Union with Christ -- A Review
UNION WITH CHRIST: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011. Xi + 180 pp.
The title of this book is intriguing, which is why I requested a review copy. In part I did so because I will be teaching a theology of ministry class for a licensed ministry program in the near future, and the subtitle hinted that I might find something of interest in the book. While ministry is in view, the focus is only partly on this topic. It is more fully an attempt to reframe the discussion of Reformed theology, especially as it relates to how we conceive of ministry in the current age. Although I should have realized that this book would be deeply rooted in the Reformed Tradition, as an “outsider” to that tradition I did find myself overwhelmed at times by the focus of the author on the intricacies of this tradition. Thus, my own experience of the book is colored by my own starting point. That is, I may not have found it as helpful as someone more attuned to that tradition. But, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to be gained by reading this from outside the tradition.
The author, Todd Billings, teaches Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan and has written extensively on John Calvin. That probably should have been clue enough as to the orientation of the author.
The premise of the book is that the “central New Testament description of Christian identity” is found in the image of “union with Christ” (p. 1). In fact, for Billings, union with Christ is “short hand for the gospel.” This is the good news – we have been given the opportunity to find our own identity in the person of Christ, who is the unique incarnation of God. Billings explores this concept and applies it to questions relating to sacrament, ministry, and church, by retrieving from Reformed Tradition, especially John Calvin and to a lesser extent figures such as Herman Bavinck and Karl Barth, the sources for understanding what it means to be a Christian. As I noted, I’m not part of the Reformed Tradition in the way that Billings is, so I found the book to be helpful at points but far from where I find myself at this point in time. As a historian, however, I do appreciate Billings’s commitment to making history a conversation partner in his theological work.
This book begins with a premise that God is, in God’s self, incomprehensible to humans. Thus, revelation of God must come from God, and Jesus is that preeminent revelation. His emphasis on Christ as the unique incarnation of God is foundational for the critique of “incarnational ministry” at the end of the book.
Billings begins his book with a chapter that affirms the concept that salvation is adoption in Christ. Thus, to experience salvation is to be adopted into the family of God, making one heir of God. He sees this as an antidote to the pervasiveness of “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which a number of writers have declared to be America’s creed. We’re a moralistic people, seeking to be made to feel good, in relationship to a distant, but convenient god – one we control in essence. But the idea of adoption changes our identity – we are part of God’s family and recipients of God’s bounty.
Chapter two wrestles with the concept of “total depravity,” which is one of those areas of theology that many Christians either ignore or find problematic. Billings believes that the typical expositions – that we are because of sin totally incapable of doing anything good is incorrect. But, it does suggest that everything about our lives is touched by corruption. Therefore, our will is not completely free. Interestingly enough, he notes that in our American political discussion – conservatives, with their libertarian leanings, have a more positive view of human ability than do liberals, who seek much more government regulation of human life – because they don’t believe that humans, left to their own devices are capable of doing good. So, who knew that the left was as Calvinist as it may be? Where, however, is there ultimate hope? It is to be found in communion with God through Christ – that is in “union with Christ.”
In the third chapter, Billings moves on to the question of God’s nature – and thus God’s incomprehensibility. We have knowledge of God and God’s desires through God’s decision to accommodate God’s self and vision to our abilities to comprehend. Following Calvin, Billings asserts that only God truly knows God, that humans have, as a result of accommodation, a partial knowledge of God; and God desires communion with humanity. Thus, as is true of Reformed understanding of the divine human relationship – God seeks us, not the other way around. Revelation is an act of “condescending love.”
Chapter four is entitled “The Gospel and Justice.” In this chapter Billings speaks to those on the left, whom he believes collapse gospel into justice (human acts of justice), while on the right justice is seen as an optional add-on. Once we get our ticket to heaven, then we talk about justice, if we want. Billings finds both perspectives deficient. It is in this context that Billings discusses the Lord’s Supper, for it is not only a place of communion with Christ, but it also as a result of our communion with Christ a push outward to love one’s neighbor. Justice, thus, is an integral expression of our participation in Christ.
Finally in the fifth chapter, Billings takes us into a discussion of ministry, specifically a contrast between the idea of “incarnational ministry” that is prominent in Missional circles, and his suggestion that we would better served, theologically, if we understood ministry in terms of participation through union with Christ. Ultimately, as I read this chapter, from a perspective of one who is engaged in the missional conversation, I didn’t see that in terms of actual practice there was much difference between an “incarnational” view and a “participation” view. What Billings is concerned about is that if we push the idea of incarnation too far then we supplant Christ as the incarnation of God. It is our own actions that define incarnation, and thus Jesus no longer stands at the center. He becomes an example, but is displaced as the unique incarnation of God in human form. I have to admit, I struggled with the chapter, because I found much of the discussion rather semantic in nature. I think most missional thinkers would affirm that ultimately we are not the incarnation of God, but that our engagement in ministry is a reflection of what Christ did, and we understand that we do this ministry not on our own, but in the Spirit who reveals Christ. I have no problem with the image of participation in and with our union with Christ. If this better theological language, then so be it. But does it change the nature of ministry? I’m not sure that it does, so is this an intramural debate or is it something of greater importance? Being that I’m not part of this Reformed debate, I’ll leave the answer to the question to others.
In the final analysis, this book has helpful aspects to it. It invites us to retrieve insights from the past even as we move into the future. I appreciated the push back on the relationship of gospel and justice. This is a key insight. As to whether or not this is, as Richard Mouw writes in a blurb gracing the back cover, a key to the comeback of Reformed theology, is for those in the Reformed tradition to decide. If, like me, you find yourself at a different place theologically, you might look elsewhere for resources. The book is accessible, well-written, but focused on a fairly specific audience – Reformed evangelicals who have drifted off into “moralistic therapeutic deism.”