In this issue
- Talbot: A Retro-Prospective
- A Humble Servant of Jesus Christ
- Book Reviews
- Dean's Column
- Alumni Focus
- Campus News
- Faculty Activities
Union with Christ: in Scripture, History and Theology
Robert Letham. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011. 164pp., $17.99.
Reviewed by Rob Price, Assistant Professor of Theology
November 2011 saw the publication of two books with the same title, Union with Christ. Uche Anizor reviews Todd Billings’s book below. I’ll take Letham here. In general, while Billings focuses on various implications of our union with Christ, Letham gives us the extended exegetical and theological reflection that Billings mostly takes for granted. So I guess you could say that while Billings is flashier and more fun to drive, Letham is what’s going on under Billings’s hood.
Letham begins by explaining how our union with Christ is prepared for and brought about by God’s act of creation (chapter 1), by the incarnation of the Son (chapter 2), and by the outpouring of the Spirit (chapter 3). Letham then explores what our union with Christ means for our justification (chapter 4), our sanctification (chapter 5), and our own death and resurrection (chapter 6). Though the chapters all begin exegetically, they do not follow a rigid Scripture-history-theology se- quence. They vary in length and weave together exegetical and histori- cal and theological reflection as exposition demands. So form follows function—a welcome touch when you’re used to cookie-cutter textbook chapters. We get a concise excursus on conciliar Christology (23-36) and a focused consideration of how Calvin understands the relation between our union with Christ and sanctification (103-115). Letham also draws nimbly on Basel theologian Amandus Polanus (1561-1610), whose massive systematic theology text remains trapped in Latin (no obstacle for Letham), and on English Puritan pastor Rowland Sted- man’s Mystical Union of Believers with Christ (1668).
When it comes to the union itself (our becoming “partakers of the divine nature,” 2 Pet 1:4), Letham describes it as an intensely intimate affair (96): “This is more than mere fellowship. Fellowship entails intimate interaction but no participation in the nature of the one with whom such interaction takes place. Peter’s language means that this goes far beyond external relations. It stops short of sharing in the be- ing of God.” How exactly, then, are we to understand our union with Christ if it’s more than “intimate interaction” but less than “sharing in being”? Letham explains to the suspicious that this is “not pantheism,” nor does he believe that God and man “are like ingredients merged into an ontological soup” (99) or “eggs in some huge ontological omelette” (124). “It is, rather, union and communion with the persons of the Trinity. This is achieved in our sharing by grace the relation to the Father that the Son has by nature, thus retaining both personal and human identity” (92). Once again, I find myself wondering how “shar- ing by grace the [Son’s] relation to the Father” is more than “intimate interaction.” Letham seems to answer in terms of the ultimate likeness of our humanity to Christ’s. Christ’s human nature is “suffused by the divine qualities of the Son” (32), even though these qualities are “ac- commodated to human compass” (36). And we who are in union with Christ “eventually will be exactly like him according to our humanity” (94). So Letham suggests that part of our redemption will involve the suffusion of our nature by humanized divine qualities. For those of us less familiar than Letham with Eastern Orthodox soteriology, or perhaps simply with the metaphysics of the incarnation, that’s a wild idea. Disappointingly, Letham leaves us wondering what it could mean. And what about an exegetical basis? Letham gestures toward particu- lar readings of 2 Pet 1:4 and of 2 Cor 3:18’s “from one degree of glory to another” (95-97). But we are left to guess at other passages. Most evangelicals, I would imagine—including me—will need more help than this before we find a place for deification in our understanding of union with Christ.
Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church
J. Todd Billings. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011. 180 pp., $19.99.
Reviewed by Uche Anizor, Assistant Professor of Theology
Todd Billings attempts a theology of retrieval, calling upon the voices of Calvin and the classic Reformed tradition, to explore the much-neglected theme of union with Christ and its implications for contemporary problems in theology and Christian practice. In the course of his study he examines how union with Christ addresses, informs, and reorients five broad issues: (1) the moralistic, therapeutic deism of much American Christianity, (2) misunderstandings of “total depravity,” (3) the problem of divine mystery and the possibility of knowing God, (4) Christian social justice, and (5) so-called “incarnational” ministry. While the entire volume is excellent and deserves close attention, it is Billings’ treatment of the last two issues above that is especially noteworthy.
Billings observes that Christians of whatever stripe often fail to ground their heartfelt appeals for social justice in the gospel of the Triune God’s work in Jesus Christ. In response, he argues that the church’s corporate union with Christ, particularly as it is expressed in the Eucharist, funds and properly grounds an emphasis on justice. Drawing upon Calvin, he notes that union with Christ by the Spirit brings the “double grace” of justification and sanctification. Regarding the second benefit, he points out that the regenerative work of the Spirit involves love of neighbor and, thus, justice. As justification and sanctification are inseparable, so forgiveness of personal sins and regard for our neighbor’s good cannot be torn apart. Billings connects union with Christ to justice by speaking about three “bodies” with which those united to Christ are brought into communion, especially at the Eucharistic table: the body of the risen Christ, the church as the body of Christ, and the body of our neighbor, who is “in God.” Billings argues that just as it would be a contradic- tion to celebrate communion with Christ while separating the body of believers, so it would be a contradiction to celebrate communion with Christ while ignoring the bodies of our (often hurting) neighbors. The church’s practice of the Lord’s Supper—that central picture of our union with Christ—helps to shape a vision for justice toward those that are broken, downcast, and may presently be outside the church community. Thus, rather than providing a shallow and anthropocentric motivation for justice, Billings offers a robust, gospel-driven, theological foundation for just practices in and by the church.
Billings also criticizes appeals to so-called “incarnational” ministry, that is, calls to imitate the Word’s act of becoming human in our acts of doing ministry. His central argument is that Scripture never calls believers to imitate the eternal Son’s incarnation since that act is a one-time, entirely unique event, not an ongoing process to be repeated. Much of what youth workers, mission agencies, and missional church folk seek to gain by grounding relational ministry, inculturation, or cultural engagement in the incarnation, might be better grounded in what Billings calls “par- ticipation ministry.” Since Scripture does not summon us to mimic the incarnation, but rather, for example, the attitude of Christ in becoming human (Phil 2:1-11), we are encouraged, as those united to Christ, to imitate, or participate in, Christ’s humility and service to those to whom we minister. Our union with the Servant Lord is at once a call to live the kind of servant life he lived in the power of the Spirit. By a careful ex- amination of central “incarnational” biblical texts and conversations with Calvin and Barth, Billings masterfully roots important ministry concerns in the deep and rich soil of the gospel and of the type of Christology intrinsic to it.
Much more could be commended in this brief volume. Union with Christ is biblical, systematic, and practical theology at its finest. Billings models a careful and seamless dialogue between the Scriptures, the church’s tradition, and the ministry concerns of our day, and in the process effec- tively resuscitates a central biblical theme and benefit of the gospel.