William LaDuke and Dr. James L. Siebach, Philosophy
Although I have not yet researched the subject as thoroughly as I had planned, I have discovered some interesting things about the deification of man in early Christianity. I began by searching the secondary literature and found that there was much more written on the subject than I had expected. The idea of deification was commonplace; for many, it was synonymous with salvation.
The concept of deification can be traced from Plato through Jewish theologians and philosophers, such as Philo, to the early Christians. However, this does not mean that the early Christians simply adopted the doctrine from these philosophers. Although the Christian fathers occasionally refer to non-Christian philosophers when discussing deification, many more of these discussions refer to Biblical passages. So, it seems that the primary source for their claims about deification were scriptural.
The problem with any study of Christian doctrine during this early period is that there was no such thing as orthodoxy. The doctrines of the church had not yet been standardized, which makes it difficult to form a clear picture of their concept of deification. Nevertheless, there is enough commonality to give a general outline of the doctrine.
As mentioned, deification was equated with salvation. It was typically described as a union with God or participation in him. This union is accomplished by means of the Spirit. When the Spirit fills a person, she becomes assimilated to God and is one with him. This, of course, is not possible without Christ. “[He] lowered himself in order to lift to his own height that which was lowly by nature . . . therefore, just as he became like us, that is man, in order that we might become like him, I mean gods and sons, he takes to himself what is properly ours and gives us in return what is his”(1).
The state of the deified man is much like that of the resurrected Christ. It is to be as much like God as possible without actually being one in substance with him. Origen says that the virtue of the deified man is identical to that of God (2). However, there are important differences between God and a deified man. Most of the Christian fathers believed in a physical resurrection. Thus, the deified man would have a physical, though glorified, body, whereas none of them believed that God had such a body. God was considered uncreated, and this is what constituted his perfection and godliness; he was divine by nature. Man, on the other hand, was created and only became god through the grace of God.; he was divine by adoption. This position is summed up well by Augustine: “It is evident, then, that he hath called men gods, that are deified of his grace, not born of his substance. For he doth justify, who is just through his own self, and not of another; and he doth deify, who is God through himself, not by partaking of another” (3). An important consequence of this point is that deified man does not have the ability to deify others, as God does.
In my proposal for this research project, I discussed how this subject ought to hold interest for LDS people since we believe in a doctrine similar to this doctrine of deification. I wanted to argue that those who criticize the LDS doctrine are also unknowingly criticizing the early church fathers who formulated standard Christian doctrine, if there is such a thing. I have found that because of important differences between the doctrine discussed in this report and that of the LDS church, such an argument is not as strong as I hoped it would be. While my research shows that a doctrine of man becoming god should not be surprising and offensive, it also shows that the LDS doctrine can be criticized from the standpoint of traditional Christianity. The biggest point of difference is the LDS belief in the corporeality of God, from which all the other differences can probably be derived. The early Christian theologians would never accept such a doctrine, nor its consequences.
- Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John 12.1.
- Origen, Contra Celsus 4.29.
- Augustine, Exposition on the Psalms 49.2.