Ever since LDS Church founder Joseph Smith reported he had been visited by the illuminated, bodily forms of God the Father and Jesus Christ, Mormonism’s take on godhood has been, at the least, unique.
Christian theologians have gone so far as to dismiss Smith’s 1838 account, and subsequent conclusions about the nature of deity, as errant if not outright heretical. Christianity’s foundational, creedal beliefs, they say, are and always will be in a bodiless, spiritual Trinity comprised of an eternally coequal Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Now, approaching two centuries since Smith’s 1820 boyhood vision in western New York, the church he launched may be further exploring its take not just on God’s nature, but also on long-taught precepts about how, and to what extent, Latter-day Saints can aspire to godhood themselves.
The irony? The source for this doctrinal exploration of Mormonism, one of Christianity’s newest expressions, is from the teachings and traditions of the faith’s most ancient one, the 2,000-year-old Eastern Orthodox Church.
“LDS thinkers are looking to Eastern Orthodoxy for some clarification on issues they are exploring,” says Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary. “We’ve had some long discussions on theosis, in particular.”
Orthodoxy’s belief in “theosis” — that a redeemed, resurrected humanity’s ultimate destiny is to be “deified,” or united with both the eternal life and nature of its creator — does seem to echo within the Mormon doctrine of “exaltation.”
J.B. Haws, a church history and doctrine instructor at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, certainly sees a likeness.
To mixed, sometimes dismissive reaction from mainline Christian theologians, Haws first wrote about the “potential for doctrinal parallels” between Mormonism and Orthodoxy’s stance on the nature of God in 2004.
More than a dozen years later, Haws and other LDS authors remain “fascinated with Orthodoxy,” he says. “What I’m suggesting . . . is perhaps those dismissals have been too hasty — and that perhaps those comparisons are worth another look.”
For instance, Haws notes, “Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that because of Christ’s victory, deified humans will receive their physical bodies in a glorious resurrection. Latter-day Saints believe the same.”
Orthodox Christians and Mormons also sound similar in their aspirations to the divine nature, he adds, and agree that while they may become “gods,” they will “never cease to worship God, nor somehow replace him as their God.”
While Smith and succeeding leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught expansively on attaining godhood in the distant hereafter, the belief has often been summed up by the so-called “Snow couplet,” penned by namesake Lorenzo Snow after an 1840 revelation:
“As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be,” wrote Snow, who would become the Utah-based faith’s fifth president.
It is the first part of that couplet, more than the last, that furrows the brows of Orthodox clerics.
“The LDS teaching on God, theosis, and the afterlife is considered heretical by Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It is heretical on many grounds,” says the Rev. Josiah Trenham, an author, educator and frequent lecturer for the Orthodox Theological Society of America.
“First . . . God is spirit, not flesh,” says Trenham, who also serves as archpriest and pastor at Riverside’s St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Southern California. “Latter-day Saints commit deep anthropomorphist misreadings of scripture [in teaching] that God has a body.”
As for the couplet’s assertion that God himself was once a created being, like humans, “this, to an Orthodox Christian, is utterly blasphemous,” Trenham says. “It undermines the “union of the persons of the Holy Trinity.”
He also tries to clearly mark the differences over what theosis means to Orthodoxy versus Mormons.
“Through faith in Jesus Christ, the God-Man, human beings can become by grace what God is by nature — loving, holy, all-wise, etc.,” Trenham states. “[But] not so that we can function as a god of our own world and have wives and spirit children, but so that we can worship and adore and love the one true God forever.”
Mouw, known as a catalyst for evangelical Christian-Mormon dialogue, suggests there is theological wiggle room in plumbing the depths of such weighty mysteries. He says LDS teachings have expanded, if not shifted, to be at least marginally closer to mainline Christianity. Mouw cites comments by the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley that seemed to hedge on early Mormon thinking about a mortal beginning for God himself.
In an 1997 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Hinckley was asked, “Don’t Mormons believe that God was once a man?”
The LDS prophet responded, “I wouldn’t say that,” downplaying the opening passage of the Snow couplet.
Even a 2014 LDS Church online essay, “Becoming Like God,” concedes that “little has been revealed about the first half of this couplet, and consequently little is taught.”
However, Hinckley stood firm on Snow’s concluding words, “As God now is, man may become,” saying it describes Mormon belief in “eternal progression.”
The God-was-once-human proclamation came up again when Hinckley was interviewed by Time magazine, also in 1997.
“I don’t know that we teach it,” Hinckley said. “I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. . . . I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.”
The apparent doctrinal deflection coincided with what Mouw sees as an evolution in the LDS spiritual biosphere in the past 15 years.
Mormons today express a more pronounced “central emphasis on Jesus Christ,” he says, including “a very strong sense we are saved by grace alone, through the atoning work of Christ, completed on the cross.”
However, what seems destined to continue making Latter-day Saints particularly peculiar among the thousands of Christian sects is their insistence on God’s corporeal nature.
That perspective, according to the faith’s essay, also means “all people [are] children of God in a full and complete sense [and thus] every person [is] divine in origin, nature and potential.”
The essay goes on to state that in the Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational scripture, a prophet “‘saw the finger of the Lord” and was astonished to learn that human physical forms were truly made in the image of God.’”
That LDS belief about a literal, divine and physical father-child relationship finds no welcome within the long-accepted teachings of Orthodoxy — despite Mormon thinkers’ citing of perceived commonalities.
“Only God is uncreated. . . . Created things are not the literal children of the Father,” says another Orthodox scholar, Archpriest Andrew Stephen Damick, author of “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Finding the Way to Christ in a Complicated Religious Landscape.”
To Orthodox and the majority of other Christians, believers become God’s divine children “in the context of adoption, not apotheosis, where humans become gods by nature,” Damick explains.
While LDS writers point to some reinforcement for their church’s views on godly progression in Orthodox Christianity’s teachings on deification, remaining differences on God’s nature and humankind’s eternal destiny are varied and vast.
For instance, LDS theology departs radically from Orthodoxy with its belief in a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father. These Heavenly Parents are getting even more mentions nowadays from top Mormon officials at the pulpit and in print, including in a 2016 church essay.
Ultimately, though, any differences should not matter all that much, at least to Mormons, BYU ancient scripture professor Robert Millet wrote in his 2011 paper, “God and Man”:
“Whether the Latter-day Saint doctrines of exaltation and deification are the same as those delivered by the Church Fathers, by Eastern Orthodox thinkers of the past and present, or by modern Christians is absolutely immaterial,” Millet wrote. Mormons do not seek a “theological imprimatur” from older Christian dogma, “because bright and inspired minds of other faiths have used language or ideas similar to our own.”
Rather, the idea of deification, “has been around for a long, long time,” he argues, “[and] it should require more than a tiny bit of cognitive and spiritual dissonance to dismiss or ignore it outright.”
Haws is of the same mind. And he would like to see a continuing exchange of ideas not just between LDS and Orthodox Christian thinkers, but also with Catholic and Protestants as well, on a range of other doctrinal differences and similarities.
“[Further discussions] contain the promise of more fruit . . . in understanding more clearly what we each want to say about who humans are, and what humans can become, through grace,” he concluded in a 2016 American Academy of Religion paper
“I say, let’s keep the conversation going.”