Theosis, the Divine Potential of Mankind:
LDS and Early Christian Perspectives
Do Latter-day Saints think they can become "gods"? Anti-Mormons warn about Mormon "God makers." What do Latter-day Saints actually believe and is it biblical? Did early Christians believe something similar? In my opinion, official LDS teachings here are not the invention of megalomaniac cultists, but represent an authentic biblical and early Christian concept that was largely lost until what we call the Restoration. You don't have to agree, but there certainly are some powerful reasons to think twice before condemning Latter-day Saints for having the ancient Christian doctrine of "theosis." This page is solely the responsibility of Jeff Lindsay and has not been endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
2014 Update: The Church has issued a statement on this topic. See "Becoming Like God," one of several recent statements on doctrinal issues in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org. I think what they say there is compatible with my responses below.
Perhaps no other doctrine in early Christianity and in modern Latter-day Saint theology is more controversial and more misunderstood today than the doctrine that humans have divine potential. Vicious books and movies like "The God Makers" claim that Latter-day Saints deny the divinity of Christ and try to make ourselves into Gods, robbing the Father of His glory. Our true beliefs, which focus on Christ as our Savior and on our eternal relationship as children and eternal subjects of God, are much different than many people have been misled to believe. This page seeks to correct common misinformation in this area. Other related web pages include the FAQ page on Relationships Between God and Man and my page on The Relationship Between Grace, Works, and Salvation. I also recommend Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders for a Word: How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints (Aspen Books, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1992). And be sure to see the new section below discussing the non-LDS work of Father Jordan Vajda on similarities between the LDS doctrine of exaltation (the divine potential of human beings) and the early Christian teaching of theosis. (After completing his thesis, Father Vajda further investigated the Church and now has been baptized, becoming Brother Vajda in 2004. This was a brave step that required, of course, abandoning his career plans as a Catholic priest and going back to school. I understand he went into medical school instead. I hope to meet him someday.)
As examples of the kind of teachings that get us condemned as non-Christians and cultists by other Christians, consider these two quotes from an early Church leader, which I admit is radically out of harmony with modern mainstream Christianity:
Quotation 1: But if thou dost not believe the prophets, . . . the Lord Himself shall speak to thee, "who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but humbled Himself" . . . yea, I say, the Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become God. Is it not then monstrous, my friends, that while God is ceaselessly exhorting us to virtue, we should spurn His kindness and reject salvation?
Quotation 2: It [the knowledge of the Gospel] leads us to the endless and perfect end, teaching us beforehand the future life that we shall lead, according to God, and with gods; after we are freed from all punishment and penalty which we undergo, in consequence of our sins, for salutary discipline. After which redemption the reward and the honors are assigned to those who have become perfect; when they have got done with perfection, and ceased from all service, though it be holy service, and among saints. They become pure in heart, and near to the Lord, there awaits their restoration to everlasting contemplation; and they are called by the appellation of gods, being destined to sit on thrones with the other gods that have been first put in their places by the Savior.
In the first quote, this Church leader spoke of learning from the example of Christ how man may become God. And then in the second quote, this early leader taught the concepts of eternal progression, of the need for obedience on our part to access the gift of grace from Christ, and of the exaltation of the righteous to be "gods" among other "gods" who will be with God (the God of all), thanks to the gift of eternal life made available to us by Christ. Can you guess which leader this was? Brigham Young, perhaps? No, try again. . . . Answer: this early leader of the Church was a leader in the original Church of Jesus Christ. The quotations come from Saint Clement of Alexandria, one of the great early Christian Fathers who wrote in the late second century, recognized as an authentic early Christian leader and defender of the faith. The first quotation is from his Exhortation to the Heathen (Protrepticus, 1.8.4), available at EarlyChristianWritings.com or also at Christian Classics Ethereal Library at Calvin College. The second quotation is from his Stromata 7:10. You can find this passage yourself on the page of Stromata 7 of Clement at EarlyChristianWritings.com, about halfway down the page, or read it on a similar page in Vol. 2 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers collection at the incredible Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
As another example of "pagan" Mormon doctrine, can you guess who made the following two statements?
(1) Men should escape from being men, and hasten to BECOME GODS. . . .
(2) Thou shalt resemble Him...having made thee even God to his glory.
Sounds like something from a Mormon leader that you might read in bold AND italic type in an anti-Mormon brochure. Interestingly, the two quotes above are from the early Christian writer, Origen. The first quote is from his Commentary on John, 29.27,29, and the second is from Refutations, X.30.
In spite of similar statements from other early Christians, I am not arguing that modern LDS doctrines are identical to early Christian doctrines, nor that all early Christians shared the same views. There has been abundant diversity in thought throughout the early and modern Church: paradigms often evolve, whether under the influence of divine revelation or human philosophy, with variation in space and time. But I think there is a case to be made for the idea that LDS doctrines related to theosis are not nearly as "non-Christian" as our critics suggest, and may, in fact, help make us closer to original Christianity than our most vocal critics.
The modern Apostle Boyd K. Packer has clarified this issue:
The Father is the one true God. This thing is certain: no one will ever ascend above Him; no one will ever replace Him. Nor will anything ever change the relationship that we, His literal offspring, have with Him. He is Eloheim, the Father. He is God. Of Him there is only one. We revere our Father and our God; we worship Him.
There is only one Christ, one Redeemer. We accept the divinity of the Only Begotten Son of God in the flesh. We accept the promise that we may become joint heirs with Him.
(Boyd K. Packer, "The Pattern of Our Parentage," Ensign, Nov. 1984, p. 69.)
To those who follow Christ and receive His grace and power, great promises are extended. We are promised that we can receive "the fullness of God" through the grace of Christ (Ephesians 3:19). Christ said that we can become one with Him, as He is one with the Father (John 17:20-23). Paul said that Christians can become "joint heirs with Christ" and be glorified with Him (Romans 8:14-18). He challenged us to pursue the example of Christ "who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God" (Philippians 2:5,6). Peter said that through Christ, we can "put on the divine nature" and receive great and precious promises (2 Peter 1:3-4). Those who follow Christ can become "like Him" (1 John 3:2), can "inherit all things" (Rev. 21:7), and can be kings and priests before God (Rev. 1:6), sitting with Christ in His throne (Rev. 3:21). Critics, how do you explain away such scriptures? They disclose an important aspect of early Christianity, the doctrine of "theosis," holding that man can become like God (much more evidence is given below).
After pondering the above-mentioned scriptures, let's turn to terminology. What do we call glorified, resurrected beings who, through Christ, receive eternal life and the fullness of God as joint-heirs with Christ, sitting with Him in his throne? Personally, I would prefer to call them angels who serve and represent God. However, the word that is used in the Bible and in other LDS sources to describe such beings is not generally angels, but the much more controversial term, gods. (In Doctrine and Covenants 132, "gods" are clearly higher than the angels - but they are nevertheless children of God and subject to Him.) Accept my apologies, but the choice of the term "gods" is not ours.
Christ himself spoke of humans when he quoted Psalms 82:6 and said, in John 10:34, "Ye are gods." As every serious Christian scholar knows, He was not saying that humans are God, but is often interpreted as saying that human representatives of God can be called "gods" in a very limited sense. Humans are not and will not be gods in the sense of Greek philosophy (absolute, ultimate, uncreated, independent beings). No, the terms "gods" when used in the Bible and LDS writings may be meant in a more limited sense not radically different in meaning than "angels" (though a difference in LDS sources is that "angels" are single while "gods" dwell in eternal family relationships, as discussed below). If we used the term "angels," the anti-LDS attacks would lose much of their zing. After all, how many people would be interested in seeing a movie called "The Angel Makers"? But the term "gods" is what God Himself has chosen to describe the divine potential of His sons and daughters. Let's now consider some examples.
The possibility of multiple "godlike" beings seems to be what Paul referred to when he said there are "gods many and lords many, but to us there is but one God, the Father" (1 Cor. 8:5,6). It also seems to be what David meant in Psalm 8:4,5 when he said that man is "a little lower than the gods." The King James Version (and most translations) gives "lower than the angels," but the Hebrew word is "elohim" which means "gods." Commentators have long explained that this term, literally meaning "gods," is describing angels - divine beings serving or representing God.
The existence of other godlike beings is suggested by multiple scriptures that describe God as a "God of gods" (Deut. 10:17; Joshua 22:2, and Psalm 136:2). That phrase makes no sense if false pagan gods are meant, but perhaps it refers to angels as gods. Psalm 82:1 likewise says that God "standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods." Scholars know that the ancient Jews, including those in New Testament times, that angels were often described as "gods." (E.g., John Strugnell, The Angelic Liturgy at Qumran in Supplements to Vetus Testamentum VII, [Congress Volume, Oxford, 1959], Leiden: Brill, 1960, pp. 336-338; or A.S. van der Woude, Oudtestamentische Studien, Vol. 14, 1965, pp. 345-373, as cited by Stephen Robinson, Are Mormons Christians?, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991, p. 67).
Not only angels, but even humans can receive the label "gods" in the scriptures. For example, the term "elohim" = "gods" is used to describe human judges in Exodus 21:6 and 22:8-9. Here authorized servants of God are called "gods" - again in a limited sense. Exodus 7:1 says that Moses was to be "god to Pharaoh" - undoubtedly referring to Moses as an authorized represent of God. (Also Adam, when he gained knowledge of good and evil, was said to have become "as one of us" by God in Genesis 3:22.) If the scriptures can call mortal judges and prophets "gods" in some sense, then that term is even more appropriate for immortal, resurrected beings who have become one with Christ and received the fullness of God.
A particularly interesting example is found in Psalm 82:6: "Ye are gods; and all of you children of the most High." Christ repeated that scripture in John 10:34-36 to defend Himself against charges of blasphemy:
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, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?
In other words, if the scriptures label mortals who receive the law (and thus represent God) as "gods," then why should the Jews be outraged when Christ says He is the Son of God? Christ pointed out that Psalm 82:6 was not a mistake or a fluke, for He added the phrase "and the scripture cannot be broken" right after it, stressing that it was accurate and that its meaning could not be argued away.
Some have argued that the word "gods" really should be "judges." This argument fails completely. For detailed documentation on the use of "elohim" = "gods" in Psalm 82:6, and a refutation of the common argument that only "judges" and not "gods" is meant, see the article "Reconsidering Psalms 82:6: Judges or Gods? A Proposal" by Ben McGuire and also "Maklelan, Psalm 82: 'elohim' as 'judges'? No." at Lehi's Library, where we see that extensive scholarship leads to this conclusion:
In conclusion, "judges" [instead of "elohim in Psalm 82:6] is simply a bizarre translation appealed to by two early Rabbinic texts in an attempt to avoid mentioning other gods. The translation has been shown to be incorrect, has been shown not to have ever been used before those Rabbinic texts, and has been shown to be rejected outright by contemporary scholars, including prominent Evangelical scholars. The word elohim simply cannot mean "judges."
The detailed and extensive scholarly analysis of Daniel Peterson also should be consulted on the relationship between Psalm 82 and John 10, and what they actually mean. See "Ye Are Gods": Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Humankind" by Daniel C. Peterson in The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson (Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2000).
If the Bible can use the term "gods" in to describe non-ultimate but heavenly, angelic beings who represent God or participate in His divine council, then Bible-believing people should not be outraged when Latter-day Saints use that term in much the same way. Our use of the term is clearly in a limited sense, referring to angelic, resurrected beings who receive great blessings and power from God, but remain subject to Him and serve and worship Him forever.
LDS doctrine on this needlessly controversial issue is similar to the teachings of C.S. Lewis, who also understood the divine potential of humans beings. Here is a quote from his book, The Grand Miracle (Ballantine Books, New York, 1970), p. 85 (on the last page of the essay, "Man or Rabbit?" in Chapter 11):
The people who keep on asking if they can't lead a good life without Christ, don't know what life is about; if they did they would know that "a decent life" is mere machinery compared with the thing we men are really made for. Morality is indispensable: but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods, intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up. We are to be remade. All the rabbit in us will be swallowed up - the worried, conscientious, ethical rabbit as well as the cowardly and sensual rabbit. We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fur come out; and then surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy. [emphasis mine]
And from the same book, p. 65 (the last page of Chapter 8):
Christ has risen, and so we shall rise. St. Peter for a few seconds walked on the water, and the day will come when there will be a remade universe, infinitely obedient to the will of glorified and obedient men, when we can do all things, when we shall be those gods that we are described as being in Scripture.
Here is a related quote from Lewis's book, Mere Christianity (Collier Books, MacMillan Publ. Co., New York, 1943; paperback edition, 1960; p. 160 - the last paragraph of Chapter 9, "Counting the Cost," in Book IV):
"The command Be ye perfect [Matt. 5:48] is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were "gods" and he is going to make good His words. If we let Him - for we can prevent Him, if we choose - He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what he said."
Where did the highly respected C.S. Lewis get such doctrine? From the Bible, which teaches us that we can indeed put on the divine nature and mature as sons and daughters of God, becoming like Him. In my view, it is our status as children of God that gives us the potential to become heirs and the potential to mature and become more like the Father. Paul expresses such a concept in Romans 8:14-18:
"14 For as many as are lead by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God....
16 The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God;
17 And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified together;
18 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.
We can be joint-heirs with Christ. There is divine glory to be revealed within us, for we have a divine inheritance as children of God. Beings who reach this potential could be called "gods" in a limited sense, for they serve the Father and are subject to Him forever. Just as earthly parents want their children to grow and become more like the parents, so our Father in Heaven wants us to grow and partake of his glorious gift of eternal life. It is not an instant process, but one that requires that we learn, obey, and strive, yet relying entirely on the grace of Christ in the process. This relationship between God and man is further affirmed in Hebrews 12:9,10:
9 Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits and live?
10 For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but He [God] for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.
A key point here is that God is the Father of our spirits. Indeed, Paul in Acts 17:28 says "we are also his offspring." Our spirits existed before we were born into mortality. As sons and daughters of God, we witnessed the creation of the world and shouted for joy, according to Job 38:7. As spirit sons and daughters, we have inherited something divine within us. We have been placed on earth to grow, to learn, to understand good and evil, to learn to choose on our own, and to be tried, for now we have a veil of forgetfulness over our memories of the premortal existence with God. We are also sent here to obtain a physical body which can be resurrected and glorified like the glorious and powerful body of Christ (Phil. 3:21). There is glory waiting to be revealed in us, as Paul wrote in Romans 8:14-18 and as John wrote in 1 John 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...
Growing to become more like Christ and more like our Father in Heaven should be our goal, as Christ has commanded us (Matt. 5:48). How do we grow in that way? By following Christ with all of our heart, might, mind, and strength. Our Father in Heaven wants us to accept Christ and to follow and obey Him, that we might return to His presence and become partakers of His holiness and fullness (Heb. 12:10; Eph. 3:19), or, as Peter wrote in 2 Peter 1:3-10, "partakers of the divine nature":
3 According 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:
4 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.
5 And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;
6 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;
7 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.
8 For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
9 But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins.
10 Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall.
Peter outlines some of the things we must do to make our calling and election sure - but it is only through the grace of Christ that such an opportunity exists. The goal of Christ and the Father is to help us grow and put on the divine nature, to become more like Christ and to be joint-heirs with Him. Within us is the divine potential to fully become sons and daughters of God, living in His presence and sharing in the fullness of eternal life that is His. This profound truth is the target of some of the most vile attacks on our religion, yet it is a truth held and taught by the original Christian Church.
Fortunately, Latter-day Saints aren't the only Christian denomination that accept what Peter taught on this issue. Eastern Orthodoxy still retains much of the original Christian doctrine of theosis or deification. Here's a quote from Orthodox writer, Dr. Seth Farber ("The Reign of Augustine," The Christian Activist: A Journal of Orthodox Opinion, Vol. 13, Winter/Spring 1999, pp. 40-45,56):
Eastern Christian theology, Orthodoxy, has not been marred by the misanthropic premises that have been characteristic of Western Christian theology, Roman Catholic and Protestant, for centuries [e.g., the concept that infants are already great sinners worthy of damnation, that man is totally depraved, etc. - see the bottom part of my page about Adam and the Fall]. From the early Greek fathers to modern Orthodox theologians, one dominant theme has sounded again and again: the purpose of the Incarnation was to make it possible for human beings to be reunited with God, to become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). As St. Athanasius put it, "He (the Son of God) became man, that we might become God."
Accept it or not, it's hard to say this doctrine excludes one from Christianity unless we wish to condemn Orthodoxy and reject old St. Athanasius himself and even C.S. Lewis as cultists.
While we have noted that the divine potential of man is found in the Old Testament, further insight comes from the Old Testament manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. A great source for studying the Old Testament from the Dead Sea Scrolls is The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, translated and with commentary by Martin Abegg, Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugen Ulrich (San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999). Numerous Old Testament passages are provided from the Dead Sea Scrolls and compared to the Masoretic text or Septuagint. The version of Psalm 135 from the Dead Sea Scrolls (The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, p. 568) differs in many ways from the Masoretic Text used to prepare most modern Bible translation. One difference is the added emphasis given on "gods" in verses 5 and 6. Here is the DSS text, with changes relative to the Masoretic Text marked in italics:
5. I know that the LORD is great, and that our God is above all gods.
6. The LORD does what pleases him, in heaven and on earth, to do as he does; there is none like the LORD, and there is none who acts like the King of gods, in the seas and in all (their) depths.
"King of the gods" is an interesting title for God, similar to the title "God of gods" in Deut. 10:17, which is reiterated in Psalm 136:2. Such titles don't make much sense if the "gods" are imaginary, evil beings. Would it be flattering to call someone the god of leprechauns and poltergeists? But the true God of the Bible, the only God with whom have anything to do, and to Whom all glory flows, is nonetheless properly praised as the God of gods. This makes sense in light of the divine potential of man.
The doctrine of divine human potential is easily misunderstood. To keep it clear, remember this: the growth and development and success of a child in no way detracts from the honor or glory of the parents, but adds to it. If we participate in Eternal Life as heirs of God, we will be worshiping and glorifying God fully and wonderfully - not taking or usurping his glory. And we will more perfectly and fully be able to say that we are His children, and He is our God (Rev. 21:7), and glory be to His name forever.
LDS doctrine teaches that we can be joint-heirs with Christ and inherit all that the Father has, sharing in the incredible, unimaginable type of life that is called Eternal Life. One important but easily misunderstood aspect of eternal life is eternal families. We believe that families can be sealed for eternity in the Temple of God, so that the marriage of a husband and wife is not over at death, but persists into the eternities (if they want it to, and if they remain true to their covenants with God), as can family bonds. Perhaps this is what Peter meant when he said that a husband and wife can become heirs together of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7). This marriage must be performed with the sealing power and Priesthood authority that Christ gave to Peter, which, among other things, allows a marriage or "sealing" performed on earth to be valid in heaven as well (Matt. 16:19). (Temple marriage, like baptism, is an ordinance of change and covenant making which must be done in this mortal world, either while alive or by proxy for the deceased, not in heaven, which is a place of eternal relationships where new marriages are not performed.) We also believe that those who receive eternal life and accept eternal marriage can be blessed with posterity in the next life, a concept known as "eternal increase." Details have not been revealed, in spite of much speculation. But it seems that God's sons and daughters in the eternal family unit can in some way become "co-creators" with Him in the eternities, just as they can be "co-creators" with Him in this life in the bringing of children into the world.
If we fully follow Christ, we can become joint-heirs with Him (Romans 8:14-18), becoming like him (1 John 3:2) by putting on the divine nature (2 Peter 1: 4-10). Such Christ-centered beings are sons and daughters of God (Acts 17:28; Heb. 12:9) who can become the kind of beings that Christ called "gods" in John 10:34. In 1 Corinthians 8:5,6, Paul notes that there are many gods (in the small "g" sense), but these are not beings that we worship, for to us, there is only one God, the Eternal Father. We believe that there may be and will be many resurrected beings who have become joint-heirs with Christ and can thus be called "gods," but they are not our Savior, our Creator, our Lord, and our God. To us, there is and always will be but one God, that Being who is properly called the "God of gods" (Deut. 10:17), the Almighty God, even Elohim, the Eternal Father. We will always worship and follow Him. A son growing up to be more like his father in no way detracts from the father or weakens their relationship - but can add to the joy and glory of the father. Indeed, helping that to happen is what being a good father is all about. There is a reason why God's most preferred title seems to be "Father."
Critics abhor our doctrines on this issue and claim that we are polytheistic. It is true that we believe the Father and the Son are separate beings, but they are one and comprise, with the Holy Ghost, one united Godhead. I consider myself a monotheist, a worshiper of the one true God. Rejecting the "one in substance" concept of post-biblical creeds does not make me a polytheist, in my opinion.
Here are two excerpts cited by Daniel C. Petersen ("Editor's Introduction: American Apocrypha?", FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2001, ix-xvi). The first is from the beginning of the thesis:
Members of the LDS Church will discover that their fundamental belief about human salvation and potential is not unique of a Mormon invention. Latin Catholics and Protestants will learn of a doctrine 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." (p. 14)
Then, referring to the anti-Mormon propaganda of Ed Decker in the "God Makers," Father Vajda states:
[T]he Mormons are truly "godmakers": as the [LDS] doctrine of exaltation explains, the fullness of human salvation means "becoming a god." Yet what was meant to be a term of ridicule has turned out to be a term of approbation, for the witness of the Greek Fathers of the Church . . . is that they also believed that salvation meant "becoming a god." It seems that if one's soteriology cannot accommodate a doctrine of human divinization, then it has at least implicitly, if not explicitly, rejected the heritage of the early Christian church and departed from the faith of first millennium Christianity. (pp. 94-95, emphasis mine)
(2004 Update: Father Vajda is now Brother Vajda. Intrigued by what he learned of LDS doctrine, after he completed his thesis, he accepted the challenge to meet with the missionaries and made the bold decision to be baptized as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints! Marvelous news. He has made a big sacrifice to do this, but what a marvelous example and testimony of the divinely restored nature of LDS doctrine.)
Father Vajda, as a Catholic priest and scholar, prepared a serious thesis on the topic of human divinization. His scholarly work could not be dismissed as mere apologetics from one of us biased Latter-day Saints (or "mopologists" as the antis like to say). Though non-LDs at the time of his research on deification, he came away highly impressed with the LDS position--so impressed that he would eventually join the Church and abandon his career plans.
I think that other honest people who look into this issue cannot help but be impressed with the relationship between LDS doctrine and early Christian beliefs regarding the divine potential of man. You see, it's simply a matter of record--as I further show below-- that early Christians accepted this doctrine. Not only is it in the Bible, but it's even more plainly discussed in early Christian writings shortly after New Testament times. Several hundred years later, this doctrine, like many others, became largely lost as revealed religion became supplanted with elements from popular human philosophy, especially pagan Greek philosophy. You can read those early writings yourself and see that modern LDS theology about the divine potential of man really is a restoration of early, Biblical Christianity.
I know it may hurt to realize that one's faith is missing something so important due to apostasy over the centuries, but it's true. And the good news is that we have a lot to offer those who notice that something is missing from their faith.
By the way, another scholarly thesis on this topic is that of Keith E. Norman, "Deification: The Content of Athanasian Soteriology," Ph.D. Dissertation, Duke University, 1980 (I believe Keith is LDS). And an excellent, brief source is the article "Deification" by Symeon Lash in the non-LDS Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology which I cite below. You may also wish to consider my LDSFAQ page on The Oneness of God.
This approach was taken by other early Christians, such as Origen. Origen's words and those of the Bible are discussed below in e-mail I received from Eugene Seaich, Oct. 11, 1998, and which I quote below with his permission:
"Men should escape from being men, and hasten to BECOME GODS" (Origen, Commentary on John, 29.27,29).
"Thou shalt resemble Him...having made thee even God to his glory"(Refutations, X.30).
Note that Origen's "gods" are THEOI. Both Clement and John called the Father HO THEOS, "the God" (with the definite article). Origen explains this important grammatical distinction by pointing out that The True God...is "the God" (HO THEOS, with the article), and those who are formed after him are "gods" (THEOI, without the article), "images," as it were, of him, the Prototype (Commentary on John, 7.2).
It is very likely that Lorenzo Snow's famous aphorism, "As man now is God once was; and as God now is, man may be, should also be interpreted in light of this critical distinction between HO THEOS and the other THEOI. President Snow's "God who was once a man" would accordingly belong to the same category as Origen's THEOI, those who have BECOME gods after the Father's Prototype. But his "God who now is" would be HO THEOS, the Prototype himself, or "the God of all other gods" (D&C 121:32), the one who has always been God (Ps. 90:2; D&C 20:12), and to whose eternal likeness all others aspire. Indeed, there can never have been a time when HO THEOS was not God, nor has he ever been anything but what he now is (Mormon 9:19; Moroni 7:22; D&C 20:17).
Some modern translators inject their own views into the text by adding quotation marks around the words "gods" and "lords" when there are no such markings or indicators in the Greek. Some translators also turn beings that are "called gods" into "so-called 'gods'", but this is not being true to Paul's text, at least not for those "gods" and "lords" that Paul says are in heaven.
Regarding the subordinate nature of humans who God brings back to His presence and makes "gods" - or "priests and kings" to the Father (Rev. 1:6, and Doctrine and Covenants 66:12), and priestesses and queens, too, as the LDS Temple teaches us - one person asked how my understanding of this could be compatible with a statement he found from Joseph Smith. The confusion came from my emphasis on the "small 'g'" nature of the term "gods," while he noted that a statement from Joseph Smith used the capitalized word. Here is the question from March 2003:
I am wondering how you interpret this passage from Joseph Smith which is NOT in the King Follett Discourse:"Here, then, is eternal life - to know the only wise and true God; and you have to learn to be Gods yourself, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; . . ." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 346-47)
What confuses me is why does he use the capital letter "G" for "Gods" instead of the lower case "g".
For one thing, the statement, like most statements from Joseph, was recorded by someone else and later typeset by others, and someone else's choice of capitalization should not be assumed to carry some kind of doctrinal weight, especially when the source has not been canonized as a source of official doctrine. The term "gods" in the LDS scriptures, referring to the potential of us mortals, is lowercase (e.g., Doctrine and Covenants 76:58).
Though I emphasize the small "g" issue, one can use a capital "G" and still have the same meaning, as long as it is clear Who is in charge. Note that Joseph, in the passage you cited, plainly teaches the subordinate nature of "Gods," teaching that we as "Gods" will be priests and kings to God, and teaching that eternal life is to know THE ONLY wise and true God.
"It is blasphemy to think you can become a god when you die. [I am a] member of the Greek Orthodox Church in America. The Orthodox Church is the oldest Christian church in the world. If the early church believed it we do. And we don't believe ... that you can become a God."
Actually, there have been some rather surprising changes in "mainstream" theology over the centuries, especially in terms of doctrine about the divine potential of human beings. In fact, many early Christians believed in theosis, the Greek term meaning deification, conveying the concept that Christians can become like Christ and like God. An excellent review of several early Christian writers on the topic of theosis is given by Stephen Robinson in Are Mormons Christians?, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991, pp. 60-70. Robinson begins by discussing modern reactions to Lorenzo Snow's statement ("As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be"). I quote from pages 60 and 61:
It has been claimed by some that this is an altogether pagan doctrine that blasphemes the majesty of God. Not all Christians have thought so, however. In the second century Saint Irenaeus, the most important Christian theologian of his time, said much the same thing as Lorenzo Snow:If the Word became a man,https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.vi.xxxix.html, where it is in Chapter 38, paragraph 4]:
It was so men may become gods. 
Do we cast blame on him [God] because we were not made gods from the beginning, but were at first created merely as men, and then later as gods? Although God has adopted this course out of his pure benevolence, that no one may charge him with discrimination or stinginess, he declares, "I have said, ye are gods; and all of you are sons of the Most High." ... For it was necessary at first that nature be exhibited, then after that what was mortal would be conquered and swallowed up in immortality." 
Also in the second century, Saint Clement of Alexandria wrote, "Yea, I say, the Word of God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god."  - almost a paraphrase of Lorenzo Snow's statement. [Note: An alternate translation available at CCEL.org is "the Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become God."] Clement also said that "if one knows himself, he will know God, and knowing God will become like God.... His is beauty, true beauty, for it is God, and that man becomes a god, since God wills it. So Heraclitus was right when he said, 'Men are gods, and gods are men.'" 
Still in the second century, Saint Justin Martyr insisted that in the beginning men were "made like God, free from suffering and death," and that they are thus "deemed worthy of becoming gods and of having power to become sons of the highest." 
In the early fourth century Saint Athanasius - that tireless foe of heresy after whom the orthodox Athanasian Creed is named - also stated his belief in deification in terms very similar to those of Lorenzo Snow: "The Word was made flesh in order that we might be enabled to be made gods.... Just as the Lord, putting on the body, became a man, so also we men are both deified through his flesh, and henceforth inherit everlasting life."  On another occasion Athanasius stated, "He became man that we might be made divine"  - yet another parallel to Lorenzo Snow's expression. [An alternate translation is available at CCEL.org: "He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God."]
Finally, Saint Augustine himself, the greatest of the Christian Fathers, said: "But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. 'For he has given them power to become the sons of God' [John 1:12] If then we have been made sons of God, we have also been made gods." 
Notice that I am citing only unimpeachable Christian authorities here - no pagans, no Gnostics. All five of the above writers were not just Christians, and just orthodox Christians - they were orthodox Christian saints. Three of the five wrote within a hundred years of the period of the Apostles, and all five believed in the doctrine of deification. This doctrine was a part of historical Christianity until relatively recent times, and it is still an important doctrine in some Eastern Orthodox churches.
References cited above by Robinson:
1. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. 5, pref.
2. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.38. [Alternate translation available online at NewAdvent.org. See also CCEL.org.] Cp. 4.11 (2): "But man receives progression and increase towards God. For God is always the same, so also man, when found in God, shall always progress toward God."
3. Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks, 1. [Alternate translation available online at CCEL.org - search for "the Word of God became man".]
4. Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 3.1. [Alternate translation available online at CCEL.org.] See also Clement, Stromateis, 23.
5. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 124. [Available online at CCEL.org.]
6. Athanasius, Against the Arians, 1.39 [alternate translation available online at CCEL.org], 3.34.
7. Athanasius, De Inc., 54. [Alternate translation available online at CCEL.org.]
8. Augustine, On the Psalms, 50.2 [Alternate translation available online at CCEL.org.] Augustine insists that such individuals are gods by grace rather than by nature, but they are gods nevertheless.
Robinson also quotes from the non-LDS Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology from the article titled "Deification":
Deification (Greek theosis) is for Orthodoxy the goal of every Christian. Man, according to the Bible, is 'made in the image and likeness of God'.... It is possible for man to become like God, to become deified, to become god by grace. This doctrine is based on many passages of both OT and NT (e.g., Ps. 82 (81).6; II Peter 1.4) and it is essentially the teaching both of St. Paul, though he tends to use the language of filial adoption (cf. Rom. 8:9-17; Gal. 4:5-7) and the Fourth Gospel (cf. 17.21-23).
The language of II Peter is taken up by St Irenaeus, in his famous phrase, 'if the Word has been made man, it is so men may be made gods' [Webmaster's note: the quote should be "[T]he Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself" - see my note above] (Adv. Haer V, Pref.), and become the standard in Greek theology. In the fourth century St Athanasius repeats Irenaeus almost word for word, and in the fifth century St Cyril of Alexandria says that we shall become sons 'by participation' (Greek methexis). Deification is the central idea in the spirituality of St Maximus the Confessor, for whom the doctrine is the corollary of the Incarnation: 'Deification, briefly, is the encompassing and fulfillment of all times and ages',... and St Symeon the New Theologian at the end of the tenth century writes, 'He who is God by nature converses with those whom he has made gods by grace, as a friend converses with his friends, face to face.'...
Finally, it should be noted that deification does not mean absorption into God, since the deified creature remains itself and distinct. It is the whole human being, body and soul, who is transfigured in the Spirit into the likeness of the divine nature, and deification is the goal of every Christian."
(Symeon Lash, "Deification," The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. Alan Richardson and John Bowden, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983, pp. 147-148.)
When thou shalt have heard what is written concerning the mysteries, then wilt thou understand things which thou knewest not. And think not that thou receivest a small thing: though a miserable man, thou receivest one of God's titles. Hear St. Paul saying, God is faithful. Hear another Scripture saying, God is faithful and just. Foreseeing this, the Psalmist, because men are to receive a title of God, spoke thus in the person of God: I said, Ye are Gods, and are all sons of the Most High. But beware lest thou have the title of "faithful," but the will of the faithless. Thou hast entered into a contest, toil on through the race: another such opportunity thou canst not have. Were it thy wedding-day before thee, wouldest thou not have disregarded all else, and set about the preparation for the feast? And on the eve of consecrating thy soul to the heavenly Bridegroom, wilt thou not cease from carnal things, that thou mayest win spiritual?
As further food for thought, recent non-LDS studies of ancient Judaism and early Christianity have identified the doctrine of "theosis" - the idea than man can become divine or godlike - as an important theological element, one which has been largely abandoned in recent centuries. The earliest Biblical occurrence of this idea is in Genesis 3:22, for when Adam partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, God said, "the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil." Adam became godlike - in a sense - through the knowledge that he gained (cf. Psalms 82:6). This concept is prevalent in Biblical and post-Biblical Judaism, according to a recent scholarly, non-LDS work by Peter Hayman ("Monotheism - A Misused Word in Jewish Studies?," Journal of Jewish Studies, 42: 1-15, Spring 1991, as cited by Peterson and Ricks, 1992, p.78), who writes:
The theme of 'becoming like one of us' reveals itself as the lurking subtext of Judaism from Adam to Nachman of Bratslav. But how does this material square with the supposed transcendental monotheism of Judaism from the post-exilic period on? Not at all, as far as I can see!... [Many Jewish mythical texts] presuppose that humans can become divine and dispose of the powers of God." (Hayman, pp. 4-5)
Extensive literature, for example, deals with human ascension to heaven as deification, with Enoch as a common example. Evidence for this from early Christianity and the Enoch literature is treated by Alan F. Segal in Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (Yale, New Haven, CT, 1960, pp. 22, 34-71, as cited by Peterson and Ricks, 1992, p. 78).
The possibility of human deification was held by that "champion of orthodoxy," Athanasius (e.g., see Keith E. Norman, "Deification: The Content of Athanasian Soteriology," Ph.D. Dissertation, Duke University, 1980, pp. 77-106; and Clyde L. Manschreck, A History of Christianity in the World, 2nd ed., Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1985, p. 62, both as cited by Peterson and Ricks, 1992, p. 78). We find it in early Orthodox tradition as well, for the 'chief idea of St. Maximus [who died in 662 A.D.] as of all of Eastern theology, [was] the idea of deification" (S.L. Epifanovic as quoted by Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700). The Christian Tradition, vol. 2, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1974, p. 10, as cited by Peterson and Ricks, 1992, p. 79).
In fact, the concept of theosis was so widespread that Athanasius AND his archenemies, the Arians, subscribed to that doctrine. And Origenist monks in Jerusalem debated "whether all men would finally become like Christ or whether Christ was really a different creature" (Clyde L. Manschreck, A History of Christianity in the World, 2d. ed., Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1985, p. 52, as cited by Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks in "Comparing LDS Beliefs with First-Century Christianity," Ensign, March 1988). And many early Christians were "were invited to 'study' to become gods" (P. Barlow, "Unorthodox Orthodoxy: The Idea of Deification in Christian History," Sunstone, Vol. 8, Sept./Oct. 1983, pp. 16-17, as cited by Peterson and Ricks, 1988).
So what does all this mean in terms of LDS doctrine and our relationship to "historic Christianity"? The German Protestant church historian, Ernst Benz, speaks of this doctrine as a Christian doctrine, and says:
"One can think what one wants of this doctrine of progressive deification, but one thing is certain: with this anthropology Joseph Smith is closer to the view of man held by the Ancient Church than the precursors of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin were, who considered the thought of such a substantial connection between God and man as the heresy, par excellence."
(Ernst W. Benz, "Imago Dei: Man in the Image of God," in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen, Religious Studies Center, BYU, Provo, UT, 1978, pp. 215-216, as cited by Peterson and Ricks, 1992, p. 80.)
Not only did early mainstream Christians understand the Bible to teach deification, but some modern mainstream Christians have as well. The indisputably Christian author, C.S. Lewis, who is also highly respected in LDS circles, wrote, "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship." (The Weight and the Glory and Other Addresses, rev. ed., New York: Macmillan, Collier Books, 1980, p. 18.)
Question: if Athanasius, Augustine, Saint Irenaeus, Saint Cyril, Saint Maximus the Confessor, Saint Clement of Alexandria, and others, including C.S. Lewis in modern days, can teach the doctrine of deification and still be accepted as Christians, why are Latter-day Saints said to be non-Christian for such beliefs? To me, the evidence is consistent with our claim that the original Church of Jesus Christ has been restored. Our doctrines are clearly at odds with mainstream churches of the day, but that's not because Joseph Smith was making up ludicrous doctrine. In my view, it's because long lost but true doctrines were restored through him as a divinely authorized prophet. Is there proof for such a wild claim? Yes - the Book of Mormon is proof that begs to be examined. But that's another story - and another web page.
Knowing who Christ is makes me very suspicious of anyone who says that we will become EXACTLY like Him. The Bible teaches that we can become "joint heirs" (Rom. 8:14-18) and can become "like him" (I John 3:2) and indeed, need to become like him (Matt. 5:48) and one with him (John 17:21-23). Stronger still, Paul in Philippians 2: 5-7 seems to urge us to pursue that goal, not through puffery, but through humble service:
"Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant...."
However, I sense a big difference between the "small g" gods that Christ mentioned (John 10:34) in speaking of the potential of humans (my view) and God the Eternal Father, who is the one and only everlasting God (see also I Cor. 8:5,6). The reference to humans as potential "gods" is clearly meant in a limited sense, but the word used is still "gods." Obviously, we know too little to explain anything in depth about the next life and about "the glory that shall be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18). We are like microbes looking up through the microscope and speculating about the scientist who observes us. We are children, following after our wise and mature Father, knowing little more than a young child does of the things of God. This we know: the glory is to the Father (and Christ) forever. May we return to their presence.
"Christ said that all have sinned. Therefore we can not be Joint-Heirs with Christ. Christ never sinned. I'm definitely no God. I claim to be a child of God and that's all!!! God is perfect and for me to consider myself to be a joint-heir with Christ is unlikely. Christ may have gone so far as to say the "Ye are gods", in reference to the divine potential of humans, but who's perfect enough to be a God?"
None of us is perfect enough to even enter into the presence of God. Unlike Christ, we all sin and fall short of the mark, doomed to death and hell. But God sent a Savior, a Great and Eternal Sacrifice, even His Son Jesus Christ, to redeem us from death and sin and to allow us to return to the presence of God and enjoy the infinite blessing of eternal life. It is only through the grace of Christ that we can become heirs of God.
"According to the Mormons, are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost one God? You explicitly stated that they are three distinct Beings in one Godhead, but I'm not sure what that means."
In terms of salvation, there is only One God, God the Father. Yes, the scriptures speak of three Beings - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. We affirm that they are one God in the sense that Christ meant in John 10:30 and 17:20-23, which is that they are one in heart and mind and purpose, so that any of the three fully represents the others. It's as Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 5:8,9 - there are many "gods," but to us there is but one God, the Father, AND His Son, Jesus Christ. There is one God the Father - but He can be fully represented by His Son, with whom He is one. Their unity is the unity that Christians should have, as Christ explained so clearly in John 17:20-23 (hard to mistake what is meant - it shows that the oneness of God and Christ is not that which comes from being one person/being, but from unity of heart and mind). Is there any chance of worshipping the wrong God by worshipping Christ? No. To follow Christ is to follow the Father. Thus we can say there is only one God, and there is no other God to worship.
For info on some statements by Isaiah about the oneness of God, see https://www.JeffLindsay.com/LDSFAQ/FQ_Relationships.shtml
Does Mormon theology teach that exalted men are to become gods in the SAME SENSE as our Father or not? Your explanation seems to imply a "no" answer, although you know as well as I do that Mormon theology teaches a "yes" answer to that question. "As man is God once was, as God is man may become" is clear enough. Joseph Smith taught that "God was once a man, who dwelt on an earth", etc., etc. [in the King Follett sermon]. . . . And if you don't believe the King Follett sermon is "virtual canon" just call up the Correlation Committee at LDS Salt Lake headquarters and ask them about it. . . . The fact is, Mormonism teaches that "God and men are the same race" and that we can become gods JUST LIKE our Father in Heaven is a god. It is the same kind of godhood.
I respectfully but completely reject your claim that LDS theology teaches that we will become like God in exactly the same sense or in a sense "just like" Him. To say that we will be "as" God can mean many things. God Himself in Genesis 3:23 said that Adam had "become as one of us" because he now knew good from evil. John wrote that when Christ returns, the righteous will be "like him" (1 John 3:2). The concept of man becoming "like God" or "as God" is thoroughly, solidly Biblical and Christian - but it doesn't mean becoming exactly like Him. There is no doubt - no question at all - that we will always give glory to the Father, and that He will always be our God to whom we will give humble reverence forever, and that He will always be vastly above us. We may share in His glorious lifestyle and be joint heirs with Christ, but He is the Father and we are the children.
How do you conclude that we think we will become exactly like the Father? There is clearly no canonical source for such a notion. Indeed, the official LDS canon is replete with clear and plain teachings about the existence of a Supreme Being, the One who was the most intelligent of all and who organized all things in the beginning (Abraham 3:19,21; Moses 1:1-6), making Him the unchangeable Source of all (Doct.& Cov. 20:17-36), the one true and wise God (Doct.& Cov. 132:24), the God of gods (Deut. 10:17); the Head God of all other gods (Doct. Cov. 121:28,32), the Almighty God (Doct.& Cov. 20:17), the Being to whom all "gods" will forever be subservient (Doct.& Cov. 76: 50-70;92-95;119); to whom we will be priests and kings at his right hand (Doct.& Cov. 66:12), to whom we will always belong (Doct.& Cov. 76:55-59); in whom we will glory, not in man (Doct.& Cov. 76:61); etc. The Temple Endowment ceremony in particular makes no mention of godhood but says that we can become priests and priestesses, kings and queens to God the Father, clearly teaching that our relationship to Him is one of children to Father or of vassal to Lord.
You have based your objections to some statements found in the King Follett Discourse. This talk has some fascinating material, and is quoted frequently, as some minor Church worker told you on the telephone, but:
Regardless of how God the Father obtained His glorious body and regardless of what Christ meant by saying that He only did the things He had seen the Father do (John 5:19), there is no foundation for claiming that we will become exactly the same as the Father. He shares all that He has with those who love Him, but they are the creations and He is the Creator, we are the sinners and He is the Savior, we are the children and He is the Father. But if the children grow up, the glory of the Father is not diminished, nor is the honor that the children give the Father. May we all grow up in Christ, as subjects to our glorious King and God.
Finally, you should know that a variety of teachings in the King Follett discourse resonate remarkably well with ancient Christian and early Jewish doctrines, though these teachings are strongly at odds with modern mainstream Christianity. This is one of many subtle evidences that the Restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith was not a fraudulent work of borrowing concepts from Joseph's environment, but a restoration of ancient doctrines and practices accomplished by divine means. For details, see "The King Follett Discourse in the Light of Ancient and Medieval Jewish and Christian Beliefs" by John A. Tvedtnes, available at FairMormon.org.
My first question is in response to the FAQ page "The Divine Potential of Human Beings." Under the heading "What about the King Follett discourse of Joseph Smith?", you state that you completely reject the claim that "LDS theology teaches that we will become like God in exactly the same sense or in a sense 'just like' Him" and also go on to say that you "cannot find the alleged doctrine of man becoming like God in exactly the same sense as the Father." Here's my question. Joseph Smith once said the following quotations:"God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man...and you have to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one... to inherit the same power, the same glory and the same exaltation, until you arrive at the station of a God, and ascend the throne of eternal power, the same as those who have gone before... My father worked out his kingdom with fear and trembling, and I must do the same; and when I get my kingdom, I shall present it to my Father, so that he may obtain kingdom upon kingdom, and it will exalt him in glory. He will then take a higher exaltation, and I will take his place, and thereby become exalted myself (TPJS, pp. 345-47)."
What did Joseph mean here ("I will take his place")? My take on it is that JS taught that we would be exalted and take God's place. Wouldn't that be "man becoming like God in exactly the same sense as the Father"?
You asked about the issue of whether Mormons believe that we will become exactly like the Father. You correctly note that I reject the idea of any fallen mortal taking the place of the unfallen, always perfect Creator and His perfect, unfallen Son, Jesus Christ, but you then quote Joseph Smith from the King Follett discourse to identify an apparent contradiction. The most crucial part of the quote in question is this: "... My father worked out his kingdom with fear and trembling, and I must do the same; and when I get my kingdom, I shall present it to my Father, so that he may obtain kingdom upon kingdom, and it will exalt him in glory. He will then take a higher exaltation, and I will take his place."
You ascribe these words as if spoken in the first person by Joseph Smith, as if he were saying that he (and by extension, perhaps, we) would take the place of God the Father. It's very important for you to realize that this quote has been wrenched out of context by the deletion of important material, seriously obfuscated by those three little dots before the crucial part of the quote. I almost suspect that you received the quote from some professional anti-Mormon, for they seem to make their livings by leaving out important information (yes, my opinion of many of them has become very low, though they may be warmly sincere in their efforts to do anything to attack us).
Here is the "restored" passage that should have been cited in full. The first two sentences are what was covered by the ellipsis, and the final sentence is another important one truncated by the quote you were given:
"What did Jesus do? Why, I do the things I saw my Father do when worlds came rolling into existence. My Father worked out His kingdom with fear and trembling, and I must do the same; and when I get my kingdom, I shall present it to My Father, so that He may obtain kingdom upon kingdom, and it will exalt Him in glory. He will then take a higher exaltation, and I will take His place, and thereby become exalted myself. So that Jesus treads in the tracks of His Father, and inherits what God did before; and God is thus glorified and exalted in the salvation and exaltation of all His children."
You see, Joseph is explaining what Jesus did, and giving the answer that Jesus could give to the question, "What did Jesus do?" Had Joseph Smith been quoted properly, it would be clear to any reader that the part about taking the place of the Father refers to Jesus Christ. Please remember that in LDS doctrine, Jesus is properly called the ONLY Begotten Son, the only Man who ever lived on this earth without sin, the only Son of God worthy of our worship. Christ sets an example for us - an example that we are commanded to follow in becoming like the Father (see Philippians 2:5,6; Matt. 5:48;1 John 3:21; Phil. 3:19-21; Romans 8:14-23; John 10:33,34; Ps. 82:6; 2 Peter 1:3-10; John 17:11,20-23; and the many other Biblical passages which show that deification of humans was part of early Christianity and Judaism). Joseph is certainly right to illustrate our path to exaltation by pointing to Christ, who said "Come, follow me." But there is a difference between us and Christ, the difference between subject and king, lord and servant, Creator and creature. He makes us priests and kings to Him (Rev. 1:6), but subservient to Him. That's what D&C 76 and other modern scriptures teach as well. And in the King Follett discourse, Joseph walks the line carefully. We are to be become Gods, as the Bible teaches, following the example of the Son, but Joseph does not say that WE take the place of the Father or that anyone is ever going to worship us or give glory to anyone but the Father (and the Son).
Also within another ellipsis in your quote, another important passage was missing:
"The scriptures inform us that Jesus said, as the Father hath power in himself, even so hath the Son power - to do what? Why, what the Father did. The answer is obvious - in a manner to lay down his body and take it up again. Jesus, what are you going to do? To lay down my life as my Father did, and take it up again."
Again, Joseph is taking about ways that Jesus is just like the Father, ways that obviously don't apply directly to us. The uniqueness of the Son is inherent in LDS doctrine. In this same sermon, Joseph also pointed out that the Father, the Head God of all Gods, is the most intelligent of all. He said:
"Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age and there is no creation about it. All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement.
"The first principles of man are self-existent with God. God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with Himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence, which is requisite in order to save them in the world of spirits."
Again, He calls us to become like Him, but it is from a position of vast superiority, reaching out to us weaker (and fallen) souls as a loving Father. He gives us all that we need for Him to save us - but He needs no saving, nor does the Son. But we do. We need the salvation and grace and gifts that only He and His perfect Son can offer. We depend on Him for everything. We do not take His place!
How amazing, though, that God and the Son reach out to us and invite us to become, in some real and marvelous sense, "like" them - though forever subservient, serving as priests and kings to them, yet enjoying the blessings and riches of eternity and of eternal families. Eye hath not seen nor ear heard the things which the Father has prepared for those that love Him! These blessings should not be the subject of derision and argument, but of humble and grateful acceptance. Early Christianity and the restored fullness of Christianity share this concept. Please think twice before rejecting it, for it comes from Him.
The work in question is Jordan Vajda, OP, "Partakers of the Divine Nature": A Comparative Analysis of the Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization, master's thesis, Graduate Theological Union at the University of California, Berkeley, 1998, republished under the same title as Occasional Paper No. 3 by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (Provo, Utah, 2002).
In this work, Father Vajda notes that the writings of the early Church fathers clearly express a belief in the divine potential of human beings - that we can become "gods" through the grace of Christ and partake in the divine nature. In his introduction to the FARMS publication, he states:
The historic Christian doctrine of salvation -- theosis, i.e., human divinization -- for too long has been forgotten by too many Christians, despite the fact that this teaching is a part of that common inheritance -- first millennium Christianity -- that unites Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians.
Chapter 2 of Father Vajda's thesis, The Doctrine of Theosis, or Becoming a God," explores the thinking of early Christians on this important doctrine that has been lost from much of modern Christianity. The following excerpt is from the beginning of this chapter (pp. 9-10):
Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John, and after they had climbed a high mountain, something amazing happened. The face of Jesus "shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light."  This account of the transfiguration of Christ became a key text when patristic writers, and specifically the Greek Fathers of the Church, attempted to understand and explain the doctrine of theosis, or salvation as human divinization.  The transfiguration was interpreted as a revelation illustrating what happens when a human body is divinized, when it participates "in the divine nature."  In the words of St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), it was a revelation of "what we once were and what we are to be" when deified by Christ.  These gospel passages were also significant because they so handily encapsulated a number of issues central to the content and experience of theosis: the unearthly light which emanated from Christ's body, the vision of that light by human persons, the relationship between divinity and humanity, and, at the center of it all, the person of Christ himself.
From the very beginnings of the Church the centrality of Christ has been recognized; he is the one who makes salvation -- human divinization -- a possibility. Two classic texts which come from the early centuries of the Church clearly demonstrate this belief. St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-c. 202) -- who had known St. Polycarp, who had known the Apostles  -- wrote, "the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, who because of his immeasurable love became what we are in order to make us what he is."  St. Athanasius of Alexandria (295-373) also explained that "God became man, so that we might be made gods."  Thus, at the root and core of the doctrine of theosis was not only a belief in the centrality of Christ but also the belief that he makes theosis possible precisely because he is both God and human.
Footnotes from Father Vajda:
1. Matthew 17:1-8, Jerusalem Bible (hereafter referred to as JB). Parallel passages are in Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36.
2. Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God, ed. John H. Erickson and Thomas E. Bird (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1974), 60-61; Andrew Louth, trans., Maximus the Confessor (New York: Routledge, 1996), 70-71, 108-9; Georgios I. Mantzaridis, The Deification of Man: St. Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox Tradition, trans. Liadain Sherrard (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984), 100, 123; Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), vol. 2 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 260-61; Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourses, trans. C. J. de Catanzaro (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist, 1980). 357.
3. 2 Peter l:4, KJV.
4. St. Gregory Palamas, Homilies 16, quoted in Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom, 266.
5. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, On the Apostolic Preaching, with an introduction by John Behr (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997), 1.
6. Robert M. Grant, trans., Irenaeus of Lyons (New York: Routledge, 1997), 164.
7. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word 54, quoted in Christoforos Stavropoulos, Partakers of the Divine Nature: An inspiring presentation of man's purpose in life according to Orthodox theology, trans. Stanley Harakas (Minneapolis, Minn.: Light and Life, 1976), 24.
Though Vajda notes a number of differences between the doctrine of theosis among the early Greek fathers and the doctrine of exaltation in LDS teachings, the similarities are clearly significant, and make the LDS view appear to be much closer to early Christian teachings than the views of some of our most outspoken critics, as Father Vajda notes in his conclusion (pp. 56-57):
Finally, what has resulted from taking "Another Look at The God Makers," as the title of chapter one proposed to do? As chapter three has made abundantly clear, the Mormons truly are "godmakers": as the doctrine of exaltation explains, the fullness of human salvation means "becoming a god." Yet what was meant to be a term of ridicule has turned out to be a term of approbation, for the witness of the Greek Fathers of the Church, described in chapter two, is that they also believed that salvation meant "becoming a god." It seems that if one's soteriology cannot accommodate a doctrine of human divinization, then it has at least implicitly, if not explicitly, rejected the heritage of the early Christian church and departed from the faith of first millennium Christianity. . . . And the supreme irony is that such persons should probably investigate the claims of the LDS Church, which proclaims that within itself is to be found the "restoration of all things."
Father Vajda notes in his introduction that "those who sought to deny the label 'Christian' to the LDS Church were, more often than not, the very same people who would turn around and attempt to deny this label to the Catholic Church - with the same reasons being used in both instances to justify the conclusion." Knowing the flaws in the reasons used to attack Catholics allowed Father Vajda to also see the flaws in the attacks on Latter-day Saints. I hope others will also see through the attempts of our critics to exclude us as Christian for having a restored, Biblical doctrine about the divine potential of human beings, a destiny enabled by the grace of Jesus Christ.Back to the LDS FAQ Index
The Oneness of God - one of my LDSFAQ pages.
Reconsidering Psalms 82:6: Judges or Gods? by Ben McGuire. Shows that the use of the word "gods" in the KJV is consistent with LDS views.
"Partakers of the Divine Nature" (2 Peter 1:4) in the Byzantine Tradition - an article by non-LDS writer Norman Russell discussing some early Christian views on what it means to become partakers of the divine nature and even be "gods." Search for the use of the word "gods" in this document, based upon ancient Christian concepts, and see how misguided the modern critics are in excluding Mormons as Christians for accepting this authentic Christian concept.
Godhood: Man's Divine Potential - Text from a chapter in Michael T. Griffith's book, One Lord, One Faith: Writings of the Early Christian Fathers As Evidences of the Restoration (Horizon Publishers, 1996)
Mormonism and Early Christianity, an excellent, archived site by Barry Bickmore exploring what early Christians wrote and taught about the Gospel, with comparisons to LDS teachings.
No, Really ... Gods! - an article by Barry Bickmore explaining what we shouldn't expect in exploring statements from early Christian writers.
The King Follett Discourse in the Light of Ancient and Medieval Jewish and Christian Beliefs by John A. Tvedtnes, available at FairMormon.org, shows that concepts taught in the King Follett discourse by Joseph Smith are related to ancient Christian and Jewish doctrines, though they are far from the religious teachings Joseph would have been exposed to in his day.