"I may become God as far as he became man," declared Gregory of Nazianzus in the late fourth century" (Orations 29.19).
Gregory went to the heart of the Christian teaching of deification – theosis – in this statement. To have the full meaning of this Christian doctrine, and to understand its implications for humanity one need only ask “How far did God become a man?" and apply the answer to the question, “If man is granted godhood in the same measure as God became human, how far shall humanity become gods?”
If a person believes that God is “Fully God,” and also “Fully human,” where is the limit of the divinity offered through Jesus Christ?
Descriptions of deification included:
- Physical incorruptibility
- Immunity from suffering [impassability]
- Perfect virtue
- Fullness of knowledge and joy
- Eternal progression
- Communion with God
- Inheritance of divine glory, and
- Joint rulership with Christ in the kingdom of God in heaven forever.
Beginning with the creation of humanity in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), the church fathers developed aspects of deification from such concepts as the command to moral perfection and holiness, for example:
Lev. 19: 1-2: And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy.
Matt. 5:48: Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
1 Jn. 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.
1 Cor. 11:1: Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ
2 Pet. 1:3-7: 3According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue:
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.
And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;
And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;
And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity
And from the doctrine of adoption as heirs of God:
Rom. 8:15-17: For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. 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.
Gal. 4:4-7: But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.
And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.
Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ
Unification with God in Christ
John 17:11-23: And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.
While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled.
And now come I to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves.
I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.
They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.
As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.
And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.
Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;
That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:
I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
Partaking in Christ's sufferings in order to be elevated with him in glory, as at:
Rom. 8:16-18: 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.
For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
2 Cor. 3:18: 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 Cor. 4:16-18: For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Philippians 3:20-21: For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.
2 Tim: 2:10-12: Therefore I endure all things for the elect's sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him: If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us:
They also pointed to examples of humans described as "gods" in scripture, such as”
Ex. 4:16: And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and he shall be, even he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God.
Ex. 7:1: And the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.
Ps. 82:6: I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
John 10:34-36: Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?
Jewish thought, particularly in response to developing christology and its perceived threat to monotheism, was more reticent to speak of humans attaining divinity. Nevertheless, Jews shared some of the crucial biblical texts underlying deification.
Talmudic Judaism tended to stress humanity's obligation to imitate God's holiness in consequence of being created in the divine image.
Moses and other prophets were spoken of as sharing God's glory and becoming "secondary gods" in relation to other mortals.
Philo described Moses' glorification as "a prototype…of the ascent to heaven which every disciple hoped to be granted."
Due to its incongruity with the new Credal doctrines of God in Western Christianity, deification fell out of favour as the preferred way of describing salvation, while the Eastern branches maintained it much as it was at first, although it is taught with less force and confidence in our time.
Roman Catholic theology increasingly stressed the transcendence of God, who alone was self-existent and eternal. All other beings were created ex nihilo, "out of nothing," having only contingent being.
This theological development culminated in Augustine, for whom God's absolute oneness and otherness was so different from humanity's created status and dependence on divine grace that salvation could not bridge the gap between the eternal Creator and the creatures contingent upon him.
Ever since, talk of deification has been suspect or heretical in Western Christianity and has formed a major point of objection among traditional Christians to the teachings of Latter-day Saints on the subject.
It is no surprise that Christians unschooled in the history of the development of the Christianity’s’ Bible based beliefs and teachings, and with the beliefs of the Early Church Fathers (such as are found in Pelikan’s excellent four volume work), do not grasp the “Faith once delivered to the saints,” but insist upon extrabiblical documents - that are not at all points in agreement with the information written under inspiration - the books of the Holy Bible.
When the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews ended after seventy years, the majority of returnees to Palestine could not speak Hebrew. Instead, they spoke Aramaic, having either forgotten their native tongue [the aged], or never having learned it [the middle aged and the young].
While this fact does not bear conclusively on the matter at hand, it does demonstrate that much can change, and can change much, when an original language, teaching, or belief has been withheld by intervening circumstances from a people intending to preserve and continue their ancient traditions that their predecessors had maintained relative to faith, culture, customs, language, and beliefs.
Sadly, this is what happened to the Christian doctrine of deification once the ancient doctrine came to be doubted, explained away, diluted, ignored as too hot to handle, or when faith and hope in God’s express promises diminished to such a degree that succeeding generations came to consider that their hoped for exaltation, was less and less likely to be true, until, ultimately, their hope was swallowed in the black pit of doubt until it died and was no longer spoken of.
Because God became increasingly suspect in His ability to keep such this promise, it suffered one blow after another in the doubting minds of mediaeval, modernistic and minimalist theologians, and at the hands of others that considered themselves determiners of what the Christian faith could be and was, and of what it could not be and was not.
Thus, theologians became undertakers as they first vitiated, and then buried the most fundamental Christian doctrine, and the reason for the Infinite Atonement of the Son of God, for no better reason than that their faith in God’s ability to deliver what He promised to set on the head of those He would appoint Joint Heirs with Christ.
This is the diminished legacy bequeathed to countless generations who stood and now stand with the Words of God in one hand, and the words of a Creed in the other, trying to justify their differences, marking that in every disagreement the Bible loses the contest.