Jonathan Edwards, Theosis, and the Reformed Tradition

Theosis is a strange concept in Christian theology. The most basic meaning of the term is the process of becoming (a) god. And while classical Christian articulations of the idea avoid offending the Creator-creature distinction, the term remains a bold one, to say the least. A better description of the Christian version would go something like this: theosis is a vision for Christian salvation that centers the saints’ participation in the divine nature, on the basis of the Trinity’s economic mission, in a manner that brings human nature to its fulfillment.[1] But this more nuanced description hardly reduces the boldness of the idea: creaturely participation in the life of God is a staggering thought.

However Protestants tend to find theosis strange for yet another reason. It is not just its boldness that makes it seem odd. It is that theosis seems strange in the way a stranger is strange. In other words, it just seems foreign. Theosis came into the Protestant conversation in the 20th century by way of Eastern Orthodox theology, and therefore it often seems an alien idea. And that raises a question: if theosis is a foreign import to Protestant theology, is it wise to receive it? Is it a stranger in Protestant thought? Alongside this question there might be another option. Is it possible that while the term theosis is unfamiliar, a similar concept is already resident somewhere in our tradition? Could it be that the present conversations around theosis can help us remember something that we have lost along the way?

I argue the latter. It is true that Protestants typically shy away from the terms theosis or deification or divinization. And yet there is a stream of Protestant teaching that centers on participation in the divine nature, and there is wisdom here that we need today. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), the famous pastor of Northampton Church in Massachusetts and Reformed theologian, developed a concept of ‘special grace’ that centered participation in the divine fullness (he seemed to prefer divine ‘fullness’ to divine ‘nature’, though he used both), in a way that most contemporary theologians would recognize as a form of theosis. Yet he developed this concept not by importing thought from foreign theologies, but rather by a critical reappraisal of his own tradition. Edwards synchronized three classic Reformed doctrines (the Trinity, special grace, and creation’s purpose) and the result was a comprehensive vision for the Christian life (and all creation) that centered on the saints’ participation in the divine fullness. I argue that Edwards’s doctrine of special grace is a form of theosis that was developed from within Reformed thought, and we should evaluate it on that basis.[2]

Edwards’s vision of special grace began with the Trinity. The Trinity was not a popular doctrine during Edwards’s life – Unitarianism was in its ascendancy. And yet Edwards pushed against the grain of his day, and it is here that Edwards’s critique landed on his own tradition. Historically, Reformed thought tended to say something like: the Father plans or purchases salvation, the Son is the price of salvation, and the Spirit applies salvation. Edwards fixed on that last verb: applies. It was too weak for Edwards. In fact, Edwards felt it undercut the Spirit’s glory. It is a glorious thing to plan and purchase salvation (the Father’s glory); it is a glorious thing to be the price of salvation (the Son’s glory). But to apply salvation? That did not capture the Spirit’s glory sufficiently.[3] This sent Edwards back to work, and he emerged with a bolder thing to say. The Father purchases salvation; the Son is the price of salvation; but the Spirit is the good purchased in salvation.[4] In a fair economic transaction, the price and the good purchased should be equal in value. The same thing held in the Trinity’s economic mission. The Son is the price of salvation and the Spirit is the good obtained in salvation, so their roles are equally glorious. But what did Edwards mean that the Spirit is ‘the good purchased in salvation?’[5]

To answer that question, we need to step back and consider the Spirit’s role in Edwards’s Trinity. Edwards believed the Father and the Son to be bound together in mutual and infinite love. That mutual and infinite love is the Holy Spirit.[6] The Father loves the Son, and the Son returns this love to the Father, and their mutual love is so infinite, so perfect, that this love proceeds as an essential person of the Godhead. Edwards thinks this is the referent for 1 John 4:16; “God is love.”[7] And Edwards describes the Spirit, this mutual love between the Father and the Son, as God’s good or fullness. “The Holy Spirit is the sum of all good. ‘Tis the fullness of God. The holiness and happiness of the Godhead consists in it…”[8] The Father’s joy is his Son, and the Son’s joy is his Father, and the mutual joy (love) between them is the happiness, goodness, felicity, fullness of the one God.

But now comes the critical move. Edwards pivots from the Trinity proper to the gift of special grace to the saint. The infinite love between the Father and the Son (that is, the Holy Spirit) is given, finitely and within the economy, to the saint.[9] This gift is special grace. And this special grace is (crucially) mediated by the incarnate Christ. In special grace, the Spirit establishes a bond of love from Jesus to the saint, and then from the saint back to Christ. This bond of love, which is the Spirit, unites the saint to Christ so that Christ dwells within the saint and the saint dwells within Christ, and thus the saint shares in the Trinitarian love.[10] In the imminent Trinity, the Spirit’s bond of love between the Father and the Son establishes their mutual indwelling. In special grace, there is an economic echo of this dynamic when the Spirit unites the saint and Christ such that they mutually indwell each other (cf. John 17:26). We must catch the symmetry of Edwards’s thought here: he has leveraged the doctrine of the Trinity to become the model of his doctrine of special grace. What the Spirit does infinitely between the Father and the Son, the Spirit does finitely, within the economy, between the saint and Christ. Put differently, the fullness between the Father and the Son is their mutual love, the Spirit. In special grace, this same fullness is imparted to the saint through Christ in a manner appropriate to a finite creature. Even more succinctly, the fullness of the Trinity becomes shared with the saint in grace.

Space does not allow all the subtleties of Edwards’s thought. But what I want to observe is that he came to this view by exploring the coherence, the inner logic, between the Trinity and special grace. Both these doctrines are foundational to his Reformed thought. His contribution was to explore both and demonstrate their connection, their coherence, their inner unity. But he did not stop there. He also labored to show the unity, coherence, and inner logic between this vision of grace and the purpose (end) of creation.

Edwards is famous for his Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World (The End of Creation for short). It is a subtle and carefully argued masterpiece, and it is robustly Reformed. He is trying to explain and expound what it might mean that God created the world for his glory. That all is for God’s glory is basic Reformed teaching, but Edwards wants to delve deeper to understand precisely what this classic Reformed teaching might mean. By his conclusion, Edwards argues that God is glorified by the communication of his divine fullness to creatures, namely his saints.[11] Consider this in light of his doctrine of the Trinity and his doctrine of special grace. God’s fullness is the mutual love between the Father and the Son (God’s Spirit). Special grace is his communication of this divine fullness (the Spirit) to his saints. The End of Creation argues that this gift of divine fullness is the telos the end goal of the whole created universe. Thus, not only does Edwards synchronize his doctrine of the Trinity with his doctrine of special grace, but he also synchronizes his doctrine of creation’s purpose with these first two doctrines. I said earlier that a doctrine of theosis will be marked by a centering of the idea of participation in the divine nature. Edwards’s thought centers participation in divine fullness within his doctrine of God proper, his doctrine of special grace, and his doctrine of creational teleology. Participation in divine fullness was at the heart of Edwards’s vision of God, creation, and redemption.

Theosis is definitely a strange idea; however, that does not mean it is a stranger to Reformed Protestant thought. The word may be bracing, and we can debate whether it is the best term to use. But the idea that God shares his divine fullness (or nature) with us in grace through the economic mission of the Son and the Spirit, is grounded in Scripture (consider Ephesian 3:14-21). One of theology’s tasks is to show the inner coherence of biblical doctrine. Edwards worked to show this inner logic between the doctrines of the Trinity, special grace, and creation’s purpose, and in the process he expounded ideas that contemporary theologians recognize as a form of theosis. He was not importing ideas from an alien theological tradition; nor was he throwing away his Reformed theology; rather, he was developing ideas from his own Reformed heritage. That does not necessarily mean that he was right–it is deeply Protestant to critique him by the standard of Scripture. But it is also important to evaluate his thinking as an organic development of the Western, Protestant, Reformed tradition that it was. And as we evaluate him on that basis, we may find that amidst the strangeness, valuable biblical wisdom comes clear.

Rev. Dr. James Salladin (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is Rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church in New York. He is the author of Jonathan Edwards and Deification: Reconciling Theosis and the Reformed Tradition (IVP, 2022).

  1. I use a near identical description in James Salladin, “Theosis,” in The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia, ed. Kenneth P. Minkema, Harry S. Stout, and Adriaan C. Neele (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 563-564.

  2. See my argument in James R. Salladin, Jonathan Edwards and Deification: Reconciling Theosis and the Reformed Tradition, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022).

  3. Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 21 (Yale Univ. Press, 2002), p. 135-138, and especially p. 137. Hereafter references to the Yale Edition of Edwards’s works will be abbreviated to WJE volume and page number. See also WJE 21:188-189.

  4. WJE 21:137.

  5. See WJE 21:189-190.

  6. WJE 21:121.

  7. WJE 13:261.
  8. WJE 21:188.

  9. WJE 21:188-189.
  10. WJE 19:593.

  11. WJE 8:527-528. See also WJE 13:272 & 13:410. I argue that this emanation or communication of God’s internal glory or fullness (all words Edwards employs) refers to the same communication of divine fullness in special grace. For the full argument, see Salladin, Jonathan Edwards and Deification, pp. 145-180.


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