Monday, June 18, 2007

"Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther"

This volume, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, publishes seven papers by Finnish scholars on the argument that Luther's teachings on the Christian's union with Christ dovetails nicely with the Orthodox notion of "deification."

First, I think that the topic of "union with Christ" is a great topic. In my own life, receiving what the Scriptures teach regarding our union with Christ in baptism and the Supper, have been integral to my understanding of who I am in Christ. I can scarcely fail to be overwhelmed with a deep sense of appreciation and of my own unworthiness (and of Christ's worthiness) when I meditate on these passages and what they mean.

In that sense, I appreciated the opportunity through the papers published in this book to consider some of Luther's meditations on this vital topic.

But the book's focus is much more pointed than a general consideration of Luther's view on our union with Jesus Christ. As Carl Braaten pointedly wrote, "In case of fundamental disagreement between Luther's theology and the Lutheran Confessions on an issue so crucial as justification, which is normative?" (p. 72)

So there's the rub. The thrust of the Finnish scholarship is that there are passages in Luther's (mainly early) theological work that could be taken to understand union with Christ as an aspect of justification itself rather than a result or implication of justification. Without putting too fine a point on it, and noting that I could be wrong, it seems to me that the upshot of the Finnish argument is that early Luther recognized justification as including something like an infusion of righteousness. And that, of course, is the problem, since Lutheran confessions pointedly distinguish justification from any infusion of righteousness or (as best I can tell) any ontological change in the believer. All of that follows justfication, but is not justification.

So, a couple of thoughts.

First, it seems to me worth noting that what motivates the Finnish scholars to make this argument isn't, as it were, an independent discovery of the theme in the writings of early Luther. Instead, the discovery was made in reflection of ecumenical discussions between Lutherans and the Orthodox. These scholars acknowledge their interest in this question results from their interest in, and desire to promote, ecumenism between Lutherans and the Orthodox.

I am, of course, not quite so naive to believe that theological discoveries are never birthed but by scholars seeking only to provide their best take on the internal coherence of a text. Very often, "outside events" force us to come to texts with a new set of questions or puzzles, and thereby illuminate or highlight different parts of a text or argument.

That being said, I also know that texts can be sifted with an eye not to explicating an author's thoughts or a text, but in order to bolster an extrinsic agenda no matter the fit of these selected texts with the broader text.

I do not know that the latter approach produced this book rather than the former. The authors and editors, however, are refreshingly honest about the agenda that prompted their interest in making this discovery in Luther's work.

Nonetheless, I would need a much more systematic argument (and evidence) regarding the centrality of this idea in Luther's work. Further, I'd also like to see evidence why these texts are located mainly in Luther's "early" works. Did Luther move to a more forensic notion of justification as his theology matured and he continued to reflect on Scripture and justification?

Finally, I would really hate to see "union with Christ" turned into some sort of suspect code words in Lutheran circles as a result of the Finnish agenda and their argument. The concept is too important, and the implications too profound, to have to waive them off. Indeed, I'd be quite happy with the impact of the book if it spurred confessional Lutherans to an intensified recognition of what union with Christ means for us in everyday life, and if it spurred us and our imaginations toward a greater recognition of how baptism and the Supper are the continuing grounds for the life that we receive from Jesus Christ.


Blogger CPA said...

I think you've put your finger exactly on it -- this early Luther is precisely the Luther the later Luther rejected (just as the early Augustine was big on free will and so on, but learned something after the conflict with the Pelagians.)

I wonder if any of their Orthodox dialogue partners wrote any thing about "forensic justification in the Greek fathers"?

June 21, 2007 8:18 AM  

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