A Response to Margaret Barker (Part Four, et Finis)

A Response to Margaret Barker (Part Four, et Finis) August 14, 2018


Sun, clouds, and sky
Not directly relevant, but very beautiful. (Wikimedia Commons)


The final portion of the response that I gave to a paper by Dr. Margaret Barker, which she presented in the Varsity Theater on the campus of Brigham Young University on 9 November 2016:


Finally, I wanted to allude just briefly to one area where I think the Latter-day Saints take to the idea of deification in a very special way.   It’s reflected, in the New Testament, in Paul’s address to the Athenians on Mars Hill. He faces a really interesting challenge there, because he’s not able to cite scripture.  Using proof texts from the Bible while speaking to a group of pagans atop Mars Hill near the Acropolis in Athens would have been rather pointless; they didn’t know anything, or care anything, about the Bible.  And so he appeals to them using a different approach, and one of the passages from his speech is of extreme interest to me. This is where, in Acts 17:28-29, he quotes a couple of pagan poets to his pagan audience there. Paul is well-educated; he knows pagan literature as well as the Bible.  So, he says, speaking of God, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.”  Now, one of the interesting things about this passage is that he’s not citing a Christian poem or even a Jewish poem.  He’s quoting a pagan Greek poem by Aratus of Cilicia, a third-century BC writer who’s referring to Zeus.  Paul is assimilating the God of Christianity to Zeus and saying, I’m going to quote this passage because it’s true, just as your poet said, that we are God’s offspring.

Now, the Greek word that’s translated as offspring there is quite interesting to me.  It’s genos.  Genos is closely (and obviously) related to the Latin word genus.  But it’s also, interestingly enough, related to our word kind and, perhaps more significantly, to our word kin.  Aratus and, therefore, Paul—who quotes Aratus with obvious approval and as an authority—are saying that we are in some sense akin to God. And that’s one of the reasons why he then goes on to say to the pagan Athenians that they shouldn’t be worshipping stone or wood or anything like that; it’s beneath you to do that, he says, because you are God’s offspring, and stone and wood are lower than you are.  So you should worship a God worthy of you, worthy of the description God.  And one of the ways he makes that point to them is by saying that they are akin to God.

That’s one of the reasons why, it seems to me, theosis is something that humans can possibly attain.  Because we are of the right kind. I won’t go into it here this afternoon, but that’s a fundamental ideal of Neoplatonic philosophy, which becomes very influential in Islamic thought and across much of the Mediterranean world—that we are emanations from God and that, because of that, we are in some sense related to God. Therefore, it’s possible in a sense—the different schemes for accomplishing it vary from Plotinus to Proclus and Iamblichus and others in the Neoplatonic tradition—to climb back up to God because we are of that nature and because that is where we came from: We come from God and, if we navigate things successfully in this mortal life, in the many tests we have to undergo, we return to God.

This idea of theosis or human deification, divinization, is an extraordinarily rich one.  I used to think that we Latter-day Saints stood sort of alone in thinking about it and believing in it.  But that was ignorant error on my part, because it’s all over the place—in Islam, in Judaism, in Christianity, and well beyond them, in pagan thought and in other faiths and traditions around the world. It’s a fascinating theme.


A video recording of Dr. Barker’s presentation that also includes Dr. David Larsen’s response as well as mine is accessible at no charge on the Interpreter Foundation’s website:


Video of Margaret Barker’s Speech, “Theosis & Divinization,” Now Available


I subsequently published an extended discussion on Social Trinitarianism in my “Notes on Mormonism and the Trinity,” in Paul Y. Hoskisson and Daniel C. Peterson, eds., “To Seek the Law of the Lord”: Essays in Honor of John W. Welch (Orem, UT: The Interpreter Foundation, 2017.


Posted from Park City, Utah



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