Friday, July 11, 2014

Mormon Deification and Orthodox Theosis

The LDS church recently published an article that sheds light on the the LDS view of becoming like God. This effort to clarify a difficult and misunderstood aspect of the tradition is laudable and I look forward to seeing what else the LDS church has to offer in the future. That said, I was moved to write this post by the way in which the author uses the Early Church Fathers to make his/ her case and the comparison of the LDS tradition to Eastern Orthodoxy.

First referenced is this passage from Irenaeus' Against Heresies:

 "For it is thus that you will both controvert them in a legitimate manner, and will be prepared to receive the proofs brought forward against them, casting away their doctrines as filth by means of the celestial faith; but following the only true and steadfast Teacher, the Word of Godour Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself."

Comparing LDS and Orthodox Christian views of deification is a wonderful example of the importance of defining terms and theological background since both faiths can endorse the statement "
our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself" while understanding it completely differently.

Members of the LDS faith believe that God the Father and the Son are both beings with an immortal body of flesh and bone. One might say the Father and Christ are the perfection of human evolution in the LDS view. Thus when a Mormon says that Christ died so humans can become like Him they mean this in a much more literal way than traditional Christians (Christians who believe the faith as stated in the Nicene Creed); they will be not only just like Christ, but also the Father who has a physical body akin to theirs.

To understand why traditional Christians understand Irenaeus' statement, and deification in general, differently than the LDS faith, one must understand how they view the Holy Trinity. For traditional Christians, God is the foundation of all that exists, the wellspring from which everything is created and sustained; He who is everywhere present, filling all things. Thus God is not just different from us in degree (as is the case in the LDS faith) but different in kind. He is not constrained by the spacio-temporal aspects of our material existence because he is the creator and sustaining force of our universe. We cannot ever be just like God because, by our nature, we are forever dependent upon him.

That said, God's creation reveals to us certain aspects of His nature, and this is especially true in the case of humans who are the pinnacle of God's creative work. In the traditional Christian view, when God says "let us make man in our image" He is referring to the mental and spiritual characteristics of humanity which makes it different from God's other creatures not only in degree, but in kind. Our self-consciousness, will, and immortality are the ways in which our image is similar to God's.

It is tempting to interpret the use of the term "image" as used in Genesis in a materialistic way. After all, the images we encounter most often are physical depictions. However "image" or "likeness" need not refer to physicality. If my mother tells me I remind her of her grandfather, this does not necessarily mean I resemble him physically. It may be my voice or personality that makes our "images" similar. 

Likewise, Irenaeus leaves open to interpretation what he means when he states Christ becomes what we are so we might become what He is. Mormons interpret this in a more expansive manner; we will become exactly what Christ is, save for unique physical and personality characteristics. For traditional Christians, Irenaeus is telling us that through Christ we too can become sons and daughters of God, but sons and daughters that will always be different in kind and dependent upon the Grace of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.

Mormons and Orthodox Christians both believe that we can become like Christ, but mean very different things. The LDS Church believes we can be like Christ in both His human and His divine nature, whereas Orthodox Christians believe, being dependent material creations, we share only in Christ's human nature, a human nature which itself can be perfected or divinized.


  1. I am so happy to see someone doing a blog on Mormonism to Orthodoxy. I feel like so many Mormons who are leaving the Church would love Orthodoxy. I have seen Mormon leaders quoting a single line from the church fathers to try and somehow prove that their doctrine existed in the early church. Im not sure if they are banking on the fact that no one will actually READ the Fathers considering they are now so readily available online. That is what solidified my belief that the Orthodox faith now is the same faith of the apostles and not some great apostasy.

    It's obvious when reading these that the God of the apostles, Irenaeus and all of the early fathers is the Christian trinitarian God. They speak of creation ex nihilo, the dual nature and incarnation of Christ, teaching against the pre-existence of the soul etc. This is the "faith ONCE delivered to the apostles", and the "ground and pillar of truth."

    I would love to see a blog on the priesthood especially now with what has happened with Kate Kelly and so many women mourning with her and many leaving the church.

    1. Thank you for visiting my blog, cowgirl angel. I find that almost any faith claiming to be Christian can find quotes from first through third century sources if one picks and chooses quotes out of context. Once one takes all the extant sources together and reads them in the correct contextual framework there is a much clearer picture of what the early Church practiced and believed.

      I may write something on current events in the LDS Church sometime soon. I would like to show that the question of priesthood in Orthodoxy and the question of priesthood in Mormonism is very different given their distinct theologies.