Posts Tagged ‘LDS Deification’

theosisandjustification

An Eastern Orthodox icon depicting the theosis of the saints.

“As man now is, God once was:
“As God now is, man may be.”
— Lorenzo Snow (5th Mormon President)
1

by Fred W. Anson
There are days when I wonder if the confirmation bias that undergirds so much Latter-day Saint apologetic work has any limits. Most recently I had one of these days when a Mormon Apologist boldly and publicly declared on social media that Mormon Celestial Exaltation – that is, the Latter-day Saint doctrine that men can become Gods in the next life2 – is nothing more than the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of Deification (aka “Theosis”) in another form. This is nothing new, those of us in Mormon Studies have been hearing this argument for some time now. Here’s how Mormon Apologists Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks explained it in the March 1988 issue of the Mormon Church’s Ensign magazine:

As even a cursory glance at early Christian thought reveals, the idea that man might become as God—known in Greek as theosis or theopoiesis—may be found virtually everywhere, from the New Testament through the writings of the first four centuries. Church members take seriously such passages as Psalm 82:6, John 10:33–36, and Philippians 2:5–6, in which a plurality of gods and the idea of becoming like God are mentioned.

The notion of theosis is characteristic of church fathers Irenaeus (second century A.D.), Clement of Alexandria (third century A.D.), and Athanasius (fourth century A.D.). Indeed, so pervasive was the doctrine in the fourth century that Athanasius’s archenemies, the Arians, also held the belief and the Origenist monks at Jerusalem heatedly debated “whether all men would finally become like Christ or whether Christ was really a different creature.”

According to an ancient formula, “God became man that man might become God.” Early Christians “were invited to ‘study’ to become gods” (note the plural).

Though the idea of human deification waned in the Western church in the Middle Ages, it remained very much alive in the Eastern Orthodox faith, which includes such Christian sects today as the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches. Jaroslav Pelikan notes, “The chief idea of St. Maximus, as of all Eastern theology, [was] the idea of deification.”

Is the subject of deification truly a closed question? After all, echoes of man becoming like God are still found in the work of later and modern writers in the West. For instance, C. S. Lewis’s writings are full of the language of human deification. Even Martin Luther was capable of speaking of the “deification of human nature,” although in what sense it is not clear.3

"Mormon America" by Richard and Joan OstlingHowever, commenting on this very article, journalists Richard and Joan Ostling make the following observation in their well known and widely respected book “Mormon America”:

BYU professors Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks in a 1988 issue of Ensign, have often expressed a kinship to Eastern Orthodoxy in that branch of Christendom’s use of the term “deification.” Peterson and Ricks traced deification to such early church fathers as Irenaeus (second century a.d.) and to the notion of theosis, which is “very much alive” in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches.

The embrace, however, is one way. The Eastern Orthodox tradition is also firmly rooted in a distinction of kind, rather than of degree, between man and God. “The idea of deification must always be understood in the light of the distinction between God’s essence and His energies. Union with God means union with the divine energies, not the divine essence,” wrote Timothy Ware (Bishop Ware), who was the longtime lecturer in Orthodox Studies at Oxford University, in The Orthodox Church. “The human being does not become God by nature, but is merely a ‘created god,’ a god by grace or by status.”

Bishop Ware elaborated on Orthodoxy and deification in response to a query:

‘It is clear to me that C. S. Lewis understands the doctrine of theosis in essentially the same way as the Orthodox Church does; indeed, he probably derived his viewpoint from reading such Greek Fathers as Athanasius. On the other hand, the Mormon view is altogether different from what Lewis and the Orthodox Church believe.

Orthodox theology emphasizes that there is a clear distinction—in the current phraseology “an ontological gap” — between God the Creator and the creation which He has made. This “gap” is bridged by divine love, supremely through the Incarnation, but it is not abolished. The distinction between the Uncreated and the created still remains. The Incarnation is a unique event.

“Deification,” on the Orthodox understanding, is to be interpreted in terms of the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies. Human beings share by God’s mercy in His energies but not in His essence, either in the present age or in the age to come. That is to say, in theosis the saints participate in the grace, power, and glory of God, but they never become God by essence.’4

So who’s right and who’s wrong? Let’s let our Eastern Orthodox friends speak for themselves, shall we? What follows, in its entirety, is an essay on Deification from The Orthodox Study Bible which was written by Eastern Orthodox theologians for Eastern Orthodox readers. It explains plainly, in layman’s terms, exactly what the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of deification is and is not.

Deification
Deification is the ancient theological word used to describe the process by which a Christian becomes more like God. St. Peter speaks of this process when he writes, “As His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness  .  .  .   you may be partakers of the divine nature” (1:3,4).

What does it mean to partake of the divine nature, and how do we experience this? To give an answer, let us first address what deification is not, and then describe what it is.

51gju0bne6l-_sx329_bo1204203200_What deification is not. When the Church calls us to pursue godliness, to be more like God, this does not mean that human beings become divine. We do not become like God in His nature. That would not only be heresy, it would be impossible. For we are human, always have been human, and always will be human. We cannot take on the nature of God.

St. John of Damascus makes a remarkable observation. The word “God” in the Scriptures refers not to the divine nature or essence, for that is unknowable. “God” refers rather to the divine energies— the power and grace of God that we can perceive in this world. The Greek word for God, theos, comes from a verb meaning “run,” “see,” or “burn.” These are energy words, so to speak, not essence words.

In John 10:34, Jesus, quoting Psalm 81:6, repeats the passage, “You are gods.” The fact that He was speaking to a group of hypocritical religious leaders who were accusing Him of blasphemy makes the meaning doubly clear: Jesus is not using “god” to refer to divine nature. We are gods in that we bear His image, not His nature.

What deification is. Deification means we are to become more like God through His grace or divine energies. In creation, humans were made in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1:26) according to human nature. In other words, humanity by nature is an icon or image of deity: The divine image is in all humanity. Through sin, however, this image and likeness of God was marred, and we fell.

When the Son of God assumed our humanity in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, the process of our being renewed in God’s image and likeness was begun. Thus, those who are joined to Christ, through faith, in Holy Baptism begin a process of re-creation, being renewed in God’s image and likeness. We become, as St. Peter writes, “partakers of the divine nature” (1:4).

Because of the Incarnation of the Son of God, because the fullness of God has inhabited human flesh, being joined to Christ means that it is again possible to experience deification, the fulfillment of our human destiny. That is, through union with Christ, we become by grace what God is by nature— we “become children of God” (Jn 1:12). His deity interpenetrates our humanity.

Historically, deification has often been illustrated by the example of a sword in the fire. A steel sword is thrust into a hot fire until the sword takes on a red glow. The energy of the fire interpenetrates the sword. The sword never becomes fire, but it picks up the properties of fire. By application, the divine energies interpenetrate the human nature of Christ. When we are joined to Christ, our humanity is interpenetrated with the energies of God through Christ’s glorified flesh. Nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, we partake of the grace of God— His strength, His righteousness, His love— and are enabled to serve Him and glorify Him. Thus we, being human, are being deified.5

I think it’s important to note, at the risk of being overly didactic, that neither Mormons or Mormon Doctrine was on the radar when this essay was written – the authors simply couldn’t have cared less about addressing either. It is what it is, nothing more and nothing less: An article written for use within Eastern Orthodox congregations and for the personal edification and education of their parishioners. And in doing so it utterly discredits Mormon Apologist claims that Eastern Orthodox Deification/Theosis teachings are in any way equivalent to modern Latter-day Saint Celestial Exaltation doctrine.

Conclusion
The Mormon assertion that Mormon Celestial Exaltation is in any way derived from or related to either the Patristic Fathers and/or modern Eastern Orthodox’s Deification doctrine is pure fantasy. There simply is nothing in Orthodox theosis that asserts that men can become gods – and thereby take on God’s nature as the modern LdS Church teaches. Further, Orthodox Christianity, just like Catholic and Protestant Christianity, considers Latter-day Saint Celestial Exaltation heretical. As stated plainly by the Ostlings in the aforementioned “Mormon America”;

The most radical chasm between Mormon belief and the orthodox Judeo-Christian tradition centers on the doctrine of God. This is the great divide… Educated Mormons are well aware that their doctrine concerning God the Father, particularly the idea that he was once a mortal man and has a literal [but exalted, deified] body, is offensive to traditional Judeo-Christian believers.6

Misrepresenting the theology of others in this manner does nothing to bridge that divide – in fact, it only makes it worse. Therefore, I would politely and respectfully encourage our Mormon Apologist friends to stop doing so.

transfiguration

A Serbian Orthodox fresco of The Transfiguration. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Transfiguration is considered to be a foreshadowing of the theosis that is possible for all saints.

NOTES
1 From the LdS Church’s official, correlated Church Manual, “Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow”, p.68.
2 An LdS Church official, correlated Church Manual explains the Latter-day Saint doctrine of Exaltation like this, “When we lived with our Heavenly Father, He explained a plan for our progression. We could become like Him, an exalted being.” (Gospel Principles Chapter 47, “Exaltation” 2011 edition, p.275)
3 Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, “Comparing LDS Beliefs with First-Century Christianity”; Ensign, March 1988.
4 Richard & Joan Ostling, “Mormon American (Rev. Ed.)”; Nook Edition positions 356-357.
5NKJV, The Orthodox Study Bible, eBook: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today’s World“, Kindle Locations 104077-104110.
6 Op cit, Ostling, Nook Edition position 341.

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