The Place of Union with Christ in the Ordo Salutis

The Place of Union with Christ in the Ordo Salutis July 31, 2014

DavidHollazThere has been some recent discussion on the “What Would Pless Read?” group on facebook regarding the priority of union with Christ in the ordo salutis in a discussion of my theology of Christification. Dr. Jack Kilcrease has been an adamant critic of the position taken by myself, as well as that of Rev. Dr. Eric Phillips regarding the union of faith which precedes justification (subjectively). These criticisms have appeared here as well as on other websites. I would like to take the time to address some of the recent criticisms, and explain what the priority of union means.

Kilcrease has criticized me for explicating “two ways of speaking about mystical union.” This is, however, precisely the opposite of what I am purporting. There are two ways of speaking about union, yes, but not two ways of speaking about mystical union. There is mystical union (unio mystica), spoken of in Article III of the Formula of Concord and by our dogmaticians which is a result of justification, and the union of faith (unio fidei formalis) which precedes subjective justification.

Mystical union includes the indwelling of the Holy Trinity and the granting of holy affections and virtue.  Since this is a change within man, it cannot be the cause of justification. This is precisely the problem with Osiander’s theology addressed by the Formula. The union of faith, however, is prior to justification. This union of faith is that moment in which the sinner is united to Christ in faith (in which He is present) and the objective benefits of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are subjectively granted to the believer as he is united to Jesus.

The distinction between mystical union and the unio fidei formalis (formal union of faith) finds its beginning in Hollaz. In the section on mystical union in his Examin Theologicum Acroamaticum, Hollaz writes:

Though mystical union, where God inhabits man as in a temple, according to our mode of understanding comes after justification according to the order of nature; however, I must confess that the formal union of faith, by which Christ is apprehended, put on, and united with us, where Christ is the mediator and conveyer of grace, and the remission of sins, is prior to justification. For as faith is prior to justification, insofar as the merit of Christ is received and is united with us to become ours. “If we take the spiritual regeneration, the rebirth wrought by God, as consisting mainly in our union with Christ, this differs from justification as an effect to a cause. For we are justified because we are from God, or because we are in Christ,”[1] see Rom. 8:1: “For there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The righteousness of Christ is the chief spiritual benefit reckoned to those who believe being closely united to him, his members, who are found in him, Phil. 3:9.

Dr. Kilcrease contends, regarding Hollaz, that…

…what Hollaz’ formulation probably has to do more with is an early modern mechanical concept of causation than with sound biblical exegesis.”

Contrary to Kilcrease’s claims, Hollaz’ concerns are exegetical. In the two texts cited here (Rom. 8:1 and Phil. 3:9), one’s justification is said to be a result of being in Christ. In the case of Romans 8:1, condemnation does not belong to the sinner because one is “in Christ Jesus.” In Philippians 3:9, one has “righteousness from God” insofar as one is “found in him [Christ].” This is not an abstract philosophical claim due to an unbiblical view of causation, but is simply an exposition of the relevant texts.

This view is not unique to Hollaz, however, but is affirmed in other sources. Heinrich Schmid writes:

According to another mode of considering it, it can be said that union precedes justification, inasmuch as faith precedes justification ; and in faith as the organ, by which the union is effected, its beginning is already presupposed. (Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 497).

Francis Pieper similarly states that faith is a “clinging to Christ and joining oneself to him (adhaerere Christo, se adiungere Christo),” and cites Hollaz’ distinction between the unio mystica and the unio fidei formalis as a valid manner in which to explain the role of union in the ordo salutis (Christian Dogmatics II, 434. Footnote 65).

The reason why such a doctrine is rejected by Dr. Kilcrease and other contemporary Lutherans is that there is a commitment to the idea that subjective justification precedes all other actions of the ordo salutis. This is a conflation of the objective proclamation of the Gospel and God’s act of justification. According to this erroneous line of thinking, regeneration, the union of faith, and even faith itself are said to be results of justification, rather than preceding actions.

It is not that Hollaz and the other Lutheran scholastics have a false modern or Aristotelian view of causation. Rather, Dr. Kilcrease et al have a false contemporary view of causation, wherein God’s creative speech-act of justification must necessarily be the cause of all events in the ordo salutis. Which view of causation accords with Paul’s continual contention that we are “justified by faith” (Rom. 3:28)? The traditional view of the scholastics is that faith is a cause of justification. (Contrary to some claims, this never meant that faith is a work which merits justification, but that faith is the prior receptive instrument of justification). This perfectly accords with Pauline language. Dr. Kilcrease’s view, however, does not. According to his perspective, it certainly seems that Paul would have been more correct to say that we are “faithed by justification,” and “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” would instead need to read, “Abraham was accounted righteous, and he believed God.”


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