Deification, Mormonism and The Early Church

Eric W. Francke

In his book “Are Mormons Christians”, Mormon scholar Stephen Robinson undertakes the task of positioning his church among the mainstream  “orthodox” Christian ecclesiastical bodies.  Perhaps nowhere is this attempt more significant when it comes to the question of “deification”.    Right off, Robinson acknowledges that many have “claimed it is a pagan doctrine that blasphemes the majesty of God”.    He seems understand the scope of what is at stake.   He then proceeds to utilize the writings of the early church fathers in attempt to shift the lines of demarcation of orthodoxy.    The LDS goal in this case, is to present the argument that the early church fathers believed in deification as they do.   An astute observer may notice at the outset that this tack is inconsistent with most other defenses of Mormon doctrine, since it is frequently asserted by LDS scholars that the early church fathers, and their penchant for Platonism, were the cause of apostasy and false doctrine in the church.  It is unusual that in this topic, they would like to make the opposite case.   Just the same, I have no doubt that any Mormon investigating these sources that Robinson has quoted to support LDS doctrine will likely conclude by saying “well, they were all apostates anyhow”.     The only purpose I have in this exercise is to let them define what they believed, and demonstrate to what lengths some LDS scholars will go to assert something that isn’t true.

First of all, we need to define what “deification” in Mormon thought is.  The Mormon Encyclopedia clearly states the position of the LDS church:

“There is no ultimate disparity between the divine and human natures; Joseph Smith asserted that mankind is of the same species as God, having been made in God's image (theomorphism) and being eternal, with unlimited capacity (TPJS, pp. 345-46). One early LDS leader proclaimed, "As man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may be" (Lorenzo Snow). Latter-day Saints speak of man as a God in embryo” (under section “Christology”)

Deification then, in LDS thought, is the process by which man becomes God.  Inherent in this idea is the insistence that God himself progressed just like us, having been a man on a different  “earth”.   Consequently, the LDS church rejects the belief that God created the universe “ex nihilo” (out of nothing), as well as the idea that He is Self-existent, Omnipotent, Unbegotten, Unchanging, Eternal (as God anyways).    God could have very well have been a mortal used car salesman on a distant planet (the planet actually identified as Kolob in LDS scripture)  in the timeless past, was faithful to his Father God, and eventually progressed to the point of getting his own universe in which He could be the “God”.   There is no ontological  (ie. by nature) difference between God and us.  Our differences are purely a function of time.   Antecedent to God is His Father, who likewise went through the same process of progression on another planet or universe, being faithful to His Father, who had proved faithful to His Father, etc ad infinitum.    Consequently, the “deification” of Mormon theology presupposes an infinite number of gods, each begetting subordinate “gods”, of which the human race represents just another link in the endless chains of gods.   

Could this be what the early church fathers meant by the phrase “deification’?   Many Mormon scholars would have us think so.   To demonstrate how committed the LDS apologists are to this idea; following is a quote from the Mormon Encyclopedia under the heading “doctrine”:

“Latter-day Saints share the ancient biblical doctrine of deification (apotheosis) with Eastern Orthodoxy. Several of early Christianity's theologians said essentially the same thing as Lorenzo Snow. Irenaeus said, "If the word became a man, it was so men may become gods" (Against Heresies, Book 4. Pref)”

Robinson nearly repeats this statement verbatim in  “Are Mormon Christians”.  He says:

“It has been claimed by some that this is an altogether pagan doctrine that blasphemes the majesty of God. Not all Christians have thought so, however. In the second century Saint Irenaeus, the most important Christian theologian of his time, said much the same thing as Lorenzo Snow:  ‘If the Word became a man, It was so men may become gods.’ (Against Heresies, Book V, Preface). “

One may notice that the only difference between the two statements is that the Mormon Encyclopedia cites the Fourth Book of Against Heresies, while Robinson attributes it to the Fifth Book.   It is not in the Fourth Book.  To be even more accurate, it must be noted that the quote is not in the Fifth Book either.  As a matter of fact, Irenaeus never made that statement.   The Preface in the Fifth Book does have a statement, which presumably is what is being referenced, but it says something vastly different then what we are told by the LDS scholars.  Irenaeus says at the end of the preface of the Fifth Book that

“Jesus Christ, through his transcendent Love, became what we are, that we might be even as he is himself”.  (Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol I, pg. 26)

 The actual statement cannot be construed to be any declaration of “deification” in the Mormon sense.   It is a simple axiom of the incarnation of Christ, and our consequential adoption as children of God.   The position held by the fathers, as most Christians do today, is that an individual who is regenerated by the Spirit of God will progressively be brought into conformity with the image of God exemplified by Jesus Christ.  In Christ, we have a spiritual union that brings us into God’s family, and as we commune with Him, we are sanctified and share in His divine nature and qualities.   To share in His “divine nature” does not mean to be ontologically indentical.   As theologians have noted throughout the centuries, there are qualities of God that are “incommunicable”, that is, cannot be transmitted or bestowed upon creatures.   Among these are the traits that pertain to God’s Infinite Being, such as Omnipotence, Eternality, Omnipresence,  etc.    If one is a finite creature, one cannot become an “infinite non-creature”.     The solution of LDS scholars has been to lower the standard of those qualities, by either denying or redefining them, and raise the ontological status of man, by making him eternal and uncreated.   More of this ontological redefining of God will be discussed later.   

Returning to the subject at hand, Robinson, then goes on to make additional claims about Irenaeus and deification.  He continues in “Are Mormons Christian”  to  say:

“Indeed, Saint Irenaeus had more than this to say on the subject of deification:  Do we cast blame on him [God] because we were not made gods from the beginning, but were at first created merely as men, and then later as gods? Although God has adopted this course out of his pure benevolence, that no one may charge him with discrimination or stinginess, he declares, "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are sons of the Most High.".. . For it was necessary at first that nature be exhibited, then after that what was mortal would be conquered and swallowed up in immortality. “ (Citation 3 Against Heresies 4, 38)

Here Robinson does actually cites Irenaeus.   The only problem is that the context happens to be making the exact opposite point that Robinson would like to make.   In context, Irenaeus is presenting the case for the ontological distinction between man and God.   Irenaeus is actually refuting the idea of some Gnostics that humans are evolving into gods in the proper sense.  Just two sentences before the quote by Robinson, Irenaeus says this:

“they who are more destitute of reason than dumb animals (insist) that there is no distinction between the Uncreated God and man, a creature of today.”

In reality, the section that Robinson is quoting is one of the most precise rejections of “Mormon” theology by Irenaeus.    Man is a creation of God’s and there is a distinct and unbridgeable difference between the two.    Irenaeus actually has a significant amount of writing that touches upon themes and concepts that are related to the LDS ideas of deification.  In each case, however, Irenaeus is REFUTING them, not supporting them.   For example,  In Book II, Chapter I, he describes a hypothetical scenario that almost perfectly matches the infinite succession of gods in Mormonism.  He says regarding the idea of a “god” above the “God” we know, and a god above that one that:

“These again (various gods), and others, which are above and below, will have their beginnings at certain other points, and so on ad finitum “

and in each case, each creation would glorify only its own Creator.  Irenaeus, however, in no uncertain terms says that such a belief in the equivalent of “depart(ing) from the true God,” (section 3) “ and that those “of such opinion will of necessity fall into impiety” (sec 5).   The view of the infinite succession of gods begetting other gods is, as Irenaeus points out, the heretical creation of Marcion.   In this framework, none of them, could be rightly called “God” and the “name of the Omnipotent will thus be brought to an end” (section 5).     For holding such a view, LDS would no doubt call Irenaeus an “anti-Mormon”.  

Elsewhere, Irenaeus deals with the question of the origin of matter and the universe.  The Mormon cosmology, in order to have each god progressing on its own planet, requires an eternal universe, and each “creator” is really a “redesigner” in a sense, molding and forming its own worlds from pre-existent matter.    The LDS church is firmly opposed to the orthodox belief in “ex nihilo” creation, that is , God creating the universe out of nothing.  Irenaeus, in Book II, Chapter VII, says:

  “While men indeed, cannot make anything out of nothing, but only out of matter already existing, yet God in this point is pre-eminently superior to men, in that He Himself called into being the substance of His creation, when previously it had no existence.” 

He leaves no room for doubt that it is the heretics that are arguing for the eternality of matter (as did many Greek philosophers) but that the Christian position was that God created the universe “ex nihilo.” 

Irenaeus believed in an Eternal, Incorporeal, Uncreated, Omnipotent God who was the Creator of the universe.   It was the heretics who argued otherwise, conjecturing about a “Mother” goddess, infinite strings of deities, and other universes.   Since it is exactly these views that most of Ireneaus’ writing is dedicated to refuting, it seems hard to imagine that Mormon scholars far and wide have so boldly declared that Irenaeus held to the distinct Mormon belief of deification.  It might lead us to question whether the Mormon scholars citing Irenaeus had ever actually read “Against Heresies” at all. 

Moving along with Robinson’s litany of early church fathers who allegedly held to Mormon beliefs, he next calls upon Clement of Alexandria:

“Also in the second century, Saint Clement of Alexandria wrote, "Yea, I say, the Word of God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god" 4--almost a paraphrase of Lorenzo Snow's statement. Clement also said that "if one knows himself, he will know God, and knowing God will become like God…”

The first quote from Clement poses yet another foible by Robinson.  The actual sentence taken from the Exhortation to the Heathen Chapter 1, says that you might “learn from a man how a man becomes a god”.    (Ante-Nicene Fathers , Hendrickson Vol II, pg 174).  Although it might look indistinguishably similar, in the context of his quote, one can see how Robinson’s bait and switch of words alters the meaning.  The preceding sentences of Clements are a quote from Philipians 2:8 and on, one of the great passages about Christ’s exaltation from suffering servant to Glory at God’s right hand.  In Clement’s phrase we “learn from a man (Christ) how a man (Christ) becomes a god”.   Christ is the object  of the sentence.   What we are to observe and learn of is CHRIST’S exaltation.    By taking out the words “a man” and changing the word “becomes” to “to become”, Robinson makes US the implied object, and turns the phrase into a “how to” lesson in deification!  Again, another radical misreading of the early church fathers.    

The rest of Robinson's attempt at finding LDS theology in the early church is much of the same. He tries, quite unsuccessfully, to build the case that, in his own words

it was a part of mainstream Christian orthodoxy for centuries, though some modern Christians with a limited historical view may not be aware of it.

A closer look at his citations, however, proves otherwise. He struggles, grasping desperately to find historical sources that will agree with the LDS view, in order to convince himself and others that the Mormon doctrine of deification exists within the bounds of the larger Christian definition of orthodoxy. Perhaps the most telling proof that he offers, however, is his name-dropping of some contemporary "Christian" leaders who he believes would agree with the Mormon doctrine.

Yet even among conservative Protestants the doctrine of deification is still occasionally found. Paul Crouch of the Trinity Broadcasting Network says: "I am a little god. I have His name. I am one with Him. I'm in covenant relation. I am a little god. Critics begone." Robert Tilton, a Texas evangelist, says that man is "a God kind of creature. Originally you were designed to be as a god in this world. Man was designed or created by God to be the god of this world.'' Kenneth Copeland, also of Texas, tells his listeners, "You don't have a god in you. You are one!" He writes that "man had total authority to rule as a god over every living creature on earth."

Out of the whole vast world of Christian theologians, Bible School teachers, Pastors and Apologists, he cites Paul Crouch, Robert Tilton, and Kenneth Copeland, and somehow confused them for "conservative Protestants"! He picked the great Triumvirate of scandal and false doctrine to try to make the case that the Mormon church is orthodox? It defies all understanding.

In conclusion, it must be said that Robinson very likely had his heart in the right place when he undertook this venture in "Are Mormons Christian". No doubt, it is a noble task to try to find what we, as people of faith, hold in common, rather than focusing on what separates us. However, attempting to bring down the walls of separation by misrepresenting or distorting the truth, (ie. In this case, the position of the fathers regarding deification) is not to be commended. The Mormon doctrine of deification as compared to the orthodox Christian position is as different, quite literally, as the difference between God and man. (EWF)

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