Friday, September 11, 2015

Another look at human divinization

(by Daniel Peterson 9-10-15)

In last week’s column, I cited several passages from ancient Christian writers that express a doctrine of human “divinization” or “deification” known among modern scholars by its Greek name, “theosis” or “theopoiesis.”

It can, of course, be objected that those ancient Christians didn’t teach precisely the same doctrine of deification that modern Latter-day Saints do, and that’s certainly true.

As the years passed, Christian teaching on the nature of God increasingly resembled that of the philosophical schools founded by Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and others — for the simple and sufficient reason that, after the passing of the apostles, Christian thinkers were increasingly influenced by those schools — so what Christians meant by “becoming like God” also inevitably changed.

However, given The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' belief in an ancient Christian apostasy, it’s surely not unreasonable to view this language of deification as the fossil remnant of a doctrine that, at its very beginning, was much, much closer to that of the Latter-day Saints.

But this language of human deification isn’t quite entirely absent from even modern Western Christianity. C.S. Lewis, for example, despite the fact that his conception of God was substantially different from the Latter-day Saint view in important ways. He believed God to be unembodied, and he accepted the classical doctrine of the Trinity — nonetheless, he commonly (and strikingly) spoke of humans becoming gods. He had done extensive study in ancient post-biblical Christian writing, and he had plainly encountered the doctrine of “theosis.” I offer two examples:

“It is a serious thing,” Lewis wrote in an essay titled “The Weight of Glory,” “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.”

“The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas,” Lewis declared in his enduringly popular book “Mere Christianity.” “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, a 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.”

Given his understanding of God, it’s impossible to maintain that Lewis’ understanding of becoming like God was exactly the same as Joseph Smith’s. Still, the simple fact remains that Latter-day Saints have a doctrine of human divinization while any such doctrine has been muted, virtually forgotten or even altogether lost from many if not most other Christian traditions.

It’s obviously not because notions of divinization are commonplace in the Christian mainstream, or widely taught, that Mormons have been derided as “God Makers” (as a once-popular Protestant anti-Mormon propaganda film did, intending to shock its audience). And I, for one, am much more impressed with the similarities between Joseph Smith’s doctrine on this point and certain teachings in ancient Christianity than I am with any differences between them.

Numerous scriptural passages teach that those who receive the gift of eternal life will look like God, receive the inheritance of God, receive God’s glory, be one with God, sit upon God’s throne, and exercise the power and rule of God. So calling them “gods,” as C.S. Lewis and many others in Christian history have done, seems entirely reasonable.

These columns invariably run between 736 and 739 words in length. Plainly, they can’t be as nuanced as a complex topic such as this demands, nor can they engage every issue or objection. For more detailed treatments of the ancient Christian doctrine, see Keith Norman’s Duke University dissertation “Deification: The Content of Athanasian Soteriology,” which is accessible online at, and Father Jordan Vajda’s Berkeley master’s thesis “Partakers of the Divine Nature: A Comparative Analysis of Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization,” published at BYU in 2002 but unfortunately unavailable online.


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