Review – Union with Christ by Robert Letham

Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology by Robert Letham explores what many have called the central teaching of the Reformed doctrine of salvation. Indeed, one of the purposes of the book is to unravel the many threads that tie union with Christ not only to personal salvation, but also to creation and recreation, the incarnation, and the Church. Union with Christ, then, is a comprehensive perspective on God’s activity toward mankind, especially toward his elect. Union is not so much a locus of theology in itself as it is a way of relating and integrating the various themes of theology.

Because union is the sort of doctrine that is discussed in relation to other doctrines, Letham does not organize the book according to Scripture, history, and theology. Rather, he arranges the book thematically, incorporating the three components into each chapter. The first chapter, “Creation,” establishes the foundational principles for union: Christ as mediator of redemption and man as the image of God. These two truths provide the cosmic or natural foundations for union, which provide a platform for a higher level of union in grace.

The next chapter, “Incarnation,” develops the theme of union by showing that in the person of Christ, God and man are perfectly united. The history of Christology comes to the fore in this chapter, as Letham retells the early Church’s struggle to articulate the Incarnation as the basis of salvation. As a man Christ had to live in perfect conformity to God’s law, die as a propitiation, and conquer death with new life. However, the Incarnation does not, by itself, ensure our salvation. Christ was united to human nature in general, not to the elect. Thus, the third chapter, “Pentecost,” explains how the Holy Spirit unites the elect to Christ so that they, as individuals and as a corporate body, share in him and his benefits.

So far the book follows a redemptive-historical format, explaining the trinitarian and narrative basis for union. The final three chapters explicate in what union with Christ consists, grouping aspects of union into three categories: representation, transformation, and death and resurrection. The chapter on transformation is masterful. It covers issues relating to the ordo salutis (order of salvation), the relationship between the Greek Fathers and Reformed theology, and the bumpy history of Reformed thought on sacramental theology. It concludes with ten theses on union with Christ and transformation. It is worth reading the book simply for this chapter.

On the whole, though, the book is a bit disappointing. Despite its admirable breadth, logical progression of thought, and interdisciplinary awareness, it possesses one fatal flaw: length. The book is simply too short to develop properly the ideas it contains. Letham’s previous book, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, comprises 551 pages. This one is a miniscule 164. Often, a provocative statement is left unsupported or a significant historical figure is given the most cursory treatment. Detailed exegesis is sorely lacking, insufficiently compensated for with abundant parenthetical citations. Almost all the chapters seem more like sketches than finished products.

Also, the book varies in style. At times, it reads in a popular, almost unscholarly, tone. At others, long strings of Latin obscure the text. For example, Letham is relating a comment by Calvin, “Paul testifies that we are of the members and bones of Christ (Paulus nos ex membris et ossibus Christi esse testatur).” More often than not, the Latin takes up space rather than clarifies a point. A few times, I noticed that something was underlined in the Latin, presumably for emphasis, without any correspondingly indicated emphasis in the English translation. Since I read Latin, I found these choices to be mere annoyances, but I suspect non-Latinists will be much more frustrated by this. The Latin should have been either omitted or moved to the footnotes, except in cases of special significance.

Nevertheless, I am glad I read this book, especially for the chapter on transformation. Letham’s overall approach to union with Christ is highly illuminating, and the germs of many worthy thoughts reside here in nuce. Also, the upside to it being a short work is that if you don’t like it, at least you didn’t invest too much time in it.

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Published in: on January 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Nicaea and Logos Theology

[Note: This article is linked conceptually to Discovering the Trinity.]

Many early Christians, when articulating the relationship of the Son to the Father, developed what we now call “Logos [Word] theology.” Justin Martyr, for example, calls the Logos God (or at least divine, the article is missing from θεος), but makes it clear that he is distinct from and subordinate to the Father. He disapproves of the light from light analogy, preferring instead the image of a torch lit from another. As unorthodox as this may sound at first glance, Justin affirms a common nature (the fire of the second torch is of the same nature as the fire on the first) and denies a materialist concept of God (the Father is not diminished by begetting the Son). The Logos’ role is to reveal God, to mediate his presence to this world.

Origen’s doctrine of the Logos is multi-faceted. Here, too, the Logos’ primary function is to reveal and mediate the Father to the created world. However, there is less subordination. Origen calls the Logos God and insists that the Logos is divine not by participation, but by essence (ComPs 135.2). However, subordinationism still exists. Origen is sure that the Logos participates in being, but speculates that the Father might be beyond being. There is still a gap, it seems, between God and “true God.”

Origen draws on Platonic, perhaps Middle Platonic, themes to explain the Logos. The Father is pure unity. The material world is plurality. The Logos exists as the unifying principle of plurality, or as Joseph O’Leary states, the idea of ideas, the virtue of virtues (ComJn 1.119; CCels 5.39). As the principle (ἀρχή) of creation, all creation holds together in him. He is analogous to the World Soul. Thus, while the Logos is God, there is always an ontological gap between him and the Father. He is able to reveal and mediate the Father only because he is not identical to the Father; he is not absolute unity.

Now, pro-Nicene theology insisted that the Son is not merely like the Father in nature (ὁμοιουσιος) but identical (ὁμοουσιος). This seems at first to contradict the central principle of Logos theology, and Richard Hanson asserts that Nicene theology abandoned the Logos doctrine. However, Lewis Ayres argues that pro-Nicenes transformed Logos theology while retaining its essential features. The Logos still reveals and mediates the Father, but how mediation and revelation occur is radically reconceived. Pro-Nicene theology turns the question on its head. How could the Logos reveal the Father unless he possesses an identical nature? If he is other than the Father, then he could not say, “Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9)?

First, mediation occurs through creation. The Logos who created the cosmos is in perfect union with the Father. Thus, the imprints of the Father truly exist in creation. All creation shouts testimonies to the Father’s power and goodness. Such testimony would be impossible if it were the work of an intermediary not in full union with the Father. Second, mediation occurs through redemption. As Athanasius argued, redemption could not be procured by a being existing in a middle state, slightly lower than God and higher than human. Only by the mediator grasping both extremes simultaneously can they be united. When believers are united to Christ by faith, they are united with the entire Trinity, for Christ is united to the Trinity. In no other way could the Scripture be true, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

So, we might say that pro-Nicenes challenged the Logos theology to come to grips with the true prerequisites for revelation and mediation. Only the co-eternal Logos, equal to the Father in wisdom, power, and glory, can assume true humanity and be the mediator our salvation requires.

Published in: on March 12, 2011 at 10:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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A Dangerous Christocentrism

In De Trinitate, Augustine spends pages explaining that at the last judgment, the wicked will see Christ in his form of a servant, not in his form of God. That sight, the fullness of deity, is reserved for the justified; it is the final reward of faith. Edmund Hill, one of Augustine’s translators, reflects on the significance of this interpretation:

One particular value of Augustine’s long discussion of the judgment … is that it provides a cogent and salutary corrective to an excessive emphasis on the humanity of Christ. The tendency in theology to explore to the limit all the implications of the incarnation and the humanity of Christ is valuable and sound. But like all good things it can be and is sometimes overdone. One is left wondering at times, when reading or listening to those who would stress the properly christocentic quality of Christian theology—christocentric instead of theocentric—whether there is any point or meaning in saying that Jesus Christ is true God as well as true man. From a misconstrued christocentricity it is only a step to a purely anthropocentric view, which soon leaves one wondering whether there is any point or meaning in saying God: period. And one answers that comes back honestly enough is “No, God is dead.”

It does make all the difference where one puts the center. A fully humane, even humanist, anthropology is one thing, and a good one; but a Christian may question whether it is true to the deepest heart of man to put him at the center of things, even of himself. Again, a fully balanced christology, doing full justice to the human nature of Christ, is one thing and a good one, and even a christocentric approach to the Christian life is excellent in a limited context. But it leaves one with the question, what was the center of this Chrsit center, of Christ’s own life? If one is going to be honest with the gospel, one must surely answer, God, the Father. So ultimately Christian theology must be unashamedly theocentric.

Augustine’s certainly was so. It is the ultimate human destiny, and fulfillment, and “hominization” to find God, that is to know God, that is to see God. If it is also, according to the New Testament gospel, our ultimate destiny and fulfillment to know and see Christ, this can only be because Christ is God the Son of God, equal to the Father. Christ as man, true man, complete and perfect man though he be, cannot satisfy us as our final destiny, because he is, or will be, also available to the knowledge and sight of the wicked, that is to say, of those people who have somehow or other willfully foresworn their true destiny.

Published in: on February 15, 2011 at 9:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Two Forms of Christ

In the first book of On the Trinity (De Trinitate), Augustine faces a difficult exegetical problem. Orthodox Christianity teaches the Trinity, the equality of the three divine persons. On the other hand, many statements in Scripture speak of Christ as being inferior to or less than the Father. The solution is distinguishing between Christ’s two forms.

To accomplish the redemption of mankind, the Son became the incarnate mediator between God and man. Augustine appeals to Philippians 2:6-7  — “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Augustine comments, “For he did not so take the form of a servant that he lost the form of God in which he was equal to the Father. So if the form of a servant was taken on in such a way that the form of God was not lost … who can fail to see that in the form of God he too is greater than himself and in the form of a servant he is less than himself? And so it is not without reason that scripture says both; that the Son is equal to the Father and that the Father is greater than the Son. The one is to be understood in virtue of the form of God, the other in virtue of the form of a servant, without any confusion.” (1.14)

“Provided that we know this rule for understanding the scriptures about God’s Son and can thus distinguish the two resonances in them, one tuned to the form of God in which he is, and is equal to the Father, the other tuned to the form of a servant which he took and is less than the Father, we will not be upset by statements in the holy books that appear to be in flat contradiction with each other.” (1.22)

“In the form of God, all things were made by him (Jn 1:3); in the form of a servant, he himself was made of woman, made under the law (Gal 4:4). In the form of God, he and the Father are one (Jn 10:30); in the form of a servant, he did not come to do his own will, but the will of him who sent him (Jn 6:38). In the form of God, as the Father has life in himself, so he gave the Son also to have life in himself (Jn 5:26); in the form of a servant, his soul is sorrowful to the point of death, and Father, he said, if it can be, let this cup pass by (Mt 26:38). In the form of God, he is true God and life eternal (1 Jn 5:20); in the form of a servant he became obedient to the point of death, the death even of the cross (Phil 2:8). In the form of God, everything that the Father has is his (Jn 16:15), and all yours is mine, he says, and mine yours (Jn 17:10); in the form of a servant, his doctrine is not his own, but his who sent him (Jn 7:16)” (1.22).

Augustine’s approach shows that the Trinitarian and Christological controversies worked to resolve two concerns: 1) rendering a satisfactory account of how the incarnation grounds human salvation and 2) harmonize the seemingly contradictory exegetical material. As even these paragraphs show, John’s writings were the most fiercely contested. If Athanasius found the antidote to Arianism in John’s works, R. P. C. Hanson is right to point out that there would have been no Arianism if not for the same writings.

The non-Nicenes too understood the importance of a mediator, but their mediator was slightly less than true God and something more than normal man. The Nicene victory consisted not in providing more texts than the opposing side, but in producing a theology robust enough to give full rein to “both” sets of scriptural data. The mediator is True God and true man according to his two forms, which are never separated but never confused.

Published in: on February 14, 2011 at 6:57 pm  Comments (1)  
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Review – The Council of Chalcedon by R. V. Sellers

The Council of Chalcedon by R. V. Sellers offers the sort of historical treatment for which beginning historians yearn. Clear in its analysis, lively in its prose, and enlightening in its use of source languages, Chalcedon integrates pleasurable reading with useful instruction. It alternates between narrative, describing the events leading up to and following from Chalcedon along with the significant persons, and analysis, examining the theology of key documents.

Sellers describes the Chalcedonian theology as consisting of two principles: Christological confession and Christological inquiry. By Christological confession he means the declaration that Jesus Christ is “one and the same” with the Logos who assumed humanity, and by Christological enquiry he means the attempts to explain the relationship of human and divine in the incarnate Christ. Sellers affirms that the three major schools of Christological thought – Antiochene, Alexandrian, and Western – all had maintained these two principles, though in differing emphasis,and that at Chalcedon these three schools met in their theological maturity.

The Alexandrians, whose chief exponent is Cyril, were influenced by an Incarnation-centric soteriology that stressed  the divinization of humanity through its union with Godhood. As a result, their accent fell on the oneness of Christ, that in him a real union between human and divine had taken place. On the other side, “Fundamental to the thought of the Antiochenes is the doctrine of the essential difference between God the Creator and man the creature: over against God in his immortality, incorruptibility and impassibility is set mortal, corruptible and passible man” (162). The Antiochenes, then, focused on Christological enquiry and insisted that one continue to recognize (only in thought, though) the distinction between human and divine, lest one “confuse” Christ and make of him a tertium quid, neither truly human nor truly divine. Over against both Eastern schools, Pope Leo’s Tome exemplified the developing Western conception of sin and redemption in juridicial-penal terms that led to the recognition of Christ as Mediator between God and Man. Thus, the Tome kept the two principles in balance, confessing two natures in one person (duae naturae in una persona).

Sellers exposits the Chalcedonian Definition according to the two Christological principles; rather, it seems his study of the Definition led him to recognize in it those two principles, through which he then chose to read the theology of this period. He argues that Chalcedon’s purpose was not primarily negative, to refute heretics, but rather positive, to explain clearly the Nicene faith in such a way that contemporary heresies would be excluded. He argues that the authentic reading of the creed is “in two natures” (εν δυο φυσεσιν) rather than the more common Alexandrian “out of” (εκ), a choice that would cause ecclesiastical turmoil in the East for decades to come.

Crucial to understanding Chalcedon is grasping the force of the single word “recognizing” (γνωριζομενον) in “recognizing two natures.” Contrary to the claims of their critics, the Chalcedonians never declared that one could divide Christ into two agents, Jesus and the Logos, and attribute some actions to one and other actions to the other. Rather, in the various acts of the single God-man one can perceive both true Godhood and true manhood. It is the person who does miracles, though Godhood is at that time clearly displayed; it is the person who dies on the cross, though manhood is then exhibited. This principle of attributing the characteristics of either nature to the whole person has come down in theological history as the communicatio idiomatum, the sharing of attributes, and explains how the Fathers could have said so adamantly, “God died,” while still believing in impassibility. Sellers sees the completion of Chalcedon’s Christology in Leonitus’ later theory of enhypostasis: “The manhood, therefore, has its existence, not separately, as if it were that of another Person (hypostasis) beside the Logos, but in the Person (hypostasis) of the Logos…. There is in Christ one agent, the one Son of God made man, a divine-human person, whose are all the actions all the time” (xvii).

This review focused mainly on the theological aspects of The Council of Chalcedon, but the narrative portions are equally valuable. Readers should note, however, that this book was written in 1953; some details or points of interpretation may have been superseded by more current research. In particular, Sellers demonstrates a strong desire to generalize and harmonize. I question whether one can so neatly distinguish among the soteriologies (much less Christologies) of the Westerners, Antiochenes, and Alexandrians. It may be better some of his classifying statements as indicators of general trends or as describing certain prominent spokespersons. In addition, it is interesting to note that on Sellers’ reading, there were no heretics – save perhaps Nestorius and Eutyches – in this era of Christological disputes. Even the monophysites are pronounced orthodox. If one were to combine Sellers’ conclusions with those of certain recent historians questioning whether Nestorius and Eutyches were actually heretics, one might come to the ironic conclusion that in this age of attack and defense, of excommunication and counter-excommunication, of banishment and recall, of shouts of orthodoxy and cries of heresy, there were really no heretics at all. Such is the mind-boggling world of church history.

To Reading and Reviews

Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 7:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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