Just read a delightful piece by Julie Canlis, “Beyond Tearing One Another to Pieces: Union with Christ in Reformed Scholarship,” JRT 8 (2014): 79-88, where Canlis gives a brief overview as to why Reformed folks get so worked up about union with Christ and then gives a very good review of Con Campbell’s and Todd Billing’s recent books on union with Christ.
I think Canlis points out the heart of the debate about the primacy of justification versus union when she says:
If justification is not primary, so the reasoning goes, then our union with Christ is quasi-transformational; justification then becomes mixed with sanctification in ways which do not prioritize justification – the only thing which can secure the believer’s free repose in the grace and unmerited favor of God. (And we’ve got the problems of Catholicism – with which Calvin already dealt – all over again). But if justification is held in priority over union with Christ, so the response goes, then we have already locked believers into a legal framework with God (and Christ is easily depersonalized as the “agent” who “saved” us within this legal framework, forever intervening between the believer and the demands of God). And this will never quieten frightened consciences, for only the person of Christ, the Son, can. (And we’ve got the problems of legalism – with which Paul already dealt – all over again). (p. 81).
That pretty much sums it up, but I’m definitely on the priority of union side of things as I’ve argued in places like SROG.
Canlis’ review of Campbell and Billings is very informative and she shows how the two books relate to wider debates in Reformed theology. I loved her conclusion:
Anyone familiar with the recent literature on “union with Christ” will realize that these two books represent a gift of scholarship to the church and for the church. Campbell’s book is groundbreaking, not only for its exhaustive treatment of union with Christ but for its timely, even-handed approach which has no axe to grind, no theological feathers to ruffle (at least not intentionally!) Billings enters through a more self-consciously Reformed door, but spends his time opening up windows and seeking vistas, rather than drawing architectural floor-plans. Neither scholar has participated in the sport that Calvin lamented in a letter just prior to the Council of Trent, where he grieves that “it seems we have hired ourselves, both hand and tongue, to the ungodly, that we may afford them sport and pastime by bearing one another to pieces.” Perhaps the only way to do true justice to this biblical theme is to use for greater ecumenical fruit. (And perhaps the first baby steps are simply a graciousness extended within the Reformed household itself!).
I only lament that Canlis was not able to interact with Grant Macaskill’s recent book on union with Christ published by OUP.