Picking at Calvin’s Wax Nose: Union with Christ or Forensic Salvation? An Impasse

Often here at The Evangelical Calvinist I refer to the language of union with Christ, and Calvin’s “mystical union” (unio mystica). This is the stuff that makes ‘EC’ go round; that is pressing this Pauline idea of ‘in Christ’ theology as the key of our soteriological framework. In line with Thomas Torrance, and through his development of Scottish Theology, in his book “Scottish Theology;” I often pick up on the way this was developed, contra the Westminster development of Calvin that takes hold of Calvin’s theology of the Law, and its relation to understanding salvation. J. Todd Billings says that either one of these streams misses Calvin’s theology as a whole, and thus distorts Calvin if we try to emphasize either his relational over and against his juridical (legal), or vice versa. Billings writes:

[T]here is an ‘Anti-Legal School’ in Calvin scholarship that tends to emphasize Calvin’s distance from scholasticism, his fluidity in the use of image and metaphor, and his rich Trinitarian theology. Language about forensic transaction is generally treated with suspicion, in preference for the more organic images of transformation. In reaction to this school, the ‘legal’ aspects of Calvin’s thought tend to be emphasized by others, particularly his distinctively Reformed concerns for the doctrines of justification and imputation. Accounts of one school of thought tend to either ignore or deny the other side. . . . I will argue that the place of the human is illuminated in Calvin’s theology of participation by seeing a Trinitarian account of the duplex gratia as the framework for participation. For Calvin, participation in Christ must emphasize the legal and the transformative language in the ‘double grace’ of justification and sanctification. In prayer, believers act in ascetic struggle to pray rightly, yet the foundation for their active struggle is a recognition of God’s free pardon. Likewise, in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, believers act in response to God’s justifying act in a way that incorporates them into a Trinitarian soteriology: the Father is revealed as gracious and generous through his free pardon of believers in their union with Christ; this union also involves the activation of believers by the Spirit—toward a life of piety and love, requiring ascetic effort and activity. Believers are made active in the ecclesial and social community. A participatory, Trinitarian account of the duplex gratia plays an important role in Calvin’s theological account of the sacraments. ‘Participation’ in baptism is so real that it is almost biological. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper involves participating in Christ’s ascension to heaven to feed on his life giving flsh and blood. Calvin’s theology of prayer and the sacraments is a theology that is theocentric, but also participatory, activating believers in love of God and neighbour as the body of Christ. [J. Todd Billings, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 105-06]

This serves instructive for noting a certain reality; one that Billings is not intending to address here, but one that I believe is constructively available through the present thesis that Billings will proceed to develop throughout the rest of his chapter. What I want to highlight is the fact that both lines of thought—union with Christ/relational and forensic—are present in Calvin. Consequently, all things being equal, both strands can be found developed and emphasized within the tradition that bears Calvin’s name. This is precisely what we seek to elucidate and alert folks to with our forthcoming book on Evangelical Calvinism, and what I, personally, have been doing here with my blog (at points). Calvin’s nose is very “waxy,” and thus it should be expected that given the various predispositions of people in general; that aspects of Calvin’s corpus will be developed over and against other aspects—and this shaped by various socio-cultural constraints present throughout Calvinism’s history and development.

Billings’ point is that to negate one aspect of Calvin from his other side is to misread and misunderstand Calvin’s full bodied theological thrust. Nevertheless, the reality is, is that Calvin has been read through various foci and lenses; the history bears this out. This takes us back to Richard Muller’s thesis that Calvin should not be seen as the touchstone of what it means to be a Calvinist. In some ways this is true, there is a difference between being Calvinian (which is what Billings is developing in his book—Calvin’s theology) and Calvinist; I would suggest though that a theologian could only ever be a Calvinist (Evangelical, Westminster, Spiritual Brethren, et al) if in fact she has a shred of Calvinian in her first. My point, Calvin’s nose is wax; and I would say that this is a good thing, precisely because we are as Reformed Christians, people who interpret and re-interpret Calvin and any teacher through Scripture. Those who appreciate Calvin, and try to appropriate him constructively through Scripture; will almost necessarily end up being a Calvinist (vs. Calvinian), and, of course, I would propose that the best of us will end up an Evangelical Calvinist! 😉

*repost (an old one)


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