Union With Christ


Unfortunately, but fortunately at the same time (I am moving onto Thomas Boston), I am leaving TFT’s discussion on Jonathan Fraser of Brea’s theology. All I can say, as I’ve read the presentation, there are striking points of contact between Calvin’s and Fraser’s theology; not least of which, and most importantly for our discussion here at The Evangelical Calvinist, is there respective views on the Unio Mystica or “Mystical Union.” I thought I would just “blog” out of this section with a nice and telling closing comment made by Torrance on the effect of Fraser’s treatise ‘A Treatise of Justifying Faith’, and how it was received during its initial printing by the ‘other Calvinists’ of the day. Not surprisingly, its reception then, is much like it is today (even evident on this blog). Here we go:

Published only after his death, like the first edition, this work of James Fraser, A Treatise on Justifying Faith, was late in making its impact on the Church of Scotland. Its call to return to authentic Reformation doctrine was misunderstood by the so-called ‘orthodox’ Presbyterians, and its powerful biblically sustained argumentation for the sovereign act of divine forgiveness and the universal offer of salvation to all people without discrimination was resented by the hyper-Calvinist establishment. They realised that their doctrine of redemption, formulated within the logical strait-jacket of the absolute decree of God, was being called radically into question on the ground of the solia gratia principle of the Reformation. Being unable to meet its challenge except through reiterating the propositions of strict federalist and predestinationist theology, they set Fraser’s teaching aside, but could not denigrate a saintly Covenanter who had suffered so much for his faithfulness to the Gospel and his refusal to yield to the imposition of Erastian Prelacy upon Scotland. However Fraser’s work steadily bore fruit in turning people’s minds back to the primacy of the nature of God revealed in Jesus Christ and his infinite Good-will toward sinners, and thereby opened the door for the proclamation of the Gospel of free unconditional grace, without yielding to Arminian universalism. . . . [italics mine] (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 202)

The italicized portion is an inside hat-tip to all you Scotists out there. Here is one reason why I like TF Torrance so much, he was a man ahead of his time in many respects — even if this means that he was also overstated at some points. I say this, because he (his brother James) was pressing this notion of the ‘mystical union’ and Calvin much before it was popular (it’s still not, but increasingly and slowly it is becoming accepted). That is to say, that TFT saw the Unio Mystica as a core to understanding Calvin’s theology; because he saw this at work in the Scottish theology that he was so much apart of — viz. he was able to recognize a side of Calvin that other predispositions to Calvin’s theology placed on mute.

People like Charles Partee (his recently released book: The Theology of John Calvin), and Julie Canlis (Calvin scholar, see her short essay entitled: Calvin’s Institutes: A Primer for Spiritual Formation) all are both noticing this same thing in Calvin’s theology — viz. the centrality that union with Christ played as evinced in Calvin’s duplex-gratia (gift and gratitude) versus the more culturally popular and thus trenchant appropriation and framing of Calvin’s theology as outlined by people like Muller and the post-Reformed ‘orthodox’ — the framing that blushes Calvin as a ‘theologian of decretal determinism’.

**You see, I have some problems, I can hardly read a few pages from TFT’s “Scottish Theology” without feeling compelled to sit down and let you in on the ride — that’s what I am doing here 😉 . I’m not really going to comment on this one, except to say, watch out for how TFT, through his discussion of Scottish (Evangelical Calvinist) theologian John Craig (a successor to John Knox), hits on the distinctions between Federal and Evangelical Calvinism, his emphasis upon ‘union with Christ’ and the ontological understanding of the atonement, election, and carnal and spiritual union (this point will illustrate that Myk Habets nor myself made this stuff up), carnal and spiritual union was right there in John Craig’s theology. Anyway, won’t you read along with me . . .

In his catechetical teaching Craig devoted ‘the Second part of our Belief’ to the doctrine of Christ as king, priest, and prophet, the offices for which Christ was anointed by the Spirit, and which expressed how Christ saved us. Special attention was given to his priestly office in which he gave unusual place to the obedience and praying of Christ as part of his atoning passion offered for us in satisfaction of God’s wrath. Like Calvin he held that Christ died for all, suffering for us in soul as well as body, sustaining the person of guilty men, taking upon himself their punishment, and their curse, thereby bringing upon them the blessing of God. Of particular note is the question and answer: ‘What comfort do we have in the person of the Judge? Our Saviour, Advocate, and Mediator only shall be our Judge’, for it marks the vast difference between Craig’s radically christocentric doctrine of God and of Christ’s atoning satisfaction offered once for all, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the federal concept of God as primarily the ominpotent lawgiver who required to be appeased if we are to be saved. Thus with John Craig there was no concept of God as Judge behind the back of Christ.

Distinctive also is the fact that 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. ‘All who are united with Christ are joined with the Church. Which of these two unions is the first and cause of the other? The mystical and spiritual union with Jesus Christ. For we are all saints of God, because we are joined first with Christ in God.’

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 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. Hence, as Craig pointed out, the Creed speaks of the remission of sins within the credal article on the Spirit and the Church. While he laid emphasis on the work of the Spirit in effecing union and conjuction with Christ, Craig insisted also that God uses three main instruments to bring us into union and to maintain us in it: the Word, the sacraments, and the ministry of men. . . . (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 50-52)

Isn’t that rich? If there are any questions, let me know.

Also don’t forget I just posted, right before this one, two other posts here and here.

**I wrote this about 4 years ago now, before I ever heard of TF Torrance, Scottish Theology (our Evangelical Calvinism), or things like “Christ’s vicarious life for us,” etc. I think what Frost has called “Affective Theology” is an excellent complement to what we are doing in “Evangelical Calvinism;” as it really develops the “Spirit’s” work in our union with Christ (or Christ’s union with us, better). Beyond that, the history of this movement is also very telling, “Affective Theology” (aka The Spiritual Bretheren, or Free Grace Calvinists [my label]) represents another instanciation of Calvinists, albeit in England and not Scotland, who saw the theological and pastoral problems that Federal Calvinism presented. Like their Scottish counterparts, they sought a way to think out Calvin[ist] themes in more ‘Evangelical’ and in fact ‘Trinitarian’ ways. I am presenting this post to introduce the reality, for one thing, that, indeed, Calvinism (in her history) is not a monolithic “thing;” that there are Calvinism[s] out there that I think capture the intentions and beauty of what scripture presents us with, as well as with what Calvin originally seemed to be intending (just see his “order” of the 1559 Institutes, he starts with ‘the Doctrine of God’ — Trinity). I hope you find this little offering inspiring and enlightening; if I was aware of what I am now (i.e. Evangelical Calvinism) I probably would have framed things in this article a little differently, but overall I think this piece still has some legs, and makes points that are still very pertinent to the aim and intentions of this blog . . . see you in the comments**

Here is a brief sketch to a historical system of theology (don’t let the historical part scare you away) that I was first introduced to while in seminary, under the tutelage of Dr. Ron Frost. This theology is known as Affective Theology (or even Free Grace Theology–different than the popular movement being forwarded currently by Zane Hodges). I am a proponent of this form of theological engagement (qualified at a few points, I actually like to assimilate this with “Scottish Theology”), and believe that it beautifully captures the intention of scripture relative to things salvific and God’s nature. This framework was communicated in Puritan England by people such as Richard Sibbes and William Erbery amongst others. This was a movement that was responding to the stringent “precianism” of Federal Theology (Calvinism) articulated by fellows such as William Perkins and William Aames. Notice a testimonial offered by a man named Humphrey Mills, someone who new what it meant to live under the unbearable burden of the moralistic proving ground spawned by the inevitable consequence of “Perseverance of the Saints” and “Limited Atonement/Election”, here he speaks in his own words about the freedom of conscience he finally felt under the teaching/preaching of Sibbes:

I was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing: looking for Heaven that way. And then I was so precise for outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above the ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies. But yet I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint . . . Doctor Sibbs, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit. His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had muchof God and was confident in Christ, and could overlook the world . . . My heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward. (Ron Frost. Kelly Kapic and Randall Gleason, eds., “The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics,” Frost is quoting from: John Rogers, Ohel or Bethshemesh, A Tabernacle for the Sun (London, n.p., 1653)

Here’s a heart freed from the constant burden of looking to self for assurance of salvation; and prompted to look up to Christ for freedom and salvation.

Sibbes was one of the key-note articulates against the popery he observed with the moralistic tradition provided framework through the Calvinist doctrines. Sibbes believed, along with others, that external works should never be the basis for assurance of salvation–in fact Sibbes believed that assurance of salvation should not even be a functional premise within a soteriological construct; such as Calvinism provided. Sibbes was part of a movement known as Free-Grace, this was ” . . . the party of Puritans who opposed any idea that grace is conditioned by human cooperation.” (Frost, The Devoted Life, 81). Notice this quote offered by William Erbery, a contemporary of Sibbes, as he discusses progression of Purtian thought ending with that kind of Free-Grace preaching exemplified most clearly by Sibbes, note:

I observed four great steps of God’s glorious appearance in men’s preaching. First, how low and legal were their teachings as they learned the way of preaching from Mr. Perkins, Bolton, Byfield and Dod and Dike. . . . Next the doctrine of free grace came forth, but with less success or fruit of conversion by Doctor Preston, Sibs [Sibbes], [and] Crisp. . . . Thirdly the letter of scripture, and flesh of Christ hath been highly set up by both the famous Goodwins: . . . [Thomas] excels in spiritual discourses of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and intercession, yet much according to the flesh, for he meddles not with the mystery of Christ in us. . . . [The fourth step] is the knowledge of Christ in the Spirit. (Frost, The Devoted Life, quoting from: William Erbery, The Testimony of William Erbery (London: n.p. 1658)

As Erbery highlights, Sibbes’, amongst the other Free-Grace teachers, was not taken as seriously as the predominate moralistic (Calvinist) teachers, i.e. Perkins, Bolton, et al. But notice where Erbery’s quote leaves off, “the knowledge of Christ in the Spirit”, to this we now turn. This is an important point of departure for the teaching of Affective Theology, as defined by Sibbes, i.e. the immediacy of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life.

While Sibbes believed works were an aspect of salvation, he did not believe that these should be a barometer for determining a person’s salvation. Furthermore he believed constant obsession with such thinking was a product of an unscriptural understanding foisted on the laity of Puritan England by the Calvinist Divines. Note Ron Frost’s assessment of Sibbes’ approach here:

While Sibbes acknowledged some biblical support in calling Christians to obedience as a duty (Erbery’s category of ‘low and legal’ preaching) Sibbes clearly understood that duty can only be sustained if it is supported by the motivation of desire. Thus Sibbes featured God’s winsome love more than his power: the Spirit accomplishes both conversion and sanctification by a single means: through the revelation of God’s attractiveness by an immediate, personal disclosure. This unmediated initiative was seen to be the means by which God draws a response of heartfelt devotion from the elect.” (Ron Frost. Kellp Kapic and Randall Gleason, eds., “The Devoted Life”, 82)

Notice the relational nature of the salvific event, the Holy Spirit comes to the heart of the “elect” and showers the heart of the sinner with the beautiful person of Jesus Christ. It is as the heart of the sinner is enflamed a love by the work of the Holy Spirit that the sinner responds back in love–given the overwhelming attractiveness of the sweet Savior. Another thing of note, is that the primary instrument used for disclosing sweet Jesus to the heart of the sinner is through the Holy Scriptures. Furthermore, notice the centrality that heart, motive, and desire play in the thought of Sibbes’ as articulated by Frost. This to me is very important, because it takes seriously what God takes seriously, and alone searches, the hearts and motives of men (see Jer. 17:9 and many other passages). This is God’s concern, the motives, and desires of men and women; this is contrary to the system that emphasized external moralistic duties as the basis of determining one’s election (which by the way had horrific ramifications for Christian ethics as well)– Calvinism. Sibbes’ approach, and his affective anthropology, i.e. the defining feature of man (i.e. where values and motives take shape), was directly contrary to the Calvinist anthropology that saw the intellect and will as the defining features of man, and actually saw the “affections” as that which was the weakest part of man. In Calvinist thought it is within the will via interaction with the intellect that becomes enlivened by a “created quality” or Grace. It is through this created quality of Grace that man is able to cooperate with God and thus keep the duty driven moralistic standards consequently proving one’s election and salvation (like Humphrey Mills lived under).

Conversely, Sibbes saw grace as a relational characteristic of God imbued upon the heart of man. It is through this transformative intervention that man’s heart is changed (II Cor 3), and drawn to God. Note Frost’s description here, as he contrasts the Calvinist understanding of grace and the historic Free-Grace (Affective Theology) understanding of grace (as articulated by Sibbes):

In this framework some additional theological assumptions were revised. For instance, Sibbes understood grace to be God’s love offered immediately (rather than mediately) by the Spirit to the elect. By identifying grace primarily as a relational characteristic of God—the expression of his goodness—instead of a created quality or an empowerment of the will, Sibbes insisted that God transforms human desires by the Spirit’s immediate love and communion. Faith, for Sibbes, was not a human act-of-the-will but a response to God’s divine wooing. God’s laws, Sibbes argued, must be ’sweetened by the gospel’ and offered within a framework of ‘free grace.’ He also held a moderately developed form of affective anthropology (which is as further explained by Frost: Augustine’s affective position emerged in the Pelagian debate. Augustine held sin to be concupiscence of the heart—an enslavement to a love of self rather than God. In Augustine’s anthropology the heart is held to generate values; the mind uses the heart’s values to consider its options and to offer its best judgments; the will uses those judgments to engage in action. . . .”)Ron Frost. Kelly Kapic and Randall Gleason, eds., “The Devoted Life”, 82)

This represents the touchstone, and most basic understanding of historic Free-Grace theology, or Affective Theology. Some highlights to take away: Affective Theology (AT) believes man heart is in total bondage to self-love; AT believes that man cannot cooperate whatsoever with God in salvation; AT believes that until the heart is transformed by God’s love through the Holy Spirit’s enflaming work, man will never find rest or salvation; AT believes contra historic Calvinist teaching that the emphasis of salvation is relationally based given the identification of God’s gift of grace with the work and person of the Holy Spirit; AT believes, given the relational basis, is not obsessed with proving one’s election since works are not the foundational component of AT’s framework of salvation.

I’ll leave it here for now, there is much more to be said about this perspective . . . especially about the framework that served as the touchstone for Affective Theology. That touchstone is found in Ephesians 5, and the Pauline marriage discussion. The marital framework provided in this beautiful epistle is picked up by AT and pressed into as the picture, but more than a picture (actually an ontological reality), of what union, and thus communion with Christ, is all about. I.e. this is contrary to the covenental framework provided by Calvinism, and the “contractual” implications provided by such a system (e.g. you keep your end of the contract, and God will keep His—). The marital framework, rooted in the New Covenant, is no longer obsessed with personal performance–but instead is overwhelmed with the beauty of her bride-groom [Jesus]–marriage presupposes relationship, i.e. nothing to prove, just something to grow in–ultimately finding consummation in glorification and celebrated at the marriage supper feast of the Lamb.

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