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The greatest possible blessing: Calvin and deification
Carl Mosser -저자, 영국에서 대학을 나와서 현재 미국에서 활동 중임
St Mary's College, University of St Andrews, St Andrews KY16 9JU, Scotland, UK firstname.lastname@example.org
Many assume that the patristic notion of deification is absent from the mainstreams of post- patristic Western theology. Recent scholarship, however, identifies deification in Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, early Anglicanism, early Methodism and Jonathan Edwards -all fountainheads of Western theology. This article contends that deification is also present in Calvin's theology. It is not a prominent theme in its own right and some of the bolder patristic terminology is not employed. Nonetheless, the concept and imagery of deification regularly appear on stage while other doctrines are explicated. For Calvin, deification is the eschatological goal and blessing greater than which nothing can be imagined.
많은 사람들은 신화에 관한 교부들의 언급은 후기-교부 서방 신학의 주요 흐름과는 동떨어졌다고 생각을 한다. 그러나 최근 학계에서 스틴, 아퀴나스, 루터, 초기 (영국) 국교회, 초기 감리교, 그리고 죠나단 에드워드에게 있어 신화가 모든 서방 신학의 근간임이 확인되고 있다. 이 논문은 신화가 또한 칼빈 신학에서도 나타나고 있다고 강력하게 주장한다. 그것은 칼빈 신학 안에서 주목을 끄는 주제도 아니었고, 교부들의 좀 더 대담한 용어들을 사용하지도 않았다. 그럼에도 불구하고, 그의 신화에 관한 개념과 사상이 다른 교리들을 설명하는 과정에서 정규적으로 나타나고 있다. 칼빈에게 있어, 신화는 종말론적 목표요 상상할 수 없는 그 이상의 축복이다.
To Western ears unaccustomed to its bold terminology theoÅsis, usually associated with patristic and Eastern Orthodox writers, can sound blasphemous. TheoÅsis is described under a number of theological rubrics. These include adoption to divine sonship, participation in God, sharing of divine life, impartation of immortality, restoration of the imago dei, glorification, and consummation of the marriage between Christ and the Church. Succinctly, theoÅsis is for believers to become by grace what the Son of God is by nature and to receive the blessings that are his by right as undeserved gifts. Most boldly, theoÅsis is described as a transforming union of the believer with God and Christ usually, if inadequately, translated as `divinization' or `deification'.1 (후략)
주로 교부들과 동방교회 저자들과 관련된 theosis(데오시스)라는 두드러진 용어에 익숙하지 않은 서방 신학자들의 귀에는 그것이 신성모독으로 들릴 수 있을 것이다. 데오시스는 수많은 신학 전례(rubric)에 묘사되고 있다. 이 용어는 신성한 아들되심을 위한 입양, 하나님에 참여함, 신성한 생명을 공유함, 불멸성의 공유, 하나님의 형상의 회복, 영화됨, 그리고 그리스도와 교회 간의 혼인의 최종 결론 등을 포함하고 있다. 간결하게 말하자면, 데오시스는 믿는이들이 은혜에 의해 본성에서 하나님의 아들이 되는것과 자신이 분에 넘치는 선물을 받을 자격을 가진 넘치는 축복을 받는 것이다. 대부분이 담대하게 데오시스를 일반적으로 부적절하게 "신성화(divinization)","신화(deification)"로 번역 하여 믿는이들과 하나님과 그리스도의 변화시키는 연합으로 묘사하고 있다.(후략)
SJT55(1):36-57(2002)printed in the United Kingdom Copy Right 2002 Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd
The greatest possible blessing: Calvin and deification
St Mary's College,
Many assume that the patristic notion of deification is absent from the mainstreams of
post-patristic Western theology. Recent scholarship, however, identfies deification in
Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, early Anglicanism, early Methodism and Jonathan
Edwards - all fountainheads of Western theology. This article contends that dei?cation
is also present in Calvin's theology. It is not a prominent theme in its own right and
some of the bolder patristic terminology is not employed. Nonetheless, the concept
and imagery of dei?cation regularly appear on stage while other doctrines are
explicated. For Calvin, dei?cation is the eschatological goal and blessing greater than
which nothing can be imagined.
To Western ears unaccustomed to its bold terminology theoÅsis, usually associated
with patristic and Eastern Orthodox writers, can sound blasphemous.
TheoÅsis is described under a number of theological rubrics. These include
adoption to divine sonship, participation in God, sharing of divine life,
impartation of immortality, restoration of the imago dei, glorification, and
consummation of the marriage between Christ and the Church. Succinctly,
theoÅsis is for believers to become by grace what the Son of God is by nature
and to receive the blessings that are his by right as undeserved gifts. Most
boldly, theoÅsis is described as a transforming union of the believer with God
and Christ usually, if inadequately, translated as `divinization' or `deification'.1
1 Throughout I will assume readers have a basic knowledge of the theoÅsis concept found
in the patristic fathers and Eastern Orthodoxy. Those who do not should consult from
the following selection. In general: `Deification', The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
(3rd edn; ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone;
1997), p. 465, and Rowan Williams, `Deification', A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (ed.
Gordon S. Wakefield;
BalaÂs, `Divinization', Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (2nd edn; ed. Everett Ferguson; New
A History of Christian Doctrine (ed. Hubert Cunliffe-Jones;
pp. 149-55; B. Studer, `Divinization', Encyclopedia of the Early Church (ed. Angelo Di
Berardina; 2 vols;
Eastern Orthodoxy (many with discussion of the patristic fathers): Daniel B. Clendenin,
Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994),
pp. 117-37; Don Fairbairn, `Salvation as Theosis: The Teaching of Eastern Orthodoxy',
The goal of salvation is for the believer to be `in-godded' and thereby made
Until recently most scholars have assumed that after the patristic period
deification is foreign to Western Christianity except in medieval! mysticism
and unorthodox sects. It has even been claimed that deification is antithetical
to the contents and methods of Western theology. There are several
reasons for these widespread assumptions. One is that it has been commonplace
for Orthodox polemicists to assert that deification is absent in the
West because of its alleged incompatibility with Augustinian theology and
scholasticism. Another is the infuence Adolph von Harnack has had upon
several generations of scholars. Harnack viewed deification as a prime
example of the corrupting infuence of Greek philosophy upon Eastern
Christianity.3 He grudgingly admitted that Augustine had at one point
Themelios 23/3 (1999), pp. 42-54; Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption (vol. 3 of
The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky;
Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God (
Press, 1974), pp. 97-110; John Meyendorff, `Theosis in the Eastern Christian
Tradition', in Christian Spirituality: Post-Reformation and Modern (ed. Louis DupreÂ and Don E.
Orthodox Doctrine of Theosis', The New Man: An Orthodox and Reformed Dialogue (ed. J.
Meyendorff and Joseph McLelland;
pp. 149-61; Kenneth Paul Wesche, `Eastern Orthodox Spirituality:
Theosis', Theology Today 56/1 (1999), pp. 29-43. For greater detail: Jules Gross, La
Divinisation du chreÂtien d'apreÁs les peÁres grecs (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1938); Vladimir Lossky, The
Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (trans. by the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius;
Dei?cation of Man: St Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox Tradition (trans. Liadain Sherrard;
2 In the ancient world generally, and the Greco-Roman world especially, the word `god'
was used more plastically than by most moderns. The patristic writers did not intend to
teach that believers become the sort of being that the one true God is. Rather, their
view was that believers, through union with the one true God, come to possess certain
attributes that are natural only to deity, not humanity. Primary among these are
immortality and incorruptibility. There are, however, limits. Creatures can never
become the kind of being the uncreated Creator is, no matter how many divine
qualities they are allowed to partake of. See further the comments of George M. Schurr,
`On the Logic of Ante-Nicene Affirmations of the ``Deification'' of the Christian',
Anglican Theological Review 51/2 (April 1969), pp. 99, 103-5, and Michael Frede,
`Monotheism and Pagan Antiquity', Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity (ed. Polymnia
Athanassiadi and Michael Frede;
3 E.g. What is Christianity? (trans. Thomas Bailey Saunders;
1904), pp. 238-9. In basic agreement is Ben Drewery, `Dei?cation', Christian Spirituality:
Essays in Honour of Gordon Rupp (ed. Peter Brooks;
contrast see the detailed eval!uation of Harnack's thesis by Martin George, `VergoÈttlichung
des Menschen. Von der platonischen Philosophie zur Soteriologie der
taught deification. But he also claimed that it was Augustine who brought
the doctrine `to an edifying end' in the West.4
Yet as far as I am aware, no major Western theologian has ever
repudiated the patristic concept of deification. More significantly, a fact
increasingly recognized by recent scholarship is that Augustine did not
bring deification to an end in the West. It is now clear that deification
played an important role in Augustine's theology, including his mature
theology.5 It is also found in Aquinas, the paradigmatic scholastic theologian.
6 Finnish Lutherans have made the most startling discovery of
dei?cation in the West, at least to Harnack's theological heirs. The Finns
have discovered deification in Luther. They have proposed some controversial
reinterpretations of Luther's theology. But controversy aside, the Finns
have brought to our attention unambiguous statements making it incontrovertible
that Luther af?rmed deification.7 Deification is also found in
griechischen KirchenvaÈter', Die Weltlichkeit des Glaubens in der Alter Kirche (ed. Dietmar
4 Adolph von Harnack, History of Dogma (trans. James Millar; 7 vols;
Norgate, 1897), vol. 3, p. 165.
5 BalaÂs, `Divinization', vol. 1, p. 339; Gerald Bonner, `Augustine's Conception of
Dei?cation', Journal of Theological Studies NS 37/2 (1986), pp. 369-86; idem, `Dei?care',
Augustinus-Lexikon (ed. Cornelius Mayer;
pp. 265-7; idem, `Deification, Divinization', Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (ed.
Allan D. Fitzgerald;
Augustine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 54; John M. Rist, Augustine: Ancient
Thought Baptized (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 259-60.
6 A. N. Williams, The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas (
University Press, 1999).
7 For discussions of the thesis in English as well as quotations of some of the relevant
Luther texts, see the essays in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds,
Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), and
Tuomo Mannermaa, `Theosis as a Subject of Finnish Luther Research', Pro Ecclesia 4
(1995), pp. 37-47. Two works central to the controversy about reinterpreting
Luther's thought are Tuomo Mannermaa, Der im Glauben gegenwaÈrtige Christus: Rechtfertigung
und Vergottung. Zum oÈkumenischen Dialog (Hannover: Lutherisches Verlaghaus, 1989), and
Simo Peura, Mehr als ein Mensch? (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1994). A helpful summary
of the main claims the Finns make is Dennis Bielfeldt, `The Ontology of Deification',
Caritas Dei (ed. Oswald Bayer, Robert W. Jenson and Simo Knuuttila;
Agricola-Gesellschaft, 1997), pp. 92-4. Elsewhere Bielfeldt criticizes the Finns for
overstating how prominent deification is in Luther but agrees that it is to be found. See
his `Dei?cation as a Motif in Luther's Dictata super Psalterium', Sixteenth Century Journal 28
(1997), pp. 401-20, and idem, review of Mehr als ein Mensch? in Sixteenth Century Journal 26
(1995), pp. 413-15. Reinhard Flogaus, Theosis bei Palamas und Luther (GoÈttingen:
Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997) acknowledges the presence of deification in Luther
but finds signifiant differences between Luther's understanding and that of Gregory
early Anglicanism,8 early Methodism (both Arminian and Calvinistic),9 in
the writings of Jonathan Edwards,10 and in the works of the eminent Baptist
theologian Augustus Hopkins Strong.11 In the mid-twentieth century the
ever popular Anglican writer C. S. Lewis affirmed the doctrine.12 Increasingly
contemporary theologians are recovering and utilizing the ancient
notion of theoÅsis. Perhaps surprising to some, a number of evangelicals from
differing confessional backgrounds are among them.13
Noticeably absent from the list is John Calvin. It is very difficult to find
secondary literature that discusses, however briefly, Calvin's acceptance or
rejection of dei?cation. F. W. Norris's assumption is typical of the rare
comments one finds: `John Calvin seems to have avoided teaching deification
or not known of it.'14 I will argue that Calvin knew about and affirmed
the dei?cation of believers. Though not a prominent theme in its own right,
8 A. M. Allchin, Participation in God: A Forgotten
Longman and Todd, 1988), and Dan Edwards, `Dei?cation and the Anglican Doctrine
of Human Nature: A Reassessment of the Historical Signi?cance of William Porcher
DuBose', Anglican and Episcopal History 58/2 (1989), pp. 196-212.
9 Allchin, Participation in God, pp. 24-44; Steve K. McCormick, `Theosis in Chrysostom
and Wesley: An Eastern Paradigm on Faith and Love', Wesleyan Theological Journal 26/1
(1991), pp. 38-103; Michael J. Christensen, `Theosis and Sanctification: John
Wesley's Reformulation of a Patristic Doctrine', Wesleyan Theological Journal 31/2 (Fall
1996), pp. 71-94.
10 As with many, though not named as such, dei?cation is an overflow from Edwards's
contemplation of the Trinity and the incarnation. See the brief discussion in Robert W.
Jenson, `Theosis', Dialog 32/2 (1993), p. 111.
Publication Society, 1907-9), pp. 793-809; idem, Union With Christ: A Chapter of
Systematic Theology (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1913). Strong
cites several other Protestants who appear to teach similarly.
12 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (rev. edn;
IV (most explicit on pp. 174-5); idem, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (rev. edn;
contemporary Anglicanism. See the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England's
The Mystery of Salvation: The Story of God's Gift (London: Church House Publishing, 1995),
pp. 29, 189, 206.
13 E.g. Philip Edgecumbe Hughes [Episcopalian], The True Image (
Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 281-6; Thomas C. Oden [Wesleyan], Life in the Spirit: Systematic
Theology: Volume Three (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), pp. 207-12; T. F. Torrance
[Reformed], Theology in Reconstruction (London:
Rakestraw [Baptist], `Becoming Like God: An Evangelical Doctrine of Theosis', Journal of
the Evangelical Theological Society 40/2 (1997), pp. 257-69.
14 F. W. Norris, `Dei?cation: Consensual and Cogent', Scottish Journal of Theology 49/4
(1996), p. 420. Less typical, dei?cation in Calvin is brie¯y mentioned by David J. C.
Copper, `The Theology of Image in Eastern Orthodoxy and John Calvin', Scottish Journal
of Theology 35/3 (1982), pp. 233-4.
deificatory language and imagery can be found at many points of Calvin's
Four primary proof-texts for deification dominate patristic and Orthodox
discussions: 2 Peter 1:4, Ps 82:6/John 10:34-5, 1 John 3:2 and John 17. I
will begin by examining Calvin's commentary on 2 Peter 1:4 since there
Calvin is most explicit. I will then illustrate the presence of deification
language and imagery in various parts of Calvin's soteriology, eschatology
and Trinitarianism. Calvin's commentary on John 17 will be discussed in
the course of this. Additional evidence for Calvin's view will then be
adduced from his debates with the `half-papists' and Andreas Osiander.
Calvin's explicit rejection of erroneous concepts of deification will further
clarify what he believed and did not believe. Calvin's interpretation of Ps
82:6/John 10:34-5 will be reserved for last. It will be shown that Calvin
diverged from the patristic interpretation of these verses. But, partly on the
basis of 1 John 3:2, he would not have found the bold language patristic
writers used these verses to support inappropriate - if properly understood.
Dei?cation: the greatest possible blessing
2 Peter 1:4 claims that because of divine promises believers `may become
partakers of the divine nature'. Commenting on the first half of 2 Peter 1:4
Calvin notes that `the promises of God are to be given the highest possible
value, and that they are free, because they are offered to us as gifts'. The
excellency of the promises `arises from the fact that they make us partakers
of the divine nature'.15 Calvin immediately identi?es partaking of the divine
nature as that `than which nothing more outstanding can be imagined' [quo
nihil praestantius cogitari potest].16 This phrase is a clear adaptation of Anselm's
de?nition of God as `that than which nothing greater can be conceived' [quo
nihil maius cogitari potest].17 Calvin's implicit reasoning is that God is that than
which nothing greater can be conceived, i.e. the greatest possible being.
Therefore, partaking of his divine nature is that blessing than which
nothing more excellent can be conceived; i.e. the greatest possible blessing.
15 John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and The First and Second Epistles of St Peter
(trans. William B. Johnston;
16 CO 55.446. CO = G. Baum,
omnia (59 vols;
insertions and quotations are from CO, those in parentheses are found in the
translations being quoted.
17 Anselm, Proslogion, ch. 2, in M. J. Charlesworth, trans. and ed., St. Anselm's Proslogion
(Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), p. 116. Cf. Owen's earlier
rendering of Calvin's phrase as `than which nothing can be conceived better' in John
Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (trans. John Owen;
1948), p. 370.
With classic theoÅsis language Calvin interprets the meaning of the phrase
`partakers of the divine nature' in terms of being raised up to God and
united with him. He writes: `We must take into account whence it is that
God raises us to such a peak of honour. We know how worthless is the
condition of our nature, and the fact that God makes Himself ours so that all
His possessions become in a sense ours is a grace the magnitude of which
our minds can never fully grasp.'18 Contemplation of this `ought to give us
abundant cause to renounce the world entirely and be borne aloft to
heaven'. Calvin then boldly states: `We should notice that it is the purpose
of the Gospel to make us sooner or later like [conformes] God; indeed it is, so
to speak, a kind of deification [quasi dei?cari].'19 The older translation
conveys the boldness of the thought more adequately: `Let us then mark,
that the end of the gospel is, to render us eventually conformable to God,
and, if we may so speak, to deify us.'20 In concert with the patristic writers
Calvin views the believer's partaking of the divine nature as a kind of
The language and imagery of theoÅsis throughout Calvin's theology
Deification is not merely an eschatological concept for Calvin. It is rooted in
the divine intentions for the creation and recreation of humanity. According
to Calvin humanity was created in the image and likeness (which are
synonymous for Calvin) of God that our minds might zealously be virtuous
and meditate upon eternal life. Humans were endowed with reason and
understanding `so that, by leading a holy and upright life, we may press on
to the appointed goal of blessed immortality'.21 As creatures in the image of
God humans `ought to be thought the reflection of God's glory'.22 Furthermore,
being created in the image of God is in some sense `participation in
Humans rebelled against God, were separated from him, destitute of all
glory, and spoilt by sin. The image of God became deformed. `Our
happiness', then, `lies in having God's image, which was blotted out by sin,
restored and reformed in us.' Christ is God's image as the eternal Word.
18 Second Peter, p. 330.
19 Ibid. (CO 55.446).
20 Catholic Epistles, p. 371.
21 Institutes 2.1.1. All quotations from the Institutes are from John Calvin, Institutes of the
Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles;
22 Institutes 1.15.4.
23 Institutes 2.2.1.
But, `even on His human nature, which He has in common with us, the
imprint (efflgies) of the Father's glory has been engraved, that He might
transform His members to it'. It follows that `none is to be reckoned among
Christ's disciples unless there is seen the Glory of God impressed on him by
the likeness (efflgie) of Christ as by the seal of a ring'.24 The goal of salvation,
in other words, is for believers to have the image and likeness of God
restored in them as fully as it is in Christ and thus to participate in God and
reflect his glory.
In order to save humanity from the lapsed condition, the race needed
Christ's intercession as mediator. To be a true mediator between God and
humanity Christ had to be true God and true human. To benefit from
Christ, believers must be united with him. Because of the great difference
between our uncleanness and God's holiness, in the incarnation the Son had
to become Immanuel `in such a way that his divinity and our human nature
might by mutual connection grow together. Otherwise the nearness would
not have been near enough, nor the af?nity suf?ciently ?rm, for us to hope
that God might dwell with us.'25 But human sinfulness was not the only
reason we needed a mediator. `Even if man had remained free from all
stain, his condition would have been too lowly for him to reach God
without a Mediator.'26
Christ's accomplishment as Mediator made it such that `all his things are
ours and we have all things in him'.27 His task was to make children of
men, children of God, to make heirs of Ghenna, heirs of the kingdom of
Who could have done this had not the self-same Son of God become the
Son of man, and had not so taken what was ours as to impart what was
his to us, and to make what was his by nature ours by grace? . . . we
trust that we are sons of God, for God's natural Son fashioned for
himself a body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bones from our
24 John Calvin, The Gospel According to
25 Institutes 2.12.1. `By mutual connection grow together' [mutual coniunctione . . . inter se
colescerent] is a reference to the hypostatic union and can be translated, perhaps more
clearly, as `by being brought into mutual connection unite'. Cf. the pointed criticism of
Reist's incredible interpretation in Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin (New
26 Ibid. Calvin rejects that Christ would have been incarnated even if Adam and Eve had
not fallen (Institutes 2.12.6-7).
27 Institutes 3.15.5.
bones, that he might be one with us. Ungrudgingly he took our nature
upon himself to impart to us what was his, and to become both Son of
God and Son of man in common with us . . . the only Son of God, to
whom it wholly belongs, has adopted us as his brothers.28
Calvin begins Book 3 of the Institutes by asking how we receive the
bene?ts that the Father bestowed upon his only begotten Son ± bene?ts
bestowed not for his use but to enrich poor and needy men. The answer is
that Christ must become ours and dwell within us. As long as Christ is
outside us his bene?ts do us no good: `all he possesses is nothing to us until
we grow into one body with him'.29
as far as we are concerned, he has not unpro?tably come with the name
Savior. The same purpose is served by that sacred wedlock through which
we are made ¯esh of his ¯esh and bone of his bone [Eph. ], and thus
one with him.'30 This intimate union is not merely union with Christ as
human mediator, but with God. In fact, the Word `took upon himself the
person and of?ce of Mediator, that he might join us to God'.31 It was for
the purpose of continually bringing believers into ever closer union with
God that Christ was given all authority. `The Father has given all power to
the Son that he may by the Son's hand govern, nourish, sustain us, keep us
in his care, and help us. Thus, while for the short time we wander away
from God, Christ stands in our midst, to lead us little by little to a ?rm
union with God.'32
Baptism and ingrafting
Christ was baptized `in order that he might have it in common with us as
the ?rmest bond of the union and fellowship which he has deigned to form
with us'. Our baptism testi?es to us that we are engrafted not only into the
death and life of Christ, `but so united to Christ himself that we become
sharers in all his blessings'.33 Commenting on Paul's phrase `if we have
been united' (with Christ) in Romans 6:5, Calvin notes that
our ingrafting signi?es not only our conformity to the example of
Christ, but also the secret union (arcanam coniunctionem) by which we
grow together with Him, in such a way that He revives us by His Spirit,
28 Institutes 2.12.2.
29 Institutes 3.1.1.
30 Institutes 3.1.3. Cf. Calvin, `First Sermon on Deuteronomy 24:1±6' ( January 1556) (CO
31 Institutes 1.13.24.
32 Institutes 2.15.5.
33 Institutes 4.15.6.
and transfers His power to us. Therefore, as the graft has the same life or
death as the tree into which it is ingrafted, so it is reasonable that we
should be as much partakers of the life as of the death of Christ.34
Nothing `right or sincere is found in men so long as they remain in their
own nature'.35 Therefore there must be a disparity between the ingrafting
of trees and our spiritual ingrafting into Christ. `In the grafting of trees the
graft draws its nourishment from the root, but retains its own natural
quality in the fruit which is eaten.' The same is not true of spiritual
ingrafting. Echoing 2 Peter 1:4, Calvin says that in spiritual ingrafting `we
not only derive the strength and sap of the life which ¯ows from Christ, but
we also pass from our own nature into His'.36
In one particularly beautiful passage on the Lord's Supper Calvin brings
together many of the terms and images of dei?cation. Godly souls can
gather great assurance and delight from the sacrament of the Lord's Supper
in it they have a witness of our growth into one body with Christ such
that whatever is his may be called ours. As a consequence, we may dare
assure ourselves that eternal life, of which he is the heir, is ours; and
more be cut off from us than from him; again, that we cannot be
condemned for our sins, from whose guilt he has absolved us, since he
willed to take them upon himself as if they were his own. This is the
wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has
made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons
of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an
ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has
conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has
strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself,
he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our
iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his
In the same context of the Lord's Supper Calvin says that Christ is called the
34 John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians (trans. Ross
35 John 11-21 and First John, p. 137.
36 Romans and Thessalonians, p. 124.
37 Institutes 4.17.2.
`bread of life' not because of the sacrament but because he showed himself
as such when `being made a sharer in our human mortality, he made us
partakers in his divine immortality'.38
The glorification of believers is an important theme in patristic and
Orthodox discussions of dei?cation. TheoÅsis is a union with God such that
the divine glory shines through and is reflected by the redeemed. Calvin
understands the glori?cation mentioned in 2 Thess not as God's being
honoured and praised but as God's luminescent glory shining through the
saints in virtue of their union with him. When Christ returns, says Calvin,
he will `shine upon [the godly] with His glory' that `they may partake of it'.
It is as if Paul were saying that Christ `will not possess this glory for Himself
alone, but it will be shared among all the saints'. Furthermore, `It is the
chief and unique consolation of the godly that when the Son of God will be
manifested in the glory of His kingdom, He will gather them together into
the same fellowship with Himself ' and `will pour His glory upon them'.39
Calvin continues this theme in his comments on verse 12 of the same
Particularly worthy of notice is the remark which [Paul] adds that those
who have extolled the glory of Christ are to be glorified in their turn in
Him. The amazing goodness of God is especially seen in the fact that He
desires His glory to be conspicuously displayed in us who are entirely
covered with dishonour. It is, however, a double miracle, that He
afterwards shines upon us with His glory, as though He would do the
same for us in return.40
Commenting on Rom 5:2, Calvin links glorication and partaking of the
divine nature: `The hope of the glory of God has shone upon us by the
Gospel.' The gospel in turn `testifies that we shall be partakers of the divine
nature, for when we shall see God face to face, we shall be like him (II Pet.
1.4; I John 3.2)'.41 In the Institutes Calvin directly associates the partaking of
the divine nature, glorification, and union with Christ: `Indeed, Peter
declares that believers are called in this to become partakers of the divine
nature [II Peter 1:4]. How is this? Because ``he will be . . . glori?ed in all
his saints, and will be marveled at in all who have believed'' [II Thess.
38 Institutes 4.17.4.
39 Romans and Thessalonians, pp. 392, 393.
40 Ibid., p. 394.
41 Romans and Thessalonians, p. 105.
]'. In the very next sentence Calvin writes: `If the Lord will share his
glory, power, and righteousness with the elect - nay, will give himself to be
enjoyed by them and, what is more excellent, will somehow make them to
become one with himself, let us remember that every sort of happiness is
included under this bene?t.'42
For Calvin the union of the believer with God is fundamentally Trinitarian
and involves all three members of the Godhead. As we have seen, according
to Calvin Christ was given all authority and power in order to bring
believers into union with God. He can do this because believers are in
union with him as mediator. What has not yet been noted is the implicit
structure of Calvin's thought here. It follows the two distinct levels of union
with Christ found in his writings. The fundamental level is the hypostatic
union of the eternal Word with the humanity believers share with every
other person. At this level there is a communication of properties between
Christ's divinity and his humanity.43 The consequent level is the particular
union of Christ with individual believers.44 Christ unites believers to God
because in his person God and humanity are already united. Signi?cantly,
this distinction is the very heart of patristic and Orthodox notions of
dei?cation. In patristic terms, individual believers can be deifid because the
incarnation of Christ deified human nature.
Calvin is keen to emphasize that all that Christ did was for our sake and
all that he has is his only for him to give it to us. This includes the love of
God the Father, the life and blessings of Christ, the Holy Spirit and even his
unity with the Father. Christ unites believers with himself in order that they
may participate, as members of his body, in the inner life and love of the
Trinity which he has eternally known. Thus, the dei?cation of the believer
not only has a Trinitarian basis, but a Trinitarian goal. This is most clearly
seen in comments Calvin makes on John 15:9 and 17:21-6.
The fullness of blessings and what was hidden in God are now made
plain in Christ `that He may pass it on to His people; as the water flowing
from the fountain through various channels waters the fields everywhere'.45
If the unity of the Son with the Father is not to be fruitless and useless, `its
power must be diffused through the whole body of believers'. From this
42 Institutes 3.25.10.
43 Cf. esp. Institutes 2.13-14.
44 See further D. Willis-Watkins, `The Unio Mystica and the Assurance of Faith According
to Calvin', Calvin: Erbe und Auftrag (ed. Willem van't Spijker; Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1991),
45 John 11-21 and First John, p. 149.
`we infer that we are one with Christ; not because He transfuses his
substance into us, but because by the power of His Spirit He communicates
to us His life and all the blessings He has received from the Father'.46 In
short, Christ had nothing for himself alone but was rich to enrich his
Strictly speaking, Calvin writes, Christ was not loved by the Father for
his own sake. Rather, God's love was completely poured out on Christ `that
it might flow from Him to His members'.47 The love with which God loves
us `is none other than that with which He loved His Son from the beginning
. . .. It is an inestimable privilege of faith that we know that Christ was
loved by the Father for our sake, that we might be made partakers of the
same love and that forever.'48 Furthermore, Christ was loved `that He may
unite us along with himself to the Father'.49
The role of the Holy Spirit should not be forgotten as he also plays an
important role. It is the Spirit who `breathes divine life into us'.50 The goal
of this regeneration `is that Christ should reform us to God's image'.51 In
the meantime the gifts of the Spirit (which we lack by nature) allow us to
`perceive that we are truly joined to God in perfect blessedness'.52 In sum,
the Holy Spirit is the `bond by which Christ effectually unites us to
Debates with half papists and Osiander
Dei?cation as such was never a major point of dispute between Calvin and
his opponents. Nonetheless, the language and imagery of theoÅsis are prominent
in disputes on tangentially related topics. It is instructive to observe
how deeply ingrained this is in Calvin's thought by the way it comes out in
his rebuttals of the `half papists' and Andreas Osiander. One also ?nds in
these discussions additional important evidence for the thesis of this article.
Certain `half papists' taught a doctrine of justi?cation that, Calvin says,
put Christ outside the believer. In response Calvin emphasizes that the
salvi?c bene?ts which the believer receives are the effect of the union
between Christ and the believer. Calvin stresses the nature and degree of
46 Ibid., p. 148.
47 Ibid., p. 97.
48 Ibid., p. 152.
49 Ibid., p. 97.
50 Institutes 3.1.3.
51 Institutes 1.15.4.
52 Institutes 2.15.4.
53 Institutes 3.1.1; 3.1.3.
this union - it is union with Christ himself growing by degrees until he and
the believer are completely one.
For we await salvation from him not because he appears to us afar off,
but because he makes us, ingrafted into his body, participants not only
in all his benefits but also in himself . . .. Christ has been so imparted to
you with all his bene?ts that all his things are made yours, that you are
made a member of him, indeed one with him . . .. Not only does he
cleave to us by an invisible bond of fellowship, but with a wonderful
communion day by day, he grows more and more into one body with
us, until he becomes completely one with us.54
In the 1545 edition of the Institutes these statements about believers being
made one with Christ are even bolder when Calvin says that we are `made
of one substance with him' and `daily he more and more unites himself to
us in one, same substance'.55 References to a unity of substance were likely
removed in the 1559 edition to avoid the appearance of contradicting the
rebuttals of Osiander he had inserted.56
Osiander taught that Christ as a man was foreknown by God and
therefore the pattern after which humanity was formed. As a consequence
he had to argue that Christ would have been incarnated even if Adam had
not fallen. One of his inventive arguments was based upon Jesus' quotation
of Gen 2:23-4 (the description of the first marriage) in
Osiander took Jesus' quotation to imply that these words were a prophecy
related to the union of Christ and the Church. Pre-lapsarian, the `prophecy'
implied that it was necessary for Christ to be incarnated even if Adam had
not fallen. Calvin responds that in this passage Jesus `is not discussing the
mystical union with which he graced the church, but only fidelity in
marriage'. Neither, says Calvin, will Paul's similar quotations help Osiander's
view (1 Cor ; Eph ). For, though Paul `set forth under the
?gure and likeness of marriage the holy union that makes us one with
Christ', neither did he intend to indicate that the words of Genesis were a
More problematic was Osiander's view that justi?cation was an in-
54 Institutes 3.2.24.
55 See Willis-Watkins, `Unio Mystica', p. 80. N.B. Calvin does not always use substantia
56 For the background of the debate with Osiander see James Weis, `Calvin Versus
Osiander on Justi?cation', The Spring?elder 30 (1965), pp. 31-47, repr. in Calvin's
Opponents, vol. 5 of Articles on Calvin and Calvinism (ed. Richard C. Gamble;
57 Institutes 2.12.7.
pouring or infusion of Christ's divine essence into the believer which
rendered the believer righteous. Osiander supported his position by citing
biblical passages indicating believers are one with Christ. Calvin agrees that
believers are one with Christ. He denies that this means `Christ's essence is
mixed with our own'. Osiander is mistaken in the claim that `we are
substantially righteous in God by the infusion both of his essence and of his
quality'. If God's essence were united with that of believers, Calvin
contends, that would make believers part of God - an implication Calvin
cannot accept. According to Calvin, Osiander's mistake was that he had not
observed that scripture indicates that believers are united with Christ `by the
secret power of his Spirit', not by an infusion of the divine essence.58
Osiander's notion of `essential righteousness' soon comes under two
further criticisms that touch upon our topic.59 First, Calvin attributes to
Osiander the view `that God pours himself into us as a gross mixture'. This
parallels Osiander's error in thinking that Christ is physically present and
eaten in the bread of the Lord's Supper. Calvin's view is that Christ is really
present but not physically present. His understanding of the union between
Christ and the believer is parallel. There is a real union, but not an essential
or `physical' union.
Second, Osiander is criticized for applying to the present what is proper
only to the future state. Calvin has no intention of refuting Osiander's
proof-texts on the union of Christ and believers. Instead he cites two
additional passages that show that the kind of thing Osiander is postulating
for the present in justi?cation is reserved for the eschaton. The two passages
are 2 Pet 1:4 and 1 John 3:2, standard patristic proof-texts for dei?cation.
Calvin denies that believers will ever be united to the divine essence, but
they will partake of the divine nature and be changed to be like Jesus. Calvin
aptly says of this union:
That joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in
our hearts - in short, that mystical union ± are accorded by us the
highest degree of import!ance, so that Christ, having been made ours,
makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been
endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves
from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but
because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body - in short,
because he deigns to make us one with him.60
58 Institutes 3.11.5.
59 Institutes 3.11.10.
Calvin's two uses of the term `mystical union' (mystica unio) in the course
of rebutting Osiander is further evidence in favour of the thesis that Calvin's
doctrine of union with Christ is substantially the same as the patristic notion
of theoÅsis.61 `Mystical union' is very often a technical phrase for deifiation
from at least the time of Pseudo-Dionysius. It was commonly used as such
by medieval! mystics, including Bernard of Clairvaux. Scholars have not
failed to associate Calvin's mentions of mystica unio to Bernard's influence.
EÂtienne Gilson's classic study of Bernard did not fail to make the connection
between Bernard's mystical union and the patristic doctrine of deification.
Gilson especially noted the influence of Maximus Confessor on Bernard and
cites passages in which Bernard unhesitatingly speaks of deification.62 On
this basis it is reasonable to infer that Calvin too is referring to deification.
Oddly, however, the obvious connection between mystical union and
dei?cation is not made in recent comparisons of Bernard's and Calvin's
understanding of mystical union.63
`You are gods'?
Patristic writers commonly refer to deified or glori?fid believers as `gods'.
The biblical text cited to justify this language is Ps 82:6. The relevant
statement reads: `I say, ``You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.'' '
In his commentary on Psalm 82 Calvin writes: `I indeed grant that it is quite
common for the Hebrews to adorn with the title of God whatever is rare and
excellent.' Here it appears `that this name of the Divine Being is applied to
those who occupy the exalted station of princes, in which there is afforded
a peculiar manifestation of the majesty of God'.64 Therefore, the name
`gods' in this psalm is to be understood as referring to judges `on whom
God has impressed special marks of his glory'.65 Commenting directly on v.
6, Calvin says that `God has invested judges with a sacred character and title'
and that `This verse may also be viewed as addressed by God himself to
rulers, and as intimating, that, in addition to his clothing them with
61 In several other passages Calvin uses similar terminology, e.g. in Institutes 4.17.1 he
speaks of the `mystery of Christ's secret union with the devout' which is `by nature
62 See EÂ . Gilson, The Mystical Theology of Saint Bernard (trans. A. H. C. Downes;
& Ward, 1940), pp. 25-8, 123, 132, 211.
63 E.g. Dennis E. Tramburello,
(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1994). Tramburello focused so narrowly on
comparing Calvin's thought with late medieval! mysticism that he neglected the
common stream upon which Calvin and the mystics drew, the patristic writers.
64 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (vol. 3; trans. James Anderson; Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), p. 330.
authority, he has bestowed upon them his name.'66 This exegesis is
consistently maintained in the Institutes as well as in his commentary on John
This interpretation clearly diverges from patristic interpretations. But
Calvin does not contradict the doctrine or the language the fathers used
these passages to support. In fact, he says nothing whatsoever about the
patristic interpretation. Should we infer from Calvin's divergence that he
would have viewed the bold language of the fathers as inappropriate? No.
On the contrary, the logic of several of Calvin's statements, including
comments on Psalm 82, leads to the conclusion that Calvin would have had
no difficulty with the application of the term `gods' to glorified human
beings so long as the term is properly understood.
In the discussion about angels in Book 1 of the Institutes Calvin notes that
when scripture mentions all the angels very often the designation `gods' is
applied to them. This `ought not to seem anything marvelous; for if the
honor is given to princes and governors [Ps. 82:6] because they are viceregents
of God, who is the highest King and Judge, there is far greater
reason why it should be conferred upon the angels, in whom the brightness
of the divine glory shines forth much more richly'.67 Calvin's argument is
that the term `gods' can be properly applied to persons who imitate God in
ruling and judging since he is the paradigmatic king and judge whose
power they are entrusted with. It can be applied to angels even more
appropriately because they do not merely imitate God's functions, they
reflect the divine glory itself.
In his commentary on 1 John 3:2 (`when he appears we shall be like
him'), an important patristic deification proof-text, Calvin describes the
eschatological transformation of believers in such a way as to intimate that
they will reflect the divine glory even more than angels do. When Christ
returns `we shall be like Him in that He will conform our lowly body to His
glorious body . . .. For the apostle wanted to show us briefly that the
ultimate aim of our adoption is that what has, in order, come ?fist in Christ,
shall at last be completed in us.'68 What is Christ's glorious body like to
which believers will be conformed? This glory is so great that `it will ?ll the
ungodly with fear' and `they will flee from the sight in terror. His glory will
so dazzle their eyes that they will be confounded and stupefied.' We `shall
be partakers of the divine glory', Calvin says, and God already `begins to
restore His image in us; but in what a small measure!' When glorified,
66 Ibid., p. 334.
67 Institutes 1.14.5.
68 John 11-21 and First John, p. 267.
believers will then be prepared to see God to the degree that `our little
capacity can grasp'. It is not the vision of God that affects the transformation
but the transformation that will permit the vision of God. For, unless `our
nature were spiritual and endued with a heavenly and blessed immortality,
it could never come so near to God'. Once transformed and ?tted for the
vision of God we will then be like Christ - dazzlingly radiant, glorious,
immortal beings whose sight will strike fear into the hearts of the ungodly.
The appropriateness of angels being designated gods due to their reflection
of the divine glory combined with statements about believers' glorify-
cation leads to the conclusion that glorified believers can appropriately be
designated gods. Further, believers are in union with God and share not
only his glory but his power, life and love. It follows that they could be
referred to as gods in an even stronger sense than when the term is applied
to angels. Though Calvin does not explicitly draw this conclusion, his
reasoning inescapably leads to it. For broad theological reasons rather than a
single proof-text he would have found the designation of glorified believers
as `gods' acceptable and even appropriate if one properly understood what
was and was not meant by it.
There is one passage in the Institutes that prima facie looks like a clear counterexample
to the thesis of this essay. In rebutting Servetus's arguments against
infant baptism Calvin comes to one argument that he deems more absurd
than the rest. According to Calvin, Servetus had offered something like the
following argument: (1) `we become gods by regeneration'; (2) gods are
those `to whom the Word of God came' (quoting John in reference
to Ps 82:6); but (3) it is impossible for infants to have received the word.69
The unstated conclusion is that (4) since infants cannot receive the word,
be regenerated and thus be gods it is inappropriate for them to be baptized.
Calvin mentions that it is one of Servetus's `delusions [deliriis] to imagine
deity in believers [deitatem affingit fidelibus]' and that to `twist a verse of a psalm
into such an alien meaning is an act of abandoned shamelessness'.70 Clearly,
Calvin strongly disagrees with this view but says `this is not the place to
examine it'. Rather, he merely repeats the interpretation of Psalm 82 we
It is unfortunate that Calvin chose not to comment further. Does this
passage undermine the argument of this essay? By no means. The evidence
adduced in favour is remarkably strong, varied and pervasive; it can hardly
69 Institutes 4.16.15.
70 Ibid. (CO 2.1000).
be overturned by a couple of very brief comments. Further, Calvin's
comments are directed against Servetus's teaching, not against the patristic
doctrine. It has already been shown that Calvin would have disagreed with
the patristic interpretation of Ps 82:6 just as much as he disagreed with
Servetus's. But there is no reason to suppose that the two doctrines the verse
was cited to prove would have been viewed as the same by Calvin. Thus, it
would be inappropriate to assume that the same opinions would have been
applied to the patristic fathers who cited the passage in support of theoÅsis.
Since Calvin chose not to comment further we cannot know what
precisely his main difficulties with Servetus's view were. It seems quite
likely, however, that his chief objections would have been similar to those
cited earlier against Osiander: (1) Servetus was inappropriately applying to
the present life unful?lled eschatological promises, thus making believers
out to be more than what they actually are; (2) Servetus's teaching that
`deity' was in believers failed to make the all-important distinction between
sharing in God's nature and possessing his essence. He might have also
objected to the unquali?ed use of such bold language, though, as was
shown, Calvin could have af?rmed the use of such language in certain
contexts if it were clear what was meant and what was not meant by it. That
Calvin's rejection of Servetus's unorthodox teaching does not in any way
undermine the thesis of this essay is confirm!ed by Calvin's affirmation of
theoÅsis in other contexts where he addresses erroneous deifiation concepts.
Erroneous concepts of deification and important distinctions
Calvin did not employ the boldest language of the Church fathers probably
to prevent misunderstanding rather than because of questions about its
legitimacy. For Calvin was aware of pagan and heretical notions of dei?fiation
that used similar language with very different intent. For example,
Calvin knew of the ancient pagan practice of exalting outstanding heroes,
kings and inventors to the status of gods. He referred to this practice as
`invented deification' (apotheosis inventorum)71 and `false deification' (falsa
apotheosis).72 He traced the rise of polytheism and idolatry to this practice
and considered it one of the worst forms of rebellion against the one true
In answering more subtle pagan and heretical notions of deification
Calvin always (except in the case of Servetus mentioned above) set the
substance of the Christian notion against them. The Manicheans `used to
dream that we took our roots from the stem of God and that when we have
71 Calvin, Comm. Isaiah 28:29 (CO 36.483).
72 Institutes 2.8.26 (CO 2.286).
finished the course of our life we shall revert back to our original state'.
Similarly, in Calvin's day there were `fanatics who imagine that we cross
over into God's nature so that His nature absorbs ours. This is how they
explain Paul's words in I Cor. 15.28 - ``that God may be all in all''. They
take this passage in the same sense. This kind of madness never occurred to
the minds of the holy apostles.' Against these views Calvin set the true
meaning of the apostles' words: `They were simply concerned to say that
when we have put off all the vices of the flesh we shall be partakers of
divine immortality and the glory of blessedness, and thus we shall be in a
way one with God so far as our capacity allows.'73
Plato is commended for being the only ancient philosopher who
`recognized man's highest good as union with God'74 and for everywhere
de?ning `the chief good of man to be an entire conformity to God'.75 But
because Plato `had learned nothing of the sacred bond of that union', he
`could not even dimly sense its nature'.76 Plato's conception of deification
began right, insofar as it went. However, because `he was in the midst of
errors, he afterwards glided off to his own inventions'. Christians should
disregard `empty speculations' and be satis?ed `that the image of God in
holiness and righteousness is restored to us for this end, that we may at
length be partakers of eternal life and glory as far as it will be necessary for
our complete felicity'.77 The source of this life and glory, the sacred bond
of union of which Plato was ignorant, is Christ himself, the head of the
church. He `is clothed in heavenly immortality and glory so that the whole
body may be conformed to the Head'. What was begun in the head must be
completed in all the members because `to separate him from ourselves is
not permissible and not even possible, without tearing him apart'.78
Some of Calvin's bolder statements could be misunderstood as saying
the same things as the views he rejects. Thus, he very often quali?es them
or makes important distinctions. For example, deification is not the result of
human work or merit. All of God's promises `ought to be properly and
justly deemed to be the effects of his power and glory', especially the
promise of partaking of the divine nature.79 Peter's word `nature' does not
refer to God's essence but to `kind' or `quality' (note the functional
similarity with the Orthodox essence/energies distinction). Thus, `it is clear
73 Second Peter, p. 330. Cf. Institutes 1.15.5.
74 Institutes 3.25.2. Cf. Plato, Theaetetus, 176b; Republic, 10.613a; Laws, 4.716c±d.
75 Catholic Epistles, p. 371.
76 Institutes 3.25.2.
77 Catholic Epistles, p. 371.
78 Institutes 3.25.3.
79 Catholic Epistles, p. 370.
. . . that man is made to conform to God, not by an inflowing of substance,
but by the grace and power of the Spirit . . . who surely works in us
without rendering us consubstantial with God'.80 Though believers will be
made like Christ, John does not mean that we shall be equal to Christ: `For
there must be a difference between the Head and the Members.'81
There is a final important point which Calvin does not explicitly make
but which is latent in his comments on a related topic. A deified being can
never be considered the same kind of being as the uncreated God. Servetus
held that the Father was essentially God from whom the Son and Spirit
derived their deity. Calvin responded that the Father would then be the
dei?er and `nothing would be left in the Son but a shadow; and the Trinity
would be nothing else but the conjunction of the one God with two created
things'.82 In other words, if Christ was in some sense a `god' by deification
he would be a created being and not the uncreated Creator described in
scripture. Mutatis mutandis, dei랴ed believers, even if properly designated
`gods', remain created beings and therefore different kinds of beings than
the one God.
The believer's union with Christ and the Father, the indwelling presence of
the Spirit in our hearts, restoration of the divine image, being made like
Jesus and our eventual glorification are each important themes in Calvin's
soteriology and eschatology. They are all pervaded by the language and
imagery of theoÅsis. There is a risk that readers unfamiliar with the patristic
writings may fail to see this since I purposely refrained from quoting
patristic parallels to focus attention directly upon Calvin's own statements
(as well as save space). Insufficient familiarity with the patristic writings is
precisely why many of Calvin's interpreters have not recognized the
presence of deifcation in Calvin even when it has stared them in the face.
That and the uncritical acceptance of Harnack's claims have caused many to
assume its absence rather than engage in empirical investigation.
One should not overstate the significance of deification's presence in
Calvin, as the Finns have done with regard to Luther. It would be wrong to
say that dei?cation per se is a major element of Calvin's theology or that its
presence warrants a radical reinterpretation of Calvin's theology. It must be
remembered that deification is a part of the catholic tradition that Calvin
and the other Reformers inherited, affirmed and defended. One should
80 Institutes 1.15.5.
81 John 11-21 and First John, p. 267.
82 Institutes 1.13.25.
never be surprised to find elements of this tradition in the writings of the
More often than not deification in Calvin is presupposed as background
rather than explicitly in the foreground. It has the habit of finding its way
onto the stage of other issues for brief appearances but never headlines.
Therein lies its significance. The largely presuppositional role of dei?fiation
in Calvin's thought is strong evidence that by the end of his life Calvin had
developed something like what the Eastern Orthodox term the patristic
phroÅnema or mindset. The fact that the patristic notion of theoÅsis is present in
Calvin's theology, yet he never once (so far as I know) cites a patristic
authority in support, strengthens this claim.83 It is both implausible and
unnecessary to insist that Calvin reinvented a doctrine that was found in
many of the writers we know Calvin had read at length (not the least of
which are Irenaeus, Augustine and Bernard if not Athanasius and the
Cappadocians). But we should not expect Calvin to have appealed fio
patristic authority on the matter since it was not a major point of dispute in
the sixteenth century. The pervasive but largely presuppositional presence
of dei?cation in Calvin's theology is best explained by patristic in¯uence on
his biblical exegesis at a level deeper than what can be detected by merely
counting and classifying patristic quotations.84
Can we then speak of `Calvin's doctrine of dei?cation'? No and yes.
Richard Muller rightly remarks that Calvin himself `might well object to the
notion of ``Calvin's doctrine'' of anything, inasmuch as the doctrines that
Calvin held and taught were, in large part, not his own! . . . What Calvin
intended to teach was the church's doctrine, not his own doctrine.'85
Though not as bold as the Church fathers sometimes are, Calvin's understanding
of deification is simply the patristic notion of theoÅsis. In this sense
we should not speak of `Calvin's doctrine of deification'; he was simply
teaching and, more often, presupposing the Church's doctrine. Nor should
we speak of `Calvin's doctrine of deification' as if he had substantively
developed or systematized the doctrine beyond what the patristic writers
83 According to Lane's criteria one should not claim that Calvin's thought had been
influenced by the Church fathers without citing where Calvin directly quotes the
fathers. The quotations, in turn, must do more than show precedence for Calvin's
views or lend authority to Calvin's positions. Further, one cannot argue that Calvin
knows more of a writer than he quotes. See
Church Fathers (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1999), chs 1-3. Lane's criteria rightly temper
exaggerated or uncritical claims of in¯uence, but they are at times unduly restrictive
and open to criticism.
84 Calvin's exegesis was influenced but not determined; his independence as an exegete is
85 Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin, p. 7.
wrote; on this subject Calvin was quite unoriginal. In another sense,
however, we can. The role deification plays in Calvin's theology, its relation
to other doctrines, and the minor developments one finds warrant comparative
study of `Calvin's doctrine of deification' with that of individual
Church fathers, medieval! mystics, Eastern theologians, Aquinas, Luther and
other sixteenth-century figures.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that although the search for common
ground was not a motivation for my study, Calvin's doctrine of deification
does have value for intra-religious and inter-religious dialogue. Calvin's
doctrine is not a bridge of common ground that reconciles Reformed
thought with Eastern Orthodoxy or any other religious movement that
espouses a notion of dei?cation (e.g. Mormonism).86 But it can be a point
of departure, especially for dialogue between Reformed and Orthodox
Christians. At the least, `Calvin's doctrine of deification' is something
interesting for the Reformed to talk about among themselves.
86 N.B. the traditional Latter-Day Saint (i.e. Mormon) concept of deification (`eternal
progression' or `exaltation' in LDS parlance) is very different from anything found in
the orthodox Christian tradition.