The Underlying Problem In The Study Of Calvin’s Doctrine Of Union

The underlying problem of much of the literature on [union with Christ and ordo salutis] (one might even call it a cottage industry) is the rather massive, highly theologistic, a ahistorical attention given to Calvin’s understanding of the unio in isolation from the thought of other Reformers and of later Reformed theologians—in contrast to the near absence attention paid to the doctrine as it was taught by other Reformed thinkers in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The current studies that do exist of later Reformed thought on union with Christ arguably indicate, contrary to the assertions found in studies of Calvin by Canlis and Partee, an increased rather than a decreased interest in the subject, particularly in relation to Reformed piety or spirituality, as well as in connection with Reformed, eucharistic thought. Two studies have argued the importance of the unio. Two studies have argued the importance of the unio in the thought of Zanchius, and a series of essays by John Fesko has begun to broach the issue of the relationship of union with Christ to justification and to the development of a Reformed ordo salutis, contesting the claim that the doctrine of union with Christ and the concept of a order of salvation were opposed to each other.

Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 203–204.


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  1. Dr. Clark,

    I am currently reading Canlis’ Calvin’s Ladder, And while I am not finished with the book yet, I see her embedding the discussion on union in a larger discussion of participation. I understand the two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, but it seems a little bit different than some of the union emphasis we see from some out of Westminster East. From what I have read in reviews, even though I am not quite finished yet, she does tend to pick Calvin against the reformed tradition.

    As I read her, she does not seem to pit participation or union against the ordo. And even though I don’t agree with her at every point, it does seem that the very best of her work is highly compatible with the findings of Fesko.

    In addition to the work my Fesko, are there any other works you would recommend on the broader Reformed tradition on the concepts of communion and participation in the 16th and 17th centuries? Also, what are some of the key differences that you see between the older discussions on union from the 16th and 17th centuries, and Calvin himself, and the newer discussions going on today?

    • Sorry about the typos, that comment was done on my iPhone. I am away from my computer today so it is the only way I could post the question.

    • Hi Jed,

      I read Canlis (and several others on this) years ago but as a purely historical matter I found her interpretation of Calvin implausible. What I see is that folks have re-discovered “participation” (perhaps in part because of the collapse of the Berlin wall and renewed contact with E. Orthodoxy and the doctrine of thesis) and they’ve sought to read what they see as a positive, relational turn in theology into the past.

      It’s not a matter of setting participation against the ordo only or necessarily in each case but a broader methodological question. Muller’s point (and mine) is methodological. Let the dead be what they were. Systematics is one thing and history is another. Systematic and biblical exegesis has to stand on its own two feet. History is the business of telling the truth about the past as best we can. We have let Calvin be a 16th-century French, Reformed Protestant who had an interest in union but who wasn’t saying quite what some want to say now. That doesn’t mean that what people want to say now is wrong. We have to stop using Calvin as THE measuring stick. If we can do that we can perhaps stop mugging Calvin and, to switch metaphors, turning him into the flavor of the month.

      As to what we ought to believe, I’m satisfied with what we confess. I’m satisfied with the older articulation of union, e.g., Calvin, Ursinus, Olevianus, Perkins, Wollebius et al. There are three aspects to union: decretal, federal, and mystical. We have mystical union by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Through union we have communion, fellowship, even participation but we must resist the temptation to resurrect the medieval ontological ladder between God and man and its corollary, making union the way up the ladder–at least if we would be Reformed.

      Did you see the series on the HB on union? There’s some interaction (in footnotes) with Canlis et al here:

      “The Benefits of Christ: Double Justification in Protestant Theology Before the Westminster Assembly,” Anthony T. Selvaggio, ed., The Faith Once Delivered: Celebrating the Legacy of Reformed Systematic Theology and the Westminster Assembly (Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne Spear). (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 107–34.

    • Dr. Clark,

      Thanks, this is really helpful. I will respond with more questions when I get back to my computer. As I read her I don’t see Canlis advocating return to the medieval concept of the spiritual ladder so much as her articulating Calvin’s critique of it, along with the excesses of late medieval ontology. Is it specifically her take of Calvin on participation that you think is less than representative of Calvin and the reformers on the matter?

      I absolutely agree that as a matter of systematic and even biblical theology these subjects can and should stand on their own. I see scholars like Beale and Waltle working out participation in Christ in their respective biblical theologies with a lot more clarity than Canlis, because they are not reading contemporary exegetical concerns back into historical figures. Instead their work is reflective of the diachronic discipline of BT. Horton’s recent work in his systematic theology also does an admirable job of this. Anyway, this does give me a little bit more of a critical backdrop to read Canlis against, so thanks.

  2. Jed,

    I did that work a long time ago. I don’t really remember the details except that I remember thinking that she was turning Calvin into Bernard or someone other than Calvin. I would have to go back and re-read her. Take a look at the article I cited for starters. If I get a moment, I’ll try to take a look. Have you read Muller?

    • Dr. Clark,

      I have read Muller in articles and scoured the web for any/all of his lectures online – he is profoundly interesting. His Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics is the next big investment for my library, but I haven’t had the chance to refer to that yet.

      With respect to Calvin, and Canlis’ take on him, I think that her work is flawed, but from what I have read of Calvin in the institutes, I am not so sure that she is totally off base. She seems to make some important observations of Calvin and participation, Andy his real differences with the medieval tradition, but shows how he is superior to it in his recapitulation of notions of communion, participation, and union.

      I get that you read it a while ago, and that you’re reading her through the lens of your own expertise. It’s helpful to have somebody who has the historical background to critique her, because I like that myself. When I get the chance I’ll post more.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Back in business! My 2.5 year old had ripped off a couple of keys and jammed the trackpad on my MacBook, just got it back from the Apple Store. Hopefully I can eliminate the typos here.

    As promised I will post a couple of excerpts from Canlis’ Calvin’s Ladder that will hopefully help maybe clarify my questions to you as to how well she interprets Calvin. Since the book is specifically dealing with Calvin, and not the 16th-17th century Reformed tradition broadly, maybe you can point to where you or Muller might be more critical specifically —

    Regarding Calvin on ascent and his departure from Thomistic ontology with respect to grace and his motif of departure (exitus) and return (reditus) in his Summa Theologiae (she also deals with Plato/Plotinus, Augustine, and Origen but I’ll leave those alone for now), and why this is crucial to her arguments about Calvin and his reworking of the doctrine of participation/communion:

    In Chapter 1 of Calvin’s Ladder Canlis states –

    In the Prima Pars…Aquinas clearly locates God’s grace toward the creature within its natural capacity, turning grace into an anthropological asset proper to it.
    In the Secunda Pars Aquinas treats the flip side of procession: the creaturely return by participation. Aquinas explains this in terms of the soul’s natural desire and tendency toward God, insofar as the soul is directed to him as its final end (reditus)…Union with God is held as the supreme purpose of creation and is subsequently, as Anna Williams reminds us, “grounded in the structure of the human person.”
    With this general anthropological pattern established,
    Aquinas brings in the Tertia Pars – and with it the realm of history. According to Aquinas, the perfection of the Prima Pars and Secunda Pars would have been complete without Christ…However, sin requires intervention: Christ thus takes his place in the golden circle as one of its members, and raises human nature to “the supreme perfection” (ST IIIa, q1, a6) so that it can again have capacity to return to God. This perfection is, not surprisingly, a participatory reality, “a full share in his own godhead: God was made man so that man might become God“(ST IIIa, q1, a2, quoting Augustine).
    The Neo-Platonic overtones of the Prima Pars are striking. We have seen how Plotinus structured the departure-return scheme around the One (to hen) from whom all beings proceed and participate. Aquinas accounts for the majestic scope of the procession and telos of the world in a similar way: “So the goal toward which all things are guided can be something outside the universe to be possessed and represented, which everything strives to share in and imitate as much as possible.” (ST Ia, q103, a3)…Aquinas makes the ontological foundation on which this is based very clear in his commentary on Dionysius’s Divine Names: ” He fills all things in such a way that nothing is bereft of his power…[God] pours himself into inferior things so that they can participate in his goodness.”
    But the threat of ontological univocity (one that the Reformers felt keenly) looms large particularly because Aquinas located this participation substantially in the depths of human capacity. Aquinas envisions a return to a unitive state with God, in which human nature is restored or “integrated” (ST I/IIae, q109, a2-3), and is in no need of additional gifts of grace. — pp. 38-40

    Aside: This is what some former Protestants (e.g. the Called to Communion gang) think is an improvement on Reformed piety? Sheesh!

    Back to how she depicts Calvin as rejecting the Thomistic model:

    A comparison of Aquinas and Calvin reveals that while Calvin picks up on this scholastic scheme, he also fundamentally alters it…We discover it is no longer the story of humanity’s ascent to God by grace (Aquinas), or of the soul’s ascent (Augustine), but of Christ’s ascent. Calvin refuses to tack Christ as a tertia pars onto the Plotinian circle of creation’s procession from and return to God. Instead, Christ breaks open the circle and grafts it onto himself. For Calvin, the figure of Christ has shattered any scheme that begins with creation and allows creation to be considered apart from Christ through whom it was made and to whom it is directed. In subtly shifting Aquinas’ exitus-reditus scheme from anthropology to Christ, Calvin challenges Aquinas’ attempt at theocentrism by not going far enough. It is not Christ who fits into the procrustean bed of anthropology, but we who are fitted into Christ and his ascent. In him and by his Spirit, we ascend to the Father.
    Much of the basic scheme that we have seen in Augustine and Aquinas – even in Denys and Plotinus – is there. Indeed Calvin uses the typology of ascent to bolster many aspects of his theology, not to mention his favored liturgical passage sursum corda…Yet in paying attention to the above test case of ascent, we begin to see just how different Calvin’s unique usage is not isolated from it. This suggests that we might differentiate Calvin (and his entire project) from that of medieval theology by the following phrase: communion, not naturalization. In Aquinas and Calvin we have two different models of participation: one is based on substantialist ontology, the other on election. One is a return to an original unitive state; the other involves communion with a person. — pp. 44-45

    Canlis goes on in Chapter 2 to dive more into Calvin’s own work to demonstrate how he grounds his notions of participation in creation, in a way that stands apart from Aquinas, Augustine, et. al. He achieves this primarily by grounding participation in the mediatorial role of Christ as Creator, Sustainer, and eschatologically as Redeemer. She describes how Calvin is careful to always uphold the Creator/creature distinction by casting participation in terms of communion – as opposed to Aquinas’ naturalization or other more Platonic schemes of theosis. For Calvin, according to Canlis, communion between God and man demands that they stand ontologically apart – as communion in this sense is the participation of analogically, not ontologically related beings. Hopefully I can find some time to draw out a few excerpts from Canlis here to see whether or not her take on Calvin is plausible, but I have already provided quite a bit for one comment.

    • Well, I agree that Calvin rejected the Plotinian scheme and its ontological baggage but I’m a little skeptical about Calvin modifying Thomas since there’s relatively little evidence that Calvin spent much time reading and interacting with Thomas. Writers often assume a stronger relationship between Thomas and Calvin—Thomas was important ergo Calvin must have read him. I’ll try to take a look at Canlis. I really don’t want to comment much about her analysis of Calvin without re-reading her work.

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