Personal Faith and Union with Christ Theology in Evangelical Calvinism: In Response to Kevin Vanhoozer

The following will address three issues in Kevin Vanhoozer’s critique of evangelical Calvinism: 1) how union with Christ theology is detailed and works in evangelical Calvinist theology; 2) how person/nature relate to each other in Christ in the work of redemption; 3) how individual faith, by the Holy Spirit, is important in evangelical Calvinist theology, particularly as it is grounded in the calvinpostagevicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. After we work through this, briefly, the reader should understand better what a Christ conditioned salvation looks like in evangelical Calvinism. And at the same time, the reader will see how Kevin Vanhoozer’s critique on some of these key points misses the mark.

Analysis

Here we catch up with Vanhoozer in his critique of EC, as he is describing, from his perspective, what election, atonement, and union with Christ have to do one with the other; particularly as that has to do with the evangelical Calvinist articulation of that in our book Evangelical Calvinism (2012):

To say what is in Christ is both to proclaim the gospel and to make an ontological statement. The key soteriological principle for Torrance is the patristic maxim “the unassumed is the unhealed.” Election and atonement alike are thus a matter of incarnation – hence the importance of “natural” union with Christ. Indeed, Habets devotes the longest section (six pages) in his essay on election to the topic of union with Christ.

What is “evangelical” about this new perspective on Calvinism is the insistence that all human beings are elect in Jesus Christ by virtue of the Son’s assumption of human nature: humans “can no more escape from [God’s] love and sink into non-being than they can constitute themselves [persons] for whom Christ has not died.” This is because, for Torrance and the Evangelical Calvinists, there is only one union with Christ, namely, the Incarnation: “spiritual union is a sharing in the one and only union between God and humanity wrought out in Jesus Christ.” This one union, moreover, is ontological: “human beings have no being apart from Christ.” To be precise, there is one union with two aspects: the objective aspect is the incarnational or ontological union that God has done and that humans cannot undo; the subjective aspect pertains to the Holy Spirit actualizing in individuals what is objectively already the case. Christ’s atoning work is for all human beings even if some reject it.[1]

Here is what Vanhoozer may have been looking at when he wrote the above paragraph; it comes from thesis five (‘Election is christologically conditioned’), which Myk and I co-wrote. TF Torrance is reflecting upon Scottish Calvinist, John Craig’s, understanding of salvation with reference to union with Christ. You will note the two aspects that Vanhoozer is critiquing in the above paragraph: i.e. ‘carnal’ union (which has to do with the incarnation of Christ), and ‘spiritual’ union (which for us evangelical Calvinists has to do with what first took place in Christ’s humanity by the Spirit—something which Vanhoozer does not mention, which is unfortunate). Here’s the quote:

Thomas F. Torrance is instructive as he comments on Scottish Calvinist, John Craig’s approach to articulating what a christologically conditioned doctrine of election looks like; with a carnal and spiritual union providing its orientation:

Craig regarded election as bound up more with adoption into Christ, with union with him, and with the communion of the Spirit, than with an eternal decree. The union of people with Christ exists only within the communion of the redeemed and in the union they conjointly have with Christ the Head of the Church. . . . Union with Christ and faith are correlative, for it is through faith that we enter into union with Christ, and yet it is upon this corporate union with Christ that faith and our participation in the saving benefits or “graces” of Christ rest. John Craig held that there was a twofold union which he spoke of as a “carnal union” and a “spiritual union.” By “carnal union” he referred to Christ’s union with us and our union with Christ which took place in his birth of the Spirit and in his human life through which took place in his birth of the Spirit and in his human life through which he sanctifies us. The foundation of our union with Christ, then, is that which Christ has made with us when in his Incarnation he became bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh; but through the mighty power of the Spirit all who have faith in Christ are made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. It is only through this union, through ingrafting into Christ by faith and through communion with him in his Body and Blood, that we may share in all Christ’s benefits—outside of this union and communion there is no salvation, for Christ himself is the ground of salvation. . . .[2]

Vanhoozer misses the most important aspect of this (which I alluded to earlier), he fails to recognize that Torrance and evangelical Calvinists hold that both the objective and subjective, both the carnal and spiritual unions have been realized in Christ pro nobis (for us). Vanhoozer skips that part, and simply says: “the subjective aspect pertains to the Holy Spirit actualizing in individuals what is objectively already the case.” No, the subjective aspect of union, for evangelical Calvinists, pertains to what the Holy Spirit accomplished in Christ’s vicarious humanity for us. As I shared in my last post, as Dawson cites Barth, precisely as concerns this point:

deriving from Jesus Christ, i.e., His resurrection, there is a sovereignly operative power of revelation, and therefore of the transition from Him to us, of His communication with us; a power by whose working there is revealed and made known to us our own election as it has taken place in Him … and therefore the deliverance and establishment of our own being, so that our existence receives a new determination. It is by the operation of this power that we become and are Christians.[3]

This is a significant point and should not be glossed over; particularly because it elides the charge of Vanhoozer when he claims (in one of his comments at the blog here): “The main pushback I have is that in TFT there seems to be (sometimes) a conflation of person/nature, such that Jesus’ human nature is doing all the soteriological work, including believing on our behalf.” There is no conflation of person/nature in Torrance, or Barth, on this; the point for them, as for us: is that the believing, or the vicarious faith of Christ is indeed that, but this is not to suggest that individual persons or people do not have to believe themselves by the Holy Spirit. Instead it is to say that because of God’s “grace all the way down,” as Torrance would say, humanity can now say yes to God, because Jesus has said yes first for us in his mediatorial and priestly humanity.

Vanhoozer, prior to what we just addressed, wrote this as he sketched Calvin’s conception of union with Christ:

Surprisingly enough, Calvin agrees with Vermigli that there is also an incarnational or “natural” union that relates all human beings, saints and sinners, to Jesus Christ by virtue of their shared humanity: “That the Son of God put on our flesh, in order that He might become our Brother, par-taker of the same nature, is a Communion on which I do not mean to speak here.” However, Calvin says he is “entirely in agreement” with Vermigli’s qualification of this physical union as “very general and feeble [de-bilis]”). Elsewhere Calvin is adamant: “For we know that the children of God are not born of flesh and blood but of the Spirit through faith. Hence flesh alone does not make the bond of brotherhood.” Paraphrasing Calvin, we might say that the Son’s humanity, a merely “natural” or ontological union, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the kind of union with Christ that Calvin (and Paul) typically have in view in the context of soteriology. This natural or “incarnational” union with Christ is “the platform upon which redemption is carried out but [is] not . . . independently redemptive.”[4]

Again, Vanhoozer wants to suggest, or more forcefully, argue that evangelical Calvinists are at odds with the Apostle Paul and Calvin, while his classical Calvinism with its emphasis on individual faith is not. But in the very book and in the very section that Vanhoozer is critiquing (in our theses chapter), Myk and I also wrote this (represents our thesis ten in full):

Evangelical Calvinism places an emphasis upon the doctrine of union with/in Christ whereby all the benefits of Christ are ours.

Whether one wishes to adopt a formal ordo salutis or not, there is evident in any work of systematic theology at least a rudimentary historia salutis or even a via salutis, in the sense that one must distinguish between various aspects of reconciliation and an implicit logical (and chronological) articulation of them. From the foundational event of union with Christ several corollaries follow, and it is these corollaries which we may view as an implicit ordo salutis within an Evangelical Calvinism. As such union with Christ configures the ordo salutis, not some abstract, secret, and hidden Divine decree as propounded by the likes of Theodore Beza and William Perkins, et al. It is not that this becomes the central dogma or a philosophical centrum, but from union with Christ all the blessings and benefits of Christ flow—such as justification, sanctification, and glorification. In this we follow Calvin when he states:

Therefore, 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. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.

According to William Evans:

It is here that a concrete soteriological approach is called for. In contrast to the abstractions of the ordo salutis framework, in which justification and sanctification are not “in Christ” but rather occur somehow “on the basis of what Christ did,” there is a need to reflect more deeply on the relationship of the person and work of Christ. Once again, the Pauline materials provide food for thought. R. B. Gaffin has argued that for St. Paul, all of the traditional loci of Reformed soteriology—justification, sanctification, adoption, and glorification—are comprehended in the experience of Christ as the resurrected Second Adam. Furthermore, the Pauline perspective here is that the redemptive experience of Christ is not only paradigmatic for the Christian, but also is constitutive of the believer’s experience (the believer will not merely be raised like Christ, but is crucified and raised with and in Christ, Rom. 6:4–10; Eph 2:4–7). If these insights are to be utilized in Reformed dogmatics, then all of salvation is in a sense “participatory,” that is, a participation in the redemptive experience of Christ. All is to be found, as T. F. Torrance rightly suggests, in the “vicarious humanity of Christ.”

Evans continues:

A decisive break with the ordo salutis thinking that has vitiated Reformed thought since the early seventeenth century is clearly implied here. This historical record shows that as long as justification is viewed as taking place at a specific point in time (either in eternity or upon the exercise of faith) it is nearly impossible to find a meaningful relationship between justification and the economy of faith (the ongoing life of faith and obedience). Only when the traditional ordo salutis is eschewed can a truly forensic and synthetic doctrine of justification that is at the same time relational and dynamic be articulated.

Union with Christ and how that relates to salvation is one of the key pillars upon which Evangelical Calvinism rests. This nuance serves to differentiate Evangelical Calvinism from other approaches. Using Thomas Torrance as something of a guide here we can clearly see how our choice for God (conversion) is first grounded in Jesus’ choice for us, and is acted out in his Spirit-constituted-humanity in-our-stead (substitution):

Based upon the mutual mediation of Son and Spirit, there is both a God-humanward movement and a human-Godward movement and Jesus through the Spirit mediates both. This means . . . “the Spirit not only brings to us the objective effects worked out in the vicarious life of Christ, but also the subjective effects worked out in his humanity. That is, the Spirit enables us to share in Jesus’ own faithful response to the Father.” Torrance’s doctrine of human response as previously analyzed provides a foundation for what is developed here by way of the Holy Spirit. . . . Through the Spirit we share in Christ’s response to the Father. The Spirit empowers the believer to cry “Abba, Father,” in the same way that comes naturally to the Son of God; for to be “in the Spirit” is to be “in Christ”. . . . according to Torrance, “our whole lives in every part are constituted a participation: a dynamic life of union and communion with God.” Torrance insists that our holiness or sanctification is realised in Christ by the Holy Spirit: our repentance, faith, and obedience are actualised in Christ by the Holy Spirit; every part of our relationship with and response to God is thus achieved in, through, and by the Son and the Spirit. Not only is the Holy Spirit instrumental in justification, but now, also, to sanctification. Critically, however, both are located in Christ. Here we have, in effect, the other side of redemption: “the side of the subjectification of revelation and reconciliation in the life and faith of the church. That means the Spirit is creating and calling forth the response of man in faith and understanding, in thanksgiving and worship and prayer. . . .”

Of keynote importance is how all the typical concepts—election, limited atonement, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, etc.—which are usually placed in the absolutum decretum—are reified so that it is all grounded in God’s life in Christ by the Spirit. Humans, in this schema, do not cooperate with God through grace (as if grace is something given to humanity that they can cooperate with Christ through) to appropriate salvation (which is the way Classic Calvinism construes it); instead the response is through the “free” response of Jesus Christ to the Father by the Holy Spirit on our behalf. Humanity is placed into, united to Christ, by the “person” of the Holy Spirit; it is through this union that humanity’s response is first instantiated, first accomplished in Christ’s mediation for us. Union with Christ is an integral part of Evangelical Calvinist theology because it holds that God’s life itself is salvation (not meeting the dictates of some decrees), thus if humanity is going to “be saved” it must be in union with this life. And that is what happens through Christ’s humanity by the Spirit first; then humanity is united to his humanity by the Spirit, and it is out of this recreated humanity that we say “Yes” to the Father—“thy will be done”![5]

Conclusion

In light of all this it is hard to see how Vanhoozer’s critique holds much weight in regard to:  our apparent failure to detail how union with Christ works, to properly relate union with Christ theology to the Apostle Paul and John Calvin, and our supposed conflation of person/nature (after Torrance). As this post hopefully lays to rest, none of these points of critique by Vanhoozer work.

There is one more aspect I want to respond to in particular, but we have run out of space. Vanhoozer will later, in the same context go on and argue this:

The differences between Classical and Evangelical Calvinism here come into sharp contrast. First, as concerns election: Classical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Spirit’s uniting people to Christ through faith, whereas Evangelical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Son’s assumption of humanity in the Incarnation. Second, as concerns union with Christ: Classical Calvinists tend to follow Pauline usage, for whom “in Christ” serves as referring to the Spirit’s incorporation of saints into Christ (and hence the life of the triune God) through faith (i.e., a covenantal union of persons), whereas Evangelical Calvinists tend to follow a distinctly non-Pauline usage, viewing being “in Christ” as a necessary implication of the incarnation (i.e., an ontological union of natures, our humanity with Christ’s).[6]

We have already addressed some of this particularly in the last paragraph of our thesis ten; i.e. where we mention the absolutum decretum. It is hard for me not to launch into another response at this point particularly when Vanhoozer states that: “Classical Calvinists tend to follow Pauline usage, for whom “in Christ” serves as referring to the Spirit’s incorporation of saints into Christ (and hence the life of the triune God) through faith (i.e., a covenantal union of persons), whereas Evangelical Calvinists tend to follow a distinctly non-Pauline usage, viewing being “in Christ” as a necessary implication of the incarnation (i.e., an ontological union of natures, our humanity with Christ’s).”[7] That is troubling indeed! We have just shown that we affirm the centrality of personal faith; and we have also shown how that is personalized (and thus in line with the Apostle Paul’s focus on faith) in the vicarious humanity of Christ. When Vanhoozer makes the audacious claim that classical Calvinists have a much greater and Pauline emphasis upon personal faith, it is hard to take that; particularly when I know how decretal theology informs the classical Calvinist framework.

Alas, enough; next time.

 

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism),” in Benjamin E. Reynolds, Brian Lugioyo, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer eds., Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars (Germany: Mohr Siebeck).

[2] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in eds.  Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 433.

[3] Karl Barth CD IV/2, p. 317 cited by Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 148.

[4] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism),” in Benjamin E. Reynolds, Brian Lugioyo, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer eds., Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars (Germany: Mohr Siebeck).

[5] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in eds.  Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 441-44.

[6] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism).”

[7] Ibid.

*[see index to all five of my responses to K.J. Vanhoozer, here]

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