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.


3 thoughts on “New Finnish Luther and Barth Interpretation?

  1. This is really interesting stuff, Arjen — thanks very much. You’re right about the Ritschlian thread in Karl Barth’s thought … although here Mannermaa wouldn’t be breaking any new ground, so I wouldn’t call it a “Finnish Barth interpretation.” As far as I have found, the reading of Barth that points to the programmatic importance of actualism to his theological project has been around since at least the 1950s (though for decades it was eclipsed in English-language Barth scholarship, perhaps due in part to Torrance’s mediation).

    Barth would also agree with the criticism of Harnack’s “Greek influence” thesis.

  2. Darren,
    Thanks for your appreciative comment. And thank you for also pointing out that the connection between Ritschl and Barth is not as new as I suggested. It did’n’t encounter me in Dutch Barth interpretations, but I assume right away that you are correct. The remark on the New Finnish Barth interpretation was of course made with tongue-in-cheek.

  3. Pingback: The Theology of Father Brown | Qualitative Theology

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