In Galatians 3.26-7, Paul makes what seems prima facie to be a startling transition: “[F]or in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (ESV). Note that second connective “for”: Paul is talking about faith, and then, all of a sudden, he’s talking about baptism, and is apparently drawing some sort of explanatory connection between the latter and the former. This might be surprising given his polemic in the letter against the uselessness–and, worse, the positive harm resulting from–the rite of circumcision. But now it is as if he said: “You are sons through faith. Why do I say that? Because if you’ve been baptized, you’ve put on Christ.” What gives?
Calvin’s remarks on 3.27 are lucid and incisive and, though they’ve been translated before, I’m going to re-translate them here, ideally rendering in English a more precise version of what he says. In this lemma, Calvin makes penetrating comments on coniunctio or unitas with Christ and on the double audience to whom Paul addresses comments on the sacraments.
Let’s begin, then.
Text and Translation
27. Quicunque baptisati estis. Quo res maior est ac sublimior, nos esse filios Dei, eo magis remota est a sensu nostro difficiliusque persuadetur. Itaque breviter admonet qualis nobis sit coniunctio, vel potius unitas cum filio Dei: ne dubitemus, id quod habet proprium nobis communicari. Utitur similitudine vestis, quum dicit, Galatas Christum induisse. Sed intelligit, Christo sic esse insitos, ut coram Deo nomen ac personam Christi gerant, ac in ipso magis quam in se ipsis censeantur. Trita est ista vel metaphora, vel similitudo sumpta a vestibus: et de ea alibi dictum est. Caeterum videtur infirma ratio, Christum induisse, quia sint baptizati.
27. “Whoever of you have been baptized.” By the degree to which it is a greater and more sublime thing that we are sons of God, it is the more removed from our sense-perception and the more difficult to be persuaded of. Therefore [Paul] briefly brings to mind what sort of union, or rather unity, we have with the Son of God, in order that we not doubt that what he has as his own is communicated to us. He makes a comparison to a garment, when he says that the Galatians have put on Christ. But he understands that they have been so ingrafted into Christ that before God they bear the name and person of Christ and are reckoned in him rather than in themselves. The metaphor or comparison taken from clothing is common, and I have spoken about it elsewhere. But the reasoning seems weak, [viz.,] that they have put on Christ because they have been baptized.
- Calvin uses two different terms to describe our relationship with Christ: coniunctio and unitas. The second is the stronger. Coniunctio has to do primarily with the action of joining two things together, though it can also mean the state resulting from that action (the English word “union” works analogously, which is why I have chosen it here). Calvin means it in the first sense, as can be seen by the contrast with unitas, which means a “state of oneness” that obtains as a consequence of coniunctio. In the first noun, two parties are still identifiable and distinguishable in the word’s component parts; in the second noun–again, “the state of being one”–, we have identity (see below on nomen ac personam Christi).
- Obviously Calvin does not mean that believers are somehow merged with Christ as if into some pantheistic sea such that they lose their individuality, their humanity, their finitude, etc. We should remember that–but we should not remember it in such a way that allows us to detract from or minimize the extremely strong and realistic language Calvin uses to describe the union between Christ and the believer. From the divine perspective, our identity is more firmly rooted in Christ than it is in ourselves: we are so fully incorporated into him that we bear his name and person or character (personam).
- Calvin says that the reasoning seems weak: is being baptized absolutely identical to putting on Christ, period? To that question he turns in what follows, to be treated in a future post.