The King’s Park Conference Centre, Northampton, was the new venue for the biannual Affinity Theological Study Conference, and the theme was ‘Union with Christ’.
The centre served us well, with excellent facilities and good food. The unique strength of the conference is its structure. The papers are made available through Dropbox a few weeks earlier, then at the conference an opening summary is followed by small group discussion, and then returning together to summarise the lessons.
Exegetical and historical
The first two papers looked at union with Christ from an exegetical stance. The first paper, by Tim Ward, focused on the apostle Paul’s teaching in Galatians. For Paul, union with Christ is the basic fact of Christianity, and Mr Ward showed how in Galatians the justification of the believer is the articulation of one particular aspect of that union.
The second paper, by Cornelis Bennema, focused on this union in the apostle John’s writings. After a careful analysis, he suggested a new category for us: relational ontology.
The second pair of papers took a historical perspective on the theme. Robert Letham’s paper was on John Calvin’s theology of union. Calvin emphasised that our soteriological union with Christ involves both a new status and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. These are distinct, but inseparable.
John Fesko’s paper looked at John Owen and his debate on this issue with William Sherlock. He argued Owen was not dependent on Calvin’s teaching, but emphasised the same two focal points: the new legal status and the mystical indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Mr Fesko wrote: ‘Christ’s union with the believer is mystical, a conjugal bond of love, but there are also legal dimensions to this bond’.
The final pair of papers took a theological slant. David McKay’s warm paper on justification affirmed the covenant motif as ‘a fruitful framework for understanding both union with Christ and justification’.
The covenantal union between Adam and those in him should be compared with the covenantal union of Christ and those in him. As the fall of man is to be understood in terms of covenant union, so the salvation of man is to be understood in terms of covenant union.
Paul Wells’ detailed paper on sanctification began with a warning: ‘Individualism that forgets the corporate and covenantal perspectives of union with Christ is the blight of western evangelicalism’.
Sadly, the theme of holiness has often been divorced from the context of the ordo salutis and, when isolated from covenant theology, it easily becomes moralism. Mr Wells wrote: ‘sanctification is God creating holy dispositions, not us obtaining them by spiritual gymnastics’.
It was a rich paper, especially the insight of ‘a foundational distinction between holiness and righteousness, the first concerning the realm of being, the second involving status’. A grasp of this deepens our understanding of the seriousness of sin and the wonder of salvation in Christ.
The final session took the form of a panel discussion. As usual, the conference was stimulating and stretching, and it was good to meet with other evangelicals from different traditions.