Why the Apocrypha Is Not Scripture

If you have ever done any study of the canon of Scripture, you will notice that Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles are bigger than Protestant ones. In addition to the 66 books Protestants accept, Catholicism also accepts Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus or Sirach, Baruch with the Letter of Jeremiah, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, additions to Daniel, and additions to Esther. In addition to these, Eastern Orthodoxy accepts 1 Esdras or 3 Ezra, the Prayer of Manasseh, 3 Maccabees, and Psalm 151. While there are many historical arguments for rejecting the Apocrypha as Scripture, I want to focus here on the texts themselves.

It is much easier to prove which books do not belong in the Bible than to prove which ones do. For example, the gnostic Gospel of Thomas teaches polytheism or the belief in many gods. It claims that Jesus said, “Where there are three deities, they are divine. Where there are two or one, I am with that one.” But since the Bible teaches that there is only one God (John 5:44), the Gospel of Thomas is not canonical because it contains doctrinal error and the Holy Spirit does not contradict himself. In the same way, the apocryphal books contain doctrinal and historical errors in them which preclude them from being accepted by Christians as coming from the Holy Spirit.

Wisdom 8:19-20 teaches the pre-existence of the soul which Roman Catholicism does not teach. The text reads: “As a child I was by nature well endowed, and a good soul fell to my lot; or rather, being good, I entered an undefiled body.” “Soul” in Wisdom is distinct from the body: “For a perishable body weighs down the soul, and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind” (Wis 9:15). “A man in his wickedness kills another, but he cannot bring back the departed spirit, nor set free the imprisoned soul” (Wis 16:14). The belief in the pre-existence of the soul was condemned as heresy at the Fifth Ecumenical Council which is considered to be an infallible ecumenical council by Catholicism.

Another error in Wisdom is the denial of creation ex nihilo, or “out of nothing,” which is taught in Scripture (Rom 4:17; Heb 11:3). Wisdom 11:17 says, “For thy all-powerful hand, which created the world out of formless matter, did not lack the means to send upon them a multitude of bears, or bold lions.” This also contradicts another text in the Apocrypha which does teach that God created all things out of nothing: “I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being” (2 Macc 7:28).

The book of Judith is filled with historical errors. The first verse of the book reads: “In the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh, in the days of Arphaxad, who ruled over the Medes in Ecbatana.” The problem is that Nineveh fell in 612 to Nebuchadnezzar’s father Nabopolassar. Nebuchadnezzar became king of Babylon in 605 after his father’s death and never ruled over Nineveh. The twelfth year of his reign would have been 593, 19 years after Nineveh’s fall. Judith 4:3 teaches that the Israelites returned from the Babylonian captivity and rebuilt the temple before Nebuchadnezzar died: “For they had only recently returned from the captivity, and all the people of Judea were newly gathered together, and the sacred vessels and the altar and the temple had been consecrated after their profanation.” The Babylonian captivity did not end until 539, but Nebuchadnezzar died in 562. The author of Judith intentionally put historical errors like these into the text to indicate that this is a work of fiction and not meant to be taken as history.

Tobit 1:15 says that Sennacherib was the son of Shalmaneser and reigned in his place after he died: “But when Shalmaneser died, Sennacherib his son reigned in his place; and under him the highways were unsafe, so that I could no longer go into Media.” But Sennacherib did not reign when Shalmaneser died, but Sargon II. The reign of Shalmaneser V was from 727-722, the reign of Sargon II was from 722-705, and Sennacherib’s reign was from 705-681. Tobit 6:6-7 teaches that smoke from a fish’s heart and liver drives away demons: “Then the young man said to the angel, ‘Brother Azarias, of what use is the liver and heart and gall of the fish?’ He replied, ‘As for the heart and liver, if a demon or evil spirit gives trouble to any one, you make a smoke from these before the man or woman, and that person will never be troubled again.’” Not only is this verse ridiculous (why would an immaterial demon be frightened away by smoke?), but it contradicts God’s Word which teaches that we are not to use magic (Deut 18:9-14; Acts 19:18-19). Tobit 14:15 says, “But before he died he heard of the destruction of Nineveh, which Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus had captured. Before his death he rejoiced over Nineveh.” But Nineveh was not captured by Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus, but by Nabopolassar and Cyaxares.

1 Maccabees 6:8-16 says that Antiochus Epiphanes died in his bed of an illness. But 2 Maccabees 1:14-17 says he was stoned to death. A third contradictory account is found in 2 Maccabees 9:1-29 which says that he died far away in the mountains of an internal pain in the bowels. 2 Maccabees 2:4-5 says that Jeremiah hid the ark in a cave. But this contradicts Jeremiah 3:16 which tells us that the ark was destroyed by the Babylonians: “And when you have multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, declares the LORD, they shall no more say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the LORD.’ It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again.” The author of 2 Maccabees denied that his book was inspired Scripture when he closed by saying, “If it is well told and to the point, that is what I myself desired; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that was the best I could do” (15:38). This is a far cry from the “thus says the Lord” of the authors of Scripture.

Sirach 3:30 says, “Water extinguishes a blazing fire: so almsgiving atones for sin.” This verse became the basis for the practice of indulgences which undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s death to save us. Sirach 12:4-5 says, “Give to the godly man, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back his bread, and do not give it to him, lest by means of it he subdue you; for you will receive twice as much evil for all the good which you do to him.” But Jesus taught the opposite of this in Luke 6:33-35: “And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” For more on this subject, I recommend William Webster’s book on the Apocrypha.

What Are Indulgences?

The practice of indulgences could never exist apart from a belief in purgatory. Since no one wants to go to purgatory, indulgences exist to reduce or eliminate the amount of time one needs to spend in suffering after death before being allowed entrance into heaven. Because of purgatory, Catholics argue that prayers should be offered for the dead that they might be delivered out of the suffering of purgatory into heaven. An indulgence is the granting of remission from the temporal punishment due to sin through the application of the supererogatory righteousness of the saints in the treasury of merit which the pope has access to through the keys of the church. The practice of indulgences is still alive and well today and is expressed most clearly in the papal encyclical Indulgentiarum doctrina. In it, Pope Paul VI proclaims that by carrying our crosses, we expiate our sins and the sins of others:

“Following in the footsteps of Christ, the Christian faithful have always endeavored to help one another on the path leading to the heavenly Father through prayer, the exchange of spiritual goods and penitential expiation. The more they have been immersed in the fervor of charity, the more they have imitated Christ in His sufferings, carrying their crosses in expiation for their own sins and those of others, certain that they could help their brothers to obtain salvation from God the Father of mercies.”

In the church, there is a great treasury of merit which contains the righteous deeds of the saints which help to bring about the salvation of others:

“This treasury also includes the truly immense, unfathomable and ever pristine value before God of the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, who following in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by His grace have sanctified their lives and fulfilled the mission entrusted to them by the Father. Thus while attaining their own salvation, they have also cooperated in the salvation of their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.”

It is rather shocking that the document admits that the practice of indulgences developed over time (the first historical reference to indulgences does not appear for at least a thousand years after Christ) and was not practiced by the earliest Christians:

“The conviction existing in the Church that the pastors of the flock of the Lord could set the individual free from the vestiges of sins by applying the merits of Christ and of the saints led gradually, in the course of the centuries and under the influence of the Holy Spirit’s continuous inspiration of the people of God, to the usage of indulgences which represented a progression in the doctrine and discipline of the Church rather than a change.”

The Catholic Church anathematizes anyone who says that indulgences are useless:

“But the Church, in deploring and correcting these improper uses ‘teaches and establishes that the use of indulgences must be preserved because it is supremely salutary for the Christian people and authoritatively approved by the sacred councils; and it condemns with anathema those who maintain the uselessness of indulgences or deny the power of the Church to grant them.’”

I agree with John Calvin that indulgences are a Satanic mockery of the work of Christ. The righteousness by which we stand before God is not a patchwork righteousness made up of a combination of the righteousness of Christ, Mary, the saints, and ourselves. The doctrine of the imputation of the active and passive obedience of Christ is essential to justification and the foundation for the Protestant rejection of indulgences. This alone is the gospel.

A common verse used to support indulgences is Colossians 1:24 where Paul says that he is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body.” Therefore, it is argued that the sufferings of Christ on the cross are not sufficient to save us. We need to complete what is lacking in Christ’s atonement through our own suffering. But the affliction of Christ Paul is speaking of is not his suffering of atonement on the cross for sin (Heb 10:10-14), but his lifelong suffering as a minister of God. These are the ministerial sufferings of Christ which Paul continued by acting as a servant of God for the sake of the church through his apostolic ministry. Because Christ and Paul are now in heaven and no longer suffering, it is the church’s responsibility to continue this suffering. This is especially true for pastors as they shepherd and suffer for the church of God. This suffering includes persecution which is the calling of all Christians (2 Tim 3:12).

What Is Purgatory?

Purgatory is the belief that there will be a state of cleansing after death to purify the saints of their temporal punishments due to sin. The Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott describes it as the place where, “The temporal punishments for sins are atoned for in the purifying fire by the so-called suffering of atonement (satispassio), that is, by the willing bearing of the expiatory punishments imposed by God” (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 485). In Catholic theology, while Christ has borne the punishment for our sins so that the saints do not go to hell as long as they die in a state of grace, they still need to make atonement by suffering for the temporal punishments due to sin. If there is any temporal punishment still left on us at death, purgatory is necessary before the saints can enter heaven. I believe the Catholic doctrine of purgatory is an evolution of the purgatorial understanding of hell promoted by universalists such as Origen where hell was viewed as a state of purgatory sinners could eventually leave and this heretical belief existed before the Western doctrine of purgatory developed. The Council of Trent anathematizes everyone who denies the existence of purgatory:

“If anyone says that after the grace of justification has been received the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out for any repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be paid, either in this world or in the other, in purgatory, before access can be opened to the kingdom of heaven, let him be anathema” (Session 6, Canon 30).

In contrast to this unbiblical and unhistorical belief, the Bible teaches that Christians will be instantly glorified at the second coming of Christ or at death (Matt 13:43; Luke 23:43; 1 Cor 15:51-52; 2 Cor 5:6-8; Phil 1:23; 1 Thess 4:17; 1 John 3:2). Since the saints on earth are glorified when Christ comes and do not go to purgatory after his coming, they do not need to go to purgatory after death either. If purgatory is true, then death would not be something to look forward to, but something to be feared. Since the suffering of purgatory is worse than this life, it would not be a better thing to depart from this life. Those who die in Christ rest from their labors. As Revelation 14:13 says, “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’” But they would have no rest if they went to purgatory after death where they continue to suffer and increase in sanctification as they had in life. The doctrine of purgatory was unknown among the earliest Christians as the second century Christian sermon of 2 Clement teaches that there is no more opportunity for repentance or confession of sin after death (8:3). The garments of the saints in heaven are whiter than snow because they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, not singed in the fires of purgatory (Rev 7:14).

The most common text in the Bible used to support purgatory is 1 Corinthians 3:11-15. Since these people are saved “only as through fire,” it is argued that they must undergo a fiery testing or punishment before being allowed entrance into heaven. But to be saved “as through fire” is a metaphor to represent being barely saved. The subordinating conjunction “as” shows that Paul is using the language of simile. The fire of this passage is not applied to the person, but to his work which is burned up resulting in the loss of eternal rewards. It is not a refining fire, but a consuming fire which destroys works which were not done in and for Christ. His work may be burned up, but he is still saved, though just barely. The picture Paul is painting is similar to that of a man who just barely makes it out alive of a burning building before it collapses.

Should We Pray to Mary and the Saints?

Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy teach that we should pray to Mary and the saints to invoke their help by asking them to appeal to God on our behalf. They believe that because the saints in heaven are without sin and closer to God than we are, their prayers are more effective than saints who dwell on earth. This belief was enshrined into Christian orthodoxy at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787. One of the most popular expressions of prayer to Mary is seen in Saint Alphonsus Liguori’s The Glories of Mary. Because Liguori is a Doctor of the Church, his writings are considered a sure guide to Catholic doctrine.

But this practice of praying to departed saints and angels assigns to them many of the incommunicable attributes of God. Only God is omnipresent, omniscient, and above time. A finite creature by definition cannot receive, comprehend, and act on thousands of different prayers in dozens of languages from all over the world at the same moment in time. That is why one of the titles for God is “O you who hears prayer” (Ps 65:2) because only God by nature can hear all the prayers of the saints. To apply these attributes to anyone else besides God is to fall into practical polytheism. This is why the doctrine of theosis where the saints in heaven are viewed as gods by grace who transcend our human limitations is necessary in order to believe that the saints can hear our prayers.

The cult of the saints is essentially a continuation of the cult of pagan Rome with each saint responsible for one aspect of life for which prayer is made parallel to how each god in pagan Rome was invoked for help in their area of influence. Catholicism has religious shrines dedicated to individual saints parallel to the shrines that pagans have for their gods. The title pontifex maximus for the pope was originally the title for the Roman emperor as the head of the state religion of Rome. In contrast to this idolatrous superstition, the Bible forbids all attempts to communicate with the dead (Deut 18:11; Isa 8:19-20). There is only one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5). God alone is called the one who can perceive our thoughts from afar (1 Kgs 8:39; Ps 139:2). A mere creature cannot discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

One of the most popular verses in Scripture used in favor of addressing saints in prayer is Hebrews 12:1 which speaks of Christians being “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” This is interpreted to mean that the saints in heaven are watching us and therefore we can pray to them. But the “cloud of witnesses” is not a literal cloud or a literal group of people who are looking at us, but the historical testimonies of the faithful followers of Christ the author of Hebrews has been talking about in the immediate context. It is their testimonies of faith that metaphorically surround us which give us encouragement to run the race set before us. But their stories point us ultimately to Jesus, not to themselves. This argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Greek word translated as “witnesses” means. It is the word marturos which is where the word “martyr” would eventually come from. It does not refer to looking at or observing, but is a legal term to refer to someone who bears witness to the truthfulness of something in a court of law. They are not witnesses of us, but witnesses for Christ. They are those who bear testimony that God is faithful and is the rewarder of those who seek him through the stories of their lives.

Another popular verse used in favor of praying to departed saints is Revelation 5:8 where the church in heaven is pictured as offering up to God the prayers of the saints as incense. Therefore, it is argued that we should pray to the saints so that our requests might be made known to God. But this argument proves too much since it would not only prove that we should pray to the saints to have them deliver our prayers to God, but that the only way our prayers can be delivered to God is through the mediation of the saints in heaven on our behalf. That would mean we should never pray to God directly because our prayers only ascend to God in these visions through the mediation of saints and angels. The saints in heaven would then become indispensable aids to prayer through whom we must pray if we ever want God to recognize our prayers.

In Revelation 8:3, “all” of the prayers of the saints are offered up to God by the angel. If this verse is meant to teach us that we should pray to angels to have them take our requests to God, then that would mean we should never pray to saints or God directly but only to angels since “all” of the prayers of the saints are delivered to God by the angel which would contradict the argument based on Revelation 5:8. This interpretation would also mean that only those who pray to angels are Christians since the angel offers up “all” the prayers of the saints. It would then teach us that Christians must pray only to angels to have their prayers accepted by God since the angel is depicted as offering up to God the totality of the prayers of the saints on earth. But Jesus says in John 14:14, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” Jesus taught us to pray to God the Father directly (Matt 6:9). Instead, Roman Catholicism presents us with a Jesus who must be placated by Mary’s intercession to turn away his wrath. The imagery in Revelation is not meant to communicate that we are to pray to saints or angels, but to symbolize that our prayers to God are like incense in that they are pleasing to him. These are not prayers directed toward saints in heaven or angels, but to God alone.

Should Christians Venerate Icons and Statues?

2017 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. In honor of the Reformation, I am starting a new series lasting at least through the rest of the year exploring why the Protestant Reformers were correct to protest against the false beliefs within Roman Catholicism. If you are a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, please do not misinterpret my critique of these beliefs as an attack on you personally. As a convictional Protestant, I have a responsibility to give a reason for why I believe as I do and you have a responsibility to examine the beliefs of your upbringing against that of Scripture (Acts 17:11). The first topic we will explore is whether Christians should venerate icons of the saints and Christ.

An icon is a visible representation of Christ or a saint which serves to aid the worship of Christ or the veneration of saints. God alone receives latria or worship while the saints receive dulia or service. It is argued that the second commandment which forbids the making of carved images or the likeness of anything in creation was only for Old Testament saints because we are not tempted to commit idolatry in the same way they were. Because the Word of God became flesh in the incarnation, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox argue that we may create physical representations of Christ to depict his human nature.

A key figure in the defense of the use of icons was John of Damascus who argued against the iconoclasts in his Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images. His view triumphed at the Seventh Ecumenical Council which condemned all of those who opposed the use of images in the church. This view was reaffirmed by the Fourth Council of Constantinople which declared:

“If anyone does not venerate the image of Christ our Lord, let him be deprived of seeing him in glory at his second coming. The image of his all pure Mother and the images of the holy angels as well as the images of all the saints are equally the object of our homage and veneration.”

When it comes to the second commandment, John argued:

“These injunctions were given to the Jews on account of their proneness to idolatry. Now we, on the contrary, are no longer in leading strings. Speaking theologically, it is given to us to avoid superstitious error, to be with God in the knowledge of the truth, to worship God alone, to enjoy the fullness of His knowledge. We have passed the stage of infancy, and reached the perfection of manhood. We receive our habit of mind from God, and know what may be imaged and what may not. . . . Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, (Bar. 3.38) I make an image of the God whom I see” (Apologia).

The Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid in his debate with James White at 1:54-56 makes a similar argument by saying that we are not tempted to commit idolatry in the same way the Israelites were. John goes on to argue that because the Son has become incarnate, we may make depictions of him because the invisible God has become visible:

“It is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict Him clothed in human form. . . . When He who is bodiless and without form, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing in the form of God, empties Himself and takes the form of a servant in substance and in stature and is found in a body of flesh, then you may draw His image and show it to anyone willing to gaze upon it” (Apologia).

The medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas claims that images of Christ are not the object of our worship, but only aids to worship:

“Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is” (Summa Theologica II-II, 81, 3 ad 3).

An image aids worship by serving as the starting point for adoration. When a person looks longingly into an image of Christ, it reminds him of who Jesus is and what he has done. By showing veneration to the image of Christ, he then moves on to worship the Christ who stands behind the image. For images of the saints, gazing into them reminds Catholics and the Orthodox of what the saint has done and serves as a launching platform to offer prayers to the saints that they might pray for us.

Without icons, they could not worship Christ as they have been raised to. It’s just too hard to worship a Christ we cannot see or offer prayers to saints without a visible representation of them. Having a picture of a saint in front of you makes it easier to pray to him because you can use it to pretend as if you are having a real conversation and not talking to a dead person. That is why icon lovers value their icons so much and became so upset when the iconoclasts took them away.

Another argument used by those who defend the use of icons in the church is that because God commanded Israel to make two golden cherubim on the mercy seat (Exod 25:18), the prohibition against making images in the second commandment is not a universal prohibition. But Israel was allowed to craft these golden cherubim because God explicitly commanded them to. But there is no command for us to do so today. These two golden images were hidden from the sight of Israel because they were part of the ark of the covenant which was kept in the Holy of Holies. Therefore, they would never become a stumbling block to Israel. The Israelites were forbidden to even look at the ark of the covenant so they could never venerate them (Num 4:20; 1 Sam 6:19).

John argues in his apology that those who oppose his position are Manicheans because they despise matter. But this is a misrepresentation of the iconoclast position. We are not opposed to matter and affirm the full humanity of Christ. But the reason why we are opposed to religious images in worship and bowing down to them is because there is no biblical warrant for them and making images and bowing down to them is forbidden by God in Exodus 20:4-5:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.”

The arguments used to justify statues and images in worship are identical to the arguments used by pagans to justify the worship of idols in their worship. They claim that they are not worshiping the image of their god, but only using it as an aid for worshiping that which we cannot see with our eyes. When I visited a Hindu temple, the woman I spoke with said that the images of their gods are no different than the stained glass windows in a church which depict the life of Christ. So, when I see people bowing down in prayer before statues of Mary, you must forgive me for thinking this is a gross violation of Exodus 20:4-5.

In contrast to these pagan means of worship, we are called to worship God without any physical representation because God by nature is invisible (Lev 26:1; Deut 4:12-24; 5:8-9; John 4:24; Acts 17:29; Rom 1:23) and Jesus Christ never ceased to be invisible with respect to his divine nature (Heb 13:8). Christians are called to be content with no likeness of God until eternity future (Ps 17:15; Rev 22:4). Jesus in his present glorified state cannot be accurately depicted by man (Mark 9:2-3; Rev 1:12-17). To attempt to depict him is to create an incomplete Nestorian Christ. The use of icons in the church is not in accordance with the universal consent of the fathers.

A closely related topic is that of relics which are the bodily remains (graphic images) or items associated with the saints and Christ. It is often claimed that the relics of the saints have miraculous power associated with them which can bring healing. Instead of burying the bodies of the saints in the ground as Paul assumed Christians would do in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, they disrespectfully parade their body parts around to be venerated. It is little wonder then that there is so much religious syncretism and ancestor worship in the Catholic world because the use of images in worship was already a feature of the non-Christian religions these people came out of.

What Is Theosis?

Theosis is the belief that Christians will participate in the energies of God, but not his essence. God’s energies in Eastern Orthodox theology are how we experience the essence of God as finite creatures since God’s essence is ineffable and incomprehensible. Timothy Ware defines theosis this way:

“Just as the three persons of the Trinity ‘dwell’ in one another in an unceasing movement of love, so we humans, made in the image of the Trinity, are called to ‘dwell’ in the Trinitarian God. Christ prays that we may share in the life of the Trinity, in the movement of love which passes between the divine persons; He prays that we may be taken up into the Godhead. . . . Nor does the human person, when it ‘becomes god’, cease to be human: ‘We remain creatures while becoming god by grace, as Christ remained God when becoming man by the Incarnation.’ The human being does not become God by nature, but is merely a ‘created god’, a god by grace or by status” (The Orthodox Church, 231-32).

This belief is also known as divinization or deification where Christians become gods by grace but not by nature. Roman Catholicism also teaches a form of theosis in its Catechism:

“The Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’: ‘For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.’ ‘For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.’ ‘The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods’” (460).

The last two quotations are from Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas who both believed in theosis in one form or another. The Eastern theologian Maximus the Confessor taught that we become gods in salvation in a qualified sense:

“If we are made, as we are, in the image of God (cf. Gen. 1:27), let us become the image both of ourselves and of God; or rather let us all become the image of the one whole God, bearing nothing earthly in ourselves, so that we may consort with God and become gods, receiving from God our existence as gods” (Philokalia, 2:171).

The first church father to teach theosis appears to be Irenaeus in the late second century:

“For we cast blame upon Him, because we have not been made gods from the beginning, but at first merely men, then at length gods; although God has adopted this course out of His pure benevolence, that no one may impute to Him invidiousness or grudgingness. He declares, ‘I have said, Ye are gods; and ye are all sons of the Highest.’” (Against Heresies 4.38.4).

And so began the history of bad interpretations of John 10:34-36. But Jesus is arguing here that if the term “god” can be applied by God in an ironic sense to human judges who were perverting God’s law, how much more can the term be used to describe himself who is actually God. In wrongly condemning Jesus, the religious leaders of Israel were acting as false judges in the same way that the “gods” of Psalm 82 were.

Theosis was more fully developed by Origen who taught that the divine nature was communicated first to Christ in eternal generation and then to us in salvation:

“And thus the first-born of all creation, who is the first to be with God, and to attract to Himself divinity, is a being of more exalted rank than the other gods beside Him. . . . It was by the offices of the first-born that they became gods, for He drew from God in generous measure that they should be made gods, and He communicated it to them according to His own bounty. The true God, then, is ‘The God,’ and those who are formed after Him are gods, images, as it were, of Him the prototype” (Commentary on John 2.2).

This incorrect view of salvation flows from a wrong view of the fall and fallen man’s bondage to sin. Mormonism, which goes far beyond theosis into the error of explicit polytheism, likewise has a weak view of the fall and a high view of man’s natural abilities. The theology of the church father Origen, who had a tremendous influence on the doctrine of theosis, is closer to Mormonism in many ways than biblical Christianity. He believed that we eternally pre-existed with God before creation and that there is no hell of eternal conscious torment. Origen’s theology had a huge influence on the Eastern Church and there is a universalist strain within Eastern Orthodoxy today. Theosis inadvertently falls into the error of polytheism as the Arians fell into polytheism by making the Son a lesser god than the Father. If we become gods in deification, then there is more than one God regardless of what creative language we use to try to defend a belief in monotheism (Isa 43:10). Theosis collapses all of salvation down into conformity to the image of Christ while overlooking the legal aspects of salvation. If God’s essence is completely unknowable to us, then we cannot know God as Jesus prayed we would (John 17:3). The distinction that should be made is not between God’s essence and energies, but between God’s incommunicable attributes which we will never share in and God’s communicable attributes which we do participate in to a degree.

The most popular verse in the Bible used in favor of theosis is 2 Peter 1:4 which says, “by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” But the “divine nature” in which we partake is not God’s energies, but his communicable attributes as evidenced by the descriptions of personal holiness which follow through verse ten. To be like God in this sense is not to become a god, but to live in holiness in imitation of God. As God is love, holy, righteous, and pure, we share in his love, holiness, righteousness, and purity through the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, sanctification, and eventually glorification.

The Law of Continence in the Early Church

The law of continence states that all clergy, even for those who are married, must abstain from all sexual relations. This is part of the official canon law of the Catholic Church. Ironically, one of the main arguments for this position is taken from Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:5 on sexual relations in marriage:

“Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

Paul says that those who are married may abstain from sexual relations for the purpose of prayer. But the argument goes that because priests are always offering up the sacrifice of prayer to God, they must always abstain from sexual relations. The church father Origen argues:

“I will express what the words of the Apostle mean, but I am afraid that some will be saddened. Do not refuse yourselves to each other, unless through a mutual agreement for a given occasion, so as to free yourselves for prayer, and then come together again; it is therefore certain that perpetual sacrifice is impossible for those who are subject to the obligations of marriage. . . . I therefore conclude that only the one vowed to perpetual chastity can offer the perpetual sacrifice” (23rd Homily on Numbers).

But this interpretation takes the verse completely out of context and ignores the significance of the phrases “for a limited time” and “but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Paul only intended this to be a temporary abstaining from sexual relations in marriage. Where is Origen getting the idea of a perpetual sacrifice anyway? By turning this verse into an argument in favor of perpetual continence in marriage, he is making the exact opposite argument that Paul was.

The Council of Elvira at the beginning of the fourth century mandated that all clergy abstain from sexual relations:

“It has seemed good to absolutely forbid the bishops, the priests, and the deacons, i.e., all the clerics in the service of the sacred ministry, to have relations with their wives and procreate children; should anyone do so, let him be excluded from the honor of the clergy” (Canon 33)

The First Council of Arles in 314 followed the same practice:

“Moreover, concerned with what is worthy, pure, and honest, we exhort our brothers in the episcopate to make sure that priests and deacons have no [sexual] relations with their wives, since they are serving the ministry everyday. Whoever will act against this decision will be deposed from the honor of the clergy” (Canon 29).

Eusebius of Caesarea, a disciple of the teachings of Origen, followed his master:

“It is fitting, according to the Scripture, that a bishop be the husband of an only wife. But this being understood, it behooves consecrated men, and those who are at the service of God’s cult, to abstain thereafter from conjugal intercourse with their wives. As to those who were not judged worthy of such a holy ministry, Scripture grants them [conjugal intercourse] while saying quite clearly to all that marriage is honorable and the nuptial bed is without stain, and that God judges profligates and adulterers” (Demonstratio Evangelica 1.9).

One of the arguments for complete continence was that sexual relations under the Old Covenant made one ceremonially unclean. The priests had to go through ceremonies to make themselves clean again. But because priests under the New Covenant must serve God every day, they do not have the time to go through the cleansing rituals as the old priests did. As Ambrosiaster argues:

“Now there should be seven deacons, several priests (two per church), and only one bishop for each city, which is why they must abstain from any conjugal relations; they have to be present in church every day, and they do not have the necessary time to purify themselves properly after conjugal unions, as the priests of old used to do” (Commentary on 1 Timothy).

Pope Siricius affirms that this is the teaching of the Western Church at the end of the fourth century:

“Moreover, as it is worthy, chaste, and honest to do so, this is what we advise: let the priests and Levites have no intercourse with their wives, inasmuch as they are absorbed in the daily duties of their ministries” (Cum in Unum Decretal).

It was believed that sexual relations were defiling and impure, even within marriage. As Ambrose says:

“But ye know that the ministerial office must be kept pure and unspotted, and must not be defiled by conjugal intercourse” (De officiis ministrorum 1.258).

This attitude that sexual relations were defiling helped create the environment in which the belief that Mary was a perpetual virgin became widespread. As Pope Siricius wrote:

“You had good reason to be horrified at the thought that another birth might issue from the same virginal womb from which Christ was born according to the flesh. For the Lord Jesus would never have chosen to be born of a virgin if he had ever judged that she would be so incontinent as to contaminate with the seed of human intercourse the birthplace of the Lord’s body, that court of the Eternal King” (Letter to Bishop Anysius).

The Council of Carthage, influenced by the theology of Augustine who believed that sexual desire, even in marriage, was a necessary evil coming out of original sin (On Marriage and Concupiscence 1.8, 19), continued to uphold the law of continence:

“It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep. The bishops declared unanimously: It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity” (Canons 3-4).

“Moreover since incontinence has been charged against some clergymen with regard to their own wives it has seemed good that bishops, presbyters, and deacons should according to the statutes already made abstain even from their own wives; and unless they do so that they should be removed from the clerical office. But the rest of the clergy shall not be forced to this but the custom of each church in this matter shall be followed” (Canon 70).

Even the revered Council of Chalcedon which gave us a beautiful declaration concerning the two natures of Christ taught that any monk who marries is to be excommunicated from the church:

“It is not lawful for a virgin who has dedicated herself to the Lord God, nor for monks, to marry; and if they are found to have done this, let them be excommunicated. But we decree that in every place the bishop shall have the power of indulgence towards them” (Canon 16).

For Jerome, marriage was only good for making more virgins:

“Marriage is allowed in the Gospel, yet that those who are married cannot receive the rewards of chastity so long as they render their due one to another. If married men feel indignant at this statement, let them vent their anger not on me but on the Holy Scriptures; nay, more, upon all bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and the whole company of priests and Levites, who know that they cannot offer sacrifices if they fulfill the conjugal act. . . . Therefore, as I was going to say, the virgin Christ and the virgin Mary have dedicated in themselves the first fruits of virginity for both sexes. The apostles have either been virgins or, though married, have lived celibate lives. Those persons who are chosen to be bishops, priests, and deacons are either virgins or widowers; or at least when once they have received the priesthood, are vowed to perpetual chastity” (Letter 48 to Pammachius).

Epiphanius followed the same view:

“But the man who continues to live with his wife and sire children is not admitted by the Church as a deacon, priest or bishop, even if he is the husband of an only wife; [only] he who, having been monogamous, observes continence or is a widower; [this is observed] especially where the ecclesiastical canons are exact” (Panarion, Heresy 59).

The First Council of Toledo forbids bishops, priests, and deacons from having children even though Paul assumed that many overseers would have children (1 Tim 3:4-5):

“It seems good that the deacons be men who have kept their integrity by leading chaste and continent lives; even if they have wives, let such men be established in the ministry; however, if there are some who, even before the Lusitanian bishops had pronounced the interdict, did not observe continence with their wives, let them not be granted the honor of the priesthood; if a priest, before the said interdict, had children, let him not be admitted to the episcopate” (Canon 1).

Pope Innocent I followed Siricius in mandating continence for priests and deacons:

“Moreover, the Church must absolutely maintain what is worthy, pure, and honest, to wit: the priest and deacon must have no relations with their wives, because they are very busy every day with the necessities of their ministry” (Letter to Victricius of Rouen).

The Council of Orange taught that men cannot become deacons unless they make a vow of perpetual chastity:

“It pleases us that married men are not ordained anymore to the diaconate unless, with the firm intention of changing their lives, they have first made a profession of chastity. But if someone is found who, after having received the Levitical blessing, does not observe continence with his wife, let him be forbidden to exercise his ministry” (Canons 21-22).

Pope Leo the Great argues on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:29 that married men in the priesthood must not have relations with their wives:

“Indeed, if those who do not belong to the Order of clerics are free to enjoy carnal relations and beget children, we must, in order to manifest what is the purity of a perfect continence, not permit carnal relations even to the subdeacons, ‘so that those who have a wife be as if they did not have one’ and those who do not have one remain single. If it befits this order – the fourth starting from the top – to observe [continence], how much more so the first, second and third must observe it; let no one be deemed apt for the Levitical or priestly dignity or for the supreme dignity of the episcopate if it is found that he has not yet put an end to conjugal pleasure” (Letter to Anastasius of Thessalonika).

Pope Gregory the Great leaves no doubt that this is the official teaching of the Western Church:

“Three years ago it was absolutely forbidden to subdeacons of the Churches of Sicily, according to the customs of the Roman Church, to have relations with their wives. . . . This is why it seems good to me to request that all the bishops from now on should not allow themselves to ordain as subdeacon someone who would not have [first] promised to live in chastity…as to those who, on their part, [still] refused to abstain from relations with their wives after interdiction, we oppose their admission to the sacred Order, since no one can have access to the alter if his chastity has not been tested and recognized before receiving the ministry” (Letter to Peter, Subdeacon of Sicily).

“Many reports have informed us that there was a custom in the past, among you, permitting subdeacons to have relations with their wives. So that no one will again have the audacity to act in such a way, an interdiction was brought by Servus-Dei, deacon of our See, on the authority of our predecessor: those who were already united to wives had to choose between two things: either to abstain from conjugal relations or not to have the presumption to exercise their ministry under any pretext” (Letter to Leo, Bishop of Catania).

Isidore of Seville, considered to be the last of the church fathers, held the same view:

“Because they touch the sacred mysteries, it has seemed good to the Fathers that these men [subdeacons] be chaste and keep continence with their wives and be free of any carnal impurity” (De Ecclesiasticis Officiis).

The Council of Trullo, which the Eastern Church considers to be an infallible ecumenical council, requires that all bishops refrain from sexual relations:

“Moreover this also has come to our knowledge, that in Africa and Libya and in other places the most God-beloved bishops in those parts do not refuse to live with their wives, even after consecration, thereby giving scandal and offense to the people. Since, therefore, it is our particular care that all things tend to the good of the flock placed in our hands and committed to us – it has seemed good that henceforth nothing of the kind shall in any way occur. And we say this, not to abolish and overthrow what things were established of old by Apostolic authority, but as caring for the health of the people and their advance to better things, and lest the ecclesiastical state should suffer any reproach. . . . But if any shall have been observed to do such a thing, let him be deposed” (Canon 12).

The First Lateran Council of 1123, one of the infallible ecumenical councils of Roman Catholicism, taught that priests and deacons who marry must dissolve their marriages:

“We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons, and monks to have concubines or to contract marriage. We decree in accordance with the definitions of the sacred canons, that marriages already contracted by such persons must be dissolved, and that the persons be condemned to do penance” (Canon 21).

But how would all of these people respond to the argument against clerical continence based on Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 9:5 that he has a right to take along a believing wife? A common response is that Paul is not speaking of marriage in this verse, but bringing along his wife on his missionary journeys. Clement of Alexandria argues that all of the apostles lived in continence even though they were all married:

“Even Paul did not hesitate in one letter to address his consort. The only reason why he did not take her about with him was that it would have been an inconvenience for his ministry. Accordingly he says in a letter: ‘Have we not a right to take about with us a wife that is a sister like the other apostles?’ But the latter, in accordance with their particular ministry, devoted themselves to preaching without any distraction, and took their wives with them not as women with whom they had marriage relations, but as sisters, that they might be their fellow-ministers in dealing with housewives” (Stromata 3:53).

But if Paul was married and yet refused to engage in sexual relations with his wife, then he would be going against his very own instructions in 1 Corinthians 7:5 that continence in marriage is only to be temporary and not a permanent state of affairs. How absurd would it be for Paul to live in continual continence as a married man and then teach against such a practice! When Paul speaks of taking along a believing wife, he is not talking about taking her on a missionary journey, but using the verb as a metaphor to describe marriage. Paul was not married: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am” (1 Cor 7:8). Some argue that Paul is not talking about a wife in 1 Corinthians 9:5, but a female companion who would help provide for his needs. But this is simply not what the text says. The Catholic NAB translation accurately translates the verse: “Do we not have the right to take along a Christian wife, as do the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Kephas?” Cephas, or Peter, was married as indicated by Matthew 8:14 which mentions his mother-in-law.

Modern Catholics who believe that there is nothing wrong with a married priest having sexual relations with his wife are in disagreement with the teachings of Popes Leo, Gregory, Innocent, Siricius, the First Lateran Council, and canon law. There is a contradiction between this ancient law defended by multiple popes and the present practice of the Catholic Church which allows for priests who were already married when they converted to Catholicism to continue to have relations with their wives. This is one more example of papal fallibility since Pope John Paul II never required these married priests to abide by the law of continence when they converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism and joined their priesthood. Modern Catholicism also does not require deacons who are married to abstain from sexual relations in contrast to the teachings of these popes. The popes of old would be rolling over in their graves if they knew about this departure from their established tradition.