This is a massive topic in both Eastern Orthodoxy and Mormonism so this will only be my first post on it; likely many more are to come. When I really began examining the doctrines of Mormonism that set us apart from other faiths, my understanding of theosis changed. Mormons often use the word theosis and early Patristic literature on that subject for a few reasons. First, they want to show that Mormons are not so strange for talking about men becoming gods, since many Christians have been using such language for thousands of years. Second, there is the suggestion that when the Church Fathers talked about men becoming gods, it was perhaps a vestige of Christ’s true teachings on exaltation which were lost during the ‘Great Apostasy.’
I think both these reasons are misguided. The Orthodox view of theosis is different from Mormonism in the most crucial way possible. In Orthodoxy, God is One, and his essence is utterly transcendent and can never be known directly by men. Theosis is the process whereby men can be transformed by God’s grace and thus participate in his nature, but it does not mean that the essence of a man can become like the essence of God, because there is only one God. As far as I can tell, this has always been what the Orthodox have meant by theosis, including the Church Fathers.
By contrast, on the dominant Mormon view, Heavenly Father is not the Ultimate Explanation for the existence of reality; He is a member of a divine species. On Mormonism, He is certainly all-knowing, all-powerful, has the power to forgive sins and create universes, etc., but His essence is not transcendent from creation. Thus, when humans learn and grow and achieve exaltation, they literally become like God in His essence, being able to do all the things that He does.
I have the suspicion that Mormons don’t actually get why this is such an important distinction. Most Mormons really believe that their view of God is at best a slightly eccentric version of the Christian God. But to the Orthodox, and all classical theists, the Mormon view of God completely misses the point of God in the first place. For classical theists, God is being and existence itself, and there can only be one – that’s the point. Making God into a physical, temporal being with super powers puts Him in the very category of things that require an explanation like everything else (not to mention the same category as Zeus, Thor, Anubis, and the gods of Canaan and Babylon in the Old Testament). That kind of God doesn’t explain reality at all, and falls victim to challenges like Law’s “Evil God” argument. But I digress.
Now, I say this is the dominant view in Mormonism, but it is not the only interpretation. There are many members, and even brilliant Mormon thinkers like Blake Ostler (if I understand him correctly) who do not think that Heavenly Father had His own father, but is the source of all being and that we can only become like Him through His grace. The more I read into Mormon doctrine, the more I feel that this is a better and more accurate view of human destiny and our relationship with God.
But obviously, this view is very close to Orthodoxy, and that just raises further questions for me. If theosis in Mormonism is basically the same as theosis in Orthodoxy, then why did it have to be “restored” through Joseph Smith? That version of theosis has been taught non-stop for 2000 years in the east. It was never “lost.”
In fact, a lot of Mormon doctrines are like that for me. Mormonism’s claim to be a revolutionary restoration of lost doctrines in Christianity only makes sense if its doctrines really are different than what already exists in Christianity. Mormonism’s existence, therefore, is only justified if it is significantly different than Christianity. The more Mormonism waters down its doctrines and resembles its Protestant or Orthodox or Catholic brethren (a process that I believe has been happening for a couple decades now), the less their existence seems justified. Mormonism likes to claim that it allows its members the full freedom to believe lots of things, which is both true and great, but if the average Mormon’s beliefs are pretty much like Orthodoxy, then why does it exist? If the Book of Mormon, modern-day prophets, Doctrine and Covenants, etc. don’t actually paint a significantly different picture of God, then it seems like they don’t really have a purpose.
And this isn’t just about theosis, it’s also about priesthood, views on Christ, baptism, revelation, the Atonement, salvation, etc. As I write more on this blog I will show why I have been moving away from Mormonism and toward Orthodoxy, and this is basically the foundation of the matter: when I really examined, deep down in my heart, my beliefs about the core doctrines of the church, I realized that they were pretty much the same as Orthodoxy in all the respects that I felt were most important.