Monday, April 27, 2009

The Unio Mystica and the Duplex Gratia in the Soteriology of John Calvin

This is part one of a series of posts on Calvin's theology of union with Christ and it's relationship to the two-fold grace of justification and sanctification. I have not forgotten the posts on the Mosaic Covenant, but they will have to wait until this paper is done. These are posts are only drafts of my paper, and thus any feedback would be encouraged.

No one reading John Calvin’s theological treatises can read him without seeing the absolute necessity of both justification and sanctification (or typically “regeneration” in Calvin’s language) in the Christian’s life.[1] However, the question of how these two soteric blessings of the ordo salutis[2] relate to one another has not only been an area of disagreement between Christian theologians (e.g. Catholic vs. Protestant) but even among those seeking to discern Calvin’s own position. Although most Calvin historians have generally agreed upon the importance of both the forensic (e.g. justification) and transformative (e.g. sanctification/regeneration) aspects of redemption in Calvin’s theology, Calvin scholars have disagreed on how justification and sanctification relate both to each other and how these two benefits relate to Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ.[3] Thus Cornelis Venema writes, “Perhaps the single most controversial question, however, in the interpretation of the “twofold grace of God” [i.e justification and sanctification] is that of the relation between justification and sanctification.”[4]

In what way does sanctification relates to justification and in what manner does justification and sanctification relate to Calvin’s theology of participation into Christ? These are the primary questions this paper seeks to address. Consequently, I will seek to place Calvin’s doctrine of sanctification and justification in proper perspective to the unio mystica as well as inquiring into the nature of the relationship justification and sanctification in Calvin’s soteriology. In this paper, I will argue that Calvin’s ordo salutis, or application of redemption, cannot be properly understood without first recognizing the architectonic principle of the unio mystica as the means of the believer’s receiving Christ and subsequently the principal grace of justification and sanctification. Secondly, I will argue that for Calvin, justification does not have some sort of “power” to bring about sanctification in the believer; rather, only through our union with Christ’s person and work can a person be sanctified. In fact, without first properly understanding how justification and sanctification relate to the unio mystica, the subsequent question of the two benefits relationship to one another, cannot be properly answered. To put it as bluntly as possible, if you misunderstand the duplex gratia’s (the two-fold grace of justification and sanctification) relationship to the unio mystica, you will inevitably misunderstand the relationship that justification and sanctification have to one another in Calvin’s thought.[5] In other words, Calvin’s ordo salutis cannot be understood without recognizing how it relates to the historia salutis.[6]

The Unio Mystica in Calvin’s Theology
Princeton seminary professor David Willis once wrote:
Calvin’s doctrine of the union with Christ is one of the most consistently influential features of his theology and ethics, if not indeed the single most important teaching which animates the whole of his thought and his personal life.[7]

Other Calvin scholars have also recognized the important role union with Christ plays in Calvin’s theology.[8] Calvin himself testifies to this importance explicitly when he writes in the Institutes, “That joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union [unio mystica]—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed.”[9] As we shall see, the way that the unio mystica functions in Calvin’s soteriology explains to a large degree the nature of the union. This is a point that seems to be overlooked by those who claim that some Calvin scholars have overemphasized Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ.[10] The importance that Calvin places with respect to the believer’s union with Christ cannot be overemphasized; rather it is of the “highest degree of importance.”

In seeking to understand the nature of this unio mystica, we must first discern its function in Calvin’s theology. In book three of the Institutes entitled, “The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow”, Calvin suggests at the outset that “First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.”[11] In other words, Calvin would have the believer understand that it is not enough for Christ to have accomplished salvation pro nobis (for us) in redemptive history. Although according to Calvin “we steadfastly hold that in Christ’s death and resurrection there is righteousness and life for us” if Christ remains extra nos or outside ourselves, what Christ did in the cross and resurrection is of no value to us.[12] We may put it in these terms: What God accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection (historia salutis) is useless to man (ordo salutis) if Christ remains extra nos. The question that book three of the Institutes proposes can be states thus: What is the relationship between the historia salutis or the history of redemption and the ordo salutis or applied redemption. For Calvin it is clear, the only way one can receive the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection is through our being made partakers of Christ’s body and blood which is nothing else but the unio mystica. Calvin forcefully puts it this way, “And indeed, I do not see how anyone can trust that he has redemption and righteousness in the cross of Christ, and life in his death, unless he relies chiefly upon a true participation in Christ himself. For those benefits would not come to us unless Christ first made himself ours.”[13]

At this point is should be clear enough—Calvin believes union, participation, or partaking of Christ, in short the unio mystica, is logically prior to the Christian’s reception of the benefits of redemption. The unio mystica is the bond which connects the Christ pro nobis to the Christ in nobis. Note as well that this logic cannot be reversed. Participation in Christ is not the result of the benefits of redemption but rather it is the means of receiving the benefits of “righteousness” and “life.” For Calvin, there is no salvation for the Christian without the unio mystica. The reason seems quite evident, namely, the Gospel’s substance is Christ’s person and work. The effects of partaking in the substance of Christ’s person are “redemption, righteousness, sanctification, and eternal life, and all the other benefits Christ gives to us.”[14] The fine Calvin scholar, Francois Wendel, summarizes this point well when he writes,

[According to Calvin] No doubt Christ, by his death, has obtained for us the possibility of effectually receiving the benefits that God intended for us, but this, according to Calvin, is as yet no more than a kind of potential grace, which man, while he is a sinner and therefore separated from Christ and a stranger to him, cannot receive automatically. The benefits that the Christ won on our account do not remain abstractions. Contact with God can be established only on the personal plane and by the inter-mediation of Christ. It is therefore indispensable for us to begin by entering into relations with Christ…[15]

Now that the function of the unio mystica has been explicated, one is now able to discern its nature.[16] In letter correspondence between Calvin and the Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) during March and August of 1555, Calvin affirms Vermigli’s distinction of three types of union with Christ.[17] The first type of union is a “very general and feeble” incarnational union.[18] Calvin in response to Vermigli affirms this type of union with no further comment when he writes, “that the Son of God put on our flesh in order that he may become our Brother, partaker of the same nature…” although it is not his intention to discuss this type of union any more in his letter to Vermigli, suggesting its generality and “feebleness.”[19] This incarnational union, however, is important to take note insofar as it is the ground of the subsequent communion the believer has with Christ. Although all men without exception participate in Christ’s flesh in this “incarnational” manner, it is not until the “moment we receive Christ by faith as he offers himself in the Gospel, [becoming] truly members in his body,” that Christ’s person and work becomes effectual in the believer.[20]

This definitive, that is immutable, second intermediate or mystical union, thus grounds the “life” which “flows from him [Christ] as from the head.”[21] This, flowing of Christ’s life into the believer, is something that occurs subsequent to this “intermediate union” and is ongoing in the life of the believer. This succeeding third union with Christ can thus be termed a “Spiritual union.” It is Spiritual because it is through the Spirit of Christ that we commune with Christ’s person in heaven. Both this intermediate (mystical union) and subsequent ongoing participation in Christ (Spiritual union) is described variously in Calvin’s writings as the relationship between the head and its members[22], a husband and wife[23], the corner-stone and subsequent stones built upon the chief corner-stone[24], the first-born among many brethren[25], and the vine and branches[26]. All of these metaphors point to both the definitiveness of this union with Christ that believers have by faith (mystical union) and the subsequent participation (Spiritual union) they have in Christ’s person and work.

In short, the nature of this unio mystica (including both the mystical and Spiritual union, see footnote 16) can be summarized as that Spirit-wrought ingrafting into Christ by faith, grounded in the union which the believer has in the flesh with Christ, whereby all of the benefits of Christ’s person and work are communicated to the believer, resulting in an ongoing fellowship and communion with Christ who is in heaven.[27] Calvin would more than likely add that this unio mystica is a profound mystery which on the one hand ought to be marveled rather than inquired into more deeply, and on the other hand ought to be sought after for the sake of “feel[ing] Christ living in us.”[28]

[1] It ought to be granted that “the Reformers all but universally agreed that conversion brings both justification and sanctification” A. N. S. Lane “Twofold Righteousness: A Key to the Doctrine of Justification?” in ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier, Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 216. Note as well Ronald S. Wallace’s very chapter structure (Chapters 1-3) at the beginning of his book Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock,1997).
[2] The term ordo salutis can and has been used in various ways. I will be using it in its broader sense as synonymous with applied redemption as opposed to its more narrow sense of the logical or sometimes even temporal logic of the individual blessings of applied soteriology (e.g. regeneration, adoption, justification, sanctification, glorification)
[3] E.g. some have argued for a relative priority of justification as it relates not only to the transformative benefit of sanctification but also to union with Christ itself. Michael S. Horton argues this very thing in his book Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox, 2007). Horton writes, "Regardless of whether union temporally preceded justification, Calvin is clear that the latter is the basis for the former" (pg. 143) Cf. J. V. Fesko in Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008) where he writes, “[For Calvin], justification, not union with Christ, is the foundation upon which the believer’s salvation is established.” (pg. 279) Suffice it to say, I think this view of Calvin is a Lutheranizing of Calvin instead of a proper understanding of Calvin.
[4] Cornelis Venema, Accepted and Renewed in Christ: The "Twofold Grace of God" and the Interpretation of Calvin's Theology (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 23.
[5] I would suggest that most of the problems in Calvin studies related to the issue of the relationship between justification and sanctification occur because of a defective view of the role of the unio mystica in Calvin’s theology.
[6] The term historia salutis, first coined as far as I can tell from the Dutch Reformed scholar Herman Ridderbos, refers to the history of redemption or redemption accomplished in contrast to the ordo salutis or redemption applied. Thus, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection would be considered historia salutis whereas the believer’s appropriation by faith of Christ’s person and atoning work would refer to ordo salutis.
[7] Quoted in W. Duncan Rankin’s article “Calvin’s Correspondence on our Threefold Union with Christ” in ed. Robert L. Penny, The Hope Fulfilled: Essays in Honor of O. Palmer Robertson (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 233.
[8] See for example Mark A. Garcia, Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin’s Theology, Studies in Christian History and Thought (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2008); Marcus Peter Johnson, “Eating by Believing: Union with Christ in the Soteriology of John Calvin” (PhD diss., University of St. Michael’s College, 2007); Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life, where the whole book is structured around the believer’s union with Christ as the ground of the Christian life (see particularly pages 17-27).
[9] Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.10.
[10] This opinion has been supported particularly by Thomas Wenger, "The New Perspective on Calvin: Responding to Recent Calvin Interpretations," JETS 50/2 (2007): 311-28.
[11] Calvin, Institutes, 3.1.1.
[12] Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.12.
[13] Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.11.
[14] Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.11.
[15] Francois Wendel, Calvin: Origins and Development in His Religious Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1963) 234. Italics added.
[16] Calvin does not often delineate between “mystical union” and “spiritual union”. These are often used as synonyms. However, Calvin does distinguish the two in the letter correspondence with Vermigli which is discussed in this paper. Thus, after discussing this letter, I will not continue differentiating the two unless noted.
[17] In the foregoing discussion of the letter correspondence between Vermigli and Calvin, I follow very closely the discussion in Rankin, “Calvin’s Correspondence”, 232-250; Garcia, Life in Christ, 273-287; B.A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1993) 128-129. Because of the deficient English translations of the letter (cf. Rankin, “Calvin’s Correspondence”, 236), I will be quoting from Rankin’s, Garcia’s, and Gerrish’s English translations from the original Latin works.
[18] This is Vermigli’s language found in Garcia, Life in Christ, 281.
[19] Calvin quoted in Garcia, Life in Christ, 284.
[20] Calvin quoted in Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, 128.
[21] Ibid. 128.
[22] Calvin, Institutes, 3.1.1, 3.1.3; John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, trans. William Pringle, in Calvin’s Commentaries Vol. XXI (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 286-287.
[23] Calvin, Institutes, 3.1.3, 2.8.18; Calvin, Galatians and Ephesians, 318; John Calvin, A Sermon of M. Iohn Caluine vpon the Epistle of Saint Paul, to Titus, trans. L.T, (London: G. Bishop and T. Woodcoke, 1579) n.p,, accessed Tuesday, ‎April ‎14, ‎2009.
[24] Calvin, Institutes, 3.15.5; Calvin, Galatians and Ephesians, 245.
[25] Calvin, Institutes, 3.1.1, 3.1.3; John Calvin, Epistle of Paul to the Romans, trans. Henry Beveridge, in Calvin’s Commentaries Vol. XIX (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 318.
[26] John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, trans. William Pringle, in Calvin’s Commentaries Vol. XVIII (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 106-107.
[27] I did not have time to emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit and faith in the unio mystica. See Garcia, Life in Christ, 163-165, and William B. Evans, Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology, Studies in Christian History and Thought (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2008) 14-16.
[28] Calvin, Galatians and Ephesians, “For my own part, I am overwhelmed by the depth of this mystery, and am not ashamed to join Paul in acknowledging at once my ignorance and my admiration. How much more satisfactory would this be than to follow my carnal judgment, in undervaluing what Paul declares to be a deep mystery! Reason itself teaches how we ought to act in such matters; for whatever is supernatural is clearly beyond our own comprehension. Let us therefore labor more to feel Christ living in us, than to discover the nature of that intercourse.” 325; Cf. Calvin quoted in B.A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, “…the sacred unity by which the Son of God engrafts us into his body, so as to communicate to us all that is his. Thus we draw life from his flesh and blood, so they are not undeservedly called our “food.” How it happens, I confess, is far above the measure of my intelligence. Hence I adore the mystery rather than labor to understand it.” 128.

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