“Union with Christ is finally getting its just place as a central dogma in organizing the Reformed view of how we are saved.” “Charles Hodge, among others, placed the forensic (especially justification) at the center, rather than union.” “Reformed paradigm: justification and sanctification have their source in union; Lutheran paradigm: minor role for union, if anything, and sanctification has its source in justification.”

These statements illustrate a type of exaggeration that I’d like to unpack very briefly, in part because there different nuances in this discussion that have pretty significant implications. Since my focus here is the historical claim about defining the Reformed consensus on this point, rather than exegesis.

  1. Union with Christ at the center

    Hunting down central dogmas that distinguish one tradition or school from others was a hallmark of 19th-century historians. Yet a host of specialists in Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy have shown conclusively that this is a wrong approach. It imposes our own constructs on historical views and, furthermore, there is no central dogma in Calvin, much less in Reformed theology. A central dogma is not just an important truth; it functions as a theory from which everything else is deduced.

    For Calvin and the whole Reformed tradition, Christ’s person is the source of everything and his work is inseparable from Christ himself. Christ himself, not any one of his gifts, is the center and object of our faith. (That’s Lutheran, too, by the way.) However, there’s a big difference between something being important—even in tying together other important doctrines—and something being a central dogma. Many are discovering union with Christ, and that’s great, but it has been there in our Reformed bloodstream all along. It is not something that was somehow buried after Calvin and then just uncovered recently in a particular school or circle of contemporary Reformed thought.

    Part of the danger is that some are using the “centrality” of union with Christ as a way of equalizing justification and sanctification or, in some extreme cases, to collapse both together with “union” as the whole. It’s treated in most of our major systems—including Hodge’s, though according to some he’s a “Lutheran” in his prioritizing of justification. I devote the first chapter in my discussion of the application of redemption to union with Christ, so I readily acknowledge its importance. It is wonderfully true that faith clings to Christ for both justification and sanctification together: the double grace. This marvelous union influences Reformed thinking on a variety of topics, including the sacraments.

    However, union with Christ isn’t treated as a distinct topic in any Reformed confession or catechism (including Calvin’s), while justification and sanctification are considerable attention. Calvin called justification “the main hinge on which true religion turns,” “the principal article,” and of “most importance” in our understanding of salvation. Union with Christ is a way of relating everything from election to glorification, but is not itself a deductive center of the system. If Calvin thought so much of union with Christ and also treated sanctification as having its source in justification, what’s all the fuss about?

  2. “Reformed: union with Christ; Lutheran: justification leading to sanctification.”

    There is so much debate—in my view, confusion—over the historical theology of the “Lutheran” vs. “Reformed” paradigm that one hardly knows where to begin. I certainly can’t do any justice to the arguments here. A lot of this goes back, I think, to the controversy in the 1970s at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, surrounding the teaching of Norman Shepherd.

    Rejecting the whole covenant of works-covenant of grace (i.e., law-gospel) scheme of federal Calvinism, and taught in the Westminster Standards, Dr. Shepherd also revised radically the confessional view of justification and justifying faith. Everyone who didn’t agree with his revisions (although they were departures from the Reformed confessions) was labeled “Lutheran” by him and his supporters. “Union with Christ” became a way of upholding that everything is from Christ while confusing justification and sanctification at crucial points.

    Dr. Shepherd did resign from his post, and many who emphasize union as a central dogma do not follow him all the way. However, there is still a lingering notion that even on this important question that most historical theologians believe to have united the churches of the Reformation, Lutheran and Reformed views of justification are radically different. In the “Lutheran” paradigm, justification is the central dogma and sanctification flows out of it; in the “Reformed” paradigm, the mystical union has priority, with no logical dependence of sanctification on justification.

    If I may be so bold, this is an arbitrary construct that has no support in the primary sources. There is no point in a brief blog post to offer a syllabus of quotations, but everyone from Calvin, Vermigli, Knox, Bullinger, Zanchi, and Owen all the way to Berkhof held that while we receive all spiritual blessings in union with Christ, the forensic (Christ’s mediatorial work and forensic justification) is the source or basis of personal renewal and sanctification. Vos expressly says that this is the emphatic Reformed position: “In Paul, the mystical is always subordinated to the forensic.” Same as Berkhof, Hodge, et al..

    A case needs to be made for the new view that if we receive justification and sanctification together in our union with Christ, sanctification cannot have any relationship to justification. That case has not been made, in my view, but assumed. This means that any talk of sanctification being grounded in our justification is dismissed as “Lutheran.” Ironically, many who have followed Norman Shepherd (directly or indirectly) along this path have jettisoned justification altogether. The Federal Vision controversy springs to mind.

  3. “Union” a distinctive feature of Reformed soteriology?

    At the height of the “central dogma” era of historians, Lutheran historical theologian Mathias Schneckenberger argued that the central dogma of Lutheranism is…union with Christ. That’s right, union with Christ. In fact, the New Finnish School within mainline Lutheranism today goes so far as to dissolve justification in a version of union that is close to that of Osiander. (Osiander was a 16th-century Lutheran. Calvin devoted a whole section to refuting Osiander in the 1559 Institutes and Lutheran orthodoxy condemned his views.)

    Besides Paul, the medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux was a principal source of Luther’s emphasis on the “marvelous exchange”—union with Christ along the lines of the marriage analogy. When Calvin talks about union, he often quotes Bernard and Luther. So much for the central dogma thesis in the general and the odd contention that union with Christ distinguishes Reformed from Lutheran theology.

Like any new discovery of a wonderful and biblically-grounded truth, the doctrine of union with Christ can put a lot of pieces of the puzzle together, but it can also swallow the horizon. That’s true of justification as well, or sanctification, not to mention election and other precious truths. As wonderful and important as it is, this doctrine of union must not be understood as a way of relativizing the forensic basis of our salvation or of treating justification and sanctification as if they were related only to union but not also, within that union, to each other.

There are different nuances, emphases, and formulations between Lutherans and Calvinists, just as there are between representatives within these traditions. However, if our confessions are any indication, sharp contrasts, reductionisms, and exaggerations regarding “Lutheran” vs. “Reformed” paradigms is unhelpful, especially when they are often motivated by the old criticism of Reformation teaching, expressed by Schweitzer: “There is no motive for ethics in that system.” Creating caricatures of Lutheranism as the foil for distortions of Reformed theology hardly leads to understanding of the Reformed consensus; it just makes for “schools” of idiosyncratic interpretations.

So I join those who are impressed with the importance and implications of union with Christ. However, with all historical interpretations of an important truth, the motto holds: “Look before you leap.”