Calvin, Participation and the Gift

In this post I am taking a look at the broad billings-coverargumentation of J. Todd Billings in his book, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (Oxford University Press, 2007). In this volume, Billings puts Calvin in conversation with present day theologies of of the ‘Gift.’ In doing so, Billings carefully explicates Calvin’s doctrine of participation in its own right, as well as  addresses a doctrinal lacuna in the secondary material on Calvin and participation (p. 18). Toward this end, Billings offers a comment and some questions concerning the task of the volume:

These issues raised by the Gift discussion provide an opportunity to frame old questions about Calvin’s theology in a new way. What exactly is Calvin’s theology of ‘participation in Christ’, and how does it relate to the activity (or lack thereof) of believers? What, if any, are the metaphysical dimensions of Calvin’s doctrine of participation? Does the notion of participation connect God’s self-giving and human self-giving in a fruitful way (p.2)?

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Gift conversation, Billings use of Calvin isn’t arbitrary, but is seeking to salvage Calvin’s understanding of gift from these theologians. “Calvin denounced reciprocal notions that he found at the core of Catholic theology,” suggests Natalie Zemon Davis, “The whole Catholic apparatus of gift and obligation he tried to dismantle, recasting reciprocal relations in terms of gratuitousness wherever he could” (p.3). Billings argues that, “Calvin’s view of God has become pigeonholed as the textbook example of a  “unilateral gift” – a one sided gift that evacuates human agency as it claims the receiver” (p. 2).

This volume is clearly an erudite engagement in two distinct but related conversations – “Gift” theology and Calvin’s doctrine of participation. Billings engages the issues through a general overview of Calvin studies, participation and theologies of the “Gift” in relation to Calvin (chapter 1). He then focuses specifically on the doctrine of participation (chapter 2), looking specifically at Calvin’s training, use of tradition and his “reformed” appropriation of traditional material. Billings moves from here into a chronological argument concerning Calvin’s doctrine of participation in Christ, tracing through early editions of the Institutes, the development of the doctrine in his commentaries and polemical works, and then finally in the final edition of the Institutes. Calvin’s doctrine is then shown to be at work in prayer and sacraments, arguing for a trinitarian account of the duplex gratia as a framework for participation (chapter 4).

In chapter 5, Billings addresses criticisms that, in the case of Milbank, Calvin has displaced the “centrality of love” in the gospel, (p.144), by addressing Calvin’s understanding of participation, law and accommodation. He goes on to show that through Calvin’s complex theology of the law its connection with participation, “The law is God’s accommodation to humanity intended to unite humans to God” (p. 184). Billings wraps up the discussion by addressing what he thinks the promise is for Calvin’s theology of participation (chapter 6).

So what, we may ask, is the promise of Calvin’s theology of participation? Billings claims that while participation is a broad category in Calvin, it is a helpful corrective to many contemporary discussions, holding together “organic images of transformation into Christlikeness by the indwelling of the Spirit with forensic images of God’s free pardon; a strong account of humanity’s sin with a soteriology based on the restoration of primal uniting communion with God” (196). In so doing, Calvin refuses to lose Christ’s cross and human sin in the mix, either diminishing the reality of transformation or diluting the power of sin. Likewise, as summarized by Billings,

Calvin offers a soteriology that is Trinitarian from beginning to end, continually returning to the way in which we are united to Christ by the Spirit, revealing the Father. Calvin’s theology of participation is both sacramental and ecclesial, emphasizing the centrality of the Word and sacraments for the life of Christ’s body, which can receive the sacraments only in the communion of the church” (196).

Calvin’s theology of participation, according to Billings, has theological, biblical and ecclesial promise. Though complex, he believes Calvin’s theology combines insights from the ancient church through to the reformation, grounding it in a trinitarian vision of salvation. I will discuss the issue of deification in a later post, comparing his thoughts in this book with further work he has done on Calvin in this area. If you are interested in participation and Calvin, this is clearly the place to come, and his insight into contemptorary issues make this volume a relevant, thoughtful and probing account of Calvin’s theology.

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3 thoughts on “Calvin, Participation and the Gift

  1. Kyle, could you tell me more about Billing’s treatment of Calvin’s use of sources, particularly those from his own tradition and those from others? I am curious whether this might be a good resource for my work on theologies of retrieval.

  2. Kent, I’m not sure I get your question. Are you wondering about Calvin’s retrieval or Billings? Billings addresses some of Calvin’s polemical works as well as, importantly, Calvin’s education. In terms of Billings, his use of Calvin, if that’s what you are asking, is more of a corrective of the various “Gift” theologians and their use of Calvin.

  3. I was wondering about Billings treatment of Calvin’s use of the tradition. You said that in chapter two Billings deals with Calvin’s “use of tradition and his “reformed” appropriation of traditional material”, so I am curious if this may be a good resource to explore Calvin’s own sorts of ‘retrievals’.

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