Defending the Faith: Every man, woman and child is a child of God

By Daniel Peterson, For the Deseret News

Published: Thu, March 21, 2013, 5:05 a.m. MDT

 Twins Adam and Jason Richens, 8, watch a video at the "I Am a Child of God" exhibit at the Church History Museum in 2006.

Twins Adam and Jason Richens, 8, watch a video at the "I Am a Child of God" exhibit at the Church History Museum in 2006.

(Deseret Morning News archives)

One of the core doctrines of Mormonism is that every man, woman and child on the planet is the literal spirit child of our Father in heaven. As a 1995 proclamation of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles puts it, “Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.”

Critics of Mormonism sometimes retort that, biblically speaking, we become children of God only by adoption, that we aren’t his sons and daughters by inherent nature, and that only Christians actually qualify for such adoption.

They have a point. The New Testament is replete with language about adoption, though it seems probable to me that this is connected with the formation of family units — and, eventually, of continuous family lines — through the sealing ordinances of the temple.

But the idea that non-Christians aren’t actually children of God seems decisively refuted by the words of Paul upon the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, in Athens, as they’re recorded in Acts 17. Preaching, significantly, to a pagan audience, Paul approvingly cites one of their own pagan poets — the third-century B.C. Aratus of Cilicia — to make his case that human beings are God's "offspring" (17:28–29). The word rendered "offspring" by the King James translators is the Greek “genos,” which is related to the Latin “genus” and means "family" or "race," or "kind," or, even, "descendants of a common ancestor."

Paul is saying that human beings are akin to God — the word “kin” is itself related to “genos” — or, to put it differently, that he and they are of the same genus. (The Latin Vulgate rendering of the same passage uses exactly that word, “genus.”)

At Acts 17:29, Paul argues to his idol-worshiping pagan audience that, because we all (and he’s plainly including them) are of the same genus with God, "we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device." Such things are beneath us, and, therefore, we ought not to worship them.

Aratus' declaration, which Paul endorses, was a very old one among Greek thinkers. "The race of men is one with the gods," wrote the great fifth-century B.C. lyric poet Pindar, using the same word, “genos,” that appears in Acts 17. And the so-called “lamellai,” or "golden plates," that have been found in tombs in Thessaly, Crete and Italy take a position remarkably like Paul’s own argument.

Among the most intriguing documents from antiquity, these plates were apparently placed in the hands of the dead in order to remind the deceased soul of powerful phrases that it was to use when confronting the powers of the underworld, the sentinels by whom it must pass. They would thus help the soul to attain salvation.

Among them is a plate from Petelia that has been dated to the mid-fourth century before Christ. It describes the terrain and the guards that the dead person will encounter in the spirit world. "I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven,” the text advises the deceased to declare, “but my race (‘genos’) is of Heaven alone."

In other words, the dead person belongs there, in heaven; he is no foreigner. Rather, he is akin to heavenly things and not to the mundane objects of earth.

I’m not offering an eccentric rendering of these passages from Acts 17. I could supply many examples from a variety of languages, but I’ll cite just a few here:

The modern German “Einheitsubersetzung” or “unity translation,” for example, which takes its name from the fact that it represents an official collaboration of the Roman Catholics and the major Protestant denominations in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, renders 17:28-29 quite strikingly: "Wir sind von seiner Art," it says, which means, "We are of his type," or "We are of his kind."

James Moffatt's early 20th-century translation declares that "we too belong to his race." "Car nous sommes aussi de sa race," says the original Jerusalem Bible, as produced by the illustrious Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. In the following verse, it announces that we are "de la race de Dieu": "We are of his race … of the race of God."

Thus, for Paul, humans — all of them, including the idolatrous pagans to whom he was speaking there on the acropolis of Athens — were, by nature, the offspring or the children of God.

Daniel C. Peterson, BYU professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, founded MormonScholarsTestify.org and BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture," and blogs daily at Patheos.com. His views are his own.

1. Weber State Graduate
Clearfield, UT,
March 21, 2013

"And the so-called "lamellai," or "golden plates,"...take a position remarkably like Paul's own argument."

Wow, what an amazing stretch of reasoning! Peterson's continued attempts to create assumed associations in order to advance an allusion of probability are remarkable. And to cleverly insert "golden plates" into the discussion, knowing it resonates with Latter Day Saints, is a stroke of apologetic genius.

The Pyrgi lamellae is a series of three inscriptions on rolls of gold foil, two of which were written in Etruscan. There is no literal translation available of the Etruscan plates. Although the sound of the Etruscan letters is known, we simply don't understand the meaning of their words. It's almost impossible to precisely understand their texts because their language seems not to belong to any known group.

A rough "transliteration" (much different than translation) of these plates is available and suggests they are nothing more than a dedication of a divinity statue to the Phoenician goddess Astarte.

I'm not quite sure how Peterson can make the connection that these plates somehow produce corroborating evidence for an LDS belief that we are of the same genus with God.

2. fkratz
Portland, OR,
March 21, 2013

Zig Ziglar told the story of "Little Ben Hooper", a story which his audiences enjoyed for decades. I respected Zig Ziglar, not because he was a Christian, but because he was a rarely flinching eternal optimist who looked for, and found, the best in humanity, which he offered to anyone who would listen.

Many believe we are all children of God, and though I have personal doubts, such a belief system can only make the planet a safer place if people act on that belief, daily.

To me, Pope Francis could be the beacon we need in these turbulent times. If one man can impact hundreds of millions to do better, then all things seem possible. And it shouldn't stop with him as religious leaders everywhere could come together to act and help tackle the problems we all face.

3. Verdad
Orem, UT,
March 21, 2013

And Peterson's article mentioned the specific Pyrgi lamellai where, exactly?

4. Kjirstin Youngberg
Mapleton, UT,
March 21, 2013

If, indeed, we believe in a divine creation~that we were formed of the dust of the universe by the God of us all~we must conclude we are all "of God" as it was He (or They, as recorded in many ancient texts of Genesis) who created us. As He has no limitations, and is in fact the God of the complete universe, it stands to reason we will one day meet His children of galaxies distant from our own. God is said to reign on a planet near Kolob, which does not even appear to be within our own Milky Way. Would that make Him an extraterrestrial to a non-believer or His own?

It is far past time to do away with petty differences and distinctions between belief systems, races, genders, ages, wealth, caste or infirmities. We are all children of God within one universe. God who knows when a sparrow falls, and when any living thing dies, that change is felt by distant stars. His command to "love one another" remains unheeded.

If we expect to meet our genera on other worlds, we must first love all upon our own.

Read: Moses. Watch: YouTube - fractal geometry.

5. Michigander
Westland, MI,
March 21, 2013

Again Dr. Peterson brings forth many doctrinal errors:

Jesus Christ is the ONLY Begotten of the Father (which event occurred before all things were created in heaven and on earth by the Father, whose name alone is JEHOVAH, AND by the Son, whose name alone is Jesus Christ).

We are ADOPTED into the family of God ONLY thru the atonement of Jesus Christ, and then and only then do we become the sons and daughters of God. We are the offspring of God in the sense that we are adopted into what will be the one and only one family in eternity - the family of God. There will be no families in the new heaven and new earth. There will be no social barriers that naturally exist here in this life.

Also, we are all the offspring of God only in the sense that all people who have ever been born on earth have a soul or spirit created by God in their mother's womb at conception only, Jesus Christ of course being the ONLY exception.

Finally, the delusion of God's wife, the Eternal Mother in Heaven Goddess, contradicts Isa.43:10 and Isa.44:8 to start.