Are Mormons moving closer to Orthodoxy? According to Richard Mouw, retired president of Fuller Seminary, they are.
In an article in this May's issue of First Things, he points to two lines of evidence for this. The first is that leaders of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) seem to be “signaling a decision to downplay” the doctrine that God was once a man. Mouw refers to the couplet by early LDS President Lorenzo Snow, “As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be.” He recognizes that the first half of this couplet denies any ontological difference between God and man, thus placing Mormon theology far beyond the orthodox pale.
But in a 1997 Time magazine interview, President Gordon Hinckley said, “I don’t know that we teach [that God was once a man]. I don’t know that we emphasize it.” Then in 2012 when the LDS Church published a study volume, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow, there was zero commentary on the first half of Snow’s famous couplet.
Mouw concludes that LDS leaders “are simply saying nothing about it in the hope of keeping it on the margins of their historic teachings without issuing a straightforward rejection of something that loomed large in the LDS past.” Further evidence for this hope is that Mormon participants in the Evangelical-Mormon dialogue which Mouw and Mormon theologian Robert Millet have led for fifteen years tell Mouw that the Snow couplet has no canonical status in Mormon theology.
I am not so sure that all this represents real theological movement. For while LDS leaders don’t seem to be talking much about the first half of the Snow couplet, there is still public LDS proclamation of the doctrine. At the LDS website one can find the essay “Becoming Like God,” which cites Joseph Smith’s teaching that God “was once as one of us” and, unapologetically, Lorenzo Snow’s couplet. This doctrine is rooted in the Pearl of Great Price, part of the Mormon canon which suggests that Jesus is fully God now, but was not always so. At some time in the past he was as we are now, but eventually grew in his attributes until he became “like unto God” (Abraham 3:24).
It seems, then, that the LDS Church is still proclaiming publicly that God and man are of the same species, and that both God the Father and Jesus the Son, who are separate beings and Gods, were once men like us.
The contrast with Christian orthodoxy, as Mouw suggested, is considerable: the Jesus of the historic church was always the second person of the Trinity, fully divine and fully equal to the Father, who in turn was always God. There never was a time when the Trinity was not fully God, each of the three Persons co-equal and co-divine. Jesus never grew in his powers. Luke tells us that as a boy he “grew in his wisdom” (Lk 2:52), but the Church has taught that this means “his human nature was instructed by his own divinity” (Jerome) or that while remaining divine “he made his own the progress of humans in wisdom and grace” (John of Damascus). There were times in His incarnation when he voluntarily “emptied himself” of some of His divine prerogatives, such as knowing the day and the hour of the end of all things (Phil 2.7; Matt 24.36). But these were powers which He had possessed until the Incarnation, and chose not to use while on earth in bodily form.
So for orthodoxy the movement of divine attributes in Jesus is the reverse of that for the LDS view: Instead of gradually accumulating the divine nature, He always was divine. Only at a point long after the creation did he appear to have relinquished His divinity. But this was merely an appearance, camouflaging the “fullness” of deity (Col 1:19) by a divine humility willing to forgo certain privileges.
Mouw’s other line of evidence for a Mormon turn toward orthodoxy focuses on the second half of the Snow couplet—”As God now is, man may be.” At first blush this can sound like Christian theosis, which is the idea that by the Holy Spirit believers “participate in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4) and thus grow into the divine likeness. It is also called deification, which comes from the Latin word for “god.” He argues that Millet’s approaches to theosis are “expressions of a straightforward theological orthodoxy.” After all, C.S. Lewis asserted that God “will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess.” And Millet teaches that our growth in godhood comes only by the atonement of Jesus, and that we will never become fully equal with God.
Is Mormon theosis or deification, then, really an expression of straightforward orthodoxy? Mouw does not register an unqualified Yes. He warns that “we need to see how these formulations function in the larger system of Mormon teaching before pronouncing them orthodox.” He returns at the end of his article to the hope that Mormon hymnody points subtly toward the ontological gap that Mormon doctrine denies. Then he suggests that we focus on the second half of the couplet about theosis, which is “potentially more orthodox.”
It would be wonderful indeed if the LDS Church adopted more orthodox theological positions, as the Worldwide Church of God seems to have done thirty years ago. But I am not as hopeful as Mouw because of the problem of Mormon ontology that Mouw keeps raising. And contrary to what Mouw suggests, the LDS Church is not bashful about the implications of the first half of the Snow couplet—that God and humans are of the same species.
This is why, as long as the LDS holds onto this ontology, LDS deification will never come close to the orthodox Christian understanding of theosis. Norman Russell’s authoritative Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (OUP, 2004) shows that the Fathers never treated Jesus and human beings as Mormons do—that is, as the same kind of beings or of the same species, with Jesus having moved further along than the rest of us. Russell argues that for the Fathers, the relationship between human beings and the Trinity was always “asymmetrical,” bringing together beings of “diverse ontological type”—the opposite of Mormon claims that God and humanity share the same ontology.
Athanasius, whose exchange formula is most often quoted (“He became human that we might become divine” [On the Incarnation 54]), shows most emphatically that Mormon deification is qualitatively different from patristic deification. Athanasius argued that “recipients of adoption and deification have simply received the name of sons and gods; Christ, however, is Son and God ‘by nature and according to essence.’” Athanasius insisted on a “radical division” between the “agenetic” Godhead and the “genetic” created order, the agenētos and the genēta. “If to be deified by participation must be contrasted with true divinity, then the Logos is certainly not deified.” The Christ is the Father’s “only own and true Son deriving from his essential being.” Hence the participant (an ordinary believer) is essentially different from the participated (Christ). In Athanasius’s determination to defeat Arianism, he denied any similarity at all between Christ and those who participate in Him. In those discussions, he “played down the designation of men as gods.” Hence for Athanasius there was no question of humans ever becoming the same as God. “They are sons and gods only in name.”
The upshot is that the early orthodox view of Jesus and deification is substantially different from that of the LDS. Nor was C.S. Lewis’s notion of deification quite like the LDS view. In the Winter 1997 issue of the LDS journal Dialogue, Evan Stephenson shows that Lewis believed “the gulf between . . . creator and creature can never be bridged.” According to Stephenson, Lewis would “protest . . . [the] nonsense” that God is an “exalted man.”
I agree with Mouw that we are not saved by our theology but by the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Charles Hodge was right that we will be in heaven with believers who got their theology wrong in startling ways. (Some of them might conclude the same about me!) I think of my dear friend Robert Millet, with whom Richard Mouw has led this Evangelical-Mormon dialogue (and in which I have happily participated) and with whom I wrote a book. Bob is one of the most excellent men I know, and he trusts in the atoning work of Jesus for his salvation. But I care enough about Bob to talk with him honestly about our deepest differences—including my assessment that on both halves of the Snow couplet, public Mormon theology and traditional Christian orthodoxy are still far apart.
Gerald McDermott is Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, and co-author (with Robert Millett) of Evangelicals and Mormons: Exploring the Boundaries.