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.

You Will Be Assimilated. Resistance Is Futile.

Part 2: A critique of the Orthodox Church.

Of course reality isn’t quite as simple as I made it sound in the previous essay. Orthodoxy has an internally consistent, scripturally based, theologically sound, empirically verifiable claim: The unity Christians seek is a God-given unity which has never been lost, and, as a Divine gift and an essential mark of Christian existence, could not have been lost.” [From the previously mentioned 1957 Orthodox statement in response to the developing ecumenical movement.]

But then, there’s also Jesus’ conversation with the lawyer in Luke 10:25-37. (This was the Gospel lesson the week before last – Nov 15 – which got me thinking once again about George Hunsinger’s little tome, Ecumenism and the Eucharist.) The lawyer wanted Jesus to explain a small point of the Torah: “Who’s my neighbor?” In classic Jesus-speak, Jesus answered that question indirectly by means of another question: “What should I personally do in such-and-such a situation?”

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, `Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’

I’m going to assume you all know the layers and ironic incongruities of this story, so I won’t preach a sermon here. Rather I will comment on Jesus’ point: Some things are bigger than the Torah. …

Well, technically that’s not true because there are a very few things might lay claim to being bigger than the Torah. Let me rephrase that …

Many things are bigger than our conception and practice of the Torah, no matter how perfectly (the Greek word telos that word came up in the previous essay) we have achieved the understanding and practice of the Law. A rigorous adherence to the Law (or to perfect theology – or perfect church – for that matter) can blind us to the most obvious realities. Good theology absolutely applied can keep us from doing what we ought (ie, “Agape” love), and love trumps any conception – no matter how humanly perfect – of the true Church.

“Love never ends … Our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away” (1 Cor. 13:8-10).

And this brings us full circle to the Orthodox view of ecumenism. The Orthodox Church is the true church. There is no “going forward in order to return to Nicene Christianity” (which is the underlying principle of Faith & Order style ecumenism). There is no going back (which is the underlying principle of the various primitivist movements); there is only entering into Christ’s church, which takes its form on earth as the Orthodox Church. But if we Orthodox apply this Truth without love, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church will indeed become The Church of Borg: You will be assimilated; resistance is futile.

I firmly believe there is another option. The 1957 Greek Orthodox statement on unity turned the ecumenical question into an either/or problem. And as scandalous as some the Ecumenical Patriarch’s ecumenical activities have been, he at least (in contrast to those who drafted the 1957 statement) recognizes ecumenism is not an either/or problem.

I’m not trying to be hyper-Calvinist, but the “You will be assimilated; resistance is futile” mantra that the Orthodox tend to apply to the Church might better be applied to Christ himself. It is Christ who is drawing everyone to himself. And when we resist the Truth, it is not the Orthodox Church we are resisting, it is the nudging of the Holy Spirit.

And if Christ chooses to assimilate believers who are not Orthodox into his very life outside the confines of the Orthodox Church, that’s his business. Of course, he’ll have to answer to the Bishop. Everyone’s answerable to the Bishop in these matters, but I think Christ can handle himself on that front (wink, wink).

But all joking aside, there is empirically verifiable evidence that precisely that sort of thing has happened frequently to Protestant saints. And this is the fundamental paradox of the ecumenical question. The Protestants are the Samaritans of the Jesus’ story. They are beyond the pale, but they are ones who are doing the right thing.

Even George Hunsinger admits his proposal is a pipe dream, but for a moment let’s just imagine that it comes to fruition. Will those fully realized and ecumenicalized Protestants be assimilated into the Orthodox Church? They will certainly be assimilated into Christ because if they reach that “fully realized and ecumenicalized” state they will have passed through their own veil and into the light of day. But whether the Orthodox Church has anything to do with it is a toss-up. For that to happen, the Orthodox would have to remove its own shroud, and that’s a different story than this essay tells.

As Jesus so deftly reminds us in his answer to the lawyer, the true follower of Christ is not always who we expect.

You Will Be Assimilated. Resistance Is Futile.

Part 1: A critique of George Hunsinger

I recently finished reading George Hunsinger’s book, Eucharist and Ministry: Let Us Keep the Feast, as part of a discussion group of Lutheran and Orthodox clergy, pre-clergy, and post-clergy folk (the last category being me, of course). Hunsinger brings a handful of specific proposals to the discussion table; proposals that he believes will help further the goal of mutual recognition of various Christian communions (which is tantamount to unity in his view).

First, a word about the book: There’s nothing groundbreaking in it. His “new proposals” are common knowledge that have been bandied about ever since the late 80s. (The reason for the date is a long story that will become clearer later in the essay.) In that sense, the book is more a compendium of old ideas than it is a breakthrough proposal that will further ecumenism.

Second, great theologians who come up with groundbreaking ideas are poets at heart. Poets have the ability to see beyond, to see through, to see into, existence as it is now, and in that process, they are able to distinguish “what is” both from “what can be” and what ought to be” (ie, the telos – the goal, completion, or perfection – as well as the interim steps to reach that goal). Hunsinger is no poet. He’s mostly a technician, taking data points, deftly arranging them in a manageable order, and presenting this new outline in a lucid manner.

Arguably, Hunsinger has done ecumenism more harm than good by ordering, clarifying, and managing all these data points in such a marvelously technical manner. Without the poet’s imagination he has inadvertently transformed difficult ecclesial realities that are deliciously gray into black and white choices that could divide rather than unite.

In spite of the shortcomings of the book, his proposals are spot on (they’re just not new) as long as you accept his very Protestant assumptions. The key assumption is that the way we achieve the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” as an earthly reality is for each communion to move forward and align itself with an ideal. When each communion has reached that ideal, then all communions can fully and unreservedly accept each other’s sacraments and ministry and full communion will have been achieved.

This assumption as to what the goal ought to be seems utterly obvious to Hunsinger. The problem is that his assumption is based on a world view that is utterly foreign to classic Orthodox thinking. (It is also foreign to the Roman Catholic ethos, but not being RC, I will not pursue that here.)

The Ecumenical Movement has had a handful of key moments which help define the movement as a whole. Many of those have involved the “Faith and Order Commission” (F&O) of the World Council of Churches. The F&O meetings in Lausanne (1927) and Edinburgh (1937) set forth the imperative and direction of ecumenism for the next several decades. At Lima, Peru, in 1982, with the publication of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, ecumenism was fundamentally re-envisioned. (This new vision of ecumenism is what Hunsinger is trying to quantify in his book.)

But ecumenism has always been a Western effort. At the F&O meeting in Oberlin, Ohio (1957), the Greek Orthodox representatives released an authoritative paper explaining how the Eastern Orthodox sense of unity is fundamentally different than the one defined at Lausanne and Edinburgh. According the preamble:

All Christians should seek Unity. On the other hand, we feel that the whole program of the forthcoming discussion has been framed from a point of view which we cannot conscientiously admit. “The Unity we seek” is for us [Eastern Orthodox] a given Unity which has never been lost, and, as a Divine gift and an essential mark of Christian existence, could not have been lost.

In other words, for the Orthodox there’s no moving forward together into unity. Unity is already here. And needless to say (these are Eastern Orthodox theologians writing, after all), the Unity is not in the Orthodox Church, it is the Orthodox Church, which is in Christ. Let me put it in their own words:

We begin with a clear conception of the Church’s Unity, which we believe has been embodied and realized in the age-long history of the Orthodox Church, without any change or break since the times when the visible Unity of Christendom was an obvious fact and was attested and witnessed to by an ecumenical unanimity, in the age of the Ecumenical Councils.

The Russian Orthodox still sit at the F&O table and provide their valuable input. But the Orthodox (all Orthodox) weren’t in the mood to give any ground in 1957. They still aren’t, and this document has remained the last and most definitive word on the subject ever since. (It should be noted that the Ecumenical Patriarch has recently said things that could be perceived as contrary to this document, but in so doing has caused scandal among the rest of the Orthodox, who increasingly suspect he has been seduced by Western sensibilities of centralization and the resulting increase in power that would come his way. But that’s another debate of which I am aware, but which I do not fully understand.)

So in the end, from the Orthodox perspective, the telos of the Ecumenical Program would be that each communion would grow into the church that they were supposed to be. Having achieved that status, they would realize that “one thing remained” (as Jesus told the rich young rule): The obvious next step would be to convert to Orthodoxy, and having envisioned the truth, they would convert. Problem solved.

As the Borg say so poetically in Star Trek, TNG, “We are Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”

And let’s face it. From a Protestant perspective, this is precisely how the Orthodox sensibility is perceived. But if the Orthodox are correct (and they are, I assure you), one begins to realize that the Orthodox statement is the result of great humility before the amazing reality of the Body of Christ, not a hubris based on the confidence in one’s own institution.

And this is precisely the point for many of us converts. We were deeply committed to the F&O vision of ecumenism (that is, returning to Nicene Christianity by going forward). As we steadily groped out of the fragmented Church, putting together our little shards of light so that we could see just a bit farther through the thick darkness despair, we dimly glimpsed a great light, went toward it, and discovered that what we were trying to recreate had been there all along. But because of the thickness of the veil of human brokenness we had failed to see it. (And let’s be honest about the other side of the coin. Ethnic Orthodoxy goes to great lengths to keep itself hidden behind a shroud, as well. The problem is doubled: a veil of ignorance on the Protestant side and a shroud of fear – or sometimes superiority – on the Orthodox side.)

But conversion is antithetical to the Ecumenical vision; it’s choosing a particular communion at the expense of the many. From a Protestant perspective, we converts have simply drunk the Kool Aid™. But from an Orthodox perspective we have “partaken of the holy, divine, immortal, and life-giving mysteries.”

Or, as the choir sings after the people are finished communing: “We have seen the true light, we have received the Heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity: for he hath saved us.”

Wow! That’s some Kool Aid™.