Books In Review
Union With Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther.
Edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson. Eerdmans. 192 pp. $21 paper.
Reviewed by Ted Dorman
This brief but rich book introduces English–speaking scholars to ground–breaking research from Helsinki University that casts Martin Luther’s soteriology in a new light. The "new Finnish interpretation of Luther" finds the essence of his doctrine of salvation not in forensic justification—God declaring us just solely by virtue of Christ’s sacrifice—but in something more akin to the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis, or deification...
Mannermaa expounds the book’s thesis as follows: "According to Luther, Christ (in both his person and his work) is present in faith and is through this presence identical with the righteousness of faith. The idea of a divine life in Christ who is really present in faith lies at the very center of the theology of the Reformer." The forensic element in Luther’s doctrine of justification is thus viewed by the Finns as a function of his central emphasis on the believer’s actual participation in the divine life through union with Christ.
This in turn means, in the words of the book’s editors, that for Luther "righteousness as an attribute of God in Christ cannot be separated from his divine being. The righteousness of God that is ours by faith is therefore a real participation in the life of God." To ascribe such views to the German Reformer flies in the face of the German Protestant tradition, which has "notoriously read Luther under the spell of neo–Kantian presuppositions" that ignore "all ontology found in Luther" and instead define faith as "purely an act of the will with no ontological implications [such as the believer’s actual participation in the divine nature]."
Mannermaa cites the German philosopher Hermann Lotze as one such neo–Kantian culprit whose ontology denies the idea of "being in itself" in favor of the notion of things "standing in relationship" and having no real existence apart from the effects they have on each other. An epistemological corollary of Lotze’s ontology is that "things in themselves cannot be objects of human understanding, but only their effects." Lotze’s approach places an epistemological gap between knowledge of Christ’s person (object, being) and of his work (effects).
Luther, on the other hand, "does not distinguish between the person and work of Christ. Christ is both favor of God (forgiveness of sins, atonement, abolition of wrath) and gift (donum)." Faith means "justification precisely on the basis of Christ’s person being present in it as favor and gift."
The fact that "favor" and "gift" are inextricably connected means, as Puera’s essay notes, that the "gift" of spiritual renewal in Christ "is not only aconsequence of grace [favor], as is usually emphasized in Lutheran theology, but it is in a certain sense a conditionfor grace as well" (emphasis added). This notion of conditional grace (as opposed to modern Lutheran and Reformed emphasis on unconditional grace) springs from Luther’s rejection of late Scholasticism’s concept of "created grace." Whereas Scholasticism defined grace as "a quality, an accident adhering to the human being considered as substance," Luther sided with the interpretation of Peter Lombard, "who claimed that the Holy Ghost himself is the love (caritas) of a Christian." In this way Luther "does not separate God’s essential nature ontologically from the divine attributes effecting salvation."
Since for Luther "Christ . . . is present in faith and is through this presence identical with the righteousness of faith," it follows that the first commandment of the decalogue demands "trust and faith solely in the Trinity." This is because for Luther, "To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart." Puera therefore concludes that "the requirement to believe in God . . . is basically the same as the commandment to love God purely."
The new Finnish perspective on Luther offers a refreshing corrective not only to the post–Enlightenment dualism of German Lutheran scholarship, but also to neo–evangelical Protestantism’s tendency to define justification solely in forensic terms. It opens doors of ecumenical common ground by placing Luther’s thought within the context of classical Christian traditions that preceded the Reformation, as opposed to emphasizing Luther’s historically unprecedented notional distinction between Christ’s imputed righteousness (justification) and inherent righteousness (sanctification).
As Athanasius and later Martin Luther wrote, "For the Word becomes flesh precisely so that the flesh may become word. In other words: God becomes man so that man may become God."
Recently, a renewed re-examination of Lutheran thought has arisen which has appeared to find a vital connection between East and West. This modern research is coming for the most part out of Finland, at the University of Helsinki, and was begun initially by a growing dialogue between the Finnish Lutheran Church and the Russian Orthodox Church.  The work of Tuomo Mannermaa especially is influential in this developing and exciting study. Defining theosis as “the participation of the believer in the divine life of Christ”  Mannermaa examines Lutheran thought by contrasting what is truly Luther with later Lutheran developments. In the Formula of Concord, Mannermaa asserts that there was a separation of the justification of Christ and his indwelling,  with the idea of justification taking on purely a forensic declaration. In a study of Luther’s thought itself, however, Mannermaa finds no such distinction or separation finding rather that both the person and work of Christ are inseparable, with the forgiveness of sins resulting from the presence of Christ in the life of the believer.
Lutheran thought from its source does not imply a differing work, or a passive reception of a divine pronouncement of innocence. Rather, “central in Luther’s theology is that in faith the human being really participates by faith in the person of Christ and in the divine life and the victory that is in it.”  Salvation is more than forgiveness to Luther, it is also a sharing of the divine life, in all of its fullness, between God and man. By understanding Christ as both God’s favor and his gift, Mannermaa finds an affinity between this reformer and classic Eastern thought.  The favor points towards the forgiveness of God and his removing of his deserved wrath, but the idea of gift comes in that God does more than simply forgive, he also offers himself to the believer through the person and work of Christ. This gift of God allows the believer to hold within herself a treasure which makes the Christian “greater than the entire world”.  This is not a passive presence either, but rather a presence which allows us to partake in the divine nature and participate in the essence of God. 
By sharing it the presence of Christ, the believer begins to take on the properties of God, the characteristics which define what God does,  in an ever increasing manner so that a Christian will exhibit the same qualities of “righteousness, wisdom, power, holiness, joy, peace, eternal life – and especially love.”  In the development of this idea Luther even reflects the basic affirmations of the Orthodox understanding of theosis when he states, “Just as the word of God became flesh, so its is certainly also necessary that the flesh may become word. In other words: God becomes man so that man may become God.”  Christ is not simply an object of faith for Luther, but is the source, strength, and result of faith which is really present in the life of the believer enabling life in it fullest form.