Emil Brunner has termed union with Christ “the center of all Calvinistic thought” and Heinrich Heppe wrote: “At the root of the whole doctrine of the appropriation of salvation lies the doctrine of insitio or insertio in Christum, through which we live in him and he in us. So the dogmaticians discuss it with special emphasis.”(from the preface) To undertake such a task as tracing the trajectories and themes of union with Christ is no light undertaking especially when you throw names like Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge in the mix. This book is put together with careful research, clear writing and a succinct vision to examine the truth in the context which this study finds among the field of other similar studies.
William Evans points out that Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology is a study which will involve “the isolation and examination of a number of trajectories in American Reformed thought–the New England Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards and his successors, the Mercersburg Theology of John Williamson Nevin, and the Princeton theology of Charles Hodge. Each of these treats the theme of union with Christ in a distinctive fashion.” It is for this purpose alone that I wanted to read this book. The bulk of my study falls into the time period which these giants of the faith operated and wrote some of the most profound works still circulated today.
Evans begins this study with a survey of Calvin and the centrality he placed on union with Christ. Evans summarizes Calvin’s views in the following way: “The bond uniting justification and sanctification is the mediatorial person of Christ together with the Holy Spirit with whom Christ has been endowed”. Though his examination is thorough, Evans doesn’t isolate this theme, but also goes on to explore Calvin’s view on the Holy Spirit, Word and Sacrament, and ends with a view of the benefits which we receive in being united to Christ.
Moving on from there Evans examines the doctrine of union with Christ in light of Reformed Orthodoxy. He takes into consideration the rise of methods like the Loci Method and the Ordo Salutis. Beginning with Scholasticism and moving down from there we finally arrive at the Puritans and from there we examine the rise of Federal Theology and the blurry lenses which it brought with it. In relating what Federal Theology brought to the table Evans notes that, “For Federal Theology, however, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit represents rather than mediates Christ. In other words, the Holy Spirit functions as a surrogate for an absent Christ instead of mediating a personal presence, a perspective often reflected in federal views of the Eucharist. thus the humanity of Christ often tended to become little more than a matter of historical importance, a necessary precondition for the atonement.” (83)
Crossing the pond we come upon the giant of New England, as I like to call him, Jonathan Edwards. In Part II of this volume Evans takes a look at the “clearly complex” mind of Edwards and the theology of men like Timothy Dwight and Samuel Hopkins. Though complex, the trajectory of New England Calvinism made lasting changes to the landscape of Orthodox theology. After the federal theology of older days was found wanting and replaced, guys like Edwards had lasting effects on, both personal piety, but also a moving away from popular theology that left no traceable transformation on the Christian life.
Evans closes this section with a very helpful discussion of the Mercersburg theology of John Nevin. Here we see, as Evans points out that, “In many respects the soteriology of John Nevin represents a return to Calvin , whose concerns for sacramental efficacy, for the unity of salvation in Christ, and for the importance of union with the incarnate humanity of Christ find a powerful voice here. Here too, a number of the critical soteriological innovations of federal Calvinism are rejected–the notion of an extrinsic legal or federal union with Christ, the dualistic bifurcation of union into legal and spiritual, and the federal understanding of a sequential ordo salutis.” (183)
Coming upon the crown jewel of this volume, as I have seen it, is section 4, The Princeton Defense of Imputation. It is in this section which the theology of Charles Hodge is examined and analysed. It is in this chapter that Charles Hodge is deemed as sending the tradition of federal soteriology on a trajectory which would lead to its further decline. “It is critical to note that the Princeton defense of the federal soteriology, an effort largely undertaken by Charles Hodge, was no mere recapitulation. Despite his repeated contention that ‘a new idea never emerged in this Seminary,’ Hodge radicalized certain elements of federalism, particularly the emphasis on the extrinsic.” (187)
I don’t pretend to understand what Evans is getting at in this section of the book. I understand that Hodge was very much a product of his times, meaning that he took on various aspects of Scottish Common Sense Realism which led to some notions in his theology which may have been a bit off track. When combined with the federal and polemic theology of guys like Turretin the trajectory gets a bit cloudy. It is no doubt that Hodge advanced American Calvinism in his defense of orthodox traditions but at the same time may have opened the door for a decline of the federal tradition.
The next section takes on A.A. Hodge, son of Charles, and later on the textbook federal theology of Louis Berkhof. This very short section, though heady, offers us a very useful insight into the reformed tradition after Hodge and the furthering of an ordo salutis tradition. Louis Berkhof, whose systematic theology is widely used today, “Largely follows Old Princeton federalism. Clearly an ordo salutis theologian, he follows the Hodges in rooting union with Christ in the eternal covenant of redemption, and in the strict separation of the forensic and transformatory benefits.” (234) In closing, Evans notes that the federal trajectory had reached its logical conclusion in Berkhof by relaying to the reader both a summary of a federal trajectory in the mind of guys like Berkhof and the Hodges and a quick warning of where that trajectory often seems to fall.
After noting subsequent developments in this line of theology and doctrine, Evans gives the reader a glance at how a revisioned reformed soteriology can benefit the body of God, “A theology of union with Christ provides a concrete basis for Christian activity within the larger society. A persistent danger in twentieth-century America has been the tendency of Christian social action activities to become unhinged from both Christology and Ecclesiology. This phenomenon is unfortunately apparent on both the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ sides of the religious and political spectrum……In short, the theme of union with Christ provides a basis for theology that is, to use a time-worn phrase, truly ‘evangelical, catholic, and Reformed.’ It is this vision of theology that, we believe, lay at the heart of the soteriology of John Calvin, and it is a vision that has a good deal to offer the church of today.” (267)
After reading this book I feel that I have a greater understanding of the doctrine of union with Christ and am a better, even though amateur, theologian for it. Evans did an excellent job of tracing the trajectory of the doctrine from Calvin to Edwards and down to us today. I think Evans kept himself unbiased in his writing, pointing ou
t where the trajectory seems to have gone off track from orthodoxy without harshly judging the framers of a specific branch of the tradition. I don’t think this is a book for the average reader but anyone who wants to know about the history of union with Christ and how we got the doctrine to where it is today will greatly benefit from a reading of this volume. Some of the language used is certainly meant for a particular audience who may have some formal education in theology or doctrine. While I myself am not trained in theology I found the language understandable after a few readings, considering the context which the volume was written in and the scope which Evans had in mind when he researched the texts.
Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology William B. Evans/Paternoster, 2008 Review Copy Courtesy of Wipf & Stock Publishers