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Early Christian Deification
by Keith E. Norman
From the second to eighth centuries, the standard Christian term for salvation was theopoiesis or theosis, literally, "being made God," or deification. Such language survived sporadically in the mystical tradition of the West and is still used in Eastern Orthodoxy. LDS doctrines on eternal progression and exaltation to godhood reflect a similar view of salvation.
In its classical form, particularly in the works of Athanasius (fourth-century bishop of Alexandria), deification was built upon the concept of the incarnation of Christ. The Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) defined the Son as homoousios (of the same substance) with the Father, and thus fully God. By taking upon himself our flesh through birth, Jesus as God united the essence of humanity to the divine nature. Eventually Christ's divinity overcame the limits of the flesh through resurrection and glorification, transforming and raising his body to the full level of godhood. As Athanasius summarized, "God was made man that we might be made God" (On the Incarnation of the Logos 54).
Although the doctrine has been dismissed by later scholars as a mere "physical theory of redemption" focused on the Resurrection, deification is more than a synonym for immortality. Church Fathers argued that deification not only restores the image of God that was lost in the Fall, but also enables mankind to transcend human nature so as to possess the attributes of God. "I may become God as far as he became man," declared Gregory of Nazianzus in the late fourth century (Orations 29.19). Descriptions of deification included physical incorruptibility, immunity from suffering, perfect virtue, purity, fullness of knowledge and joy, eternal progression, communion with God, inheritance of divine glory, and joint rulership with Christ in the kingdom of God in heaven forever.
The roots of the Christian doctrine of deification are primarily biblical. Beginning with the creation of humanity in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), the church fathers developed aspects of deification from such concepts as the command to moral perfection and holiness (e.g., Lev. 19:1-2; Matt. 5:48; 1 Jn. 3:2; 1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Pet. 1:3-7), adoption as heirs of God (Rom. 8:15-17; Gal. 4:4-7), unification with God in Christ (John 17:11-23), and partaking in Christ's sufferings in order to be elevated with him in glory (e.g., Rom. 8:16-18; 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:16-18; Philip. 3:20-21; 2 Tim. 2:10-12). They also pointed to examples of humans described as "gods" in scripture (Ex. 4:16; 7:1; Ps. 82:6; John 10:34-36).
Jewish thought, particularly in response to developing Christology and its perceived threat to monotheism, was more reticent to speak of humans attaining divinity. Nevertheless, Jews shared some of the crucial biblical texts underlying deification. Talmudic Judaism tended to stress humanity's obligation to imitate God's holiness in consequence of being created in the divine image. Moses and other prophets were spoken of as sharing God's glory and becoming "secondary gods" in relation to other mortals (Meeks, pp. 234-35). Philo described Moses' glorification as "a prototype of the ascent to heaven which every disciple hoped to be granted" (Meeks, p. 244).
Due to its incongruity with the doctrine of God in Western Christianity, deification fell out of favor as the preferred way of describing salvation. Catholic theology increasingly stressed the transcendence of God, who alone was self-existent and eternal. All other beings were created ex nihilo, "out of nothing," having only contingent being. This theological development culminated in Augustine. For him, God's absolute oneness and otherness was so different from humanity's created status and dependence on divine grace that salvation could not bridge the gap between the eternal Creator and the creatures contingent upon him. Ever since, talk of deification has been suspect or heretical in Western Christianity and has formed a major point of objection among traditional Christians to the teachings of Latter-day Saints on the subject.
(See Godhood; Exaltation; The Doctrinal Exclusion; Biblical Support for Diefication; Basic Beliefs home page; Teachings About the Godhead home page)
Barlow, Philip L. "Unorthodox Orthodoxy: The Idea of Deification in Christian History." Sunstone 8 (Sept.-Oct. 1983):13-18.
Benz, Ernst W. "Imago Dei: Man in the Image of God." In Reflections on Mormonism, ed. T. Madsen, pp. 201-219. Provo, Utah, 1978.
Gross, Jules. La divinisation du chrétien d'après les pères grecs. Paris, 1938.
Meeks, Wayne A. The Prophet-King: Moses Tradition and the Johannine Christology. Leiden, 1967.
Norman, Keith E. "Deification: The Content of Athanasian Soteriology." Ph.D. diss. Duke University, 1980.
Norman, Keith E. "Divinization: The Forgotten Teaching of Early Christianity." Sunstone 1 (1975):15-19.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition, Vols. 1 and 2. Chicago, 1971-1974.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol.1, Deification, Early Christian
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company
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