The Mormon Doctrine of Becoming Gods: What about the Early Church Fathers?
Much of the case that Mormons make in defense of their doctrine of exaltation—that human beings may become gods, or beings of the same nature and powers as God—consists of appeals to the writings of the church fathers. The term church fathers refers to theologians of the early church from the late first century and down to the seventh century or so. These include, for example, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (2nd century), Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen (third century), Athanasius (fourth century), and Augustine and Jerome (late fourth and early fifth centuries).
The church fathers did indeed teach a doctrine of human beings becoming like God. This doctrine is known by the Greek term theosis and in English as deification or divinization. The question is what they meant by it and whether it provides any support for the claim that Joseph Smith’s doctrine of exaltation was a restoration of an ancient doctrine that had been forgotten.
1. The church fathers who taught deification were, from the LDS perspective, part of the Great Apostasy.
We may start with an ironic observation. The church fathers quoted by Mormons in regard to deification were among the leading architects of the religious and theological tradition that Mormons regard as the Great Apostasy. These were all theologians, not prophets. The very writings in which an explicit Christian doctrine of human deification first appears are the earliest documents from what the LDS Church teaches was a growing apostasy, a spiritual and theological darkness that overcame the Christian movement in the second, third, and fourth centuries. This should be just about the last place Mormons would want to look for ancient precedent for their “restored” doctrines! The problem may be illustrated by the following comments from Spencer W. Kimball:
Many men with no pretense nor claim to revelation, speaking without divine authority or revelation, depending only upon their own brilliant minds, but representing as they claim the congregations of the Christians and in long conference and erudite councils, sought the creation process to make a God which all could accept. The brilliant minds with their philosophies, knowing much about the Christian traditions and the pagan philosophies, would combine all elements to please everybody. They replaced the simple ways and program of the Christ with spectacular rituals, colorful display, impressive pageantry, and limitless pomposity, and called it Christianity. They had replaced the glorious, divine plan of exaltation of Christ with an elaborate, colorful, man-made system.1
The traditional LDS position is that this corruption of Christianity was largely an accomplished fact already in the second century. LDS apostle and teacher Bruce R. McConkie claimed, “In the Old World the great apostasy was complete sometime during the second century A.D.”2 Similarly, LDS theologian Stephen E. Robinson states that “Latter-day Saints trace the Apostasy to roughly the second century and reject subsequent orthodoxy.”3 Yet the earliest explicit examples of a Christian doctrine of believers becoming “gods” come from the third century.
Of course, it is theoretically possible that the church fathers might have been right about humans becoming gods and wrong about other things. A Mormon could argue that the Great Apostasy led to the loss of divine authority and to the gradual loss of some doctrinal truths but not others, with the doctrine of people becoming gods as one that was not lost right away. This might seem a sufficient explanation for how it was that the church fathers believed in humans becoming deified even while they also taught what Mormons regard as false doctrines. However, this explanation doesn’t really address the point, which is that the church fathers were the first Christian teachers to articulate an explicit doctrine of the deification of believers.
The fact that Mormons can document a patristic (church fathers’) tradition of deification from the second, third, and fifth centuries leads to another problem.
2. The doctrine of deification cannot be “restored” because it was never lost.
The writings of such men as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Athanasius have played an ongoing, continuous role in theological studies and reflection throughout church history. We are not talking here about long-lost writings like the Nag Hammadi “Gnostic gospels” or miraculously restored texts such as Mormons believe the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham to be. We are talking about the writings of men whose writings have never stopped circulating and that have been cited, quoted, and discussed in every generation from their own time to the present.
Moreover, the specific patristic idea of deification was never lost in any sense. It has been taught continuously in the Eastern Orthodox Church throughout its history with no interruption. It was being taught in Eastern Orthodox congregations in Joseph Smith’s day (although the first such congregation was not established in the continental United States until 1857, thirteen years after Joseph’s death).
3. The church fathers’ doctrine of deification lacked all of the distinctive elements of the Mormon doctrine of exaltation and explicitly differed from it in crucial respects.
Establishing that the early church fathers taught a doctrine of deification does not, in and of itself, show that the Mormon doctrine of exaltation is a restoration of ancient truth. One must compare the substance of the two doctrines in order to determine if they are at all close in meaning. To that end, I will list the specific doctrinal elements of the Mormon doctrine of exaltation that orthodox Christians consider erroneous:
- God has not always been God; it is not true that he has been God from all eternity (though he may have existed from all eternity, he has not always existed as God).
- God was once a man like us before becoming God our Heavenly Father.
- God became God and is an exalted man, an exalted being.
- Human beings are the spirit offspring of God, our Heavenly Father, and of Heavenly Mother. We lived in heaven with these heavenly parents before becoming physical beings here on earth.
- We became human beings precisely so that we would have the opportunity to attain exaltation just as God did.
- Human beings can become “gods” in the sense of becoming exalted beings fully like Heavenly Father in all essential respects, just as he did before us.
- As exalted beings or gods, we can become creators and have all the power, glory, dominion, and knowledge that God the Father has (in the worlds we create).
Read through the quotations from the church fathers found in LDS articles defending their doctrine of exaltation and you will quickly see that the church fathers affirmed none of these seven doctrinal elements. Readers lacking some background in the theology of the church fathers might easily get confused by such quotations. However, you will not find in any of the church fathers’ writings them affirming, for example, that God the Father was a man who progressed to Godhood, or that God has not always been God, or that the spirits of human beings are uncreated and eternal gods in embryo. The core premises of Joseph Smith’s doctrine of exaltation are completely absent from the corpus of the church fathers’ writings as a whole.
Examples from two of the earliest church fathers will illustrate the point. Justin states that all people may “become gods,” and similarly Tertullian says that those saved through God’s grace “shall be even gods.” But what do these statements mean in context? They did not mean that believers will become deities possessing the same powers as the Creator of the universe. Let’s look at their statements in context. Justin wrote:
But as my discourse is not intended to touch on this point [the fall of Satan], but to prove to you that the Holy Ghost reproaches men because they were made like God, free from suffering and death, provided that they kept His commandments, and were deemed deserving of the name of His sons, and yet they, becoming like Adam and Eve, work out death for themselves; let the interpretation of the Psalm be held just as you wish, yet thereby it is demonstrated that all men are deemed worthy of becoming ‘gods,’ and of having power to become sons of the Highest; and shall be each by himself judged and condemned like Adam and Eve.4
We see here that Justin specifies precisely what he means by “gods”: that human beings were created with the intention that they be “free from suffering and death.” In other words, to be “gods” in this context means to be immortal beings. That is all that one can fairly understand Justin to mean by this language here. Furthermore, according to Justin, we are not already God’s children (as the LDS Church teaches), but may become his sons. What Justin teaches here is incompatible with the LDS doctrine that we were God’s preexistent children in heaven and that we came here to make progress toward “growing up” to become full-fledged Gods like our Heavenly Father.
Tertullian’s statement that “we shall be even gods” also does not mean that humans will become the same kind of beings as God:
Truth, however, maintains the unity of God in such a way as to insist that whatever belongs to God Himself belongs to Him alone. For so will it belong to Himself if it belong to Him alone; and therefore it will be impossible that another god should be admitted, when it is permitted to no other being to possess anything of God. Well, then, you say, we ourselves at that rate possess nothing of God. But indeed we do, and shall continue to do— only it is from Him that we receive it, and not from ourselves. For we shall be even gods, if we shall deserve to be among those of whom He declared, I have said, You are gods, and, God stands in the congregation of the gods. But this comes of His own grace, not from any property in us, because it is He alone who can make gods.5
Tertullian here insists that certain properties belong to God alone, and that human beings will never possess those unique properties of deity. They will be “gods” only in the sense that God will declare those to be “gods” whom he graciously deems deserving of this honor, not by virtue of them attaining “any property” that qualifies them as deities. The point here must be understood very precisely. Tertullian is not merely saying that human beings can become gods only by God’s “grace.” The LDS Church could (and in some contexts does) use these same words. Tertullian, however, means by this statement that human beings are accorded a status of “gods” as a gracious honor and not, as Joseph Smith taught, that they are transformed (even if by “grace”) into beings possessing the same properties as God.
Every quotation that Mormon scholars and apologists quote from the church fathers is like the ones just considered from Justin and Tertullian. If one reads the statements in context, one discovers that they express a doctrine that in substance is obviously different from the Mormon doctrine of exaltation.
Christian scholars have responded over the last number of years to Mormon scholars claiming the church fathers as precedent for the Mormon doctrine of becoming gods. Aware of these responses, some Mormons are now admitting quietly that the patristic doctrine was not the same as the Mormon doctrine. For example, a 2014 article posted on the LDS Church’s official website LDS.org quotes from several church fathers and then admits, “What exactly the early church fathers meant when they spoke of becoming God is open to interpretation.” An endnote to that statement cautiously goes a bit further: “There are likely important differences as well as similarities between the thinking of the church fathers and Latter-day Saint teachings.”6
The fact is that whether the early church fathers believed that human beings could literally become God is not open to interpretation or debate; they clearly did not. The Mormon scholar or scholars who wrote the above-cited article obviously knew that, but they chose to bury the point in an endnote, and even there to couch the point in a veiled manner. No one need deny that there are similarities between the doctrine of the early church fathers and the doctrine of Mormonism. For example, both doctrines affirm that human beings may become immortal. The problem is in the differences, and these differences are so great that appeal to the church fathers as precedent for the Mormon doctrine of deification is an exercise in equivocation. One might just as well appeal to Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Hodge, or in our own day practically any evangelical theologian, because they all agree that redeemed people will become immortal, glorious, morally perfect beings.
4. The view of God, man, Christ, and salvation taught by the church fathers is radically opposed to the Mormon doctrine of exaltation.
The difference between the patristic doctrine of deification and Joseph Smith’s doctrine of exaltation can be fully appreciated only by placing these doctrines in their larger theological and worldview contexts. A full-blown treatise on this point is out of the question here; what is presented here is a brief summary and a few example statements from the church fathers.
The doctrine of God. In Mormon doctrine, all humans and all other spirit beings in our world are eternal beings that had no beginning and no creation. Thus, the idea that God is an eternal being is, for Mormonism, in no sense unique. Furthermore, God, though he has existed eternally, has not always been God, but instead became a God by a process of exaltation that we can also undergo. God, according to Joseph Smith (notably in the Book of Abraham), was also not the sole creator or maker of the world. Rather, a plurality of Gods got together and “organized” this world into its present form. God the Father is a physically embodied being, an exalted, immortal Man of flesh and bones, of the same species or kind of being as we are but in a perfected state.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the writings of the church fathers knows their view of God was radically different. For them, God is the only being with no origin, no beginning; he is the only uncreated, unbegotten, unoriginated being. God is the sole creator and everything else, including all other intelligent beings, exist solely as the result of his creative will. God is by nature an incorporeal being who transcends space, and who has been God from all eternity, and who is eternally unchanging in his divine being.
So, according to Justin Martyr, “That which always maintains the same nature, and in the same manner, and is the cause of all other things—that, indeed, is God.”7 Justin denies that God is a physical or embodied being. “And again, when He says, ‘I shall behold the heavens, the works of Thy fingers,’ unless I understand His method of using words, I shall not understand intelligently, but just as your teachers suppose, fancying that the Father of all, the unbegotten God, has hands and feet, and fingers, and a soul, like a composite being; and they for this reason teach that it was the Father Himself who appeared to Abraham and to Jacob.”8 Robert M. Grant comments on Justin’s theological reasoning here: “Justin absolutely rejects a literal interpretation of biblical metaphors: God does not have hands, feet, fingers, or soul, for he is not composite (Dial. 114, 3); he is not moved nor does he walk, sleep, or wake. Though he can be said to be ‘in the heavens’ or ‘above heaven’ or ‘above the universe,’ he is not really located in space at all (Dial. 127, 3).”9
Other church fathers also taught that God is the sole uncreated Creator of all else that exists. Here are a couple of examples:
Tatian: Our God did not begin to be in time: He alone is without beginning, and He Himself is the beginning of all things. God is a Spirit, not pervading matter, but the Maker of material spirits, and of the forms that are in matter; He is invisible, impalpable, being Himself the Father of both sensible and invisible things.10
Irenaeus: But the things established are distinct from Him who has established them, and what have been made from Him who has made them. For He is Himself uncreated, both without beginning and end, and lacking nothing. He is Himself sufficient for Himself; and still further, He grants to all others this very thing, existence; but the things which have been made by Him have received a beginning.11
Doctrine of Christ. According to Mormon doctrine, Jesus Christ was one of God’s billions of spirit children, but the first to become a God alongside God the Father. When Christ became a physical man on earth, he was progressing toward a fuller or more complete realization of his divine potential because the Father himself is an exalted man of flesh and bones. Deity and humanity are simply two different phases of the same species or kind of being.
In the teaching of the church fathers, however, the Son was already fully God before he became a man, and he was God’s “Son” in an absolutely unique sense. To be “the Son” meant that he was of the same nature as God the Father—that he was deity by nature, just as the Father was. The Incarnation was God the Son’s gracious act of humbling himself for our salvation and the Father’s honor, not a stage of the Son’s own full deification. In becoming a man, Jesus Christ assumed human nature united perfectly and uniquely to his divine nature. Thus the incarnate Son is a paradoxical person, the union of infinite deity with finite humanity.
We see this doctrine expressed in startling clarity very early in the second century: “Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and impassible, yet who became passible on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes.”12 According to Irenaeus, the Logos (John’s name for the preincarnate Christ in John 1:1, 14) “took up man into Himself, the invisible becoming visible, the incomprehensible being made comprehensible, the impassible becoming capable of suffering.”13
If God the Son, the Logos, was eternal, invisible, impassible Deity, who then became incarnate as a man in order to be a visible, material human being and suffer in history for our salvation, then Christ is the only human being who was or ever will be Deity. He is not a man who became a God, but was rather God who became a man for our sakes. The patristic doctrine of Christ, understood in its full context, is absolutely incompatible with Joseph Smith’s doctrine of exaltation.
Doctrine of man. We have already touched on some of the obvious differences between Joseph Smith’s doctrine of man and that of the church fathers. For Joseph Smith, human beings have existed from eternity, with no beginning; they are uncreated beings. Moreover, they were gods in embryo existing in heaven before coming to the earth for the purpose of continuing their maturation toward becoming full-fledged Gods.
For the church fathers, human beings are creatures made by God and having a definite beginning to their existence. Most of the church fathers were very clear on the point that human existence begins with our physical lives, not as preexistent spirits (the third-century Origen was a notable exception, though even he believed those spirits were created beings). Human beings are not naturally disposed toward becoming gods, but God graciously adopts humans as his children and bestows on them immortality so that they may live as honorary “gods” with eternal life. A clear statement of the sharp divide between God and man is offered, for example, by Clement of Alexandria:
But it has escaped their notice, though they be near us, that God has bestowed on us ten thousand things in which He does not share: birth, being Himself unborn; food, He wanting nothing; and growth, He being always equal; and long life and immortality, He being immortal and incapable of growing old.14
Doctrine of salvation. In Mormon doctrine, we were already eternal beings before coming to the earth. We came as mortals here in order to become resurrected beings with physical immortality, which is what Joseph Smith taught that God the Father had done. To become “Gods,” in his doctrine, meant to become omnipotent beings, to become beings of the same nature as our God and with the capacity to do the same sorts of divine acts (e.g., creation) as our Heavenly Father.
For the church fathers, as we have already seen, we are physical, temporal beings by nature, created as such by God, though with the intended purpose that God would eventually make us immortal. Through our faith relationship and spiritual union with Christ, we who are redeemed will participate in God’s immortality, incorruption, and holiness, and in that sense will be “gods.” However, we will not become Gods by nature, that is, omnipotent beings of the same nature as God that will be able to do the same sorts of divine acts that God alone does. Irenaeus explained:
For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality.15
When all is said and done, the church fathers’ doctrine of deification is more notable for its sharp contrasts with Joseph Smith’s doctrine of exaltation than for its superficial verbal similarities to some of the things that Joseph said. G. L. Prestige, in his classic textbook on the patristic doctrine of God, offers an exceptionally clear statement of the nature of their view of deification:
All such expressions of the deification of man are, it must be remembered, purely relative. They express the fact that man has a nature essentially spiritual, and to that extent resembling the being of God; further, that he is able to attain a real union with God, by virtue of an affinity proceeding both from nature and from grace. Man, the Fathers might have said, is a supernatural animal. In some sense his destiny is to be absorbed into God. But they would all have repudiated with indignation any suggestion that the union of men to God added anything to the godhead. They explained the lower in terms of the higher, but did not obliterate the distinction between them. Not only is God self-dependent. He has also all those positive qualities which man does not possess, the attribution of which is made by adding the negative prefix to the common attributes of humanity. In addition, in so far as humanity possesses broken lights of God, they are as far as possible from reaching the measure and perfection with which they are associated in the godhead. Real power and freedom, fullness of light, ideal and archetypal spirit, are found in Him alone. The gulf is never bridged between Creator and creature. Though in Christ human nature has been raised to the throne of God, by virtue of His divine character, yet mankind in general can only aspire to the sort of divinity which lies open to its capacity through the union with the divine humanity. Eternal life is the life of God. Men may come to share its manifestations and activities, but only by grace, never of right. Man remains a created being: God alone is agenetos [without origin].16
In conclusion, the Mormon doctrine of exaltation was not in any meaningful sense a restoration of a lost doctrine attested in the church fathers. The doctrine of theosis was never lost, and the doctrine of deification taught by the church fathers was radically different from the doctrine Joseph Smith taught. Joseph taught that God was once a mortal man who became exalted to Godhood, and that we can do the same thing and become Gods of the same nature and powers as our God. The church fathers taught that God is the only uncreated, eternal Being, existing eternally and unchangeably as God, and that he created human beings to become “gods” in the sense that they may be adopted as his children and receive immortality as the gift of his grace.
1. Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 425.
2. Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, 477.
3. Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 400.
4. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 124, emphasis added.
5. Tertullian, Against Hermogenes 5, emphasis added.
7. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 3.
8. Dialogue with Trypho 114.
9. Robert M. Grant, The Early Christian Doctrine of God (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1966), 22.
10. Tatian, Address to the Greeks, ch. 4.
11. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.8.3.
12. Ignatius, To Polycarp 3.2 (short version).
13. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.16.6.
14. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 5.11.
15. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.19.1.
16. G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: SPCK, 1959), 74-75.