the opinion that the author of Hebrews was only making the comments about difficult things about Melchizedek to whet the readers’ appetite for and to prepare them to receive doctrinal meat. It is nevertheless a well known fact that the early Christians held certain doctrines and practices as so sacred that they were not mentioned or practiced before the uninitiated.
10 Francis J. Beckwith, Norman L. Geisler, Ron Rhodes, Phil Roberts, and Jerald and Sandra Tanner, The Counterfeit Gospel of Mormonism (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 1998), 23, emphasis added.
11 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 563.
12 Ibid., 217.
13 Cited from A.T. Robertson, “Word Pictures of the New Testament,” Bible Works for Windows, v 3.0, emphasis in original. For the printed text, see A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures of the New Testament, 6 vols. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), 4:115.
14 J.B. Phillips, “The New Testament in Modern English,” Eight Translation New Testament (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 1985), emphasis added.
15 See Introduction to Paul in the New Jerusalem Bible, 1854-1855.
16 Most believe that John died at Ephesus. Of interest is the last sentence of a statement of Hippolytus that:
“John, again, in Asia, was banished by Domitian the king to the isle of Patmos, in which also he wrote his Gospel and saw the apocalyptic vision; and in Trajan’s time he fell asleep at Ephesus, where his remains were sought for, but could not be found.” (“On the Twelve Apostles,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers 5:254-255, emphasis added.)
Curiously, a number of traditions concerning John’s death, ranging from stories of how he had buried himself to stories about how insects dug his grave and buried him without a trace, arose from the mysterious circumstances of this great apostle’s disappearance. He was taken for dead by those Christians of that day and afterward, notwithstanding the fact that his body had never been found!
Of course, in time, traditions being what they are, a tomb of John-complete with skeletal remains or relics which would later disappear “again” without so much as a trace-came to be a part of the tradition and became a place of pilgrimage early on. See William Steuart McBirnie, The Search for the Twelve Apostles (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 1973), 119-121.
The sheer number of stories concerning John’s supposed death, taken with the fact that there were differences in the story of that supposed death, burial, etc., attest to the mystery behind the disappearance of John. Latter-day Saints tell a different story which, it is believed, was revealed by God himself via a translation of text on a parchment written and hid up by John (D&C 7:1-8; John 21:21-23).
17 John 10:33-36; 1 Corinthians 8:5-6.
18 See the marginal notes and text in the Talmud at Sanhedrin 38b and Sanhedrin 65b.
19 Midrash Aleph Bet diR. Akiba. The Hebrew text was published in Adolph Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch (reprint Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1967), 3:32, and the English translation is from Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts: Jewish Legends of Three Thousand Years (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University, 1988), 251. My thanks to John Tvedtnes and Matt Roper for making me aware of this material.
20 Testament of Adam 3:2-4, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by James H. Charlesworth (Garden City, New Jersey: Doubleday and Company, 1983), 1:994.
21 Notable examples are Justin the Martyr (who lived in Samaria, Ephesus and Rome), Tatian (who later became a heretic but who was taught by Justin and lived in Rome and Syrian Antioch), and Irenaeus (who lived and wrote in Lyons, France).
22 Ernst W. Benz, “Imago Dei: Man in the Image of God,” Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1978), 215-216.
23 The Teachings of Silvanus 111:5-13, in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, edited by James M. Robinson and Richard Smith (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988), 392.
24 Irenaeus, “Against Heresies V, Preface,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1987), 392.
25 Hippolytus, “The Refutation of All Heresies X.32-33,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 5:152-153, brackets added, italics in original.
26 Ibid., 153.
27 Justin Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho 124,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:262.
28 Justin Martyr, “First Apology 21,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:170, emphasis added.
29 Irenaeus, “Against Heresies V.38:3,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:521.
30 Ibid., 522.
31 Ibid., 522-523.
32 “His merciless exposure of the entire system of ‘lords many and gods many,’ seems to us, indeed, unnecessarily offensive.” (“Introductory Note to Clement of Alexandria,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 2:165.)
33 Clement of Alexandria, “The Stromata, or Miscellanies VI.14,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 2:506, brackets added.
35 Ibid., 2:528.
36 Ibid., 2:539.
37 Tertullian, “Against Marcion II.25,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:317.
38 Tertullian, “Against Hermogenes V,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:480.
39 Origen, “Commentary on the Gospel of John II.2-3,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10:323-324. Some editions, such as the Hendrickson Editions, have this text contained in volume nine.
40 Hippolytus, “Refutation of All Heresies X.29,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 5:151.
41 G. Braumann in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, edited by Colin Brown (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1986), 1:707.
42 The New Jerusalem Bible, Study Edition, 2007, note g.
43 My thanks to John A. Tvedtnes for making me aware of this reference.
44 Archimandrite Christoforos Stavropoulos, Partakers of Divine Nature: An Inspiring Presentation of Man’s Purpose in Life, According to Orthodox Theology, translated by Rev. Stanley Harakas. (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Light and Life, 1976), 17-18.
45 Michael E. Stone, Armenian Apocrypha Relating to Adam and Eve (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996), 25. I would like to thank John Tvedtnes and Matt Roper for making me aware of this relatively little-known material.
46 Jerome’s Epistle to Avitus, Letter CXXIV.