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Book Review – Union with Christ in the New Testament (Grant Macaskill)

Grant Macaskill. Union with Christ in the New Testament. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 368 pp. $150.00.

macaskillRecent years have seen a renewed interest in union with Christ among evangelicals (e.g. at the popular level Billings’s Union with Christ and Marcus Peter Johnson’s One with Christ, at a more academic level Constantine Campbell’s Paul and Union with Christ and Macaskill’s volume currently under review). Macaskill’s volume sets itself apart in research on this topic by focusing on the entire NT rather than just on the Pauline corpus, and by approaching the topic exegetically but in robust conversation with historical and (to a lesser extent) systematic theology. His main argument in Union with Christ in the New Testament is that despite the multiplicity of ways union with Christ is described in the NT, across the writings of several authors, there is a cohesive picture and broadly consistent theology of union. Macaskill summarizes this big picture that emerges from the NT as follows:

The union between God and humans is covenantal, presented in terms of the formal union between God and Israel. The concept of the covenant underlies a theology of representation, by which the story of one man (Jesus) is understood to be the story of his people. Their identification with him, their participation in his narrative, is realised by the indwelling Spirit, who constitutes the divine presence in their midst and is understood to be the eschatological gift of the new covenant. Reflecting this covenantal concept of presence, the union is commonly represented using temple imagery. The use of temple imagery maintains an essential distinction between God and his people, so that her glorification is understood as the inter-personal communication of a divine property, not a mingling of essence. This union is with a specific people, the members of which are depicted as the recipients of revealed wisdom, and this is the grounds of their intimacy with God. While the mystical language of vision is used to describe this knowledge, it is democratised to indicate that the revealed knowledge in question is possessed by all who have the Spirit, who are marked by faith, not just by a visionary elite. The faith that characterises this group is a real enactment of trust in what has been revealed in Jesus Christ, manifest in the conduct of the members of this community and particularly in their love for one another. The sacraments are formal rites of this union, made truly participatory by the divine presence in them.

(Macaskill 1-2)

In Part 1 of 2 Macaskill surveys the foregrounds and backgrounds to the study of union with Christ in the NT. Chapter 1 reviews modern NT scholarship on the topic with a particular focus on Paul since most of the recent research on participation has been in the context of Pauline studies. Macaskill provides a brief overview of the work of Deissmann, Bousset, Schweitzer, Sanders, Hays and Gorman, Dunn, Wright, the apocalyptic school with a particular focus on Douglas Campbell, and finally, Constantine Campbell. Chapter 2 begins with a look at the contemporary Eastern Orthodox accounts of theosis to frame the discussion before going back to examine the topic in the patristic tradition up to and including the Cappadocians. What becomes clear through this survey is that deification is a peripheral theme in the Fathers, and that “it is clear from the care taken to differentiate Christian participation from Hellenistic ideas of deification, whether religious or philosophical, that the representation of salvation in such terms does not reflect the surreptitious influence of Hellenism, as often assumed” (73). The historical survey continues in Chapter 3 with a brief overview of participation in Lutheran and Reformed theology. From Luther all the way to Barth, there is a common theme that “the participatory dimension of salvation is a matter of the personal presence of Christ” (97) and that “salvation is not a matter of receiving benefits secured by Christ, but receiving Christ himself” (98).

Chapters 4 and 5 examine key matters to the background of participation in the NT. Chapter 4 looks at the OT as well as Jewish apocalyptic and mystical traditions, focusing on the themes of covenant and glory, mysticism, and messianism. Chapter 5 considers the treatment of Adam in Second Temple Judaism as background to the glory concepts of the NT. Macaskill begins by outlining the core points of Adam Christology (drawing particularly on the work of Dunn). Then he examines the supposed Second Temple backgrounds to these, before finally offering a more nuanced approach to the use of Adam traditions in the NT.  Primarily, Macaskill argues that “there is limited evidence for a widespread myth of Adamic glory in Second Temple Judaism and we ought, therefore, to be wary of seeing such a myth behind Paul’s thought and in the rest of the New Testament” (143).

Part 2 examines participation and union in the NT and consists of six chapters. Chapter 6 investigates the church as the eschatological temple and the body of Christ. “Although the two images can be identified in the Jewish mystical traditions, there they are never coordinated as they are in the New Testament” (147). This chapter looks at the correspondence between these two images and what it reveals about the theology of participation held by the various NT authors. Key observations include the distinction between God and the creatures present in the temple and the covenantal nature of the dual imagery. Next, in Chapter 7, Macaskill turns his attention toward passages with temple imagery in which the church itself is not identified as the temple. Specifically, this chapter examines the Fourth Gospel in which Jesus himself is the temple, Hebrews in which Jesus is the high priest of the heavenly temple, and Revelation in which the church is the New Jerusalem. The participatory dimensions of baptism and Eucharist are the subject of study in Chapter 8. Macaskill highlights the covenantal character of the sacraments and, specifically, “the ways in which covenant conceptuality allows participants to identify themselves with one another and with a representative, whose story becomes theirs” (193).

Chapters 9-11 address the narratives and grammars of participation. Throughout these three chapters covenant, incarnational narrative, and the eschatological revelation of wisdom are highlighted.  In Chapter 9 Macaskill focuses on the Pauline corpus and demonstrates the coherent theology of participation that arises. “In Christ” in Paul’s writings “clearly has a locative sense at many strategic points, where it demarcates a sphere (or state) of existence that is eschatological and has come to realization in, and through, the incarnational narrative of the crucified and risen Son, sent by the Father” (249). Chapter 10 examines further participatory elements in the Johannine literature, focusing on the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, the predicated “I am” sayings in the Gospel, the prayer of Jesus in John 17, and finally, the Johannine epistles. The predicated “I am” sayings are shown to be especially participatory and nature. Finally, Chapter 11 provides a brief survey of the rest of grammars and narratives of participation in the rest of the NT. Key themes and concepts noted in the examination of the Pauline and Johannine corpora are seen in the books examined in this chapter as well. A concluding chapter synthesizes the conclusions with respect to the key points that have emerged with remarkable consistency across the NT canon.

Grant Macaskill’s Union with Christ in the New Testament is a must-read for all with scholarly interest in the topic of union with Christ. The primary value of Macaskill’s study lies in the fact that he takes into account the entire NT, rather than just the Pauline corpus (as is the case with most treatments of union with Christ) or the Pauline corpus and the Fourth Gospel. While the richest and most explicit treatments of union with Christ are to be found in these two bodies of Scripture, the rest of the NT has much to say as well, offering both additional insight as well as demonstrating coherence with the writings of Paul and John. Because NT scholars tend to focus on Jewish and Graeco-Roman contexts and backgrounds and neglect examining the context provided by the wider NT, the fact that Macaskill skillfully does the latter makes this volume a valuable read that provides a good model to follow for all students and scholars of the NT.

Many thanks to Oxford University Press for sending a free copy in exchange for an honest review!

Purchase: Amazon

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  1. Excellent review Jennifer, sounds like an worthwhile investment to one’s library!

    Liked by 2 people

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