Tracing the source of Stephen E. Robinson’s misquote of Irenaeus
Stephen E. Robinson in his Encyclopedia of Mormonism article “LDS Doctrine Compared With Other Christian Doctrines” quotes the second century writer Irenaeus of Lyons as saying: “If the word became a man, it was so men may become gods.” In the context he claims that Irenaeus here was saying “essentially the same thing” as Lorenzo Snow in his famous couplet:
As man now is, God once was
As God now is, man may become.
Robinson says the Ireneaus quote comes from the preface of the fourth book of that author’s most famous work Against Heresies. Robinson quotes the same statement again in his 1991 book Are Mormons Christians? (p. 60). The same quote again appears in the fifth chapter of the F.A.R.M.S. booklet Latter-day Saints: 10 Basic Issues (p. 26).1 Robinson is one of the authors of this booklet. In the latter two works the Irenaeus reference is said to be from the preface to the fifth book of Against Heresies.
Our problem is that in neither the fourth nor the fifth preface does Irenaeus say anything as explicit as Robinson quotes him as saying. A comparison of the two prefaces reveals that it is the one to book five that Robinson means to refer to. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism article had it wrong. But although we can identify the passage Robinson was referring to, it turns out to be considerably different from the form in which he quoted it:
…the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.
The Latin of the passage reads as follows:
… Verbum Dei, Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum: qui propter immensam suam dilectionem factus est quod sumus nos, uti nos perficeret esse quod est ipse (PG 17.1120)
Notice that this passage is not as pithy as the one Robinson attributes to Irenaeus. Also the term gods is not used in the passage at all. Where then did Robinson come up with his translation? Fortunately we do not have to look very far. Two pages after he “quotes” Irenaeus in Are Mormons Christians?, Robinson includes a lengthy excerpt from Symeon Lash’s entry on Deification in the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology. In it Lash had written (and Robinson quotes him): “The language of II Peter is taken up by Saint Irenaeus, in his famous phrase, `If the Word has been made man, it is so that men may be made gods’ (Adv. Hear. V, Pref.)“ (Adv. Haer. is the abbreviation of the Latin title of Against Heresies). The same entry is also excerpted in the 10 Basic Steps booklet (p. 28). Notice that Robinson’s “quotation” of Irenaeus is almost identical to Lash’s. He mostly just shortens it a little:
Lash: “If the Word has been made man, it is so that men may be made gods”
Robinson: “If the Word became a man, it was so men may become gods.”
Robinson, then, cannot be faulted for anything beyond failing to check a quotation from a secondary source against its original source. He was simply misled by his secondary source.
But this does not put an end to the question. If the quote is not right, where did Lash get it? The answer appears to be that he got it from one of the Orthodox sources listed in the bibliography for his entry, most likely from Vladimir Lossky’s The Vision of God. Lossky writes:2
For `If the word is made man, it is that men might become gods,’ St. Irenaeus says, and his words will be repeated by the Fathers and theologians from age to age.’
This is very close to what Lash has:
Lossky: If the Word is made man, it is that men might become gods”
Lash: If the Word has been made man, it is so that men may be made gods”
Lossky gives as reference for the statement the preface of the fifth book of Against Heresies. Why then does Lossky misquote Irenaeus? The answer seems to be that when he quotes Irenaeus he does so not exactly but in the traditional Orthodox formulation of the phrase. We can see this if we look at how he handles this same statement in some of his other works. In his The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Lossky writes:3
God became man in order that man might become god, to use the words of Irenaeus and Athanasius, echoed by the Fathers and theologians of every age.
Similarly in his book In the Image and Likeness of God Lossky writes:4
“God made Himself man, that man might become God.” These powerful words, which we find for the first time in St. Irenaeus, are again found in the writings of St. Athanasius, St. Gregory of Nazianus, and St. Gregoy of Nyssa.
In the latter two instances Lossky directs his reader to the preface of the fifth book of Against Heresies in the same original language edition I have used above in order to provide the Latin text of the passage.
The significance of Robinson’s misquote of Irenaeus obviously becomes less as we understand its origin. In addition there is not much doctrinal significance to knowing the right reading since Irenaeus uses the language of becoming gods elsewhere in Against Heresies. That having been said, any fair reading of Irenaeus clearly demonstrates that he was certainly not, as Robinson claimed, saying “essentially the same thing” as Lorenzo Snow in his famous couplet. Snow was talking about the Father’s having become God, even though he was a man before. Irenaeus was talking about Son’s having become a man, even though he was God before. In the book The New Mormon Challenge, Craig L. Blomberg underscores this important distinction:5
Most of Stephen Robinson’s references to early Christian belief in the corporality of God are talking about the Incarnation—the Son taking upon himself human flesh, not the Father having a body as in the uniquely Mormon claim.
2. Vladimir Lossky, The Vision of God (2d. ed.; trans. by Asheleigh Moorhouse; Bedforshire: The Faith Press, 1973) 35.
3. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, New York, 1976) 134.
4. Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001 ) 97.
5. Craig L. Blomberg, “Is Mormonism Christian,” in The New Mormon Challenge (ed. by Francis Beckwith, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owen; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002) 320.