Monday, May 15, 2006

Christ, Our Righteousness

I said in a previous post, "the key insight of the Reformation was that Christ is our righteousness." Some interesting discussion followed along the lines of just how far the word "our" could be stretched here.

In the new Finnish interpretation of Luther, this idea that Christ is our righteousness is pushed to its uttermost limits. In saying that Christ is present in faith itself, the Finns are claiming that our standing with God is a result of the presence of Christ in and with (and under?) the believer. The believer is treated as righteous by God because the believer, finally, is Christ.

This is taken to have some connection to the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. Athanasius said, "God became man so that man might become God." Luther said (in his lectures on Galatians), "Faith makes a man God."

One of the big difficulties with the Finnish position is that it requires us to believe that while Luther held these pseudo-Orthodox beliefs, they immediately disappeared with nary a trace in susequent Lutheranism. But there is one trace. Tuomo Mannermaa in Christ Present in Faith points to the Osiandrian Controversy.

For those without an obbsession with 16th century Lutheran dogmatics, the Osiandrian Controversy was one of the disputes meant to be settled by the Formula of Concord. Andreas Osiander disliked the idea of imputed justification. Against this idea, Osiander taught that God actually makes a Christian just through the indwelling of Christ. He was apparently opposed in this by everyone from Phillip Melancthon to Martin Chemnitz. The controversy is addressed in Article III of the Formula of Concord.

According to Mannermaa, the Formula got it wrong and thus led to the disjunction between Luther and later Lutheranism.

But Article III of the Formula of Concord provides some interesting material for reflection, particularly with regard to my claim above that "the key insight of the Reformation was that Christ is our righteousness."

In the Epitome, the FC does state clearly that "Christ alone is our Righteousness" (Article III, paragraph 1), but it is concerned with the question of what this means. This article rejects the idea that either Christ is our righteousness only according to his divine nature (the view attriubuted to Osiander) or that Christ is our righteousness only according to his human nature. The article says that Christ is our righteousness according to both natures, but then it adds "in His obedience alone." That is, it is our righteousness consists in have Christ's obedience imputed to us. At the risk of having my Lutheran membership card taken away, I'm not sure I buy this.

The Formula claims that "our righteousness before God is [this very thing], that God ... presents and imputes to us the righteousness of Christ's obedience." This has solidified into dogma in some circles. For instance, Reformed teacher Michael Horton can be heard to propound that we are saved by works, but we are saved by Christ's works not our own, Christ having fulfilled the "covenant of works" which Adam did not. This strikes me as very non-Lutheran (which is fine for Dr. Horton), but this section of the FC would seem to support it.

On the other hand, this same article of the FC-Ep says that "faith alone is the means and instrument whereby we lay hold of Christ, and thus in Christ of that righteousness which avails before God." Now this I like, and I think it has much ressonance with the Finnish idea.

The idea that we are accounted as righteous because Christ's obedience is imputed to us strikes me as theological bookkeeping. I dare say it is a theology of glory sneaking into the Lutheran confessions and becoming dogma. Against this, I much prefer the proclamation that in faith we "lay hold of Christ."

I confess to being somewhat wary of the language of Christ being present in me. There's a problem of scale here. I know that in the Sacrament we see that the finite is capable of bearing the infinite, but there would seem to be a danger here of slipping into what Mark Allan Powell calls "the image of the Microscopic Jesus" -- the idea that I may have "a very tiny Jesus inside me (sitting on that throne in my heart)." Or, much worse, the idea lends itself to the gnostic idea of a "divine spark" within each of us.

I prefer, instead, the perspective of finding myself in Christ (Col. 3:3). But I think this amounts to the same thing as the Finnish idea. And so, I would like to say (against the Formula of Concord) that our righteousness before God is this very thing, that we are found in Christ and Christ in us.


Thomas Adams said...

Mel -- I interpret the notion of "laying hold of Christ" to be another way of expressing the extra nos element of justification. A person can only "lay hold" of something that exists outside of themselves. But the Finns insist on talking about an “indwelling” of Christ, which is inconsistent with both the Formula of Concord and Luther. So, while I agree with most of your post, I fail to see how the concept of laying hold of Christ “amounts to the same thing as the Finnish idea.”

Tom in Ontario said...

Maybe I've missed it in earlier posts but just what and where is this new Finnish Lutheran theology? Is this something new, something recently published? Is it something the Finnish Lutheran Church has sponsored are are you talking about a/some Finnish theolgian(s) bringing some new insights to Lutheranism. Maybe I'm out of the loop but I'm not up on what you're talking about.

Andy said...


Surprisingly, there's no Wikipedia article on this. Maybe I'll fix that later. Anyway, in short, the Finnish interpretation of Luther is the product of research done by Tuomo Mannermaa in support of the Finnish-Russian Orthodox dialogue. Their approach has been to "take seriously" the ontological things Luther says when he talks about the presence of Christ in the believer. Specifically, they've latched onto a statement by Luther that "Christ is present in faith itself" and they claim Luther was saying that it is on the basis of the present Christ that we are justified. You can read a little more here.

Andy said...


This would seem to be a difference in approach between you and I (and the authors of the Formula). From J√ľngel's approach to justification, "laying hold of Christ" would indicate something extra nos because, as you say, you can only lay hold of something outside yourself. But I'm looking at it from another angle (which I believe is consonant with the Finn's), namely that when you "lay hold" of something (someone!) you possess it.

If by faith I lay hold of Christ, then in faith I have laid hold of Christ. Now from a physical point of view we naturally distinguish between me and what I am holding. But if I am holding Christ in faith, the distinction is different. I cannot grasp Christ without simultaneously being grasped by him. And this is the presence of Christ in faith of the Mannermaa school.

I don't think these two views are at this point necessarily contradictory.

Now it could probably be shown that the framers of the Formula of Concord did not intend this in the sense I have described here, but I would respond that in using this language of "laying hold of Christ" they are echoing Luther, and so while their intent is of confessional interest, their words may be able to hold more weight than they intended.

Tom in Ontario said...

I sent one of my seminary professors an email asking about all of this, whether he taught us any of this and I slept through it, or whether he didn't, in fact, teach us about this.

He said he doesn't teach it in the Introduction to Christian Doctrine course (which I did take since it's a 1st year required course) but he does in his Theology of Luther course (which I didn't take). He also said he doesn't talk about theosis unless there happens to be an Orthodox student in the class.

I do recall him defining faith, not as belief, but as the presence of Christ by the Holy Spirit which sounded something like the Finns to me. He agreed and says he gets it from the same place: Luther. His only caution about linking this to theosis is that theosis can be understood (though not necessarily) as us ascending to God through mystical exercises which is more Gnostic than Christian. Luther's "Affirmation of the Ordinary" leads us to true humanity rather than junior divinity. As long as theosis is understood as the incarnate Christ being truly present in the disciple community which is the body of Christ in the ordinary world today and is being conformed to Christ by the Spirit, then no problem.

D.W. Congdon said...


I know you want to see more similarity than difference between the two positions, but for the sake of theological clarification, we need to highlight the differences. Of course, we've discussed this in the past, but for the sake of further dialogue I will bring them up again.

1. Mannermaa says that we "lay hold of Christ," whereas Juengel says that "Christ lays hold of us, and takes outside of ourselves to be with God." Mannermaa's model is anthropocentric; Juengel's is theocentric, or more specifically christocentric. Question to consider: whose action effects justification? Is it the believer who "lays hold of Christ" or God's sovereign act of grace in takings us extra nos to be with God?

2. Mannermaa works with a faulty understanding of theosis, or at least twists it to accord with Luther in a way that is acceptable neither to the Orthodox or to confessional Lutherans. Theosis for the Orthodox is a way of making the mortal immortal; in other words, theosis addresses the issue of our mortality and finitude. In divinization, we are given a share in God's immortal divine life.

Mannermaa makes a very questionable move by viewing theosis in light of the communicatio idiomatum. By doing this, he makes the argument that all divine attributes are given to humanity. This is a massive distortion of what Luther actually says, "We are to be human and not divine." There are plenty of valid interpretations of Luther's seemingly Orthodox statements. The idea of Christ being present in faith does not necessitate the interpretation that all the divine attributes are attributed to humans who are "in Christ" through faith.

3. The major difference between Juengel and Mannermaa is that the former is dogmatically explicating the faith in accordance with the tradition and, primarily, according to what revelation demands; the latter is interpreting Luther on the basis of an ecumenical goal. The impetus behind Mannermaa is ecumenical, not theological; that is, his work is the product of engagement with Orthodox theology, not the attempt to give Luther a proper and theologically necessary reading. The question is whether an interpretation like what Mannermaa offers is valid simply because it has ecumenical import -- as is clear from the JDDJ.

My contention is: No. Ecumenism can only have integrity if the theological positions put forward are themselves faithful to their traditions and to the demands of their theological conditions (i.e., their hermeneutical categories). Juengel is as faithful as can be. Mannermaa, from what I have read, is not.