"'Ye Are Gods' Orthodox and Heretical Views on...
Written by: Bowman, Robert M. Jr. Posted on: 05/05/2003
Category: Cults / Sects / Non Christian Religions and Topics
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"'Ye Are Gods?' Orthodox and Heretical Views on the Deification of
Man" (an article from the Christian Research Journal, Winter/Spring
1987, page 18) by Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot
Is the belief that men were created to be "gods," either in
this life or in some future exaltation, a Christian teaching? Is it
in any sense Christian to speak of the "deification" of man -- to
say that God created or redeemed man in order to become deity? What
do various religious groups who use such language today mean? Are
they all saying the same thing? Are all who use such terminology
heretics? If not, how do we tell the difference? All of these
questions will be addressed in this article.
*DIFFERENT IDEAS OF DEIFICATION*
The first step in answering these interrelated questions is to
recognize that talk about men being gods cannot be isolated from
basic world views, or conceptions of the world and its relation to
God. Norman Geisler and William Watkins have pointed out that there
are seven basic world views: _atheism_ (no God), _polytheism_ (many
gods), _pantheism_ (God is all), _panentheism_ (God is in all),
_finite godism_ (a finite god made the world), _deism_ (a God who
does not do miracles created the world), and theism, or
_monotheism_ (a God who does miracles created the world), which is
the biblical view (and is held by orthodox Jews and Muslims as well
as Christians). Not all doctrines can be neatly categorized into
one of these seven world views, since some people do hold to
combinations of two views; but such positions are inherently
inconsistent, and usually one world view is dominant.
In this article our concern will be with doctrines of
deification which claim to be strictly Christian. (This means that
we will not discuss, for example, New Age concepts of deification.)
Varieties of such "Christian" views on deification can be found
among adherents of monotheism, polytheism, and panentheism.
It may surprise some to learn that a monotheistic doctrine of
deification was taught by many of the church fathers, and is
believed by many Christians today, including the entire Eastern
Orthodox church. In keeping with _mono_theism, the Eastern orthodox
do not teach that men will literally become "gods" (which would be
polytheism). Rather, as did many of the church fathers, they
teach that men are "deified" in the sense that the Holy Spirit
dwells within Christian believers and transforms them into the
image of God in Christ, eventually endowing them in the
resurrection with immortality and God's perfect moral character.
It may be objected that to classify as monotheistic any
doctrine which refers to men in some positive sense as "gods" is
self-contradictory; and strictly speaking such an objection is
valid. Indeed, later in this study it shall be argued that such
terminology is not biblical. However, the point here is that
however inconsistent and confusing the _language_ that is used (and
it _is_ inconsistent), the _substance_ of what the Eastern Orthodox
are seeking to express when they speak of deification is actually
faithful to the monotheistic world view. The language used is
polytheistic, and in the light of Scripture should be rejected; but
the doctrine intended by this language in the context of the
teachings of the fathers and of Eastern Orthodoxy is quite
biblical, and is thus not actually polytheistic.
Thus, it should not be argued that _anyone_ who speaks of
"deification" necessarily holds to a heretical view of man. Such a
sweeping judgment would condemn many of the early church's greatest
theologians (e.g., Athanasius, Augustine), as well as one of the
three main branches of historic orthodox Christianity in existence
today. On the other hand, some doctrines of deification are most
certainly heretical, because they are unbiblical in substance as
well as in terminology.
Two examples of polytheistic doctrines of deification are the
teachings of Mormonism and Armstrongism, although adherents of
these religions generally do not admit to being polytheists.
The Mormons are very explicit in their "scriptures" that there
are many Gods; for example, the three persons of the Trinity are
regarded as three "Gods." Since they believe that many Gods
exist but at present worship only one -- God the Father -- at least
one Mormon scholar has admitted with qualifications that their
doctrine could be termed "henotheistic." Henotheism is a variety
of polytheism in which there are many gods, but only one which
should be worshipped. Thus, the meaning of deification in Mormonism
is radically different than that of the church fathers who used
similar terms, despite Mormon arguments to the contrary.
The Worldwide Church of God of Herbert W. Armstrong (who died
early in 1986) claims to believe in only one God. However,
Armstrongism defines "God" as a collective term (like "church" or
"family") referring to a family of distinct beings all having the
same essential nature. Presently this "God family" consists of two
members, God the Father and Christ, but it is their plan to
reproduce themselves in human beings and so add millions or even
billions to the God family. Therefore, by the normal use of
words on which our categorizations are based, Armstrong's world
view is also polytheistic.
An important example of a panentheistic doctrine of deification
within professing Christianity is Union Life, founded by Norman
Grubb, who at one time was a respected evangelical leader. In 1980
_Cornerstone,_ an evangelical magazine, ran an article arguing that
Union Life was teaching pantheism or panentheism. Union Life has
attempted to argue that panentheism, unlike pantheism, is not
heretical (despite Grubb's admission that he does not know the
definition of pantheism!). However, neither pantheism nor
panentheism separates the creation from the essential nature of the
Creator, though panentheism does posit a differentiation in which
the creation is the expression of the Creator. The heretical nature
of Union Life is made evident by such statements as, "there is only
One Person in the universe," "everything is God on a certain level
of manifestation," and "_Nothing but God exists!_" Therefore,
Union Life's claim to following the tradition of the church
fathers is no more valid than that of the Mormons.
*Positive Confession: Monotheistic or Polytheistic?*
Not all views of the deification of man are easily
classifiable. Perhaps the most difficult doctrine of deification to
categorize into one of the seven basic world views is that of the
"positive confession" or "faith" teachers, including Kenneth
Copeland, Kenneth Hagin, Frederick K.C. Price, Charles Capps, Casey
Treat, and many others.
In brief, the "faith" teaching maintains that God created man
in "God's class," as "little gods," with the potential to exercise
the "God kind of faith" in calling things into existence and living
in prosperity and success as sovereign beings. We lost this
opportunity by rebelling against God and receiving Satan's nature.
To correct this situation, Christ became a man, died spiritually
(receiving Satan's nature), went to Hell, was "born again," rose
from the dead with God's nature, and then sent the Holy Spirit so
that the Incarnation could be duplicated in believers, thus
fulfilling their calling to be little gods. Since we are called to
experience this kind of life now, we should experience success in
everything we do, including health and financial prosperity.
Some aspects of this teaching have been documented and compared
with Scripture in articles published in previous issues of this
journal. Regarding the claim that men are "little gods," there
is no question (as shall be demonstrated shortly) that the language
used is unbiblical, but are the ideas being conveyed contrary to
Scripture as well? Specifically, is the world view of the "faith"
teaching monotheistic or polytheistic?
A simple answer to this question is somewhat elusive. The
positive confession teachers have made statements that seem
polytheistic, and yet often in the same paragraph contradict
themselves by asserting the truth of monotheism. At least two
positive confession teachers, Frederick K.C. Price and Casey Treat,
have admitted that men are not literally gods and have promised not
to use this terminology again. In many cases, the dominant
world view appears to be monotheism, with their teachings tending
at times toward a polytheistic world view. It seems best, then, to
regard the "faith" teaching as neither soundly monotheistic nor
fully polytheistic, but instead as a confused mixture of both world
This means that the "faith" teaching of deification cannot be
regarded as orthodox. Their concept of deification teaches that man
has a "sovereign will" comparable to God's, and that man can
therefore exercise the "God kind of faith" and command things to be
whatever he chooses. At least one "faith" teacher, Kenneth
Copeland, seems to regard God as finite, since he says, speaking of
Adam, "His body and God were exactly the same size." Again, it
is the context in which the doctrine appears that determines
whether the teaching is orthodox or heretical. In this case, there
seems to be significant evidence to show that some, at least, of
the "faith" teachers have a heretical view of God, as well as a
heretical view of the nature of the believer. Nevertheless, there
also appears to be evidence that not all of the "faith" teachers
are heretical in the same sense as, say, Mormonism or Armstrongism.
At this point we will turn to the biblical teaching relating to
this subject to see whether the Bible teaches deification at all.
*THE BIBLICAL TEACHING*
All of the various doctrines of deification discussed above
appeal to the same passages of Scripture and the same biblical
themes to validate their teaching. Besides the passages where men
are called "gods" or "sons of God," there are the biblical themes
concerning men in the image of God; the close relationship between
Christ and Christians; and the statement in 2 Peter 1:4 that
Christians are "partakers of the divine nature." In this article we
shall discuss briefly each of these texts and themes.
*Are Men Called "Gods" in Scripture?*
The Bible in both Old and New Testaments explicitly and
repeatedly affirms that there is only one God (e.g.,Deut. 4:35-39;
Isa. 43:10; 44:6-8; 1 Cor. 8:4-6; 1 Tim. 2:5; James 2:19).
Therefore, the Bible most definitely rejects any sort of
polytheism, including henotheism.
The Scriptures also very clearly teach that God is an
absolutely unique being who is distinct from the world as its
Creator (e.g.,Gen. 1:1; John 1:3; Rom. 1:25; Heb. 11:3). This
teaching rules out pantheism and panentheism, according to which
the world is either identical to God or an essential aspect of God.
Since He is eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient, God
is totally unique, so that there is none even like God (e.g.,Ps.
102:25-27; Isa. 40-46; Acts 17:24-28). The Bible, then,
unmistakably teaches a monotheistic world view.
In the face of so many explicit statements that there is only
one God, and in light of His uniqueness, it may seem surprising
that anyone would claim that the Bible teaches that men are gods.
However, there are a few passages in Scripture which seem to call
men "god" or "gods." Most or all of these, however, are irrelevant
to any doctrine of deification. In practice, the question of
whether the Bible ever calls men "gods" in a positive sense focuses
exclusively on Psalm 82:6 ("I said, 'you are gods'") and its
citation by Jesus in John 10:34-35.
The usual view among biblical expositors for centuries is that
Psalm 82 refers to Israelite judges by virtue of their position as
judges representing God; it is, therefore, a figurative usage which
applies only to those judges and does not apply to men or even
believers in general. If this interpretation is correct, Psalm 82:6
is also irrelevant to any doctrine of Christian deification.
An alternative interpretation agrees that the "gods" are
Israelite judges, but sees the use of the term "gods" as an ironic
figure of speech. Irony is a rhetorical device in which something
is said to be the case in such a way as to make the assertion seem
ridiculous (compare Paul's ironic "you have become kings" in 1
Corinthians 4:8, where Paul's point is that they had _not_ become
kings). According to this interpretation, the parallel description
of the "gods" as "sons of the Most High" (which, it is argued, is
not in keeping with the Old Testament use of the term "sons" of
God), the condemnation of the judges for their wicked judgment, and
especially the statement, "Nevertheless, you will die as men," all
point to the conclusion that the judges are called "gods" in irony.
If the former interpretation is correct, then in John 10:34-35
Jesus would be understood to mean that if God called wicked judges
"gods" how much more appropriate is it for Him, Jesus, to be called
God, or even the Son of God. If the ironic interpretation of Psalm
82:6 is correct, then in John 10:34-35 Jesus' point would still be
basically the same. It is also possible that Jesus was implying
that the Old Testament application of the term "gods" to wicked
judges was fulfilled (taking "not to be broken" to mean "not to be
unfulfilled," cf. John 7:23) in Himself as the true Judge (cf. John
5:22,27-30; 9:39). Those wicked men were, then, at best called
"gods" and "sons of the Most High" in a special and figurative
sense; and at worst they were pseudo-gods and pseudo-sons of God.
Jesus, on the other hand, is truly God (cf. John 1:1,18; 20:28; 1
John 5:20) and the unique Son of God (John 10:36; 20:31; etc.)
Neither the representative nor the ironic interpretation of
Psalm 82 allows it (or John 10:34-35) to be understood to teach
that men were created or redeemed to be gods. Nor is there any
other legitimate interpretation which would allow for such a
conclusion. The Israelite judges were wicked men condemned to death
by the true God, and therefore were not by any definition of
deification candidates for godhood.
If, then, the deification of man is to be found in Scripture,
it will have to be on the basis of other biblical texts or themes,
as Scripture gives men the title of "gods" only in a figurative or
*The Image of God: An Exact Duplicate?*
One biblical teaching upon which great emphasis is usually laid
by those who teach some form of the deification of man is the
doctrine of man as created and redeemed in the image of God. Of the
many examples that could be given, two will have to suffice. Casey
Treat's claim that man is an "exact duplicate" of God is based on
his understanding of the meaning of "image" in Genesis 1:26-27.
The Mormon apologetic for their doctrine that God is an exalted Man
and that men can also become Gods typically appeals to the image of
God in man, and to the parallel passage in Genesis 5:1-3 where Adam
is said to have begotten Seth "in his own likeness, after his own
image" (Genesis 5:1-3).
These claims raise two questions. Does the creation of man in
the image of God imply that God Himself is an exalted man (as in
Mormonism), or perhaps a spirit with the physical form or shape of
a man (as in Armstrongism)? And does the image of God in man imply
that men may become "gods"? There are several reasons why such
conclusions are incorrect.
First, there are the biblical statements which say that God is
not a man (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Hos.11:9). Second, there is
the biblical teaching on the attributes of God already mentioned,
according to which God obviously cannot now or ever have been a man
(except in the sense that the second person of the triune God
became a man by taking upon Himself a second nature different from
the nature of deity). Third, in the context of Genesis 1:26-27 and
5:1-3 there is one very important difference between the
relationship between God and Adam on the one hand and Adam and Seth
on the other hand: Adam was _created_ or _made_ by God, while Seth
was _begotten_ by Adam. To create or make something in the image or
likeness of someone means to make something of a _different_ kind
that nevertheless somehow "pictures" or represents that someone
(cf. Luke 20:24-25). It is therefore a mistake to reason backwards
from the creation of man in God's image to deduce the nature of
God. Genesis 1:26-27 is telling us something about man, not about
Besides the passages in Genesis (see also 9:6), the Old
Testament says nothing else about the image of God. The New
Testament teaches that man is still in God's image (1 Cor. 11:7;
James 3:9), but also says that, in some unique sense, Christ is the
image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). Christians are by virtue of
their union with Christ being conformed to the image of God and of
Christ resulting finally (after this life) in glorification (2 Cor.
3:18; Rom. 8:29-30), which includes moral perfection (Eph. 4:24;
Col. 3:10) and an immortal physical body like Christ's (1 Cor.
15:49; cf. Phil. 3:21).
Orthodox biblical theologians and scholars do have some
differences of opinion as to how best to define and explain what
these passages mean by the "image of God." However, these
differences are relatively minor, and do not obscure the basic
truth of the image, which is that man was created as a physical
representation (_not_ a physical _reproduction_ or "exact
duplicate") of God in the world. As such, he was meant to live
forever, to know God personally, to reflect His moral character --
His love -- through human relationships, and to exercise dominion
over the rest of the living creatures on the earth (Gen. 1:28-30;
cf. Ps. 8:5-8).
From the biblical teaching on the image of God, then, there is
nothing which would warrant the conclusion that men are or will
ever be "gods," even "little gods," as the "faith" teachers often
*Sons of God: Like Begets Like?*
Although men are never called "gods" in an affirmative sense in
Scripture, believers in Christ are called "sons" or "children" of
God (John 1:12; Rom. 8:14-23; Gal. 4:5-7; 1 John 3:1-2; etc.).
Based on the assumption that sons are of the same nature as their
father, some conclude that since believers are sons of God, they
must also be gods. This reasoning is thought to be confirmed by
those passages in John's writings which speak of believers as being
"begotten" or "born" of God (John 1:13; 3:5-6; 1 John 2:29; 3:9;
As convincing as this argument may seem, it actually goes
beyond the Bible's teaching and is at best erroneous and at worse
heretical. The above Scriptures do not mean that the "sonship" of
believers is a reproduction of God's essence in man for the
1/ In one sense all human beings are God's "offspring" (Acts
17:28), so that even Adam could be called God's "son" (Luke 3:38);
yet this cannot mean that human beings are gods or have the same
nature as God, for the reasons already given in our analysis of the
"image of God".
2/ Paul speaks of our sonship as an "adoption" (Rom. 8:15,23;
Gal. 4:5), which of course suggests that we are not "natural" sons
3/ John, who frequently speaks of Christians as having been
"begotten" by God, also tells us that Jesus Christ is the
"only-begotten" or "unique" Son of God (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1
John 4:9). At the very least, this means that we are _not_ sons of
God in the same sense that Christ is the Son of God, nor will we
ever be. Christ was careful to distinguish between His Sonship and
that of His followers (e.g., John 20:17). For this reason Kenneth
Copeland's assertion that "Jesus is no longer the only begotten Son
of God" must be regarded as false doctrine.
4/ Finally, the New Testament itself always interprets the
spiritual birth which makes believers sons, not as a conversion of
men into gods, but as a renewal in the _moral_ likeness of God,
produced by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and resulting in an
intimate relationship with God as a Father who provides for His
children's needs (Matt. 5:9, 45; 6:8, 10, 32; 7:11,21; Rom.
8:14-17; Gal. 4:6-7; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1-5).
The biblical doctrine that believers in Christ are children of
God is a glorious teaching, to be sure, and what it means we do not
yet fully know (1 John 3:2). But we do know something about what it
means, as well as what it does not mean. It does mean eternal life
with Christ-like holiness and love, in which the full potential of
human beings as the image of God is realized. But it does not mean
that we shall cease to be creatures, or that "human potential" is
infinite, or that men shall be gods.
*Union with Christ: Are Christians Incarnations of God?*
The doctrine that Christians are adopted sons of God is closely
related to the doctrine of the spiritual union between Christ and
Christian believers. This union is expressed both as a union
between Christ and the individual believer and as a union of Christ
and the church. Paul in particular teaches that Christians are "in
Christ" (a phrase which occurs over 160 times in Paul's letters),
"with Christ" in His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension
(Rom. 6:3-8; Eph. 2:5-6), corporately the "body" of Christ (Rom.
12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 1:22-23; 4:12; Col. 1:18), that they
have Christ, or the Spirit of Christ, dwelling within (Rom. 8:9-11;
1 Cor. 3:16; 6:17-20; 2 Cor. 13:5; Eph. 3:16-17), and that Christ
Himself is their "life" (Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:4). On the basis of this
teaching, many have concluded that Christians are in fact either a
corporate extension of the Incarnation (as the church) or
replications of the Incarnation (as individual Christians). Such a
conclusion is often tied to the teaching of some concept of
deification. The question is, does the Bible support such a
As with the doctrine of Christians as the sons of God, such
ideas go far beyond the teaching of Scripture. To say that
believers are "in Christ" means that they are somehow spiritually
united to Christ, not that they _are_ Christ. When Paul says that
we have been crucified, buried, raised, and ascended with Christ,
he is not speaking literally, but means simply that by virtue of
our legal identification and close spiritual relationship with
Christ we benefit by His death and resurrection. The teaching that
the church is the body of Christ is also not to be taken literally,
and should not be pressed to imply that the church is Christ or
even an essential part of Christ. That the relationship between
Christ and the church involves a substantial union without the
church becoming Christ is best seen in the figure of the church as
the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:28-32): the bride is physically united
to her husband, yet they remain distinct. The Spirit indwells the
believer, to be sure, but the believer does not become divine as a
result, any more than the temple under the old covenant became a
part of God simply because His presence filled it (cf. 1 Cor.
3:17). Christ is our life, not in the sense that our individuality
is replaced by His person, but in the sense that we have eternal
and spiritual life through our union with Him.
Finally, the notion that each believer is somehow a duplicate
of the Incarnation deserves a closer look. The rationale for this
view is that an "incarnation" is defined as the indwelling of God
in a human being; and since, we are told, this is as true of the
Christian as it was of Christ, it follows that the Christian, as
Kenneth Hagin puts it, "is as much an incarnation as was Jesus of
Nazareth." The error in this reasoning lies in the definition
of "incarnation." Christ was not merely God dwelling in a human
being, a heresy (known as Nestorianism) the early church condemned
because it meant that the Word did not actually _become_ flesh
(John 1:14) but only joined Himself to a human being. Rather, the
incarnate Christ was one person in whom were perfectly united two
natures, deity and humanity; the Christian is a person with one
nature, human, in whom a separate person, God the Holy Spirit (and
through Him, the Father and the Son as well), dwells.
*Does Partaking of the Divine Nature Make Us Gods?*
In 2 Peter 1:4 we are told that through God's promises
Christians may "become partakers of the divine nature, having
escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust." This text,
even more so than Psalm 82, has suggested to many a doctrine of
deification. And indeed, if by deification one means simply
"partaking of the divine nature," then such "deification" is
unquestionably biblical. The question, then, is what does Peter
mean by "partakers of divine nature"?
Since the word "divine" is used earlier in the same sentence
("His divine power", verse 3), where it _must_ mean "of God,"
"divine nature" must mean God's nature. The word "nature," however,
should not be understood to mean "essence." Rather, as the context
makes evident, Peter is speaking of God's moral nature or
character. Thus Christians are by partaking of the divine nature to
escape the corruption that is in the world because of sinful lust,
and are instead to exhibit the moral attributes of Christ (cf.
*DISCERNING ORTHODOX FROM HERETICAL TEACHINGS*
It is not always easy to tell the difference between heretical
and orthodox doctrines. Often people of different religions use the
same or nearly the same words to express widely different ideas.
One of the marks of the "cults," in fact, is the use of Christian
terminology to express non-Christian concepts. This is very
much the case with deification.
How, then, can Christians tell the difference? There are four
essential elements to an orthodox view of the relationship between
God and man, and any doctrine which compromises or denies these
teachings is less than soundly orthodox. These four elements are
monotheism, trinitarianism, incarnationalism, and evangelicalism.
_Monotheism,_ as has already been explained, is the view that
a single, unique, infinite Being (called God) created all other
beings out of nothing, and that this Creator will forever be the
only real, true God. _Trinitarianism_ is the distinctive Christian
revelation of God, according to which the one God exists eternally
as three distinct but inseparable persons, the Father, the Son, and
the Holy Spirit. _Incarnationalism_ is the teaching that the
second person of the Trinity (called the "Word" in John 1:1, 14,
and the "Son" in Matthew 28:19), without ceasing to be God, became
flesh, uniting uniquely in His one undivided person the two natures
of deity and humanity. _Evangelicalism_ is the belief that
salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
With these four criteria of orthodoxy in mind, how do the
various doctrines of deification measure up? The doctrines of the
church fathers, as well as of Eastern Orthodoxy, are, as we have
already indicated, thoroughly orthodox on all four points.
Mormonism and Armstrongism fail on all four counts, and are
therefore heretical. Union Life appears to hold to the Trinity and
salvation by grace, but sets these doctrines in the context of
panentheism; therefore, it too is heretical.
But what shall we say about the "faith" teachers? They do
affirm a monotheistic world view and generally affirm the Trinity
(though there is some evidence of confusion on that score). Some at
least of these teachers consider the Christian to be as much an
incarnation as Jesus, and thus fail the third test. Most speak
unguardedly of man as existing in "God's class," of being the same
"kind" as God, and so forth, even while occasionally making
disclaimers about men never becoming equal to God. Are these
teachers heretics, or are they orthodox?
It may be that a simple black-or-white approach to this
question is inappropriate in some cases. Certainly these teachers
are not to be placed in the same category as Mormonism and
Armstrongism, since the "faith" teachers affirm monotheism and
trinitarianism. Yet too many statements have been made by these
teachers which can only be called heretical, though it may be that
such statements are due to carelessness or hyperbole and not actual
heretical belief. It is to be hope that the "faith" teachers will
recognize the errors of their unbiblical statements and repent of
them. Until that time, their doctrine of men being "little gods" is
so far from being orthodox that it should not be placed in that
category either. How, then, should we categorize such teachings?
In recent years ministries which specialize in discerning
orthodox from heretical teachings have been using the term
"aberrational" to describe teachings which do not fit ne
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