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Jonathan Edwards and the Polemics of Theosis

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2012

Kyle Strobel*
Castle Rock, Colorado


One of the more intriguing developments in Protestant theology over the past several decades has been the increasing interest in recovering a doctrine of theosis (or deification) for the contemporary church.1 In nearly every branch of the Protestant tree, theologians are making a case for theosis as integral to their theological tradition. There are proposed projects for Lutheran,2 Wesleyan,3 Reformed,4 and distinctively Evangelical5 accounts of theosis, all of which attempt to ground theosis within the overarching model of salvation that their given backgrounds affirm. In light of this, it is not surprising that Jonathan Edwards is touted as a key resource. More surprising is how little is written on Edwards’s doctrine of theosis as such. Instead, the focal point has been on themes in Edwards’s thought that allow for ecumenical bridge-building.6

Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 2012

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1 Several articles and chapters provide a helpful overviews of this renaissance: Olson, Roger E., “Deification in Contemporary Theology,” ThTo 64 (2007) 186200Google Scholar; Gavrilyuk, Paul L., “The Retrieval of Deification: How a Once-Despised Archaism Became an Ecumenical Desideratum,” Modern Theology 25 (2009) 647–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Hallonsten, Gösta, “Theosis in Recent Research,” in Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions (ed. Christensen, Michael J. and Wittung, Jeffery A.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2007) 281–93Google Scholar.

2 Jonathan Linman, “Martin Luther: ‘Little Christs for the World’; Faith and Sacraments as Means to Theosis,” in Partakers of the Divine Nature, 189–99; Braaten, Carl E. and Jenson, Robert W., eds., Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998)Google Scholar; Mannermaa, Tuomo, Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005)Google Scholar.

3 Michael J. Christensen, “John Wesley: Christian Perfection as Faith Filled with the Energy of Love,” in Partakers of the Divine Nature, 219–29; Drewery, Ben, “Deification,” in Christian Spirituality: Essays in Honour of Gordon Rupp (ed. Brooks, Peter; London: SCM, 1975) 3362Google Scholar.

4 Mosser, Carl, “The Greatest Possible Blessing: Calvin and Deification,” SJT 55 (2002) 3657CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lee, Yang-Ho, “Calvin on Deification: A Reply to Carl Mosser and Jonathan Slater,” SJT 63 (2010) 272–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar; J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin: United to God through Christ,” in Partakers of the Divine Nature, 200–18; Habets, Myk, “Reforming Theosis,” in Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology (ed. Finlan, Stephen and Kharlamov, Vladimir; Cambridge: James Clarke, 2006) 146–67Google Scholar; idem, Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies Series; Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2009).

5 Rakestraw, Robert V., “Becoming Like God: An Evangelical Doctrine of Theosis,” JETS 40 (1997) 257–69Google Scholar.

6 McClymond, The most relevant work is Michael, “Salvation as Divinization: Jonathan Edwards, Gregory Palamas and the Theological Uses of Neoplatonism,” in Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian (ed. Crisp, Oliver and Helm, Paul; Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2004) 139–60Google Scholar.

7 Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (ed. John E. Smith; vol. 2 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959) 203 [emphasis mine]. This is in contrast to providing a robust theological development or holding Edwards’s account against an Eastern Orthodox analysis. I agree with J. Todd Billings that this latter method is not the most fruitful approach; what is needed is not a comparison with Palamas but a development of doctrine, so that Edwards’s work answers the question: What is a Reformed doctrine of theosis? (J. Todd Billings, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ [Changing Paradigms in Historical and Systematic Theology; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007] 53–54).

8 See McClymond, “Salvation as Divinization,” 139–60. Similarly, Stephen Holmes baldly asserts, “In common with Eastern Orthodox thought, Edwards was prepared to see salvation as theosis, being made one with God. Everything that has gone before has, in fact, presupposed this position, but still, perhaps, it is a shock” (God of Grace and God of Glory: An Account of the Theology of Jonathan Edwards [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001] 58).

9 III, Robert W. Caldwell, Communion in the Spirit: The Holy Spirit as the Bond of Union in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Studies in Evangelical History and Thought; Carlisle, U.K.: Paternoster, 2006) 116Google Scholar.

10 Ibid., 117.

11 Caldwell states that because Edwards denies an “ontological” union of God with believers, this “allows us to rule out … the divinization model” (ibid., 118). Caldwell assumes that divinization necessarily entails what he calls an “ontological blurring” between creature and Creator (ibid., 118–20). Orthodox divinization models deny any kind of “ontological” union with God’s essence, so despite his confusion of terms, Caldwell’s analysis is correct. What Caldwell notes is that Edwards’s model focuses on the “nature” of God rather than the “essence,” which McClymond rightly parallels with the Eastern Orthodox notion of “energies” and “essence.”

12 McClymond, “Salvation as Divinization,” 144–50.

13 Palamas, Gregory, The Triads (The Classics of Western Spirituality; Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1983) 93111Google Scholar.

14 Stephen Finlan and Vladimir Kharlamov, “Introduction,” in Theosis, 1.

15 I agree with J. Todd Billings and Gannon Murphy that a distinctively Reformed account of theosis is possible without wholesale agreement with patristic anthropology, an essence/energies distinction, or ascetic life (see J. Todd Billings, “Calvin: United to God,” 200–18; Murphy, Gannon, “Reformed Theosis?,” ThTo 65 [2008] 191212)Google Scholar. This is in contrast to Andrew Louth’s essay in the same volume as Billings, where he argues that Western theology must adopt several key elements of Eastern Orthodox doctrine simply to postulate a true doctrine of theosis (Andrew Louth, “The Place of Theosis in Orthodox Theology,” in Partakers of the Divine Nature, 32–44).

16 Michael J. Christensen, “The Problem, Promise, and Process of Theosis,” in Partakers of the Divine Nature, 25.

17 Leech, Kenneth, Experiencing God: Theology as Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper, 1985) 258Google Scholar.

18 Allen, Alexander V. G., Jonathan Edwards (The Jonathan Edwards Classic Studies Series; Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf & Stock, 2007Google Scholar) 224 n.1.

19 George Claghorn, Introduction to: Jonathan Edwards, “Unpublished Letter on Assurance and Participation in the Divine Nature,” in Ethical Writings (ed. Paul Ramsey; vol. 8 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989) 633.

20 Edwards, Religious Affections 203 [emphasis mine].

21 Thomas Manton, A Practical Commentary; or, An Exposition with Notes, on the Epistle of Jude (vol. 5 of The Complete Works of Thomas Manton; London: James Nisbet, 1871) 318. Peter Thuesen notes that Thomas Manton was a key resource for Edwards who is often ignored today. Edwards owned Manton’s commentary on James, his sermons on Thessalonians and Isaiah, and a compilation of twenty posthumously published sermons. See Edwards, Jonathan, Catalogues of Books (ed. Thuesen, Peter J.; vol. 26 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008Google Scholar) 1, 53, 143, 166.

22 Henry Nicolas (also spelled Hendrik Niclaes or Nicholas) founded a community called the Familists (or Family of Love). Edwards references the Family of Love in his “The Distinguishing Marks,” in The Great Awakening (ed. C. C. Goen; vol. 4 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972) 257. Goen suggests that Edwards’s denunciation of “the community of women” would have included the Familists (ibid., 468 n. 9). For more on the “Family of Love,” see Ebel, Julia G., “The Family of Love: Sources of Its History in England,” Huntington Library Quarterly 34 (1967) 331–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Martin, Lynnewood F., “The Family of Love in England: Conforming Millenarians,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 3 (1972) 99108CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Moss, Jean Dietz, “Variations On a Theme: The Family of Love in Renaissance England,” Renaissance Quarterly 31 (1978) 186–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Martin, J. W., “Elizabethan Familists and English Separatism,” The Journal of British Studies 20 (1980) 5373CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Foster, Stephen, “New England and the Challenge of Heresy, 1630–1660: The Puritan Crisis in Transatlantic Perspective,” The William and Mary Quarterly 38 (1981) 624–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Halley, Janet E., “Heresy, Orthodoxy, and the Politics of Religious Discourse: The Case of the English Family of Love,” Representations 15 (1986) 98120CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For the most extensive monograph, see Marsh, Christopher W., The Family of Love in English Society, 1550–1630 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994)Google Scholar. For general radical groups in New England, including the Familists, see Gura, Philip F., A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory: Puritan Radicalism in New England 1620–1660 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984)Google Scholar.

23 Edwards, Religious Affections, 287.

24 Ibid.

25 Rutherford, Samuel, A Survey of the Spiritual Antichrist (London: J. D. & R. for Andrew Crooke, 1648)Google Scholar. Edwards refers to this work as the Display of the Spiritual Antichrist (Religious Affections, 287). Furthermore, rather than directly quoting Nicolas’s works, which Edwards was not privy to, I quote from Rutherford’s own analysis and quotation of Nicolas (which Edwards did know). For my purposes, the driving questions concern Edwards’s perceived threat rather than his polemical opponents’ actual work. [For readability and clarity, I have updated the spelling and italics for all quotes from this work.]

26 Rutherford, Spiritual Antichrist, 55.

27 Henry Nicolas, quoted in ibid., 56 [emphasis mine].

28 Philip Gura contends that there were not actual Familists in New England, but that the term had come to describe a wide range of heresy and enthusiasm. In an important example, Gura notes that Thomas Shepherd accused John Cotton of holding “Familist” teachings (Gura, Sion’s Glory, 54–56). This could explain why Edwards does not enter into debate when he denounces the heretical groups but simply names them to distinguish his own position from theirs. On the other hand, Gura notes that Cotton Mather, whose work Edwards knew, claimed that Rhode Island was a den of “Antinomians, Familists, Anabaptists, Anti-Sabbatarians, Arminians, Socinians, Quakers, Ranters, everything in the world but Roman Catholicks, and Real Christians” (quoted in ibid., 87). This statement was written in 1702, a generation before Edwards wrote his Religious Affections, and no doubt still in the mind of the conservative ministers.

29 Rutherford, Spiritual Antichrist, 57 [emphasis mine].

30 Ibid., 58. Therefore, Nicolas will say, “The Lord hath Godded me with God in his Godly being with the Spirit of his love” (quoted in ibid.).

31 For a more robust account of these debates, including a more detailed description of the Edwards-Chauncy interaction, see Smart, Robert Davis, Jonathan Edwards’s Apologetic for the Great Awakening (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011)Google Scholar.

32 For the following chronology, see C. C. Goen’s introduction to The Great Awakening, 62–65.

33 See White, Eugene E., Puritan Rhetoric: The Issue of Emotion in Religion (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009) 103Google Scholar. Chauncy’s commencement address was given at Harvard. The Harvard and Yale connection to this issue should neither be ignored nor overplayed. This is particularly true in regards to Yale. Edwards’s commencement address was received well by certain students but much less so by the faculty and administration (see C. C. Goen, The Great Awakening, 56–57).

34 A Letter from a Gentleman in Boston, repr., New York: Clarendon Historical Society Reprints, March 1883. My use of the term “publishing” in this sentence is not without purpose: Chauncy may or may not have actually written the anonymous The Wonderful Narrative. Regardless of who actually wrote the work, it is clear that Chauncy had his hand in editing and preparing the book for publication (see Smart, Apologetic for the Great Awakening, 176).

35 “The issue concerning Cotton and Edwards was not that they were Antinomians, but that they both, from Chauncy’s perspective, apparently sounded like and associated with, Antinomians and incipient Familists… . Edwards was culpable, in Chauncy’s view, because his language sounded Antinomian” (ibid., 187).

36 Lang, Amy Schrager, “‘A Flood of Errors’: Chauncy and Edwards in the Great Awakening,” in Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience (ed. Hatch, Nathan O. and Stout, Harry S.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) 160–73Google Scholar, at 160. See also Smart, Apologetic for the Great Awakening, 213–14.

37 Chauncy, Charles, Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England (Boston: Rogers and Fowle, 1743) iiiGoogle Scholar.

38 Ibid., iii–xvi.

39 Ibid., xxvi. “Quoting at length from these sources, Chauncy attempted to identify the Awakening as a second Antinomian outburst just like the first. Each 1630 type had a 1740 antitype” (Smart, Apologetic for the Great Awakening, 185).

40 This claim might not appear as far-fetched as it seems at first glance. Alan Heimart claims that Chauncy feared the “New Light” theology would have a leveling effect that could usher in a form of communism! Heimart notes, “By 1774 all Liberals, Chauncy among them, were once again warning that enthusiasm, whether religious or political, endangered the very basis of American happiness” (Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution [The Jonathan Edwards Classic Studies Series; Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf & Stock, 1966] 423; see also 197, 250–51).

41 Edwards, Religious Affections, 203.

42 Ibid.

43 The Anne Hutchinson controversy remained an important fear for pastors and theologians in New England. Rutherford mentions Hutchinson under the heading “The First Sowers of the Tares of Antinomianism and Familism in New England,” stating, “This woman is called the American Jezabel [sic]” (Rutherford, Spiritual Antichrist, 176). Rutherford claims that Hutchinson’s teaching had points of contact with the Familists and Nicolas in particular, citing the resurrection of bodies as an example. According to Rutherford, both Hutchinson and Nicolas believe that the body is not resurrected, but the resurrection concerns the regenerates’ union with Christ in their lives (ibid., 178). Furthermore, ch. 17 of Rutherford’s work is entitled “Of the Late Familists Banished Out of New England in Massachusetts and now Inhabitants of Shaw-omet, otherwise called Providence, and their Tenets” (ibid., 183).

44 Philip Gura argues that Chauncy, in his Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion, owes much to Thomas Edwards, Robert Baillie, and Samuel Rutherford. It could be that Edwards’s use of Rutherford has further polemical purposes other than simply being a helpful overview of heretical movements (Gura, Sion’s Glory, 327).

45 Jonathan Edwards, “Concerning the End,” in Ramsey, ed., Ethical Writings, 527–29.

46 Ibid., 528.

47 See Holmes, God of Glory, 71.

48 Edwards, “Concerning the End,” 528.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid., 530.

51 There is an interesting parallel between Edwards’s development and Gannon Murphy’s. Murphy states, “My understanding of the doctrine [theosis] acknowledges that God’s elect do literally share or become ‘partakers’ in the divine, but their creaturely status and individual personality are not distorted or erased. On the contrary, the theotic aspect of Christus in nobis and unio mystica does not entail the erasure of the human person but the actualization of it. Our entire person—mind, body, soul—is designed to be in communion with the Trinity, to be totally embraced by God and enveloped by the glory of the Lord” (Murphy, “Reformed Theosis?,” 200).

52 Edwards, “Concerning the End,” 531.

53 Edwards states, “’Tis the image of God’s own knowledge of himself. ’Tis a participation of the same: ’tis as much the same as ’tis possible for that to be, which is infinitely less in degree: as particular beams of the sun communicated, are the light and glory of the sun in part” (ibid., 441).

54 Ibid., 442.

55 Murphy, “Reformed Theosis?,” 200.

56 Basil, The Treatise De Spiritu Sancto, The Nine Homilies of the Hexaemeron and the Letters of Saint Basil the Great (vol. 8 of A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1978) 15.

57 Mantzaridis, George, The Deification of Man (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984) 122Google Scholar. Quoted in Murphy, “Reformed Theosis?,” 204 [emphasis mine].

58 For instance: Wilson-Kastner, Patricia, “God’s Infinity and his Relationship to Creation in the Theologies of Gregory of Nyssa and Jonathan Edwards,” Foundations 21 (1978) 305–21Google Scholar; Steele, Richard B., “Transfiguring Light: The Moral Beauty of the Christian Life according to Gregory Palamas and Jonathan Edwards,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52 (2008) 403–39Google Scholar.

59 McClymond notes that this context is surprisingly close to Palamas’s (“Salvation as Divinization,” 144–50).

60 Edwards, “Unpublished Letter,” 639.

61 Edwards, Jonathan, “Discourse on the Trinity,” in Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith (ed. Lee, Sang Hyun; vol. 21 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003) 131Google Scholar.

62 My reading here is in contrast to Crisp, Oliver, “Jonathan Edwards’ God: Trinity, Individuation and Divine Simplicity,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives (ed. McCormack, Bruce L.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2008) 83103Google Scholar. Unfortunately, space will not allow for elaboration. I address this issue in my forthcoming monograph Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology; London: T&T Clark, forthcoming).

63 My rephrasing of this biblical text in light of Edwards’s view.

64 My rephrasing of the biblical text.

65 Sang Hyun Lee argues that Edwards’s God is both fully actual as well as dispositional. This “disposition” in God is to enlarge himself in creation. In Lee’s words, “The consequence of Edwards’ conception of God’s creation of the world as the exertion of God’s original dispositional essence itself is that the world is in some sense a further actualization of God’s own being… . Through God’s creative act, according to Edwards, God’s own happiness is ‘enlarged.’ God’s self-communication in creating the world, then, in some sense aims at ‘the fullness and completeness of himself’” (Lee, Sang Hyun, “Edwards on God and Nature: Resources for Contemporary Theology,” in Edwards in Our Time: Jonathan Edwards and the Shaping of American Religion [ed. Lee, Sang Hyun and Guelzo, Allen C.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999] 1544Google Scholar, at 22). Similarly, “Edwards’ dispositional definition of the divine being means that God is inherently a tendency toward an increase or enlargement of God’s own being” (idem, The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988] 184). I find Lee’s use of “being” here unhelpful and inaccurate. As I show here, Edwards holds to a doctrine similar to the Eastern Orthodox who utilize an essence/energies distinction. God, for Edwards, does not enlarge his own being but communicates his communicable nature to the creature through the economic activity of Son and Spirit. By communicating his nature, God addresses the creature qua creature, upholding the creatureliness of humanity and keeping in place the Creator/creature distinction. God’s communication of his nature does not overpower humanity but actualizes it to be “humanity fully alive.” God’s creation of humanity as rational subjects is upheld by God’s redemptive work. God does not bypass the faculties but enlivens them such that theosis is the perfection of the creature qua creature.

66 Edwards, Jonathan, “Miscellanies #184,” in The “Miscellanies”: A–500 (ed. Schafer, Thomas A.; vol. 13 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994) 330Google Scholar.

67 Edwards, “Concerning the End,” 459.

68 Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Cambridge, U.K.: James Clarke, 1991) 68Google Scholar .

69 Ibid., 70.

70 Ibid., 71.

71 Ibid., 74. For Edwards, God would not “shine forth” if he did not create but would simply “shine.” In other words, God’s immanent life is “bright,” but that life is only communicated because God willed to create and exist economically.

72 “The word nature does not denote essence but kind” (Calvin, John, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of St. Peter [ed. Torrance, David W. and Torrance, Thomas F.; trans. William B. Johnston; Edinburgh: Oliver, 1963] 330Google Scholar).

73 Lossky, Mystical Theology, 80.

74 Paul Gavrilyuk, when discussing the necessary and sufficient conditions of theosis, parallels Roger Olson, Vladimir Lossky, and Georgios Mantzaridis, arguing that Palamas’s essence/energy distinction is a necessary feature of any doctrine of theosis (“The Retrieval of Deification,” 652). With his conceptual parallel, Edwards’s account seems to be a reasonable candidate.

75 Lossky, Mystical Theology, 87.

76 Williams, Rowan, “Deification,” The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (ed. Wakefield, Gordon S.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983) 106Google Scholar.

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