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Wrj 73 (2011): 237-54

QUASI DEIFICAMI
DEIFICATION IN THE THEOLOGY OF JOHN CALVIN
A. J. OLLERTON

I. Introduction

ecent discussions regarding deification in Calvin's theology have sounded


rather like a Punch and Judy show: "Oh yes there is . . . Oh no there isn't!"
Mosser and Billings have adamantly affirmed deification in Calvin's theology,
whereas Slater and Garcia deny any presence of the motif.1 The tug-of-war
reached a fruitless impasse of yes/no responses as both sides quoted Calvin to
bolster their positions. Lee's recent article signals a fresh attempt to navigate a
different route, through the distinction of divine essence and divine kind.2
The present article argues that Calvin has a differentiated approach to deification such that yes/no responses lie within Calvin's corpus of writings itself. In his
commentary on 2 Pet 1:4 Calvin concludes that the scriptural phrase "partakers of
the divine nature" refers to a kind of deification (quasi deifican).5 This phrase
shows Calvin's willingness to affirm the motif of deification (through explicit use
of theosis terminology) whilst also using the qualifying term ( quasi) to guard against
certain versions of deification. If it can be shown that Calvin himself both recaves
and rejects different versions of deification in a differentiated manner, the Punch
and Judy show can give way to a more fruitful discussion of the nature of true deification according to Calvin. This could not only reconcile some divisions in
Calvin scholarship but also contribute to bridging the gulf between East and West
II. Quasi deificali and the Patristic Background
For we must consider from whence it is that God raises us up to such a height of honour. We know how abject is the condition of our nature; that God, then, should make

Andrew J. Ollerton is Associate Director and Lecturer at the Centre for Missional Leadership in Watford, near
London, and is beginningPhD. research in Historical Theology.
1
J. Todd Billings, "United to God through Christ: Assessing Calvin on the Question of Deification," HTR9S (2005): 315-34, 334; Carl Mosser, "The Greatest Possible Blessing: Calvin and Deification," SJTbb (2002): 36-57; Jonathan Slater, "Salvation as Participation in the Humanity of the
Mediator in Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Reply to Carl Mosser," SfT 58 (2005): 39-58;
Mark A. Garcia, Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin's Theology (Milton Keynes:
Paternoster, 2008), 257.
2
Yang-Ho Lee, "Calvin on Deification: A Reply to Carl Mosser and Jonathan Slater," SJT 63
(2010): 272-84.
3
John Calvin, Commentary on the Catholic Epistles (vol. 22 of Calvin's Commentaries; Edinburgh:
Calvin Translation Society, 1848; repr. in 22 vols., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 371.
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himself ours, so that all his things should in a manner become our things, the greatness
of his grace cannot be sufficiently conceived by our minds

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 [quasi deifican ] .4

Calvin's direct reference to deification aligns him with a trajectory reaching


back to the patristic writers who frequently used the language of theosis or
deification (from Justin Martyr through to Maximus the Confessor). Indeed,
deification was explicitly taught and assumed in all three of the main patristic
trajectoriesthe Alexandrian trajectory which emphasized the role of the
incarnation and sacraments in deification (Irenaeus, Athanasius, Cyril), the
Cappadocian trajectory which had a more intellectual, moral, and aesthetic
approach to deification (Clement, Gregory Nazianzus, Maximus), and the Latin
trajectory (Tertullian, Augustine).5 During the patristic era, the notion of
deification was so established that no definition was deemed necessary until
Dionysius the Areopagite in the sixth century. Deification was such a solid
assumption that it could be used as a battering ram to knock down other doctrines. As Russell argues: "Deification is primarily a weapon in Athanasius'
dogmatic armoury against Arianism."6 In Orationes contra Aranos Athanasius
used deification to expose the Arian contradictionthe Son cannot make gods
out of humanity unless he is God Himself; only deity can deify humanity.7 As
Christology was debated, both sides assumed deification.
It is primarily the Alexandrian trajectory thatfindsan echo in Calvin's approach
to deification. Irenaeus was the first to explicitly state the tantum-quantum or
exchange formula; the Son of God "became what we are in order to make us
what he is himself."8 Athanasius stood on Irenaeus's shoulders and saw further.
He emphasized the flesh of the incarnate Christ as the definition and dynamic
of deification. Only if human nature has been deified in Christ can we be deified
through our union with Christ: "For that is why the union was of this kind, that
he might unite what is naturally man to what is naturally of the Godhead, and his
salvation and deification be made sure."9 Cyril was the first to see the sacraments
as the primary means of deificationbaptism initiates the unio mystico between
the believer and Christ, and the Eucharist feeds the believer's soul with nothing
less than Christ himself. Thus the Eucharist "restores man wholly to incorruption'' as it is endowed with the qualities of the Logos and "isfilledwith his energy,
through which all things are given life and maintained in being."10
4

Calvin, Catholic Epistles, 371.


I use the headings "Alexandrian" and "Cappadocian" broadly and loosely even though all the
church fathers mentioned do not fit neady into each category historically. For an excellent summary
of die development of deification across these trajectories, see Norman Russell, The Doctnne of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
6
Russell, Doctnne of Deification, 167.
7
Athanasius, Orations against the Arians 1.38-39 (NPNF2 4:327).
8
Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5, Preface ( ANF1:526).
9
Athanasius, Orations against the Arians 2.70 (NPNF2 4:386).
10
Cyril of Alexandria, commentary on John 6:35 (cited in Russell, Doctnne ofDfication, 202).
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The patristic influence on Calvin is well documented.11 As Calvin says himself:


"We receive what was determined by the ancient councils, and we hate all sects
and heresies which were rejected by the holy doctors from the time of St. Hilary
and Athanasius until St. Ambrose and Cyril."12 Therefore any attempt to assess
the place of deification in Calvin's theology must begin with this patristic plumb
line. Consequently, the absence of this patristic background in many studies
means a failure to see deification in the foreground of Calvin's theology. Lee's
recent article largely omits the patristic background and as a result summarizes
Calvin's comments by saying: "We will experience a kind of deification, but not
deification itself."13 However, consistent with the patristic writers, Calvin never
questions whether we will experience deification but what kind of deification it
will be. Indeed, in his commentary on 2 Pet 1:4 Calvin sees deification as both
the goal of the gospel and the greatest possible blessing.
In line with the patristic trajectory, Calvin also highlights the apophatic nature
of deification, such that it "cannot be sufficiently conceived by our minds."14
Calvin often turns to the patristic and mediaeval language of mystery when
approaching the motif of deification. This signals both an awareness of
approaching an unfathomable subject and a concern not to move beyond biblical
revelation into speculation. In Book 3 of the Institutes, having commented further
on 2 Pet 1:4, he then pulls back from any attempt to inquire further into the
depths of this promise:
But when we have made great progress in thus meditating, let us understand that if the
conceptions of our minds be contrasted with the sublimity of the mystery, we are still
halting at the entrance
We feel how much we are stimulated by an excessive desire
of knowing more than is given us to know, and hence frivolous and noxious questions
are ever anon springing forth.15

A crucial point arises from Calvin's caution; when a subject tends towards being
more apophatic in nature, Calvin will say less about iL16 This inversely proportional
relationship between mystery and commentary should not be (rnis) interpreted to
mean that Calvin has a small place in his theology for the deification motif.
Percentages and proportions are not a fair test of the significance of deification in

11

See Anthony N. S. Lane, Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999) ; T.
H. L. Parker, Calvin's Old Testament Commentaries (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995).
12
Calvin, Opera quae supersunt omnia (ed. G. Baum, E. Cunitz, and E. Reuss; 59 vols.; Brunswick:
Schwetschke, 1863-1900), 9:739-42; Calvin, Opera selecta (ed. R Barth and W. Niesel; Munich: Kaiser,
1926-1936), 2:312; cited and trans, in Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology
and Worship (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2004), 266.
13
Lee, "Calvin on Deification," 279.
14
Calvin, Catholic Epistles, 371.
15
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. and trans. Henry Beveridge; 2 vols.; Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 2:273-74 (3.25.10).
16
In other words, his general principle of brevity is heightened in the presence of apophatic
mystery.

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Calvin's writings.17 The patristic writers may have approached deification directly as
a topic for discussion. However, Calvin approaches deification obliquely and
glances at it from other loci of inquiry. Therefore, "halting at the entrance" of
that which Calvin deems the goal of the gospel is not a reluctance to enter but a
caution not to do so presumptuously or prematurely.
III. Falsa apotheosisVersions ofDeification Calvin Rejects
Calvin's commentary on 2 Pet 1:4 illustrates his differentiated approach. On
the very same page he both receives and rejects deification. No sooner has Calvin
affirmed quasi dfican than he opposes a different version of deification:
But the word nature is not here essence but quality. The Manicheans formerly dreamt
that we are a part of God, and that, after having run the race of life we shall at length
revert to our original. There are also at this day fanatics who imagine that we thus pass
over into the nature of God, so that his swallows up our nature
But such a delirium
as this never entered the minds of the holy Aposdes.18
Here Calvin rejects the Manichees' attempts to posit deification as a form of
trans-substantiation whereby humanity is mixed into the divine substance "so
that his swallows up our nature." Calvin also clashes with Servetus on a similar
issue and concludes it is a "delusion to imagine deity in believers." 19 In both
instances, Calvin is objecting to the unqualified and unmediated notion of deity
in humanity such that deity can be considered a deposit that humans possess.
Elsewhere Calvin also rejects what he terms falsa apotheosis, meaning pagan
notions of deification that attribute the title and status of gods to outstanding
military heroes and kings.20 Calvin's objections to faha apotheosis are gathered up
and brought into focus through his debate with Oslander.
Calvin introduces Osiander's error by connecting it with that of the Manichees; "he had formed some idea akin to the Manichees, desiring to transfuse
the divine essence into men." 21 Though the debate will narrow down to the issue
of essential righteousness compared to imputed righteousness in the arena of
justification, Calvin starts with the broader issue of the impartation of divine
substance. 22 This relates directly to the deification motif. Most of the literature
bypasses this broader context and only begins the debate at the narrow point of
17

Previous articles have tried to assess deification in Calvin with the measuring rod of proportions, sections, and chapters. The inevitable conclusion is that the motif is "avoided... or not known
about" by Calvin at all (Frederick W. Norris, "Deification: Consensual and Cogent," SJT49 [1996]:
420). Wenger also falls into this trap as he reduces the significance of the motif of "union with Christ"
on the grounds that "there is [not] a single chapter devoted to it in the entire Institutes (Thomas
Wenger, "The New Perspective on Calvin: Responding to Recent Calvin Interpretations," JETS 50
[2007] : 311-28, 327). For this reason I refer to deification as a motif rather than a doctrine.
18
Calvin, Catholic Epistles, 371.
19
Calvin, Inst, 4.16.31.15, cited in Mosser, "Greatest Possible Blessing," 52.
20
Calvin, Inst, 1:337 (2.8.26).
21
Ibid., 2:40 (3.11.5).
22
Ibid., 2:47-56 (3.11.11-19).

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imputed versus essential righteousness. Consequently, the differences between


Calvin and Oslander can be exaggerated and the more nuanced objections of
Calvin missed. Indeed, "Calvin does not start writing against Oslander, until he
is accused of being Osiandrian in his theology by his Lutheran opponents." 23
Calvin's broader objections to Oslander can be summarized as follows.
1. Unmediated Deification
Oslander posits a direct reception of divine essence (righteousness), which
bypasses the incarnation and the work accomplished by Christ in the flesh. Thus,
the integrity of both divinity and humanity is lost and the Creator/creature distinction is dissolved. Calvin therefore states, "We deny the essence of Christ is
confounded with ours."24 To refute this direct infusion of divine righteousness
Calvin repeatedly uses the language of mediator. He claims Oslander teaches
that "we are not justified by the mere grace of the Mediator."25 By contrast, Calvin affirms his own position on mediated righteousness: "We infer, therefore,
that righteousness was manifested to us in his flesh... . [Paul] places the fountain of righteousness entirely in the incarnation of Christ."26
The vital distinction here is not regarding the real reception of divinity in
humanity (deification) but the modus of that reception (mediated or unmediated) . Our reception of the divine nature is enabled only through the incarnate
flesh of the Mediator. Therefore, all that Oslander wishes to affirm about the
reception of the divine nature, Calvin can affirm but not in the same way. Oslander posits an unmediated infusion; Calvin posits a mediated incarnation.
We only make a distinction as to the manner in which the nghteousness of God comes to us, and
is enjoyed by us,a matter as to which Oslander shamefully erred. We deny not that
that which was openly exhibited to us in Christ flowed from the secret grace and
power of God; nor do we dispute that the righteousness which Christ confers upon
us is therighteousnessof God, and proceeds from him. What we constantly maintain
is, that our righteousness and life are in the death and resurrection of Christ.27
(emphasis added)
This explains why Calvin and Oslander have been considered by some to be
polar opposites and by others to be kindred spirits (the Lutheran critique). It is
also the reason why this debate with Oslander has been wrongly used to argue
against deification in Calvin. Garcia makes this error when he argues that deification can only be posited in Calvin's theology "if one overlooks all Calvin has to
say in criticism of Osiander's essentialist, divinizing conception." 28 This confuses
different issues. Calvin does vehemently reject Osiander's notion of unmediated
23
24
25
26
27
28

Billings, "United to God," 325.


Calvin, Inst, 2:40-41 (3.11.8).
Ibid., 2:41 (3.11.5).
Ibid., 2:44-45 (3.11.9).
Ibid., 2:50 (3.11.12).
Garcia, Life in Christ, 257-58.

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substance infusion, but that does not mean he has rejected a quasi deificanwhen
mediated by the incarnate flesh of Christ. Again the need for a differentiated
doctrine of deification is highlighted.
2. Disconnected Deification
Osiander's failure to attribute righteousness to the flesh of the Mediator also
causes him to neglect the work of the Spirit. The result is that instead of deification being derived from personal union with Christ, Osiander focuses on the
transference of divine essence. For Osiander our union with Christ is through
substance exchange, whereas for Calvin it is through the agency of the Spirit:
He, indeed, heaps together many passages of scripture showing that Christ is one with
us, and we likewise one with him, a point which needs no proof; but he entangles himself by not attending to the bond of this unity. The explanation of all difficulties is easy
to us, who hold that we are united to Christ by the secret agency of his Spirit.29
Calvin's response to Osiander's substance language is to affirm the role of the
Spirit as the bond of the unio mystico relationship between Christ and the believer: "Therefore, to that union of the head and members, the residence of Christ
in our hearts, in fine, the mystical union, we assign the highest rank, Christ
when he becomes ours making us partners with him in the gifts with which he
was endued." 30
3. Over-Realized Deification
Finally, Calvin accuses Osiander of "hurrying us into the clouds" by an overrealized eschatology.31 Osiander teaches the reception of perfect righteousness
and the partaking of the divine nature at the point of regeneration. Calvin
argues against this by highlighting a vital distinction: "The gift ofjustification is
not separated from regeneration, though the two things are distinct."32 Imputed
righteousness is perfect now. However, the process which began at regeneration
continues "through the whole course of life, gradually and sometimes slowly."33
Thus, according to their state of sanctification, any believer would be condemned before the judgment-seat in this life but according to justification "they
appear in the heavens as if clothed with the purity of Christ."34
Calvin's twofold distinction between justification and sanctification gives an
eschatological structureat the point of regeneration, justification is perfected
whereas sanctification is partial. The result is that the believer can experience
peace with God now in the heavenly realm, whilst still remaining a pilgrim in the
29

Calvin, Inst, 2:40 (3.11.5).


Ibid., 2:46 (3.11.10).
31
Ibid., 2:47 (3.11.11).
32
Ibid.
33
Ibid., 2:47-48 (3.11.11).
34
Ibid., 2:48 (3.11.11).
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earthly realm en route to deified perfection. Osiander's infusion of a "portion of


righteousness" has no distinction of imputed and imparted.35 Instead it collapses
them both into the immediate, leaving his theology devoid of an eschatological
framework. The result is that "salvation is shaken."36
Therefore, Calvin criticizes Osiander for abusing Scriptures "used in reference to the heavenly life," because he then "wrests [them] to our present state
. . . as if we now were what the gospel promises we shall be at the final advent of
Christ."37 The two texts that Calvin cites (2 Pet 1:4; 1 John 3:3) are "standard
patristic proof-texts for deification."38 Thus Calvin overtly draws the deification
motif into this debate with Osiander on the grounds that he fails to give a future
tense to the realization of these promises. Again, Calvin's objection is not that
Osiander is going too far in asserting the union of humanity and divinity but
rather that he envisages that union in the wrong way and at the wrong time.
IV. The Threefold Nature ofDeification According to Calvin
Unsurprisingly, the quasi deifican that Calvin affirms is symmetrical to Osiander's falsa apotheosis, which he rejects. In the same three areas that he opposes
Osiander's version of deification, Calvin also formulates a positive version of
deification that is in line with the Alexandrian trajectory from the patristic era.
1. Mediation Through the Hypostatic Union
For Calvin, deification is the closest possible connection between God and
man such that through the unio mystico there is "a sacred marriage, by which we
become bone of his bone and flesh of hisflesh,and so one with him."39 However,
Calvin turns his back on any attempt to bring about this union apart from the
incarnate flesh of the Son of God. Instead, Calvin sees the flesh of Christ as the
only bridge over the otherwise infinite chasm between God and man. The
hypostatic union is the interface that joins humanity and divinity, Creator and
creature, Deus facit and homofit.Consequently, the person of Jesus Christ is
deification and as such becomes the only appropriate definition and dynamic of
deification. As Mosser states regarding Calvin, "Christ unites believers to God
because in his person God and humanity are already united."40
Firstly, Christ is the definition of deification as the two natures are joined in
full unionindivisibly and inseparably. This union preserves the distinctive
properties of each natureinconfusedly and unchangeably. With Chalcedonian
precision Calvin states; "He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, not
35

Ibid.
Ibid.
37
Ibid., 2:46 (3.11.10).
38
Mosser, "Greatest Possible Blessing," 49.
39
Calvin, Inst, 1:465 (3.1.3).
40
Mosser, "Greatest Possible Blessing," 46.
36

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by confusion of substance, but by unity of person." 41 Thus, the incarnation unites


God and man in perfect union whilst safeguarding the Creator/creature distinction. For Calvin, this is the only definition of deification because Christ himself
is the definition. This aligns Calvin with the patristic definition of deification:
"Calvin's doctrine of theosis, like its classical antecedents, is built around the
hypostatic union. Theosis is only possible because human nature has been deified
in the theandric person of the Mediator. As men and women are united to
Christ, his divinity deifies them." 42
Secondly, Christ is the dynamic of deification, as his deified flesh becomes the
source of vivifying life. In one of his tracts Calvin describes the flesh of Christ as
a fountain:
The flesh of Christ gives life, not only because he once obtained salvation by it, but
because now, while we are made one with Christ by a sacred union, the same flesh
breathes life into us
For from the hidden fountain of the Godhead life was miraculously infused into the body of Christ that it mightflowfromthence to us.43
Commenting on J o h n 6:51-59, Calvin describes the internal dynamic that
enables the flesh of Christ to be a fountain of divine life:
As this secret power to bestow life, of which he has spoken, might be referred to his
Divine essence, he now comes down to the second step, and shows that this //is placed
in his flesh, that it may be drawn out of it
But an objection is brought, that the flesh
of Christ cannot give life, because it was liable to death, and because even now it is not
immortal in itself; and next, that it does not at all belong to the nature of flesh to
quicken souls. I reply, though this power comes from another source than from the
flesh ... for as the eternal Word of God is the fountain of life, (John 1:4,) so hisflesh,as
a channel, conveys to us that //kwhich dwells intrinsically, as we say, in his Divinity. And
in this sense it is called life-giving, because it conveys to us that life which it borrows for
usfromanother quarter.44 (emphasis added)
Calvin himself raises the very objection Slater makes: "Calvin's position is that
believers share in what is Christ's according to his human nature." 45 This is the
exact reasoning that Calvin refutesthe human nature alone cannot "quicken
souls," thus the power must "come from another source than from the flesh."
Slater's blinkered reading of Calvin cannot accommodate his patristic interpretation of these verses from J o h n . For Slater, the incarnation is only the
redemptive platform from which Christ can expiate sins. However, for Calvin the
41

Calvin, Inst, 1:415 (2.14.1).


Myk Habets, "Reforming Theosis," in Theosis: Ddfication in Christian Theology (ed. Stephen Finan
and Vladimir Kharlamov; Princeton Theological Monograph Series; Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2006),
149.
43
John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, vol. 2 (ed. and trans. Henry Beveridge; Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1849; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 238.
44
John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According toJohn, vol. 1 (vol. 17 of Calvins Commentaries),
261-70.
45
Slater, "Salvation as Participation," 39.
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incarnate flesh is also a fountain that vivifies and deifies as the divine life of God
is "drawn out" of the human flesh.
In this same section of commentary on John 6:51-58 Calvin concludes that
Jesus teaches "three degrees of life":
The first rank is the living Father, who is the source but remote and hidden. Next follows the Son, who is exhibited to us as an open fountain, and by whom life flows to us.
The third is the life which we draw from him. We now perceive what is stated to amount
to this, that God the Father, in whom life dwells, is at a great distance from us, and that
Christ, placed between us, is the second cause of life, in order that what would otherwise be concealed in God may proceed from him to us.46

Contra Slater and every denial of deification, Calvin clearly argues that divine life
does enter human lifethird degree life receivesfirstdegree life. However, contra Osiander and all who present unmediated forms of deification, first degree
life can only flow to third degree life through the incarnate fountain of second
degree life: "So the flesh of Christ is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain, which
transfuses into us the life flowing forth from the Godhead into itself."47
When deification receives its definition and dynamicfromthe incarnation, the
dangers ofaha apotheosis are avoided. Mediated deification renounces both competition between God and man (pagan deification) and the conflation of God and
man (the Manichees and Osiander). Instead, the incarnation preserves the eternal
distinction between Creator and creature whilst uniting them in full communion.
Calvin's doctrine of the incarnation enables him to hold in tension the
depravity of humanity by nature and the deification of that same humanity by
grace. The result is Calvin's sublime ability to argue both for and against humanity on the same page. The influence of Bernard is noteworthy at this point. Calvin quotes him at length as an example of how to hold the seeming contradiction of humanity in tension:
By the blessing of God, sometimes meditating on the soul, methinks, I find in it as it
were two contraries. When I look at it as it is in itself and of itself, the truest thing I can say
of it is, that it has been reduced to nothing. . . . What then? Man doubtless has been
made subject to vanityman here been reduced to nothingman is nothing. And yet
how is he whom God exalts utterly nothing* How is he nothing to whom a divine heart has
been given?48 (emphasis added)

46
Calvin, Gospel of John, 1:261-69. This commentary is a revealing description of how Calvin envisages divine life entering human life. However, the distinction he makes between the humanity of the
incarnate Christ (second degree life) and our humanity (third degree life) is not meant to imply a
major ontological difference. These categories are used only to convey the mediation of life.
47
Calvin, Inst, 2:563 (4.17.9).
48
Bernard of Clairvaux, Fifth Sermon on the Dedication ofa Church, cited in Calvin, Inst, 1:491 (3.2.25).
Bernard continues in the same section to encourage confidence as humanity before God: "Let us
breathe again, brethren. Although we are nothing in our hearts, perhaps something of us may lurk in
the heart of God. O Father of mercies! O Father of the miserable! how plantest thou thy heart in us?"

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The nothingness, even "obliteration" of humanity apart from God is rigorously


affirmed by Calvin (contra Pighius). 49 However, he also affirms humanity as
destined for deifying union with God. What reconciles these polarized realities
is the role of the Mediator. The fact that Christ had to "make himself nothing"
even to the point of death on a cross, affirms the utter sinfulness of humanity.
However, that God "put on our flesh" and brought us union with him affirms the
exalted nature of humanity.50
Calvin's doctrine of the incarnation enables him to stand firmly in the Augustinian tradition emphasizing the sinfulness of humanity whilst also affirming,
with more Eastern emphasis, deification for that same humanity. It is vital to
recover Calvin's unification of these themes. Otherwise, the split between East
and West gives the impression that these two emphases are incompatible, resulting in Western theology's suppression of the creation-deification trajectory. Calvin offers a bridge between East and West because of the breadth of his doctrine
of the incarnation. 51 For Calvin, the incarnation is both a platform for the
redemptive recovery of post-Lapsarian humanity anda, progression for humanity
beyond the pre-Lapsarian state as the hypostatic union inaugurates the deification of humanity in Christ.52
The incarnation as the definition and dynamic of deification enables Calvin
to make frequent use of the patristic exchange formula. Calvin shies away from
the boldest exchange formula, that God became man that men might become
gods. For Calvin God did not become man in that bald, unqualified sense.
Rather, through the incarnation the Son of God became Son of man. Consequently, sons of men do not become gods but rather sons of God. This gives a
careful symmetry to the incarnation such that the descent of the Son into our
nature (kenosis) is reversed by our ascent into his nature (theosis):
This is the wondrous exchange made by his boundless goodness. Having become with
us the Son of Man, he has made us with himself sons of God. By his own descent to the
earth he has prepared our ascent to heaven.53
Who could do this unless the Son of God should also become the Son of man, and so
receive what is ours as to transfer to us what is his, making that which is his by nature to
become ours by grace?54

49
John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will: A Defence of the Orthodox Doctrine of Human
Choice Against Pighius (ed. A. N. S. Lane; trans. G. Davies; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 212. Calvin
uses the term "obliteration" to describe the complete mortification of the old nature when we experience regeneration through a new nature in Christ.
50
John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (vol. 22 of Calvins Commentaries), A.
51
This breadth is again thoroughly consistent with the Alexandrian trajectory of patristic theology.
52
This has been termed "elevation-line" theology such that redemption takes humanity above
the original starting point of creation, instead of simply "restitution-line" theology that is traditionally
held by Western theologians.
53
Calvin, Inst, 2:558 (4.17.2).
54
Ibid., 1:401 (2.12.2).

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247

2. Adoption Through the Spint-Union


For Calvin, it is adoption through the Spirit-union that binds us to Christ,
without which the incarnation is of no benefit. To convey the extent of this
union Calvin echoes Cyril of Alexandria in using the phrase unto mystico and also
develops the "sacred marriage" metaphor. 55 As Billings notes, Calvin's otherwise
cautious language takes on a "quite daring" approach as he comes to speak of
our unto mystico and the participatio substantia which it entails.56
Adoption by the Spirit enables the second movement of the exchange formula and connects the incarnation of the Son of God with the deification of
sons of men as sons of God:
Relying on this, earnest we trust that we are the sons of God, because the natural Son of
God assumed to himself a body of our body,fleshof ourflesh,bone of our bones, that
he might be one with us; he declined not to take what was peculiar to us, that he might
in his turn extend to us what was peculiarly his own.57
For Calvin, the Son-ship of Christ is the gift of salvation and the goal of deification. Calvin makes only two distinctions between our son-ship and Christ's in
order to preserve both the Creator/creature distinction and the grace-gratitude
nexus. The distinctions are that o origins (eternal vs. adopted) and nghts (nature
vs. grace). Otherwise, Calvin will press for symmetry between Christ's Son-ship
and ours, because "being reconciled by the righteousness of Christ, God
becomes, instead of a judge, an indulgent father" (emphasis added). 5 8 In his
Hebrews commentary Calvin depicts the solidarity of son-ship between Christ
and believers such that " [Christ] presents himself and us together to God the
Father: for they form but one body who obey God under the same rule of faith."59
Adoption escorts believers beyond the otherwise impassable boundary of the
Creator-creature divide. The I-Thou of otherness and remoteness becomes the
"Abba, Father" of union and participation. Whilst remaining a creature, through
adoption the believer is escorted into the inner life of the triune God. This
Trinitarian invitation is derived from the ad intra love that the Father has for the
Son but is directed ad extra to those adopted sons that they may be loved as he is.
"It is an invaluable privilege of faith, that we know that Christ was loved by the
Father on our account, that we might be made partakers of the same love, and
might enjoy it for ever" (emphasis added) ,60
The adoption motif safeguards deification from being misconstrued as the
acquisition of certain attributes or gifts. If deification is divorced from union
with God himselfto becoming god-like ourselves, then the serpent returns with his
55

Ibid., 1:465(3.1.3).
Billings, "United to God," 332.
57
Calvin, Inst, 1:401 (2.12.2).
58
Ibid., 2:37 (3.11.1).
59
Calvin, Hebrews, 69-70.
60
John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. 2 (vol. 18 of Calvin's Commentaries),
189.
56

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WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

subtle but sinful temptation: 'You could be like God."61 Calvin's differentiated
approach only allows deification that makes union with God himself the goal.
Accordingly, the divine nature we partake of is adoption into the Son-ship of
Christ and the derived relationship with the Father. Deification is to be incorporated in the eternal and inestimable love that the Father has for the Son.
In his comments on the biblical metaphor of sacred marriage, Calvin goes
further than personal union to argue for a substantial union. The substantial
nature of this union is a controversial affirmation of an ontological exchange.
Thus Calvin's version of deification is realist, even if the substance is spiritually
qualified. The unto mystico involves a paticipatio substantiaindeed that is what
makes it mystical.
In the Institutes Calvin applies a two-way and symmetrical use of the phrase in
Eph 5:32, "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." The first application of this
phrase is rooted in the incarnation: "The natural Son of God assumed to himself
a body of our body, flesh of our flesh, bone of our bones, that he might be one
with us."62 However, Calvin then dares to reverse the application: "To this is to be
referred that sacred marriage, by which we become bone of his bone and flesh
of his flesh, and so one with him (Eph 5:30), for it is by the Spirit alone that he
unites us to himself."63
Again, commenting on the phrase "flesh of his flesh," Calvin asserts, "This is
no exaggeration, but the simple truth." 64 Calvin interprets this simple truth as
Christ being a partaker of our nature (incarnation) andwe being partakers of his
nature (deification):
As Eve was formed out of the substance of her husband, and thus was a part of himself;
so, if we are the true members of Christ, we share his substance, and by this intercourse
unite into one body.... All depends on this, that the wife was formed of the flesh and
bones of her husband. Such is the union between us and Christ, who in some sort
makes us partakers of his substance.65
Calvin is at pains to show that his use of substance language goes beyond the
"human nature" of Christ to a reception of divine life by a partidpatio substantia.66
To do so, he applies a very literal interpretation of the Genesis quotation, what he
refers to as "the simple truth." Just as Eve was made from the substance of Adam,
if we are Christ's we must "share his substance." Calvin seems to take this further
than the text itself demands. Indeed, in his commentary on Rom 6:5 he confesses
that he has pushed the boundaries of the engrafting metaphor in order to posit
the exchange of substance. Calvin argues that the metaphor is inadequate because
61

Gen 3:5.
Calvin, Inst, 1:401 (2.12.2).
63
Ibid., 1:465 (3.1.3).
64
John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians andEphesians (vol. 21 of Calvins
Commentaries), 323.
65
Ibid.
66
However, he qualifies this by reference to the "power of the Spirit" so as not to imply any
physical transference.
62

DEIFICATION IN JOHN CALVIN

249

it does not express fully the reception not just of life (sap) but of actual nature:
"Not only we derive the vigor and nourishment of life from Christ, but we also pass
from our own to his nature."67 Calvin is willing to transgress his own rule of the
sensus literalis in order to affirm that the life flowing from Christ does not merely
sustain the believer but transforms him into the divine nature of Christ.68
The notion of participatio substantia is the reason Calvin uses the phrase unto
mystico. In so doing, he is connecting union with Christ with the deification
motif. Though they are not identical, they are closely related and it "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 theosis."69 However, instead of
trying to explain the inner dynamic of deification, Calvin draws on the language
of apophatic mystery to signal his arrival at the boundary of human understanding: "For my own part, I am overwhelmed by the depth of this mystery, and am
not ashamed to join Paul in acknowledging at once my ignorance and my
admiration.... Let us therefore labour more to feel Christ living in us, than to
discover the nature ofthat intercourse."70
3. Glorification Through Eschatohgical-Union
For Calvin, "complete union" only occurs when mortal flesh is transferred
into the immediate presence of God and there transfigured to be like him. The
consummation of deification is through the beatific vision, and the beatific
vision is God himself. The nature of this unhindered vision and full communion
with God means Calvin's general principle of brevity istightlyapplied. However,
a few comments seem to transgress his own boundaries and leave an enigma
within Calvin's eschatology. Calvin affirms the recovery of humanity in Christ
and then seems to suggest the relinquishing of humanity by Christ. Commenting
on 1 Cor 15:27-28 he implies that instead of resigning the kingdom, Christ will
"transfer it in a manner from his humanity to his glorious divinity." 71
The implication is that Christ's humanity only mediates the Father's divinity
this side of the eschaton. Christ will then relinquish his humanity and the result will
be a fuller revelation of the Godhead: "Christ's humanity will then no longer be
interposed to keep us back from a closer view of God."72 In the Institutes he puts it
emphatically: "God will then cease to be the head of Christ, and Christ's own Godhead will then shine forth of itself, whereas it is now in a manner veiled."73
67
John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (vol. 19 of Calvin's Commentaries) , 223.
68
Calvin even acknowledges that he has gone beyond the meaning Paul attributed to the text
"The Apostle, however, meant to express nothing else but the efficacy of the death of Christ" (Calvin,
Romans, 223).
69
Mosser, "Greatest Possible Blessing," 50.
70
Calvin, Galatians and Ephesians, 325.
71
John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, vol. 2 (vol. 20 of
Calvin's Commentaries), 29-34.
72
Calvin, Corinthians, 2:33.
73
Calvin, Inst, 1:418 (2.14.3).

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WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

Litde attention has been given to these mysterious comments. Letham refers
to the Nestorian problem in Calvin's commentary on 1 Cor 15:27-28. However,
he does not refer to the comments in the Institutes, which are even more emphatic.
The conclusion that Calvin "momentarily lost his grasp of the union of the two
natures" (emphasis added) seems rather generous. 74 Calvin's comments leave us
with awkward questionsis Christ's humanity and role as mediator only temporary or eternal? What does that mean for our humanity, which is contingent upon
his? Calvin leaves the enigma hanging in the air, awaiting the eschaton to unravel it.
In summary, for Calvin there are three vital unions that form any true understanding of deification: mediation by the hypostatic union, adoption through the
mystical union, and completion by the eschatological union.
V. The EucharistThe

Means of Deification

It is no coincidence that Calvin's most explicit use of the deification exchange


formula is found within his discussion of the sacraments. 75 In explaining the
sacraments, Calvin further develops and clarifies his understanding of the deifying nature of the incarnation and presents the sacraments as the means by which
the Spirit mediates the vivifying flesh of Christ to the believer. Therefore, the
sacraments must not be treated as an isolated doctrine in Calvin's theology.
Rather, they are the logical outworking of his whole soteriology. If we have
rightly understood Calvin's differentiated notion of deification, there should be
no surprises regarding his theology of the sacraments.
However, as McClean argues, "Calvin's claims about the presence of Christ in
the Lord's Supper have been a puzzle and provocation to many of his theological heirs."76 Many in the Reformed tradition side with Zwingli as if Calvin were
always radical and inconsistent on the sacraments. However, the idea that Calvin's view of the sacraments is an awkward surprise is a serious warning that indicates a failure to grasp the core of his theology.
If for Calvin, the incarnation of Christ is the nature of deification, then the
sacred supper is the primary means of participation in this deification. Thus
Calvin follows the same progression from Athanasius to Cyril. Athanasius posited
the incarnation as a fountain of vivifying life; Cyril presented the sacraments as
the primary means by which we drink from that fountain. 77
Consequently, Calvin's theology of the Eucharist necessitates a direct and substantial reception of the flesh of Christ if it is truly to be the means of deification.
For Calvin, the flesh of Christ is the center of all soteriology. It is the body of
Christ through which atonement is made, it is the body of Christ into which we are
ingrafted by baptism, and it is the body of Christ from which we receive deifying

74

Letham, The Holy Trinity, 255-56.


See, e.g., Calvin, Inst, 2:558 (4.17.3).
76
John McClean, "Calvin on the Supper: Puzzling and Provocative," in Engaging with Calvin:
Aspects of the Reformer's Legacy for Today (ed. Mark D. Thompson; Nottingham: Apollos, 2009), 204.
77
See Russell, Doctrine of Dfication, 191-202.
75

DEIFICATION IN JOHN CALVIN

251

life in the sacred supper. Therefore, to deny that "true communication ofJesus
Christ is offered to us in the Supper is to render this holy sacrament frivolous
and useless."78 The bread and wine must be more than symbolic or spiritually
realized; they must convey the actual vivifying flesh of Christ:
Moreover, if the reason for communicating with Jesus Christ is to have part and portion
in all the graces which he purchased for us by his death, the thing requisite must be not
only to be partakers of his Spirit, but also to participate in his humanity.... It follows
that in order to have our life in Christ our souls must feed on his body and blood as
their proper food.79

Reformed theology has struggled with Calvin's view of the sacraments because
it fails to see Calvin's orientation of the incarnation towards deification. However, his approach to the incarnation is entirely consistent with the patristic trajectory stretching back to Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Cyril. Calvin occupies the
middle ground between what he perceives to be errors either side of him. The
Zwinglians at best posit a communion with Christ at a mental level (calling to
mind) and spiritual level (the presence of Christ mediated by the Spirit) through
the bread and wine. However, this allows no real connection between the bread
given by Christ (signa) and that which it signifies, the actual body of Christ (res).
Instead, Calvin argues that "the bread is called the body, since it not only represents
but also presents it to us" (emphasis added).80 On the other side, Calvin opposed
the Lutheran notion of the ubiquity of Christ's body in, with, and under the
bread. For Calvin, any local presence of Christ in the elements requires a change
of geography and geometry that violates the humanity of Christ.
Instead, Calvin argues that the flesh of Christ is present at the Supper, but the
issue is the modus of that presence. Whereas Luther posited an unqualified
substantial relationship between the bread (signa) and body (res), Calvin sees a
qualified spiritual relationship. This enables a real but non-local presence of the
body of Christ at the table. The agent that unites what is otherwise separated by
both distance (heaven to earth) and essence (bread to body) is the bond of the
Spirit: "That sacred communion of flesh and blood by which Christ transfuses
his life into us, just as if it penetrated our bones and marrow, he testifies and seals
in the Supper, and that not by presenting a vain or empty sign, but by there
exerting an efficacy of the Spirit."81
The role of the Spirit in the sacrament removes the need for the body of
Christ to be in the element. The Spirit bond detaches the signa from the res
without ever divorcing them. As believers eat the signa the Spirit conveys the res
to them such that they feed on Christ not in the bread but in the Spirit. The
bread can remain only a sign; it is the Spirit's role to perform the sacrament.
This safeguards the bread from being the unmediated presence of Christ's flesh,
such that Christ and his benefits are laid bare on the table.
78
79
80
81

Calvin, Tracts, 2:170.


Ibid.
Ibid., 2:172.
Calvin, Inst, 2:563 (4.17.10).

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WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

Therefore, Calvin posits a spiritually qualified substance, which is conveyed in


the sacrament. This is less about the physical molecules of Christ's flesh and
more about the divine life that animates and glorifies those moleculesChrist
himself. The physical flesh is not endowed with magical properties but with
Christ and all his saving benefits. It is the spiritual substance of Christ, which the
believer alone can receive through the Spirit and by faith. Calvin summarizes the
matter clearly in his letter to Westphal:
The whole reality of the sacred supper consists in thisChrist by engrafting us into his
body, not only makes us partakers of his body and blood, but infuses into us the life
whose fullness resides in himself: for hisfleshis not eaten for any other end than to give
us life.82
Calvin has a differentiated theology of the sacrament that reflects the broader
motif of deification. Echoing the Osiander debate, Calvin opposes the Lutheran notion that the believer receives the unmediated and unqualified substance
of Christ in the bread itself. However, he still affirms the spiritually substantive
nature of Christ's presence in the Supper. Calvin uses the language of substance, but only when qualified within his own theological framework. The
substance Calvin refers to is not the Scholastic and Aristotelian idea of a union
of form and matter. It is a spiritually qualified substance that is nothing less than
Christ himself.83
It is the theological rather than philosophical nature of our substantial
union with Christ (in deification generally and the sacrament in particular)
that enables Calvin without any embarrassment to confess that the whole matter remains a mystery: "Now, should any one ask me as to the mode, I will not
be ashamed to confess that it is too high a mystery either for my mind to comprehend or my words to express; and to speak more plainly, I rather feel than
understand it."84
Finally, the Supper, by enabling real and substantial participation with Christ,
prefigures our full and final communion with Him. To convey the eschatological
orientation of the Supper, Calvin employs the language of ascension:
But if we are carried to heaven with our eyes and minds, that we may there behold
Christ in the glory of his kingdom, as the symbols invite us to him in his integrity, so,
under the symbol of bread, we must feed on his body, and, under the symbol of wine,
drink separately of his blood, and thereby have the full enjoyment of him.85
Calvin employs a rare allegorical interpretation of Gen 28:10-22 to illustrate this
sacramental ascension. Having identified Jacob's ladder as Christwho unites
heaven and earth, God and manCalvin interprets the Eucharist as the
82

Calvin, Tracts, 2:377.


This avoids Luther's problematic notion of the manducatio impiorum. If the bread is the body in
an unqualified substantial way, then unbelieving men and even mice (as Aquinas speculated) can eat
the flesh of Christ.
84
Calvin, Inst, 2:587 (4.17.32).
85
Ibid., 2:570-71 (4.17.18).
83

DEIFICATION IN JOHN CALVIN

253

gateway: "In this sense . . . the sacraments may be called the gate of heaven,
because they admit us into the presence of G o d . . . . Those helps to faith only,
(as I have before taught,) by which God raises us to himself, can be called the
gates of heaven." 86
The elements enable a Eucharistie ascent of the soul for spiritual communion
with Christ in heaven that prefigures the full communion to come. Christ
descends by his Spirit into the bread and wine to convey through them that
which they symbolizehis body and blood. As believers receive this by faith, they
in turn ascend to Christ in their hearts to commune with him.
The descent of Christ to the believer (kenosis) and the ascent of the believer to
Christ (theosis) is a sacramental summary of all that is meant by deification.
Equally, the eschatological goal of deification is pre-figured and experienced in
the sacrament. The "sacred supper" is therefore both esoterican experience of
being fed by Christand eschatologicala foretaste of the full deification that
awaits the believer. The sacred supper is the means by which Calvin's exhortation can be partially realized in this life: "Let us therefore labour more to feel
Christ living in us, than to discover the nature ofthat intercourse." 87
The parallels between the nature of deification and the sacraments are strikingboth derive their definition and dynamic from the incarnation, both are
made efficacious by the mystical agency of the Spirit, and both have an eschatological orientation.
VI. Conclusion
Calvin's use of the phrase quasi deifican carefully conveys his differentiated
approach to deification. It positively aligns Calvin with the patristic trajectory
and makes the incarnation the definition, the Spirit the dynamic, and eschatological communion the destiny of deification. It also distances Calvin from false versions of deification that are unmediated, disconnected, and over-realized.
The Reformed tradition has struggled to preserve Calvin's notion of quasi
deifican. As Habets says, "For much of Western theology the concept of theosis
creates unease and often hostile rejection." 88 1 would suggest this reaction is a
result of both fear and pride. The fear is of embracing what has been falsely
labelled "Eastern." The antidote to this must be to trace deification back beyond
the East-West divide to the patristic era and the Scriptures themselves. As John
Calvin holds Scripture in one hand and the patristic writings in the other, he
formulates a notion of quasi deifican that is thoroughly consistent with both. Calvin should be commended for this breadth of vision and theological openness
that makes him truly a "breath of fresh air."89

J o h n Calvin, Commentary on Genesis (vol. 1 of Calvin's Commentaries), 118.


Calvin, Galatians andEphesians, 325.
Habets, "Reforming Theosis," 166.
Letham, The Holy Trinity, 268.

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WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

The issue of pride is more subtle. Torrance alludes to the "danger of vertigo"
when considering the dizzying heights of deification.90 The emphasis on sin
within the Reformed tradition can lead to an uneasy feeling when contemplating exaltation with Christ in partaking of his Son-ship and divine nature. However, Calvin exposes this for what it ispride disguised as (false) humility.
Calvin acknowledges "how abject is the condition of our nature."91 However,
the depth of our nature when contrasted with the "height of honour" to which
we are raised in Christ, only serves to display the "greatness of [God's] grace."92
It is pride that limits what can be received according to our nature. It is faith
that receives what is ours only according to God's grace, namely, quasi deifican.
So with hushed tones and apophatic awe, "Let us mark that the end of the gospel
is, to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify
us [quasi deificarti ,"93

90

Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and the Resurrection (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 136-39.
Calvin, Catholic Epistles, 371.
92
Ibid.
93
Ibid.
91

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