Con Campbell on Union with Christ

Bill Evans head shot

I’ve recently been spending some quality time with a new book by Constantine R. Campbell, entitled Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).  This is an important volume for a number of reasons.  First, it presents a brief but insightful summary of New Testament scholarship on the issue since Adolf Deissmann. More significantly, it examines (rather exhaustively, in fact) the “in Christ” language of the Pauline corpus, as well as a variety of related themes.  Of particular interest to me were his treatment of the relationship between union and justification, and his efforts to define union itself in the latter part of the book.

As many are aware, there is an ongoing debate in conservative Reformed circles over the relationship between justification and union, and two key issues have come to the fore—the descriptive question of whether Calvin viewed justification as flowing from and dependent upon union with Christ, and the normative exegetical/theological question of whether union should have priority over justification.  For those who may be interested, I’ve examined these debates in William B. Evans, “Déjà Vu All Over Again?: The Contemporary Reformed Soteriological Controversy in Historical Perspective,” Westminster Theological Journal 72/1 (2010): 135-151; readers may also want to read the subsequent exchange between yours truly and J. V. Fesko on these matters in the following issue of WTJ.

Campbell has something to say on both these points.  On the question of the exegetical and theological priority of union in Paul, Campbell’s summary conclusion is worth quoting at length.  He notes that

the findings of this study thus far seem to accord with the suggestion that justification occurs as an outworking of union with Christ.  This can be claimed by virtue of the fact that union with Christ language is employed in an instrumental fashion with respect to justification, as observed above; justification occurs through and in Christ.  Moreover, broader consideration suggests that because such a multiplicity of Christ’s works are related to union with Christ, often with an instrumental relationship in view, it follows that union is an originating theme through which others derive.  On that score, justification is likewise derived through union with Christ and coheres with Christ’s other works by virtue of their common source in Christ.  As Ridderbos acknowledges, ‘the foundation for the doctrine of justification . . . lies in the corporate unity of Christ and his own.’

This suggestion is supported by an understanding of the way in which justification relates to themes such as Christ’s death, resurrection, and vindication.  At each step along the path to the righteousness of believers, we see that they share in the crucial elements of Christ’s own righteousness; they participate in Christ’s death for sin and likewise in his vindicating resurrection.  Consequently, it follows that sharing with Christ gives rise to justification—it is an outworking of union with Christ (pp. 396-97).

With regard to the historical-theological question of Calvin’s view on the relation of union and justification, Campbell is likewise unequivocal in recognizing the priority of union for the Reformer.  He rightly notes that both Calvin and Luther saw no contradiction between imputation and union with Christ, and that both saw justification as flowing from union with Christ (pp. 400-404).  On this issue of Calvin interpretation, Campbell stands with quite a host of scholars who have come to similar conclusions—John W. Nevin, Êmil Doumergue, Alister McGrath, Charles Partee, Richard Gaffin, Lane Tipton, Mark Garcia, Bruce McCormack (who doesn’t much like it), and yours truly, to name a few.  Of course, there are some today who argue to the contrary (e.g., J. V. Fesko, D. G. Hart, and Richard Muller), but in my judgment they have an uphill slog against a host of texts that suggest otherwise.

Also of significance is Campbell’s recognition of the difference between Luther and Calvin on the one hand, and later Protestant scholasticism on the other (pp. 402-404).  Campbell insightfully observes that later Protestant efforts to protect the alien righteousness of Christ in justification resulted in a view of imputation that could be separated from the persons involved.  He writes:

As we have seen, Luther and Calvin’s understanding of imputation is useful for preserving the notion that the righteousness pertaining to believers is not their own; it has been granted to them and is a bestowal of God’s grace.  In their context, imputed righteousness had special significance with respect to the Reformers’ concern to correct medieval Catholicism, which diluted the ‘alien’ nature of righteousness and thus the grace of God.  In protecting the alien righteousness of Christ, however, imputation did not imply that it was an abstract substance that could be separated out from Christ’s person.  Quite clearly, this was not Luther or Calvin’s understanding, since they both regarded the righteousness of Christ as being shared with believers through their spiritual union with him (p. 404).

Of course, this is rejected by some (most notably and recently by Richard Muller in his Calvin and the Reformed Tradition).  Such arguments in the broader context (e.g., by some faculty at Westminster Seminary in California) seem to be motivated by two factors—a distaste for any hint of significant discontinuity between Calvin and his Reformed orthodox successors, and a concern to protect the gratuity of justification.  With regard to the former, given the differences in context, there are inevitably going to be both continuities and discontinuities, and the job of the historical theologian is to make sense of both.  To be sure, some in the past have significantly overstated and misconstrued the contrast between Calvin and later Calvinism, but that is no justification for historiography that flattens out real differences and ignores genuine development.

With regard to the latter, the irony here is that efforts to protect the gratuity of justification have led to a soteriology that abstracts the doctrine of justification from the persons involved, from the ongoing life of faith and obedience, and from life in the church.  Little wonder many have concluded that conservative “Calvinism” of this more recent sort cannot give a coherent account of the Christian life!   A further irony is that these problems have been recognized and discussed for well over a century, and yet some keep recycling the same old answers!  A strength of this book by Campbell is that it provides a wealth of new interpretive data points relevant to such discussions.

That being said, I do have a few criticisms of the book.  First, there are some significant bibliographical omissions.  For example, the seminal biblical-theological work of Geerhardus Vos is absent from the bibliography.  Certainly Vos’s The Pauline Eschatology and his essay on “Paul’s Eschatological Concept of the Spirit” are highly relevant to the exegetical discussions here.  I also think that my own diachronic historical-theological study of the theme, Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Paternoster, 2008), would have provided useful context at a number of points.

Second, Campbell seeks to define union with Christ in terms of four elements—union, participation, identification, and incorporation.  This is not a bad start, but I’m not convinced that his brief discussion of the definitional question has achieved clarity.  For example, absent here is any specific discussion of union with the incarnate humanity of Christ, a topic that has been both prominent and controversial in the theological history of the theme.  Also, Campbell defines “participation” in rather modern terms as “partaking in the events of Christ’s narrative” (p. 413), but the notion of participation in both Scripture and the tradition is much richer than that.  Here I think Campbell would have benefited from reading Julie Canlis’s splendid Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Eerdmans, 2010).

Finally, Campbell’s presentation of the sacraments in relation to union with Christ is disappointing.  His approach, at the end of the day, is rather thoroughly Zwinglian: “In conclusion, then, Paul seems to regard the sacraments as symbolic acts that give expression to union with Christ.  He does not, however, regard the sacraments as effecting or actualizing union with Christ; they are important symbols, but symbols nonetheless” (p. 387).  Here Campbell sets up what seems to me to be a false dichotomy between union with Christ by faith and union effected by the sacraments (pp. 385-86).  But as the Reformed tradition at its best has long recognized, the Pauline view of sacramental efficacy involves a complex of Word/sign, the faith of the recipient, and the work of the Holy Spirit, and it seems to me that what I have termed Calvin’s “offer/reception model” of sacramental efficacy is a better solution to this Pauline teaching.  Given that Campbell’s Bible translation of choice is the Holman Christian Standard Bible (in a volume published by Zondervan, no less!), I gather that he is a Baptist, and here his own tradition may have overly influenced him.

These relatively minor criticisms do not, however, detract from the significance of this volume as an important and timely contribution to exegesis and theology.