J. Todd Billings. Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.
J. Todd Billings teaches Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary. I went to Harvard Divinity School with Todd—-I was in the M.Div. program, whereas he was in the Th.D. program. We knew each other from a Christian group we were in. I decided to read his Union with Christ for a variety of reasons. First of all, I like to read books by people I know. I read and enjoy plenty of books by people I don’t know, but there is something special about reading books by those I have actually met and interacted with. Maybe it’s because I feel that I am getting more of a glimpse into who they are and what matters to them. Second, I’ve been interested in John Calvin, and the nuances of Calvin’s thought feature prominently in Todd’s work. Third, I’ve appreciated things by Todd that I have read, such as an article that he wrote for Christianity Today about biblical interpretation, and an article that he wrote about the Reformed/Calvinist acronym TULIP. I found these writings to be thoughtful, nuanced, and informative.
Union with Christ is 174 pages, yet it covers a lot of territory, even though the territory revolves around the central theme of believers’ union with Christ. I could do the customary book-reviewer task of summarizing each chapter, but that is not really my style, at least not in my blog book reviews. (When I write book reviews for publication, my approach will probably be different.) I have decided to organize this review according to Scriptures: I will quote a Scripture (in the KJV), then I will apply this to what Todd writes about in his book. I will also call Todd “Billings,” since I think that it a more respectful way to interact with his work.
Romans 8:15: “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.”
The part that I want to highlight here is the adoption. According to Paul, believers in Christ are adopted sons of God. Billings mentions what adoption meant within the ancient Roman context: “In this ancient Roman context, adoption was generally not about babies and childless couples finding a way to have children. Instead, the adoptees were usually adults, and adoption was first of all a legal arrangement to provide an heir who would receive an inheritance and enter into a new household with all its privileges and responsibilities” (page 18).
How does this relate to believers being adopted sons of God? Believers in Christ are forgiven of sin (justification), and they enter into new lives of the Spirit, in which they perform works of righteousness (sanctification). According to Billings, one cannot accept the forgiveness part of the equation while dismissing the practical righteousness and new life of the Spirit part, for that would be like being adopted, yet refusing to move into the adopting father’s house or to undertake the responsibilities that come with the adoption. Moreover, John Calvin stated that justification without sanctification would divide Christ.
John 15:5: “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”
According to Billings, believers are joined with Christ, and that is what motivates and enables them to do good works. But, as a Reformed Christian, Billings also maintains that God has to be the one who causes believers to believe. God’s plan from creation was for human beings to depend upon God and to have union with the divine. This was to be the case even before sin entered the world: Billings quotes John Calvin’s statement that Adam and Eve were to eat from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden in order to live because that would teach them dependence on God. (As Billings notes, however, Calvin believed that what believers have in Christ goes beyond what Adam and Eve had in the Garden, for believers become partakers of the divine nature, which entails personal immortality.) Union with God/Christ is the opposite of autonomy. If people could simply decide to believe on their own initiative, Billings argues, that would reflect autonomy rather than union with God. According to Billings, God must be the one who brings about the conversion, for humans are totally depraved, which does not mean that they are bad through and through, but rather that all of their faculties are corrupted, that they are unable of themselves to seek the chief good (God), and that they cannot of themselves do works that earn them salvation. People need union with Christ to bear any spiritual fruit.
I Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
According to Calvin, God is so above and beyond human beings that it is impossible for them to truly understand God. Consequently, God brings himself down to our level. In Scripture, God is depicted anthropomorphically, not because that is how God truly is, but rather because that allows us to relate to God. Moreover, God brought himself down to our level in the incarnation, when God the Son became a human being. Billings quotes Calvin as saying that “all thinking about God, apart from Christ, is a bottomless abyss which utterly swallows up all our senses” (Calvin’s words, quoted on page 72).
Billings wrestles with a question, though. Right now, believers see through a glass darkly. They need God’s revelation in Christ in order to have any understanding of God, and yet even their understanding then is vastly limited. Eventually, however, they will have a full vision of God, a beatific vision. Does that mean that they will no longer need Christ to understand and to see God? What does that do to Calvin’s notion that believers need Christ to be between themselves and God, otherwise their attempts to understand God will get them swallowed up in a bottomless abyss that consumes their senses, since God is so great? Does that go out the window in the eschaton, during the time of the beatific vision?
Billings argues that believers will need Christ to understand God even during the time of the beatific vision. Their union with Christ will be important even when sin is no more. I did not entirely comprehend how Billings believes that Christ will be relevant to believers’ beatific vision of God in the eschaton. My impression is that his argument was that Christ sees God clearly, and, because believers will be united with Christ, they will be able to see God clearly, as well. I am open to correction on this, though.
I Corinthians 11:28-29: “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”
This is about the Lord’s supper, in which believers partake of bread and wine that represent (Catholics say embody) the body and blood of Christ. Paul is criticizing those who eat and drink these elements without discerning the Lord’s body. What does this mean? It could mean that certain believers in Corinth were eating and drinking without recognizing or fully appreciating that those elements represented the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Another option is that it means that believers were partaking the elements of the Lord’s supper without respecting the church, the body of Christ. Paul in I Corinthians, after all, lambastes the division, elitism, and lack of love that accompanied the Corinthian Christians’ celebration of the Lord’s supper, for the Lord’s supper was supposed to be a time when believers gathered together in unity and love for Jesus Christ and one another.
Billings talks about social justice, the importance of forming relationships with the poor, and showing love to everyone, believer and non-believer. What is interesting to me, however, is the prominence of the Lord’s supper in his discussion of these issues. For Billings, the Lord’s supper is supposed to exemplify the bringing together of all sorts of people in love and unity. Billings talks at length about Apartheid South Africa. The Reformed Church in South Africa initially opposed segregating the races at the Lord’s supper, emphasizing that the Lord’s supper should bring people together at the Lord’s table rather than separating them. Apartheid was actually being touted as a progressive idea—-an idea that would allow the different races to maintain their own cultures and to advance independently—-but the Reformed Church was resisting applying Apartheid to the Lord’s supper. Eventually, however, it caved. As it focused on evangelism, it came to cater to people’s preferences rather than be truly reformational. Later, however, it would reverse its stance in an anti-Apartheid direction.
One aspect of Billings’ discussion of social justice that especially stood out to me was his critique of saying that God champions the oppressed while marginalizing the oppressors. Billings agrees that God loves the poor, but he questions whether dividing people into oppressed and oppressors is really that fruitful, for the categories are not that iron-clad (since the oppressors may be oppressed themselves, in areas), such a division goes against unity in Christ, and marginalizing people does not necessarily redress the problem of oppression and social injustice, whereas bringing people together can. I sympathize with Billings on this. I flinch whenever I read that God is the God of the poor, as if God is not the God of others, too. I still believe, however, in challenging injustice and oppression.
Philippians 2:5-11: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Billings critiques a popular Christian incarnational model of ministry. Essentially, this model says that Christians should imitate the incarnation of Christ whenever they do ministry. In the same way that God the Son became a human being, Christians in ministry should become a part of the culture to which they are ministering, understanding it and imitating it.
Billings is all for trying to understand the cultures of others when one is ministering to those cultures. He raises a question at one point as to whether missionaries can fully become a part of those cultures, however, for he tells the story of Western missionaries in Africa whose child contracted a life-threatening illness, and they were able to get the child to the United States to be treated, an option that was not available to many of the Africans to whom they were ministering. But Billings is for trying to reach people where they are, to understand them, and to be with them. He questions, however, whether likening that to Jesus’ incarnation is appropriate. He believes that there are differences between the incarnation and Christian ministry, and that Christians who see their ministry as incarnational may tend to exalt themselves and their service rather than Jesus Christ. For Billings, a better model is union with Christ, which entails bearing the good fruit of service to others, but not at the expense of worship of Christ and being empowered and motivated by Jesus Christ. Billings at one point refers to a translation of Philippians 2:5 that he believes coincides with such a model (“Let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ Jesus,” an alternate NRSV reading). Whether or not one finds that translation convincing, one cannot dispute the other passages Billings cites indicating that Paul saw his union with Christ as an essential part of his Christian service.
Thoughts: I enjoyed many aspects of Billings’ book. I found that it was appropriate for me to read it after reading Karen Armstrong’s History of God, for Armstrong talks about God being great and transcendent, and that overlapped with Billings’ discussion of God’s transcendence and accommodation to our limitations. Also, in my opinion, Billings’ discussion of Calvin and the beatific vision marked the point where the book went from being just a good book to being a great book.
I thought that Billings’ discussions of justification and sanctification assumed that the Christian life is automatic: that believers automatically want to serve and love God and neighbor. What should one do when one says the sinner’s prayer and finds that he or she struggles to do the right thing, or to avoid doing the wrong thing—-when the motivation to do good may not be there? I suppose that the solution here would be to become more united with Christ, for that is the source of good spiritual fruit. Still, I believe that this co-exists with Christian free will. We can be united with Christ, yet we make choices, and even our good choices are far from perfect and may be tainted with sin. We are not robots programmed by God, but we are agents, influenced by God. And I wonder something: If we have free will in the sanctification process, why can’t our free will and autonomy be a part of our seeking and believing in God at the outset? Why would free will, in that case, be a sign of autonomy that contradicts the principle of union with God/Christ? Cannot union with Christ co-exist with our ability to make choices?
Billings’ discussion of the Lord’s supper was interesting to me. I must admit that I largely see the Lord’s supper as a part of the church service where we eat bread and drink grape juice. I respect what it symbolizes, but I tend to emphasize other parts of the church service (the sermon, songs, fellowship) over the Lord’s supper. I was surprised, therefore, to read the Lord’s supper being presented as such a grand, socially-transforming ritual.
Billings discussion of South Africa was also interesting to me. I had no idea that Apartheid was actually touted as a progressive idea.
On the incarnation and ministry, this was not a topic that interested me that much. I can understand why Billings discussed it, since he believed that he was correcting a common Christian misconception that detracted from the centrality of Jesus Christ. Personally, I thought much of what Billings was saying on that issue was obvious, and I did not really understand the views of those he was critiquing. Of course, Philippians 2 is not about believers becoming incarnate, I thought, but it is about believers imitating Christ’s attitude of service.
Billings’ critique of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (there is a God we can call on when we are in need, but our main goal should be to be happy and nice, and good people go to heaven after death) was definitely worth the read. I was wondering to what extent that is my religion!