Thursday, July 31, 2008

Mormon Prophets, Christian Theologians, and Eternal Progression

After contrasting two LDS views of eternal progression Aaron Shafovaloff chides, "If only Mormonism had a prophet to clear up this mess!"  He then declares:

The Christian view of eternal progression is easy to describe. We will ever-increasingly grow in the knowledge and power of God for all eternity. And no, that isn't simply just a long amount of time with an ending point. It's for eternity. Christians essentially believe in a true eternal progression more than traditional Mormons do. We will never get to the point where we can say we have fully appropriated and received the entirety of our inheritance in Christ. (emphasis mine)
A little research will show that to the contrary, Christians have widely disagreed over the doctrine of theosis (becoming God).  Beginning with early Christian theologians,  St. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote, “God became human so humans would become gods."  And St. Maximus the Confessor exhorted, "let us become the image of the one whole God, bearing nothing earthly in ourselves, so that we may consort with God and become gods, receiving from God our existence as gods." During the Reformation, Martin Luther understood justification to mean theosis.  John Calvin and Lancelot Andrewes viewed the process of salvation and sanctification to be a divinization of man.  Wesleyan Protestantism developed the notion that ""that man in this present life can acquire so great and such a degree of perfection that he will be rendered inwardly sinless, and that he will not be able to advance farther in grace," and this was declared a heresy by the Roman Catholic Church.  To this day, there are widely divergent views among the many Christian churches.  (see this, for example.)  Aaron's "easy to describe" Christian view is in fact simply one opinion among many. 

Scripture is not crystal clear regarding whether man can become a god, but there are many intimations.  1 John 3:2 tells us that we shall be like him.  Romans 8:16-17 states that children of God are his heirs, to be glorified as Christ was.  Verse 29 of the same chapter further explains how the saints become conformed to the image of the Son, so that Christ is the firstborn among many justified and glorified brethren.  In Phillippians 2:5-6 we are told that we should have the mind of Christ, who, being in the form of God, did not think it robbery to be equal with God. 

Though the Savior did not quail at the thought of being equal with God, apparently human beings do.  Despite the writings of Biblical theologians and Church fathers, many Christians such as Aaron equivocate by saying that the saints will never receive their promised inheritance (see above).  And what he doesn't realize is that Mormons do the same.  LDS authorities are quick to explain that although we may become exalted and attain to all the power, authority, knowledge, wisdom and might that a god may possess, we are yet eternally subservient to our Heavenly Father.  He created us, and any works we might do bring further glory to Him. (see the comments to my last post, which were awesome!)

Thus I stand by my earlier statement that Mormons and Christians have very similar positions on eternal progression.  We both have scriptural traditions promising us "all that the Father hath."  Both groups have leaders in our respective religious traditions who teach us that we are sons of God and have the divine potential to be gods ourselves.  Yet we also have some differences of opinion among ourselves as to how and to the extent that this will be accomplished. 

It seems that Aaron would hold Mormons to a higher standard, since we claim a prophetic voice, to be consistent in our explanations of whether God himself is still progressing.  I would have to agree with him on this point.  Many Latter-day Saints have experienced ambiguity when faced with the problem that earlier prophets do not always agree doctrinally with those who come later.  This cannot fully be explained by saying that different prophets speak for different times.  In this case, the nature of God should not change between the time of Brigham Young and Thomas S. Monson.  Most of us are inclined to view prophets as mortal men, who search out religious truths line upon line, sometimes making mistakes which are later corrected.  But this does weaken the claim to prophetic leadership. 


Aaron Shafovaloff said...


What you write simply begs the question of what traditional Chrsitians have meant by such language of theosis, and as I have already argued, such language does not do away with the idea that as "gods" saints will never stop growing in knowledge and power in humble, needy dependency on the absolutely ultimate God of gods.

I'm a little confused. Earlier, in describing my position on theosis, you wrote:

> We will always be inferior “gods”, learning, subservient, dependent under the one Supreme God who is Supreme over all “gods” and worlds and universes and reality. From what I understand of Mormon doctrine, we believe this, too.

If you agree with this, then why did you disagree with:

> We will never get to the point where we can say we have fully appropriated and received the entirety of our inheritance in Christ.

If knowledge is part of our inheritance in Christ, and if we will forever learn, if we will really swim in an endless sea of discovery, then won't we be always ever-increasingly appropriating our infinite inheritance in Christ, and thus never reaching the exhaustive, comprehensive appropriation of it?

Can you show me an example of one traditional Christian, including those who hold to various nuances of theosis, who explicitly states humans will be become self-existent, all-powerful, or all-konwing? So far all you've done is wrest language out of its context and imposed your own worldview to it. And that just demonstrates to me that you really don't understand what you're reading.

Also, it seems you're taking Philippians 2:6 out of context. In the flow of the text, Paul is speaking of Jesus as one who didn't hold onto the full expression of deity, "but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant". In other words, the text isn't about Jesus asserting and expressing or somehow obtaining equality with God. Rather, it is about Jesus who, already being equal with God, takes the form of the suffering, weak, obedient servant in spite of his divine prerogative and nature.

Bored in Vernal said...

Hi Aaron!
Thanks for your reply to my post.
I think it's very difficult for Mormons and Christians to discourse because of the huge divide in world view and vocabulary. So I appreciate you being willing to talk. From what I can figure out, the problem with the two statements is our definition of the inheritance. To me, the inheritance is being sons of God and potential Gods ourselves, not knowledge per se. I didn't object to us continuing to gain knowledge, but to your saying we will never receive our full inheritance. This sort of feels blasphemous to me. Why would God promise us an inheritance if we would never fully attain it?

mormongnostic said...

I think BIV is right to point out that there is a great deal of diversity in Christian theology on theosis. It is by no means a settled issue that theosis means "eternal progression."

I am familiar with this view through the eastern orthodox tradition. A contemporary theologian, Christoforos Stavropulos writes, "The apostle Peter describes with total clarity the purpose of life: we are to become partakers of the divine nature. This is the purpose of life:that we be participants sharers in the nature of God and life of Christ, communicants of divine grace and energy - to become just like God"

But this is not a change of our essence. He says later, "However, this union is not absolute. It is relative, for it is not the transformation of our essence. Rather, it is natural, ethical and in accordance with grace. It is the union of the whole person with God."

I think it is clear that there is a similarity between Christians and Mormons on theosis. However, it would probably be helpful to make a distinction between weak and strongtheosis.

On weak theosis humans become like God in a relative sense, i.e. their natures do not change, but are only like God by being in unity with him.

Strong theosis would be the view that one's nature itself becomes divine. Of course grace is required, but in the end one's essence itself becomes divine.

I see Mormons holding to strong theosis. But it would be disingenuous to treat this as a complete aberration from Christianity.

Aaron Shafovaloff said...


From what I understand, what you describe as "strong theosis" isn't akin to Mormonism, since technically Mormonism has traditionally taught we are already of the same fundamental species (although not developed to the degree God is; i.e. we are in "seed" form).


My objection to your view is that it makes the inheritance that God offers us finite and limited. I would rather have an infinitely large inheritance to appropriate forever than have a limited, finite inheritance which takes a finite amount of time to appropriate. Hence, I believe Christianity has a much grander view of inheritance than Mormonism. "Inheritance" simply means that which God has in store for us. All that God can give us in Christ has been promised to us. If you are going to distinguish power and/or knowledge from my inheritance in Christ, it sounds like you're saying that my forever-increasing knowledge and forever-increasing enjoyment of God isn't part of what he has promised us in Christ. It seems that in this view, someday after the resurrection, God could potentially say, "Uh, Aaron, I didn't promise you in Christ to learn this much, but I'll give it to you anyway."

Also, I would rather worship an inexhaustible God:

"Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable." (Psalm 145:3)

"Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure." (Psalm 147:5)

Grace and peace in the Ultimate God of gods for all reality,


Aaron Shafovaloff said...

Another thing: It sounds awful to be essentially saying that a Christian's future in Christ is anything more than his inheritance in Christ. In other words, it sounds like you're essentially saying that we can exhaustively appropriate our inheritance in Christ and, in order to further increase in joy, move on to something bigger!

As some put it, "Christ is all". My future ever-increasing joy is entirely under the umbrella of my inheritance in Christ.

mormongnostic said...


From what I understand, what you describe as "strong theosis" isn't akin to Mormonism, since technically Mormonism has traditionally taught we are already of the same fundamental species (although not developed to the degree God is; i.e. we are in "seed" form).

I actually think its the opposite. Strong theosis would imply that one's essence has the potentiality of divinity within itself. The idea that the potential for strong theosis being possible presupposes a fundamental similarity in human essence and God's essence.

I also think that the reason why orthodox Christians would reject strong theosis is because they would deny that our essence is in a fundamental way similar to God's. It may be similar, but only in an analogical, relative sense.

Aaron Shafovaloff said...


Your language is causing some confusion for me:

> On weak theosis humans become like God in a relative sense, i.e. their natures do not change, but are only like God by being in unity with him.

> Strong theosis would be the view that one's nature itself becomes divine. Of course grace is required, but in the end one's essence itself becomes divine.

It seems you have constructed a false dichotomy between one's nature never changing and one's nature being changed to that of full deity.

In my view, a saint's very nature will be in need of frequent transformation and, if you will, enlargement (as opposed to mere development), in order to ever-increasingly appropriate one's inheritance in Christ. In other words, our very faculties and capacities will have to be ever-enlarged to receive what could not even possibly be received before. This is not to say, however, that a saint will ever reach self-existence, omnipotence, or omniscience.

I can understand what it means for a nature to be ever-transformed, but it doesn't make sense to me to say that one's essence is transformed into that which is divine, since Mormonism teaches that we are already of the same species as God. In other words, what you described before doesn't sound exactly Mormon (in the traditional sense) because Mormonism has taught that our nature and species already has the capacity for full deification, that we are in need of development unto godhood as gods-in-embryo, but not in need of a species-change.

My confusion perhaps stems from my understanding (or misunderstanding) of the different terms/concepts nature and essence.

Aaron Shafovaloff said...

An analogy might help. My son is human and has the potential to become president someday. But in order to do so he will need to develop and take available opportunities around him. He does not need to have his essence, species, or very nature changed in order to become president.

Likewise, Mormonism has taught that we are already of the same species and fundamental nature of God, and are in need of development unto the full status of godhood. In other words, according to traditional Mormonism human nature and essence already has in and of itself the potential for full deification.

A person becomes president by making choices with his existing essence and nature. A human isn't president by nature or essence, but rather by achievement. A Mormon can (according to Mormonism) become an "Eternal Father" by achievement. The potential for achieving full Godhood is part of one's essential nature, but full Godhood itself is not part of any being's essential nature.

I, of course, disagree with this, and hold that God is fully God by fundamental nature and essence. In other words, he didn't become who he is by making choices. Rather, he is fully God simply as a part of his fundamental existence.

Bored in Vernal said...

Analogies are always flawed, but I think Mormons would see it more like the change from a caterpillar into a butterfly. The two are the same species. And it is true that work by the caterpillar in the form of building the chrysalis is necessary. But the total transformation into a new creature which occurs is by the grace of God.

Mormon Heretic said...

I really can't see what distinguishes Aaron's argument from regular mormonism. It seems Aaron doesn't like mormon's "finite" arguments. In that sense, I agree with Aaron. God is not finite. But I disagree with Aaron as attributing God as finite as a mormon doctrine.

It seems we are all actually agreeing, but using different vocabulary.

Bored in Vernal said...

Vocabulary really is a problem in Christian/Mormon discourse, isn't it?

Aaron, would it bother you so very much to consider the notion that the mainstream Mormon believes a lot like you do on this issue? Check out the comments on this and the last post.

mormongnostic said...

I gather that this topic has been mowed over enough. However, I think MH had something interesting to say about how the question of finitude relates to progression.

Progression implies overcome some sort of limitation. One cannot progression into a state that one has already attained. If the mormon God is infinite, and theosis implies that we become as he is, then the Brigham model is false. By becoming infinite, progression necessarily ceases. This follows merely from the content of these concepts.

Conversely, the Brigham model is only possible if God is finite. Again, if God progresses, and progression necessarily implies a lack, or limitation, then God cannot be infinite.

This places Aaron's critique in an interesting dillemma, that I imagine he did not really expect.

Either the Mormon God is infinite, and Mormon theosis implies that progression "maxes out", or the Mormon God is finite, and thus theosis is an eternal process of progression in which one is never equal with God.

Either way, he seems to have a point, when it is placed like that.

mormongnostic said...

My badly worded sentence meant that Aaron's critique can be placed in the form of a dilemma rather than it falling into one.

Sandz said...

If you don't mind, would you please cite your references to the various Christian theologians? I'm most interested in Martin Luther and John Calvin but wouldn't mind having them all.

Bored in Vernal said...

Athanasius: On the Incarnation 54:3, PG 25:192B.

Maximus: Philokalia, Volume II, p. 178.

Luther: Luther and Theosis by Kurt E. Marquart (Concordia Theological Quarterly, July 2000)

Calvin: Calvin's Doctrine of our Union With Christ

Wesley: Theosis and Sanctification, John Wesley's Reformulation of a Patristic Doctrine, Michael Christensen.

Andrewes: Ninety-six Sermons, page 109

Anonymous said...

Vernal I am confused. What do you think that Philippians 2:6 means? From the word quail you used, my interpretation makes no sense.


I will e-mail you.

Bored in Vernal said...

I said in the post, "Though the Savior did not quail at the thought of being equal with God, apparently human beings do." I am using the word quail to mean

to lose heart or courage in difficulty or danger; shrink with fear.

So the Savior did not shrink with fear at the thought of being equal with God. Phil. 2 says, "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus," meaning do as he did, and don't fear becoming equal with God.

Hope that explanation makes sense.

Anonymous said...

The problem I have is with the english. In Jacobean English he would actually be saying the opposite. He is saying that he did not think equality with God to be within reach. Even for Him being the very form of God. That is why the word quail confused me.


Check with the Greek to English translation.