This is the conclusion to a 3-part series from guest author Adam J. Powell, a PhD student at Durham University. His multidisciplinary work analyses the role of opposition in the development of identity and soteriological beliefs among second-century Christians and early Mormons. The first and second parts of this series can be found here and here, respectively.
Having recounted the shortcomings of Hugh Nibley’s use of Irenaeus in the previous post, three additional LDS figures will now be discussed. The 1970’s and 80’s witnessed two Mormon thinkers who significantly propelled the move away from an emphasis on the Great Apostasy to a focus on Patristic theology. Keith Norman and Philip Barlow both took on the task of drawing comparisons between the early Christian concept of theosis and the Mormon doctrines of eternal progression and exaltation. In doing so, each espoused the notion that the earliest forms of deification gradually morphed in order to become more compatible with the orthodox Christian belief in creation ex nihilo. In an article for Sunstone, Norman said, ‘…the principal reason the doctrine of Divinization could not survive in the church’s theology proper was that it conflicted with the doctrine of creation ex nihilo to which most “orthodox” Christians adhered by the middle of the third century.’ This followed his claim that Irenaeus was the ‘first explicit advocate of divinization’. In fairness, Norman published an article (‘Ex Nihilo: The Development of the Doctrines of God and Creation in Early Christianity,’ BYU Studies 17 (Spring 1977)) a bit later in which he explicitly claims Irenaeus as the first Christian to formulate a creatio ex nihilo doctrine. The confusion, however, still remains. How can Irenaeus be an early proponent of both creatio ex nihilo and theosis if the two doctrines are fundamentally incompatible?
Later in Sunstone, Barlow echoed Norman in asserting that this doctrine of creation inhibited the spread of theosis. In fact, he asserted that a ‘fundamental’ connection exists between the thoughts of deification expressed by the ‘earliest church fathers’ and those of Mormonism, adding that these similarities preceded the ‘creedal formulations of the Trinity or of creation ex nihilo.’ Their belief, then, suggests that the earliest Christian fathers held a specific view of deification which was incompatible with the theology promulgated by the creeds of the mid-fourth century.
Claiming Irenaeus as a proponent of divinization may seem justified in light of much of his diction. To imply, however, that his view of deification was incompatible with creation ex nihilo is to reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of Irenaean theology. In fact, many Irenaean scholars have noted that the bishop’s anthropology can only be understood by recognizing the seminal role of creation ex nihilo in humanity’s need to progress. For example, J.T. Nielsen argues in Adam and Christ in the Theology of Irenaeus of Lyons that the progress of humankind was initiated, not with the first sin of Adam, but at the moment of creation. Indeed, Irenaeus saw the very act of creation as an act of separation or ontological distinction. If God can provide existence, He is necessarily other than that which is contingent on his creative power. Matthew Steenberg, a top-rate scholar of the early church, articulated the matter profoundly in Of God and Man by remarking that for Irenaeus humanity’s need to progress toward a model of perfection actually glorifies God by pointing to Him as alone worthy to be that very model.
In 1991, Stephen Robinson published Are Mormons Christians? In this book, Robinson addresses the LDS belief in deification (theosis). Once again, Irenaeus is cited as evidence that early Christians at least believed in something similar to Mormon exaltation. Robinson quotes two passages from Against Heresies in the main body of the book and includes an additional passage in the endnotes. There is literally no discussion of Irenaeus’ setting, purpose for writing, theological stances, opponents, biographical information; nor is there any mention of secondary sources on Irenaeus. Perhaps more importantly, Robinson provides no source for the translation of Irenaeus’ statements which are, seemingly, more paraphrases than quotations.
After presenting his audience with a handful of Patristic examples (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, and Augustine) of deification, Robinson claims that the theology of the Mormons represents ‘the same theology and the same goal.’ Further, he asserts,
In fact this doctrine is not pagan, nor is it foreign to the larger Christian tradition. Since it is found among theologians/saints from Justin Martyr in the second century to Simeon the New Theologian in the eleventh century, Joseph Smith obviously did not make it up.
Is it found among theologians of the ‘larger Christian tradition’? At other times, Robinson concedes that Mormons may be misinterpreting the Patristic sources, but he remains unyielding that those same sources prove the validity or longevity of the doctrine. This claim is offered even after Robinson himself quotes Irenaeus in the endnotes of the book as saying that ‘man…shall always progress towards God.’ Superficially, this might somehow support LDS doctrine, but a deeper familiarity with Irenaean anthropology elucidates its meaning for the bishop. Humanity’s advancement toward God is salvation. It is the restored likeness of God that was lost in Eden. Individuals are, after Christ’s resurrection, restored to the path of sanctification. This bears little resemblance to the LDS doctrines articulated at the funeral address of King Follett.
Six years later, Stephen Robinson added an endnote to his book coauthored by Craig Blomberg, How Wide the Divide? In this endnote, Robinson once again cites the same five church fathers (Irenaeus, Athanasius, Clement, Justin, and Augustine). Listing the reference for each of them, he then states, ‘While one might coherently argue that Latter-day Saints misunderstand the traditional doctrine of deification, one cannot with honesty assert that we invented it.’ It is true that no one could substantiate any claim that Mormons invented ‘the traditional doctrine of deification’, but why would anyone desire to make such a claim? Ostensibly, Robinson wants to both admit to misinterpretation but engage in equivocation. That begs the question, which definition did he misunderstand?
Again, the desire to locate similarities between Patristic theology and Mormon doctrine seems to have inhibited the ability to engage fairly with early church thought. It is one thing to peruse Patristic tomes in search of remnants of the original truth; it is quite another activity altogether to take the time to fully grasp the context and broad themes which engendered the expressions of the Graeco-Roman writers. Indeed, theosis itself was an adaptation of apotheosis, a term firmly rooted in the Roman context which referred to the imperial cult and the notion that emperors were divine. Christians revised the term and applied it to the Christian message.
The preceding discussion was not intended to be a thorough critique of Mormon scholarship, nor of LDS appeals to Patristic theology. The Irenaean example was simply chosen for its ability to highlight an interesting characteristic of Mormonism. Namely, the identity safely harbored in the idiosyncratic expressions of the religion is often overshadowed by the converse, a desire to connect with the greater society. In a very recently published book concerning anti-Mormon violence in the post-bellum south, Patrick Mason makes this remark:
Latter-day Saints struggled valiantly to preserve their distinctiveness. In the end, however, the forces opposing them, in the South and in the nation, were too great, and they, like other minority groups in nineteenth-century America, were forced to wave the white flag of accommodation in self-preservation.
This rings true throughout Mormon history.
One’s mind naturally turns to the controversies surrounding issues such as the manifesto of 1890 or the racial decisions of the late 1970’s. There are, however, more subtle examples. Perhaps, the attempt to uncover doctrinal similarities in the writings of early Christians is one of them. Few would doubt the intentions of the aforementioned individuals. A key LDS apologist such as Stephen Robinson certainly works hard at his goals. In fact, he was undoubtedly responding to the ripples caused in the 1980’s by the film and book entitled, The God Makers. This explains the desire to reassure the orthodox world that Mormons did not invent bizarre, detrimental doctrines. It does not explain, however, the similar projects in decades prior to that controversy. In any case, it may be that amalgamation is accommodation. In other terms, perhaps the conservation of peculiarity is the maintenance of identity. When there is said to be an ‘opposition in all things’ (2 Nephi 2:11), does marginality lead to inimitability?