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Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther
Review of book by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson by an Orthodox writer.

By Michael Plekon

Book: Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther by Carl E. Braaten & Robert W. Jenson, eds. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998, ix and 182 pp.

Reviewed by Michael Plekon in St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly - Volume 44, Number 1, 2000

Even in a time when there is so much turmoil in the ecumenical movement, conflicts within the WCC and NCC, protests from member churches, particularly criticism from the Orthodox churches and strong appeals for quitting ecumenical participation by the Orthodox, it is heartening to be able to point to something genuinely good, true and beautiful stemming from encounters among divided Christians. This excellent volume of essays by the recent or "new" Finnish Luther scholars is just such a find. As the dean and leader of these Finnish scholars, Tuomo Mannermaa of the Systematic Theology faculty of the University of Helsinki acknowledges, the dialogue between the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and the Russian Orthodox Church begun in the early 1970s was the impulse for much of these "new" Luther studies. The geographical proximity of the two nations was, however, not the only reason for the inception of the dialogue. The remarkable witness of the Orthodox Church in Finland under the leadership of the late Archbishop Paul as well as the vision of Lutheran Archbishop Martti Somojoki must also be credited. In order to talk to each other, divided Christians need to establish not only what they agree and disagree on, they must also find language that is mutually intelligible while at the same time faithfully conveying their understandings of the Truth. Lutherans, as Western Christians, have not used the language of theosis, most often translated as "deification" or "divinization," although in the Lutheran-Orthodox dialogues, the NT-derived term "glorification" has also been used. Likewise the churches of the East have not relied so profoundly on the conceptualities of St. Augustine or reacted to the Scholasticism of the mediaeval period as have Lutherans and Roman Catholics, for that matter, in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

As I understand it, the Finnish work is part of a larger, ongoing effort to "return to the sources" of the Reformation by Lutheran scholars, not only to Luther but to the equally, and some would say, ecclesiologically more interesting figure and work of Philip Melanchthon. It is not merely a matter of "labels" that some, such as David Yeago, speak of the rediscovery of the "catholic" Luther, apparently for most a contradiction in terms since he is caricatured as the "first Protestant" and the "great reformer." It would not be inaccurate to sum up this volume of Finnish studies as the effort to reveal Luther as a theologian within the Great Tradition of the undivided church, as a teacher of catholicity.

There are all too many points of theological division, real as well as imagined, between Lutherans and the Orthodox, many stemming back to earlier East-West differences and disputes after the great schism, but then to alleged further heresies by the Reformers. A close look at the sadly failed exchanges of letters between the Tübingen theologians and Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah II in the late 16th century (Augustine and Constantinople, ed. and trans. by George Mastrantonis [Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1982]) show that despite the Lutherans' extremist reformism at that point, there was yet much catholic faith in which there was agreement. The point of departure for the Finnish scholars was the understanding of salvation as theosis and their studies seek to uncover Luther's consistent conviction and proclamation that faith is a real participation or communion in Christ, not just the external or forensic divine action of justification by Christ's passion, death and resurrection, but the real dwelling in him, the "life in Christ" also typical of St. Paul's teaching, as well as the apt title later on, of Nicolas Cabasilas' important treatise on the sacramental union with Christ, the life of the Christian in the church, in the liturgy, in Christ Jesus.

The volume contains a lucid overview of the Finnish research in an introductory essay by Professor Mannermaa. Mannermaa himself then follows with an essay on how justification and theosis were studied and understood in the Lutheran-Orthodox dialogues as well as in the liturgical and theological lives of those churches. Further essays follow by Mannermaa's students, now colleagues at the theology faculty in Helsinki. Simo Peura bores into Luther's deeper grasp of justification as communion in Christ in two essays. Antti Raunio examines another aspect of Luther's thinking, namely the foundations of ethics in Luther's theological vision. Sammeli Juntunen contributes an article from his investigation of the philosophical underpinnings of Luther's theological work, in particular Luther's understanding of being and non-being. Finally, Risto Saarinen returns to the original location and impetus of this Luther scholarship, pursuing the basic convergence on soteriology or salvation in the various Lutheran-Orthodox dialogues: Finnish-Russian, the most advanced and one could say successful, the less productive, namely that among the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) and the Orthodox of the Moscow, Constantinople and Romanian Patriarchates, the American Lutheran-Orthodox dialogues and the international dialogue sponsored by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Readers will find a mix of results here, the most surprising and to the orthodox interesting are those which find theological unity where it counts most, that is, in liturgical texts. However, one must also expect stalemates and incomprehension, not only due to inability to translate terminology, such as theosis and justification, but also stemming from the centuries-old caricatures that divided Christians have created of each others' positions and practices. American Lutheran scholars were invited to contribute brief responses to the Finnish essays and these are for the most part perceptive and most helpful in clarifying the new understandings of Luther. I have in mind here those given by Professors Braaten and Jenson and Bishop William Lazareth. Only Professor Dennis Bielfeldt digs out Klas Schwarzwaller's dismissal of the Finn's entire project by ruling out theosis/communio as a central concern of Luther's theology, thereby accusing all the Finn's of reading their own desired theological perspectives into Luther, a worn-out scholarly criticism in my opinion, when there is little else to question in solid research.

It should be clear that this volume, however slim it might be in appearance, is anything like a facile, popular and therefore "quick read." Yet it is not just for specialists. The English translations of the Finn's essays are eminently accessible. Moreover, the Finnish scholars' work is most fascinating, for they are clearing up centuries of accumulated images of Luther, many of which were created by other philosophical and historical forces,all of them obscuring this controversial yet influential theologian. The great contribution that the Finns have made to the Finnish-Russian Lutheran-Orthodox dialogue should itself be an incentive to further follow their fine work here in this volume.


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Date Added: 1/5/2005 Date Revised: 1/5/2005 2:44:55 PM

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