One of the more familiar tropes of Roman Catholic historiography is the claim that the Reformation marked an immediate sea change in Christians’ understanding of salvation. On this account, a realist metaphysics of participation and transformation abruptly gave way to a nominalist, purely “forensic” account of the Christian life, in which God chooses arbitrarily to justify some sinners and promptly damns the rest. Absent from this vision is the prior framework of theosis, or the increasing conformity of human nature to the divine; God thereby becomes essentially alienated from the individual soul, and the world becomes a domain to be escaped rather than redeemed.
In his new book Union With Christ: Salvation as Participation, Lutheran theologian Jordan Cooper offers a powerful deconstruction of that narrative. No reductive nominalism for Cooper: Union With Christ deepens and builds upon his earlier Christification: A Lutheran Approach to Theosis and Prolegomena: A Defense of the Scholastic Method, in which he argued for a reading of Lutheran thought as subsisting in profound continuity with the metaphysical heritage of both the Latin and Eastern Christian traditions. Here, while the principal subject of Cooper’s book may appear to be the Eastern-influenced “New Finnish Interpretation of Luther” and its reception by Western confessional Lutherans, on a deeper level it is a constructive proposal for thinking about salvation that synthesizes the familiar “legal” language of justification with the oft-neglected language of “union with Christ.”
The “New Finnish Interpretation of Luther” is typically associated with the work of Luther scholar Tuomo Mannermaa, who has argued in recent decades that Luther’s own view of the Christian’s justification before God should primarily be understood as a “real-ontic” union of Christ’s person with the individual believer. The righteousness that inheres in the redeemed soul, is, then, Christ Himself.
Mannermaa’s proposal has drawn persistent controversy because of its close resemblance to the theology of Andreas Osiander, which was formally repudiated by the Formula of Concord in 1577—a document accepted as normative by confessional Lutherans to this day. Osiander’s critics argued that the Osiandrian view of justification tended to diminish the effect of the redemption accomplished by Christ’s perfect obedience in his human nature, and so made justification a matter of divine indwelling rather than actual atonement in time. Mannermaa himself, well aware of this history, straightforwardly advances a “hermeneutic of rupture” between Luther and the early Lutheran tradition: in Mannermaa’s framing, Lutheranism has abandoned the genius of its founder. For many confessional Lutherans in America, that has proven a sufficient reason to have nothing more to do with Mannermaa’s work. Justification is deemed to be exclusively forensic through-and-through.
By contrast, in Union With Christ Cooper advances a decidedly “scholastic” conception of union with Christ that constructively engages Mannermaa’s work, while revising it somewhat to account for the Osiandrian controversy and subsequent confessional development. Mannermaa’s proposal, after all, undoubtedly enjoys a richer metaphysical provenance than much of what passes for Lutheran theology today. Building on the foundation laid by this ongoing intra-Lutheran debate, Cooper argues that only an account of justification that incorporates the ancient categories of participation and divinization can do proper justice to the tradition handed down by confessional Lutheran thought’s founding fathers—Johann Gerhard, David Hollaz, C.F.W. Walther, and others.
Cooper expounds three (really, four) senses in which the Lutheran tradition has traditionally invoked the theme of “union with Christ.” First, and most straightforward, is the “general union”—that is, the metaphysical relation that always obtains between the contingent and the Absolute, ordered by the transcendent Logos of God, within which all things derive their essential being from God. The second stage is the “objective union” effected by the Incarnation, in which Christ’s divine nature is united to his human nature, and that allows for Jesus’s suffering and death to place humankind, universally and objectively, back into a right relationship with God. The third stage is the unio fidei formalis, or “formal union of faith,” by which Christ comes to dwell and be present in the hearts of individual Christians. And the fourth stage is the unio mystica or “mystical union,” the ever-deepening encounter with Christ in which the Christian is conformed to His image.
This multilayered understanding of “union with Christ” is attractively reminiscent of Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of epektasis, or the eternal journey into God of the redeemed soul. And it makes one wonder why this language has largely fallen out of view among contemporary confessional Lutherans—Cooper points the finger at post-Kantian philosophical presuppositions, and no doubt there is truth to this on an academic level, but it doesn’t quite explain how local churches went from a prior period of familiarity with the topic—where Walther could deliver sermons on the subject of union with Christ—to the present moment, where theosis is a virtually unknown concept even among lifelong Lutherans. Perhaps there is no ready answer, but a bit more on this point would’ve been helpful.
Above all else, though, the great strength of Cooper’s volume is its profoundly irenic orientation. Writers within the confessional Lutheran tradition have often been keen to define themselves by what they reject, but this is not Cooper’s disposition. Rather, he focuses on how the theological grammar of different traditions (such as the Reformed emphasis on “federal headship”) serves to expound complementary dimensions of a single soteriological reality. One can only wish that other writers would follow Cooper’s lead here.
And beyond that, Union With Christ is—for those interested in the topic—a theological resource well worth consulting for years to come. The breadth and depth of Cooper’s examination of the relevant literature is itself worth the price of the book: the volume’s coverage ranges from as-yet-untranslated works of seventeenth-century Lutheran scholastics all the way to recent doctoral dissertations and articles in confessional Lutheran periodicals. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a better overview of the state of present debates. While Union With Christ will undoubtedly be of primary interest to other members of Cooper’s tradition, intellectual historians of modernity would likewise do well to take Cooper’s arguments seriously. A Lutheran tradition with theosis at its heart does, after all, tend to complicate “standard stories” about the Reformation and the West.
John Ehrett is editor in chief of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.