The Divine Council from Justin Martyr to Augustine

Otherwise entitled: Early Christians and Deification in Psalms 82:1

The Yellow Dart has posted recently on the Divine Council in the Hebrew Bible and Judaism here and here. The most descriptive passage of the divine council is Psalms 82:1 (NRSV). It is worth noting that the LXX translates the Hebrew ‏בַּעֲדַת־אֵל as ἐν συναγωγῇ θεῶν (“congregation of gods” rather than “divine council”). Conservative Christians sometimes interpret this divine council as representing something more in line with the strict monotheism to which they subscribe. This theological interpretation is evident in the NIV, which implies that the verse refers to gods so-called (not real gods) by putting the word in quotation marks. The NASB goes even further to translate the word “gods” as “rulers.”

My contention would not be that they are wrong, but that they disagree with many of the earliest Christians, who not only saw the deities as real (not false gods, idols, or demons, earthly rulers, etc.), but also as the pinnacle of human potential. In other words, the gods in the divine council are ultimately devout Christians having attained godhood and being judged of God,

Justin Martyr cites the 82nd Psalm and then explains that we all have potential to become gods:

… let the interpretation of the Psalm be held just as you wish, yet thereby it is demonstrated that all men are deemed worthy of becoming gods, and of having power to become sons of the Highest; and shall be each by himself judged and condemned like Adam and Eve. (Dialοgue with Trypho 124.2)

Clement of Alexandria expresses a similar view and explains that all who keep the commandments can become the gods referred to in Psalms 82:1:

All these the fear inspired by the law,—leading as a pædagogue to Christ, trained so as to manifest their piety by their blood. “God stood in the congregation of the gods; judgeth in the midst of the gods.” Who are they? Those that are superior to Pleasure, who rise above the passions, who know what they do—the Gnostics, who are greater than the world. “I said, Ye are Gods; and all sons of the Highest.” To whom speaks the Lord? To those who reject as far as possible all that is of man. And the apostle says, “For ye are not any longer in the flesh, but in the Spirit.” And again he says, “Though in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh.” “For flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.” (Stromata 2.20.125)

Origen makes several statements on deification in relation to this Psalm. In his statement against Celsus, Origen points to the divine council as evidence of humanity’s divine potential for theosis:

For we know that there are many creatures more honourable than man; and we have read that “God standeth in the congregation of gods,” but of gods who are not worshipped by the nations, “for all the gods of the nations are idols.” We have read also, that “God, standing in the congregation of the gods, judgeth among the gods.” We know, moreover, that “though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth (as there be gods many and lords many), but to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by Him.” And we know that in this way the angels are superior to men; so that men, when made perfect, become like the angels. “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but the righteous are as the angels in heaven,” and also become “equal to the angels.” We know, too, that in the arrangement of the universe there are certain beings termed “thrones,” and others “dominions,” and others “powers,” and others “principalities;” and we see that we men, who are far inferior to these, may entertain the hope that by a virtuous life, and by acting in all things agreeably to reason, we may rise to a likeness with all these. And, lastly, because “it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like God, and shall see Him as He is.” And if any one were to maintain what is asserted by some (either by those who possess intelligence or who do not, but have misconceived sound reason), that “God exists, and we are next to Him,” I would interpret the word “we,” by using in its stead, “We who act according to reason,” or rather, “We virtuous, who act according to reason.” For, in our opinion, the same virtue belongs to all the blessed, so that the virtue of man and of God is identical. And therefore we are taught to become “perfect,” as our Father in heaven is perfect (Contra Celsum 4.29)

There are several interesting things about Origen’s argument. First, he explains man’s potential to become like angels AND gods, although it is unclear whether he draws a distinction between the two. Second, he teaches that one is deified by living a virtuous life (this is a lot of emphasis placed on works!). First, he clearly does not interpret Paul’s statement about there being many gods and lords (1 Cor. 8:5-6, NRSV) as a reference to idols and false gods, but rather as proof that there exist many actual (non-evil) gods subject to the God of gods. He affirms this again later:

Divine Scripture teaches us that there is “a great Lord above all gods.” And by this name “gods” we are not to understand the objects of heathen worship (for we know that “all the gods of the heathen are demons”), but the gods mentioned by the prophets as forming an assembly, whom God “judges,” and to each of whom He assigns his proper work. For “God standeth in the assembly of the gods: He judgeth among the gods.” For “God is Lord of gods,” who by His Son “hath called the earth from the rising of the sun unto the going down thereof.” We are also commanded to “give thanks to the God of gods.” Moreover, we are taught that “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” Nor are these the only passages to this effect; but there are very many others. (Contra Celsum 8.3)

(For more on Origen, please see David Larsen’s excellent post, The Peculiarly Familiar Doctrines of Origen)

Even Athanasius a whole century later asserts against the Arians that Christ was God even before he was born. Otherwise, how could he have deified gods to stand in his “congregation of gods” who are subject to him?

Since, if when He became man, only then He was called Son and God, but before He became man, God called the ancient people sons, and made Moses a god of Pharaoh (and Scripture says of many, ‘God standeth in the congregation of Gods’), it is plain that He is called Son and God later than they. How then are all things through Him, and He before all? or how is He ‘first-born of the whole creation’ if He has others before Him who are called sons and gods?  And how is it that those first partakers do not partake of the Word? This opinion is not true; it is a device of our present Judaizers. For how in that case can any at all know God as their Father? for adoption there could not be apart from the real Son, who says, ‘No one knoweth the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him’ And how can there be deifying apart from the Word and before Him? (Against the Arians 1.11.39)

To be fair, Athanasius’ view of deification and the divine council is not always consistent with what he writes here. This inconsistency may represent a shift in the theological consensus of Athanasius’ time, since many of his contemporaries, such as Didymus the Blind and Eusebius (though, again, not always consistently), conform to today’s conservative interpretation of Psalms 82:1. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that even Augustine thought that the divine council was made up of heavenly beings who were very much involved in mortals’ lives:

It is very right that these blessed and immortal spirits, who inhabit celestial dwellings, and rejoice in the communications of their Creator’s fullness, firm in His eternity, assured in His truth, holy by His grace, since they compassionately and tenderly regard us miserable mortals, and wish us to become immortal and happy, do not desire us to sacrifice to themselves, but to Him whose sacrifice they know themselves to be in common with us. For we and they together are the one city of God, to which it is said in the psalm, “Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God;” the human part sojourning here below, the angelic aiding from above. For from that heavenly city, in which God’s will is the intelligible and unchangeable law, from that heavenly council-chamber,—for they sit in counsel regarding us,—that holy Scripture, descended to us by the ministry of angels, in which it is written, “He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed,”—this Scripture, this law, these precepts, have been confirmed by such miracles, that it is sufficiently evident to whom these immortal and blessed spirits, who desire us to be like themselves, wish us to sacrifice. (City of God 9.23.7)

At the very least it should be evident that there was a strong opinion in Early Christianity that the “gods” mentioned in the Bible were not demons or idols or false gods, but rather made up a divine council of gods subject to the supreme God, whom mortals ought to worship (acc. to Aug.). However, there also remains a deification concept that weakens in late antiquity. Early commenters on the divine council saw Christians as the gods to be ultimately judged by God. Most striking for Latter-day Saints is that the early church fathers listed here would more closely identify with our interpretation of some of these scriptures than with that of mainstream Christianity. Again, that doesn’t necessarily make mainstream Christianity wrong.🙂

5 Responses

  1. Thanks for the link! You have a great site here with very interesting content. Although the focus of much of my study is on the intertestamental period, I also really enjoy early Christianity/patristics. I look forward to reading more of what you have written.
    Keep up the good work!

    David Larsen

  2. Interesting. Thanks for mentioning your link here. Good research….

  3. Are you familiar with Barry Bickmore’s book, “Joseph Smith and the Restoration of Ancient Christianity”? (I’m just guessing from memory at the title).

    I assume you are. How is his work viewed by yourself and by your peers in your department at BYU? Is it viewed as nothing more than lots of cherry-picking, or is it well received?

    I tend to view it as lots and lots of cherry-picking, though it is certainly is useful in a debate!

    • Although I know of Bickmore’s book, I actually haven’t read it. I know Jeff Lindsay is a big fan, and from what I’ve read on his blog, it sounds like its a cherry-picker. Nevertheless, I feel like cherry-picking gets a bad rap sometimes. It can be a great starting point for some more thorough investigation and can create some good opportunities for discussion.

      This post is a cherry-picker in many ways. Though I’ve tried to preserve as much context as I can, I’ve avoided any kind of conclusive analysis which might make some claims I can’t support. After all, the sources quoted are separated by generations and geography, and besides that, are different people.

      • Well it is a great post you have put together. Cherry-picking is simply what one must do unless you write an exhaustive article, which simply won’t do.

        Thanks for the post and thanks for the blog! I recently discovered your blog and I have had fun poking around in it. Check out Lehi’s Library sometime, although, it leans more toward apologetics.

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