No, Really - Gods!

©1997 Barry Bickmore. All Rights Reserved.


Note: A reader with the handle "Crzindanet" wrote in and asked for a response to an essay that an acquaintance gave him via e-mail. Although the person who sent the essay didn't cite the source, I recognized it as an essay by James White, of Alpha and Omega Ministries, which attacks the claim by LDS scholars that the early Christians believed a doctrine of deification similar to ours. (Click here if you want to read Mr. White's essay.) In this response I show that not only was the earliest Christian doctrine very similar to ours, but I also talk a little bit about how the doctrine of deification was altered over time.

Why We Don't Expect the Early Christian Doctrine to be Exactly the Same as Ours 

Hi Crzindanet! Indeed I can respond to your friend's claims. He seems to have bought into the type of argument that the anti-Mormon crowd has been parading around lately, and it is not that hard for a Latter-day Saint to deal with, at least if all the facts are presented in perspective. FYI, everything after "Consider the following writtings of some of the early church fathers:" was cut and pasted from an article at James White's "Alpha and Omega Ministries" site. I've tangled with James before, and he is one of the more intelligent ones in the anti crowd, but personally I think he tends to DRASTICALLY overstate his case. (Of course, he would say the same of me. ;-)

Basically, the argument goes like this: Mormons are in la-la land when they quote the early Christian fathers to support their doctrine of deification because: 1) the fathers didn't mean that men could *really* become gods; and 2) even if they did, NONE of them believed that the God has a material body and was once a man! Some of the anti-Mormons even go so far as to question our use of the fathers AT ALL, because we believe they were apostate, anyway.

However, arguments like these are mere strawmen. First of all, we DO believe that none of the various branches of Christianity extant after the demise of the apostles were the true Church of Jesus Christ, so it is evident that many of their doctrines would necessarily be out of harmony with revealed truth. Therefore, we DON'T EXPECT our doctrines to EXACTLY match all the doctrines of ANY of the fathers. Second, Joseph Smith said that things would be revealed in this dispensation that had never been revealed before, and the Book of Mormon (Alma 29:8) makes perfectly clear that God reveals different things at different times to different people in different places. Therefore, maybe none of the fathers believed in a God who was once a man, but that doesn't necessarily matter to us. Third, the early Christian period after the apostles was a time of transition. That is, church polity, religious practice, and many doctrines were undergoing great changes throughout this period. Thus, JND Kelly could say, "conditions [in the early centuries of Christianity] were favorable to the coexistence of a wide variety of opinions even on issues of prime importance." [Kelly, _Early Christian Doctrines_, p. 4] Therefore, it should be no surprise to us that the doctrine of how men become gods changed, when the doctrine of what God is was undergoing drastic change, as well. Also, when Mormons do look to the writings of the Fathers, we should expect to see doctrines in transition between something closer to our point of view and later orthodoxy.

I pointed out the above mainly to provide a little bit of perspective. That is, even if all the anti-Mormon arguments are right on this score (and they aren't), it is still legitimate for Latter-day Saints to quote the fathers in support of our doctrine of deification, because even if it wasn't EXACTLY what we believe, it is certainly closer to what we believe than the mainstream doctrine that men can only become angels. Consider what non-Mormon scholar Ernst Benz said of our doctrine of deification:

    "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." [Benz, E.W., "Imago Dei: Man in the Image of God", in Madsen, T.G., ed., Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, pp. 215-216.]


The "Unbridgeable Gap"

Now let's move on to some serious refutation. James White starts out with a quote from G.L. Prestige to the effect that the fathers believed there was a great chasm between the uncreated God and His creatures that could never be bridged. White points out that this is a summary statement which is supposed be "representational", and so it DOES NOT reflect the variety of views that actually did exist in the early centuries, especially the second century.

However, the basic premise of the argument is that God is "transcendent". This doctrine of the transendent God was adopted into the Christian Church during the second century, as Christians gradually replaced the old doctrines with those of the Greek philosophers. For example, Christopher Stead (of Oxford) writes that the early Christian writers Irenaeus [A.D. 130-200], Clement of Alexandria [A.D. 150-215] and Novatian [ca. 250] believed in a God who is "simple and not compounded, uniform and wholly alike in himself, being wholly mind and wholly spirit... wholly hearing, wholly sight, wholly light, and wholly the source of all good things." This, Stead points out, is almost identical to Xenophanes' assertion that "All of him sees, all thinks and all hears." And "since Clement elsewhere quotes Xenophanes verbatim, we have good grounds for thinking that Clement's description, and indeed the theory as a whole, derives from Xenophanes." [Stead, Divine Substance, pp. 187-188. See also, Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms, p. 129.] Consider also the following passage from Edwin Hatch, also of Oxford:

    "From the earliest Christian teaching, indeed, the conception of the transcendence of God is absent. God is near to men and speaks to them: He is angry with them and punishes them: He is merciful to them and pardons them. He does all this through His angels and prophets, and last of all through His Son.... The conception which underlies the earliest expression of the belief of a Christian community is the simple conception of children....

    "In the original sphere of Christianity there does not appear to have been any great advance upon these simple conceptions.... It is quite possible that some Christians laid themselves open to the accusation which Celsus brings, of believing that God is only cognizable through the senses. They were influenced by Stoicism, which denied all intellectual existences, and regarded spirit itself as material....

    "... Tertullian... speaks of God as "the great Supreme, existing in eternity, unborn, unmade, without beginning, and without end," yet he argues that He is material; for "how could one who is empty have made things that are solid, and one who is void have made things that are full, and one who is incorporeal have made things that have body?"" [Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church, pp. 251-254.]

JWC Wand, formerly the Anglican Bishop of London, agrees that this idea of the transcendent God, who is some kind of "divine substance" or "essence" rather than a real person, came straight from the Greek philosophers! He mentions specifically the Neoplatonists:

    "It was from [Neoplatonism] that [Christianity] learnt what was involved in a metaphysical sense by calling God a Spirit. They were also helped to free themselves from their primitive eschatology and to get rid of that crude anthropomorphism which made even Tertullian believe that God had a material body." [Wand, A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500, p. 140.]

You see, some of the early fathers DID believe that God has a material body, and some of them even believed it was human in form! Here's an example from an important second-century Jewish Christian document:

    "And Simon said: "I should like to know, Peter, if you really believe that the shape of man has been moulded after the shape of God." And Peter said: "I am really quite certain, Simon, that this is the case.... It is the shape of the just God."" [Clementine Homilies 16:19, in ANF 8:316.]

I can give you more information on this type of anthropomorphism if you need it.

So anyway, that's point number one: in the beginning Christians did not believe there was such an unbridgable gap between God and man. However, once that conception WAS adopted, clearly it was no longer tenable to believe that men could become exactly like God. Part of the problem was that this transcendent God created everything out of nothing (ex nihilo), so there began to be a great distinction made between the "uncreated" - that is, God - and the created - that is, everything else. Hatch tells us that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo was derived from a Gnostic named Basilides in the second century, and before that EVERYONE believed in creation from pre-existent matter:

    "With Basilides [a second century Gnostic philosopher], the conception of matter was raised to a higher plane. The distinction of subject and object was preserved, so that the action of the Transcendent God was still that of creation and not of evolution; but it was "out of that which was not" that He made things to be.... The basis of the theory was Platonic, though some of the terms were borrowed from both Aristotle and the Stoics. It became itself the basis for the theory which ultimately prevailed in the Church. The transition appears in Tatian [ca. 170 A.D.]" [Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church, pp. 251-254.]


The Earliest Witnesses of the Deification Doctrine

Now, here's the clincher. Even though it is not logically possible for "created" beings to become exactly like an "uncreated" being, there was still some confusion about this point in the decades following the adoption of the "ex nihilo" doctrine. For example, Irenaeus of Lyons [ca. 180 A.D.] said that "we have not been made gods from the beginning, but at first merely men, then at length gods...." [Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:38:4, in ANF 1:522.] But Irenaeus believed in creation "ex nihilo", so how could created men REALLY become like God? Irenaeus came up with the novel idea that "created" men could be made "uncreated" by the grace of God!

    "But created things must be inferior to Him who created them, from the very fact of their later origin; for it was not possible for things recently created to have been uncreated.... He knew the infirmity of human beings, and the consequences which would flow from it; but through [His] love and [His] power, He shall overcome the substance of created nature. For it was necessary, at first, that nature should be exhibited; then, after that, that what was mortal should be conquered and swallowed up by immortality, and the corruptible by incorruptibility, and that man should be made after the image and likeness of God, having received the knowledge of good and evil." [Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:38, in ANF 1:522.]

You see, Irenaeus was trying to have his cake and eat it, too. That is, he wanted to hold on to the old doctrine of deification, but he had also accepted the doctrine of the transcendent God who creates "ex nihilo".

Even some later theologians were quite close to the true doctrine. For example, Origen claimed that God "will be 'all' in each individual in this way: when all which any rational understanding, cleansed from the dregs of every sort of vice, and with every cloud of wickedness completely swept away, can either feel, or understand, or think, will be wholly God...." [Origen, De Principiis 3:6:3, in ANF 4:345.] And he dismisses the distinction later theologians made between deity in itself and deity by participation: "Every one who participates in anything, is unquestionably of one essence and nature with him who is partaker of the same thing." [Origen, De Principiis 4:1:36, in ANF 4:381.] Samuel Angus reveals that Lactantius believed "that the chaste man will become 'identical in all respects with God'." [Angus, The Mystery-Religions, pp. 106-107.]

Indeed, Peter himself told the saints that they would "come to share in the very being of God." [2 Peter 1:4 NEB.] Therefore, according to many early Christian writers, we will not, in the end, be fundamentally different than God and Christ.


If Not Like the Father, then How About the Son?

Next point: when they adopted the idea of the transcendent God, they didn't necessarily apply that same transcendence to Jesus Christ. That is, he was considered by many to be not only a "God", but also the chief angel. In the second century Justin Martyr called Jesus both angel and God:

    "And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father...." [Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho 127, in ANF 1:263.]

In the third century Novatian also felt it necessary to explain how Jesus could be both angel and God:

    "... because He is of God, is rightly called God, because He is the Son of God. But, because He is subjected to the Father, and the Announcer of the Father's will, He is declared to be the Angel of Great Counsel. Therefore, although this passage neither is suited to the person of the Father, lest He should be called an angel, nor to the person of an angel, lest he should be called God; yet it is suited to the person of Christ that He should be both God because He is the Son of God, and should be an angel because He is the Announcer of the Father's mind." [Novatian, On the Trinity 18, in ANF 5:628.]

Even as late as the early fourth century both Methodius and Eusebius could make the same claim:

    "And this was Christ, a man filled with the pure and perfect Godhead, and God received into man. For it was most suitable that the oldest of the AEons and the first of the Archangels, when about to hold communion with men, should dwell in the oldest and the first of men, even Adam. And thus, when renovating those things which were from the beginning, and forming them again of the Virgin by the Spirit, He frames the same just as at the beginning." [Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins 3:4, in ANF 6:318.]

    "Remember how Moses calls the Being, Who appeared to the patriarchs and often delivered to them the oracles written down in Scripture, sometimes God and Lord and sometimes the Angel of the Lord. He clearly implies that this was not the Omnipotent God but a secondary Being, rightly called the God and Lord of holy men, but the Angel of the Most High his Father." [Eusebius, Proof of the Gospel 1:5, in Barker, The Great Angel, p. 198.]

This belief that Jesus is a subordinate being with respect to the Father is called "subordinationism", and RPC Hanson points out that "Indeed, until Athanasius [early fourth century] began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism. It could, about the year 300, have been described as a fixed part of catholic theology." [Hansen, R., "The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD", in Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy, p. 153.] Therefore, when these theologians spoke of men being deified, they may not have envisioned men becoming like the transcendent God, but they did envision men becoming the same type of being as Christ is! Is this the LDS doctrine? No! But it is as close as you can get, considering their definition of God.


Further Changes

During the third through sixth centuries it was discussed how exactly Jesus could have been both God and man, considering the transcendent nature of God. By the fifth century most everyone believed Jesus was part of the "Divine Substance", and hence could not be subordinate to the Father, so this was a problem. It was decided that Jesus not only was God, i.e. the divine substance, but he also had a complete humanity, both a body and a soul, in addition to his divinity. They believed that Christ's human body and soul later became deified, although they were truly human to start. Therefore, they believed that men could be deified in the same way that Jesus' human body and soul were deified! Once again, this is not exactly the LDS doctrine of deification, but it sure as anything isn't the mainstream Christian doctrine that we will become nothing more than angels!


If We Can Become Like God, Then Was God Once a Man?

One final point should be brought out about Joseph Smith's doctrine of God. While it is true the final doctrine revealed to the Prophet about God - that "God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!" - is not advocated by any of the early Christian Fathers, it is fair to say that every other doctrine leading up to this conclusion was revealed to them, and perhaps this further knowledge was lost with the Apostles. Interestingly enough, there even seems to have been some Christians who believed there might be a God above the Father. Irenaeus counselled that Christians should not speculate about whether there was another God above God, so it is evident that there was some speculation about this at the time, at least, and it was not considered an impossible hypothesis:

    "The Father, therefore, has been declared by our Lord to excel with respect to knowledge; for this reason, that we, too, as long as we are connected with the scheme of things in this world, should leave perfect knowledge, and such questions [as have been mentioned], to God, and should not by any chance, while we seek to investigate the sublime nature of the Father, fall into the danger of starting the question whether there is another God above God." [Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2:27:8, in ANF 1:402.]

In the same section Irenaeus also says that we shouldn't speculate about what God was doing before he created the world. Try and find a statement like that in the later fathers! Is there a God above God? What was he doing way back when? We shouldn't speculate. Well guess what - God has revealed some new information.

In any case, Joseph Smith preached that "things that have not been before revealed" would be known in this dispensation, so the fact that the one doctrine at the pinnacle of his teaching is missing in early Christian literature is perfectly consistent with his claims.

I could go on and on (I'm writing a book about the subject,) but hopefully this will do for now. I hope all this helps, and tell me if you need more!


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