Deification in the Mainstream Christian Tradition

Periodically, I participate on Catholic Answers Forum, a website devoted to discussion of various aspects of the Catholic faith, as well as other religions in its “Non-Catholic Religions” section.  Mormonism happens to be one of the more popular discussions, with multiple LDS-related threads appearing on the first page of recent threads on a daily basis.

One LDS critic posted a list of questions that are from an anti-Mormon Evangelical website (it is also interesting to note that this “ministry” is also anti-Catholic, and many of these questions asked of Mormons could also be asked of Catholics, though I doubt the poster thought of this).  I thought it would be interesting to discuss a few of them to show how these questions betray the historical record of Judeo-Christianity (without even bringing Mormonism into the question).

One of the questions is:

“5. How can any men ever become Gods when the Bible says, “Before me there was no god formed, neither shall there be after me”? (Isaiah 43:10)”

This question is of course referring to the LDS doctrine of exaltation, or the belief that man can become like God, gods.  It is believed that, through the atonement of Jesus Christ, man can become joint-heirs in Christ, and live the life that God does.  There is of course much more to this belief, however it is sufficient at the moment to understand that LDS believe that man can become gods, and that the author of the above question is denying such a belief.

But why would a Catholic deny that men can become gods?  Let us turn to what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says on this issue:

460 The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature“:”For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”

The Catechism is of course quoting Athanasius, a revered saint of Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  Far too often on Catholic Answers Forum, I have seen Catholic posters disputing the Mormon teaching that men can become gods, saying that no one can become a god, that it is unbiblical and an innovation, etc.  That certainly is an interesting position to hold when the Catechism itself states that Jesus wants to make us sharers in His divinity and assumed human nature to make men gods.  Now, there are of course clear differences in the Catholic/Orthodox teachings on deification (also known as “theosis”) and Mormonism’s exaltation, and it is right to discuss and debate those differences, however it is odd that few Catholics seem to be aware of the deification teaching of the Early Church Fathers, the Bible, and the Catholic Church itself (it is my opinion that this teaching seems to have been more retained and taught in Eastern Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy than in the West).

The OrthodoxWiki website has a page on theosis that may be helpful.  The Catholic Encyclopedia also has a page on Supernatural Adoption.  Deification is a teaching found in the mainstream Christian tradition(s), especially when one studies Eastern Christianity.  It is odd for a Catholic to denounce the teaching that men can become gods when the same phrase is found in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church as well.  It isn’t odd for a Catholic to denounce the specifics of exaltation in Mormonism (such as the necessity of an eternal marriage, eternal increase, etc), however it is clear that the basic teaching of the deification of man is a patristic teaching found in mainstream Christianity.

The LDS apologetic website FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research) has put together a list of excerpts from the Early Church Fathers that refer to the deification of man, which can be viewed here.

Catholic author Daniel Keating has written the book “Deification and Grace“, which discusses the Biblical and historical/patristic basis for the belief in deification.  Michael Christensen has also written the book “Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions“.  LDS apologist Jeff Lindsay has a page on his website titled “Theosis, The Divine Potential of Mankind: LDS and Early Christian Perspectives“.  Finally, a revised version of Jordan Vajda’s UC Berkeley masters thesis has been reproduced online, titled “Partakers of the Divine Nature“.  Vajda compares and contrasts the patristic and LDS views on deification and exaltation.  Vajda was a Catholic priest who then converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

With these resources, I hope that we can see that the teaching that men can become gods is very much part of the mainstream Christian tradition(s), found in Catholicism and Orthodoxy (and perhaps in some Protestant traditions).  While they do differ with Mormonism on some significant issues as it relates to deification/exaltation, it is clear that deification has been consistently taught in Christianity from the beginning.


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One comment

  1. Nice collection of sources.

    I would posit that the real issue here is not really whether humans can become divine – which obviously all Christians believe to at least some degree.

    The real issue is the way Mormon theology deconstructs the notion of creation ex nihilo – which I would point to as the key source theological idea of traditional Christianity. Traditional Christian theology has to defend creation ex nihilo. Take that away and their entire philosophical framework is destabilized. Too much is invested in this theological starting point that they have used.

    And to maintain the notion of creation ex nihilo, you MUST argue a God that is ontologically “other” than the rest of humanity. Which requires them to water-down the idea of theosis by claiming that humans only partake of God’s “emanations” or something like that. But not his actual nature.

    But if you take away the need to defend creation ex nihilo as a philosophical and theological starting point, there is no real need to draw these artificial neo-platonist ontological distinctions.

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