Review: Paul and Union with Christ

A review of Constantine R. Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study, Zondervan, 2012.

Paul and Union with Christ is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Constantine R. Campbell has provided a comprehensive survey of all the references to union with Christ in Paul’s writings. Campbell is Senior Lecturer in Greek and New Testament at Moore Theological College in Sydney. He concludes that en Christo (in Christ) and en auto (in him) can refer to instrumentality, association, agency and locality. Eis Christon (into Christ) is similar to en Christo but can also refer to Christ as the goal of our salvation. Sun Christo (with Christ) mostly refers to participation with Christ. We participate in, and benefit from, the life, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus. His story, we might say, becomes our story. Dia Christou (through Christ) denotes instrumentality or agency – what Christ does for us as our mediator.

Campbell also surveys the metaphors that Paul uses to express our union with Christ: body, temple, building, marriage, clothing (putting on Christ). Campbell argues that Paul’s metaphorical language is his most potent for communicating our union with Christ. The body of Christ depicts the church as an organic being, interconnected through Christ. The temple and building imagery convey the corporate nature of the church, the temple imagery depicting the church as the dwelling place of God while the building imagery denotes a structure with Christ as its foundation. The marriage metaphor conveys the church’s personal and exclusive relationship to Christ. And the clothing imagery depicts the reality of conversion to Christ as well as its attendant ethical expectations.

A strength of Campbell’s treatment is the way explores union with Christ within a trinitarian horizon. Campbell says: ‘It is appropriate to regard union with Christ as dealing with more than just humanity and Christ; indeed, it may well be a significant mistake to do so. The Pauline theme of union with Christ is as much about the Father and the Spirit’s union with him as it about ours.’ (358) ‘We must appreciate that according to Paul’s language, union with Christ is not simply about our unity with him and the resulting relationship with the Father. It is also about the Father’s relationship to the Son and his “reaching” toward humanity through Christ.’ (360) ‘Christ is the instrumental mediator of the Father’s will toward humanity, and incorporation into Christ spells membership in Gods temple in which the Spirit dwells.’ (368)

Another strength is the way he unfolds the ethical implications of union with Christ and what it means to ‘live out the death and resurrection of Christ.’ Suffering is not simply an imitation of Christ. It is also a participation with Christ. (381)

On justification Campbell says, ‘Justification leads to right living … but right living is not part of what Paul means by justification; it is the eschatological-juridical declaration of God based on the work of Christ, in fulfilment with his covenant promises.’ (395) As for the link to union with Christ, he concludes, our justification ‘stems from [our] participation in the death and resurrection of Christ; his vindicating resurrection becomes the vindication and righteousness of those united to him.’ (405)

Before attempting to define union with Christ, Campbell ‘describes’ it under the following headings (408-412):

  1. Location – being within the realm of Christ.
  2. Identification – belonging to the identity of Christ instead of Adam.
  3. Participation – our participation within the events of Christ’s story.
  4. Incorporation – our ‘being in Christ’ together as a community.
  5. Instrumentality – the way that Christ achieves God’s will toward us and in us.
  6. Trinity – representing the other side of the mediatorial function of union with Christ as ‘God the Father acts towards humanity through the Son and by virtue of his union with him.’ (409)
  7. Union – union with Christ involves an actual spiritual union with him.
  8. Eschatology – to participate in Christ’s death is to partake in an eschatological event.
  9. Spiritual reality – our union with Christ is not metaphorical or allegorical, but is actual and real.

Campbell then argues that no single word or term can fully define it. So he suggests four terms: union, participation, identification and incorporation.

In conclusion Campbell rejects the idea that any one theme (like union with Christ) can be identified as ‘the centre’ of Paul’s thought. A more helpful way to conceive of Paul’s thinking, if one must, is as a web-shape: there is no central thought from which all else emanates, but a series of inter-connected concentric circles. Nevertheless union with Christ is clearly key to Paul’s theology. ‘I believe that the metaphor of a web helpfully accounts for the structure of Paul’s thought, and union with Christ is the webbing that holds it all together. It is not the centre of his thought, though possibly should be regarded as a key to rediscover the richness and vitality of Paul’s theology. Thus, union with Christ is indispensable but not the “great concern”. Ultimately, it is most likely that Paul’s great concern is the glory of God in Christ.’ (442)

I’m not generally a fan of theology-by-compiling-lists. The attempt to cover every reference to union with Christ in Paul means some of the treatment is somewhat thin. Nevertheless Campbell’s book is an important contribution to the growing resurgence of interest in our union with Christ.

Coming soon: Steve Timmis and Christopher de la Hoyde are publishing a book on the missiological implications of our union with Christ as part of the Porterbrook Network imprint with Christian Focus.

Paul and Union with Christ is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.


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