Life in Christ: Union with Christ in Calvin’s Theology

Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin’s Theology

Mark A. Garcia

Carlisle: Paternoster, 2008     380 pp     p/b     £24.99     ISBN: 978-1-84-227572-6

This is an in-depth study of a particularly important theme in Calvin’s doctrine of salvation. It originates in the author’s PhD, and bears all the hallmarks of a thorough and well-researched piece of work. In three case studies of particular parts of Calvin’s massive corpus of material, Dr. Garcia (a Presbyterian minister in the US), unwraps the central importance of union with Christ for Calvin’s view of how salvation is applied to the believer.

The key thesis he seeks to prove is that union with Christ grants the believer a twofold grace, simultaneously and inseparably: justification and sanctification. This contrasts with the way other theologians relate grace and works and also with how other historians have interpreted Calvin; some, like Michael S. Horton for example, see Calvin as making justification logically prior to union with Christ, as its forensic basis. But as Garcia summarises it, ‘the Lutheran and Reformed strands of the Reformation . . . adopted distinguishable understandings of the justification/sanctification relationship,’ and Calvin is very much on the Reformed side of this debate. Note, incidentally, that Garcia very helpfully puts Calvin in that larger context of a Reformed tradition much wider than just himself, which is a useful corrective in the light of much polemical work over the last few decades which tends to see Calvin as the touchstone of all things Reformed (‘Calvinist’) and not merely one of a number of Reformed voices in the sixteenth century (albeit an important one).

Garcia begins by rejecting the ‘central dogma’ model for understanding Calvin, whereby everything he ever said is (inaccurately) seen as flowing from one doctrine (usually predestination) and some of the neo-orthodox proposals for reading Calvin in the light of Barth. He then examines some of the medieval and early Reformation uses of the idea of union with Christ and the idea of ‘mystical union.’  Garcia then sets about proving his own thesis by examining Calvin’s commentary on Romans, his Eucharistic debates against the Lutherans, and his rejection of Osiander’s view of applied Christology in the light of those debates. There is also a fascinating look at some of Calvin’s correspondence with Peter Martyr Vermigli in a later appendix, on the same issues. He identifies 1 Corinthians 1:30 as an ‘exegetical epicenter’ in Calvin’s thought on this subject (not, note, the central text for the whole of his life and thought, though it is interesting to see that text, in the cover illustration, emblazoned on one the buildings from Calvin’s Geneva).

The book is densely argued, with copious footnotes, and so is not light entertainment. It does however repay careful reading and give a clear and inspiring exposition of Calvin’s doctrine as well as a fascinating insight into early Protestant divisions on a key issue of perennial importance.

This review first appeared in Churchman 126.3 (2012).

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