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union with christ

Interview with Todd Billings on Union with Christ

Interview by Matthew Barrett –


I am pleased to have Dr. J. Todd Billings join me to discuss his new book, Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Baker Academic, 2011).  Dr. J. Todd Billings is Associate Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. An ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America, he received his M.Div. from Fuller Seminary and his Th.D. from Harvard. His first book, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union With Christ (Oxford, 2007) won a 2009 Templeton Award for Theological Promise, awarded internationally for the best first books of scholars in theology and religious studies. He is also author of The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eerdmans, 2010).

You take a unique approach to doing theology, called a “theology of retrieval.” What is a theology of retrieval and what are the three prominent virtues to this approach? How can a theology of retrieval aid our understanding of union with Christ?

A theology of retrieval is an approach to theology described by John Webster, but practiced by a number of contemporary theologians of various traditions. It seeks to give close attention to significant theologians of the past – particularly before modernity – in order to call into question and reframe the contemporary theological discussion. The point is not to repristinate these past theologies, but to read past theologians in a way which allows for them to call us into question.

Here are three virtues: first, there are many ways in which we hold the gospel captive to our own cultural categories and trends. A theology of retrieval involves a cross-cultural interaction with those who came before us in the church which allows for our cultural idols to be exposed.

Second, in doing this, we can live into a deeper theology of the Word and Spirit in the church. We should not simply try to leap over 2000 years of history in interpreting the Bible – we need to read scripture with those who came before us since the Spirit was at work in them as well.

Third, there are certain periods in the church’s history which engaged the scriptures very, very deeply on certain biblical issues and themes. If you want to do a theology of retrieval on the Trinity, retrieving from the fourth and fifth century would be ideal. The discussions there were much deeper and more nuanced than our contemporary categories can handle. The same can be said for union with Christ in the era of the Reformation. There was very significant ferment about the biblical theme of union with Christ in the Reformation – which included addressing concerns about justification.

How does a Reformation understanding of union with Christ (e.g., Calvin) differ from a Roman Catholic understanding (e.g., Trent)?

The difference is very significant, though they are not completely discontinuous. Calvin and the Reformation affirm an understanding of justification which is directly countered by Trent. Trent condemns those who teach that justification occurs “either by the sole imputation of the righteousness of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of grace and charity … or that the grace by which we are justified is only the goodwill of God.” For Calvin, “we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.” (Institutes 3:11:2) A striking contrast indeed! Calvin, as well as Luther, Melanchthon, and other early Reformers wanted to be absolutely clear that justification refers to a change in God’s decision toward us, not to our internal process of transformation.

With that said, there are ways in which Calvin and other Reformers still draw upon catholic themes in their theology of sanctification. Sanctification is taken out of the context of works-righteousness through their theology of justification – but sanctification still involves the gradual renewing work of the Spirit, a growth in love of God and neighbor, etc. There are points at which the Reformers draw upon both biblical themes and certain catholic developments in their theology of sanctification – but it is utterly reconfigured because of Reformation insights about justification.

Is there a need for a renewed theology of union with Christ in Western churches today?

First, the functional or “lived” theologies of salvation in the west are deficient precisely where a Reformational theology of union with Christ is strong. For example, sociologists have discovered that while many Americans claim to be “Christian,” their theology is often much more deistic than Christian. Salvation is seen in terms of the benefits it provides to the individual and their self-confidence, rather than a restored communion with God and neighbor. Religious traditions are dealt with by “tinkering,” mixing and matching from various Christian and non-Christian sources to fill the purpose of solving one’s immediate problems. In contrast to this, a theology of union with Christ centers Christian identity in Jesus Christ himself, and the claim of the Triune God upon the Christian. Salvation is not self-centered, but is a renewal and restoration of the self precisely through orienting the self toward God, toward the church as the body of Christ, and toward the neighbor. The God encountered in union with Jesus Christ is at once greater and more majestic than the deistic-tending God of the west, and also closer and more intimate.

The second reason for the urgent need of recovering a theology of union with Christ in the west emerges from the continuing power of fundamentalist-modernist divisions from early in the twentieth century. These divisions shape the categories of what divides a “conservative” or “evangelical” church in the west from a “liberal” or “progressive” one. But these very categories – and the identity of the church stuck within them – are a reduction of the gospel. The ecclesial left tends to identify the gospel with a certain type of ethical action. The ecclesial right tends to emphasize the importance of the vertical – whether one is “right with God,” but in a way that leaves unclear the precise role of a horizontal life that loves the neighbor, as well as the widow and the orphan. Justice is important for many evangelicals, but there is considerable uncertainty about why it is important.

A theology of union with Christ takes the dualism and polarities which still remain from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, and unites them into a cohesive, holistic account of the gospel.

For many Christians, doctrines like “justification” and “sanctification” are commonly talked about. But many Christians may not have a developed understanding of “adoption.” What is the biblical notion of adoption and how does each member of the Trinity play a role in our adoption?

Adoption is a very important way that the New Testament describes our union with Christ. In Paul’s hands, the adoption metaphor is deeply Trinitarian – for it is initiated by the Father, mediated by the Spirit, and grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ. For example, in Galatians 4:4-7, Paul grounds the adoption of sons and daughters in the Sonship of Jesus Christ, who is sent by the Father – which is testified to in believers by the Spirit. “God sent his Son…so that we might receive adoption as children,” Paul says. “And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” In this way, salvation as adoption is both Christocentric – for adoption occurs only in Christ, as a subordinate sharing in his sonship – and Trinitarian. The adopted child of God encounters a loving Father through the Spirit’s crying “Abba, Father,” which all occurs in Christ – as an “heir” of God, as one united to the Son. There is much more that I say in the book about a theology of adoption, but those are the basic Trinitarian features.

Why is it so important to understand the bondage of the will and total depravity in order to properly approach communion with God?

The images of union with Christ, abiding in Christ, and participation in Christ present a multifaceted and wide-ranging theology of salvation. No part of human identity goes untouched by union with Christ; one’s life is found in Christ, by the Spirit, in service to the Father. But many today miss the negative corollary to union and communion which scripture also addresses: in ourselves, we are dead, slaves, and can do “nothing” to produce fruit. Thus, although it is missed by many who belong to Reformational traditions as well as their detractors, a doctrine of the bondage of the will – or what some call “total depravity” – corresponds to a doctrine of total communion in which humans are created for communion with God. While neither Calvin nor the early Reformational tradition used the phrase “total depravity,” they do claim that no part of human life is unaffected by sin, and that sinful humans cannot perform any “saving good” apart from the Spirit’s effectual work. I argue that this strongly stated Reformational doctrine of sin is not a purely negative statement about the human condition. Instead, the early Reformed insistence on the bondage of the will to sin refracts a theology of salvation which entails an exalted place for humanity: full humanity is humanity in communion with God. If one really believes that humanity is created for communion with God, then redemption can involve nothing less than the communion enabled by God’s Spirit. If we really want to understand the great extent of our communion with God in Christ enabled by the Spirit, we have to come to terms with the great extent of our sin which seeks to live autonomously in the old self rather than by the Spirit.

How has contemporary music and praise songs, often using romantic language for our union with Christ (e.g., dating Jesus), distorted the biblical understanding of God? And what role should the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility play in all of this?

I am not opposed to the image of God as a lover or spouse to his people – it is a biblical image. However, at this moment in western culture, there is a tendency to use the language of “union” and “communion” with God in a way that displaces God’s transcendence, identifying God with the world, or more specifically, with ourselves and our own desires.

One key feature that separates Calvin’s theology of union with God through Christ from these modern trends is that Calvin has a terse but significant negative theology running through his doctrine of God: a theology which claims that first and foremost, God is known fully only by God, and that while God may be known partially by creatures, he cannot be comprehended. But interestingly, Calvin’s theology of transcendence does not make God into the distant, Deistic deity. Rather, this theology of divine incomprehensibility is intimately tied to his notion of union and communion with God. Calvin makes both moves simultaneously through retrieving a category from patristic theology: accommodation. In the act of revelation, the incomprehensible God stoops over to accommodate to us in an act of astonishing love, fellowship, and intimacy.

In a theology of accommodation, retrieved from Calvin (as well as Junius and Bavinck in the book), divine transcendence and immanence do not point opposite directions – they are not principles to be “balanced” by a golden mean. Rather, in the matrix of accommodation, emphasizing transcendence makes God’s closeness and intimacy with us possible, because it is none other than the Holy One of Israel, whom no eye has seen, who has accommodated himself to us in Jesus Christ.

The “incarnational” ministry approach is a popular one. What is the incarnational ministry approach and why do you think it is ultimately misguided?

Whether in the circles of youth ministry, urban missions, or foreign missions, references to an “incarnational” approach to ministry are widespread. Yet, most forms of incarnational ministry are based upon a faulty assumption: that the Incarnation is a model for ministry, such that Christians should imitate the act of the eternal Word becoming incarnate. Thus, just as the eternal Word became incarnate in Christ two thousand years ago, we are to become “incarnate” in the particular culture that we are seeking to reach today. As my chapter seeks to show, there is no biblical support for such a notion. Moreover, it obscures a central point in Christology – that the Incarnation is a unique, saving event rather than a set of activities that Christians are to copy. But rather than simply criticize an Incarnational Model for ministry, this chapter seeks to provide an alternative in terms of union with Christ. The ministry outcomes sought by “incarnational ministry” can be realized and refined through seeing that the imperative to have “the same mind” as “Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5) fits within Paul’s matrix of union with Christ. As ones united to Christ, we participate in the Spirit’s ongoing work of bearing witness to Christ and creating a new humanity in which the dividing walls between cultures are overcome in Christ. The good news of union with Christ is that Christians do not have the burden of being redeemers: instead, they belong to the redeemer, and bear witness to the living Christ. A theology of union with Christ gives strong grounds for a relational, culture-crossing ministry which i always pointing beyond itself to Jesus Christ – the sole redeemer, the unique incarnate Word.

*Some material in this response is adapted from Union with Christ by Todd Billings, published by Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2011. Used by permission. 

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