Monday, March 28, 2016

Calvin and Union

Calvin and the Development of the Doctrine of Union with Christ

The lack of a consensus on an issue does not mean that it is unimportant or that it should remain unexplored. The modern Christian tendency to sweep discussion and debate under the rug of unity is not the least bit healthy or helpful. While unanimity on crucial issues is desirable, it is rarely achieved. This is especially the case when a doctrine is derived from Scriptural truths rather than explicitly set forth. These important issues become the subject of intense debate and divergent positions even amongst people who are relatively in step with one another on most issues. The interpreter of Scripture desires to open the word of God to the people of God in a clear and lucid manner, but different interpreters interpret different issues in different ways. The doctrine of union with Christ is an example of one of these ever-important and ever-debated issues. Lane Tipton succinctly described the importance of this doctrine when he said that “there are no benefits of the gospel apart from union with Christ.”[1] And it would be far from anachronistic to put these words, or at least the sentiments behind them, into the mouth of John Calvin. Calvin placed a great importance upon the doctrine of union, as did many before and after him. Union with Christ was a pivotal doctrine for John Calvin and those that followed him up until this very day.
Mark Garcia stresses the importance of seeing the context of Calvin’s writing by recognizing the various views of union during the times immediately preceding Calvin and the writings that would have influenced the reformer. The idea of union had different connotations before the 16th century. People like Athenagoras, Irenaus, and Gregory of Nysaa wrote on the topic with the term unification (henosis). Their language of union “typically belongs to a Christological discussion of the relation of Christ’s divinity and humanity, or more generally, of a union of humanity with the eternal word.”[2] So the union these men focused on was mainly of the hypostatic variety. They were concerned with the truth that Christ was Word made flesh, both God and man.
Another Christological focus of union language was from Basil. He wrote about junction/conjunction (synapheia). His writing was typical of the Antiochene perspective on how the flesh is assumed to divinity in Christ’s person.” [3] Again, this language was far more concerned with the hypostatic union of Christ than with the believer’s union with him.
Closer to how Calvin and those later would speak of union was the idea of communion (koinonia). This was used to indicate a relationship within the Trinity, but more often “used for the fellowship enjoyed by the faithful with God or Christ.” [4] While not entirely like union as it is being examined here, this usage is much closer.
            Eastern fathers often wrote of being united to God in terms of deification (theosis). This was in reference to a communication with the divine nature and based upon a passage in 2 Peter 1:3-4:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.[5]

Much like the terms already discussed, theosis was used in reference to “the Christological relationship of humanity and divinity, but is more often applied to the faithful who are ‘deified.’”[6] Clement of Alexandria and Origen were both writers who used this term frequently. Coming out of late medievalism’s four-fold emphasis on union as natural/incarnational, baptismal, justifying/purifying, and the transformation from burdened conscience to intimate communion, Martin Luther presented a doctrine of union that was legal, mystical, and a result of justification.
Calvin’s emphasis on the doctrine of union is hard to overstate, and it is beneficial to keep the context of his writing, as presented above, in sight when studying his position on union. Some have gone as far as claiming that union is the central doctrine of his work. While this appears to be an overstatement, it is not difficult to see from where that sentiment arises. Calvin’s references to union in his Institutes are strong and many. Emphasizing the centrality and great importance of this doctrine he writes, “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 importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed.”[7]
Contrary to Luther, Calvin saw union with Christ as the root of the believer’s blessings, including the blessing of justification. Calvin exhorted the reader in his Institutes to recognize that, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us.” [8]
Later in the Institutes, Calvin seems to place justification in a causal relationship with union when he writes,
Thus, him whom he receives into union with himself the Lord is said to justify, because he cannot receive him into grace nor join him to himself unless he turns him from a sinner into a righteous man. We add that this is done through forgiveness of sins; for if those whom the Lord has reconciled to himself be judged by works, they will indeed still be found sinners, though they ought, nevertheless, to be freed and cleansed from sin. It is obvious, therefore, that those whom God embraces are made righteous solely by the fact that they are purified when their spots are washed away by forgiveness of sins. Consequently, such righteousness can be called, in a word, “remission of sins.”[9]

Writing about baptism as more than merely a symbol, Calvin reiterates that all of the believer’s blessings are a result of being united with Christ:
Lastly, our faith receives from baptism the advantage of its sure testimony to us that we are not only engrafted into the death and life of Christ, but so united to Christ himself that we become sharers in all his blessings. For he dedicated and sanctified baptism in his own body [Matt. 3:13] in order that he might have it in common with us as the firmest bond of the union and fellowship which he has deigned to form with us. Hence, Paul proves that we are children of God from the fact that we put on Christ in baptism [Gal. 3:26–27].[10]

Calvin’s teaching on union has produced many differing perspectives that all claim allegiance to the Genevan reformer’s general understanding. That there would be divergence among those who followed after Calvin in this area is not too suprising given the complexity of the doctrine and the multiple layers of nuance involved in the time of Calvin’s writing. There are at least three distinct forms of the doctrine found within the reformed camp that would claim allegiance to either Calvin’s position on union or, if not Calvin’s union explicitly, Calvin’s doctrine as a whole. William Evan’s has labelled these the bifurcation model, Pneumatological realism, and Pneumatological-incarnational realism.
The bifurcation model of union is advocated by many associated with Westminster California, especially in the writings of Michael Horton. Horton argues for a union doctrine that focuses on “the priority of the forensic and causal character of justification in effecting sanctification / transformation.”[11] Drawing heavily on the speech-act theory of Kevin Vanhoozer, Horton argues for a forensic ontology in which the declaration of the believer’s righteousness produces righteousness in the believer. The believer becomes righteous by means of divine fiat. Much like creation where God said “Let there be” and there was, Horton argues that God’s proclamation of the believer’s righteous status creates the reality of sanctified believer. For Horton, “justification produces faith, mystical union, and sanctification” (Evans 18)[12] through the simulataneous locutionary (communicative) act of the Father proclaiming the believer to be justified, the illocutionary act of seeing the Son in the place of the sinner, and the perlocutionary effect of effectual calling. Many criticisms have been levelled against this position. The two most concerning are the possibilities for antinomianism and the seeming reversal of faith and justification in the order of salvation.
The second model that professes allegiance to the teaching of Calvin is what Edgar calls Pneumatological realism. This is the position held to by, among many others, Geerhardus Vos, W.G.T. Shedd, and, more recently, Richard Gaffin. This model heavily emphasizes the priority of mystical union. Vos argued that the “entire ordo saludis…is bound to the mystical union with Christ.”[13] Fundamental to this position is the “redemptive-historical association of Christ and the Holy Spirit.”[14] Vos goes as far as to say that the “pneumatic life of the Christian is a product and a reflex of the pneumatic life of the Christ.” [15] In this model, the reception of the Spirit is “forensically significant” because “(j)ust as Christ is the justified one by virtue of his Spirit-wrought resurrection and resurrection life, so also the believer is justified by the reception of this same Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of Christ.”[16] Gaffin argues with Vos against the Lutheran model of making union a subsidiary blessing of justification and, as noted by William Evans, “insists that this spiritual union also communicates both the transformative and the forensic benefits of salvation.”[17] Gaffin writes that, “both, the forensic and the transformative, justification and sanctification, are functions or manifestations of the relational. Concretely, both are manifestations or aspects of union with Christ. Christ “in us” continues to be, and is as such also, Christ “for us.” In union with us Christ has a significance that is decisively forensic as well as powerfully transforming.”[18] This model seems more in line with Calvin and, significantly more importantly, with the Scriptures, but has not been spared criticism of its own, both in regards to its allegiance to Calvin and its interpretation of Scripture.
A third model is pneumatological-incarnational realism. This modern movement claims allegiance to Calvin and is advanced by William Evans, Robert Letham and others, although the label appears to be that of Evans. Moving one step beyond Vos and Gaffin, advocates of pneumatoligical-incarnational realism insist that “this relationship of union with Christ involves a realistic connection with Christ’s incarnate humanity through the Spirit and not merely the reception of the Spirit.”[19] None of these positions are without confusion or concern, to one degree or another. All three claim allegiance to Calvin and the Scriptures, but also admit that Calvin specifically is a bit tricky on this issue.
What should not be the result of this doctrine’s inherent difficulties and debates is a dismissal of its importance and power. This is a doctrine that more than many warrants attention and study. Neglecting the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ has grave consequences. First, it does not give God the full honor he deserves. Taking any part of the Word of God and dismissing it because of its difficulty is disrespectful and foolish. Neglecting this doctrine also removes one of the greatest comforts for the Christian. Calvin writes of the believer’s union with Christ as the assurance of hope because “such a union when present will bring everlasting salvation with it.”[20]
The debate over the doctrine of union with Christ will continue, due in large part to its necessity and the incredible benefits it offers the church. What is beyond debate is how important union was in the theological framework of the Reformers and those that followed, specifically in the teaching of John Calvin. Calvin’s emphasis on union with Christ and the benefits of that union are hard to overestimate.


[1] Robert Letham, Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2011) digital.
[2] Mark Garcia, Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin’s Theology (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008) p. 49.

[3] Ibid., p.50.

[4] Ibid., p.50.

[5] All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted, Standard Bible Society, 2001.

[6] Garcia, p. 51.

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1 & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p. 737.
[8] Calvin, p.537.
[9] Calvin, p. 751.
[10] Calvin, pp. 1307–1308.
[11] William B. Evans “Three Current Reformed Models of Union with Christ” in Presbyterion Vol. XLI Numbers 1-2. (St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2015), p. 16.

[12] Ibid., p. 18.

[13] Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Princeton, NJ: Geerhardus Vos, 1930), p. 149.

[14] Evans, p. 20.

[15] Geerhardus Vos, The Collected Articles of Geerhardus Vos (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013), digital.

[16] Evans, p 23.

[17] Ibid., p. 24

[18] Richard B. Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006), p. 41.

[19] Evans, p. 27.

[20] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1 & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 2, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p. 435.