The Evolution of Exaltation: An Introduction

“We live as gods.”

The growing scholarly corpus on Christian deification stands as a testament to an ever-increasing interest in the topic among academics, which may, in turn, be indicative of a fascination with the idea throughout the general population. While the Eastern Orthodox tradition is best known for embodying this via its doctrine of theosis (θέωσις), and Mormonism is perhaps infamous for its teachings on the matter, recent scholarly contributions have teased out threads of deification in the writings of famous Protestant and Roman Catholic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas [1], Anselm of Canterbury [2], Martin Luther [3], John Calvin [4], John Wesley [5], and Jonathan Edwards [6]. Deification has also been noted in the Anglican tradition [7]. Or in other words, it’s not just Mormons and Greeks having all the fun anymore.

The teachings of Mormonism served as this Protestant’s introduction to the world of deification, and while the broader topic will always interest me, it is the Mormon brand that perpetually seduces me. Although, it may be more correct to speak of Mormon brands of deification, for I have found Mormon thought to be far from homogeneous on the subject. Charles Harrell notes this phenomenon in “This is My Doctrine,” citing two LDS authors who recently distanced themselves from more traditional teachings on Mormon deification. Harrell writes:

In current LDS thought, the idea of human being becoming like God is sometimes marginalized, especially in interfaith dialogues where it continues to be a controversial issue. In his Mormon-evangelical exchange, Mormon co-author Stephen Robinson gives this explanation: “What do Latter-day Saints mean by ‘gods’? Latter-day Saints do not, or at least should not believe that they will ever be independent in all eternity from their Father in heave or from their Savior or from the Holy Spirit. Those who are exalted by his grace will always be ‘gods’ (always with a small ‘g’, even in the Doctrine and Covenants) by grace, by an extension of ‘his’ power, and will always be subordinate to the Godhead.” BYU religion professor Roger Keller conceded at a multi-denominational conference in 2002 that “there will always be a qualitative difference between the Father, the Son, and us.” Thus, although the doctrine of becoming like God is still acknowledged in the Church, there seems to be a growing tendency to explain it in a more traditional Christian sense than in an absolute sense. [8]

Pushing back against the line of thought described by Harrell, David L. Paulsen insists, “Latter-day Saint tradition holds that there exists no ontological barrier preventing mankind from becoming all that God is and enjoying the same kind of life that God lives, and I have long been puzzled by scholarly claims to the contrary.” [9]

Observing disagreements amongst Latter-day Saints on their doctrine of exaltation has led me to ask, how did my LDS friends arrive at this point? In what ways has the Mormon doctrine of exaltation evolved since its inception in the lifetime of Joseph Smith, and where is it going? This, in turn, has led to subsidiary questions:

  • In what ways has the practice of polygamy been applied to the doctrine of exaltation? Did the abandonment of polygamy starting in 1890 affect teachings on exaltation in the mainstream church? Does polygamy have any bearing on the doctrine of exaltation in contemporary times?
  • Have external factors such as evangelical criticism or a desire for greater mainstream acceptance contributed to shifts in teachings on exaltation? What other possible external factors have contributed?
  • If the famous couplet states, “As God is, man may become” and God is literally and necessarily male, can women be exalted? If so, is exaltation for women different from exaltation for men? What are the anticipated sexual dynamics between exalted men and exalted women in the celestial kingdom?
  • What is the relationship between exaltation and Mormon ordinances such as baptism, confirmation, endowment, sealing, and “the Second Anointing”? In what ways does Mormon temple worship interact with exaltation?
  • In what ways does exaltation compare to other Christian teachings on deification, as found in the Eastern Orthodox church, Anglicanism, Wesleyanism, Roman Catholicism, or the works of John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, or C. S. Lewis? [10]
  • Do splinter movements from the larger Mormon church such as the Community of Christ, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite), the Apostolic United Brethren, the Church of Christ (Temple Lot), or the Centennial Park group teach exaltation in any form? In what ways do their doctrines of exaltation differ from that of the mainstream LDS church?

These are questions that I hope to explore in my thesis, and I hope to give you a taste of my answers as I develop them and receive critical feedback from you via my blog posts here at Worlds Without End.



[1] A. N. Williams, The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[2] Nathan R. Kerr, “St. Anselm: Theoria and the Doctrinal Logic of Perfection” in Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions, eds. Michael J. Christensen and Jeffery A. Wittung (Teaneck, N. J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007), 175-88.

[3] Jonathan Linman, “Martin Luther: ‘Little Christs for the World’; Faith and Sacraments as Means to Theosis” in Partakers of the Divine Nature, 189-99; Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998); Tuomo Mannermaa, “Theosis as a Subject of Finnish Luther Research,” Pro Ecclesia 4 (1995), 37-47.

[4] Carl Mosser, “The Greatest Possible Blessing: Calvin and Deification,” Scottish Journal of Theology 55.1 (2002), 36-57; J. Todd Billings, “United to God through Christ: Assessing Calvin on the Question of Deification,” Harvard Theological Review 98:3 (2005), 315-34 and Calvin, Participation and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 51-61. An updated version of Billings’ HTR essay entitled “John Calvin: United to God through Christ” appears in Partakers of the Divine Nature, 200-18.

[5] For both John Wesley and early Methodism, see A. M. Allchin, Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in Anglican Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1988), 24-44; Steve K. McCormick, “Theosis in Chrysostom and Wesley: An Eastern Paradigm on Faith and Love,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 26.1 (1991): 38-103; Michael J. Christensen, “Theosis and Sanctification: John Wesley’s Reformation of a Patristic Doctrine,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31.2 (Fall 1996), 71-94 and “John Wesley: Christian Perfection as Faith Filled with the Energy of Love,” in Partakers of the Divine Nature, 219-29.

[6] Michael J. McClymond, “Salvation as Divinization: Jonathan Edwards, Gregory Palamas and the Theological Uses of Neoplatonism,” in Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian, eds. Paul Helm and Oliver D. Carp (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003), 139-60.

[7] Allchin, Participation in God; Dan Edwards, “Deification and the Anglican Doctrine of Human Nature: A Reassessment of the Historical Significance of William Porcher DuBose,” Anglican and Episcopal History 58.2 (1989), 196-212.

[8] Charles R. Harrell, “This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology (Draper, Ut.: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 120. For the citation from Robinson, see Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1997), 86. For the citation from Keller, see Roger R. Keller, “Jesus Christ: Priest, King and Prophet” in Salvation in Christ: Comparative Christian Views, eds. Roger R. Keller and Robert L. Millet (Provo, Ut.: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005), 355.

[9] David L. Paulsen, “A Dialogue on Openness Theology: Response” in Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christianities, eds. Donald W. Musser and David L. Paulsen (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2008), 525. In his footnote, Paulsen gives the same citation from Robinson that Harrell pointed to.

[10] For a thorough comparison of Mormon exaltation and Eastern Orthodox theosis, see Jordan Vajda, Partakers of the Divine Nature (2002), available online at the Maxwell Institute’s Occasional Papers, here.


The Evolution of Exaltation: An Introduction — 8 Comments

  1. Due to my interest in Orthodoxy I have read lots of literature on the Orthodox view of theosis. In my opinion, the closer Mormonism (or individual Mormons for that matter) shift their views to the Orthodox view of theosis (that there will always be a qualitative difference between man and God, that we participate in God’s nature through his grace but never know/reach his essence, etc.) the less the existence of Mormonism is justified. Why would God raise up a prophet to “restore” a doctrine that was already being taught, and had been taught for 2000 years, in one of the largest, if not the largest (depending on how you measure through history) denomination of Christianity on Earth?

    Thus, in my opinion, Mormonism only makes sense if its doctrines (on priesthood, exaltation/theosis, scripture, the nature of God, revelation, etc.) differ enough from mainstream Christianity to warrant a restoration – and this means a type of deification that involves really achieving the essence of God. If this idea does not hold water (philosophically, logically, in reality, etc.) then so much the worse for Mormonism.

    But I could be wrong. Looking forward to the other posts here.

  2. Jack, Wonderful topic. I hope that you can explain if the differences in Mormon deification are mostly rhetorical or are they really substantive. Is Robinson emphsizing aspects of deification to look better to non-Mormons? Or does he really believe something fundamentally different from David Paulsen? I am anxious to see what you come up with.

  3. If LDS commentators would take D&C 20:28 seriously, a lot of the confusion would go away:

    “Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end.”

    What this verse teaches us is that there is only one God, and that no individual is God in and of himself. “Gods” with a capital G is an oxymoron, a literal contradiction in terms. Heavenly fathers and mothers are “gods”, who collectively are and represent God – one God, infinite and eternal, without end. A high cardinality social trinity, or the divine concert.

  4. There are multiple Mormon theosis in Mormonism and not just differences of opinion. It depends more on what angle you look at it than who is right. Robinson is right, and Paulson is right, and Mark D. is right. Its a complicated subject and to simplify it into one set of parameters is to misunderstand what little is known to mortals about God or our potentials. I hope you keep that in mind as you study this subject.