Daniel O. McClellan, “Latter-day Saints and Patristics,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2007 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 57–69.
Latter-day Saints and Patristics
Daniel O. McClellan
Some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seem to have a propensity for digging through the history and literature of the early Christian church. A common explanation for this behavior seems to be the desire to discover hidden pockets of “plain and precious truths.” This chapter will examine the tenability of such a quest. Will it bear fruit? Frank F. Judd and Stephen E. Robinson share the important warning that it will not. Speaking of digging through apocryphal literature for lost truth, Dr. Robinson states, “It just isn’t there!”
This chapter will show that caution needs to be taken when attempting to identify lost gospel truths in the milieu of early Christianity’s battle for orthodoxy. In investigating the impetuses for the doctrines of early Christianity, in this chapter we will juxtapose our own contemporary and unique doctrines and explain how they do or do not fit into our investigation. Many outside the Church take issue with the Latter-day Saint stance concerning the influence of the “philosophies of men” on the doctrines of the Church; and some of them, astonished at the perceived presumptuousness of the Latter-day Saints, see that same influence in our own teachings. One such scholar discusses the hypocrisy of criticizing hellenized Christianity while simultaneously searching for parallels in the teachings of those very hellenized Christians. It will be beneficial, therefore, to evaluate Joseph Smith’s teachings in this chapter. We will do so by investigating the doctrines of (1) the premortal existence, (2) the eternal nature of matter, and (3) deification. We will examine these doctrines within the teachings of the early Church Fathers, the Greek philosophers, and finally, Joseph Smith. When the details of the premortal existence and deification are understood, we will observe a very sharp divergence between the perspective of the Restoration and that of early Christianity.
The doctrine of the premortal existence of souls is found in a smattering of early Christian writings. Most of these examples are from Gnostic writings (such as the Gospel of Judas), which are an offspring of neo-Platonic metaphysics and allegorically interpreted Christian scriptures. The doctrine can be identified in other deuterocanonical works but is very vaguely represented. A third source for this doctrine is the literature of Origen and Clement.
Origen and Clement (both of Alexandria) were the only Church Fathers that latched on firmly to the principle of a premortal existence, but it seems to be in reaction to the Gnostic movements in the area. Clement and Origen chose Greek philosophy as their weapon against the Gnostics. Because Alexandrian Christianity is thought to have been reared within the context of hellenized Judaism, this approach was not unreasonable to either of them.
The most comprehensive early Christian manifestation of the doctrine of premortal existence comes from Origen, possibly by way of Clement. This doctrine was taught in Egypt and later throughout the Church. However, it was soon considered heretical, and Origen’s doctrines were officially banned at the Second Council of Constantinople in AD 553.
To clarify the distinction between Plato’s and Origen’s doctrine of premortal existence, we will examine them individually. In his Phaedo, Plato, through Socrates, uses four arguments to establish the premortal existence of the soul. However, Socrates’s peers only accepted the fourth argument as valid. Undercutting Plato’s three other arguments is the idea that the soul exists as a kind of “form” (the abstract essences of the qualities with which we define and perceive our world). He builds his first three arguments on this concept, and as his arguments fall, this principle remains standing to provide Plato with a final and successful argument. All material things pass away, but forms are eternal and unchanging. Because forms bring life to all materiality, the soul must be classified among the forms. Plato’s premortal existence is therefore derived from his doctrine of forms.
Origen’s doctrine in describing our journey from premortal “mind” (the purest state of our souls) to incarnation is, without a doubt, a derivative of Platonism. In commenting on the premortal existence of souls, Origen slightly amends the Platonic version to accommodate the Judeo-Christian concept of the Fall. In this amendment, Adam and Eve are an allegorical representation of a spiritual event that separates humans from the divine. This event took place when God endowed our minds (that is, “souls”) with free will (that righteousness might be their own) and rebellion ensued. “Slothfulness, and a dislike of labour in preserving what is good, and an aversion to and a neglect of better things, furnished the beginning of a departure from goodness.” The mind is degraded to a soul, which subsequently degrades to taking on a fleshly body. These are all just episodes in a drawn-out quest to return to communion with God. Although Origen was one of the sole transgressors later named in the crime of hellenizing Christianity, many early Christians were held under the thumb of Platonic interpretations of the scriptures. The entire process of allegorically interpreting the scriptures stems from classical philosophy; Origen’s spirituality was only a slight tangent from the pervading thoughts of his day. His transgression lay mainly in his failing to delineate between a Christian view of premortal existence and the Greek philosophical view of a premortal existence that was intimately tied to reincarnation, and for this he was condemned. Following the rejection of Origen’s teachings, Church authorities distanced themselves as far as possible from the heresy of premortal existence. By Nicene times the Church theologians had demoted the human being to an utterly created being.
Eternal Nature of Matter
Connected to the Platonic concept of premortal existence is that of the eternal nature of matter. For Plato, God could not create matter because He and matter (the anake) are the two coeternal elements in the universe. According to the Timaeus, matter has always existed in chaos. Without a form, the four components of matter (earth, air, fire, and water) are in perpetually chaotic motion. God sets them in order by giving them shape. They are then set in a rotation. God sets the world soul in rotation as well, and the universe is under way.
The Judeo-Christian concept of the eternal nature of matter cannot be segregated from an argument for or against creatio ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing. Prior to the hellenization of Jewry there is no direct discussion of this concept, but we begin to be introduced to the idea in various extrabiblical Jewish writings from shortly after the time of Christ. Jewish leaders in the third and fourth centuries AD were relatively split on the matter, but as Gerhard May points out, “A firm, unambiguously formulated doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not worked out in ancient Jewry.”
The New Testament offers few clues in either direction concerning the nature of creation, outside of some forced exegesis, but the early Fathers offer some interesting ideas. Some of the earliest Fathers, the Apologists, make a case against creatio ex nihilo. Justin Martyr claims he bases his arguments on Genesis and says Plato must have done the same. Martyr’s arguments, however, can be shown to be so dependent upon Platonism as to render his opinion moot. Most of the Fathers who espoused the doctrine of creatio ex materia did so in Platonic contexts.
One of the only Fathers who was definitely not influenced by Greek philosophy was the first-century Clement of Rome, who, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, shares in the apologist conclusion of creatio ex materia. First Clement predates the onset of the Greek influence in Christian theology. His ideas, while not ultimately canon, are definitely an accurate representation of the doctrines widely accepted by the membership of the Church immediately following the Apostolic Age. The doctrine of eternal matter in Clement’s first epistle operated within Christianity independent of classical philosophy.
As the second century waned, the early Christians began a period of offensive actions against the doctrines considered to be corrupt, and creatio ex materia fell under the axe. Many Fathers subscribed to this doctrine, but their Platonic tendencies create significant problems for their theology. The fact remains, however, that the doctrine was not originally born of Platonic influences, as is often asserted.
The early Christian doctrine of deification was mentioned in passing rather than being the focal point of the early Church. The main concern of the early Fathers was how the chasm between God and humanity was overcome, rather than the nature of our existence after that chasm was bridged. In their expositions, however, casual mention is made of the idea of the deification of humans. This “deification” is so classified even though it is really more of a pseudo-deification. The early Fathers believed humanity’s potential godhood was only passive participation in the glory of God. We are told by Justin Martyr through to Athanasius that God became human so that humans may become like God, but this soteriology takes special care to avoid breaching the highest priority of early Christianity: strict monotheism. Above all, they avoid intimating that anyone could ever become truly divine. Their entire deification is manipulated from this first criterion. We will here examine only the outcome of that process.
Their deification finds its dawn in the divine Logos, who descended to humanity so that the connection between the divine and the material could be forged. Only in this connection do we inherit the classification of deity, albeit honorary. Jordan Vajda, in his thesis, makes it clear that humankind enjoys deification wholly inferior to the nature of Christ and the Father’s deity. He quotes Vladimr Lossky: “Like the divine Person of the Word who assumed human nature, human persons in whom union with God is being accomplished ought to unite in themselves the created and the uncreated, to become, so to speak, persons of two natures, with this difference, that Christ is a divine Person while deified men are and always will remain created persons.”Vajda further states: “Clearly, then, human persons become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ in a way that is existentially different from the way Christ is divine. . . . What Christ is by nature, divine, we are called to be by grace or participation.” That a created being could be elevated to an equal station with an eternal being was ludicrous. Participatory deification was as close as humanity could get, but it was not real deification. Although Irenaeus comments that Christ became like humankind so that humankind might “be even what He is Himself,” the statement is qualified by the earlier mention that human partaking of the divine essence is manifested only in the “continuance in immortality.”“The human being does not become God by nature, but merely a ‘created god,’ a god by grace or by status,” according to Timothy Ware.
As the Fathers asserted, humanity’s created state is to blame for their eternally impotent nature. While Christ is dual in nature—having an eternal spirit and a mortal body—the human spirit and body are only two sides to a single, composite nature that is finite. In this definition, humanity is again separated from God by the eternities. Some may optimistically think they found a link between God and man in the various early Christian allusions to humanity working to return to a former state. However, these statements refer not to the individual natures of humans, but to that of the human family (that is, Adam’s communion with God).
The early Christian doctrine of deification marks a departure from most of the philosophical speculation of the day but is ultimately dependent on several philosophical definitions. These definitions illustrate the separation from true doctrine and explain why early Christian deification is so far removed from the eternal progression taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith.
The main departure from truth is the vehement maintenance of strict monotheism. Without this artificial restriction, the thought of humanity elevated to godhood is in no way out of harmony with traditional Christianity. There is no need to twist or ignore the scriptures which make it clear that our purpose here is to become like God and Jesus Christ; there is no need to demean the human soul and make it composite and created.
Considerations need to be made to find the source for the monotheistic dogma, and the scriptures do not seem to be the best prospect. Throughout the Bible we read of the existence of various beings clad in the title of god. Some try to dilute the nomenclature by asserting that the Hebrew word god can also mean “judges” or “heavenly beings,” but Christ provides, in John 10:34, a Greek translation of the Hebrew, and of the Greek there can be no mistake. It is undeniable that the scriptures at least nominally preach of a plurality of gods.
These gods may find distinction in the hierarchy of their power, but pantheism is also a violation of monotheism. That classification does not help, so where does this restriction come from? In much of Greek thought, god is the title given to the superlative ideal. Plato’s god is understood to be the good. Anaximander calls his god the boundless, and out of it everything flows.  Pythagoras says it is the one, and it is the cause of everything else.  To Aristotle it is the “prime mover.” Of any superlative there can be, by definition, only one. Xenophanes makes this clear: “If God is the mightiest, He must be One; for were He two or more, He would not have dominion over the others, but, not having dominion over the others, He could not be God. Thus were there several, they would be relatively more powerful or weaker, and thus they would not be gods, for God’s nature is to have nothing mightier than He.” Because many Fathers quote Xenophanes verbatim in their descriptions of God (that is, incorporeal, without parts, all seeing, and so forth), it is a clear indication that his words held influence over the development of doctrine. That Christianity adopted a more Greek vernacular in an effort to better relate to the civilized world is clear and blameless, but the assimilation seems to have gone much further than mere words. The strict monotheism of the classical Greeks became the criterion within which Christian theology would be forced to function, and the deification described above is one of the products of this restriction.
While the polished deification of Athanasius is clearly a product of Hellenism, we cannot ignore that a segment of Judaism gave Christianity a version of deification very similar to the Latter-day Saint perception. The following Midrash is reported by Dr. Barry Bickmore in his FARMS review of Inside Mormonism: “The Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future call all of the pious by their names, and give them a cup of elixir of life in their hands so that they should live and endure forever. . . . And the Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future reveal to all the pious in the World to Come the Ineffable Name with which new heavens and a new earth can be created, so that all of them should be able to create new worlds. . . . The Holy One, blessed be He, will give every pious three hundred and forty worlds in inheritance in the World to Come.”
While Dr. Bickmore feels that “Latter-day Saints can make a strong argument for the proposition that the original Judeo-Christian concept of deification was very similar to ours,” he does offer the warning that one need be careful when choosing proof texts. The early Church’s principles of deification may have stemmed from true doctrine, but its Greek adaptation was almost immediate. It may have come from doctrinal expositions not contained in the New Testament, and our understanding may be a full restoration of what was once commonly known. However, from its earliest surviving extrabiblical Christian intimations, deification was among those doctrines fallen prey to the wresting of the scriptures.
Joseph Smith’s Soteriology
As the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith became more public and more bold, his doctrines severely deviated from the accepted norms. He taught many ideas utterly foreign to the day’s religionists, but the test of time has shown that his teachings accurately correspond to ancient Near Eastern theology. Yale’s Harold Bloom has difficulty explaining it: “I can only attribute to his genius or daemon his uncanny recovery of elements in ancient Jewish theurgy that had ceased to be available to normative Judaism or to Christianity, and that had survived only in esoteric traditions unlikely to have touched Smith directly.”
The three doctrines we have thus far investigated were individually important to the theologians of the early Church, but in Latter-day Saint soteriology the three doctrines provide us with the greatest blessing of the gospel and the very work and glory of our Father in Heaven. They are each critical to our eternal progression. We will examine their uniqueness and import one by one.
The beginning of our investigation focuses on the premortal human spirit. This was, for Joseph Smith, an utterly fundamental truth and inseparably linked to our salvation. When referencing the doctrine in his King Follett Discourse, he mentions that the principle is “calculated to exalt man.” To insist that humans are suddenly created beings (as the early Fathers did and most theologians still do) is to demean them and distance them from God, according to the Prophet. The Prophet’s teachings on the subject are opposite of those of early Christians in almost every way. To contrast the magnificence of God against our nothingness, the Fathers highlighted and extended the gulf between us; Joseph Smith drew us closer to God without bringing Him down. This brings our relationship with God into the forefront of our theology. Rather than disintegrate the relationship, we fortify it. This relationship, according to the Prophet, allows us to advance in knowledge, putting the only barriers that separate us from God within the capacity of the Atonement to overcome.
Joseph Smith’s doctrine of the premortal existence is not Platonic. Plato saw the soul move from being to being, progressing or retrograding according to its capacity to transcend the corruption of the flesh. While some may find an ascetic correlation in our fasting and our Word of Wisdom, our discipline in the matter is designed to edify both body and spirit, rather than leave one behind in the interest of the other. Joseph Smith taught that a fullness of joy is found only in an inseparable connection of body and spirit (see D&C 93:33–34).
The next principle to be inspected is found alongside nearly every mention of spirit in Joseph Smith’s writings: the eternal nature of matter. While we do not have a comprehensive treatise on early Christianity’s independent perception of this teaching, we do have several references from the philosophers, and to these we can compare the teachings of the Prophet. Some find the idea of eternal matter purely Platonic in nature, but again, Joseph Smith taught a perspective completely opposite from the Greek. That Joseph Smith taught that creation came from chaotic matter is true, but he adds a qualification which separates his doctrine from the Greek: glory dwells in matter. Ultimately, the trump card in Joseph’s deck is the supernal truth that all spirit is matter. While others pondered the dualities of God and man, Joseph boldly announced that the spirit is simply a far more pure manifestation of our very own bodily constitution. He was neither influenced by the Fathers nor the philosophers.
With our spirits now thrust into the realms of eternity and our bodies elevated to receptacles of glory, we may proceed to the culmination of gospel truth: eternal progression. Joseph Smith’s ideas about deification represent the inevitable conclusion of the doctrines already presented. The Fathers, on the other hand, were inhibited by their diluted doctrine. Elder Dallin H. Oaks has said that the prevalent doctrines of early Christianity undermined God’s plan for their adherents. Whereas Irenaeus and Athanasius had to deprive their doctrine of deification to fit into the rigid requirements their speculation had produced, Joseph Smith was free to express the truths as he received them, without worrying about retrofitting them to his earlier conclusions, and he did so without concern for the impression it would make.
The scriptures painted a crystal clear picture for Joseph Smith. The end of all creation is to elevate man to the station of godhood, in every way, shape, and form. We are not arbitrarily created whenever a birth takes place, suddenly responsible for our actions without ever choosing to be. We are part of a great plan that has many names: the plan of happiness, the plan of salvation, the plan of redemption, the plan of mercy, the plan of our Father in Heaven (see Alma 42:5–16 ). We are willing participants in a plan that so filled us with hope that we shouted for joy (see Job 38:7).
While on the surface some may see specific early Christian doctrines as supportive of the ancient origins of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, others see it as a testimony of the human origin of the Church. An objective look at the causative factors of these doctrines clears up the errors in both conclusions.
As has been shown, the doctrines of the early Fathers share only nominal similarities with the doctrines of the Prophet Joseph Smith. While we should not hold up the Gnostic idea of the premortal existence as an example of a proto-Mormon doctrine, we should recognize that some of these ideas did come from somewhere: early Christianity initially believed in creatio ex materia because the scriptures taught it. We cannot say for sure whether other ideas, like baptism for the dead, were the empty husks of pure teachings. It has been proposed that the Apostles kept hidden several principles from the body of the flock, but these ideas also come from apocryphal literature. The Lord has cautioned us to be wary in studying these scriptures (see D&C 91). Scholars have done the same. Salvation, in the end, is not about discovering the hidden mysteries of God in the obscure texts of the ancient world, it is about an active relationship with a God who communicates directly with us.
 Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, “Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?” Trinity Journal 19, no. 2 (1998): 179–205, state that one reason is the desire to validate the doctrine of the great apostasy; Chris Welborn, “Mormons and Patristic Studies: How Mormons Use the Church Fathers to Defend Mormonism,” Christian Research Journal 28, no. 3 (2005), n.p.; http://www.equip.org (accessed June 27, 2007), states that vindication is the one and only motivation for patristic studies among Mormons: “Mormons have studied patristic writers increasingly since the middle of the twentieth century so as to use them to justify their church’s claim to be the true church.”
 Stephen E. Robinson, “Lying for God: The Uses of the Apocrypha,” in Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints, ed. C. Wilfred Griggs (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1986), 135. Professor Judd, writing about the Gospel of Judas, comments that such texts caution us to search for truth in the standard works and in the living prophets, and not in noncanonical works (see Frank F. Judd Jr., “Judas in the New Testament, the Restoration, and the Gospel of Judas,” BYU Studies 45, no. 2 : 43).
 See Francis J. Beckwith, “Mormon Theism, the Traditional Christian Concept of God, and Greek Philosophy: A Critical Analysis,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44, no. 4 (2001): 693. Beckwith states that Joseph Smith restored aspects of Greek philosophical perceptions of God rather than ancient Christian concepts.
 See Robert P. Casey, “Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Platonism,” Harvard Theological Review 18, no. 1 (January 1925): 45. See also Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 33.
 See Alexander Alexakis, “Was There Life Beyond the Life Beyond? Byzantine Ideas on Reincarnation and Final Restoration,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 55 (2001): 162–63.
 See Alexakis, “Byzantine Ideas on Reincarnation,” 163–64.
 See Plato, “Phaedo,” in Plato: Euthyphro, Crito, Apology, Phaedo, Phaedrus, trans. H. N. Fowler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 363–65.
 See Origen, “On First Principles,” in The Anti-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 525, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), 4:365.
 Origen, “On First Principles,” in The Anti-Nicene Fathers, 4:290.
 See Joseph Wilson Trigg, Origen (New York: Routledge, 1998), 21.
 See Plato, “Timaeus” in Plato: Timaeus, Critias, Cleitophon, Menexenus, Epsitles, trans. R. G. Bury (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 59–65.
 Gerhard May, Creatio ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of “Creation Out of Nothing” in Early Christian Thought, trans. A. S. Worrall (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 23.
 See Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” in The Anti-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), 1:182. Greek philosophy held that creatio ex nihilo was a physical impossibility, and thus they believed in the dualistic existence of God and matter. Creatio ex nihilo is thought to be a polemical novelty meant primarily to oppose Greek doctrines. For further reading, see James Hubler, “Creatio Ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy through Aquinas” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1995). For arguments in favor of creatio ex nihilo, see Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, Creation Out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004).
 See Maren R. Niehoff, “Creatio ex Nihilo Theology in Genesis Rabbah in Light of Christian Exegesis,” Harvard Theological Review 99, no. 1 (2006): 50.
 See Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” in Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Maxwell Stamforth (England: Penguin Books, 1987), 48.
 See Andrew Gregory, “I Clement: An Introduction,” Expository Times 117, no. 6 (2006): 223–24.
 See Jordan Vajda, “Partakers of the Divine Nature”: A Comparative Analysis of Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 15.
 Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), 65.
 Vajda, “Partakers of the Divine Nature,” 15.
 Iranaeus, “Against Heresies,” in The Anti-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman, 1956), 1:526.
 Iranaeus, “Against Heresies,” in The Anti-Nicene Fathers, 1:521.
 Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: New Edition (New York: Penguin, 1993), 232.
 See Vajda, “Partakers of the Divine Nature,” 10.
 See Plato, “Republic,” in The Republic: Books I–V, trans. Paul Shorey (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 284–85.
 See David John Furley, The Greek Cosmologists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 19.
 See Arthur Fairbanks, ed. and trans., The First Philosophers of Greece (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1898), 145.
 Aristotle, “Metaphysics,” in Aristotle: Metaphysics, volume 18, books 10–14, Œconomica & Magna Moralia, trans. Hugh Tredennick (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 161–63.
 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy, trans. E. S. Haldane (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1896), 1:244.
 See “The Westminster Confession of Faith,” in John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine From the Bible to the Present (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1982), 197.
 Midrash Alpha Beta diR. Akiba, BhM 3:32, quoted in Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), 251.
 Barry R. Bickmore, “A Passion for Faultfindings: The Deconversion of a Former Catholic Priest,” FARMS Review 13, no. 2 (2001): 245.
 Harold Bloom, The American Religion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 101.
 Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (American Fork, UT: Covenant, 2002), 365.
 Smith, Teachings, 367.
 Smith, Teachings, 364.
 Smith, Teachings, 311.
 See Dallin H. Oaks, in Conference Report, April 1995, 112–14.
 See Clement of Rome, “Clementine Recognitions,” in Patrologiae Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne (Paris: J. P. Migne, 1857–66), 1:1236.