Reviews of

Union with Christ in the New Testament

In Christology, Grant MACASKILL, Kai Akagi, New Testament, Oxford University Press on March 31, 2015 at 9:58 pm


2015.03.09 | Grant Macaskill. Union with Christ in the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. 353. ISBN: 9780199684298. Hbk.

Reviewed by Kai Akagi, University of St Andrews.

Many thanks to OUP for providing a review copy.

Grant Macaskill’s Union with Christ in the New Testament considers the conceptualization and theological role of union with Christ across the books of the New Testament. It approaches these in view of their Old Testament background and the context provided by other Jewish literature, and it places them in dialogue with the diachronic understanding of union in selected theological traditions in which union plays a significant role. Those considering a varied range of subjects within the fields of New Testament studies, systematic theology, historical theology, and, to an extent, patristics and Second Temple Judaism, may find this volume relevant to their work.

The first half of the book considers union in selected theological traditions (including patristic theology, modern Orthodox theology, and Lutheran and Reformed theology) and then turns to Old Testament and Jewish context for studying union in the New Testament. These chapters identify the place of unity within these larger theological traditions and, importantly, consider both how these traditions used biblical texts in their understanding of union and what their reflection on biblical texts led them to associate with union. The density of points and breadth of ground covered in these chapters do not allow for concise summary. Their significance, however, lies not only in description of union in various traditions, but also in their reevaluation of how these traditions have sometimes been understood. For example, Macaskill challenges at the same time readings of Calvin’s soteriology by representatives of Radical Orthodoxy and Gift Theology as the imputation of righteousness externally to passive human objects and readings that place a sharp divide between Calvin’s linking of covenant and participation and later Federal Calvinism. He observes that union, covenant, and justification cohere in Calvin’s theology in that believers appropriate the benefits of Christ’s covenant faithfulness by union with him through faith. Justification and sanctification are inseparable and both result from this union. Macaskill also challenges Adam Christology through careful reading of texts associating glory with Adam by demonstrating diversity in reference to Adam, inadequate data supporting the hypothesized Adamic glory myth, and the derivation of reference to Adamic glory in these texts from more fundamental motifs of temple and Torah.

The second half of the book considers union in New Testament texts. Through exegesis of relevant passages, Macaskill attempts to observe how union with Christ is conceptualized in individual texts without flattening their distinctions, allowing for commonalities to surface naturally. He does this first by tracing the temple imagery and the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist throughout the New Testament texts and then considering other themes related to union in the Pauline and Johannine corpora and in the rest of the New Testament. This part of the book is, therefore, exegetical, theological, and comparative.

What emerges from this study is a conception of union with Christ as a representative according to covenant. The indwelling of the Spirit is the means of this union, leading to the particular use of temple imagery across the New Testament texts, such that those united to Christ remain distinct from him rather than assimilated into his nature. By their union with Christ, present in them by the Spirit, those united to him have revealed wisdom from God, spoken of in apocalyptic terms, but not in a way that separates this revelation from covenant and the story of Israel. Faith trusts in what God has done to accomplish salvation and in this revealed wisdom. This trust expresses itself in how believers live with particular emphasis on mutual love. The sacraments are symbolic rites of union with Christ and are participation in him by the Spirit’s presence.

In offering an evaluation, the uniqueness of the book needs highlighting. Its conclusions, as Macaskill notes in the introduction, are controversial at every point. Even more distinct, however, is its combined theological and exegetical approach, which is where both applause and criticism of the book will likely concentrate. While I would be among those who applaud it, within the field of New Testament some may frown upon it as a study of a theological concept across many New Testament texts, rather than in particular texts or more limited corpora, or upon its dialogue with theological traditions removed from the contexts in which the New Testament texts were written. However, Macaskill’s study, if readers consider his efforts successful, is not subject to some of the common criticisms of theological studies of the New Testament. Macaskill does not attempt to offer a theological reading by reading a later theological tradition back on to the New Testament texts nor by emphasizing points dictated strictly by the interests of a later ideology. Its exegetical approach that attempts to allow commonalities to naturally emerge places the burden on those who object to offer better alternative explanations for the similar clusters of concepts around union across New Testament books.

Some of exegetical discussions in the book are brief, as necessitated by the breadth of material it covers. This breadth is a strength, but, as Macaskill notes in his introduction, the brevity of these discussions results in limited direct interaction with other exegetical work on the passages discussed. A short section on Paul considering ‘The Place of Faith and Decision in Participation’ and ‘Suffering, Resurrection, and the Believer’ (244–47) is an example of some of the least interaction.

Finally, Macaskill’s volume invites further study of union in the New Testament and of other topics. Among the New Testament texts least discussed in the book are the Synoptic Gospels. The themes of covenant, the Spirit, temple, and sacraments in Luke-Acts suggest that it may significantly tie together themes Macaskill observes often converging in the New Testament. The book may also serve as a model for studies attempting to address other topics with a similar theological and exegetical approach.

Disclaimer: I am presently writing a PhD thesis under the supervision of Dr. Grant Macaskill at the University of St Andrews.

Kai Akagi
University of St Andrews
kakagi [at]


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