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

Published: Thursday, 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.

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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.

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