For some time, the Mormons have been availing themselves of material in the Fathers of the Church regarding theosis in order to render their own doctrines more plausible. There is no shortage of LDS blogs and websites that exclaim with glee that the LDS doctrine of exaltation is within the bounds of Christian teaching on the basis of the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. They routinely pelt Protestants as well as Catholics with patristic material maintaining that not only is their view within the corral of Christian orthodoxy, but that they alone possess the true teaching with respect to deification. They then put such claims in the service of motivating their claims of an apostasy after the apostolic age. Of course, such claims are, so far as I have seen not only false and supported by fallacious reasoning, but in many cases the use of Patristic material would make the cut and pasters over at the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society blush. Here I leave an examination of these specific claims by LDS apologists for another time.
What I wish to look at here is one of the principle texts brought out by LDS apologists and its argument that Athanasius’ doctrine of theosis is inconsistent with his doctrine of creation ex nihilo. This claim has become quite common among Mormon apologists and it is well suited to demonstrate the coherence and strength of the Orthodox position.
The specific text is a doctoral dissertation by Keith E. Norman entitled, Deification: The Context of Athanasian Soteriology. It is available in both print and electronic form. The dilemma so far as I can tell from Norman’s text is that if we are to be deified, then we cannot be created ex nihilo and vice versa. And this is so because things created ex nihilo can’t become deified since by essence, God enjoys a kind of underived existence or aseity. Humans are therefore radically different or “wholly other” than God, so much so that it is impossible to become what God is by essence. Something cannot both be beginingless and have a begining. Deification would entail a natural and therefore essential change in humanity which is precluded by the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Without such a change, humans can’t be deified and are left in a mutable metaphysical state apart from salvation. The implication is that the LDS can affirm theosis consistently because they reject the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Therefore LDS theology stands in superior position to the Athanasian and by extension, the Orthodox teaching on deification.
At the outset it is important to take note of what Norman is conceding. His argument concedes that the LDS view of deification is not isomorphic with the Orthodox and patristic doctrine. He explicitly references texts such as the one below which show that we do not become “gods” in the sense of being what God is by essence as the LDS maintain.
“But these characteristics belong to us, who are originate, and of a created nature. For we too, albeit we cannot become like God in essence, yet by progress in virtue imitate God, the Lord granting us this grace, in the words, ‘Be ye merciful as your Father is merciful:’ ‘be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect .” Letter to the Bishops of Africa, 7. Norman, 47.
Without this concession, his argument against the consistency of Athanasius’ view of deification won’t go through. If this difference is not conceded, on the one hand it will be the case that the LDS view is susceptible to the same dilemma since even though they deny creation ex nihilo, it will still be the case that they do not become what God is by essence. On the other hand if it isn’t a problem for the LDS view, then on the same basis it is not a problem for Athanasius and the Orthodox doctrine. Consequently, the apologetic import of material in Athanasius or other Fathers teaching deification is diminished for the LDS for there is an important and crucial difference between the Orthodox teaching and their own. Given this important disimiilarity, it is much less plausible then that the patristic teaching on deification is evidence of LDS teaching in the New Testament period.
Norman argues that humans be virtue of being created from nothing exist in such a state as to make them essentially aliented from God while at the same time being intentioned to an end that transcends that state.
“The paradox of Athanasian soteriology is that, despite his creaturehood and essential alienation from God, which seems to make communion with Him impossible, man is called to a supernatural destiny.” Norman, 79.
Humans by virtue of being created enjoy no metaphysical overlap with God and this precludes deification. God is totally other than humanity and vice versa. The underlying principle is that two opposite properties cannot be essentially true of the same object.
“Can a being, whose essence, having come into existence from nothing has nothing essentially in common with a God whose nature is eternal and unchangeable, ‘become God,’ even in a limited sense?” Norman, 86
This metaphysical gulf is so vast in Norman’s estimation that it has serious epistemological consequences, namely a form of theological agnosticism.
“Ultimately, it is impossible for human nature to have any direct knowledge of God or even his attributes, for man is entirely different from his Maker and exists on a completely different plane of being. Existence in the full sense belongs to God alone, who has ‘necessary being’ while man has only ‘contingent being;’ his existence is totally dependent on the will of Deity. Thus God is totaliter aliter, since a firm ontological gulf forever separates the Divine from the human, the Creator and the created.” Norman, 77
And because of Athanasius’ endorsement of creation ex nihilo, he must maintain against the Arians that Jesus is the Son of God by nature whereas we become sons of God by participation or by grace. Because humans are essentially different than God, they can never become deified and therefore remain mutable. Creation ex nihilo squelchs salvation.
“From the standpoint of Athanasius’ ontology, the inescapable conclusion from the foregoing is that theopoiesis, is a contradiction in terms. Only the Son is God by nature, and if he deifies his followers by virtue of that Godhood, they cannot be essentially divine, they remain beings created ‘out of nothing’ and thus always subject, at lest in principle to change and corruption.” Norman 81.
Because humans bear no natural relation to God by virtue of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, they can never become immutable and impeccable as God is. Any gains made in the work of Christ are tenuous at best since the relationship between God and man can be severed precisely because there is no essential unity between the two. Humans can only bear an extrinsic relation to God, which is insufficient for deification since it entails a significant change in human nature.
“If, as Rolandus insists, communion with Christ remains a relationship of grace and never becomes ‘natural,’ then the superiority claimed by Athanasius of redemption over creation is jeopardized. Man is still changeable by nature; it is still possible for him to be separated from participation in the Godhead.” Norman, 81-82.
“It is important to stress, along with Athanasius, that deification indicates a real advancement and exaltation of our humanity to a divine level of existence. Theopoiesis is no mere poetic expression or metaphor, it means to be made God or a god, in the sense that we reflect His glory and holiness, which is the intent of our being created κατ εικονα θεού.” Norman, 67.
On the other hand, if Athanasius wishes to maintain deification, this poses a significant problem for his position contra the Arians. Athanasius had argued that the Arians are guilty of idolatry because they placed an intermediary figure that is not equal (and hence not supreme) with the Father. There is some divinity between the creator and creatures. But if Athanasius maintains that humans are in fact made divine, he will have convicted not only the Arians of idolarty but his own position as well.
“Yet in his own soteriology he teaches theopoiesis by grace, which, in effect at least seems to put him in the same camp with the Arians he so vigorously condemns for placing men on a level with God.” Norman, 86.
What is ironic about the case that Norman builds is that the seeds of the thesis’ own undoing are within his text. At a number of points the material he presents provides him with clear and at least implicit lines of development to see that the problems he poses for Athanasius and by extension the Orthodox view of theosis are no problems at all. In sum, if his argument were correct, then it would be logically impossible for Athanasius to affirm that humans are made in the divne image. Here is the kernal of his mistake which I will unpack.
At least as far back as Irenaeus of Lyon there has been a significant connection between the doctrine of the imago dei and that of the Logos. Christ is the eternal image of God whereas humans have been made according to that image that is Christ.
“For He made man the image of God; and the image of God is the Son, after whose image man was made: and for this cause He appeared in the end of the times that He might show the image (to be) like unto Himself.” Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 22.
“And then, again, this Word was manifested when the Word of God was made man, assimilating Himself to man, and man to Himself, so that by means of his resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father. For in times long past, it was said that man was created after the image of God, but it was not [actually] shown; for the Word was as yet invisible, after whose image man was created, Wherefore also he did easily lose the similitude. When, however, the Word of God became flesh, He confirmed both these: for He both showed forth the image truly, since He became Himself what was His image; and He re-established the similitude after a sure manner, by assimilating man to the invisible Father through means of the visible Word.” Against Heresies, 5.16.2
Somewhat dated but still instructive is the work of Jules Gross, The Divinization of the Christian According to the Greek Fathers.
“Now if, for the bishop of Lyon, ‘to be made in the image of God’ is nothing other than ‘to be made in the image of the Son’ incarnate, we can understand how, in the passage from Against Heresies [5.16.1] quoted above, he could see ‘the image of God’ being initially realized in the human body since the human body, according to Irneaus, was formed after the type of the body of the Logos, which had been incarnated from all eternity and was ideally present with the Creator.” 122.
The same outlook is evidenced in the earliest writings of Athanasius as can be seen here in a citation from his On the Incarnation,
“And among these, having taken especial pity, above all things on earth, upon the race of men, and having perceived its inability, by virtue of the condition of its origin, to continue in one stay, He gave them a further gift, and He did not barely create man, as He did all the irrational creatures on the earth, but made them after His own image, giving them a portion even of the power of His own Word; so that having as it were a kind of reflexion of the Word, and being made rational, they might be able to abide ever in blessedness, living the true life which belongs to the saints in paradise.” On the Incarnation, 3.
I simply can’t say it better than Khalid Anatolios’ outstanding exposition and so I reproduce it here.
“In this passage, the connection between the term χάρις and the framework of participation may be observed in the convergence of two sets of terminology. Thus χάρις is described in terms of God giving humanity a share in his power, δυναμις. The verb employed is μεταδιδωμι, the correlative of μεταλαμβανω. And the effect of this sharing is that humanity becomes, as it were ‘shadows’ of the Word, another reference to the participation model. But of course, Athanasius elsewhere employs the participation model and vocabulary to speak of the sharing of the whole creation in the beneficent δυναμις of the Word, a sharing which makes the whole world a ‘shadow’ and a reflection of the Word. In humanity, however, the reflection achieves an altogether different level, and it is this qualitative difference that is articulated in terms of humanity being κατ εικονα…Athanasius understands humanity’s being ‘in the image,’ as derivative from the Word’s being the image of the Father. He reserves the term ‘image’ to the Son alone, as a perfect reflection of the Father. Humanity, therefore, is the ‘image of the image.’ Its similarity to God is thus fundamentally articulated as a participation in the Son’s archetypal relationship of similitude to the Father. Athanasius: The Coherence of his Thought, 56
And Norman seems quite aware of this when we writes in a similar vein,
“What Athanasius stresses here [De Syn, 51], against the Arians, is the significance of κατ εικονα as a participation term. Man was formed as the image of the image of God, which is the Logos, and by this means partakes of God. But this is a two edged sword. On the one hand κατ εικονα indicates the contingent nature of man, but on the other it is not a simple resemblance or reproduction of form, but an ontological participation.” Norman, 33.
Compare the above with the gloss from Norman on deification.
“But even more than the language of renewal/restoration, the frequent employment of the word theopoiesis points to the virtual transformation of human nature itself, since God and created humanity, have in essence, nothing in common before they are united by the incarnation.” Norman 61
Quite right then is Anatolios to reject a similar line of thought when he states,
“The fallacy of such an approach being imposed on Athanasius is exposed by the recognition that the ‘either/or’ alternatives in which the question is meant to be answered-either the image belongs to the human structure or it belongs to the ‘grace’ of the relation with God-simply do not exist as exclusive alternatives in Athanasius. It seems wisest, therefore, to dismiss the dichotomy represented by such a question as quite foreign to the perspective of Athanasius’s anthropology, in which the relation to God is constitutive of the human being as such. There is thus a convergence in Athanasius between ‘inmherent structure’ and ‘relation to God’ which renders fallacious any attempt to analyze his anthropology in terms of a preconceived framework based on a mutually exclusive opposition.” Anatolios, 65.
To say that God and creatures have in essence nothing in common is misleading if not outright false for the essence of humanity is an image of the divine. To put it more directly, the image of God in man is the essence of humanity. It is its logos and this logos or plan, predestination or predetermination is in the one Logos, that is Christ. It doesn’t follow that if the essence of humanity qua logos isn’t the essence of God, that there is no essential or natural overlap between God and humanity. The logos of humanity exists eternally in God in Christ. This fits well with Athanasius’ essence-power distinction.
“Rather, it is articulated in terms of God being ‘outisde’ of creation by his essence and yet present within it by his power. This essence-power distinction in Athanasius seems to be a distinction between the divine realm in se, encompassing both Father and Son (not to mention the Spirit) and ad extra. Its point is simply that God’s active agency within creation does not mitigate against his otherness as an agent; God does not become consubstantial with creation through his activity within it. However, in being outside creation by essence, God does not cease to be effective within it, and to effect creation’s participation in his own activity.” Anatolios, 46.
The logos of human nature then is eternal and in God as divine power or as a divine energy. And since God’s power is deity and not less so than the divine essence, the kind of radical separation that Norman wishes to posit simply doesn’t open up. Ironically Norman implicitly recognizes this,
“The first point to be noted is that the doctrine of creation out of nothing was not left in all its radical implications without qualification. In fact, creation is a manifestation of grace, and this is especially true in the case of man.” Norman, 81.
For Athanasius then God’s relation to creation requires no intermediary as Arianism did, as some kind of mid point between creator and creature to bridge the gap. God’s access to creation is direct and unmediated which secures its dependency and denies any claim by creatures to metaphysical, moral or soteriological autonomy. It is all of grace. This is why as far back as Origen, deification is glossed not only terms of human nature, but more narrowly in terms of moral transformation without a loss or obliteration of human nature.
“And if any one were to maintain what is asserted by some (either by those who possess intelligence or who do not, but have misconceived sound reason), that ‘God exists, and we are next to Him,’ I would interpret the word “we,” by using in its stead, “We who act according to reason,’ or rather, ‘We virtuous, who act according to reason.’ For, in our opinion, the same virtue belongs to all the blessed, so that the virtue of man and of God is identical. And therefore we are taught to become ‘perfect,’ as our Father in heaven is perfect.” Contra Celsus 4:29
Divine power is perfectly suited to human nature since human nature is a divine energy. The same thought can be seen in Maximus’ disputation with Pyrrus when he argues that virtues are not external to human nature introduced from the outside and hence supernatural but rather the virtues are natural things. (“It is not as if the virtues have been newly introduced from the outside, for they inhere in us from creation…” Disputation with Pyrrus, sec.88-95) Deification is internal, intrinsic and personal. One might say that deification at one level is in the use of divine power. When Athanasius and other Fathers speak of grace transforming nature, this is not to be understood in terms of replacing our nature, but in terms of actualizing it. Grace is not an inhering accident of a substance or individual thing. Consequently, when Athanasius writes that we become deified by grace and participation and that unlike God we cannot be divine on our own, what this means is not that the imago dei is not divine, but that its actualization, the bringing of the divine power or potential to reality can’t be done autonomously. For all have fallen short of the glory of God. To say that we are transformed beyond our nature is not to nullify the imago dei but to see that its actualization goes beyond our capabilities to actualize our own natural potential. That is, transformation beyond “nature” is not the nullifcation of the imago dei but its actualization. So when Athanasius and other Fathers speak of going beyond what Adam had in creation, they mean ot to posit some super-human replacing essence, but the completion of the process according to the image which is in Christ.
So in a very metaphysically robust sense God is not totally other but nearer to us than our own breath. All things in him live, move and have their being for the logos of each creature is the divine being. God then is the formal cause of creatures without any obliteration of creaturely nature since the logos of every creature is a divine power or energy. And this is in part possible because the divine energies are not the same as the divine essence so that being made according to one does not imply partaking of the other. In the other direction, creatures are made according to a logos or image but they are not the logos according to which they are made. So that it is not as if the creatures themselves are eternally existing as deity and so panentheism is precluded as well. (Its nice to have your cake and eat it too.) The Logos then is truely a mediator. This is why Norman’s approving citation of Lot-Bordine is so wrong headed.
“As Lot-Borodine points out, the Nicene definition of the Son as homoousios with the Father would logically preclude the Logos as mediator between God and man.” Norman, 79
Homoousios does not preclude Christ as a mediator between God and man, but rather only precludes certain notions of what consitutes a mediator, most specifically the Arian conception. If Christ is of one essence with the Father, then God’s access to the world is direct and so the Arian mediator is an explanatory dangler and is unecessary. An Arian mediator is a fifth wheel in an Athanasian cosmos. The only reason you’d need the kind of Arian mediator is if creation was in some intrinsic way opposed to God as expressed in the Arian fear that somehow the unchangeable God might fail to be God if he came into contact with formless and therefore changing matter. The point of contention for Athanasius and the Arians was not if Christ was mediator but what it meant for Christ to be the mediator.
In so far as God is underived he can be said to be totally other but that does not imply the kind of metaphysical separation that Norman suggests. He assumes that being other implies alienation and opposition, but difference doesn’t imply opposition or that two things are opposed. If God is different than us, it doesn’t follow we are alienated from God per se. And this is the sense that Athanasius and other Fathers have in mind when they speak of God as being essentially distinct from creatures. Athanasius can escape the counter charge of idolatry in his doctrine of deification for unlike the Arians he does not posit an essence that is metaphysically less than God in the category of the divine.
On the moral plane, God’s aseity or underivedness has great import for the impeccability of the saints. Remember the charge was that if deification is never becomes “natural” then humans are still mutable. But this is confused. Athanasius thinks of deification on two levels, the natural and the personal.
“And thus He, the incorruptible Son of God, being conjoined with all by a like nature, naturally clothed all with incorruption, by the promise of the resurrection. For the actual corruption in death has no longer holding-ground against men, by reason of the Word, which by His one body has come to dwell among them.” On the Incarnation, 9.2
“Wherefore, let us not merely proceed to perform the festal rites, but let us be prepared to draw near to the divine Lamb, and to touch heavenly food. Let us cleanse our hands, let us purify the body. Let us keep our whole mind from guile; not giving up ourselves to excess, and to lusts, but occupying ourselves entirely with our Lord, and with divine doctrines; so that, being altogether pure, we may be able to partake of the Word.” Festal Letter, 5.5.
Deification then admits of degrees. Because man is made in the image and Christ has taken up that image in a hypostatic union, there is a natural deification relative to immortality for all of humanity, which is why there is a general resurrection. Personal deification requiring a response on top of this is also “natural” in that the person actualizes the divine potential according to the image in which they were made. Over time, the character of the individual “gels” and becomes fixed so that the telos of their nature in the imago dei hooks up with and becomes one with their personal use of their natural faculties by divine power. This is why the comment from Origen above is important since he makes clear that the virtue of God and humanity is “identical” and this is so because it is by the same divine power. The saints become fixed in the good and become morally impeccable without a loss of free will for there are an infinite number of divine goods to choose between.
This displays the difference in deification between God and us and why God is deity by nature or essence and we are by paticipation. God has no begining and we do. Consequently even though God is still the source of his character, this does not imply any dependence or mutability since God never begins to form his character. As Maximus wrote, God never ceases from goods because he never began them. Since we are created we cannot be deified by essence and consequently from the get-go since we have a begining and therefore theosis or deification requires a personal process. With God, there is no process and with us, there is.
“…and as the Son of Man, He Himself is said after the manner of men to receive what proceeds from Him, because His Body is none other than His, and is a natural recipient of grace, as has been said. For He received it as far as His man’s nature was exalted; which exaltation was its being deified. But such an exaltation the Word Himself always had according to the Father’s Godhead and perfection, which was His.” Contra Arianos, 1.45.
This is why we can never be God by essence since God is beginingless. So on the contrary, it is not the doctrine of creation ex nihilo that motivates the supposed problems that Norman puts forward. Rather it is the doctrine that God is beginingless and is independent. If this is true, then creation ex nihilo is just a hop away since beings other than God will have a begining, on pain of belief in many Gods. Either the LDS need to give up the argument put forward by Norman or they need to give up the belief in many Gods in the above sense. If they select the latter and say that there is only one supreme underived being, then they can have no principled objections to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo since by implication, all other beings will have a begining.
In sum, the argument that the patristic and Orthodox doctrine of deification is inconsistent with other traditional Christian committments such as creation ex nihilo rests on false premises and bad inferences. The doctrine of the imago dei and its relation to Christology shows that the kind of separation envisioned to make that argument go through is precluded. Norman’s argument then rests on a straw man. Athanasius’ theology is sufficiently rich and coherent to ward off the kind of disparity between God and the world to which his theological foes subscribed. By the same token it presents far more of a challenge to LDS theology than its advocates have seemingly grasped.