New Finnish Luther and Barth Interpretation?

Recently, I have been reading about the Finnish Luther Interpration. The last three decades a new Luther interpretation has been born in Finland. The founder of this line of interpretation, Tuomo Mannermaa, claims an alternative understanding of Luther’s writings. Instead of reading him as the advocate of an forensic concept of justification, Mannermaa holds him to be a theologian for whom concepts like the union with God, conceived as a union of being, and the (real-ontic) indwelling of Christ are at least equally important. In an article, titled ‘The Study of the Fundamentals of Martin Luther’s Tuomo MannermaaTheology in the Light of Ecumenism’, he introduces his findings. Besides his own work, he mentions the work of others in his trail. They have paid attention to the question why the interpretation of Luther became so fixated upon a forensic understanding of his doctrine of justification. Mannermaa’s colleagues and pupils (Simo Kiviranta; Risto Saarinen; Eeva Martikainen) detected and documented the massive influence of the German theologians Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) and Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922). Mannermaa summarizes their findings into two lines of thoughts (quotations are given without reference to page or paragraph numbers, because they are lacking in the original (internet) source).

  1. The first is the ‘transcendental-ethical justification of religion’. The crucial distinction in this regard is that between ‘person’ and ‘nature’. “As ‘nature’ the human being is part of mechanical causality and belongs to the domain of theoretical reason. As ‘persons’, however, human begins are beyond nature because of their will, that is, because of their practical reason, which sets values.” In the light of this distinction it is illegitimate to speak about theosis as a union of being. Mannermaa once again: “I do not think that the reach of the influence that the transcendental-ethical justification of religion has had upon the later understanding of Christian faith can be overestimated. One example of the outcome of this influence is German theologian Adolf von Harnack’s (1851-1930) conception of the history of dogma, and his negative appraisal of the doctrine of divinization.” I find myself in full agreement with Mannermaa.
  2. The second hermeneutical tradition that according to Mannermaa has contributed to a mere forensic interpration of Luther’s doctrine of justification goes back to Ritschl as well. Ritschl adopted from the ontology of Hermann Lotze (1817-1881), German philosopher, “the idea that God can be known only in the acts (Akten) of God’s effects (Wirkungen) on human beings. According to Ritschl (and here he differs from Lotze), the origin of these effects, as well as their ontological nature an sich, remains unknown. From this selective adoption of Kant’s and Lotze’s positions arises actualism, ‘Aktualismus’, which has had a significant influence on the understanding of both revelation and the concept of the word in dialectical theology.”

So far, I’ve been chiefly quoting Mannermaa’s article. He points out how these two ‘hermeneutical traditions’, as he calls them, influenced the interpretation of Luther. But, as we saw, they had a profound impact on the development of Karl Barth’s theology and that of other representatives of dialectical theology. The first line of thought can be traced in Barth’s resistance against any form of theosis/deification (unlike T.F. Torrance, who was in this regard deeply influenced by the church fathers). The second line of thought is recognizable in Barth’s so called ‘actuallism’. Though it’s quite difficult to fully clarify what Barth is aiming at (this post on Out of Bounds might help you), it seems clear that Barth endorses the thesis that God can only be known in his acts, that is in history. All knowledge of God is determined by His revelation in Jesus Christ. So, there is no way to speak about God (and his being) apart from his acts in history. If this is correct, it shows that Barth not only criticized Enlightenment philosophical thoughts, but was deeply influenced by them as well. In short, the findings of the Finns are worth to be applied to the interpretation of Barth as well, although I’m certainly not an expert on Barth. You might call it a new Finnish Barth Interpretation.

But is it as new as it seems to be? As early as 1907, the Dutch theologian Isaäc van Is. van DijkDijk refuted Harnack’s thesis that: “Dogma in its conception and development is a work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the Gospel” (History of Dogma I (1885; transl.1894), p.17. Instead, Van Dijk wrote: “Dogma is in its conception and development a word of the Christian spirit with Greek resources” (Gezamelde geschriften (1917), p.327). A few years later, in 1921, a pupil of Van Dijk, Maarten (!) van Rhijn wrote a short book with studies on Luther’s doctrine of justification (Studiën over Luther’s rechtvaardigingsleer). In the first essay he points out that the forensic interpretation of the doctrine of justification is due to later developments (e.g. the conflict between Melanchton and Osiander). For Luther, writes Van Rhijn, justification implies the ‘self-M. van Rhijn (jong2)communication of God, by the indwelling of Christ in the sinner’s life’ (p.35). So, this book anticipates in a certain sense the Finnish Luther interpretation. But Van Rhijn has also a keen eye for the development in Luther’s theology. He observes that in Luther’s first period (up to 1517) the idea of ‘Christ in us’ was the dominant theme, whereas after 1517 the thought of ‘Christ for us’ became more important. And that fits perfectly with an often made criticism with regard to the Finns, that their ‘new’ interpretation can only be held in the light of the early works of Luther, but falters with regard to his later works. How that may be, both the New Finnish Luther interpretation and its critics seem to be anticipated by the Old Dutch interpretation.

Hans Lassen Martensen: Kierkegaard’s opponent

Recently, May 5th, it was 200 years ago that the famous Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was born. Kierkegaard is still widely read and his birthday has been celebrated, also in the blogosphere. For example at Jason Goroncy’s blog Per Crucem ad Lucem, with a guest post of Andrew Torrance. Kierkegaard is well-known for his fiery attacks on thJacob Peter Mynstere church of his days, especially in its official forms. For Kierkegaard the embodiment of all the wrongs in the church of his days was Hans Lassen Martensen (1808-1884). Martensen was lecturer and later professor in theology in Copenhagen. But in 1854 he became bishop in Zealand, as successor of Jacob Peter Mynster (1775-1854), who had just died that same year. In fact, the eulogy of Martensen upon Mynster became the immediate cause of the quarrel between Kierkegaard and Martensen.

Martensen called Mynster a witness of truth. Interestingly enough, Kierkegaard’s father had been befriended with Mynster. But Kierkegaard  was neverthelessSoren Kierkegaard very critical on the theology of Mynster and Martensen. In Kierkegaard’s opinion both Mynster and Martensen were deeply influenced by the contemporary idealistic philosophies of Hegel and Schelling. He detested their tendency to mysticism and speculative theology. Kierkegaard opted for a personal (some may call it ‘existential), critical and ethical way of life. The christian faith is to be lived out in concrete and responsible commitments. Only then you can properly speak about being a witness of truth. The Danish Church lacked, in his opinion, the faith to be such a witness. And hence his fiery criticitisms of Mynster and Martensen. Kierkegaard died shortly after the launch of his attacks on the speech of Martensen, in 1855.

What to think about these opponents of Kierkegaard? Recently, I bought and read (parts of) Martensen’s Christian Dogmatics. He wrote this work in 1849 in Danish (Den christelige Dogmatik). The English translation (1866) of the book is based upon his own German translation. Not only Kierkegaard was critical, in general the reception of Martensen has been pretty dismissive. He has been said to be very speculative, a mediation theologian (Vermittlungstheologie) and not to be an original thinker. The reading of this book, however, surprised me in a positive sense. Let me give three illustrations of that.

1. Although Martensen certainly seems to be indebted to the philosophies of his days, he is critical in his adherence as well. He is arguing not only with Hegel or Schelling, but also with Schleiermacher. He is critical on the tendency in their systems of thought to a form of pantheism. Martensen argues that the christian faith in a personal God, is not compatible with any form of pantheism. So, he develops a way of understanding our knowledge of God, by falling back on the (classical) notion of ‘con-science’. That however, does not imply an uncritical appeal to revelation as source of inviolable knowledge. The content of revelation is open to human (dialectial) reasoning and argumentation. In short, Martensen tries to find a middle course between the subjectivism and objectivism of his days.

2. In his Christian Dogmatics Martensen frequently touches at the old discussions between lutherans and calvinists. For instance, as he deals with sacramental theology, his sympathy is with the lutheHans Lassen Martensenran camp. Throughout the book, he appears to be  especially critical on the calvinistic version of predestination. But that’s not all that has to be said. Surprisingly for a Lutheran, he insists on the continuance of the eternal Logos alongside the incarnate Logos, which seems to imply an acceptance of the so-called doctrine of the ‘extra-calvinisticum’. He seems to have been a ‘mediation theologian’  (Vermittlungstheologe) in more than one respect. In this light, we begin to understand why his thoughts were so deeply despised by Kierkegaard, whose thought was characterized by paradoxes.

3. The contrast between Kierkegaard and Martensen strikes the eye particularly in Martensen’s articulation of the motivation for the Incarnation. Martensen is, to use a phrase coined by Marilyn McCord Adams, an ‘Incarnation anyway’ theologian. He holds – as many theologians in the 19th century in Schleiermacher’s trail do – that Christ would have become incarnate, even if the Fall wouldn’t have happened. What arguments does Martensen bring forward for this supralapsarian Christology? In § 130 he stipulates that the world-redeeming Mediator must have a necessary and eternal relation of perfect fellowship both with the Father and with the human race. In the next paragraph he concludes that:

“… sin alone cannot have been the ground of His revelation, for there was no metaphysical necessity for sin entering the world, and Christ could not be our Redeemer, if it had been eternally involvoed in His idea that He should be our Mediator. Are we to suppose that that which is most glorious in the world could only be reached through the medium of sin? That there would have been no place in the human race for the glory of the Only Begotten One, but for sin?”

Unlike Schleiermacher, Martensen denies the necessity of the entrance of sin in our world. But like Schleiermacher, he emphasises that Christ would have become man, irrespective of the Fall. If humanity is destined to bear the image of God, to be filled with God, must we not – he asks – assume that this fullness of God must be exemplified in perfection: the true and complete God-man? It is, I suppose, not the best argument for a supralasarian Christology, but it certainly is intriguing and worth pondering.