Muckwhip's Guide to Capturing the Latter-dayEpisode 49
Muckwhip's Guide to Capturing Latter-day Soul,
Episode 50: "And God Created God..."
Exploring the controversial and time-immemorial doctrine called theosis.
Welcome! It’s Chris Heimerdinger. It’s ForeverLDS. And it’s our 50th episode! And that is cause for celebration!
Oh, how I wanted to do something special for this episode! Maybe I should’ve interviewed an apostle, or some famous LDS celebrity. Nope. Just me today. I have several interviews in the can—some for a couple months—so I’m sure those parties are getting rather anxious. I promise I’ll post them soon.
I’ve been working on this particular episode for a while. As I developed it over the summer, it’s not like it was slated to become the all-important Episode 50. Oh well. Here we are. I hope it’s a good one.
First let me tell what this episode isn’t. For years I’ve badgered myself to do an episode on science and various hypotheses on life and the universe, theoretical ideas, some proposed only in the last couple years. Here’s the thing. Latter-day Saint prophets, seers, and revelators have already taught us many of these things. Those in the know know that we’ve understood these concepts for generations. Science is just catching up.
If I haven’t mentioned it before, I’m sort of a binge-watcher of documentaries. Nat Geo, Discovery, Science Channel, Smithsonian—whatever. Seems like every time I watch one of these, some world-class astronomer or Harvard quantum theorist will discuss a new discovery that—curiously—is already revealed in the pages of modern scripture or in the words of discourse once presented by a General Authority more than a century ago. Ideas that had once seemed unique—even exclusive—to the doctrines and beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I say “seemed” because, actually, you can find many of these concepts in ancient scripture and in apocryphal and pseudepigraphal literature as if modern science never really had the corner on this information at all. Prophets, it appears, have always understood such things, that is, if they strived to do so and if they chose, or made some attempt, to describe it.
So I’d watch these shows and, time after time, I’d tell myself, “I gotta start writing some of this down!” Then, like many other things, I’d forget about it, often because I was too lazy to press rewind on the television remote to copy a scientist’s exact quote. Then one day, I stirred up a little ambition and began keeping a notebook with the intention of one day compiling as many nuggets as I could into a single podcast episode. This is not that episode. Where’d I put that doggone notebook?
No worries. I don’t have that many notebooks. If I put my mind to it, I’ll find it. Something to look forward to. But not too long ago I watched an episode of How the Universe Works. You know that show? Great stuff. Anyway, the opening sentences of this episode called “Blow Your Mind of the Universe: Part II”--look it up yourself on YouTube. In fact, I’ll post a link in the notes on ForeverLDS. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtjXMQFYg1Y
Okay, so Mike Rowe begins his deep baritone narration by asking, “What is our universe made of? It’s the biggest unanswered question in science.” Eh, words alone don’t do it justice. It needs the music and voices of the actual scientists. So: “What is the universe made of? It’s the biggest unanswered question in science.” “Despite the name, space is not an empty space at all.” “Space itself is something.” “There’s a hidden structure and a force that exists within space itself.” “Space is very much a dynamic, incredibly active medium.” “A force that connects everything in our universe.” “It’s an active player in the game of life.” “It underpins our reality. Tying together all of space and time since the very beginning. We call it space-time.”
Huh. Now where have we heard that before? In quantum physics this is cutting edge. Except . . . the Lord taught us this, in a much more meaningful and pragmatic way, in Doctrine and Covenants Section 88. Joseph Smith received this revelation in 1833—36 years before Einstein was born. Not that this hypothesis was conceived by Einstien. It’s recent. Anyway, here’s Doctrine and Covenants Section 88 verse 37: “And there are many kingdoms; for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom.” Now skip to verse 42—I hate to skip any part of Section 88. It’s glorious. Gotta read the whole thing in context. Section 88: “The Olive Leaf…plucked from the Tree of Paradise, the Lord’s message of peace to us…” Those words from the heading of Section 88 are an understatement.
Anyway, verse 42:
And again, verily I say unto you, he hath given a law unto all things, by which they move in their times and their seasons;
43 And their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehend the earth and all the planets.
44 And they give light to each other in their times and in their seasons, in their minutes, in their hours, in their days, in their weeks, in their months, in their years—all these are one year with God, but not with man.
45 The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God.
That is gorgeous. You gotta read the verses fore and aft to apprehend how it all applies to the blessings of the Celestial Kingdom, but I love how no “fixed” terrestrial time period for the courses of the heavens and the earth is defined. The Lord simply sums it up—“And all these are one year with God, but not with man”—as if the Lord is saying, “I’m already at the edge of your mortal ability to grasp what I’m trying to tell you, so, not wanting to detract from the spiritual message, let me just say God’s time and Man’s time are not measured the same way.”
Then the gender identifications. The earth is a she. The sun is a he. The moon, a she. Don’t ask me to explain that, but the consistency of this in scripture is remarkable.
And, as I hinted a moment ago, this isn’t even the topic I prepared for today. Call it an hors d’oeuvre.
Here’s what I wanted to talk about. Hmm. Now I fear I’ve built it up too much. Promise you won’t fall asleep as I say it. What I wanted to discuss is the doctrine of Theosis or Deification.
Some listeners are already nodding off. Those are definitely $100 words, but don’t be intimidated. Basically we’re talking about the doctrine that the destiny of man is to become a god. And the destiny of women—goddesses. The idea that throughout scriptural history whenever prophets or scripture refers to us as His children—God’s “children”—the meaning is literal. Man and God are the same species of being. Oh, how our Church has been put through the ringer for discussing that theology. Other Christian denominations have lambasted, tarred and feathered, and often mocked this belief.
Now, here’s the surprise. This doctrine is hardly unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even today! But also as it was taught by early Christian Fathers. Believe it or not, there are other Christian denominations today besides ours that teach this. I even found one quasi-Christian or Christian-related Church still in existence that supports it. That one’ll take a bit to explain. I’ll get to it, I promise.
Many members of our Church might have observed that other Christians consider the doctrine of theosis or deification one of the most—perhaps the most—offensive, repulsive doctrines taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That’s how it’s often characterized. This single teaching is presented as the most viscerally blasphemous concept of the Restored Gospel. Mortal men striving to become gods? Gut-wrenching! Wicked! I’ve listened as some fundamentalists have described this idea as particularly evil and pernicious—the very concept that subordinates our Church as a force of darkness—exhibit number one proving that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was inspired by the devil, a product of the occult. “How morally and spiritually vile,” they will declare, “to presume that we lowly, wallowing, imperfect mortals—vermin, parasites—could ever take upon ourselves the eternal, omniscient nature of our Heavenly Father or Jesus Christ and even remotely consider that we might one day possess His same attributes or supreme powers over nature and creation.”
Let me go back to my own early days in the Church. I served my mission from 1983 to 1985. A unique time to serve a mission. Church membership was about one-fourth of what it is today in 2019. I served during that brief window when missionaries were called to serve for 18-months. Did you know we tried that? We did, and I was part of the batch put under the microscope to see how it’d work. Find out if this kind of abbreviated time period might persuade more young men and women to serve missions. It didn’t. Or maybe it did for a while, but not for long. I’m not quite sure. In any case it was a mixed bag. So after I’d served more than a year of those 18 months, it was announced that mission spans would be changed back to 24 months. Kind of a surreal thing, emotionally. Those of us already in the field were presented with the alternative of going home or extending one to 6 months. Our choice. Well…those who’ve served missions know how things can sometimes get in that tight-knit environment…political? gossipy? Missionaries are still humans. We’re not translated beings. Maybe today they are. We were not, and this change provoked much careful contemplation. Sometimes companionships and districts and zones would gasp to learn, “What? Elder so-and-so is heading home right away? He was such a great missionary! Destined to become AP! Why, why, why is he choosing to go home early? You’re only staying one extra month? Hey, I’m here for the duration. I’m extending for all six.” Okay, maybe I’m overdramatizing, but there was judgment and there was pressure, just as you might expect from imperfect beings.
Personally? I served 23 months. I left a month early so I could get home in time for fall semester at BYU. Even today, after all these years, I feel a twinge of guilt about that. What soul did I fail to find because I left 30 days early? At the time it was serious stuff.
Other peculiar events took place during the period that I served my mission. It was in these years that the Salamander Letter was all the rage, a heretofore unknown letter purported to have been written by Martin Harris that seemed to comingle Joseph Smith’s early visions with folk magic and witchcraft. Never heard of it? I ‘spose you can Google it. The point is that when this letter was first revealed to the public, Church leaders didn’t question it. We missionaries pressed on. Scholar and historian Hugh Nibley even published a paper about the Salamander Letter saying, in essence, “Nothing to see here! No contradiction to traditional Church History. All quite consistent and copasetic.” I was already home from my mission when the news broke that this letter was a total forgery and a few scholarly apologists like Nibley ate a little crow. At that time Gordon B. Hinkley was the First Counselor in the First Presidency. Because of President’s Benson’s fragile heath, President Hinckley in many ways oversaw the Church’s day-to-day operations. In some circles he was severely criticized that he had not received inspiration from the beginning that this document was forged, or that the forger, Mark Hoffman, was a dangerous man who would one day be convicted for murder after setting off several homemade bombs.
It all seems a bit overblown now. (No pun intended.) Why should a prophet automatically be inspired to interfere with another man’s free agency? But at the time it was a most controversial affair.
Another unique phenomenon during my mission?—that is, besides BYU winning its first National College Football Championship—they actually let us missionaries watch that game, believe it or not—crowning a Latter-day Saint Miss America, and the release of the blockbuster movie Footloose filmed in Utah County, with a couple of my friends from BYU’s drama department in nice support roles. Concurrently, it was during this time that a certain anti-Mormon film—or as we decided to call these things several episodes back, an anti-Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintist film: The God Makers, was released to the world.
It’s not like it was shown in movie theaters. It was generally exhibited inside the chapels or sanctuaries of fundamentalist and evangelical churches throughout the United States, and even, in a few other countries like Great Britain. As a missionary I remember riding my bicycle around the towns and cities of northern Florida and southern Georgia reading the marquees on Baptist, Church of Christ, Methodist, Pentecostal, Assemblies of God, and other denominational churches—big and bold—advertising that on Saturday, or Friday, or Sunday night, or whatever, they would be showing The God Makers. It seemed to play wherever I served, provoking conflict and conversation, as well as generating some genuine missionary opportunities among those who spent more than a minute pondering what it said.
If you watch this thing today on YouTube, it’s laughable! It was laughable then. But time, it seems, has doubled down on how dated and cheesy it comes off. Over-the-top narrator. Ominous soundtrack. I made a concerted effort to look up the narrator’s name. I felt sure I recognized it, but I couldn’t find it. The style sounds like the guy who opens that old TV show Dragnet. “Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” No kidding. Might’ve been the same dude. And, for all I know, the same score composer.
Even in 1984-85 those who wanted to undermine the kingdom of God and thwart His work felt they needed a hook. Something they thought emphasized the doctrine most foul of Mormonism, evoking the most gut-wrenching reaction. Hence the title: The God Makers. Hard to imagine any other title stirring up the same kind of dread and fear toward those brainwashed Brady-Bunch-smiling Mormons, singing about apricots popping on apricot trees, doing secret rites in their temples, inheriting exaltation on a celestial star where a Priesthood holder and his harem of wives would create their own planets, eternally reproducing numberless concourses of spirit children. Yes, this was the doctrine they felt was so corrupting, so blasphemous, that it might cause the audience, after the lights came up, to sit in shaken silence, perhaps never again sleeping without a crucifix clutched to their breast or a Bible under their pillow to defend against these bike-riding Satanists wearing white shirts, ties, and big black nametags.
But what would that title—The God Makers—mean among Christians living outside of the United States or other non-English-speaking countries? Even a few English-speaking countries? When it comes to God Making, or as Bible scholars like to call it—theosis and deification—the doctrine that our ultimate destiny is to become like God—our Church is hardly the only Christian denomination that teaches this doctrine. It’s not even the largest. That would be the Eastern Orthodox Church, whose membership is 200-300 million people. Other Christian and “offshoot” Christian denominations believe this as well.
Now you do have to be careful, because theosis or deification means different things among different denominations. Even among various congregations in a given denomination. Sometimes the variations are like splitting hairs.
A little background on the Eastern Orthodox Church. Their roots are at least as old as the Catholic Church. In fact, they call themselves the Catholic Church, from the Greek word “katholike” (cuth-all-eek), meaning the “universal” or “whole” or Apostolic Church. In reality several ancient Christian Churches claim to be the true “catholic” church and kinda resent that that the church in Rome somehow got general claim to that title. They would refer to this church as the Latin Church or the Papal Church. They’ll say, “We—the Syrian Church or the Coptic Church—we are the Catholic Church.”
The word “catholic” itself was sort of canonized or glorified very early on. Ignatius of Antioch, born around 50 AD, wrote to the saints of Smyrna (present day Izmir on the Turkish coast) in about 110 AD: “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” The word struck a chord.
The schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches officially dates to 1054 A.D., although it’s probably more accurate to date it to the Council of Chalcedon (Kal-se-don) in 451 AD. I could really get off in the weeds trying to explain the many doctrinal disputes that led to each ecumenical council, of which there were anywhere from 15 to 21, depending on who you ask. See, the Eastern Orthodox Church claims to accept some of the earliest creeds. Particularly, the Nicene Creed from what is often declared as the very first ecumenical council, called by Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D., which starts, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”
If you’re already going “Say wha—?”, you wouldn’t be the first. This gyratical word salad came about as a direct result of a compromise between those who believed the Father and the Son were two separate Beings and those who believed they were two-in-one. In the first counsels they don’t talk about the nature and status of the Holy Ghost. This dispute didn’t enter the fray until several counsels later. It started principally as a debate between two zealous schools of Christian belief—Arianism and Homoousianism. The end result? The Nicene Creed can be interpreted either way, which was apparently the objective. It’s just that, even today, the Roman Catholic Church leans toward a three-in-one interpretation of the Godhead and the Eastern Orthodox Church leans toward a three separate beings interpretation, again depending on what bishop in what congregation you ask. Most refer to it as a great mystery or THE Great Mystery.
But in the Eastern Orthodox Church much emphasis is placed upon the couplet, “God became man that man might become God.” This is a paraphrase of two quotes by early Christian fathers.
Okay, what is a “Christian father?” I better clarify. The term can mean different things to different people. In scholarly circles Christian father or “patristic” father generally refers to theologians from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD who either knew some or one of the original Apostles or were tutored by someone who learned directly from one of the original Apostles. Third generation or earlier. Theoretically, such writings oughta be more trustworthy, or authoritative, about how the Christian Church was originally organized and help clarify its original doctrines. The older, or earlier, the better. The more reliably you can confirm this early Apostolic connection, the better. Or so Christian reformers and the instigators of countless Christian schisms believe. For centuries some of the writings attributed to these Church fathers enjoyed the same canonized status as any other scriptural book or epistle. Eventually these manuscripts were pared down to the most common list of Old and New Testaments books that we have in our Bible today, using a diverse variety of qualifications to merit inclusion. There were disagreements then and there are disagreements today about these canonical lists.
One of the church fathers who helped craft the couplet used in the Eastern Orthodox Church was Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, who lived in the middle of the 2nd century. He claimed he was a student of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who claimed to have been a student of the Apostle John. That’s pretty good, a much stronger genealogy of potential authority than most other church fathers. Here’s what Irenaeus wrote: “…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.” You wanna track down original sources for various quotes, they’re generally in the show notes. (Iranaeus, adv. haeres 3, 19, 1: PG 7/1, 939).
The second church father from whom the couplet was formulated was Athanasius of Alexandria. Now, Athanasius lived in the 4th century, so whether or not he’s a “church father” is a matter of debate, because, technically, that timespan is greater than the separation from the Day of Pentecost—considered by most to be the date of the beginning of the Christian Church—than the timespan that separates us from the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, Athanasius wrote, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God,” (Athanasius, De inc., 54, 3: PG 25, 192B).
Kinda reminds you of another couplet from our third Church President, Lorenzo Snow: “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become.” Nice, but let me clarify.
Yes, it’s true that the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church—as well as the Coptic Orthodox Church and some other Churches—consider Irenaeus and Athanasius to be Saints. So…what is Sainthood? In a nutshell, it’s the belief that an individual has attained, through their works on earth, “a specially exalted place in heaven and a right to veneration”, or the right to be worshipped. “Honored” might be a better word among some denominations, but to most who have adopted the practice of placing the label “Saint” upon certain individuals, it literally means that these men or women can be worshipped—prayed to. Such immortal souls can and will serve as your advocate directly to God. In other words, these individuals have the power to plead on your behalf, and therefore, the ability to tilt the scale in your favor and bring about certain gifts or blessings.
Roman Catholics would interpret these statements from Irenaeus and Athanasius to mean that humankind will become “partakers of the divine nature”—a phrase found in 2 Peter 1:4, not specifically that any mortal is going to literally become like God. Historically, Roman Catholics have been very sensitive to anything that suggests Christianity is a polytheistic religion or has any polytheistic root, because they feel it makes Christianity indistinguishable from any other Pagan cult. From the beginning, all the way back to the 3rd or 4th century, Roman Catholics insist that no being is, or ever will be, the equal of God the Father/Jesus Christ/Holy Ghost—or the Holy Trinity.
Funny. We actually agree on that point. That’s what members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe too. I’m not sure if a lot of our members comprehend what all the hubbub is about. Anyone who’s been a member of our Church for any length of time understands the reverence, the respect, the veneration, that we bestow upon the Godhead—Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. We worship them. E.G., we honor them, we beseech them, we acknowledge our full dependence upon them, we recognize our inferiority to them, and we owe our full obedience to them. And we feel overwhelming gratitude to them for what they have done for us. So, where’s the doctrinal divergence? If that’s not worship, what does the word “worship” even mean?
The semantics here are subtle. I think—and I better present this as my personal supposition—I think outsiders read some of our more esoteric doctrines about the potential and destiny of each individual in the family of God—doctrines that honestly we don’t know much about beyond Lorenzo’s Snow’s couplet and the inherent logic that a child becomes like its parent—and therefore these nonmembers throw us in the same bucket as other polytheistic religions, such as the countless pagan religions that dominated the ancient world of the Romans and Greeks at the time the 12 Twelve Apostles were preaching the gospel. I suppose if you asked us point blank, “Do you believe men will become Gods?” we’d have to answer, “Yes. Yes, we do.” It’s not something we obsess over. Not something that dominates our every thought or action. Not something that particularly changes or influences our relationship with our Heavenly Father.
President Gordon B. Hinkley said, “Our enemies have criticized us for believing [that we can become gods]. Our reply is that this lofty concept in no way diminishes God the Eternal Father. He is the Almighty. He is the Creator and Governor of the universe. He is the greatest of all and will always be so. But just as any earthly father wishes for his sons and daughters every success in life, so I believe our Father in Heaven wishes for his children that they might approach him in stature and stand beside him resplendent in godly strength and wisdom. (Conference Report, Oct. 1994)
It's doubtful that our critics are reading our Church magazines or sitting in our meetinghouses because—surprise, surprise—our everyday worries and challenges aren’t dominated by stuff like this. Our worries and challenges are very likely identical with theirs.
As I say, the semantics or subtleties of this doctrine are somewhat lost on some of our Christian brothers and sisters. In our minds, perfect, exalted beings, will, by their very nature, forever acknowledge, worship, and venerate the Godhead, who are One God in unity and purpose. But we give special veneration, precisely as the Savior instructed us to do on multiple occasions, to the Father, as He venerates the Father. This ought to be a very simple and sublime doctrine. Ought to be, anyway.
But this “one in unity and purpose” thing has caused considerable confusion and dissention over the centuries, dating back to the first decades of Christianity. Maybe back to the Creation itself since we believe Jehovah, or Jesus Christ, is the God of the Old Testament. We’re hardly even the only denomination that believes this.
In the view of our Church, and others, theosis or deification, is plainly taught in the Old and New Testament. The verses are so plenteous if I read ‘em all it’d take up the remainder of the podcast. I believe one of the most dynamic are the words of the Savior Himself as He was about to be stoned for declaring, “I and the Father are one”—I’ll read from Wayment’s New Testament translation of John 10: 32-39. Keep in mind, Jesus declares these words as He is literally facing death. A murderous mob is standing before Him holding stones as He states, “I have shown you many good works from my Father. For which of these works do you stone me? The Jews answered him, “We do not stone you for a good, but for blasphemy, because you are a man and claim to be God.” It’s fascinating that at this tense moment, the Savior expands on this doctrine. He answers, “Is it not written in your Law, “I said, you are gods?” He appears to be quoting Psalm 82:6. In essence, Christ is telling His would-be murderers, not only am I God, you are too. We’re part of the same family, folks! Specifically, He says, according to the Gospel of John, “If he called them gods to whom the word of God came and the scripture cannot be broken, do you say of the one whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You speak blasphemy,’ because I said, “I am the Son of God?”’ If I do not the works of my Father, do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
We’re not told exactly what happens next. For some reason the Jews decided not to stone Him, merely to arrest Him, but somehow on that occasion He escapes their hands. You may call it a leap in logic, but the sense is that those who wanted, at that very moment, to kill Him were mollified by the idea that, “Yes, I am God, but that’s your destiny too.”
Paul declares in acts 17 that we are the offspring of God and again in Romans 8, “The Spirit itself testifies to our spirit that we are the children of God. And if we are children, then heirs, heirs of God, coheirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer jointly with him so we may also be glorified with him.” In Revelation 3:21 the King James translation declares in the voice of Christ, “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in His throne.” I’ll offer Wayment’s translation of Revelation 3:12, equally profound, but more poetic and esoteric. “The one who conquers, I will make the person a pillar in the temple of my God, and he will not exit it. I will write upon that person the name of my God and, and the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem, which descends from heaven from my God and my own new name.” Besides spelling out our ultimate destiny, it ties that destiny to our most sacred covenants.
Genesis says we were created in God’s image. We are commanded to become perfect, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect. What exactly is “perfection” if not to become like God? Perfection isn’t a difficult word to translate. There are a multitude of supporting verses, and long compilations of those verses online. Again, search theosis or deification on Google.
The fact is, the doctrine of deification was ubiquitous in the first centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection (Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deificiation in the Greek Patristic Tradition (2004), 6.). It wasn’t just Irenaeus and Athanasius. Also Justin Martyr, who I also mentioned in Podcast 48. He lived 100 to 165 A.D. and is one of the very earliest Christian Fathers to define the doctrine of Theosis. From Dialogue with Trypho: “[Men] were made like God, free from suffering and death, provided that they kept His commandments, and were deemed deserving of the name of His sons, and yet they, becoming like Adam and Eve, work out death for themselves; 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.” (Justin Martyr, "Chapter CXXIV", Dialogue with Trypho). That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for misinterpretation, but you might be surprised. It’s long been observed that without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, human beings can twist and transmogrify even the most plain and simple attestations into indecipherable word salad. Remember, Justin is considered a Saint by almost all of the ancient denominations who have placed mortals into this category. This is probably because he only said it once. This makes it easier for the “salad makers” to try to give it a different spin.
Take the case of Clement of Alexandria who lived about 150 to 215 A.D. He emphasized this doctrine in multiple manuscripts. I’ll offer just a few quotes. From Exhortation to the Heathen: "[T]he Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become God.” (Clement of Alexandria, "Chapter I", Exhortation to the Heathen). Here’s a quote from Clement from his manuscript, The Instructor: “For if one knows himself, he will know God; and knowing God, he will be made like God” (Clement of Alexandria, "Book III, Chapter I", The Instructor). Here’s another: "[H]is is beauty, the true beauty, for it is God; and that man becomes God, since God so wills. Heraclitus, then, rightly said, "Men are gods, and gods are men." For the Word Himself is the manifest mystery: God in man, and man God" (Clement of Alexandria, "Book III, Chapter I", The Instructor). The person who Clement quotes, by the way, Heraclitus, was not a Christian. He was a Greek philosopher who lived about 500 B.C. Here’s one of my favorite Clement quotes from his work The Stromata. “[H]e who listens to the Lord, and follows the prophecy given by Him, will be formed perfectly in the likeness of the teacher—made a god going about in flesh.” (Clement of Alexandria, "Book VII, Chapter XVI", The Stromata, or Miscellanies).
Wow. Not only did Clement seem to understand the divine nature of human beings, but he understood that after the resurrection humans would retain their physical bodies. Clement is venerated as a Saint by Coptic Christians, Eastern Orthodox, Ethiopians, and Anglicans. He was a Saint to the Roman Catholics for more than 1300 years. Then, in 1586, Pope Sixtus V apparently read Clement’s writings a little more closely and promptly crossed him off the list. Reminds me of that lyric by Coldplay: “You didn’t get to heaven but you made it close.” 1300 years in heaven and then, the boot. Kinda tragic, that is, if you accept Pope Sixtus V’s conclusion.
I’ll do one more. There’s actually quite a few early Church Fathers who trumpeted this doctrine. I’m trying to stick with theologians who were pre-Nicene, or proto-Nicene, meaning those who wrote before the time of Emperor Constantine. Many also taught this principle after that period, and there are several places online where you can find nice compilation of various quotes. I’ll post those links in the shownotes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divinization_(Christian)#cite_note-18).
Here’s Hippolytus of Rome, circa 170 to 235 A.D: “And you shall be a companion of the Deity, and a co-heir with Christ, no longer enslaved by lusts or passions, and never again wasted by disease. For you have become God: for whatever sufferings you underwent while being a man, these He gave to you, because you were of mortal mould, but whatever it is consistent with God to impart, these God has promised to bestow upon you, because you have been deified, and begotten unto immortality.” Hippolytus also enjoys the status of being a Saint, both in the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches.
As I said, there are many more early theologians and many more quotes advocating this doctrine, but as any good missionary who is in-tune with the Spirit will proclaim, “proving” the truthfulness of any particular doctrine using intellectual or scholarly evidence is not the best approach. It might help—some—might play a role—but it’s much better to seek personal enlightenment on the whole package rather than its individual parts. My point is that the doctrine of theosis or deification is remarkably common in the writings of ancient Christian theologians.
But not just ancient. This doctrine perpetually reasserts itself in the writings of theologians in every century, even into modern times. Something about the logic of it—the common sense of it all—seems to effervesce in the minds of Christian thinkers again and again, as if it can’t be suppressed, as if the echo of this truth is a permanent part of our consciousness. It’s a part of us, and it can’t be rooted out.
As I said, it Makes. Too. Much. Sense. We instinctively reject the idea of heaven being a place of clouds and harps. What are we supposed to do there? What’s our purpose? Eternity is a long dang time. Do we really just revel in the beauty of streets paved in gold, bask in never ending communion with God and fellow believers, wallowing in happiness beyond our wildest dreams?
This is one of the points that atheists like to harp on. Activist atheists who staunchly believe religion itself is a harmful, pernicious thing and ought to be suppressed. Like Richard Dawkins: “Eternity in heaven? Sitting there in heaven for all eternity. Not just billions of years, but trillions of years! These inconceivable spans of time. How unbelievably boring!”
I suppose based upon how some perceive eternity that argument might seem to validate atheism. Even if you accept broader LDS descriptions and speculations about celestial glory—creating worlds, designing your own dinosaurs, guiding billions of your own spirit children toward immortality and eternal life—seeking an equivalent joy with that of our Father in Heaven. I mean, we’re still talking trillions of years! Wouldn’t even those prospects eventually—perhaps in the third trillionth year—become unbelievably boring? How much joy can one person handle? To me that’s the conclusion of an extraordinarily limited imagination.
Even if we accept the premise of becoming bored, the scriptures imply that time itself is a mortal invention. Set in place strictly as a device of earthly progression. In our present mindset we can’t conceive of an existence without seconds, minutes, and hours, the idea that one event leads consecutively to another event. What if this ingrained perspective no longer applies? Who knows? Even as we ponder the observable universe with planets and stars, galaxies and lightyears, who’s to say that this doesn’t coexist with or might be succeeded by different universes—places, spheres with entirely laws that have nothing to do with gravity and photons and black holes. No relationship whatsoever with the three, four, five, or more dimensions that physicists currently use to define reality as we know it. Expand your imagination a bit. Let your mind be blown. That’s what I love about this Church. What I love about the Restored gospel of Jesus Christ. For me it’s the only theological construct that offers seeds, provides some semblance of a glimpse, builds even a gossamer framework that prompts us—encourages us—to ponder endless possibilities.
For many of us it’s challenging enough to define, “What is happiness? What is joy?” Some of us (I can’t even say all of us) seem to recognize it when we experience it. Some can’t even do that. We seem to acknowledge that it is our ultimate objective. The very “thing” we strive to attain. The definition of our being. The very reason we do anything. Get up in the morning. Breathe. Take another step forward. The hope of attaining “joy”.
And yet most of us can’t comprehend it. Not when we try to reconcile it with the way God apparently defines it in verses like Moses 1:39. The happiness that God promises us. My advice? Don’t ever expect to fully understand it. Just trust the notion itself. It’s coming. It’s waiting. And it’s gonna be glorious!
Sometimes abstractions like that seem tenuous and distant—too much to take in. Yet it roils in our deepest subconscious. And for many it’s not abstract. It’s concrete and detailed. Very specific. Something that the most faithful and devout Christian writers cannot seem to wholly suppress. Call it vanity or the indulgence of the mortal ego if you want. Some do. Yet it won’t go away. This spark of an idea that something truly glorious and wondrous and purposeful about our eternal destiny reasserts itself in our minds. It seems irrepressible. Natural. And it doesn’t seem to matter what denomination that a Christian hails from—Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox. The doctrine bubbles up again and again.
St. Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic theologian, wayyy post Nicene who lived in the 1200s, and arguably the most prolific of all medieval writers, stated: “Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking of the Divine Nature, which exceeds every other nature. And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace. For it is as necessary that God alone should deify, bestowing a partaking of the Divine Nature by a participated likeness, as it is impossible that anything save fire should enkindle.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, OP, "First Part of the Second Part, Question 112, Article 1, Response, Summa Theologiae).
Again he wrote that “[God’s] special love, whereby He draws the rational creature above the condition of its to a participation of the good” and ultimately roots the purpose of the Incarnation in theosis.” Not that Thomas would not have felt that this means we are literally transformed to take on a nature and substance identical with that of God. Most seem to fall just short of that and declare merely that we are gifted with full participation in the Divine Life. Whatever that means! It’s semantics. A way of saying humankind takes on the nature of God, yet does not cross the infernal line of saying that Christianity or Catholicism is in any way polytheistic! Here’s the thing. That perspective is correct! The theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints emphasizes the same idea. To us, in every practical, daily application, the only Gods we worship—the only Gods that matter—are the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. So, Thomas Acquinas, we’re right there with you.
Other Catholic theologians, from the middle ages to the Renaissance, also can’t avoid drawing the same logical conclusion—St. Dionysius the Areopagite, Peter Lombard, Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart, Karl Rahner, Catherine LaCugna—I hope I’m not butchering these names. You likely have to be a Roman Catholic scholar to recognize them in the first place.
St. John of the Cross, who lived in the 16th century, wrote, "In thus allowing God to work in it, the soul ... is at once illumined and transformed in God, and God communicates to it His supernatural Being, in such wise that it appears to be God Himself, and has all that God Himself has. And this union comes to pass when God grants the soul this supernatural favour, that all the things of God and the soul are one in participant transformation; and the soul seems to be God rather than a soul, and is indeed God by participation; although it is true that its natural being, though thus transformed, is as distinct from the Being of God as it was before."
Orestes Brownson, in the 19th century, wrote: “The principle of the order founded by the incarnation of the Word is the deification of the creature, to make the creature one with the Creator, so that the creature may participate in the divine life, which is love, and in the divine blessedness, the eternal and infinite blessedness of the holy and ineffable Trinity, the one ever-living God. Creation itself has no other purpose or end; and the incarnation of the Word, and the whole Christian order, are designed by the divine economy simply as the means to this end, which is indeed realized or consummated in Christ the Lord, at once perfect God and perfect man, indissolubly united in one divine person. The design of the Christian order is, through regeneration by the Holy Ghost, to unite every individual man to Christ, and to make all believers one with one another, and one with him, as he and the Father are one. All who are thus regenerated and united, are united to God, made one with him, live in his life, and participate in his infinite, eternal, and ineffable bliss or blessedness” (Orestes Brownson (1875), Our Lady of Lordes).
What the who-se-what-sie?! These are good Roman Catholics. I thought they rejected outright anything that even hints at theosis! Yet it’s clear from what the Catechism of the Catholic Church proclaims that faithful Christians will be partakers of the divine nature:
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” (Catholic Church (1995), “Article 460”, Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, ISBN 0385479670).
I gotta be clear. Catholics and other denominations tend to muddle it all up in philosophical abstractions and hundred-dollar words and sometimes relegate it to a kind of mysticism that’s—almost deliberately—beyond human comprehension. You’ll also find Catholic writings that lump such contemplations into the trash heap of heresy. Nevertheless, it reemerges time after time.
Eastern Orthodoxy and some of the other ancient denominations are just more direct. They break down the teaching of deification or theosis into three states of transformation: katharsis, theoria, and theosis, with theosis being the goal or purpose of life—a synergy between human activity and God’s uncreated energies. (“Deification as the Purpose of Man's Life”. Kapsanis, George (n.d.): Deification as the Purpose of Man's Life, English translation by Photius Coutsoukis.) I’m summarizing and simplifying, but that’s the essence of their doctrine.
What about Protestants? Any hint of this doctrine in their theology, or in the writings of their theologians? You just can’t keep it down. The Anglicans are possibly the most bold in their assertions about it.
Here’s a couple quotes from one of the most famous Anglican theologians, whose name happens to be C.S. Lewis:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, Collier Books, 1980), 18).
Again, a more complete statement of his beliefs from his book, Mere Christianity:
The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 174-75).
There are many other Protestant reformers and theologians who expressed variations on this general, but foundational doctrine. John Calvin, John Wesley, George Fox. Still, I don’t think I can top that quote from C.S. Lewis. People tussle over the writings of Martin Luther and proclaim that many of his metaphors implied a belief in theosis. Others disagree, but the idea seems to have become inexorably entrenched in the Lutheran Church of Finland, who still to this day frequently assert that theosis is a basic part of their liturgy and reference Luther’s writings to support their view.
Don’t get me wrong. Such ideas are never universal. To some the doctrine is still a despicable blasphemy. Despite this, any effort to expose or discredit the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a film like The God Makers or some other anti-LDS tract, for large swaths of Christian believers who inhabit planet earth, even today, would make them scratch their heads. “Uh…so? Some of those ideas seem different, but ya know I think I’ve heard my own priest or pastor teach kinda the same thing.”
Then, to add one more sweet, frosted layer to the veracity of this doctrine, we turn to the Johannine Churches of Iran and Iraq, whose roots arguably reach back to the 1st century A.D. Often referred to as Mandaeans or Sabeans or “Christians of Saint John” it should be noted that this religion is not Christian. Instead, Mandaeans reverence as their most important prophet John the Baptist—the very man whom the gospels denote as the prophet who baptized Jesus: the “voice in the wilderness” whose mission was to be a precursor of the Savior. Nope, that’s not how the Mandaeans see it. Jesus, to them, was a false messiah. It seems a modest leap to conclude that this sect descends from those who, despite the admonition of John the Baptist to now turn their attention to Jesus of Nazareth, there were some who opted out, stubbornly maintaining their devotion to John. It’s a vast oversimplification, but a suitable view for our purposes.
Articles on the internet can’t seem to agree how many people still practice these Johannine religions. Anywhere from 5000 to 100,000 believers. But all seem to point to the isolated marshlands of the Karun, Euphrates, and Tigris rivers in lower Iraq and the Khuzestan Province in Iran as their native homeland. As you might expect, war and upheaval in that region over the last few decades has wreaked havoc on this particular culture and caused many Mandaeans to flee to surrounding countries, including establishing a community of about 2500 people in Worcester, Massachusetts, and another around Sydney, Australia numbering about 10,000 (MacQuarrie, Brian, 13 August, 2016. "Embraced by Worcester, Iraq's persecuted Mandaean refugees now seek 'anchor'—their own temple". The Boston Globe).
What seems to be remarkable about this religion is how well it seems to preserve the same beliefs regarding theosis and deification as expressed in the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mandaeans have their own library of ancient texts which Hugh Nibley, in particular, enjoyed referencing to highlight these similarities, particularly in an article entitled, “Treasures in the Heavens: some early Christian insights into the organizing of worlds,” which is readily found online (https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi_old/articles/Dialogue_V08N0304_78.pdf).
This religion is even mentioned in the Koran where it receives the important distinction of belonging to that special fraternity of churches defined as “people of the Book”, or a religion that, alongside Jews and Christians, is rooted in the precepts of monotheism and shared Old Testament prophets. In theory this designation gave Mandaeans legal status and spared them from the persecutions that Islam apparently felt it was okay to heap upon what they considered truly pagan and polytheistic religions. History tells us that such tolerances toward Mandaeans over the centuries in majority Muslim countries has been mixed at best.
Nevertheless, don’t misunderstand. There seems to be one distinction between our Church and virtually all others that should be acknowledged. At least I think it’s a distinction. Maybe a strong case can be made that others perceive it pretty much the same way. But even among Christian or Johannine churches that emphasize the doctrine of deification, the vast majority, still, never quite cross the Rubicon of accepting that man and God—and even angels—are of the same essence. The same creatures. The same basic species, albeit in different stages of progression. Or as modern botany might put it, metamorphoses. Verses of scripture that emphasize concepts like “created in our image” or God as our literal Father/us as His children or our ultimate destiny as “joint heirs” of all that He possesses…it’s a leap. It’s a bridge too far. Poetry. Metaphor. That’s all it is. Not literal. Not reality. Yet for many theologians in so many different denominations, something about it persistently strikes a chord. It rings true.
Why did it ever fade? How was it that such a doctrine was ever relegated to the category of blasphemy or anathema? Such a beautiful concept. A motivating concept. Man and God. The same creature. A child destined to become like his celestial Father and celestial Mother. Every member of the human race truly and literally brothers and sisters in the family of God. What caused some to come out against it with such ferocity, especially in the west, that is, among Churches and congregations formulated in Europe?
The simple answer is that after the Apostles were killed, and it became impossible for the quorum to gather and anoint new apostles or a new Church president, the mingling of Christianity and pagan beliefs, as well as the powerful traditions of ancient Greek philosophers and their philosophies—Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and others—was inevitable. These ideas and beliefs were deeply ingrained in the minds of people in our western civilization. Such traditions were much older and more established when Christian theology started to unfold. These philosophies were powerful forces of public ethos and pride. In the absence of prophets, seers, and revelators, the influence of such traditions, even in the minds of Christian converts in the Greek and Roman world, was natural and predictable.
Ancient Greek philosophy was considered the cornerstone of true intelligence. Plato and others taught that philosophers ought to rule the world. Philosophers were the only ones who could rule justly and equitably. There were three basic schools of Greek philosophy: Epicureans, Stoics, Platonists. I don’t want to get too much into the particulars, but in Christ’s day these philosophies were especially entrenched among devout Jews.
There are no ancient New Testament manuscripts in Hebrew or Aramaic. It’s all Greek. A few fragments of Coptic and Persian, but most believe these were also translated from Greek. I asked Dr. Thomas Wayment in a recent podcast, “What? Not even Matthew or Hebrews, books presumably aimed directly at Jewish readers? None of these were written in Hebrew?” Apparently not. There is some speculation that the Book of Matthew may have been originally penned in Aramaic, but it remains a minority opinion.
Consider: in most places a very slim percentage of the populace was literate anyway. They couldn’t read any language! But if they did read or write, they did so in the most universally accepted medium of the time, which was Greek.
But I thought Rome ruled the world? Why didn’t they write in Latin? Well, for much of the period of the Roman Empire, even Romans preferred to write in Greek. They were so proud that Greece was part of their Empire. Greece was the center of the universe as far as ancient knowledge and intelligence. Every important noble family employed Greek tutors for their children. Latin did become more dominant in later years, but not during the first century. How was it explained to me? Latin was the language of business and commerce. Greek was the language of everything else.
So, considering how quickly Christianity shifted from proselyting among the Jews to proselyting throughout the Empire, finding an early manuscript of Acts of the Apostles, for example, written in Hebrew or Aramaic, would have been unique indeed. You might compare it today to English. You wanna get the most customers, the most eyes, to read your book? Write it in English. In the Mediterranean world of the first century? Write it in Greek.
Which leads us to ask, what are the practical results for a believer who applies this doctrine to the daily grind of their lives? How does it impact those who are striving every day to serve their families and their fellow man, repenting from their sins, and striving to be perfect, just as He and His Father are perfect?
I think there is an impact—a profound impact—but it’s hard to measure. I believe it makes the goal clearer. More tangible. That clarity can help with motivation, self-esteem, and dedication. It can provide comfort. We better know who we are. Better know who we can become. The knowledge that we are literally His children—part of His family—helps us internalize the reality of His overflowing, unconditional love, extended to every multi-billon one of us, individually and personally. He loves us because He is us. Often, as participants in mortality, when we find ourselves in a dark, dark place, as all of us do from time to time, such knowledge—especially if we fight to reconnect with it, reconfirm it—can infuse us with that final impetus, that vital surge of adrenaline or dopamine or whatever—we sometimes like to reduce these things to chemical reactions, though we know it’s much more. Whatever it is, it sparks our minds and muscles to go on. To endure to the end. Or if it doesn’t, it darn well should.
Okay. Maybe that’s too much to expect from a mere philosophy. A single doctrine. I’m not saying it’s a panacea. A cure-all. Still, the power of this idea, this understanding, should not be underestimated.
Atonement is also just an idea. An abstract philosophy. Yet if we didn’t have that doctrine, if we didn’t have faith in that divine principal—that through the blood and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the only perfect man who ever lived—we can be saved, cleansed from sin, made clean, made pure, with a renewed opportunity to return and live for eternity with our Heavenly Father—then why are we doing any of this? What’s it all about? Why set goals? Why have aspirations? Why try? If you’re looking for a conundrum of an idea, try wrapping your head around Atonement. Most of us can’t begin to grasp it, but we believe it’s true. Many know it’s true. I happen to be one of them. It’s been revealed to me. By revelation, by the Spirit. Some folks want you to break that down into something specific and mathematical. What exactly convinces you it was “revelation?”
I don’t know. I’m a writer and even I can’t boil it down into mere words. A revelation is a revelation. In fact revelation is somehow a heavy word. Prompting. Impression. Some prefer those words. And some skeptics seem to prefer them because they can be more easily discarded, relegated to something psychedelic or a “bit of undigested potato” as Ebenezer Scrooge presented as a possible explanation of his vision of Marley’s ghost. Nope. Revelation is a different thing, and those who have experienced know the different. Frankly, it doesn’t really matter what words you use to describe the process of how supernal knowledge was transmitted from God to man. What semantics are employed. When you know something is true, you know. That doesn’t mean you have to fully understand it. Thank goodness. What a relief! We don’t have to comprehend every intricacy, every in-and-out, to know that a basic idea, a general principle, is true.
And boy, that’s the case when it comes to a doctrine like theosis. The things that we’ve been taught are so rudimentary, so vague that each point inspires a dozen other questions. Thus, for now, the doctrine remains in the back of our minds as little more than an enchanting, tantalizing mystery that we hope, one day, the Lord will further expound and clarify. In accordance with our worthiness to receive it, and according to His own good time.
I love this gospel. I’m entranced by every part of it. And I’m grateful for this podcast and the opportunity it gives me to express, hopefully in a unique and powerful way, my own testimony and perspective of its wholeness and perfection.
Remember, if you don’t feel as close to the Lord today as you did yesterday, who moved? T’wasn’t God. Look to your own house and mind.
Thank you for joining me today and thank you for listening. This is Chris Heimerdinger and this is ForeverLDS.