Some Thoughts on Mannermaa the Ecumenist

I begin with a rabbit track …

I am rereading Tuomo Mannermaa’s little bombshell Christ Present in Faith:  Luther’s View of Justification. (Yeah, I know the original “little bombshell” was Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, but Christ Present in Faith had a similar effect on continental Lutheranism a century later.) This all came about because John Webster, best known for bringing Eberhard Juengel’s brilliant thought to the English speaking world, died a few months ago. In memory, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School released his 2007 Carl F.H. Henry lecture series on Soundcloud. I listened to the first one and Webster took a couple of cheap shots at Mannermaa, quoting him in just such a way and without context so as to paint him a heretic. It really ticked me off. On the other hand, it did cause me to dust off my copy of Christ Present in Faith.

But back to the actual subject …

Tuomo Mannermaa spent much of his career involved in the ecumenical dialog between the Finnish Lutheran Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. This experience led to a different reading of Martin Luther. Critics say he has read Orthodox theology (and specifically the ancient idea of theosis) into Luther. Allies say that because of an historical accident of timing (Luther was Medieval and the Formula of Concord and most Lutherans ever since are under the sway of Modernity) Luther’s theology was transformed into something that Luther never actually espoused. As Carl Braaten and Robert Jensen describe it, “[T]he Mannermaa school is revising a century of Luther interpretation dominated by German Protestant theologians, who notoriously read Luther under the spell of neo-Kantian presuppositions.”

So what’s the difference between Medieval and Modern in this context? The philosophers of  Modernity (and Kant is certainly part of this process), put distance between us and reality. Some said that what we experience is not reality itself but our interpretation of the experience of reality. This is why Kant’s famous dictum, “I think therefore I am,” is such a big deal. It describes a human being one step removed from reality itself, with my brain (or my interpretation) standing between me and what actually exists.

In Protestant theology this same sensibility comes to us in how we separate the Creator and created. Modern theology has tended to say that we cannot experience the Creator (ie, God) directly because we are created beings. In classic Lutheran language, what we receive in the salvation process is not Christ in and of himself but rather the gift, which we might describe as “grace” which is not exactly the same thing as Christ himself. (And I offer a caveat here: While I consider myself a Reformed scholar, I am not a Lutheran scholar, so my language may not be a precise as some Lutherans would like.)

According to Mannermaa, this is not what Luther taught. This is a neo-Kantian reading of Luther. Being medieval, and thus having no problem with unmediated reality, he read Athanasius and the other classic explainers of the faith  and he interpreted justification as they did. But within a couple of generations, Luther’s words were being read through the Modernist lens and justification took on an exclusively forensic sense rather than Luther’s realist (or “ontic,” if you want Mannermaa’s term) sense.

It is important to realize that Luther (b. 1483) was born right on the cusp between Medieval and Modern. He also had a predominantly religious education and as a result he was steeped in a Medieval cultural-linguistic environment. John Calvin (b. 1509), on the other hand, was Modern, including his education, which was primarily in secular law rather than theology. It is literally true that by the generation after Luther and certainly the one following that, Lutheran’s assumptions about mediated reality (ie Modernity) would have shaped how Luther was read and understood.

Let’s assume for a moment that this is true (because Mannermaa’s critics vociferously disagree with his thesis). How is it that Mannermaa was able to cast off the blinders of Modernity, and for the first time in at least a couple of centuries, read Luther as Luther himself intended? This process is one of great gifts of authentic ecumenism. To be effective in ecumenical dialog (or political compromise, or statecraft for that matter … but that’s a rather different topic) one has to learn to “indwell” the other’s cultural-linguistic environment. Mannermaa spent years doing just that with the Russian Orthodox Church; and the Orthodox are definitely not Modern in their way of thinking.

As Mannermaa did this he was also reading Luther, and especially his lectures on Galatians. Reading Luther with these new eyes he recognized that Luther was dipping into the same well as the Russians (ie, the Chalcedonian fathers, and especially Athanasius), and Luther was understanding them in much the same way as the Russians. In essence, dialog with the Russians allowed Mannermaa to read Luther in his proper Medieval context rather than the Modern context in which he had been interpreted for generations.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I believe Mannermaa was on to something. But there is a profound weakness in this sort of ecumenical theology that I want to point out. The penultimate goal of ecumenical theology is to develop common language, ideas, and practice so that two communions (in this case the Finnish Lutheran Church and the Russian Orthodox Church – so these would be called “bi-lateral talks”) can enter into communion with each and ultimately share Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (to use the words of the Faith and Order Commission). The ultimate goal is to totally break down the barriers between the various communions, but that is even more of a pipe dream than BEM! Even the Orthodox can’t manage that among themselves!!

This process, then, works primarily with the foundational documents of each communion. In the case of the Finnish Lutherans this would be the Formula of Concord and their specifically Finnish constitution. In practice, this means focusing specifically on Luther, and the question inevitably becomes, “What did Luther teach?” rather than, “What is the Gospel?” The effect of this subtle difference is that the process tends to focus on theology rather than transformation, on academics rather than the spiritual life.

But with that caveat in mind, I find this sort of thing (because the Finnish-Russian dialog is not the only significant bi-lateral discussion going on) to be one of the more fruitful and interesting things occurring in the Church today. And it is all the more reason to take the late Prof. John Webster to task for his small-minded snideness toward Mannermaa’s attempts to learn to mean the same thing when we of different communions say the same words.

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