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Did Joseph Smith Restore Theosis? Part Two: The New Testament and Joseph Smith’s Doctrine of Exaltation

This is the second installment in my series responding to Dan Peterson’s recent article, “Joseph Smith’s restoration of ‘theosis’ was miracle, not scandal.” To understand the issues addressed here and my treatment of them, it is more or less mandatory to read the first part of this series. In this second part, I will address the question of whether Joseph Smith’s doctrine was a restoration of truths attested in the New Testament.

Keeping Focused on the Real Issues

At the end of Part One, I listed seven specific claims that are essential elements of the Mormon doctrine of exaltation taught by Joseph Smith and still taught by the LDS Church in such official instructional publications as Gospel Principles:

  1. 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).
  2. God was once a man like us before becoming God our Heavenly Father.
  3. God became God and is an exalted man, an exalted being.
  4. Human beings are the spirit offspring of God, our Heavenly Father. We lived in heaven with God before becoming physical beings here on earth.
  5. We became human beings precisely so that we would have the opportunity to attain exaltation just as God did.
  6. 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.
  7. 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).

It is crucial that we keep our focus on these specific doctrinal claims and not allow the discussion to be sidetracked by tangential questions or, worse still, nebulous or vague statements to which both evangelicals and Mormons could give assent if they are allowed to interpret them as they wish. For example, the issue here is not whether human beings can become “like God.” All evangelicals, as well as all Mormons, affirm that human beings can in some sense become like God. For example, all evangelicals believe that redeemed human beings will become perfectly sinless and loving—like God. The issue, then, is in what sense or in what ways human beings can become like God. To put the matter philosophically, the real issue is whether human beings can become beings of the same order and nature ontologically as God—and whether God himself was once a man who then became such a being. That is, the debate is really over whether humans can become beings that have the same metaphysical attributes as God, such as omnipotence and omniscience, and perform such defining works of God as creating universes—and whether God the Father himself is such a human being who became a God. Like all orthodox Christians, evangelicals say No; but Mormons say Yes. This is the issue that separates us, and it is the issue on which we need to focus, using the seven specific doctrinal claims listed above to keep that focus clear. Evangelicals need not object to the word “exaltation” or the Greek theological term theosis (see, for example, Robert Rakestraw’s article “Becoming Like God: An Evangelical Doctrine of Theosis”); what is objectionable from an evangelical perspective is the substance of the Mormon doctrine that Peterson and others reference using these terms.

For evangelicals, the crucial issue with regard to any doctrine is whether that doctrine is well supported by the teachings of the Bible. Thus, if a doctrine of the LDS Church were to find some support in the thinking of some Christian groups or teachers in the centuries following the close of the biblical era, that fact, though interesting, would not warrant acceptance of the doctrine. To show that a doctrine taught by Joseph Smith was a genuine revelation of truth once part of the Christian faith but subsequently lost (by neglect, suppression, or whatever), we will need to see some evidence that this “restored” doctrine was once taught by Jesus or his apostles. For all practical purposes, this means finding some evidence of the doctrine in the writings collected in the New Testament (NT).

Peterson quotes two NT passages in support of Joseph Smith’s doctrine of exaltation (Rom. 8:17; Rev. 3:21). No doubt he could quote more than these two (it was a very short article), but these two proof texts may be regarded as representative of the kind of texts that he and other Mormons view as support for the doctrine in question. But what sort of support do they really provide? It is my contention that these proof texts not only fail to support the LDS position but even context actually provide evidence against it.

Romans 8:17—Children and Heirs of God

Romans 8:17 says that “if we are children [of God], then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (NIV). Peterson offers no explanation for how this verse supports or reflects a doctrine of theosis or exaltation in the LDS sense, perhaps because he thinks it is self-evident. Thus, all he tells us is that critics of Mormonism “harshly” fault it for taking this verse (and others) “very literally.” But just how does a “very literal” reading of this verse support Joseph Smith’s doctrine?

One certainly cannot infer from this text any suggestion that God has not always been God, that he was once a man like us before he became God, or that as God he is an exalted man (our first three points above). Nothing in this text so much as hints at the idea that we can attain exaltation as the Father did, or that we can become like the Father in all essential respects, or that we can become creators with all the powers and knowledge that he has (our last three points). Our receiving an inheritance from God jointly with Christ is an inexpressibly glorious hope, but nothing in the text suggests that this inheritance will make us deities of the same ontological order and attributes as God.

Taken out of context, I suppose it is possible to argue that Paul’s references to us as God’s “children,” if taken “literally,” would imply our preexistence as spirit offspring of God prior to our mortal lives on earth (point #4). In fact, though, a “literal” reading of the passage in context precludes such an interpretation, because Paul in context is speaking of believers in Christ becoming God’s children by adoption (v. 15). If we are adopted as God’s children, then we are not naturally or literally God’s children in the sense of being his literal offspring. Elsewhere, when talking to pagans, Paul once adapted for his message a line from a Stoic poem that referred to human beings as God’s “offspring” (Acts 17:28-29), but there is no more reason to take such language literally in that context than there is here in Romans 8. Paul also affirmed that believers in Jesus Christ become God’s children by adoption elsewhere in his epistles (Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5).

Some Mormon apologists try to reconcile the LDS doctrine with Paul’s teaching on adoption by suggesting that God did not procreate our preexistent spirits in heaven but rather “adopted” us there in heaven as his children. I don’t think this theory satisfactorily coheres with what LDS Church leaders have taught over the years, but set that issue aside for the moment. It certainly will not cohere with the teaching of Paul about adoption. For Paul, the “adoption” process begins by our receiving the Holy Spirit to dwell in us when we come to faith in Jesus Christ and will be completed when we are raised from the dead to immortal, glorious, eternal life (Rom. 8:14-29; Gal. 4:4-7; Eph. 1:3-14). I won’t take the time to lead my readers through these passages verse by verse, but I urge you to walk through them in that way yourself. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which we receive when we become Christians, is the down payment or guarantee of the future consummation in which our adoption as God’s children will be fully realized (note especially Rom. 8:23 and Eph. 1:13-14). Trying to read into these passages the notion that we were “adopted” by God in a preexistent heavenly existence is an exercise in futility.

If Romans 8:17 does not support any of the seven specific elements of Joseph Smith’s doctrine of exaltation, then it has no value in showing that Joseph was restoring a lost doctrinal truth. In fact, we have seen that Romans 8:17 in context has a different view of human beings than the view taught by Joseph Smith. Paul views human beings as God’s children not by virtue of their preexistence but on account of God’s graciously adopting as his children those who put their faith in Jesus Christ, God’s divine Son (cf. v. 3).

Revelation 3:21—Sitting on Christ’s Throne

Revelation 3:21 serves no better as a proof text for any specific element of the LDS doctrine of exaltation: “I will grant the one who conquers permission to sit with me on my throne, just as I too conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:21 NET).

Again, Peterson suggests that non-Mormons often take offense at Mormons taking this verse “literally.” I would suggest, though, that even Mormons do not take this verse literally, and if they did it would in no way support and form of theosis, let alone the LDS doctrine of exaltation. Is the Mormon claim with respect to this verse that exalted humans will be given the opportunity to sit in Christ’s chair—or in God the Father’s chair—in heaven? One can imagine a “literal” acceptance of such occurrences that would not entail those exalted humans becoming beings of the same order or essential nature as God. A king might let an adopted child sit on his throne, even on his lap, as an expression of love and closeness, without anything more being implied.

Presumably (he does not explain what he is thinking) Peterson understands Revelation 3:21 to mean that those who conquer will be given divine authority comparable to the authority of Christ, which in turn is comparable to the authority of God. Such an interpretation would hardly be literal, but in any case it does not fit the specific LDS doctrine of exaltation. According to that doctrine, exalted human beings, as I put it before (point #7 above), can become creators and have all the power, glory, dominion, and knowledge that God the Father has (in the worlds we create). But Revelation 3:21 does not say anything like this. It does not speak of exalted people receiving their own thrones of equal glory or authority to that of Christ or God. Rather, it speaks of God’s conquering people being welcomed to sit with Christ on his own throne. There is no idea here of a multiplication of deities that organize and rule over their own separate worlds. Mormons do not think that exalted people will become members of “the Godhead” or co-rulers of this world with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (the three Gods who in LDS doctrine rule this world). They think that exalted people will become Gods and rule over their own new worlds. As it stands, Revelation 3:21 simply does not fit such a theological scenario.

The fact is that it is not anti-Mormon animus that leads evangelicals and other orthodox Christians to eschew a “literal” reading of Revelation 3:21. It is, rather, a recognition of the genre of the Book of Revelation as a whole, a book that exhibits clear signs throughout of an ancient Jewish genre commonly known today as apocalyptic literature. The apostle Paul used similar language in speaking about the present status and future hope of Christian believers:

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-7 ESV, emphasis added).

The idea in Revelation 3:21 is probably the same as in Ephesians 2:4-7. Believers in Jesus Christ in the present may feel like they are on the losing end of history. They are often persecuted and even more often ignored. There is no palpable difference in this mortal life between a Christian and a non-Christian (which is why we often have difficulty telling them apart). But whatever may be happening on the surface, in reality believers in Christ are assured of all the blessings that he came to acquire for us. Christ’s conquest of sin by his death on the cross counts as our death to and conquest of sin. His conquest of death by his resurrection counts as our conquest of death and assures us of our own future resurrection to immortal, eternal life. And his conquest of all spiritual powers that oppose God by his ascension to the right hand of God the Father counts as our conquest of those spiritual powers and our eventual enjoyment of eternal life in intimate relationship with God in his presence. That Christ’s death, resurrection, and  especially his ascension to the Father’s right hand have to do with his bringing all evil spiritual powers under submission is clear from several statements in the epistles (most explicitly, Rom. 8:34-39; Ephesians 1:20-21; Col. 2:9-15; 1 Peter 3:22). Read in this broader NT context, Revelation 3:21 affirms in apocalyptic fashion the basic Christian truth that those who are united to Christ through faith are assured of spiritual victory over all the evil forces of this age. This is the idea behind John’s description of faithful believers in Revelation 3:21 (and elsewhere) as those who conquer (note especially Rev. 12:11; 15:2; 17:14).

If we go back and review the seven specific elements of Joseph Smith’s doctrine of exaltation, we can find none of them implicit (let alone explicit) in Revelation 3:21. The text neither says nor implies that God the Father was a man who then became a God, that we existed in heaven before becoming mortals, or that we can become beings of the same ontological order or essential attributes as God. This text, then, also does nothing to support Peterson’s case that Joseph Smith restored a lost, forgotten doctrine. Again, in context Revelation 3:21 does not even fit LDS theology, which claims not that exalted people will share God’s rule over this world but that they will become divine rulers over their own worlds.

Possible Rebuttal #1: Other Biblical Proof Texts

At this point I need to anticipate and address three likely rebuttals to the argument I have made here. The first will be citations of other biblical texts thought to support the LDS doctrine of exaltation. I have already commented briefly on one of these (Acts 17:28-29). There are many such texts that Mormons have cited over the years and probably more that creative individuals may cite, and obviously I cannot discuss all of them here. I will be content, for the moment, to make the following observations.

(a) I do not think anyone will be able to offer any clear biblical support for the first three points of the seven I have listed. That is, there are no biblical statements that would appear to offer anything like clear evidence for the belief that the Father was once a man prior to becoming a God. Joseph Smith’s own proof text nicely illustrates just how weak any such proof text is likely to be. He reasoned that if, as Jesus said, the Son only did what he saw the Father doing (John 5:19), then the Father must have been a mortal man on an earth somewhere, died, and risen from the dead, just as Jesus did in our earth (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 346-48). Joseph’s interpretation fits neither the wording of John 5:19 nor its context. What Jesus said was not that the Son does whatever the Father did (past tense) but that the Son does whatever the Father does (present tense). That is, Jesus was saying that the works he did were the same kind of works that the Father also was doing. In context, Jesus was explaining to his critics that in giving life to the crippled body of a paralyzed man on the Sabbath, he was simply doing the very sort of thing that his Father God always does. The Father gives life and does other “work” on the Sabbath, Jesus said, and so does he. In short, the Son does the works of deity and exercises the prerogatives of deity, just as his Father does (John 5:17-23). That is Jesus’ point—not that everything Jesus ever did recapitulated something specific that the Father had done previously.

(b) LDS biblical proof texts for the preexistence of human beings as heavenly spirit children of God the Father are no better. Such proof texts typically are statements that refer not to human beings existing before their mortality but to God knowing and making determinations about human beings before they existed. This is the case, for example, with God’s statement that he knew Jeremiah before he was born (Jer. 1:5) or the NT texts that speak of God foreknowing people’s salvation before the foundation of the world (notably Eph. 1:4). I have discussed Mormon proof texts for human preexistence in an article on IRR’s website, to which I refer interested readers.

(c) It is possible to cite a number of biblical texts, especially in the NT, that affirm that God intends human beings to become like him in some way. Evangelical theology has no trouble enthusiastically affirming all such statements. We believe that God will glorify believers, conform them to the image of his Son, make them perfect and holy just as God the Father is perfect and holy, give them immortality and eternal life, and so forth. If these sorts of things are what is meant by theosis, then evangelicals believe in it as much as any other Christian tradition. If this were all Mormons meant by exaltation, evangelicals would agree with that understanding of the goal of human existence (even though we would still have some massive disagreements about other things). Again, the trouble with LDS eschatology is that it teaches that God and human beings are simply members of the same species at different stages of their progressive development and that we have the potential to become the very same kind of being—in terms of metaphysical attributes or ontological nature—as God. The Bible simply does not support such an idea.

Let me comment on just one such text, which of all NT texts might seem to be the most promising for the LDS claim. “Through these things he has bestowed on us his precious and most magnificent promises, so that by means of what was promised you may become partakers of the divine nature, after escaping the worldly corruption that is produced by evil desire” (2 Peter 1:4 NET). Is not Peter’s reference to becoming “partakers of the divine nature” exactly what Mormons are affirming? Not really. In LDS theology, divine nature is the natural potential of all human beings, a description of our own inherent nature as God’s spirit offspring. In Peter’s teaching, believers in Jesus Christ “become partakers” of the divine nature through God’s gracious promises. To “become partakers” here means that believers begin sharing in or participating in something that was not already their own. It does not mean that human beings become divine by nature but that in some way they participate or share in the divine nature. In context, the “cash value” of this hope is not that human beings will become omnipotent deities or creators, but that they will become people characterized by such attributes as virtue, knowledge, self-control, endurance, piety, brotherly affection, and love (vv. 5-7). If there is a doctrine of “theosis” here, it is a theosis of moral and spiritual transformation, not of ontological exaltation to Godhood. Christians are supposed to become “like God,” not in the sense of becoming beings of infinite power, but in the sense of becoming as holy, truthful, dependable, and loving as God. We should not minimize the importance of this hope—it is absolutely wonderful—but we should also not misinterpret it to mean something it does not.

Possible Rebuttal #2: The New Testament Is Unreliable

The second objection I anticipate hearing from some Mormons is that, to the extent that the LDS doctrine of exaltation cannot be substantiated from the NT, this merely shows that the NT as is stands is incomplete. Jesus and the apostles did teach this doctrine, they will suggest, but we don’t find it clearly revealed in the NT for some reason. This reason may be that the text of the NT writings was corrupted or changed, with clear statements of the LDS doctrine expunged or lost; or it may be that certain writings that did clearly teach the doctrine were omitted (excluded) from the NT canon in favor of the present corpus.

Those who take this approach to the issue will in effect have abandoned the type of argument that Professor Peterson presents in his article arguing that Joseph Smith restored the doctrine of theosis. What Peterson attempts to show is that the doctrine had been forgotten by Christians (or at least most Christians) but has been there in the sources or traditions of the Christian religion all along. Thus he quotes a couple of verses from the NT and claims that understanding these verses “literally” leads to the doctrine of exaltation that Joseph Smith taught.

Still, it is possible that even Peterson would like to reserve the right to argue that the NT (and his other sources as well) is not as clear as it might have been due to the loss or corruption of some of the textual material that might have belonged originally in the collection of Christian scripture. That is, he might argue that some or all of these sources attest to the doctrine as remnants or fragmentary allusions, passing or indirect references to a doctrine once clearly taught but now less than explicit in those sources.

I offer two responses to such a possible line of rebuttal to my argument.

First, I am afraid such a line of argument is nonfalsifiable and really meaningless as far as the evidence is concerned. It amounts to making the following three claims: (a) Any statements in the Bible that sound similar to the Mormon doctrine are evidence that the doctrine used to be taught. (b) Any statements in the Bible that seem to conflict with the doctrine are evidence of corruption of the text. (c) The lack of more affirmative or explicit statements in the Bible supporting the doctrine is evidence that the Bible is incomplete (either because it is missing some books or because the books it has are missing some material). Those with a flair for logic will immediately see the problem with this reasoning: any doctrine might similarly be defended. A similar three-prong strategy is in fact used by various religious groups to defend their doctrines. For example, those who believe that Jesus taught reincarnation cite a few biblical texts in support (e.g., Matt. 11:14; 17:11-12), explain away seemingly contrary statements as later dogmatic intrusions (e.g., John 1:21), and assert that the church suppressed the doctrine of reincarnation in the sixth century by altering the biblical texts to remove explicit references to it. If such reasoning can be used to defend every belief, then it really is of no use in supporting any belief.

Second, the evidence that we have does not support the claim that the text of the Bible was so corrupted that a doctrine like the Mormon doctrine of exaltation might have been lost from it, or that the canon of the Bible is incomplete because whole books that teach the doctrine were suppressed. This isn’t the place to go into all of the particulars on these two big topics, so I will simply summarize what I understand to be the facts, focusing on the NT because that is where one would expect to see the most explicit enunciation of such a doctrine (and where most Mormon proof texts for the doctrine are found).

With regard to the text of the NT writings, the problems necessitating NT textual criticism are generally variants and glosses to the text, not losses of original material from the text (the ending of Mark being the only possible significant exception, depending on one’s view of Mark 16:9-20). Variants are different wordings of the same text (e.g., “we have” versus “let us have” in Romans 5:1). Glosses are additions to the text (e.g., the lines about the angel at the pool in John 5:3b-4). That is, the issue with regard to the NT text is that we have more than the original text, not less. This point has been made quite convincingly by Parchment and Pen’s own Daniel Wallace, who is arguably the leading evangelical scholar on New Testament textual criticism. Thus, there is no serious chance that the NT writings originally taught something like the LDS doctrine of exaltation. Furthermore, if one searches through all the variants and glosses to the NT writings, one will no more find a forgotten (LDS) doctrine of exaltation than a forgotten doctrine of reincarnation.

As for the canon of the NT, to my knowledge no Mormon has ever proposed that a specific book teaching something like the LDS doctrine of exaltation was wrongly excluded from the NT canon. The reason is simple: there is no such book. Neither the ancient writings of the early church nor the heretical writings rejected by orthodox Christians teach a doctrine clearly comparable to the LDS doctrine (summarized in the seven points listed earlier). I will illustrate this fact later in this series when I comment on Peterson’s collection of quotations from the church fathers.

I have often asked Mormons who speculate about various extant books being omitted from the NT which of those books they think should have been included. Usually they don’t know, but occasionally they will suggest one or more specific books. If they do, my follow-up question is always the same: if any of those books should be in the NT, why has the LDS Church prophet never announced this fact? For example, if someone wishes to argue that Shepherd of Hermas or the Didache should be in the NT, what is preventing the LDS prophet from adding such books?

The reality is that our knowledge of the teachings of Jesus and the apostles is for all practical purposes limited to the writings of the NT. These writings simply do not support any of the seven critical elements of the LDS doctrine of exaltation.

Now, a Mormon might wish to argue that the Book of Mormon is another source of information about the teaching of Jesus, since it reports Jesus teaching the Nephites. In my next post, though, I will explain why the Book of Mormon is no help to Mormons on this issue.

Possible Rebuttal #3: Latter-day Revelation

The third likely rebuttal to the argument I have presented here is that Mormons know that Jesus and his apostles taught the LDS doctrine of exaltation because Christ restored this doctrine in the later days through Joseph Smith. This appeal to latter-day revelation begs the question that Peterson seeks to answer with evidence from the NT and other ancient sources. Thus, this likely response is not a defense of Peterson’s argument but an alternative to it.

Obviously, I cannot in this article go into all of the reasons for questioning the Mormon belief in Joseph Smith’s teachings as revelations from God. I will simply point out that from an evangelical perspective the argument runs in the opposite direction: since the teaching of Jesus and his apostles in the NT does not agree with Joseph Smith’s theology of exaltation, this is itself strong evidence against Joseph’s claim to be a prophet of God restoring true Christian doctrine.

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.

One Response to “Did Joseph Smith Restore Theosis? Part Two: The New Testament and Joseph Smith’s Doctrine of Exaltation”

  1. Just commenting to subscribe to responses in the meantime. As for the article – you’ve obviously put a great deal of work into it. It will take a while to digest.

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