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?


Lee said...

Nice post, Thomas. If anything, the Finns' position sounds close the view I've heard attributed to Calvin, that union with Christ is ontologically prior to, and the root of, both justification and sanctification. Hey - maybe this can open new avenues of ecumenism with the Reformed! Though I suspect that's not what Jenson, et al. have in mind. ;-)

Thomas Adams said...

Lee - Thanks for your comment, and for the plug on your site. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Calvin is woefully inadequate, so I'll have to take your word on the similarity of his views on justification to those of the Finns.

While it's certainly not what Jenson had in mind, your comment does open up some ecumenical possibilities between the Reformed and Orthodox. Based on the success of the Finns with Luther, perhaps we can also discover an "Orthodox Calvin" through a creative and selective reading of his Institutes. Now that would be a breakthrough!

Michael Root said...

A point of clarification: The Finnish church had difficulty with the second draft of the Joint Declaration. A representative of the Finnish church (Bishop Huovinen of Helsinki, formerly professor of systematic theology at the University) participated in the the third and fourth revision sessions. The Finnish church then most definitely endorsed the Joint Declaration. (To see the news coverage, go to the May 1998 section of the news page on the Finnish church website -

Thomas Adams said...

Michael - Thanks for setting me straight (I've corrected that statement in the post). I had assumed that the Finns oppossed the JDDJ because of their critical comments about the document in Union With Christ. However, that book was published in 1998, so the essays were likely written before final approval of JDDJ. Also, I'm not sure whether any of the theologians that comprise the "Finnish School" actually get a vote on such matters. Regardless, I think it's still safe to assume that Mannermaa and Peura are skeptical about the degree of consensus acheived by the JDDJ.

Thomas Adams said...

Michael -- By the way, being slow with names, I didn't realize until just now that you are the Professor Michael Root, author of several books on ecumenicism, the JDDJ, and the Finnish school. Obviously, as a lowly blogger without authority, I am in no position to tell you what the Finns really think about the JDDJ, and I appreciate your helpful correction to my post.

I'm curious to know your thoughts on the possibilities of the "new Finnish Luther" for ecumenical progress. Do you agree with my assessment that the "Finnish Luther" is more Lutheran (and less "Catholic" or "Orthodox") than many have hoped? And do you think that the concept of theosis is compatible with Luther's entire body of work?

If you're so inclined, you can leave another comment here. Or, if you response is too lengthy, I can publish it as a separate post on this site. Thanks, Thomas

Michael Root said...

I think the Finnish approach to Luther (for a good bibliography of their work, see Risto Saarinen’s website = is ecumenically helpful, not so much because of the idea of theosis, which they perhaps exaggerate, but because the reassertion of the fundamental character of the mutual indwelling of Christ and the believer helps us break out of a variety of deadends of twentieth-century Lutheranism. That Christ is my righteousness is not a kind of legal fiction, an “as if.” I am truly righteous because I am truly in Christ. If there is an “as if,” it is that I would be counted a total sinner if God were to judge me apart from Christ. (The subjunctive comes with the totus peccator, not the totus iustus.) Justification and faith are deeply transformative, even if it is of great importance to stress that this transformation is not my righteousness before God; that righteousness is and will always be, even in eschatological perfection, Christ. (A good test of any understanding of simul iustus et peccator is how it understands eschatological perfection.)
I think this approach is truly Lutheran and, far more important, biblical.

Thomas Adams said...

Prof. Root -- Thanks for your comment. I agree that we must avoid the legal fiction of an "as if" justification. However, I'm not convinced that this requires us to speak of an "indwelling" of Christ. As you know, Luther often employed an ontology of relations instead of an Aristotelian ontology of substance in order to describe how the sinner is “made righteous” by the justifying Word of God. In my opinion, that relational approach is more faithful to the Reformation than the language of the Finns. But it’s probably less fruitful ecumenically, since it doesn’t “ring true” in the ears of Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglican theologians, while talk of “indwelling” and “theosis” makes these folks feel more comfortable with Luther. But if the Lutheran understanding of these terms is fundamentally different than that of, say, the Orthodox, then I worry that this ecumenical strategy will produce consensus in terminology but not in understanding. And the result will be superficial agreements that nobody really adheres to.

Michael Root said...

Thomas (and certainly, in a blog entitled ‘Without Authority”, call me Michael),
The issue here is not so much ecumenism, as getting the faith straight, for which the primary and final norm is Scripture. When I read John and Paul (e.g., a chapter such as Romans 8), the mutual indwelling of Father, Son, and Spirit in the Christian and vice-versa seems decisive. The same holds true for what I think are the representative texts of Luther on justification, e.g., The Freedom of a Christian with its imagery of marital union, or Against Latomus with its emphasis on the gift of Christ. I agree; superficial agreements get us nowhere. My experience, however, is that ecumenical engagement frees us from the one-sidedness division brings with it and thus helps us better grasp the gospel.
I would have thought that “indwelling” was a relational category. I remain unconvinced that the dichotomy substance ontology vs. relational ontology helps us understand medieval theology or Luther. Luther was more philosophically traditional and the medievals far less flat-footed than this approach allows (remember that for most medieval theology, the persons of the Trinity are subsistent relations, i.e., they simply are the relations between them). In the dissertation he did under Mannermaa (“Gottes Wirken auf uns”), Risto Saarinen (who succeeded Mannermaa at Helsinki) argued that much 20th century Lutheranism was hindered precisely by its philosophical presuppositions from talking about Christ and the Christian in the way Luther (and, I would add, John and Paul) did. In the end, we need an ontology that helps to grasp that about which Scripture speaks.
At any rate, all I originally wanted to do was say that the Finns did indeed support the JDDJ as revised.

Thomas Adams said...

Michael -- Your points are well taken. I especially like your remark that the distinction between substance and relational ontologies is not absolute, and that "indwelling" can be viewed as a relational category. If regarded in that fashion, then I think the Finnish position is consistent with both Luther and Scripture.

I also agree wholeheartedly that ecumenical discussions help us get "the faith straight" and that they "free us from the one-sidedness division brings with it." We have a great deal to learn from each other, and I am certainly not advocating a narrow confessionalism. My only concern is with premature agreements that claim consensus where none really exists.

Thanks again for your valuable comments. Thomas

D.W. Congdon said...


I think if you are going to characterize the substance vs. relational ontology as inadequate to a characterization of either Luther or the Scholastics, then you should also recognize that the dichotomy between "as if" righteousness vs. "indwelling" righteousness is also overly simplistic. There are many modern Lutheran theologians who see the third option of making the justifying word ontologically effective in itself, so that humans are ontologically changed (Jüngel: brought into correspondence with God) by being taken outside of themselves to be with God. This extrinsicism is also truly relational.

The problem with trying to view "indwelling" as a relational category is that this misunderstands the purpose of speaking about relationality. Relational ontology is an anti-metaphysical metaphysic. In other words, it is still speaking about metaphysical properties, such as divine and human ontology, but it does so in a way that sharply differs from classical metaphysics, which spoke of properties that inhere in objects. Substance ontology is essentialism, in the sense that it defines objects according to properties that are internally essential to its nature. For example, a human person is essentially (naturally, inherently) rational, according to Aristotle and all his philosophical heirs. Relational ontology defines the human not according to what is intrinsic to him or her but according to what is extrinsic: other persons, particularly the Creator of all persons.

The language of "indwelling" by God, of "union with Christ" as Jenson, Mannermaa, et al define it, is metaphysical in the classical sense, in that it locates God within the believer as something is no longer extrinsic but not intrinsic. Of course, it is still somewhat relational in that a second party is involved, but all of the language is decidedly substantival -- and while speaking in terms of substance is classically faithful, it is theologically suspect in that it uncritically appropriates ancient philosophical categories that do not do justice to the biblical witness. A true relational ontology is indeed an ontology, and not an "as if" model of human personhood.

Also, because the Weimar edition of Luther's works is well over 100 volumes, it simply cannot suffice for Mannermaa and his followers to find proof texts in Luther that use indwelling imagery. Because Luther never wrote a systematic theology, Lutheran theology must remain committed in some way to the Lutheran confessions. To divide Luther from his closest companions and followers is disingenuous and assumes that a number of texts pulled from his diverse writings hundreds of years later is a more accurate interpretation of Luther than the one provided by the early Lutheran church. It is also ecumenically suspect. How can Mannermaa and others try to build bridges with the Orthodox and Catholic churches while breaking with their own?