Alt SS: Theosis — Humans partaking of the Divine Nature

by: Stephen Marsh

March 23, 2012

Theosis is the doctrine that we can be a partaker of the divine nature.  While a core LDS doctrine, what type of theosis we believe in is not clear, and it has never made the status of an Article of Faith or a revelation in the Doctrine and covenants.  It is the doctrine that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

The Wikipedia entry begins as follows:

In Christian theology, divinization, deification, making divine or theosis is the transforming effect of divine grace.[1] This concept of salvation is historical and fundamental for Christian understanding that is prominent in the Eastern Orthodox Church and also in the Catholic Church,[2][3] and is a doctrine of growing importance in certain Protestant denominations, being revived in Anglicanism in the mid-19th century.[1]

It would make a great Sunday School lesson to go over the history of the doctrine, and then the various approaches to it that have been taken by different people in the Church.  The lesson would start off a little dry, but should pick up.

I would start with the dry part.  Theosis as taught in the early Christian Church.  I’d just use this section from Wikipedia for a quick introduction.

According to Jonathan Jacobs, there were many and varied appeals to divinization in the writings of the Church Fathers.[5] As what he asserts is “just a small sample”, he lists the following:

  • St. Irenaeus of Lyons stated that God “became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.”[6]
  • St. Clement of Alexandria says that “he who obeys the Lord and follows the prophecy given through him . . . becomes a god while still moving about in the flesh.” [7]
  • St. Athanasius wrote that “God became man so that men might become gods.”[8]
  • St. Cyril of Alexandria says that we “are called ‘temples of God’ and indeed ‘gods’, and so we are.”
  • St. Basil the Great stated that “becoming a god” is the highest goal of all.
  • St. Gregory of Nazianzus implores us to “become gods for (God’s) sake, since (God) became man for our sake.”

Referring to such declarations by the Fathers, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that the central tenet of deification is that, through the incarnation of his Son, God has called human beings to share God’s own life in the Son. It quotes Athanasius: “The Word became flesh … that we, partaking of his Spirit, might be deified” (De Decretis, 14); and Cyril of Alexandria: “We have all become partakers of Him, and have Him in ourselves through the Spirit. For this reason we have become partakers of the divine nature” (In Ioannem, 9).[1]

Saint Augustine pictured God telling him: “I am the food of grown men, grow, and thou shalt feed upon Me, nor shalt thou convert Me, like the food of thy flesh, into thee, but thou shalt be converted into Me.”[9] “To make human beings gods,” Augustine said, “He was made man who was God” (sermon 192.1.1) This deification, he wrote, is granted by grace

Ok, I’d add the dates for each of these statements, probably in the lesson footnotes, but not that much more.  The meat of the lesson would come next, the various approaches to theosis found in the LDS Church.  I would use phrases or labels that would make them easy to remember.

First, Baptist Infused Theosis or Biblical Inerrant Theosis

This approach is taken by those who take the Bible as the literal inerrant word of God.  I think of them as Baptist infused Mormons since inerrant scripture is a Baptist hallmark.  This theosis comes straight from the Bible and taking it literally.

  • Romans 8:17.  And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. [A "joint-heir" is an heir who has an equal portion, in Romans 8:17 Paul taken literally is saying that we inherit the same portion of glory as Christ and are glorified together with him.]
  • John 17:21 where Christ prays that God will make his disciples one with him as he is one with God.
  • Romans 6:5 “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his”
  • John 8:28 and similar scriptures that say Christ said nothing and did nothing save what he was given of the Father or that God did first.

That is pretty close to many of the early Christian teachings and has a good dose of evangelical triumphalism in it as well. It contrasts well with the next type of being fearfully and wonderfully made.

Hinckley-Johanin Theosis or “We aren’t quite sure.”

This doctrine of theosis stems from John’s doctrines as found at 1 John 3:2:

Beloved, now are we the children of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.

That is a theosis, but states that we, like John, are not quite sure what it means exactly.  It fits well with Moroni 7:48 in the Book of Mormon.

48 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, apray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true bfollowers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall cbe like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be dpurified even as he is pure. Amen.

That is more of a theosis in that we are purified through Christ and thereby like God, without much of a definition.  It leads us into the next approach to theosis.

Amway-Relativistic Theosis

This is a theosis whereby men partake of the divine nature, but the gap between God and man remains the same — we are, in Amway terms, part of God’s downline.  As a result, whatever becomes of humans merely pushes God further up.  Given that infinity has densities (cf Aleph numbers), why not eternity?

In this type of theosis, the relationship between God and Man remains the same.  No matter what God gives us or makes of us, God retains the same essential distance in relative power and glory, always infinitely ahead of us.  It fits the Wikipedia comments.

2 Peter 1:4 explicitly speaks of becoming “partakers of the Divine nature”. Closely allied are the teachings of Paul the Apostle that through the Spirit we are sons of God (as in chapter 8 of his Epistle to the Romans). Paul conceives of the resurrection as immortalization (1 Cor 15:42-49) in conformation to the divine Christ. He also envisions believers as gaining superhuman power over the world, angels, and Satan (1 Corinthians 3:21-23; 1 Corinthians 6:2-3; Romans 16:20). Both immortality and power are constituents of deity. Christians do not become independent gods, but are conformed to Christ’s deity.[4] See also the Gospel according to John on the indwelling of the Trinity (as in chapters 14-17).[1]. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 says that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another”. In John 10:34, Jesus himself quoted Psalms 82:1 in saying “Ye are gods.”

And that leads us to the final doctrinal approach to theosis.

Teach nothing (but repentance)

In the Doctrine and Covenants, God goes on the record several times about avoiding doctrinal speculation and sticking to teaching repentance.

  • Doctrine and Covenants 11:9

    9 Say nothing but repentance unto this generation. Keep my commandments, and assist to bring forth my work, according to my commandments, and you shall be blessed.

  • Doctrine and Covenants 6:9

    9 Say nothing but repentance unto this generation; keep my commandments, and assist to bring forth my work, according to my commandments, and you shall be blessed.

Of course, at the extreme, this translates to teaching nothing about faith, or baptism or anything else by repentance, which is (obviously?) not what God intended … but we will put our trust in God and let that guide our belief.  Which leads to …


Wrapping the lesson up.

The scriptures talk a lot about Theosis.

What do you believe about Theosis?  How do you think we, as children of God, partake of the divine nature and what does it mean?  Which of these approaches appeals to you?  Why?  Do you combine them?  Do you reject any of them? As 1 Corinthians 2:9 states: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”

What do you think God has prepared?  Do you think you can really understand Theosis before Christ appears?  What do you intend to teach your children about it?

There is a lot to think about when looking at Theosis.  Always has been.  What do you think?

15 Responses to Alt SS: Theosis — Humans partaking of the Divine Nature

  1. Frank Pellett on March 23, 2012 at 3:12 PM

    Did the historical thought on theosis simply ignore women – did women have a place in becoming like God, who, in the early Christian churches, was most definitly male?

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  2. FireTag on March 23, 2012 at 3:40 PM

    Any post with alephs in it has got to earn a “like” from me, but I must admit that the structure to theosis is not something I can begin to grasp.

    So put me down as a lazy Amway.

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  3. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 23, 2012 at 4:55 PM

    Good point Frank. While the word “man” originally did not mean “male” (there was a separate word for male man, just like there is the word woman for female man) many of the early writers were influenced by Greek thought that included a belief that women were not the same.

    So, some can be said to include women while others did not.

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  4. bonnieblythe on March 23, 2012 at 7:03 PM

    Fun lesson. We play around the corners of this when we teach justification/ sanctification, which I hit just as often as the class will tolerate. I think next time I’ll toss in a little theosis as well, watch a few people’s eyes roll back in their heads, and toughen them up a bit more in their confidence with doctrines that sound “hard” to them. Based on what we’ve talked about over the last few years, I think my students tend to be extremely pragmatic about it: i.e. that’s what I want, what do I have to do to get there? Process, process, process, that’s what we talk about. Do A, B, C to get to Z. The scriptures are usually pretty kind to process thinkers. Maybe we’ll play a bit with Do A, B, C in manner H, I, J (pick one, any one!) to get to Z.

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  5. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 23, 2012 at 7:58 PM

    Thanks Bonnie. I think people need more background to understand the concept. Glad you are helping people think.

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  6. Mark D. on March 24, 2012 at 1:00 AM

    I believe that theosis is far and away best understood as a high cardinality variation of social trinitarianism, where we gradually become one with God the same way that any individual is – shared, indwelling glory, harmony of spirit and of purpose, and adoption of and participation in the divine nature.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perichoresis

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  7. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 24, 2012 at 4:44 AM

    Mark, “divine choir” theosis. I need, some day, to do a seperate post on that. And on “masks if God” theosis — because both overlap with other concepts.

    But keep theosis in mind next time you take the sacrament.

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  8. Mark D. on March 24, 2012 at 7:23 PM

    Stephen M, I like call to call it the divine concert myself, and as far as I can tell it is the only way to properly make the gospel symmetric across individuals, i.e. rather than having one gospel for ordinary folk and a different gospel for the exalted.

    The way I see it, the gospel that we assume applies to exalted persons doesn’t apply to individuals at all, and yet despite this inapplicability it distorts how we often view the ordinary gospel and our role in it in all sorts of pernicious ways. Like tending to downplay the role of grace, for example – or the necessity of at-one-ment with God, or the proper understanding of the Godhead, and on and on.

    A God that isn’t multi-personal isn’t subject to the gospel as we know it, at all.

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  9. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 24, 2012 at 7:50 PM

    divine concert — I have in the past as well. I had one of those moments when I could not spell concert on my cell phone without the spell checker giving me other words :)

    You mix that with a Joseph Campbell “masks of God”/Heroquest approach and you get some really interesting things.

    Otherwise, you take what Joseph Smith said about how the community of the saints was filled with flawed people that Christ was going to save, and some synergies appear that agree with you.

    Hmm, wonder who hit “dislike” on #7 and why?

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  10. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 24, 2012 at 7:51 PM

    Ahh, it was my personal troll who came by and disliked everything I posted. Ok, that explains that.

    Welcome back from Brazil.

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  11. Mark D. on March 25, 2012 at 11:39 AM

    I suspect my belief is rather more literal than that of Joseph Campbell. The best thing the divine concert has going for it is that between the lines, it appears to be taught all over the New Testament and the Book of Mormon.

    The doctrine of the body of Christ, the significance of taking upon ourselves his name, the precept that we can only be saved through the name of Christ, the necessity of personal sacrifice and participation, of suffering “with him”, of taking upon ourselves the divine nature, of the at-one-ment, of being one with God, and on and on.

    The other day I was reading up about some Catholic traditions, and it appears that to a degree this is understood by them as well, i.e. not just theosis, but literal participation in the body of Christ.

    Whereas Protestants tend to overlook all this stuff, and common Mormon discourse tends to follow that example, i.e. treating Jesus Christ as sui generis and less so the leader of a community of saints who share in his suffering, and account for part of its causal power.

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  12. Wyoming on March 25, 2012 at 8:31 PM

    Good post. I need to reference this post when someone on the internet feigns outrage at our concept of theosis. In this regard, we are biblical literalists. We literally believe that we are the offspring of God and theosis logically follows. The greatest damage the creeds did was to distort who God is and consequently, who we are.

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  13. Mark D. on March 26, 2012 at 7:08 PM

    We literally believe that we are the offspring of God and theosis logically follows

    This could be a topic for discussion all by itself. If theosis naturally follows divine progenitorship, then one is faced with the considerable problem of explaining why salvation only comes through the at-one-ment of Christ, why the natural man is an enemy to God unless he yields to the enticing of the Holy Spirit, and so on.

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  14. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 26, 2012 at 7:18 PM

    Mark D. — you have gotten a great start on some real issues.

    Care to submit a guest post answering them?

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  15. Mark D. on March 27, 2012 at 11:05 PM

    Thanks Stephen. I will see if I can come up with something worthwhile.

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