A recent article in the Mormon newspaper Deseret News (August 3, 2011) by Brigham Young University professor and Mormon apologist Daniel C. Peterson carries the provocative title, “Joseph Smith’s restoration of ‘theosis’ was miracle, not scandal.” The term theosis is a Greek term used in the Eastern Orthodox theological tradition referring to its doctrine that through the Incarnation (the union of divine nature and human nature in the person of Jesus Christ) human beings may become united with God and in some sense like God. This Orthodox doctrine is rooted in the doctrine of several early church fathers (mostly writing in Greek) who spoke of the redeemed in Christ becoming “gods” (Greek, theoi) through the union with God that he put into effect in the Incarnation. According to Peterson, the doctrine of “exaltation” taught by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon movement, was a miraculous “restoration” of “an authentically ancient Judeo-Christian doctrine,” the doctrine of theosis.
My response to Peterson will be rather detailed and so will be broken up into several parts. In this first part, I will review the doctrine of exaltation taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and affirmed by Peterson. In subsequent parts I will examine Peterson’s arguments in support of that doctrine. This includes his New Testament proof texts (Rom. 8:17; Rev. 3:21), his proof text for the doctrine in the Book of Mormon, his claim that “an early Jewish midrash expressed the belief” in theosis, and his citations to show that Joseph’s doctrine restored an ancient Christian doctrine reflected in statements by various church fathers.
The Mormon Doctrine of Exaltation
Peterson summarizes the doctrine he wishes to defend as follows:
“Late in his life, the Prophet Joseph Smith began to teach that humans, being children of God, can become like their Father. The doctrine is most famously expressed in the couplet of Lorenzo Snow: ‘As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.’”
Peterson refers to this teaching as the doctrine of “exaltation.” Let’s be clear on what this doctrine means. In Mormonism, exaltation is something that has already happened to God that made him what he is today and that can also happen to us to make us reach our full potential. There are two parts to Snow’s couplet, the first regarding God, and the second regarding man, and these two parts must be understood in relation to one another. The precise wording that Snow himself used was slightly different from the wording given by Peterson: What Snow said was, “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be” (Eliza R. Snow Smith, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow [Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News, 1884], 46). The wording used by Peterson, on the other hand, appears to have become standard in Mormon usage (see, for example, Encyclopedia of Mormonism 4:1474). In any case, the question is, just exactly what does this statement mean?
The first part of the couplet asserts that God “once was” as we are but he is now what he is. Exaltation for God denotes the change from what he “once was” to what he “is.” Furthermore, exaltation for man is the change from what “man is” now to what “man may become”—and “what man may become” is “as God is.” In other words, God was once a man, like us, and he then became what he is now, namely, God; and we can do the same thing and go through the same change from what we are now to becoming the same kind of being as God.
The basic conception that this doctrine expresses is that deity is an open category. The being that we call God was not always “God” but became God by the process that Mormons call exaltation. The beings that we call “man” were not always physical, earthly humans but were divine spirits living in Heaven and are living here temporarily in order to progress toward their own exaltation.
Joseph Smith stated explicitly toward the end of his life that God has not always been God. I will quote three paragraphs in full from his famous 1844 sermon known as the King Follett Discourse so that there can be no question about the context (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 345-46, emphasis in original):
God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible,—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with him, as one man talks and communes with another.
In order to understand the subject of the dead, for consolation of those who mourn for the loss of their friends, it is necessary we should understand the character and being of God and how he came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.
These are incomprehensible ideas to some, but they are simple. It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did; and I will show it from the Bible.
One can easily see the first part of Snow’s couplet, “As man is, God once was,” explicitly in Joseph Smith’s remarks here: “God himself was once as we are now”; “he was once a man like us.” The second part is also found in the same sermon just two paragraphs later:
Here, then, is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power. (Teachings, 346)
Some Mormons will argue that neither this sermon nor Snow’s couplet are included in the LDS scriptures (their “Standard Works”) and therefore are not “official doctrine,” but this is an idle claim. As we have seen, Dan Peterson treats this doctrine without embarrassment or hedging as a doctrine miraculously revealed to Joseph Smith. As evangelical scholar Ron Huggins showed in an important article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, when the LDS Church is not engaged in public relations, it clearly affirms this doctrine of exaltation, including Snow’s couplet and the King Follett Discourse, as accepted doctrine. The LDS doctrinal manual Gospel Principles, in print continuously since 1978 and published by the LDS Church as a primer on Mormon doctrine for its members, clearly affirms Joseph Smith’s doctrine (Gospel Principles, 2009 ed., 275, 277, 279):
When we lived with our Heavenly Father, He explained a plan for our progression. We could become like Him, an exalted being…. Exaltation is eternal life, the kind of life God lives. He lives in great glory. He is perfect. He possesses all knowledge and all wisdom. He is the Father of spirit children. He is a creator. We can become like our Heavenly Father. This is exaltation….
These are some of the blessings given to exalted people:
- They will live eternally in the presence of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ (see D&C 76:62).
- They will become gods (see D&C 132:20–23).
- They will be united eternally with their righteous family members and will be able to have eternal increase.
- They will receive a fulness of joy.
- They will have everything that our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ have—all power, glory, dominion, and knowledge (see D&C 132:19–20)….
Joseph Smith taught: “It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God.… He was once a man like us; … God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 345–46).
Our Heavenly Father knows our trials, our weaknesses, and our sins. He has compassion and mercy on us. He wants us to succeed even as He did.
Note that Gospel Principles quotes with approval statements from Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse, from the very pages we quoted above, including the statement that God “was once a man like us.” It also affirms that God is “an exalted being” and that we can become exalted beings too, that we can “become gods” in this sense of becoming like God in every way. For example, it asserts that God is “a creator” and that we can “become like” him in this respect. It claims that exalted people will have “all power, glory, dominion, and knowledge,” just like God the Father and Jesus Christ.
Let us draw these ideas together in a brief summary. The LDS doctrine of exaltation, taught by Joseph Smith himself, found in the current Mormon doctrinal primer, and defended by Mormon scholar and apologist Dan Peterson, includes the following doctrinal claims:
- God has not always been God; it is not true that he has been God from all eternity (though he may have existed from all eternity, he has not always existed as God).
- God was once a man like us before becoming God our Heavenly Father.
- God became God and is an exalted man, an exalted being.
- Human beings are the spirit offspring of God, our Heavenly Father. We lived in heaven with God before becoming physical beings here on earth.
- We became human beings precisely so that we would have the opportunity to attain exaltation just as God did.
- Human beings can become “gods” in the sense of becoming exalted beings fully like Heavenly Father in all essential respects, just as he did before us.
- As exalted beings or gods, we can become creators and have all the power, glory, dominion, and knowledge that God the Father has (in the worlds we create).
What we want to know is whether any of the evidence from the New Testament, Jewish literature, or the early church fathers adduced by Peterson really supports the antiquity of any of these doctrinal claims. This is the question that will be addressed in the subsequent installments of this series.
Rob Bowman is the director of research for the Institute for Religious Research in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For a wealth of resources on Mormonism, please visit IRR’s website.