Man's Divine Potential
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
One of the most important doctrines of the early Christian church was that we have the potential to become like our Heavenly Father, that is, to attain Godhood.
SELECTED BIBLE PASSAGES:
Matthew 5:48: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."
Romans 8:16‑17: "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: 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."
2 Corinthians 3:18: "But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord."
2 Peter 1:4: "Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust."
1 John 3:2: "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth 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."
12:22‑23: In the heavenly
Revelation 2:26‑27: "To him who is victorious, to him who perseveres in doing my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations‑‑that same authority which I received from my Father‑‑and [quoting Psalm 2:9] he shall rule them with an iron rod, smashing them to bits like earthenware" (NEB).
"To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations‑‑[quoting Psalm 2:9] he will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery‑‑just as I have received authority from my Father" (NIV).
Revelation 3:21: "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne."
Latter‑day Saints are blessed to know that we have the potential to become like our Father in heaven.† Just as earthly fathers want their children to enjoy all that they enjoy, so our Heavenly Father desires that his children receive all of the power and knowledge that he has.
The doctrine of man's ability to attain Godhood appears in several places in the New Testament.† Moreover, this teaching──known as theosis, deification, or divinization──is literally plastered throughout the writings of the early church fathers.
Deification in the New Testament
Let us briefly consider a few of the verses in the New Testament which teach deification.† The author of Hebrews says that God "hath appointed" Christ heir "of all things" (1:1‑2; cf. 1 Peter 3:22).† Together with this, we learn in Romans 8:15‑17 that the faithful are "joint‑heirs with Christ."† Therefore, if we are faithful we will inherit all that Jesus received from the Father, i.e., Godhood.
In Revelation 3:21 we are given this straightforward promise: "To him that overcometh will I [Christ] grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne."† This is another clear expression of the fact that the faithful will inherit all that Christ has received from the Father.
The doctrine of our divine potential is brought out beautifully in the rendering of Ephesians 4:11‑13 found in the New International Version (NIV).† These verses inform us that one of the reasons the church is to have apostles, prophets, and other leaders is that they will help us to attain "the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (NIV).† Obviously, to attain the full measure of the Savior's fullness would be to achieve perfection.
Theosis in John 10:33‑36
John 10:33‑36 records part of an exchange between Jesus and some Jewish scribes in which the Savior cited man's potential for Godhood in order to refute the charge that he had committed blasphemy by claiming to be the Son of God.† In refuting the scribes, Jesus quoted Psalm 82:6, where Elohim says, "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the Most High."
There is a great deal of debate about the precise meaning of this psalm in its Old Testament context.† An analysis of that debate is beyond the scope of the present discussion.† The most important thing about this verse is that Jesus interpreted it to mean that mankind had the potential for deification.
Some commentators disagree and suggest Christ was quoting Psalm 82:6 sarcastically so as to mock and condemn the Jews who were challenging him. †Among other things, advocates of this position point to the Savior's use of the word "called" and maintain that therefore Jesus wasn't teaching that man could actually be deified.† However, such an interpretation does not fit the context of Christ's usage of the psalm, and it takes the logical force out of his argument.† John 10:33‑36 reads as follows in the RSV:
The Jews answered him, "It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God."
Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, you are gods'?† If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, 'You are blaspheming,' because I said, 'I am the Son of God?'"††††
If we say that Psalm 82:6 was quoted merely to condemn the Jewish scribes, then the Savior's argument is deprived of any logical force.† If Christ was not citing Psalm 82:6 to appeal to man's potential for divinization, then the scribes could very well have replied as follows:
How does this psalm help your case?† If you're saying this verse does not mean we can become gods, and if you are only quoting it to† label us as such in order to condemn us, then how does this psalm mitigate your claim to be the Messianic Son of God, i.e., Jehovah come to earth?† What difference does it make if men are merely called "gods" and "sons of the Most High," when you claim to be Yahweh himself (John 8:58)?† Who cares what men are called, when you assert that the Father has placed "all things" in your hands, that you are the key to eternal life, and that no one can come unto the Father except through you (John 3:35‑36; 5:18‑47; 8:13‑42)?
The plain sense of the Savior's reply to the Jews is that he was appealing to man's potential for Godhood to demonstrate the inconsistency of the charge that he had committed blasphemy by claiming to be the Son of God.† In other words, Christ was saying to his detractors, "Why do you accuse me of blasphemy for claiming to be the Son of God when all men are children of the
Most High and have the potential to become like him?"
church fathers Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Jerome (ca. A.D. 340‑420) also
viewed the Savior's use of Psalm 82:6 as a reference to man's potential for
Godhood (Roberts and Donaldson 1:419, 448, 522; 3:608; Jerome 106‑107).††† In addition, some non‑Mormon Bible
scholars have likewise advanced the view that Christ took Psalm 82:6 as a
declaration of man's potential for divinity.†
One such scholar was Ernst W. Benz, who was a professor of Christian
history at the
In the Gospel According to John, this concept [divinization] plays a decisive role in the understanding of man and the portrayal of the messianic self‑consciousness of Jesus. . . .
Jesus takes the passage from Psalms literally as a promise spoken about mankind generally: "Ye are gods," with a view to the fact that the Word of God came to man, to which thing Jesus clearly attributes the power of deification.† Jesus specifically insists that this promise made by God to man‑‑"ye are gods"‑‑has and will retain its validity. (216)
The Early Church Fathers and Deification
doctrine of our potential for Godhood is literally plastered throughout the
writings of the church fathers.† It is
even found in some patristic sources which date to after the middle of the
fourth century, such as the writings of Jerome, for example.† The focus here, however, is on the doctrine
of theosis as it was taught by church fathers who
lived and wrote in the first three and a half centuries of the Christian
era.† Among these fathers were such
nobles as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Hippolytus,
Tertullian, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, and Papias (ca. A.D. 70‑155),
Hippolytus taught that the faithful "may dwell in expectation of receiving what the Father has granted to the Son" (Pagels 107).† In expanding on this sublime truth, Hippolytus described the wonderful blessings that would be awarded to the righteous in the hereafter:
And thou shalt possess an immortal body, even one placed beyond the possibility of corruption, just like the soul.† And thou shalt receive the kingdom of heaven, thou who, whilst thou didst sojourn in this life, didst know the Celestial King.† And thou shalt be a companion of the Deity, and a co─heir with Christ, no longer enslaved by lusts or passions, and never again wasted by disease.† For thou hast become God; for whatever sufferings thou didst undergo while being a man, these he gave to thee, because thou wast of mortal mould, but whatever it is consistent with God to impart, these God has promised to bestow upon thee, because thou hast been deified, and begotten unto immortality.† This constitutes the import of the proverb, "Know thyself," i.e., discover God within thyself, for he has formed thee after his own image. (Roberts and Donaldson 5:153)
Hippolytus pointed out that we must be obedient to be worthy of deification:
But if thou art desirous of also becoming a god, obey him that has created thee, and resist not now, in order that, being found faithful in that which is small you may be enabled to have entrusted to you also that which is great. (Roberts and Donaldson 5:151)
(A.D. 260‑312), bishop of
In discussing man's potential, Clement of Alexandria actually used the verb theopeeos, which means "to be made divine," literally "to make God" (Russell 117 n 30).† Indeed, Clement of Alexandria's salvation theology has been described by W.E.G. Floyd as a "theology of deification" (Russell 117 n 30).†††††
Origen taught that true salvation consisted of being made divine.† He even said "we should flee with all our power from being men and make haste to become gods" (Norman 1975:16; Prestige 73‑74).
G.L. Prestige is certainly correct when he observes that among the early church fathers there was a "vigorous soteriological tradition [salvation doctrine]" which taught that "the destiny of man was to become like God, and even to become deified" (73).
Later theologians felt the need to try to soften the early church's divinization theology.† Some post‑Nicene fathers continued to use deification language but altered its original meaning while working out three─in─oneist formulations.† Extreme limitations and qualifications began to be placed on the doctrine of theosis.† As time went on, deification came to be defined by many as merely achieving some sort of mystical union with God.† However, as we have seen, man's potential for Godhood was affirmed by Christ and his apostles, and by the earliest of the Christian fathers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:† Michael T. Griffith holds a Masterís degree
in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Graduate Certificate in
Ancient and Classical History from American Military University, a Bachelorís
degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, and two Associate in Applied
Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force.† He also holds an Advanced Certificate of
Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll
College.† He is a graduate in Arabic and
Hebrew of the Defense Language Institute in
1.† Phillip Barlow, "Unorthodox Orthodoxy: The Idea of Deification in Christian History," Sunstone (September/October 1983), pp. 13‑18.
2.† Keith Norman, "Divinization: The Forgotten Teaching of Early Christianity," Sunstone (Winter 1975), pp. 15‑19.
3.† Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen Ricks, Offenders for a Word: How Anti‑Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter‑day Saints (Salt Lake City, Utah: Aspen Books, 1992), pp. 75‑81.
4.† Rodney Turner, "The Doctrine of Godhood in the New Testament," Principles of the Gospel in Practice, 1985 Sperry Symposium (Salt Lake City, Utah: Randall Book Company, 1985), pp. 21‑38.
Angus, S.† The Mystery Religions: A Study In The Religious Background Of Early Christianity.†
Barlow, Phillip.† "Unorthodox Orthodoxy: The Idea of Deification in Christian History."† In Sunstone, September/October 1983. 13-18.
Benz, Ernst W.† "Imago
Dei: Man in the Image of God."† In
Truman Madsen, editor, Reflections On Mormonism:
Kelly, J.N.D.† Early Christian Doctrines.† Revised Edition.
Norman, Keith.† "Divinization: The Forgotten Teaching of Early Christianity."† In Sunstone, Winter 1975. 15-19.
Peterson, Daniel C. and Stephen D. Ricks.† Offenders For A Word: How Anti-Mormons
Play Word Games To Attack The Latter-Day Saints.†
Prestige, G.L.† God In Patristic
Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson et al, editors and translators.† The Ante-Nicene Fathers.† Ten Volumes.† Grand
original edition consisted of only nine volumes; volume 10 is an added volume edited by Allan Menzies.
Russell, Jeffrey Burton.† Satan:
The Early Christian Tradition.†
Sparks, Jack N., editor.† The Apostolic Fathers.†
Note: This article is a chapter in the authorís book One Lord, One Faith.