Muller on Calvin’s Doctrine of Union with Christ Through Faith

Muller Calvin and the Reformed Tradition“Calvin’s understanding of union with Christ, as accomplished by the work of the Spirit through faith, was foundational to his soteriological expression from the time of the second edition of his Institutes and the initial publication of his Romans commentary. Given, moreover, the significant interconnection between Calvin’s work on the Roman’s commentary and the 1539 revisions of the Institutes, the appearance of the doctrine in both places and, indeed, the role of the unio in the argumentative structure of Romans 8 and of the revised Institutes, identify both an initial exegetical background to Calvin’s doctrine and illustrate the way in which Calvin’s process of theological formulation (like that of his contemporaries) moved from the study of a biblical locus or topos to doctrinal discourse in the form of loci communes or disputationes. There also, it needs to be observed, a distinct interest in the ordering of salvation in terms of the relationship of election to faith, faith to justification, and sanctification, repentance and regeneration, in Calvin’s earliest writings, notably in his catechisms of 1537–1538.”

“The doctrine of union with Christ continued to play a key role in Calvin’s thought, as seen in the argumentative structure of book III of the 1559 Institutes, developed in light of his Christological debate with Osiander,13 although the debate involved editorial additions to the original 1539 doctrinal statement and little in the way of new doctrinal content. Union with Christ also figures in Calvin’s discussions of the work of salvation throughout his commentaries and sermons. To claim that the doctrine is the central motif or “viewpoint” accounting for the structure of the entire 1559 Institutes and serving as a “comprehensive way of introducing and surveying Calvin’s theology” would be, of course, absurd and a serious distortion of Calvin’s patterns of exposition and argumentation—to place it, however, not in isolation, but together with the work of the Holy Spirit, as foundational to Calvin’s understanding of “the manner of receiving the grace of Christ,”14 is crucial to a reading of Calvin’s approach to the ordering of the several aspects or elements of the work of salvation.”15

—Richard Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 205–206.

13. Francois Wendel, Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, trans. Philip Mairet (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), pp. 234–240.

14. John Calvin, Institutio christiane religionis, in libros quattuor nunc primum digesta, certisque distincta capitibus, ad aptissimam methodum… (Geneva: Robertus Stephanus, 1559), the title to book III. English citations follow John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. John Allen, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Philip Nicklin, 1816), emending the translation as necessary from the Latin; on the state of the centrality of the theme of union, see Billings, Calvin, Participation, and the Giftpp. 18–19; Gaffin, “Calvin’s Soteriology,” pp. 70–71; and Wendel, Calvin, pp.235, 238–239.

15. Contra Partee, Theology of John Calvin, pp. 40–43; and idem, “Calvin’s Central Dogma Again,” pp. 192, 194, especially note 11, 196–199.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    This is only tangentially related to the quote in your post, but you had asked me in one of our other conversations if I had read Muller, which I hadn’t at the time. My brother graciously passed along a copy of Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, and after diving in what is immedeately striking is how catholic the Reformed confessions are given the breadth of the Reformed tradition.

    I can remember my first (of a few) reading of RRC, thinking that you were offering a maximal reading of the Reformed tradition. At the time I was a brand new member of a Reformed congregation, and as grateful as I was for your book and as formative as it was for me at the time, I do not think that what I had grasped is how you were not arguing for a maximal Reformed practice and piety, but, given the theological tradition, you were/are arguing for a mere Reformed piety and practice. This isn’t because you were writing in the vein of. CS Lewis type of mere Christianity, or a Reformed minimalism that is advocated by the Gospel Coalition or the YRR crowd. The reason why, I now understand you to be arguing for a mere Reformed confessional identity, is because that is exactly what the Reformed confessions themselves are presenting. They are not offering an in depth analysis of the theological discussions of the day, but a catholicizing statement of faith (and catechesis) that simply is seeking to present the most basic doctrines in scripture.

    Only the “lowest common denominator” motivating the outlook of today’s ecumenical efforts could read the Westminster Standards or the 3 Forms (or other Reformed confessions) as maximal. It is not an obvious point given the current zeitgeist amongst those who wish to carry (at least in part) the mantle of the Reformation. Do you think I am misreading either you or Muller here?

    • Hi Jed,

      Blessings on your brother’s head! What a great gift. Yes, I think you’re quite right. The Reformed tradition has real breadth but, as you say, the Reformed churches were selective in what they chose to confess. It does say something about our time that the confessions are regarded as “maximal” when they were not intended as such.

  2. Jed,

    I have been in many ways pondering the same things. I see the wisdom in a more true/historic Reformed route and do not like the route the YRR and Gospel Coalition crowd would give way to. Example: there is no such thing as a “Reformed Baptist”. However, I would give room for some varying degrees or differences within the Reformed camp. You are on to something big in the modern scheme or “zeitgeist” of what it means to be “Reformed” in the lowest common denominator of ecumenical efforts.

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