Monday, April 24, 2006

Thoughts on the "Finnish Luther"

The recent discussion about created grace at this site and others has led me to revisit the "new Finnish interpretation" of Luther's theology. The Finns have caused quite a stir over the past several years, especially among those anxious to discover a "Catholic" or "Orthodox" Luther. The central thesis of the Finnish school is that Luther's view of salvation is akin to the Orthodox notion of theosis, whereby man is deified by God. For Luther, the divinization of man occurs in the act of faith, which involves an ontological union with Christ ("in faith itself Christ is really present"). Faith involves "a real participation in the life of God", an "indwelling" of Christ in the believer. This gift of Christ makes the sinner righteous, and thus justification is not separate from sanctification.

The Finns argue that this key element in Luther's thinking has been largely ignored by subsequent generations of Lutherans, who favored a purely forensic conception of justification. For this reason, their work has attracted considerable attention from ecumenicists, since it affords the opportunity of playing Luther off against the Lutheran tradition. For instance, in his gushing evaluation of the Finnish school in Union With Christ, Robert Jenson remarks that he “can do very little with Luther as usually interpreted. And the sort of Lutheranism that constantly appeals to that Luther has been an ecumenical disaster. With Luther according to the Finns, on the other hand, there can be much systematically and ecumenically fruitful conversation.” Thus, in Jenson’s opinion, the Finns have performed a valuable service by severing the link between Luther and Lutheranism.

Leaving aside the question of the historical validity of the “new Luther” (a question that many have failed to consider in their rush towards a brighter ecumenical future), it is worth asking whether this revision is capable of bearing the weight of Jenson’s expectations. Is the "new Luther" really so different from the "old Luther" of classical Lutheran theology? And does the Finnish "rediscovery" make convergence with the Catholic notion of "created grace" any more feasible?

A central feature of Lutheran theology, in all times and places, has been the extrinsic nature of salvation. In faith, the human lives "outside of himself" by an alien righteousness that belongs to solely to God in Christ. Our justification never exists within ourselves, but we become righteous only by trusting in the promise of Christ. Hence, Luther's firm rejection of habitual grace, which is explicitly contradicted by the simul iustus et peccator formulation.

With their frequent use of the words "indwelling" and "union", it would appear at first glace that the Finns have abandoned this extrinsic conception of salvation in favor of something similar to created grace. However, an excerpt from Simo Peura's essay, "Christ as Favor and Gift", indicates otherwise:
"The donated righteousness and the effectual renew are not a Christian's 'own' in the sense that he can keep them in his possession or because they constitute permanent qualities in him. He is renewed and made righteous only on condition that he is one with Christ, that he remains in Christ, and that his righteousness permanently flows from Christ. The mode of having this donated righteousness. through a union with Christ and not by means of one's own permanent quality of righteousness, demands that a Christian direct his attention away from himself and toward Christ. He can be continuously righteous only if he continually reasserts his trust in Christ."

To my ears, the ideas expressed in this quote appear consistent with the broad Lutheran tradition. Moreover, the Finns make it very clear that "Luther abandoned the concept of created grace" which held that it "was, according to its ontological status, a quality, an accident adhering to the human being considered as a substance." Thus, it appears to me that the Finnish "breakthrough" has not cleared away any obstacles between the Lutheran and Catholic understandings of grace (evident in the fact that the Finns are somewhat critical of the Joint Declaration in Union With Christ, although the Finnish church did endorse the JDDJ).

As to whether Luther's theology is compatible with theosis, I am not convinced that Luther went that far, although a few of his statements certainly suggest it. He undoubtedly taught that the Christian participates in Christ, but that is not the same as "union with Christ" or "deification". Indeed, there are plenty of quotes that indicate that he believed the exact opposite; namely, that the justified man becomes more human when justified. After all, can a man who wrote, "We are to be human and not God - this is the summa", really be a proponent of theosis?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

One Grace or Several?

There is an interesting post at Pontifications concerning the many flavors and varieties of Catholic grace. Given my background in the Lutheran tradition (where "grace" is simply grace), I've always been a bit bewildered by the abundance of graces that are found in Catholic theology (prevenient grace, justifying grace, created grace, uncreated grace, and so on). The Pontifications post has cleared up some of my confusion, although I must admit that my newfound understanding of the Catholic position has not made it any more palatable. Quite the contrary. Take, for instance, this passage on created and uncreated grace:
The primary and foundational meaning of grace within Catholic doctrine is uncreated grace: in infinite love God gives himself to human beings and comes to dwell within them. This gift of uncreated grace, however, requires the transformation of the soul. The finite human being must be made capable of receiving the indwelling presence of the infinite Creator. By grace our nature must be elevated and brought into a new supernatural life; by grace we must be endowed with a capacity that we do not presently possess—the capacity to participate in the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This new capacity is created grace. “Created grace,” Journet explains, “is a reality, a quality, a light that enables the soul to receive worthily the indwelling of the three divine Persons” (p. 7). Moreover, this quality is not temporary or occasional but is permanent or habitual: it is “an endowment we possess continuously and which is the source in us of activity. The divine action, when it takes hold of me—say that I am in the state of sin—and if I open myself to it, places me in the state of grace, that is to say in a stable condition of grace.

I find this passage to be a useful reminder of the enormous distance that still exists between the Catholic and Lutheran positions on justification. Indeed, it makes it abundantly clear that when Lutherans and Catholics use the word "grace", they are talking about two totally different things! From the Catholic perspective, grace is a "capacity" and a "reality" that humans possess within themselves. Justification is then viewed as the last step in the long process of sanctification:
To be justified is to have received sanctifying grace is to be possessed by the love of God is to be indwelt by the Holy Trinity is. Or in Journet’s words: “[Justification] is the moment when, the sequence of graces being unbroken, all at once the flower gives its fruit; the love of God invading the soul sets it on the plane of grace and charity, sanctifies it interiorly, and there results the indwelling of the Trinity”

Thus, in the act of justification, God justifies the already justified (akin perhaps to the conferral of a diploma after four years of college). Of course, Catholics would argue that they avoid Pelagianism because grace is required for each step in the transition from sinner to sanctified believer. However, it seems to me that the Pontifications post is clearly advocating in favor of a synergism whereby the human being also contributes to his/her salvation:
In the mystery of grace we cooperate with God in the process of sanctification, bearing fruit unto eternal life. Our good acts are wholly from God as first cause and wholly from man as secondary cause. “When God crowns our merits,” St Augustine writes, “he crowns his own gifts.” What is crucial to remember is that our free acts of faith and love are not autonomous: they are acts enveloped and penetrated by divine grace within a state of grace, leading us to our final and supreme end in Christ. God offers us grace sufficient to freely cooperate with him in a life of discipleship, and in faithfulness to his promises, he rewards our faith with the fullness of eternal salvation. He rewards us with that which he has already given us.

Over and against the Catholic position, Luther held that grace and righteousness is never something that we possess; it is always extrinsic to our being, an alien righteousness. There is nothing within ourselves that can contribute to our salvation, nothing of ours that we can point to and say "we are justified." We are simul iustus et peccator - a formulation that the Catholic Church has never understood, much less accepted.

In my opinion, these fundamental differences concerning the nature of grace make a mockery of the so-called consensus proclaimed in the Joint Declaration. Either the participants of such ecumenical discussions are simply talking past each other (by understanding the same word to mean very different things), or they are being dishonest about the extent of their progress. Regardless, in this age of knee-jerk ecumenism, it is imperative for both sides remain clear-headed about the chasm that still (tragically) divides our two churches.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Good Friday and Justification

"This is the righteousness of God: that God is the eternal and almighty Father and is at the same time the Son who came as a man in poverty into the world, perishing in and by the world, that is, Jesus Christ, crucified in weakness (2 Cor. 13:4). God is righteous in the lack of internal contradiction in this extreme tension between the almighty Father – the origin of all life and being – and the Son who suffered death. This is where the foundations lie for the fact that the ungodly are justified. Justification is inconceivable without God taking on himself the results of human ungodliness and in that very way remaining God. Only in his identification with the crucified Christ, made ungodly in his accursed death, is God’s righteousness so evident that humans, though they make themselves ungodly, can become righteous." --- Eberhard Jüngel, Justification (pg. 79)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Possible

For me, one of the most interesting things about Eberhard Jüngel is his unique relationship to philosophy. On the one hand, he exhibits a remarkable familiarity with the history of philosophy, and his writings are dense with philosophical terminology. However, he continually asserts that Christian theology must reject many of the dominant trends in Western thinking, since they are broadly incompatible with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. But his rejection of philosophy is only partial, as a major goal of Jüngel's theology is to create an alternative philosophical framework conducive to the Christian faith. This is what makes him so ambitious and difficult. He has assigned himself the enormous task of constructing a novel theological system on the foundation of a radically reformulated philosophy - a very tall order, indeed.

The confident manner in which Jüngel dismisses some of the most cherished tenets in Western thought can be an exhilarating experience for the reader. This is nowhere more true than in his rejection of the ancient (and somewhat commonsensical) notion that "actuality is prior to possibility", which was first set forth by Aristotle. The implications of Aristotle's statement become clear in his ontology, which ascribes being only to the actual; indeed, "being and actuality are identical." Possibility has no real being because it is simply the "not yet" of actuality. This doesn't mean that things cannot change, but that "the possible is defined as the possible only by reference to actuality." In other words, what is possible is determined by examining the present actuality. Actuality then determines its own future by acting on its inherent possibilities, and, in this way, the actuality of the past produces the actuality of the present. Thus, nothing is ever really new and nothing is ever really lost, since the past contributes to the present that it produces, and the future is already latent in the present.

While Jüngel acknowledges that this type of thinking in the basis of all scientific and historical thought, he strongly objects to the priority of the actual over the possible in theological matters. For one, such thinking turns God into a "pure actuality" that is "free of all possibility" and thus "unmovable" and "unchanging". Secondly, the primacy of the actual misunderstands the world, since it ignores the decisive dimension of the world - the possible. But possibility, as Jüngel understands it, is not derived from the world and its actuality, but is instead a gift of God that allows the world to exist "beyond the dimension of actuality." In other words, God liberates the world from its bondage to the cause-and-effect framework of actuality by creating new possibilities, which are "not within but external to its actuality." He accomplishes this by reducing "the actual" to nothingness, and creating new possibilities ex nihilo:
"As future, possibility is the concrete way in which the world is determined by nothingness, out of which God's creative love lets being become. What can be made of the future on the basis of past and present, does not belong to possibility; rather, as that which is not-yet-actual, it belongs to the dimension of actuality. What can be made does not become, in the strict sense of 'becoming ex nihilo'. We make actuality out of that which is actual. We change, we transform. In this way, we make the future. God, however, is not one who transforms; he is the creator, who allows possibility to move towards actuality. But this possibility arises from the divine distinction between the possible and the impossible, arises, that is, ex nihilo."**

In this passage, Jüngel articulates a very distinctive approach to thinking about God as Creator. For Jüngel, when God creates he creates possibility, not actuality. This means that genuine Christian hope is not hope in a "particular future worldly actuality", but a "hope in God alone which hopes for a future for the world." This hope for possibility is grounded in the word of the cross. The following passage, which is quite appropriate as we near Good Friday, makes this point clear:
The gospel proclaims that the risen one lives as the crucified. And in this the death of Jesus comes to have its real meaning, namely, as the event of the love of God (Jn 3.16). Jesus' resurrection from the dead promises that we shall be made anew out of the nothingness of relationlessness, remade ex nihilo, if through faith in the creative Word of God we allow ourselves to participate in the love of God which occurs as the death of Jesus Christ. In this sense, Christian existence is existence out of nothingness, because it is all along the line existence out of the creative power of God who justifies."

The last line of that passage hints at the reason why Jüngel is so adamant that "possibility must precede actuality" - it's the doctrine of justification. In actuality, we are lost sinners with no possibility for redemption. We cannot save ourselves through our acts, we cannot make ourselves righteous. This is only possible for "the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were."

**The quotes are taken from Jüngel's essay "The world as possibility and actuality. The ontology of the doctrine of justification.", Theological Essays, Vol. I

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Neuhaus and The New Republic

The former editor of First Things, Damon Linker, has written a scathing article about Fr. Richard Neuhaus in The New Republic. The article, which is nominally a review of Neuhaus' latest book, relentlessly depicts Neuhaus as a sinister reactionary hell-bent on establishing a Catholic theocracy in America. Needless to say, Linker overstates his case, although I share some of his concerns. Indeed, I disagree with Neuhaus on a wide range of political and theological issues, but it's hard for me to believe that he's as dangerous and influential as Linker makes him out to be. I also know from reading First Things that Neuhaus, while often a jerk, can be quite charming and gracious, even to opponents. Thus, in my opinion, Linker's portrayal lacks the nuance required to understand a person like Neuhaus, and TNR's attempt to demonize him as "theocon-in-chief" is unwarranted and beneath its dignity.

Interestingly, Linker never provides an account in the article of his own journey from First Things editor to "theocon" assassin. Apparently, he left FT on good terms, but has since written a book entitled The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege. So what gives? If anyone has the inside story, please let me know.

Regardless, Neuhaus has started to fire back at TNR on FT's website. I thought his most recent response was fair and even-tempered, but I almost choked on my sandwich when I read the following lines:
Unlike the authors of TNR, I really have no interest in capturing Catholicism for partisan political purposes. More than that, I find the very idea repugnant. Which, I am well aware, does not mean that others will not keep on trying.

Can he be serious? Does he really believe that his brand of Catholicism is non-partisan, or that his opinions on current events are not shaped by partisan (i.e., Republican) allegiances? For goodness sakes, the man serves as an advisor to President Bush, who chumily calls him "Father Richard". Indeed, one of Neuhaus' real "triumphs" (one that I thought he openly acknowledged) has been the mobilization of a Catholic right that marches in lock-step with the Republican party, even when the Vatican opposes Republican policies (such as the war in Iraq, which Neuhaus continues to support, although his enthusiasm has dimmed considerably). Father Richard might not be scheming to create an American theocracy, but he shouldn't pretend that he hasn't tried to harness the power of Catholicism for political purposes.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Badger Supremacy

My sitemeter indicates that many of the visitors to this site come from Minnesota, which is perhaps not surprising given the Lutheran emphasis of my blog. And while I appreciate their patronage, I feel the need right now, as a Wisconsinite, to engage in some good-natured taunting. This is because the Wisconsin Badgers are now national champions in both men's and women's hockey - a feat that has never been accomplished before, not even by a school in hockey-obsessed Minnesota! So the title of "greatest hockey state in America" belongs right here in Wisconsin!! That's right, Gopher fans, the mecca of American hockey is not Minneapolis or Duluth, but Madison, Wisconsin. The crown has been passed - get used to it.

On an unrelated note, the Brewers are off to a terrific 5-1 start. Could this be the year? Should I even allow myself to think that this might be the year? I'm keeping my expectations low for the time being, but the team is definitely on the upswing.

Jüngel at Pontifications

My earlier post about the "Thinkability of God" in Eberhard Jüngel's theology has sparked an interesting discussion over at Pontifications, with many of the participants exhibiting an impressive familiarity with Jüngel that far surpasses my limited understanding. So you certainly want to check it out.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Thinkability of God

I've been meaning to write a few more posts about Eberhard Jüngel's book God as the Mystery of the World (GMW), but I often find myself lacking the courage. Jüngel is the most challenging and frustrating theologian that I have yet to encounter, and I sometimes feel that his obscurity is well-deserved. As John Webster writes in this excellent article, Jüngel's style is "fearfully elliptical", requiring sustained concentration and multiple readings. At least in GMW, it is quite clear that Jüngel does not want to be accessible, as his writing style makes no concessions to the reader (the reader must adopt to Jüngel, and not the other way around). However, I've decided to stick with GMW, for two reasons. First, my stubbornness requires that I finish any book that I've started. Secondly, while Jüngel's writing is far from clear, it's obvious that his theology has plenty to offer, and I sense that my hard work on GMW is starting to pay dividends.

A large portion of GMW is dedicated to the problem of how modern man can learn to "think God again." For Jüngel, the seeds of atheism were planted when Descartes asserted that the existence of man is grounded in the "I think" of the cogito. This had the effect of making the human subject the measure of all things, since "the ego first of all ascertains itself, as being present to itself, in order then to ascertain God and the world and thus its own continuity." Of course, Descartes was not an atheist. He was a firm believer in what Jüngel calls the "metaphysical God" - the eternal, unchangeable, infinite, omnipresent, omniscient, transcendent God. However, the combination of the Cartesian "I think" with this "metaphysical" concept of God eventually made God unthinkable. This becomes evident in Fichte's demand that "God should not be thought at all", since to "think God" necessarily subjects him to the conditions of space and time, thereby making him captive to the Cartesian subject. So as modernity progressed, God became more and more distant and unthinkable, until theology was limited to the statement that "God is God". It could say no more. Of course, by this time, the concept of God was deemed irrelevant by most people, who were able to take that small step from a purely transcendent God to a non-existent God.

In contrast, Jüngel argues that God becomes thinkable in his word. And God is able to speak this word to us because he is the God of the Bible (i.e., the Trinitarian God), and not the metaphysical God:
"God's being must be thought as a being which allows that it be participated in, that is, a being which turns outward what it is inwardly. This happens in the word and only in the word of God. For it is part and parcel of the essence of the word to allow participation in the being of the one who speaks by bringing that being to turn itself to someone else. In the word, the being of the speaker expresses itself... God in the word expresses his most inward being without reservation. He turns outward without holding back any part of himself. He gives himself entirely in the word which he speaks. In this sense, it is true that 'God alone comes in the word alone.' If God makes participation in himself possible through his word, then this gift of participation is an event of the divine being itself. The explicit cognition of this gift of participation, the thinking of what faith is, implies then the possibility of thinking God as he really is in and of himself."

In this passage, Jüngel expresses his deeply sacramental understanding of language. God is truly present in his word, just as he is present in the bread and wine. Yet this claim requires that we think differently about God's being, since it implies that God is subject to transitoriness, perishability, and change:
"One of the major reasons that the word is to be considered as the place for the thinkability of God is that it unites within itself a high degree of perishability with the most intensive power of becoming. What else is simultaneously as perishable and as creative as the word? Where else do perishing and becoming, past and future, reality and possibility, being and nonbeing reside so closely together as in the word?"

The metaphysical God is necessarily silent, as it holds itself above the perishability of this world. In contrast, Christianity tells of the "Word made flesh" - the God who is able to speak because he submits to death on the cross.
"If one understands the divinity of God out of its unity with the poverty of the existence of the Crucified One, then God's being can no longer be thought as infinite in contrast with every finitude, and certainly not as independence in contrast with every dependence, and obviously not as an eternity which excludes time, nor as a highest essence which does not know nothingness. The God who is in heaven because he cannot be on earth is replaced by the Father who is in heaven in such a way that his heavenly kingdom can come into the world, that is, a God who is in heaven in such a way that he can identify himself with the poverty of the man Jesus, with the existence of a man brought from life to death on a cross."