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Exaltation is Theosis?

In a recent faith column on the historic Christian doctrine of theosis (found here), it is asserted that the Latter-Day Saint (LDS) doctrine of exaltation is either equivalent to or a restatement of this classical Christian doctrine.  Church fathers (patristic) such as Athanasius, Augustine, and even the recent C.S. Lewis are brought to bear in support of this.  However, the thinking behind the two streams of thought are vastly different regardless of any similarity in terminology, as the classical Christian thinking demonstrates.

The doctrine of theosis in classical Christianity can only be understood by the traditional teaching of the Trinity, and in the nature of the Godhead.   In other words, both Eastern and Western fathers have in mind the idea of the Trinity as defined at Nicaea and Chalcedon, councils and creeds that are rejected by the LDS.  One cannot claim patristic support for a doctrine while rejecting the very nature of patristic thinking.   By definition, the three persons of the Trinity (one God in substance) are uncreated, immutable (never changed or changing), eternal, self-existent, Holy, and the supreme and ultimate source of all things, including time and space itself (Augustine, On the Trinity).  God is not a man (Hosea 11:9), and has always been God.  Humans, while created in the image of God, are finite beings created out of nothing (ex nihilo), and are completely dependent on the Trinitarian God for existence (Tertullian, Against Marcion).   Put another way, God minus the universe equals God, while the opposite is impossible.

When the church fathers such as Athanasius, Augustine, and others referred to the doctrine of theosis, these concepts of God and human nature were clearly in mind.  In order to reconcile humans to God because of sin, the second person of the Trinity (including all the attributes above, always being God before and never ceasing to be God) took on flesh, humbling himself.   By doing so, the gulf between humans and God has been “bridged” for those who have faith in Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection.   The incarnation is God becoming flesh, not a man becoming god by exaltation.  Theosis states that because of Christ, believing humans now can be united to him, and become “partakers” or “participants” in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).  Union with the Trinitarian God of the Bible does not mean we become God in essence, but that we achieve status by grace to be called sons of God as co-heirs of Christ.

Through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, we are cleansed and made more and more like Christ, ultimately perfected in the final judgment and bodily Resurrection.  This does NOT mean that humans become God (or even like God) in his essential creator capacity or essential attributes, but that we are changed and glorified by our union in Christ.  We still retain our distinction as created humans with personalities, and will always remain human in a glorified state, completely dependent on the supreme Trinitarian God of the universe.   The human does not become a god unto himself or by nature, but is united to Christ by grace, pardoned for sin (Oden, Classic Christianity).   It must also be remembered that classical Christianity looks forward to the Resurrection of the body, where “people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).

This concept of the believer’s ultimate glorification and union with Christ in classical Christian teaching is a far cry from the LDS concept of exaltation, in which men can become exactly as God is in essence (including the creation of new worlds), because God was also once a mortal man (Gospel Principles, 1992, 305).  Such a view is completely foreign to the church fathers, who believed in the classical view of the Trinity as outlined above, a belief still held by orthodox Christians across denominational lines today.  Utilizing these church fathers and the Scriptures in support of a doctrine at variance with classical Christianity is to completely decontextualize both, and is an exercise in eisegesis, or “reading into the text” what one wants to find.

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9 Comments

  1. Barb says:

    Can you explain to me exactly who Jesus Christ is according to your theology? I read your article in the ISJ with interest, but I need more info on who Christ is. Is he a separate being from God? Is He God himself who somehow transmogrified part of himself into flesh for the purpose of bridging godhood to humanity?

    • Hello Barb, thank you for your reply to the column here. In classical Christian theology, Christ is not separate from God, but is truly God himself. He is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) or the “Word” (John 1). In the words of the Nicene Creed:

      (I believe)…in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.”

      In other words, Christ is and always been God, and is called the “Son” or “the second person of the Trinity” to designate his function in the Triune God of the Bible. His incarnation is “for our salvation.” This being said, by taking on flesh (incarnation) he did not “transmorgify” as if he changed who he is. Rather, his divine nature was united with humanity, which in theological terms is called the “hypostatic union,” meaning he is both fully God and fully man, “without division or confusion” (Chalcedon). It must be remembered that he did this out of love to save us from our sins, which then allows us to “become partakers of the divine nature” (theosis), hence the explanation of the doctrine in the column. Union with Christ (who is fully God) however does not mean we become gods unto ourselves, but like the Orthodox analogy from the column I responded to says, it is “like a hot iron in a fire.” We are the iron, and can be transformed by the fire, but never become fire by nature.

      I hope this helps…if you would like me to clarify anything please ask. Also, for a good study if you have a bible handy, see this link:

      http://www.lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=955

      • Barb says:

        Thanks so much for the explanation. I know I think in terms concrete in nature, and thinking of one entity really being two is a hard concept for me to grasp. Not because I don’t want to, but simply because I don’t understand how it works. Your analogy of the fire and the hot iron really helps, and as I ponder the idea of the Triune and study a bit more, maybe it will all make sense to me.

        I know too many people who believe in their faith because that’s what their parents told them to believe in regardless of “proof” or any substance of knowledge on their part. I am at a point in my life where I want to believe because I have studied and made sense of the idea of God, etc., not just because I was told to believe and it will all work out somehow. Thoreau taught us to question all we read, and I suppose I’m finally at that stage where I need to know for myself.

  2. Barb says:

    Another question. After we die and go to heaven to become “like” angels (who are the real angels?) what will we do for the rest of eternity? I have heard that the LDS church believes that some will have the opportunity to work toward godhood, which I know you do not believe, but I have often wondered if we don’t have something to progress toward, what would be the point of living for eternity? I wonder if existing for eternity with no hope of achieving anything greater than we are at the point of resurrection could become a hell in and of itself. So my question for you, I suppose, is what type of progression do you see for us in the afterlife that could give me the type of optimism that the LDS church has tried to give its members?

    • Hello Barb, you ask two questions here, so I’ll do my best to answer briefly, by using Thomas Oden’s Classic Christianity (which sums up consensual orthodox Christian teaching) as a resource:

      First, an angel is

      “a messenger of God, a spiritual creature endowed with free will and capable of divine praise, yet unencumbered with bodily existence. Angels are incorporeal, lacking bodies. They are not limited to the here and now…Jesus himself was a recipient of the ministry of angels (Matthew 4:11) A Countless number of angels are said to surround the throne of God (Hebrews, 12:22, Revelation 5:11)…(the classical Christian tradition) has almost universally affirmed the spiritual world, created by God. The sacred texts tell of superpersonal intelligences-angelic hosts.” (Oden, Classic Christianity, 132).

      This being said, while redeemed humans will become “like the angels of heaven” in the words of Christ in the column, believing humans still are glorified with a resurrected body and different from angels, and are not the same “species.” 1 Corinthians 6 indicates that believers will actually judge angels (most likely those who have fallen).

      As far as “what we will do,” in heaven, it must be remembered that in heaven, those who have been redeemed by Christ and united to him in glory are in the presence of the almighty God. It is impossible for us finite human beings to understand or even begin to comprehend what it will be like to be in perfect communion with the almighty creator God of the universe. Death, pain, disease, and the sin that we associate with life will be eradicated. The very idea of “boredom” would be impossible in the presence of the most perfect and greatest being possible. The very concept of progression assumes the idea of time, which is foreign in heaven. We as finite beings can only use the concepts of “forever” or “no end” to try an conceptualize what being outside of time in perfect blessedness really means.

      Since humans are created in the image of God to have worshipful communion with him, simply being in a “right relationship” in heaven will be the most fulfilling thing possible, since this is what humans were originally created for in the first place. Still, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Corinthians 2:9), and we must be willing to admit as finite and fallen humans that we will never understand until the judgement and the “consummation” of all things what heaven will be like for those in Christ. I cannot think of anything more optimistic than something greater than can possibly be imagined.

      • Barb says:

        Thanks for answering my questions. Too often when I ask questions on religion, I get a condescending answer rather than a well-thought out, well-supported answer, and I appreciate that. I am such a religious neophyte who has so much to learn.
        I truly appreciate the time you have taken to teach me, and I look forward to reading more of your articles.

  3. Very to-the-point, thorough, and scholarly. I read this in the Journal today, though I hadn’t read the column you were responding to on exaltation; hopefully it will receive the attention it deserves. I look forward to seeing more of your work in the Journal.

    Take care.

    • Benjamin, thank you for your kind response. If you would like to see the original article in which the LDS doctrine is equated with the classical Christian doctrine, please see this link:
      http://blackfootjournal.com/?p=6698

      The church fathers are quoted correctly, but in support of something foreign to their thought.

      Thanks again for the positive feedback.

  4. […] But I am not convinced.  Are you?  One defender of the Judea-Christian tradition shares with you some of his thoughts  on our discussion in S.E. […]

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