Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Finn Watch: Luther and Divinization

On Thursday morning, LTSS will host two lights of the "Finnish School of Luther Interpretation," founded and flourishing in the theology department of the University of Helsinki. Dr. Risto Saarinen will lecture on "Gift as the Heart of Lutheran Theology," and Dr. Olli-Pekka Vainio will talk about "Logic and Love of the Gift." It should be a fascinating session from one of the more exciting and creative theological movements in the church today.

Birthed via a series of regional ecumenical dialogues between the Finnish Lutheran Church and the Russian Orthodox, the Finnish Lutheran scholars have challenged the Kantian-Ritschlian foundations of much of 20th-century Luther reconstruction (see my teacher Michael Root's elaboration here), along with its anti-Catholic bias and its focus on forensic justification. In contrast to the latter view, which holds that in Baptism God's righteousness is merely credited or imputed to an individual, the Finns have exhaustively shown in dissertation after dissertation that, at least in the early Luther, we ought more properly focus on a very real "union with Christ," wherein God communicates God's own qualities and nature to the believer. The founder of the school, Tuomo Mannermaa, captures this Lutheran notion of the classic Christian doctrine of theosis, or, divinization, in the title of his treatise, "Christ Present in Faith." God does not merely look upon a broken sinner as righteous, but rather enters into that sinner, indwelling him or her in an intimate union by which that person, in the words of St. Peter, becomes a "partaker in the divine nature" and is subsequently transformed ontologically into a new creation. As Mannermaa summarizes,

The notion of the presence of Christ as favor and gift is the essence of Luther's concept of justification. At least on the level of terminology, the distinction drawn in later Lutheranism between justification as forgiveness and sanctification as divine indwelling is alien to the Reformer. Forgiveness and indwelling of God are inseperable in the person of Christ, who is present in faith In that sense, in Luther's theology, justification and theosis as participation in God are also inseperable. (in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. ed. Braaten and Jenson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, 38)

When Luther, in On Christian Liberty, speaks of us becoming "Christs to one another," he thus means it quite literally. After the Finns, it becomes difficult to read this work, which Luther himself considered a compendium of his thought, or passages like these, without hearing echoes from the East:

No good work can rely upon the Word of God or live in the soul, for faith alone and the Word of God rule in the soul. Just as the heated iron glows like fire because of the union of fire with it, so the Word imparts its qualities to the soul. It is clear, then, that a Christian has all that he needs in faith...(trans. Lambert, W.A. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, 15)

The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh. And if they are one flesh ad there is between them a true marriage...it follows that everything they have they hold in common, he good as well as the evil...(ibid 18-19)

Here Luther merely uses language common to spiritual theologians throughout the history of the church, from St. Augustine, St. Bernard and Nicolas Cabasilas to St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

The Finns' re-visionary account holds great promise for ecumenical theology by positing a Luther engaged in broader catholic debates about ontology, theosis, and participation. In this sense, he belongs less to Protestant partisan politics and polemics, and can speak constructively as a teacher of the church - albeit, a radical, idiosyncratic, and by no means unproblematic pedagogue.

(For those interested in learning more, Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson's collection of lectures by Mannermaa and his circle, Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, is highly recommended as an introduction.)

1 comment:

  1. The Finnish scholarship is interesting stuff. I read this book after my first year at Luther. You're right though about it focusing on earlier Luther, especially his sermons. A big portion of what is referenced in that book happens in and around 1519, although there is certainly more. I haven't read to much about Finns and Luther's later work, any suggestions?