In the book How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation, an evangelical professor, Craig L. Blomberg, from Denver Seminary, and an LDS professor, Stephen E. Robinson, from Brigham Young University, engage in an honest exchange over the similarities and the differences between LDS and evangelical Christian belief. In chapter 2 they cover the topic of "God and Deification," and within the context of his presentation of LDS doctrine, Professor Robinson states the following in a footnote:
So many others in the Christian tradition have used the term gods to refer to the glorified saints. Evangelicals are always telling me that these authors used the term gods differently from the way the LDS do—but I can never understand the basis of the claim. When I read Clement or Irenaeus or C. S. Lewis and say, "There! That's exactly what I believe," Evangelicals usually answer, "No, that's not what you believe at all."1
The aim of this chapter is to begin to clarify why Professor Robinson would find an equivalence to his belief in exaltation in the doctrinal writings of patristic authors as well as why his belief in an exact parallel would be challenged by his non-LDS friends. Thus, the similarities and the differences between the doctrines of theosis and exaltation will be covered before offering a concise analysis of the precise relationship between the two doctrines in question.
Terminology and Attributes
The most profound similarity between theosis and exaltation is reflected in the fact that the exact same terminology is used to describe the status of those persons who attain the full blessings of salvation: they are gods. Although the process for attaining salvation is different, the core idea in both doctrinal systems is the same: humans become "partakers of the divine nature." The attributes and qualities of deity become the attributes and qualities of the divinized human person.
The Centrality of Christ
Another profound similarity between the doctrines of theosis and exaltation concerns the person of Christ. In both patristic writings and in LDS teachings, Jesus Christ is the one who makes human divinization a possibility. The doctrine of theosis highlights the incarnation of Christ as the central moment in salvation history because through it the perfect union of humanity and divinity was realized. And there is agreement that, apart from Christ, no human person could ever overcome the obstacles of physical or spiritual death. Through Christ's sacrificial death the sins of all humanity are forgiven, and because of his resurrection all persons who have ever lived will experience the resurrection of their own bodies. Christ, then, is at the heart and center of the doctrines of theosis and exaltation.
Role of Human Works
Human cooperation and participation in the process of salvation is essential to both theosis and exaltation. The patristic doctrine of synergy and the LDS doctrine of grace can be described as both-and systems when it comes to the relationship between human works and divine grace in that both teach that God does not bring about salvation by "grace alone." Although the primacy is always on the enabling power of God's grace, the engagement in good works is crucial for the development of a "godly" personality. Personal growth through freely chosen virtuous activity is essential if the new life given in baptism is to have any effect or contribute towards the process of divinization.
Role of Ritual
The doctrines of theosis and exaltation both teach that God uses material realities, sacraments and ordinances respectively, to communicate his divine life and grace. In fact, the following rituals, recognized by patristic authors as "sacraments," are similar to ordinances found in the LDS Church: baptism, confirmation, eucharist,2 priesthood ordination, marriage, anointing of the sick with oil, confession of sins to a priest. However, a difference does appear when it becomes a question of which sacraments or ordinances are necessary for divinization, such as the need for an eternal marriage in LDS doctrine, which need is not recognized by patristic authors. Likewise, some sacraments are unique to the LDS Church, such as the endowment. As a corollary to this common belief in the role of ritual in the process of human divinization, there is also a common belief that the context in which divinization takes place, the church, is a hierarchically constituted reality governed by priesthood or apostolic authority.
A nonstatic view of heaven is another shared belief. Contrary to a modern mythology which depicts heaven as that place where the saved do nothing more than strum on harps, both the doctrines of theosis and exaltation understand heaven to be a place where divinized humans continue to learn and grow and do. In both systems the idea of "eternal progress" reflects a fundamental belief that humans who become gods will continue in progression and activity forever.
Participation vs. Growth
The most profound difference between the doctrines of theosis and exaltation revolves around the way in which humans become divinized, or become gods. In the doctrine of theosis, divinization comes about through participation in the divine energies of the one divine nature, which divine nature is fully possessed by each of the three divine persons who comprise the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the doctrine of exaltation, divinization comes about through growth of a capacity which is innate to the children born of Heavenly Parents—the Father and his eternal companion. This difference—the difference between participation and growth—can be rooted in two very different ontological understandings of divine nature and human nature.
The doctrine of theosis presupposes that there is a fundamental distinction between uncreated being and created being. God, that is, the three divine persons who are the one God, are understood to be uncreated and eternal. God always has been divine and always will be divine. Human persons, on the other hand, are created from nothing—creatio ex nihilo. They are forever dependent on God for existence. Thus, the divine nature, the nature of God, is fundamentally different from human nature, the nature of human persons. In fact, one can speak of an ontological divide or chasm separating the two: the former is unoriginate, the latter is originate.
The doctrine of exaltation presupposes that God is of the same species as human persons. There is no distinction between uncreated and created beings or persons since all persons, divine as well as human, are uncreated. In other words, intelligence, the core or essence of every person (whether divine or human) is self-existent and eternal, uncreated and uncreatable. Through the process of spirit birth, intelligences are clothed by divine parents with spirit bodies and become autonomous, conscious selves. And just as with human children in relation to their human parents, the spirit children of divine parents possess the innate capacity, as a fact of their spirit birth, to progress and grow up into the likeness of their divine parents.
Thus, for the doctrine of theosis, to become divine means to unite in one created person both his or her own created human nature and the uncreated divine energies of the three uncreated divine persons. In other words, a divinized human person never ceases to be created and human; but insofar as that person is divinized, he or she becomes through grace what he or she is not by nature—divine. Furthermore, to speak of divinization by the divine energies, as opposed to the divine essence, is meant to reflect the ontological distinction between uncreated and created. Only God—the three divine persons—is divine essentially. Only the persons of the Trinity are uncreated and eternal by fact of their nature. Human persons cannot become divine essentially because this would be a logical contradiction. What humans are in essence, by nature, is created and dependent. The divine energies are God himself insofar as he shares his uncreated nature with created persons, thus divinizing them. In this sense, the divinized person is always both created and uncreated, finite and infinite: created and finite by nature, uncreated and infinite by grace, by reason of union with God's divinizing energies. The divinized person becomes all that God is except for identity in essence, which is to say, without ceasing to be created and finite.
In contrast, within the context of the doctrine of exaltation, there is no ontological divide or distinction between human and divine—divine and human do not refer to ontological categories.3 Instead, divine and human signify different levels of progression within a continuum. In other words, some uncreated intelligences have progressed to the point of godhood (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost), while other uncreated intelligences have not and are thus dependent on those who have already done so to attain godhood themselves (human persons). Thus, because humans and God already share a like essence, at some future time humans, as exalted beings, can become exactly as God now is.
Even given this profound difference rooted in ontology, the difference between participation and growth, the doctrines of theosis and exaltation both agree in teaching that divinized humans are always subordinate to the God who makes their divinization a reality. In the case of theosis, this subordination is clearly founded on ontology: those who become "gods by grace" are as dependent for their status as gods as they are for their very existence and being. And while the doctrine of exaltation has as premises the ontological independence of human persons from God and the innate potential of humans to become gods, based on being literally children of divine parents, this is not meant to imply that divinized persons will ever become greater than God or cease to be related to God after the attainment of exaltation.
Latter-day Saints do not, or at least should not, believe that they will ever be independent in all eternity from their Father in heaven or from their Savior Jesus Christ or from the Holy Spirit. Those who are exalted by his grace will always be "gods" (always with a small g, even in the Doctrine and Covenants) by grace, by an extension of his power, and will always be subordinate to the Godhead.4
Despite what our critics claim, the Latter-day Saints do not believe that human beings will ever become the equals of God, or be independent of God, or that they will ever cease to be subordinate to God.5
So just as human children have within their very being the capacity to become mature human adults, provided they receive the assistance of their parents, the doctrine of exaltation teaches that while human persons are ontologically independent of God and have within their very nature a capacity to become divine, they can do so, ultimately, only by the grace of God. In this sense, it is appropriate to refer to exalted persons as "gods by grace" as well.
The Status of the Doctrine
The doctrines of theosis and exaltation can also be seen to differ from one another when one examines the doctrinal status or the level of authority which each has for those who profess belief in it. On the one hand, exaltation is a doctrine explicitly taught in the Doctrine and Covenants, one of the four volumes of scripture within the LDS Church—the other three being the Bible, the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, and the Pearl of Great Price.6 Because only those revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith or his successors which are accepted into this four-volume canon of scripture are considered normative and binding upon the entire membership of the LDS Church—"The standard works contain a selection of revelations or scriptural utterances that are the standard in directing and governing the Church"7—this means that the doctrine of exaltation possesses the highest level of doctrinal authority.
On the other hand, since the doctrine of theosis is a teaching which was never formally defined or promulgated by one of the seven Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Catholic Church of the first millennium, it does not possess the same, highest level of authority as do those doctrines which were formally proclaimed by one of the Ecumenical Councils. To help differentiate between these two levels of doctrinal authority one can make a distinction between the terms dogma and doctrine. A doctrine would refer to any teaching of the church that is commonly taught and believed, whereas a dogma would refer to a doctrine which has been definitively defined and proclaimed by an Ecumenical Council. Thus, all dogmas are doctrines but not all doctrines are dogmas.
While the relation of Jesus Christ to God and the relation of the human and the divine within his person became the subject for doctrinal controversy and dogmatic definition, the saving work of Christ remained dogmatically undefined. Yet it was certainly a major constituent of Christian doctrine—if by doctrine we mean what the church believes, teaches, and confesses, not only in its polemics and creeds, but also in its liturgy and exegesis . . . the doctrine of the person of Christ did become a dogma even though the doctrine of the work of Christ did not.8
However, pointing out that the doctrine of theosis does not possess the highest level of doctrinal authority is in no way meant to imply that the doctrine is in any sense doubtful or less true for not having been promulgated by an Ecumenical Council. The lack of a dogmatic definition by an Ecumenical Council in the case of theosis is, in fact, indicative of a lack of doctrinal controversy; the doctrine did not have to be defined because it was never seriously challenged throughout the course of the first millennium.
The Experience of Divinization
Another difference between the doctrines of theosis and exaltation concerns when human persons become divinized. According to the doctrine of theosis, human divinization begins in mortality with baptism since it is through baptism that one first begins to participate in the divinizing energies of God. However, this mortal experience of divinization is not irrevocable. Through sin, one's divinizing relationship with God can be broken; it can be regained, though, through a process of repentance. Furthermore, persons divinized through baptism will only progress and persevere in their status of being "gods by grace" if they grow in virtue and in their relationship with God during their lives. The full experience of divinization will not be realized until the resurrection of the body takes place. In a sense, then, the doctrine of theosis teaches that divinized humans are "infant gods" while in mortality and that they will not come to maturity until that time when their bodies are resurrected.
On the other hand, the doctrine of exaltation teaches that mortal life is a time of preparation for human divinization. While the resurrection of the body is an important and necessary step on the path of human divinization, growth and progress towards divinization will continue even after the resurrection of the body. Eventually, after an unspecified amount of time, one's progression will be complete and at that point divinization, and all the blessings that pertain thereto, will be experienced.
The Meaning of Eternal Progress
As was noted previously, the doctrines of theosis and exaltation both teach a concept of eternal progress; where they differ in this regard has to do with how they specify the meaning of the work and activity that divinized humans will undertake. While patristic writers such as St. Irenaeus and St. Gregory of Nyssa consistently affirm the unlimited potential of the divinized human person, they are just as consistent in their vagueness when it comes to speaking of just what those who experience divinization actually "do." Not so with the doctrine of exaltation. The activities of exalted persons are very clear. They will do all those things that their own Heavenly Parents have done: they will organize matter into universes and worlds; they will produce spirit children; they will provide a plan whereby their spirit children can attain divinization also. Just as they were the recipients of blessings and grace from God, exalted persons become sources of blessing and grace for other intelligences.9
Salvation vs. Divinization
Another significant difference has to do with whether or not all persons who are "saved," or experience salvation, will therefore also experience divinization. According to the doctrine of theosis the answer is "yes"—all persons who are saved by Christ, who enter into heavenly glory are, by definition, divinized. This should not be misconstrued to mean that all such divinized persons will be of an equal status in heaven. On the contrary, there will be differing degrees of divinization among the saved. Those more intensely united to the divinizing energies of God will thereby experience the powers and capacities consequent upon divinization to a greater degree than others who are less intensely united to God's divinizing energies.
In contrast, the doctrine of exaltation does not equate salvation with exaltation or human divinization. As was noted in the previous chapter, LDS doctrine teaches that heaven consists of three kingdoms of glory, the highest of which, the celestial kingdom, is further defined by three distinct levels. All persons who enter into any level of heaven, even the lowest, exist in a saved condition, in a condition of glory which carries with it certain specified blessings. However, only those who live worthy of the highest level of the celestial kingdom will have the capacity to eventually attain exaltation. Therefore, those who are saved without the capacity for attaining exaltation have a limited ability to progress and will serve as ministering servants for those who do inherit the capacity to reach exaltation.10
It has become evident that one cannot discuss soteriology, that is, a theology of salvation, without also speaking of doctrines having to do with the nature of deity—the nature of the God who makes salvation possible. Likewise, the use of doctrines or revelations at all implicitly presupposes an underlying theology on the nature or development of doctrine. Based on the research and study undertaken to provide the expository and comparative work of this thesis, significant similarities, but similarities with significant differences, have been uncovered regarding the nature of God and the issue of the development of doctrine.
Godhead and Trinity
The doctrines of theosis and exaltation both teach that the one God is understood to be three uncreated, eternal, divine persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Within the context of the doctrine of theosis they are referred to as the Trinity; within the context of the doctrine of exaltation as the Godhead. And when it comes to describing the attributes of deity, both the members of the Trinity and the members of the Godhead appear the same. They are always described as perfectly one and as being omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. They are all-loving and desire to bring about the divinization, the perfect happiness, of all human persons. Moreover, the roles or functions of the members of the Trinity are equivalent to those of the Godhead. The Eternal Father is the one who establishes the plan of salvation, the creator of all things. The Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, is the one who serves as the immediate agent of creation, under the direction of the Father. He becomes man and makes possible human salvation through his atoning death and glorious resurrection. The Holy Ghost is a witness or testator to the divinity of Christ, the one who enables human persons to believe in the plan of salvation established by the Father, the person who comes as an abiding, guiding presence through confirmation. However, despite these profound similarities between the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Godhead, there are also profound differences as well.
While the members of the Trinity and the members of the Godhead are all believed to be one, uncreated, and eternal, they are believed to be so in different senses. The members of the Trinity are uncreated and eternal in the sense that they are outside of time, which is their creation, and have always been divine—there never was a time when the members of the Trinity were not fully divine persons. As they are now, they have always been and always will be. Further, the oneness of the members of the Trinity is ontologically based. While each of the three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is truly a person distinct from the others, each possesses the fullness of the one divine nature. To clarify this point, it will be worthwhile to repeat the words of Vladimir Lossky:
There is no partition or division of nature among the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Hypostases [Persons] are not three parts of a whole, of the one nature, but each includes in Himself the whole divine nature.11
The members of the Godhead, on the other hand, are uncreated and eternal in the sense that their intelligences are uncreated and eternal. They exist and have always existed within the context of the space-time continuum. As they are now, they will always be, but they have not always been as they are now. From the perspective of this universe and the people on this earth, the Father has certainly always been divine; but strictly speaking, he was not always a god. At one point he was a mortal man, and through a process of growth and progression he "became God."12
Jesus Christ began to be the son of the Father at a particular point in time such that, prior to that time, his eternal and uncreated intelligence was not related to the Father. And like his Father, Christ was not always a god, having attained his exalted status during his premortal life. Admittedly, the Holy Ghost is the most mysterious member of the Godhead. While it is clear from LDS scriptures that he is a god and that he is a male person possessing a spirit body, his origin and destiny have not yet been revealed. It is probably safe to assume that in some way, like Jesus Christ, he became a god without first experiencing a mortal life.
Furthermore, the union of the three divine persons who make up the Godhead is moral, not ontological. In other words, they are one because they are perfectly "unified in purpose," perfectly united in will.13 Thus, ontologically speaking, the three divine persons of the Godhead are distinct and unrelated because their intelligences, the essence of their natures, are autonomous and independent in terms of being. The members of the Godhead become "one" through a common, voluntary agreement, not through ontological necessity. Ultimately, then, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Godhead can be categorized as functionally equivalent yet ontologically distinct descriptions of deity.
The Development of Doctrine
The doctrines of theosis and exaltation are both alike in their genesis. In other words, the present content of the doctrines, their present formulations, were not present as such, in either case, from the beginning. The first clear mention of what is now known as the doctrine of theosis can be found in the writings of St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (c. 130—c. 202).14 This doctrine of salvation in which humans can become gods continued to be reflected upon and its implications were more and more worked out over the course of centuries. The doctrine of theosis did not really attain its present form until the fourteenth century when, in the heat of doctrinal controversy, St. Gregory Palamas (1296—1359) achieved what is now known as the "Palamite synthesis." Similarly, the content of the doctrine of exaltation was revealed "line upon line, precept upon precept" to the Prophet Joseph Smith.15 While he received his first revelation, the "first vision," in 1820 and established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830, it would not be until 1844, the year of the Prophet Joseph's untimely death, that the doctrinal structure of the LDS Church and the doctrine of exaltation would be in place.16 However, while it certainly took time for both the doctrines of theosis and exaltation to attain their present forms, nevertheless, there still remain important differences as to how doctrine and revelation develop.
At the risk of being overly simplistic, the patristic authors who explained and developed the doctrine of theosis did not think that thereby they were adding to the revelations of the Church. The person, work, and words of Jesus Christ were believed to be the definitive revelation of God the Father to the world precisely because, since Christ was and is the unique Son and Word of God, the Logos, the Father could not possibly reveal or utter anything more that was not already contained in the revelation of Jesus Christ. The Apostles, as eyewitnesses of the person, work, and words of Jesus Christ, were the privileged transmitters of this final and full revelation of the Father to the world.
Bishops, whose ordination could be traced to one of the Twelve Apostles, possessed the fullness of apostolic authority and power, and were the divinely appointed arbiters of what was truly part of the apostolic faith and what was not. This supreme power of elucidating and defining the faith handed on to them by the Apostles was fully exercised when bishops gathered together in a worldwide or ecumenical council, whose decisions were not considered authoritative and binding unless ratified by the common consent of the church. The church's acceptance of conciliar definitions and creeds was understood to be a definitive sign that the decisions of the church council in question had in fact been inspired of and protected by the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, within this context, the development of doctrine by church leaders and teachers means the elaboration or explication or the making explicit of what has always been present, at least implicitly, in that full and perfect revelation of the Father which is the person, work, and words of Jesus Christ. And such development of doctrine was and is always subject to the teaching authority of the successors of the Apostles, the bishops. Hence, while it is possible to say that, because of a historical development of doctrine, as is the case with the doctrine of theosis, there is a "newness" to how the revelation of God is understood and articulated, this should not be misconstrued to mean that the doctrines which have developed over time are "new revelations" in the sense that they are supplements or additions to the revelation contained in the person, words, and work of Jesus Christ, which revelation has been handed on by the Apostles and their successors in the apostolic ministry of preserving and handing on the faith.
By way of contrast, the development of doctrine which took place during the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith in general, and in particular with regards to the doctrine of exaltation, is understood to involve not just new articulations of a previous revelation, but completely new and supplemental revelations as well. The person and words and work accomplished by Jesus Christ in "the meridian of time" are all believed to be the high point of the Father's plan of salvation; nevertheless, the revelatory activity of Christ during his ministry on earth is not regarded as definitive or unsusceptible to further additions.17 In fact, the revelations given through the Prophet Joseph Smith in the current "dispensation of the fulness of times" include restorations of revelations given in previous eras of human history as well as knowledge never before revealed in any era of human history.18
For it is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. And not only this, but those things which never have been revealed from the foundation of the world, but have been kept hid from the wise and prudent, shall be revealed unto babes and sucklings in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times.19
In other words, in LDS teaching, salvation history is understood to be a series of dispensations or eras of history in which God reveals himself through the ministry of prophets whom he chooses and calls, and no one dispensation is essentially greater than another since the same basic gospel message and ordinances are proclaimed and administered.
Several fundamentals are common to all dispensations: priesthood authority, baptism by immersion and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, the sealing power (D&C 128:9—11), and temple worship. Basic gospel doctrines, including the fall of Adam, faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, and the need for an infinite atonement, were taught in each era from Adam's day onward whenever there were living prophets selected by the Lord (Moses 5:4—12; D&C 112:29—32).20
Eventually, the church that is established at the beginning of each dispensation apostatizes after a period of time and a restoration eventually comes about through the calling of a new prophet and the establishment of a new dispensation.21 Thus, the development of the doctrine of exaltation which took place over the course of the 1830s and 1840s resulted from ongoing revelations which continued to provide new knowledge, as opposed to deriving new knowledge and insight from an ongoing explication of a revelation definitively given, as is the case with the doctrine of theosis.
How, then, to characterize or summarize the similarities and the differences between the doctrines of theosis and exaltation? In this attempt to comparatively analyze two different ways of describing how humans can become "gods by grace," the conclusion offered at the end of the subsection comparing the Trinity and the Godhead would appear to be tremendously significant. There the doctrines of the Trinity and the Godhead were described as functionally equivalent yet ontologically distinct. Given the similarities and differences detailed in this chapter, it can be said that, like the doctrines of deity which they presuppose, the doctrines of theosis and exaltation are functionally equivalent while being ontologically distinct. In other words, in both cases the results of human divinization are equivalent—humans come to possess divine qualities and attributes, a new manner of life, which they did not possess before and which they could not attain of their own volition. Yet the ways in which human divinization take place—in the case of theosis, through participation, and in the case of exaltation, through growth—are grounded in profoundly different ontological visions of human and divine nature.