J. Todd Billings, Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011.
Todd Billings, Associate Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary, provides a very helpful book on an all too often neglected theological theme. The central premise of the text is that the motif of the Christian’s union with Christ is “a central New Testament description of Christian identity, the life of salvation in Christ” (1) and as such, has important implications for ministry in the Church. This text, thus, deals with heavy theological concepts, but it does so always with a practical end in mind.
Billings begins his examination of this theme in response to the implicit theology of American teens that Christian Smith has termed, “moralistic therapeutic deism” (See Smith’s Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers and Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults). The popular conception of God, according to Smith’s research, is that he is an entity who generally wants people to follow the rules and be happy. This deity ends up being a rather distant fellow who isn’t much concerned with the world as long as people are being nice. In contrast, Billings retrieves via John Calvin the notion of a Christians’ intimate relationship with a very near God as union with Christ through adoption. This union-through-adoption affords the Christian the “double grace” of justification and sanctification. (As an aside, Billings notes that the union motif, with its corollary metaphor of adoption, might be one way to muddle through the congested discussions on justification that have taken place in the last few years.)
With the conception of union-through-adoption in place, Billings turns to discuss two perennial issues in theology: the bondage of the fallen will to sin and the possibility of actually interacting with God, who is by nature incomprehensible to humans. On the former Billings’ appropriates a Reformed reading of Augustine that emphasizes the fact that “to be fully human is to be in harmony and obedient communion with God” (60). Thus, the Christian’s union with Christ restores the human ability to not sin; that is, “God’s action by the Spirit in the human does not threaten the human’s own agency but actually enables it” (60).
On the latter, humans find themselves in the precarious situation of not actually being able to know God, because God is beyond human knowledge. Enter the Reformed tradition, and especially Herman Bavinck, to save the day. Calvin emphasized a patristic theme of God’s accommodating himself to human epistemic capacities. Humans can’t know God by themselves, but “God has made himself known by stooping over in accommodation to us” (69). If I can digest a complex issue in Billings’ appropriation of Bavinck’s advancement of Calvin’s theory of accommodation, the Christian’s union with God through Christ (the incarnate Word of God) provides the pathway through which God filters knowledge of himself in derived form into the inferior human capacity for knowing.
This summarizes chapters 1-3, chapters 4 and 5 get more overtly practical. Here Billings specifically applies the union-through-adoption motif to issues of justice and incarnational ministry. Chapter 4 recounts a situation in apartheid South Africa where the union of Christ theme embodied in Eucharistic theology was not properly applied. Chapter 5 presents a critique of so-called “incarnational models” of ministry. On the latter Billings argues that these models of ministry often misunderstand what the incarnation means for ministry and that the union with Christ metaphor provides a more helpful model for conceiving of the task of ministry.
There is much to be commended in this book, and I heartily do so; I would just like to offer a couple critiques. First, Billings frames his project as a “theology of retrieval” wherein he attempts to appropriate ideas of past theologians for work of present concern. While certainly Billings ought to be afforded the space to work this sort of theology, in a somewhat constructive project one begins to wonder a bit just how much work some of these ideas of the past can do in an argument. That is, at times it seems as though major premises in Billings’ arguments are simply of the nature of “Calvin said x” or “Bavink said y,” therefore z. This might make for a strong argument for someone who is committed to some kind of Reformed orthodoxy, but to those for whom Calvin and Bavink do not have a canonical status, the argument might be a bit lacking in force. Even so, the theology of retrieval motif does have a powerful “come and see” effect on the reader, and that might be all Billings needs for a successful argument.
Second, it is clear that a theme such as union with Christ has Eucharistic overtones. Chapter Four does some work in highlighting the relationship between a conception of salvation as union and the showing forth of that conception via the Lord’s Supper. However, those looking for a full-blown Eucharistic theology will quickly see that Chapter Four does not provide that. Yet, if Billings’ CV posted on his website is accurate, we seem to be due this sort of treatment from him in 2013. This constructive work looks to be a clear continuation of themes from Billings’ earlier Calvin, Participation and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ and Union with Christ and will no doubt be a similar theological treat.
One final note to end on, one virtue of Union with Christ that is often lacking in academic theology is a practical end of the work, both in the discussions in the text and in the audience for the text. That is to say, although the theological ideas presented here are difficult, Billing’s discussion of them is not. Billings seems very concerned to not make this book simply a scholarly exercise, but to make it accessible for practical ministry in the Church. Thus, this book has the versatility of possibly being used in upper-level undergraduate classes, seminary theology AND practical ministry courses, as well as for pastors and eager lay ministry leaders.