In the final section of Billings’ book, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ, he suggests various ways in which Calvin’s theology of participation might speak into our current theological milieu.
While Calvin’s theology of participation is wide-ranging, it is distinctive in relation to contemporary discussion, because it brings together what are usually held apart: organic images of transformation into Christlikeness by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit with forensic images of God’s free pardon; a strong account of humanity’s sin with a soteriology based on the restoration of a primal uniting communion with God (p. 196).
Throughout the book, Billings has been at pains to demonstrate that Calvin’s theology of participation, contra the claims of “Gift theologians” (e.g., Milbank) involves an inner transformation of the believer as s/he is incorporated into the Trinitarian life of God. In other words, given Calvin’s understanding of the duplex gratia, imputation does not necessarily rule out ideas of infusion and partaking in the very life of the Triune God (including feeding on the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist). Billings also points out the importance of the corporate dimension of the Christian life for Calvin’s doctrine of participation-being united with Christ necessarily unites us with our fellow Christians in a genuine and mystical bond. Hence, concerns for social justice and love of neighbor are intrinsic to Calvin’s understanding of participation in Christ.
Regarding the “common ground” that Calvin’s theology of participation offers, Billings writes:
While Calvin’s theology of participation brings together what many theologies of participation hold apart, it also has a great deal of common ground with Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox theologies of participation. Calvin’s soteriology gives a central place to the problem of sin and forgiveness, but it is not fixated on those themes. Rather, those themes occur within a larger vision of salvation that is, in many ways, a catholic vision. Calvin is concerned, along with key patristic writers, to affirm the goodness of creation and that redemption is a fulfillment rather than a disruption of the originally good human nature. 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 (p. 196).
Though Calvin’s theology of participation is in many ways a rather complex combination of scriptural, patristic, and medieval teachings, it is also from another perspective very simple. It speaks of a life of Trinitarian participation, in which one is united to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and receives the gift of pardon and forgiveness from the Father. “As such, the life of faith is a life of voluntary gratitude, made possible by the God who restores to sinners what they have lost, and reunites them with God” (p. 197).