Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ


Winner of 2009 John Templeton Award for Theological Promise

From Published Book Reviews:

“…with this work Billings has made a major contribution to Calvin studies…This is a work of clarity and sanity, and displays Billings’ thorough familiarity with Calvin’s insights on the development of Calvin’s theology, the sources of his thought, and offers an utterly convincing way to read his theology.”

– Myk Habets, Pacific Journal of Baptist Research

“J. Todd Billings has written a fine treatment of that aspect of Calvin’s theology which centres on the responsiveness of the believer to God’s grace. …the author pays due attention to primary sources, and has an interesting and I think ground-breaking section on the development of the theme of participation in Christ through the various editions of the Institutes. …the author’s stated purpose in all this is to rebut the charge made by current exponents of ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ such as Catherine Pickstock and John Milbank that Calvin is deficient as a theologian of ‘the Gift’ in that he fails to comprehend their idea that the proper human reception to divine grace is not passive but responsive. In a nice touch, the author gently suggests that such critics of Calvin are at this point in danger of promoting ‘the Gift’ into the position of a ‘central dogma’ (p. 187). Not only does Billings offer a convincing rebuttal of this ill-conceived and vaguely conceptualised charge against Calvin, he does so in a manner that under-lines the permanent worth of Calvin’s thought, deeply rooted as it is in biblical and patristic sources, as over against what will surely prove to be the ephemeral claims of a new ‘Orthodoxy’.”

– Paul Helm, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History

“Billings’ award-winning exploration of Calvin’s emphasis on union with Christ includes up-to-date engagement with recent criticisms of Calvin’s doctrine of grace.”

– Michael Horton, “My Top 5 Books on Calvin,” Christianity Today

“Billings gives us a treatment of participation that is as deep as it is wide, inseparable from imputation but not impaled by it. Is this too good to be true? Is it merely a hagiographic reconstruction of Calvin? No. Though motivated by obvious ecumenical intent, Billings work on Calvin is, quite simply, brilliant.”

– Julie Canlis, Books and Culture

“The book succeeds admirably as a response to the critiques of Calvin made by ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ and by others such as Stephen H. Webb. It does so not because Billings always aims to show Calvin as equal to their criticisms on their terms, but because he rightly points out that there is often a ‘hidden ledger’ for evaluating Calvin: a Thomist account of ‘participation’; or a Byzantine concept of ‘deification’; or a Maussian/Derridean concept of ‘reciprocity’…. Billings lets Calvin speak on his own terms so as to contribute something distinctive to the discussion; by exploring his thought so carefully in different polemical as well as historical contexts, Calvin’s doctrine of participation is seen to be theologically rich, nuanced, and not quite what many of his critics think it is.”

– David Gibson, Themelios

“I would highly recommend this book for those interested in Calvin’s theology… Calvin, Participation, and the Gift provides a clear account of Calvin’s theology of participation and the way in which it can hold in tension divine agency in salvation with the active response of the believer in receiving salvation by faith and living obediently in God’s grace.”

– Ann Conklin, Reformed Review

“All of this, I hope, suggests just how thought provoking and fertile Billings’s discussion is. He has presented a well-constructed, persuasive, and interesting argument that makes a much-needed contribution to discussions and debates on Calvin’s theology. The audience for this book will be primarily graduate students and scholars, theologians as well as historians. While it is not aimed at undergraduates, I strongly recommend this as useful reading to anyone who will be teaching undergraduates about Calvin’s theology and its implications for constructing Christian communities.”

– Karen Spierling, Humanity and Social Sciences Online


“This fine study by Todd Billings gives us fresh ways of looking at a familiar figure. Lucidly written, meticulous, precise, and extremely well informed, Billings’s discussion of participation, that ancient Pauline category, opens the door both to new historical and constructive insights. An indispensable study for students of Calvin, historians of Christian thought, and theologians of the Gift.”

–Kevin Madigan, Harvard Divinity School

“This is a valuable study of what is an important thought much neglected theme of Calvin’s. It should be read by all with an interest in Calvin’s theology.”

–Anthony N.S. Lane, London School of Theology

“In the best sense, this is a work of deep theological recollection: with a view to rescuing Reformed theology from its Zwinglian captivity, it restores an appreciation for the catholicity of the Reformed tradition. In the course of defending Calvin against his radically orthodox despisers, Todd Billings carefully and persuasively articulates a vision of Calvin’s theology as a source for contemporary constructive theology. And one could hope that the rich vision of sacramental participation he so deftly describes might trickle down into Reformed practice. Billings invites us to imagine how different our Reformed churches might be if they were actually ‘Calvinist.'”

–James K.A. Smith, Calvin College

“I know of no other monograph that offers such a comprehensive view of the theme of participation in Calvin’s work. Billings makes a persuasive case for the central importance of this motif in the Reformer’s thought. This is an erudite yet very readable book.”

–Don Compier, Graceland University

“I warmly recommend Billings’s book as a serious piece of scholarly research that is not afraid to tackle some of the more popular theological schools of thought in a manner that is respectful, thoughtful, and analytically powerful. Billings is the first to systematically analyze Calvin’s theology of participation. He manages to pull together a Calvinian doctrine of participation which can stand on its own strength and which presents a genuine, and in decisive ways original, contribution to Calvin research. Any further critique of Calvin’s theology as based on coercion or violence will have to give an account of Billings’s masterful scholarship.”

–Hans Boersma, Regent College


Book Description (from Oxford website)

Is the God of Calvin a fountain of blessing, or a forceful tyrant? Is Calvin’s view of God coercive, leaving no place for the human qua human in redemption? These are perennial questions about Calvin’s theology which have been given new life by Gift theologians such as John Milbank, Graham Ward, and Stephen Webb.

J. Todd Billings addresses these questions by exploring Calvin’s theology of “participation in Christ.” He argues that Calvin’s theology of “participation” gives a positive place to the human, such that grace fulfills rather than destroys nature, affirming a differentiated union of God and humanity in creation and redemption. Calvin’s trinitarian theology extends to his view of prayer, sacraments, the law, and the ecclesial and civil orders. In light of Calvin’s doctrine of participation, Billings reframes the critiques of Calvin in the Gift discussion and opens up new possibilities for contemporary theology, ecumenical theology, and Calvin scholarship as well.