Semi-Pelagianism and Faith as the Instrument of Existential-Mystical Union with Christ (Pt 3)

Part 2

That faith which secures eternal life; which unites us to Christ as living members of his body; which makes us the sons of God; which interests us in all the benefits of redemption; which works by love, and is fruitful in good works; is founded , not on the external or the moral evidence of the truth, but on the testimony of the Spirit with an by the truth to the renewed soul (Systematic Theology, 3.68).

…The first effect of faith, according to the Scriptures is union with Christ. We are in him by faith. There is indeed a union between Christ and his people, founded on the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son in the counsels of eternity. We are, therefore, said to be in Him before the foundation of the world.

…But it was also, as we learn from the Scriptures, included in the stipulations of that covenant, that his people, so far as adults are concerned, should not receive the saving benefits of that covenant until they were united to Him by a voluntary act of faith. They are ‘by nature the children of wrath, even as others.’ (Eph. ii.3) They remain in this state of condemnation until they believe. Their union is consummated by faith. To be in Christ, as to believe in Christ are, therefore , in the Scriptures, convertible forms of expression. They mean the same thing, and therefore, the same effects are attributed to faith as are attributed to union with Christ” (Ibid, 3.104)

So says Charles Hodge (1797–1878), who taught at Old Princeton for about fifty years, on the relation between faith and union. We should note that he distinguished between different aspects of our union with Christ. In the quotation above, he named explicitly “federal union” and distinguished implicitly between what we might call “decretal union” and federal union. He also connected his doctrine of mystical union to the doctrine of the covenant of redemption (see the previous post).

His main focus, and the aspect of union in view in this series, however, was mystical (or existential) union. According to Hodge, faith, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, unites us to Christ, i.e., the mystical aspect of union is an effect of faith but its relation to faith is so close that the one may be said to be the other.

We should also observe that he described faith as a voluntary act, i.e., as an act of the will. To be sure, Hodge incorporated other faculties of the soul in the act of faith, but he did describe it as voluntary. Was his doctrine of mystical union semi-Pelagian? It would have been had he taught that we believe before we are regenerated (given new life) or if he had written that regeneration (so defined) is the result of faith but he did not. In the section of his Systematic Theology preceding faith he taught that faith is a consequence of regeneration.

In Hodge’s ordo salutis (the logical order of the Spirit’s application of redemption to the elect) mystical (or existential) union is not said to exist until faith. Faith is not a result of mystical union. Rather, mystical union is, as Hodge said, “the first effect of faith.”

“The proximate effect of this union, and consequently the second effect of faith is justification.” In Hodge’s ordo it is those who are mystically united to Christ by faith who are justified. “Faith,” he wrote, “is the condition on which God promises in the covenant of redemption, to impute unto men the righteousness of Christ. As soon, therefore, as they believe, they cannot be condemned. They are clothed with a righteousness that answers all the demands of justice” (Ibid, 3.105).

I would be happier had Hodge reversed these order of justification and union since, Hodge’s order has it that it is those who are as yet unjustified who are considered to be in mystical union with Christ but the point of this series to gain some clarity about the instrumentality of faith in Reformed theology relative to union. It should be clear that, in Reformed theology, regeneration precedes faith and faith precedes mystical union.

Part 4.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for this. I look forward to the following posts. I’ll be interested to hear more about why you would prefer a different order, placing justification prior to mystical union. I wonder if partly it might be due to thinking of this order as temporal (“those who are as yet unjustified who are considered to be in mystical union with Christ”) rather than a strictly logical order, where the relationship precedes imputation and keeps it from being a “legal fiction”?

    Another thought is that maybe historically what’s been understood as mystical union cannot be equated with all that we think of within an existential union. When did that happen? Is it possible that existential union says too much, including what earlier generations understood as a separate category, “communion with Christ” (both the state of communion, which included the various benefits; and acts of communion which included the experiences of it)?

    • Hi Rob,

      No, I’m not thinking in temporal categories. That’s why I’ve been writing about logical. My question is whether it’s more biblical and sounder to think of the justified as being in mystical union or better to say that those who are in mystical union are justified. I tried to cast this question in the same sort of language I used to account for the basic ordo in Rom 8.

      I’m not worried about the legal fiction charged because, as I indicated earlier, the righteousness imputed to us is condign. It the Romanists, who sneak in congruent merit, who have the problem with a legal fiction. I should not want to grant the premise that there must be IN us a condign or actual righteousness. There isn’t ever in us in this life, until death or the consummation, actual, inherent, condign righteousness.

      Mystical union is the historic terminology. It seems to me that what is often called “existential union” post 1974 is really just a re-casting of the traditional Reformed view. I don’t much care for the category “existential union.” I’m perfectly happy with union and communion but there are generations of folk who’ve been taught that language and who may or may not be familiar with the traditional Reformed language.

  2. How important it is for the pastors and church leaders to teach the laity “traditional Reformed language.”

    Having the correct language leads to correct doctrine. Loose language leads to bad doctrine and practice.

  3. The following is a discussion that occured at old life. We have been arguing this issue of union with Christ on and off for over 2 years now-probably closer to over 3 years.

    John Y: Does the imputation of Christ’s righteousness cause a hearing of the Gospel and faith?

    RS: No, a new heart and the work of the Spirit alone can do those things

    Mark: The new heart and the indwelling don’t come before but with faith. Luther talks about this: faith does not come before indwelling, faith is Christ indwelling; so we can agree that its not temporal but the logical order is imputation of the righteousness causes faith.

    Gal. 4:4- “But when the fulness of time had come, God sent forth his son, born of woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying Abba, Father!”

    It seems here the logical order is adoption as sons because of righteousness which we receive by imputation which results in the sending of the Spirit, ie., because you are sons, the gift of the Spirit.

    RS refuses to deal with this text, except to say that there are other texts which say the opposite. RS has the logical order of a new heart first, but that won’t fly in terms of 2Pet. 1:1- “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” The faith is received by the righteousness imputed, ie., “by the righteousness.”

    A new heart is not imputed, but given as a result of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Romans 8:10- “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” Again, the Spirit is the result of the imputed righteousness. Hence, the logical order of the imputation of righteousness and justification before spiritual renewal. There cannot be a justification of the ungodly if spiritual renewal has already occured. Justification and spiritual renewal has to occur simultaneously temporally but the logical order is justification and then renewal of the heart and effectual call (or as some say regeneration).

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