At the dawn of the third millennium, Mormonism (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) enjoys a level of growth and recognition unparalleled in its 168-year history. By the end of 1997 the LDS Church1 had over 10 million members worldwide, over half of whom (51.1%) lived outside the United States.2 Although still small in terms of absolute numbers (Mormons currently make up only .17 of 1% of the world's population of 5.9 billion3), what this current membership statistic does not adequately convey is the phenomenal rate of growth which undergirds it. Established with six members on April 6, 1830, it took the LDS Church over a century to reach the one million mark. In 1950 it had 1.1 million members; by 1970, a span of just 20 years, it had more than doubled its membership to 2.4 million. In 1980, with 4.6 million members, it had nearly doubled once again. The current level of 10 million members once more represents a doubling in membership which has taken place in a little less than 20 years (1980—1997).4 As University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark remarked in 1980, Mormonism's rate of growth represents nothing less than "the rise of a new world religion . . . [with] a worldwide following comparable to that of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and other dominant world faiths."5
In his opening address at the 167th Semiannual General Conference (October 4—5, 1997), President Gordon B. Hinckley, the presiding officer of the LDS Church, in reflecting back upon the events of the preceding year, which had included the 150th anniversary of the Mormon pioneer trek into the Salt Lake Valley, noted: "The media have been kind and generous to us. This past year of pioneer celebrations has resulted in very extensive, very favorable press coverage."6 One aspect of that press coverage has involved probing questions into the Mormon beliefs surrounding salvation and demonstrates the abiding interest of non-Mormons in the Mormon doctrine of exaltation: the belief that the fullness of salvation involves the divinization of the human person, i.e., humans becoming gods.7 Two examples, taken from nationally recognized publications, will serve to illustrate this interest in Mormon doctrine.
President Hinckley, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, which was printed in its Sunday edition on April 13, 1997, was asked to elaborate on the LDS view of God and salvation.
Q: There are some significant differences in your beliefs. For instance, don't Mormons believe that God was once a man?
A: I wouldn't say that. There was a couplet coined, "As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become." Now that's more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don't know very much about.
Q: So you're saying the church is still struggling to understand this?
A: Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly.8
Even more pointed was Time magazine's cover story of the LDS Church in its August 4, 1997 issue. The issue of human divinization was again raised with President Hinckley in his interview by Time.
At first, Hinckley seemed to qualify the idea that men could become gods, suggesting that "it's of course an ideal. It's a hope for a wishful thing," but later affirmed that "yes, of course they can." (He added that women could too, "as companions to their husbands. They can't conceive a king without a queen.") On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he sounded uncertain, "I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it. . . . I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don't know a lot about it, and I don't think others know a lot about it."9
Arguably, it was because of such interviews with the press as described above that impelled President Hinckley to add to his comments that "I personally have been much quoted, and in a few instances misquoted and misunderstood. I think that's to be expected. . . . You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine. I think I understand them thoroughly, and it's unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear."10
In his opening general conference talk President Hinckley also pointed out that "We meet today under very favorable circumstances. . . . Never before has the Church had a better reputation than it has now."11 Yet, as in its earliest years, the LDS Church continues to be attacked for its doctrines and history. Perhaps no critique is better known, or more notorious, than the film and its companion book, The God Makers. The book, first published in 1984, was rereleased in an expanded version in 1997.12
Whatever else may or may not have been accomplished through its publication, The God Makers, as well as its sequel, The God Makers II,13 have served to highlight the full meaning of salvation as defined by the LDS Church: exaltation, that is, humans becoming gods, the very same doctrine which had attracted the clear interest of the press in their reporting on Mormon events and leaders in 1997. Obviously the title chosen for these books was no accident; it was used as something of a summary statement. Through reference to the doctrine of the LDS Church considered most objectionable, human divinization, the title epitomized the view of the authors that the LDS Church "is not Christian at all but a revival of primitive paganism in modified form."14 What is truly intriguing, however, is the nature of the Mormon apologetic response.
In the years since the release of The God Makers in 1984, a body of literature has developed which seeks to respond to the numerous charges and accusations made against the LDS Church in this and other similar critiques of the Mormon faith. A key aspect of these LDS rebuttals has been the explanation and defense of the LDS doctrine of salvation; one common strategy for doing so has been the use and citation of patristic sources to demonstrate an ancient Christian belief in a doctrine of human divinization.15 What is at issue then is LDS soteriology (that is, the LDS doctrine of salvation) and the extent to which it can legitimately lay claim to being a variation of an ancient theme. A survey of the literature dealing with LDS soteriology during the past 25 years, a literature which now encompasses both LDS and non-LDS responses, reveals that there are at least four distinct yet interrelated ways of approaching the LDS belief that the fullness of human salvation involves the attainment of godhood.
The first way of analyzing the apparent uniqueness of LDS soteriology can be called the "patristic parallel" model.16 This approach, utilized by LDS authors, seeks to show the basic continuity between current LDS belief and teaching and the beliefs and teachings of the ancient Christian church. In other words, the essential point being made is that LDS soteriology is neither a nineteenth-century novelty nor an un-Christian understanding of the salvation made possible through Jesus Christ. The work of the authors in this category actually antedates the 1984 release of The God Makers; and so, for the sake of precision, their position will be referred to as the "pre-1984 patristic parallel" model.
The next category of writers to deal with the claims of LDS soteriology can be described as utilizing an "incompatibility" model. In this approach non-LDS authors seek to show that the LDS doctrine of human divinization is fundamentally incompatible with Christian faith. This view would maintain, at least implicitly, that the Christian heritage of faith and doctrine is rooted in the classic confessions of faith contained in the conciliar creeds of first millennium Christianity, that is, the undivided Catholic Church, composed of two halves: one roughly corresponding to the western half of the Roman Empire (whose spoken language was Latin) and the other roughly corresponding to the eastern half of the Roman Empire (whose spoken language was Greek). For the sake of accuracy two strains should be distinguished within this model: a "hard incompatibility" approach17 and a "soft incompatibility" approach.18 The former regards LDS soteriology, as well as the LDS Church in general, to be pagan and even Satanic, whereas the latter is content to simply conclude that LDS belief is sui generis.19
Another way of approaching LDS soteriology can be described as the "post-1984 patristic parallel" model. As was the case with the "pre-1984 patristic parallel" methodology, this body of LDS literature also seeks to draw upon patristic texts to establish the legitimacy for the LDS conception of human salvation. What distinguishes it from the earlier "patristic parallel" model is its specific awareness of and reaction to the "incompatibility" model, which was most notoriously worked out in The God Makers.
Additionally, some authors in this category have begun to explicitly differentiate or contrast LDS and patristic descriptions of human salvation. Thus, for the sake of precision, one can distinguish a "hard post-1984 patristic parallel" approach20 from a "soft post-1984 patristic parallel" model.21 The former, like the "pre-1984 patristic parallel" model, sees a genuine similarity between LDS and patristic teachings while the latter finds, to a greater or lesser degree, only a nominal similarity. Writers who adopt a "soft post-1984 patristic parallel" methodology ground the differences found in patristic doctrine, relative to LDS doctrine, in an apostasy of the ancient Christian Church.
A final, non-LDS stance towards LDS soteriology can be characterized as the "patristic incompatibility" model. While this approach is similar to the "incompatibility" model insofar as it too maintains that Christian doctrine cannot be reconciled with the LDS understanding of salvation, what distinguishes it is an awareness of and reaction to the "post-1984 patristic parallel" model. Moreover, as was the case with the "incompatibility" model, there are two kinds of "patristic incompatibility": one "hard" and one "soft."
The "hard patristic incompatibility" model22 is simply dismissive of any patristic evidence that humans can become gods because it would (apparently) involve these patristic authors in a polytheism which is manifestly contrary to their unambiguous professions of monotheism. There is also the subtle inference that any "patristic parallel" model involves an attempt to usurp or escape from the normative role of the sacred scriptures which, within the context of this model, are understood to be opposed to any sense of salvation which involves a divinization of the human person.
The "soft patristic incompatibility"23 model, while approaching LDS soteriology with a much more nuanced view, still finds it incompatible with a Christian understanding of salvation. Specifically, this "soft" version of the "patristic incompatibility" model maintains that while there are apparent similarities between LDS and patristic writings, there are no genuine similarities. Attempts at using patristic texts to demonstrate such a similarity with LDS doctrine involve a distortion of such texts. Similarly, while not rejecting outright the belief that humans can share in the divine nature, this model holds a highly attenuated view of what such a sharing would entail. While humans can share in the divine nature by possessing the moral attributes of God, e.g., goodness and holiness, the metaphysical gap or divide between Creator and creature is never bridged. Humans can become "like" God, but in no real sense do humans "become" gods.24
As can be seen from these four general ways of evaluating LDS soteriological claims, an accurate and comprehensive understanding of patristic soteriology will be indispensable if any useful comparison is to be drawn between it and LDS belief. While one can easily (or perhaps simplistically) summarize the patristic understanding of salvation with the term theosis or human divinization, the challenge comes in "unpacking" this doctrine of theosis—in determining its meaning and in understanding the process by which it is attained. Moreover, in exploring this patristic understanding of human salvation, one rapidly realizes that patristic soteriology cannot be meaningfully described apart from Christology (which deals with the doctrines regarding the person of Christ), anthropology (which deals with the doctrines regarding the nature of the human person), or sacramentology (which deals with the doctrines regarding the sacraments). Insofar as these other, related areas of theology impinge on the question of human salvation, they too will need to be incorporated into this project.
Similarly, a clear description of LDS soteriology, shorn of all half-truths and sensationalism, will prove essential if there is to be any hope of a useful comparative analysis. And while the LDS doctrine of salvation can be succinctly summarized with the term "exaltation," the task at hand is to understand the meaning of this possible future human state and the way in which it can become an existential reality. As was noted above with regards to patristic theology, other areas of LDS doctrine which are linked to soteriology will necessarily require inclusion so as to achieve a clear and balanced presentation.
The purpose of this thesis, therefore, will be twofold: first, to engage in a sustained investigation into the content of both patristic (chapter 2) and LDS (chapter 3) soteriology and second, to systematically compare these soteriologies to determine not only their commonalities but the significance of their differences as well (chapter 4). The corollary to this second purpose will be to examine the ramifications of soteriology for one's doctrines of deity and the nature of the human person. But since chapter 4, with its comparative analysis of two distinct systems, comprises the real heart of the thesis, a word of explanation needs to be given regarding the two essentially expository chapters that precede it (chapters 2 and 3).
It will be important to keep in mind that the presentations of patristic and LDS doctrines offered in chapters 2 and 3 do not pretend to be the last word on the subject. These chapters do not offer a history of the development of the doctrines of theosis or exaltation; nor are they apologetic attempts to prove or justify these doctrines through appeal to scripture, tradition, or reason. Such historical or apologetic approaches fall outside the limited scope of this thesis. Instead, what will be provided is a concise yet accurate present-day understanding of the doctrines under investigation which can then be analyzed for the sake of comparison. The primary heirs of the patristic understanding of salvation as theosis are members of the Orthodox Church; hence, the majority of the secondary source material for that section of the thesis explaining theosis comes from twentieth century Orthodox historians, theologians, and church leaders. Similarly, the presentation of the doctrine of exaltation will be based upon both the official statements and scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as the explanations of this doctrine penned by reputable Mormon scholars who remain in good standing with their Church.
That there is need for a full-length study such as this was clearly recognized by the LDS authors who adopted a "pre-1984 patristic parallel" model for discussing LDS soteriology. In his 1975 article juxtaposing Mormon and patristic teachings on salvation, Keith Norman described Christian historians as unwilling to explore the topic of human divinization; in fact, "they tend to dismiss such talk of the deification of man as a curious aberration, not worthy of serious consideration, or at least to tone it down enough so that it escapes notice."25 While noting that Jaroslav Pelikan's discussion of theosis in The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition26 was a "notable exception"27 to the dismissive attitude he perceived, Norman sounded a call for others to "probe and elucidate this heretofore sadly ignored aspect of the history of Christian thought."28 His 1980 doctoral dissertation, "Deification: The Content of Athanasian Soteriology,"29 while significant for patristic studies, was not able to return to the connection between Mormon and patristic soteriologies, which he had begun to raise in 1975.30 When Philip Barlow in 1983 again made the connection between Mormon and patristic conceptions of human salvation he, like Norman, was not able to provide an in-depth study given the limitations inherent in an article about six pages long, a fact which he frankly admitted: "Space limitations prevent a thorough study."31
Another significant reason for the present study arises from the work of both the "pre-" and "post-1984" patristic parallel authors. In a number of places they stress the idea that the patristic doctrine of theosis has either evaporated from the content of current Christian belief or has undergone significant changes which in some way have altered the purity and force of earlier formulations. Norman, representative of the former viewpoint, states that "the doctrine of Divinization could not survive in the church's theology proper . . . today defenders of orthodoxy cringe at the full implications of Paul's hope for the saints to come 'unto the measure of the fullness of Christ.' (Eph. 4:13)"32 Likewise the following from Peterson and Ricks: "Indeed, if the Latter-day Saints were inclined to do so, they could point out that they alone, among contemporary followers of Jesus, seem to possess the ancient Christian doctrine of theosis."33 Peterson and Ricks are also representative of the latter (alteration) viewpoint, and they maintain that "It is certain that the ancient doctrine had undergone massive dislocations by the time it reached the sixteenth century. . . . We suspect, in fact, that even relatively late statements on theosis represent the Hellenization of an earlier doctrine—one that was perhaps much closer to Mormon belief."34 In a similar vein it is postulated that the Trinitarian and Christological formulations of the early church in some way redefined the essential content of the patristic doctrine of theosis.35 Although none of these comments are developed or substantiated, the fact that they are not is understandable given the space or length constraints of the authors who at least raised these issues. Nevertheless, this illustrates once again the need for a more extensive study that could examine and test these provocative ideas. If even before the release of The God Makers in 1984 scholars felt a need for something along the lines of this current project, the need and the questions have only intensified in the intervening years.
That something is to be gained in undertaking a study such as this flows from a belief that despite the ecclesiological and theological divisions that separate the followers of Jesus Christ, those very divisions can be a source of meaning and light. In his Foundations of Christian Faith36 the twentieth century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (1904—1984) cogently presents this argument for the good which can be derived from the evil of Christian disunity.37 One way in which rival theologies can be of service to one another is through their ability to exercise a "corrective influence."38 A faith community that experiences no external challenge or opposition can overemphasize one doctrine at the expense of another. Likewise, nuances that are needed to accurately grasp the content of a particular doctrine can fade from the consciousness of a faith community over time if there is no pressing reason or need to make them explicit. Therefore a rival theology, insofar as it offers unacceptable answers to the same doctrinal questions, can serve as a catalyst for the accurate and balanced reexpression of those doctrines which are held to be true. This corrective influence inherent in comparative studies of alternative belief systems has also been highlighted by Roger R. Keller, a professor of LDS-operated Brigham Young University, in Religions of the World: A Latter-day Saint View: "By learning about other people's faith we also learn about our own. The important elements in other religions enrich the tapestry of ours as we are reminded of truths of which we may have lost sight, even though they are present in our own tradition."39 Moreover, Rahner points out that rival theologies can also serve to bring about greater clarity as each side seeks to "perceive and experience . . . more clearly" what is distinctive and unique within its own tradition as opposed to alternative possibilities.40
Given this understanding of what can be accomplished through theological dialogue and interaction, it is hoped that this exploration of the doctrines of theosis and exaltation, and then the consequent comparative analysis, will be of particular interest to at least three distinct groups of people: members of the LDS Church, members of churches that are descended from the ancient western or Latin Catholic Church (Latin Catholics and Protestants), and members of churches that are descended from the ancient eastern or Greek Catholic Church (Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics). Members of the LDS Church will discover unmistakable evidence that their fundamental belief about human salvation and potential is not unique nor a Mormon invention.41 Latin Catholics and Protestants will learn of a doctrine of salvation that, while relatively foreign to their ears, is nevertheless part of the heritage of the undivided Catholic Church of the first millennium. Members of Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches will discover on the American continent an amazing parallel to their own belief that salvation in Christ involves our becoming "partakers of the divine nature."42
The responsibility that participants in theological dialogue have for one another was aptly expressed by Rahner when he wrote, "we have to force each other mutually to be and to become as Christian as possible, and to understand what is really radical about the Christian message a little better."43 To the extent that the following chapters fulfill this responsibility, the effort involved in their production will have been justified.