Heidelcast 32: D. G. Hart On Union With Christ

The doctrine of union with Christ has been a controversial issue in Reformed circles for several years. On the surface, judging by the older Reformed writers and by the Reformed confessions, it is difficult to see exactly why the doctrine of union should be so controversial. After all, the classical writers tended to take very similar approaches to the doctrine. They didn’t seem to regard as an overly difficult doctrine. Some, e.g., Jerome Zanchi emphasized it heavily and others wrote very little on it. The Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort) and the Westminster Standards teach the same doctrine. At bottom, the doctrine of mystical union with Christ is not that difficult.

Nevertheless, the doctrine has become a matter of controversy. If the controversy isn’t a matter of history and if it’s not a matter of confession, then perhaps the root of the problem is really sociological? Enter our resident analyst of American Presbyterianism: Darryl Hart, Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College and Adjunct Professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary California.

Darryl is a prolific author. His most recent book is Calvinism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

Here is the episode:

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  1. I am not sure about that Hart guy, can’t we find a *nicer* historian? I’ve even heard he has been known to skimp on quiet times, surely his historiography is less sanctified than we might otherwise prefer.

  2. Dr Clark,

    Is this a new episode of Union with Christ with Hart on it? I seem to remember that he was on the Heidelcast in the past on this topic (or maybe I am conflating different podcasts). Anyway, can’t wait to listen to it.

  3. I ask two sets of questions.

    1. I ask that we define “union”. It does no good to agree that “union” has various aspects (ie, it’s by election and it’s legal also) if we then go on from that to use the word “union” to mean something very close to “regeneration” or “definitive sanctification” or “break with the pattern of sin”.

    Supposedly, regeneration and sanctification and “break with sin” are all also results of “union”. So what is “union” and why does it come down in the end to assuming that it means the work of the Spirit in the elect sinner? (btw, we need to define words like “regeneration” and “sanctification” also).

    2. I am asking that we locate what we say in specific Biblical texts. For example, Romans 6 is certainly a key text on the relationship of justification and the Christian life. Many read Romans 6 as if it were saying: don’t worry about that two legal heads stuff in Romans 5, because there is another answer besides justification as to why we don’t sin, and that is “union”.

    Others (like Haldane) read Romans to say that the answer to the question about the Christian life is not something else besides legal identity with Christ’s death and resurrection. We read Romans 6:7 as saying that the answer continues to be “justified from sin”.

    We insist on this truth because Christ became dead to sin, was justified from sin, and this certainly was NOT “regeneration” or the work of the Spirit in Him. We insist on reading Romans 6 in terms of “sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law”.

    Others of course read Holy Spirit baptism into Romans 6. They don’t talk about Christ giving the Spirit (which is not in Romans 6). They talk about the Spirit giving Christ (which is also not in Romans 6). But it is no way acceptable to them to think that Romans 6 is still about justification and legal identification. They already have their minds made up that imputation is not a good enough answer to the question of Romans 6.

  4. I really appreciate DGH’s point that the “unionists” dismissal of “order of salvation” questions ironically increases the amount of discussion of application order.

    I certainly agree that nobody can be united to Christ without also being united to the Holy Spirit. But does this mean that the elect are united to the Holy Spirit logically before they are united to Christ, so that the Holy Spirit binds Christ together with elect persons? This is not only a systematic problem.. Rather, it’s a basic exegetical question about baptism in and with the Holy Spirit.

    Even many who agree that Christ purchased the work of the Spirit for the elect still seems to think that the Spirit baptizes into Christ, but exegesis of all the seven Spirit baptism texts (including Corinthians 12:13) tells us that Christ is the one who baptizes in and with the Spirit.

    But how could this possibly be anything but a technical scholastic “order” question? Gaffin and all who dismiss the order question (Barth, Anthony Hoekema, Ferguson) as of no importance tend to have their own order, at the end of the day. Yes, you can’t have the Spirit without Christ, or Christ without the Spirit, but then it turns out that, when it comes to “actual union”, the priority always goes to the work of the Spirit in us, to faith as that which “applies” Christ.

    And this priority of course has existential results because that gets us further away from thinking about the atonement or about the atonement being only for the elect, and gets us back to the place where we can work with Arminians–where we all agree that atonement is for those with the Holy Spirit. The result is a message where the atonement is not back there then but here now, so that the atonement becomes the application of the atonement, so that the “real” atonement becomes what the Spirit does (with Christ, on the basis of Christ) in us.

    Hart is right to notice the paradox. If indeed the order is not practical and important, why is it that Gaffin and others (like John Kinnard) spend so much time insisting on the priority of union with the resurrected Christ over any “legal union” with what Christ did in the past? If it doesn’t matter, then why not let us other folks keep on talking the way we do?

    But I don’t think Gaffin’s motive is “rationalism”. If anything, the motive of “unionists” is present “experience”. Edwards and the puritans have had some influence here. And imputation is NOT an experience, even though God does impute Christ’s righteousness in time to individual elect sinners.

    A lot of the discussion of this is simply question-begging. Some puritans say imputation would be a fiction unless imputation takes place after “actual union”. But if the Holy Spirit (the blessing of Abraham) is given to sons, not in order to constitute sons , then God’s imputation is first.

    Galatians 4: 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

  5. Of course there is also a debate between Lutherans about union vs justification also. Lee Irons writes:

    Holl argued that Luther’s discovery of the Protestant doctrine of justification occurred earlier than typically thought, during the time of his lectures on the Psalms (1513-14), before his lectures on Romans (1515-16), and before the 95 theses (1517). The problem is that at this early stage, Luther had not yet made his break with Rome. He was an Augustinian but not yet a Protestant. In his lectures on the Psalms and on Romans, he confuses justification and sanctification, views justification as a process of moral transformation, and does not affirm imputation. Holl elevated the young Luther as the benchmark of Luther’s thought, and explained the rise of the doctrine of imputed righteousness by claiming that this was Melanchthon’s creation,,, It is the Lutheran version of the (now discredited) “Calvin vs. the Calvinsts (aka Reformed scholastics)” thesis.

    The Holl thesis has influenced many. For example, Mark A. Seifrid (Southern Baptist Seminary), in his chapter in the book Justification: What’s At Stake in the Current Debates (ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier , argues that Melanchthon is the father of the concept of imputed righteousness, and that this is a betrayal of Luther’s more dynamic view….

    Irons continues: I found out the hard way about Seifrid’s dependence on the Holl thesis when I received his comments on my dissertation as the external reader. Seifrid was criticial of me for being too influenced by classic Reformed theology and not grasping the interpretation of Luther promoted by “the Luther renaissance,” which Seifrid seems to equate with his reading of Paul’s view. Seifrid also lamented the fact that this view of Luther is widely accepted in Europe but hardly known in America.

    I was taken aback by Seifrid’s comment and decided to dig into this issue a bit. I discovered three good responses to the view that Melanchthon and Luther were widely different on the issue of imputation:

    Armand J. Boehme, “Tributaries into the River JDDJ: Karl Holl and Luther’s Doctrine of Justification,” Logia 18.3 (2009): 9ff.

    Lowell C. Green, How Melanchthon Helped Luther Discover the Gospel (Fallbrook: Verdict Publications, 1980)

    R. Scott Clark, “Iustitia Imputata Christi: Alien or Proper to Luther’s Doctrine of Justification?” Concordia Theological Quarterly 70 (2006): 269-310.

    Clark writes: “Scholars have too often focused on what Heiko Oberman called the ‘romantic and unrealistic’ notion of a ‘one-time breakthrough.’ For example, Holl failed to recognize the development of Luther’s theology in the period 1513–1521. As a consequence, he used as a baseline to determine Luther’s doctrine of justification things Luther said in that period but that he later rejected. It is more historical to say that gradually, from 1513 to 1521, Luther came to reject the doctrine of progressive justification in favor of the forensic doctrine of definitive justification” (287-88).

    According to Clark, the three places where Luther most clearly expounds his mature doctrine of justification are his lectures on Galatians (1535) (especially his comments on Gal 2:16) and in two disputations on justification (both held in 1536)… Melanchthon asks Luther if he believes that man is righteous by intrinsic renewal, as Augustine taught, or by a truly gracious imputation which is outside of us. Luther’s response is straightforward and unambiguous: “I think this, and am most persuaded and certain that this is the true opinion of the Gospel and of the Apostles, that only by a gracious imputation are we righteous before God”

    Posted by Lee Irons on 05/30/2011

    mark: Of course the “Reformed” unionists I know don’t deny imputation but only its priority in time and importance. How many times now have we heard the Calvin quotation from 3:11:10 which is pushed on us by Torrance/ Letham/ Gaffin folks? “As long as Christ is outside us…” The priority of the Spirit in applying election and the atonement functions as the unexamined given.

    With Berkhof (and Edmund Boehl, and Bruce McCormack, What’s at Stake p 104), I would say instead that Christ is outside us as long as we are outside Christ forensically.

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