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Union With Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther
By Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson.
Eerdmans. 192 pp.$21 paper.

This brief but rich book introduces English-speaking scholars to ground-breaking research from Helsinki University that casts Martin Luther’s soteriology in a new light. The “new Finnish interpretation of Luther” finds the essence of his doctrine of salvation not in forensic justification––God declaring us just solely by virtue of Christ’s sacrifice––but in something more akin to the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis, or deification.

Dr. Tuomo Mannermaa has spearheaded the Finnish Luther research project for more than twenty years. In this volume he is joined by four of his colleagues (Simo Puera, Antti Raunio, Sammeli Juntunen, and Risto Saarinen) in distilling the fruits of their labors in seven essays. The editors of Union With Christ contribute a preface, and responses are included from Robert Jenson, Carl Braaten, William Lazareth, and Dennis Bielfeldt.

Mannermaa expounds the book’s thesis as follows: “According to Luther, Christ (in both his person and his work) is present in faith and is through this presence identical with the righteousness of faith. The idea of a divine life in Christ who is really present in faith lies at the very center of the theology of the Reformer.” The forensic element in Luther’s doctrine of justification is thus viewed by the Finns as a function of his central emphasis on the believer’s actual participation in the divine life through union with Christ.

This in turn means, in the words of the book’s editors, that for Luther “righteousness as an attribute of God in Christ cannot be separated from his divine being. The righteousness of God that is ours by faith is therefore a real participation in the life of God.” To ascribe such views to the German Reformer flies in the face of the German Protestant tradition, which has “notoriously read Luther under the spell of neo-Kantian presuppositions” that ignore “all ontology found in Luther” and instead define faith as “purely an act of the will with no ontological implications [such as the believer’s actual participation in the divine nature].”

Mannermaa cites the German philosopher Hermann Lotze as one such neo-Kantian culprit whose ontology denies the idea of “being in itself” in favor of the notion of things “standing in relationship” and having no real existence apart from the effects they have on each other. An epistemological corollary of Lotze’s ontology is that “things in themselves cannot be objects of human understanding, but only their effects.” Lotze’s approach places an epistemological gap between knowledge of Christ’s person (object, being) and of his work (effects).

Luther, on the other hand, “does not distinguish between the person and work of Christ. Christ is both favor of God (forgiveness of sins, atonement, abolition of wrath) and gift ( donum ).” Faith means “justification precisely on the basis of Christ’s person being present in it as favor and gift.”

The fact that “favor” and “gift” are inextricably connected means, as Puera’s essay notes, that the “gift” of spiritual renewal in Christ “is not only a consequence of grace [favor], as is usually emphasized in Lutheran theology, but it is in a certain sense a condition for grace as well” (emphasis added). This notion of conditional grace (as opposed to modern Lutheran and Reformed emphasis on unconditional grace) springs from Luther’s rejection of late Scholasticism’s concept of “created grace.” Whereas Scholasticism defined grace as “a quality, an accident adhering to the human being considered as substance,” Luther sided with the interpretation of Peter Lombard, “who claimed that the Holy Ghost himself is the love ( caritas ) of a Christian.” In this way Luther “does not separate God’s essential nature ontologically from the divine attributes effecting salvation.”

Luther’s rejection of both Scholastic and Enlightenment dualisms leads Mannermaa to place him alongside the “classical realist epistemology” of Thomas Aquinas, who taught that “the Being of the known thing itself is present in the knower” and that “knowing and that which is known are identical.” This leads Mannermaa to conclude: “Whatever Luther’s stance on nominalism may be, in his theology, at least, he follows this classical [realist] epistemology quite explicitly from beginning to end.”

Since for Luther “Christ... is present in faith and is through this presence identical with the righteousness of faith,” it follows that the first commandment of the decalogue demands “trust and faith solely in the Trinity.” This is because for Luther, “To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart.” Puera therefore concludes that “the requirement to believe in God... is basically the same as the commandment to love God purely.”

Raunio’s essay on “Natural Law and Faith” in Luther’s thought moves from the idea of loving God to loving one’s neighbor. Here Raunio combats what he calls the “common dualistic interpretation of Luther’s understanding of natural law,” which makes a distinction between “worldly natural law” and a “divine natural law of love.” To the contrary, says Raunio: “To my knowledge, no one has recognized that natural law, that is, the Golden Rule, is from the beginning for Luther the law of divine nature, or the law of divine love.” This in turn calls into question traditional Lutheran interpretations of Luther’s “two kingdoms” doctrine, which tend to relegate natural law and obedience to commandments to the temporal kingdom. Raunio counters: “This distinction [between two kingdoms, or between the letter and spirit of the law] does not imply... that the content of the law changes. The letter of the law is the demand of divine law, though it cannot guarantee the fulfillment of the law.”

The new Finnish perspective on Luther offers a refreshing corrective not only to the post-Enlightenment dualism of German Lutheran scholarship, but also to neo-evangelical Protestantism’s tendency to define justification solely in forensic terms. It opens doors of ecumenical common ground by placing Luther’s thought within the context of classical Christian traditions that preceded the Reformation, as opposed to emphasizing Luther’s historically unprecedented notional distinction between Christ’s imputed righteousness (justification) and inherent righteousness (sanctification). It likewise counters historic and contemporary caricatures of Luther’s “two kingdoms” doctrine, including the thesis of William Shirer ( The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich ) that Luther’s theology of the two kingdoms opened the door to the Nazi subversion of the Lutheran Church in Germany and, ultimately, to the Holocaust.

Weaknesses in this first-rate work are few. There are no indices, and the overlapping of themes in the essays necessarily results in what some may deem redundancy. On a more substantive note, three of the four responses to the Finnish essays (by Jenson, Braaten, and Lazareth) are laudatory almost to a fault. Only Bielfeldt, in response to Juntunen’s essay “Luther and Metaphysics,” engages in any meaningful critique, thereby demonstrating that he takes seriously the central question of whether the Finnish perspective on Luther is indeed true, as opposed to merely being useful for ecumenical dialogue.

Bielfeldt also notes that “the Finns are adept at discovering key passages (often in the early Luther), and ingenious in interpreting them in support of a comprehensive systematic vision built around deification.” He then wonders whether or not the Finns might not be as tied to their presuppositions as were the neo-Kantian German Lutherans. He adds, “I hope this is not the case.”

Bielfeldt’s reference to the early Luther pinpoints a rather significant omission in Union With Christ. This is the Finnish school’s failure to distinguish between what Bielfeldt calls “the early Luther” and Luther’s later writings. Alister McGrath has briefly noted, in his groundbreaking Iustitia Dei, that prior to 1530 much of Luther’s writing set forth what McGrath terms a “sanative” view of justification wherein not only forgiveness but also healing were contained under the rubric of justification. This is most evident in Luther’s Lectures on Romans (1515; see especially his comments on Romans 4:7), and to a lesser extent in his 1519 Commentary on Galatians.

By the time Luther’s 1535 Galatians commentary appeared, however, he had set forth the emphatic distinction between forgiveness (justification) and healing (sanctification) that was later adopted by Calvin and the Reformers. For example, in his comments on Galatians 5:6 (“faith working itself out in love”) he stated that the “faith” here was not justifying faith: “[Paul] is not talking about justification.”

But the context of Galatians 5:6 includes Galatians 5:4, where Paul makes it clear that he is talking about justification: “You are severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by the Law.” The apparent reason Luther refused to identify “faith working itself out through love” ( fides caritate formata ) with justification is because he perceived that Rome had used the same phrase to argue that works must be added to faith (which Paul does not say). The force of polemics carried the day.

The question therefore needs to be explored whether it is the early Luther, rather than the later Luther, who offers more promise in the arena of ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Reformation tradition.

Ted Dorman is Professor of Biblical Studies at Taylor University and author of A Faith for All Seasons: Historic Christian Belief in Its Classical Expression (Broadman Holman).