"Christ Present in Faith: Luther's View of Justification" by Tuomo Mannermaa

John J. Bombaro
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Jan/Feb 2006

This book presents, for the first time in English, Tuomo Mannermaa's controversial publication regarding Martin Luther's understanding of faith and its relationship to justification, as well as the Christian life. Originally composed in Finnish as In ipsa fide Christus adest some 25 years ago, and available in German shortly thereafter, Christ Present in Faith has lost none of its value and force for contemporary Christological and soteriological discussions, especially within confessional Lutheran circles.

Indeed, there has been a mounting need for this work to appear in English due to the growing exposure and expanding influence of the so-called "Finnish School" of Luther commentators, spearheaded by Mannermaa himself. Regrettably, few findings by Mannermaa and his University of Helsinki colleagues and students have been translated into English, leaving many scholars, seminarians, and pastors without abilities in Finnish and/or German dependent on mediated appraisements. For such readers, and perhaps many others, this thin volume is a most welcome release.

It is also understandable that there would be some reticence from potential readers to engage this work because of its immediate association with ecumenical agendists. Mannermaa himself discloses the modus operandi of his project as an ecumenical search to find "a mutual theological point of contact" between the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and the Russian Orthodox Church (3). Subsequently, both within and without the Finnish School, there has been an overriding concern to establish the ecumenical significance of a new interpretation of Luther's theology of salvation. Burgeoning theologians such as Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen and established thinkers such as Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson have joined the ranks of Mannermaa's University of Helsinki protégés to argue the double platform that (a) the Orthodox idea of theosis ("divinization") is one of the main images of salvation in Luther's soteriology and, derivatively, (b) that the idea of union with God is the guiding soteriological motif in Luther; and they do so with an expressed interest to flatten the theological topography between Wittenberg and Byzantium. To be sure, this work arose out of ecumenical dialogue and its suggestive theses have been furthered largely under the auspices of ecumenical discovery, thereby raising the eyebrows of Book of Concord adherents, among others.

Still, even though In ipsa fide Christus adest owes its inception to 1977 Finnish-Russian theological discussions, its contents hold an independent and abiding merit. Confessional readers may freely engage, grapple, and benefit. Besides, Mannermaa and the Finnish School's arguments for ecumenism are not only tangential to the substance of his research in Christ Present in Faith, but they are also premature and somewhat contrived.

Beyond overstated issues of ecumenism (and to say nothing of efforts of the Finnish School to recast Luther as the archetypal Protestant "mystic"), Christ Present in Faith should not be confused with a work that places Luther or his ideas in historical context, neither is it concerned to explain what led (in the author's view) the Formula of Concord (1577) to articulate a doctrine of justification in strictly forensic categories contrary to Luther's own position, nor, indeed, why such a position other than Luther's own became entrenched within Lutheranism. Such things have been the focus of study for Mannermaa's students. Instead, this is a seminal work that charges the Formula of Concord with a definition of "justification by faith" that excludes the divine indwelling (inhabitatio Dei), thereby rendering it "a separate phenomenon, logically subsequent to justification" (4). Thus, the presence of Christ in faith is not the same phenomenon as the "righteousness of faith," but rather a consequence of the forgiveness of sins. The Finnish School sees issues related to the loss of Christian vitality in the pursuit of holy living, if not antinomianism itself, latent implications of this governing interpretation.

However, in the theology of Luther, explains Mannermaa, the relation between justification and the divine indwelling in the believer consists of the "righteousness of faith" permeated by Christological thinking. "[Luther] does not separate the person (persona) of Christ and his work (officium) from each other. Instead, Christ himself, both his person and his work, is the Christian righteousness, that is, the 'righteousness of faith'" (5). According to Mannermaa, Luther is incarnational in his theology even when it comes to justification by faith. "Christ-and therefore also his entire person and work-is really and truly present in the faith itself (In ipsa fide Christus adest)" (5). Established, mono-dimensional Melanchthonian formulations of imputation and forensic justification simply do not do justice to the entirety of Luther's multifaceted union-with-Christ-theology of justification.

At the heart of the matter, then, is a question about faith itself: Is it created or uncreated grace? Traditionally speaking, confessional Lutheran systematicians, such as the venerable J. A. Quenstedt and Francis Pieper, have routinely understood faith as a created grace. Pieper, for instance, rightly speaks of true faith as a divine gift "altogether wrought by supernatural power" (Christian Dogmatics, II, 428), yet understands that faith to be something "created" by the Holy Spirit, whether in infants or adults (II, 448, 461, 548, 552). But Mannermaa looks to Luther who, largely on the persuasive evidence of his Lectures on Galatians (1535), unequivocally posits faith as an uncreated grace. Christ comes to us in faith through the word of the gospel. He is not merely the object of faith but is faith itself. And to possess faith is to have union with Christ or, synonymously, to be regenerated, for regeneration consists of the gift of faith (29).

Mannermaa's launching point may be summarized by saying that, in Luther, regeneration is nothing other than the gift of the righteousness of faith or, which is to say the same thing, "participation in Christ," God's gift and favor, on account of whom we are justified. Thus, the sinner justified is not incidental to salvation, but the personal recipient of this windfall of grace, through a personal union with the Righteous One, Jesus Christ.

But what of imputation? Can Mannermaa's interpretation stand up to Luther's unmistakable statements about imputed righteousness from his commentary on Romans and sermons on Two Kinds of Righteousness? It would appear so. Mannermaa does not duck Luther's strong statements on the imputation of Christ's alien righteousness, but rather he embraces them as strongly complementary and necessarily tethered to the notion of Christ present in faith.

Mannermaa's research achieves its most significant (and controversial) contribution to Luther scholarship on justification on these two questions: "To what extent is a Christian really made righteous in justification, and to what extent is justification merely an imputation, in which the sinner is declared righteous?"

According to Luther, "there are two factors constituting Christian Righteousness," namely, the "faith in the heart" and the "imputation of God." They relate to each other in the following way, to give a preliminary definition: faith is, in itself, a real righteousness (fides est iustitia formalis), even though it is, on the other hand, only initial righteousness. Namely, because faith is "weak," believers still have much sin in their "flesh," in their "old Adam." Because of these remaining sins it is necessary for justification that God "imputes" the righteousness of Christ to Christians (55).

So while acknowledging that we simultaneously are partly and totally a sinner and partly and totally righteousness in God's sight, Mannermaa suspends "imputation" as the determining aspect of justification and begins, instead, with the "real" righteousness of faith, the faith in which Christ is present, and then follows with imputation as the necessary counterpart to justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. In other words, in conjunction with union with Christ, imputation is necessarily enjoined because of the believer's "old Adam."

In this view of justification, God affects not merely a change in status by way of declaration and imputation, but at the same time a whole new life, inspired by Christ and permeated with his presence.

The most immediate implication of this "new" interpretation of Luther pertains to Christian living. Mannermaa asserts, from Luther, that Christ as our sanctification is affective and suffused, that Christ acts in us to do works of righteousness, none of which we can boast of as our own, as well as transform our hearts. Lutherans need not fear to do good works or preach the value of good works to Christians justified by faith in Christ's imputed (though present) righteousness. Thus, Mannermaa has reawakened, in a remarkable way, dual themes of the presence of Christ in the believer and the power of the Spirit of Christ to bring about holiness through good works, and, in the struggle against the desires of the flesh, themes that are central for many evangelicals.

Yet, this commendation of Christ present in faith also comes with several concerns, some of which are more serious than others. One of greater concern is the clearly overplayed divinization aspect and its approximation with theosis in chapter 5 ("Through Faith One Becomes God"). Mannermaa is not entirely persuasive when he explains that when Christ comes to live in us and make us one with God that "we become, in a sense, gods" (8, 42, 43ff), despite this and other quotes from Luther. One is more likely to find that the reformer's understanding of participation in God weakly stresses transformation through progressive sanctification, but strongly stresses "God's indwelling" or "inhabitation" in his people (WA 4:280, 2-5) and, especially when it comes to the righteousness of faith in that regard, imputation. To be sure, Mannermaa's claims on faith and justification have and will continue to prove useful in reading Luther texts, but whether theosis captures the whole of Luther's soteriology and theory of Christian ethics is a claim that neither Mannermaa nor his Finnish School compatriots have convincingly defended. In truth, Luther's massive written corpus is far too complex in its theological diversity and rhetorical style to be domesticated under a single rubric. A genius of Luther's rare stature eludes all such attempts at reductionism.

Additionally, as Kurt Marquart has indicated, Mannermaa instigates a false dichotomy between Luther's "theosis" and forensic justification, which has resulted in the Finnish School minimizing or denying Luther's distinction between justification and sanctification. Consequently, it remains a highly contentious issue as to whether Luther's own understanding of Christ present in faith-in both vocabulary and theological shape-actually fits Orthodox understandings of salvation and justification as encapsulated by the doctrine of theosis. The fact is Luther is not altogether lucid concerning the precise nature of divinization (i.e., human participation in the divine life). To his credit, Mannermaa does cite Luther's admission that such things are beyond description (57) and that, though Luther says some kind of progress can take place in the Christian because faith means the beginning of a real transformation, progressive sanctification never leads to perfectionism and may only always be a "beginning" (67). Therefore, one must neither make spiritual growth a determining factor in justification nor a terminal point for Christian assurance. Our bodily resurrection is necessary to translate us into Christ's Last Adam likeness. But, on the other hand, Mannermaa does his work a disservice by coordinating Luther's preferred indistinct phraseology regarding divinization with definitive categories of theosis. Such a move appears exaggerated, even artificial, if not by Mannermaa, then certainly by editor Kirsi Stjerna, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, and other Finnish School proponents. There is ambiguity and incongruity between the Western notions of divinization and Eastern ideas of theosis, between Martin Luther and, say, John of Damascus. Not enough to dismiss, let alone ignore, Mannermaa's central thesis and many of its implications, but enough to accentuate and assert Luther's Western distinctives, especially when it comes to sanctification. For Luther, imputation is the last word on the life of a Christian. The accent falls on the cross not divinization.

Finally, chapter 9 ("The Sighing of the Spirit") curiously obscures the aforementioned objective justification and Mannermaa's treatment of the second of the "two kinds of righteousness." There the author argues that the Holy Spirit helps Christians by crying to Christ within themselves (73). His quote from Luther, however, has the Spirit crying within our hearts, but clearly to our heavenly Father "in" or "through" Christ. Later, in a final chapter that underscores the necessity of the logocentric means of grace for the life of faith, Mannermaa corrects himself but does not reconcile "The Sighing of the Spirit" with the present Christ and the objective basis and means for holiness-word and sacrament. Notwithstanding, the author's vision concerning sanctification is not irreconcilable with established, confessional Lutheranism. "Holiness," concludes Mannermaa, "means that in the middle of the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit Christians turn again and again-with the strength given to them by the Spirit and in prayer for forgiveness-to the objective reality that is outside them and makes them holy. This reality is Christ himself, the favor and gift of God. He is the objective but at the same time also the subjective basis for holiness (86). Such objectivity commendably keeps the eye of faith from introspection and firmly fixed on the risen Lord who comes to us in the gospel means of grace.

If Finnish scholarship can harness their application of Luther's concept of divinization and not allow it to be swallowed up by a rather incompatible Eastern understanding nor, indeed, pave a course to the return of pietism, then, beginning with Mannermaa, they will have performed a laudable service through their landmark presentation of the new reality in Christ which constitutes the heart of Luther's spirituality, as well as resolved longstanding imprecision regarding the relationship between the "righteousness of faith," justification, and regeneration.

Luther is the sixteenth-century apostle of justification by faith. Any statement directly challenging the Formula of Concord's entrenched interpretation of Luther on the article of justification would seem to be antithetical to Lutheran orthodoxy and therefore Luther himself. But not so. In eighty-eight pages of text (plus footnotes), Mannermaa makes a compelling argument about Luther's preferred statements on faith and justification that need to be reconciled with, if not the limitations codified by the Formula of Concord, then subsequent generations of confessional Lutheran systematicians. How this tension may be resolved is not yet certain, though perhaps further research may confirm that sixteenth-century usage of terms like "regeneration" and "sanctification" was not fixed but mutable.

Insofar as he is correct about Luther "Concerning the Righteousness of Faith before God" (leaving aside his strained presentation of theosis), then strong consideration must be given by his English-reading audience to either verify his findings and incorporate them into Lutheran dogmatics and seminary curriculums or, alternatively, collate a massive refutation. Whichever may be the case, this book cannot be ignored by confessional Lutherans or, indeed, by anyone who looks to this reformer as a champion of justification by faith alone.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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