Tuomo Mannermaa on Union with Christ & the Christian life

What is the relationship between the believer’s union with Christ and his or her obedience to Christ’s teaching?

Our answer to that question is incredibly important not only for retaining the gracious character of the Gospel, but our language of salvation and Christian obedience says a great deal as well about our theology of the Christian life.

Toward sparking some discusson about the relationships we form between our theology of salvation and the Christian life, let’s consider the controversial (to some) reinterpretation of Martin Luther by the Finnish scholar Tuomo Mannermaa. As I have read, and reread, Mannermaa’s interpretation of Luther, I can’t figure out how Mannermaa’s theology of union with Christ doesn’t completely obscure the role of the Spirit in the Christian life. Consider the following from Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification:

The logic of [Luther’s] thinking is as follows: In faith, human beings are really united with Christ. Christ, in turn, is both the forgiveness of sins and the effective producer of everything that is good in them. Therefore “sanctification” – is, in fact, only another name for the same phenomenon of which Luther speaks when discussing the communication of attributes, the happy exchange, and the union between the person of Christ and that of the believer. Christ is the true subject and agent of good works in the believer, as illustrated for example, by the following passage:

“‘There is a double life: my own, which is natural or animate; and an alien life, that of Christ in me. So far as my animate life is concerned, I am ded and am now living an alien life. I am not living as Paul now, for Paul is dead.’ ‘Who then is living?’ ‘The Christian.’ Paul, living in himself, is utterly dead through the Law but living in Christ, or rather with Christ living in him, he lives an alien life. Christ is speaking, acting, and performing all actions in him” (Lectures on Galatians (1535), Luther’s Works 26:170) (p. 49-50).

Related to Christian obedience, then, Mannermaa concludes:

Christ, is, thus, the true agent of good works in the Christian…Because of the Christians’ union with Christ, his or her works are works of Christ himself…In this argumentation Luther’s view of Christian’s as ‘Christ’s to their neighbors’ finds its ontological realization. Luther argues that Christ who is present in faith becomes, as it were, incarnate in Christian’s works (p. 50)

Mannermaa’s larger argument, in brief, is that the strict distinction between justification and sanctification that has come to characterize later Lutheran theology is not at all a central or constitutive distinction in the theology of Luther himself. On Mannermaa’s reading, following the Formual of Concord the mainstream Lutheran tradition has incorrectly separated the remission of sins (justification) on the one hand and the inhabitation of God in the believer (sanctification) on the other. Mannermaa contends, instead, that Luther’s view of justification actually has deification right at the center of it. On this reading, justification is a godly act of divinization that changes a person’s relationship with God ontologically (one’s essence) and thereby shifts talk about one’s ‘declared’ righteousness and forgiveness to talk about one being ‘made righteous’ and holy. So, contends Mannermaa, ‘the doctrine of justification and the idea of sanctification constitute one whole in Luther’s theology’ (p. 46).

So back to your original issue: How we frame salvation impacts how we speak of the Christian life. This is definitely true for Mannermaa because when I read Christ Present in Faith, his Orthodox/Lutheran view of union with Christ is doing all the work and the Spirit is conspicuously absent. How Mannermaa’s theology of union (whether or not this is Luther’s as well I will leave an open question), leaves any room for the work of the Spirit in the Christian life is a question that seems to be an open one concerning his proposals.

Thoughts? Reactions? If I have read Mannermaa wrong, I’m happy to be enlightened.


6 thoughts on “Tuomo Mannermaa on Union with Christ & the Christian life

  1. Thanks for this,
    Regarding your concern that the Spirit is excluded from the picture, I wonder if the simple notion of Christ performing the work through us by His Spirit will alleviate that concern? The Spirit, after all, is (of course) the ‘Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ – or ‘the spirit of Jesus’ (not to mention the ‘spirit of your Father in heaven’)… :)

  2. Yes Dave, I think you are right. And if you are going to make the moves Mannermaa does regarding union as deification (theosis), then you will need to make sure that a strong account of the cooperation of the Spirit with the Son runs very close to the surface.

    Perhaps, soteriologies that trade heavily on union with Christ as deification can likely still make much of the Spirit in the Christian life if (and this is something I don’t see in Mannermaa’s treatment of Justification) it is regulated and disciplined by a robust doctrine of God and the Trinity.

  3. It’s DaLe, and thanks… :) (no worries!)
    Indeed, I suppose one of the challenges for theologians is that you kind of have to say everything you believe all of the time, or people will (rightly/wrongly) suspect you’re leaving something out.

  4. Da’l’e, your comment about having to “say everything you believe all of the time, or people will (rightly/wrongly) suspect you’re leaving something out” actually made me laugh out loud! I don’t think you are off your rocker at all, rather that is a real challenge that can become completely debilitating and prevent some from saying anything at all. Maybe if I let you into my thinking a bit it will help you see where I am coming from.

    When I reflect on a doctrinal interpretation such as Mannermaa’s I actually have preaching in the back of my mind. I am thinking about how the decisions we make doctrinally influence our proclamation of the Gospel – such as how we talk about the Son and the Spirit relative to salvation and the Christian life. What is motivating me then isn’t so much my desire that Mannermaa say everything all the time (an impossible task) but that what he gains in his interpretation of union with Christ may entail certain losses regarding his capacity to talk meaningfully about the Spirit. So, instead of saying Mannermaa’s doctrine of justification is bankrupt I am simply trying to walk through the process of assessing theological and doctrinal gains and losses that attend his position and which will inevitably influence our preaching on salvation and the Christian life.

    Does that make sense?

  5. Ha – I should fess up – I stole that comment about ‘having to say everything all the time’ from N.T. Wright. :)

    But yeah, I’m totally with you on how theological posture influences gospel proclamation (I just came up with that – really…) :) … Your talk of gains and losses is a very helpful way of talking about it. Cheers!


  6. I think Manermaa raises some very good points, especially as his work shows how Lutherans can talk about sanctification as a work of God in Christ, and avoid Calvinistic notions. And, we would paint with a pretty broad brush, to simply write off his theology in whole. Someone as focused on the Person of Christ cannot be accused of a bankrupt theology. Perhaps we should recall that Manermaa certainly is not teaching anyone to believe that they can “by their own reason or strength” with some “merit or worthiness in them” earn salvation.

    All that said, Justification is a Forensic act. Manermaa seems to forget the objective nature of this. Even if we say He is completely right about the ontological presence of Christ int he believer, in faith, is it not still true that any union with Christ can only happen because God has chosen to set his wrath at rest. Objectively, prior to any “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5), God has chosen to no longer recon sinners, but instead to deliver them life in Christ. Again, this does not diminish the Christocentric nature of the Christian life, but must not even Manermaa recognize, that one’s being united to Christ, assumes, presupposes, that God has chosen to cease accusing with the Law, and rather to reconcile Himself. Perhaps Manermaa has given us some great insight into how we can speak of subjective justification, and sanctification in the Christian life; but nonetheless, objective justification is still a forensic act. Manermaa doesn’t seem to give an account of this.

    Perhaps the greatest danger is to pit subjective-union with Christ, against forensic justification. Why not simply say that the act of totally free divine iniative, which even a Meyendorf or Schmeman recognizes, is objective justification, the ground of any theosis? The two do not have to be in opposition. Surely, only God is true and righteous; if he makes us true and righteous, He makes us to be as He is (1 John); but that act is not exclusive of His objective decision from all eternity, to cease counting our sins against us, and rather to deliver us the ministry of reconciliation in His Son. Hence, “where the Word of God is, there is ‘life’ AND ‘salvation’…

    Objective justification is not a contradiction of theosis, but rather the ground thereof.

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