Union with Christ in the New Testament

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Grant Macaskill
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     2018.
     368 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780198818731.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his work Union with Christ in the New Testament, Grant Macaskill has written a helpful treatment on the stated topic that is both attuned to the nuances of the biblical text and theologically sensitive to the traditions of interpretation. Macaskill’s exegetical examination is attentive to the New Testament (NT) text and background issues in interpreting 1st century texts. 

Macaskill begins with a survey of NT scholarship on the issue. He briefly highlights important early figures such as Adolf Deissmann, Wilhelm Bousset, and Albert Schweitzer before he moves into more recent figures such as E. P. Sanders, Richard Hays, Michael Gorman, James D. G. Dunn, N. T. Wright, Douglas Campbell, and Constantine Campbell. Those looking for an introductory survey of recent scholarship will find a helpful entry point. 

In chapters 2 and 3, Macaskill surveys the patristic tradition, modern Orthodox theology, and then Lutheran and Reformed traditions on union with Christ. This sensitivity to the history of interpreting the concept helps anchor his own later treatment. In chapter 2, when surveying key church fathers, Macaskill rightly counters the reductionistic rhetoric that ancient views of theosis surrendered to Platonism and Hellenistic conceptions. He concludes that the church fathers did maintain “the essential uniqueness of God” (73, 75). On participation in Lutheran and Reformed theology, Macaskill evaluates recent arguments of the Finnish school that Martin Luther believed a version of theosis. He argues that Luther is closer to Calvin’s view than Orthodox theology’s theosis.With respect to Calvin, Macaskill highlights Calvin’s formulation of the duplex gratia and the importance of Christ’s real presence in communion. He ends this chapter with a treatment of Barth and Barth’s view on election.

In chapters 4 and 5, Macaskill surveys potential backgrounds to the NT understanding of union with Christ. In chapter 4, he examines the Hebrew Bible and its conception of covenant. Covenant is the means by which YHWH binds to the people. Macaskill bridges from this discussion into a discussion of glory in the Hebrew Bible and then later Jewish mystical and apocalyptic traditions. At this point, he highlights how covenant is not a neglected theme in this later literature. Finally, he examines early messianism and asks whether it has a participatory element with a discussion of servant songs from Isaiah. 

In chapter 5, Macaskill asks more narrowly if an “Adam Christology” is a potential background to the conception of union with Christ in the NT. He examines Adamic elements both in Paul’s thought and the diverse background of Second Temple Jewish texts. His work engages with important recent discussions on the role of Adam and “the glory of Adam” in this period. He concludes that it is difficult to see Adam christology as significant to NT christology in explaining the glory ascribed to Jesus (143). He argues that divine communion in Judaism is usually “realized through temple and Torah” and this serves as a more appropriate conceptual background (143). On the point of Adam christology, one wonders if Macaskill has slightly under-emphasized the importance of corporate representation and if recent studies on royal ideology by Julien Smith and Joshua Jipp might serve to bring together ideas about Adam, vice-regency, Israel, and participation in the Messiah. There may be a way forward from Macaskill’s more limited conclusions on the background of Adam christology in relation to union with Christ.

In chapter 6, Macaskill examines the conception of the temple and the body of the Messiah in various NT texts including Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, 1 Peter, Acts, and the gospels. His uncontroversial conclusion is that in the NT, the church is the eschatological temple. The church is in union with the Messiah as the Messiah is the cornerstone and the people are the stones built into this new temple. The role of the Spirit is to “actualize his [Jesus’s] reality in the lives of his people” (170). 

Then, in chapter 7, Macaskill examines other images of the temple in the NT, surveying John’s gospel, Hebrews, and Revelation 21-22 as places where the church itself is not the temple. This highlights the diversity of the Temple motif in the NT. He shows, however, the theme of God’s presence with his people appears by “means of covenant imagery” (172). One of the strengths of Macaskill’s work is his ability to synthesize different imagery and motifs in examining an overarching concept. So, for example, he rightly argues that Hebrews does not have a concept of church as the temple or language similar to Paul’s “in Christ” (although Hebrews 3:14 may be an exception he does not note). However, Hebrews has priestly representation and conceptualizes Jesus as the ἀρχηγος. It is here in Hebrews that I might push back slightly, saying that Psalms 8 and Adamic glory do become important to the union of the Son with his people. The Son is crowned in glory to bring sons to glory (Hebrews 2:5-10), or the Son obeys so that the people of God can obey (Hebrews 5:7-10). 

Chapter 8 is a survey of the role of the sacraments in the NT as signifying union and participation with Christ. Macaskill examines all the relevant texts and again highlights the theme of covenant. He highlights the role of the Holy Spirit and how the sacraments are “understood as true participation in Christ” (217), which echoes Calvin’s approach. 

In chapters 9 and 10, Macaskill examines other participatory elements, first in the Pauline corpus (chapter 9) and then in the Johannine literature (chapter 10). Here his survey is broader. Nevertheless, it confirms the general themes that have been previously laid down regarding the NT picture, highlighting themes such as glory and the Spirit in Paul, revelation, “I Am” sayings, and Jesus’s prayer in John 17 in the Johannine literature. Finally, in chapter 11, Macaskill returns to themes in the rest of the New Testament: for example, the covenant in 1 Peter and 2 Peter, participation with Christ in 1 Peter, new birth in James, and the titles of Christ and martyrology in Revelation.

Macaskill has written an excellent work. He pays signfiicant attention to both New Testament texts and issues but also church traditions of interpretation. His use of the motif of covenant as a uniting concept is helpful as it adds attention to background context for the NT, yet avoids a simplistic reduction. Students and scholars should give careful attention to this work and its contribution to both NT studies and biblical theology. Happily, Oxford’s paperback edition provides a more affordable option for acquiring this text.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Timothy J. Bertolet is Adjunct Professor of the Bible and Theology at Lancaster Bible College.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Grant Macaskill is Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews.

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