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  • Justification and Participation in Christ: The Development of Justification from Luther to the Formula of Concord (1580)
  • Timothy J. Wengert
Olli-Pekka Vainio . Justification and Participation in Christ: The Development of Justification from Luther to the Formula of Concord (1580). Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions 130. Leiden: Brill, 2008. xii + 260 pp. index. append. tbls. bibl. $129. ISBN: 978-90-04-16526-7.

For a generation, Luther scholars and Lutheran theologians have fought over what Martin Luther meant by "justification by faith alone." Is the forgiveness and [End Page 1305] renewal of the sinner (justification) centered in being declared righteous —often called a "forensic" approach to justification because it is like a not guilty verdict in a court (in foro) —or does one become righteous by the indwelling of Christ in the human being? The former implies a more relational view of divine-human interaction, the latter a more ontological view. While the former is represented by a wide variety of historians and theologians (many from Germany), the latter view has been championed by Tuomo Mannermaa, a now retired theologian from Finland, and the school that grew up around him, including Vainio. Vainio wants to show that not only Luther but also other Lutherans in the sixteenth century (especially theologians who later wrote the Formula of Concord) continued to define justification as participation in Christ rather than simply forensic imputation. Thus, he concludes by asserting that the Lutheran doctrine of justification can deny merit to human actions, "only if the new life given to the sinner is construed as participation in the divine Life in Christ. . . . The faith that has Christ as its object, and which apprehends Him and His merit, making Him present as the form of faith, is reckoned as righteousness" (227).

Is this what sixteenth-century Lutheran theologians taught and believed? For those looking for an historical answer to the question, Vainio's book is sure to disappoint. The first fifty pages examine Martin Luther's writings and amount to little more than a defense of Mannermaa's approach. Focusing on Luther's 1535 commentary on Paul's letter to Galatians, the author treats his source like a disorganized tome in systematic theology, never once inquiring after the biblical texts Luther was interpreting or the opponents he was refuting. (The only time Vainio appeals to the historical context comes when he wants to refute Mannermaa's critics or to relativize the Formula of Concord.) In this regard, his consistently poor translations into English (of Luther and others), his misconstrual of crucial texts, and his generally shocking reliance on assertions rather than demonstration undermine his arguments. For example, he simply assumes that Luther's use of "form" matches that of scholastic theologians. In another case, he claims (21, n. 9): "Luther states that intellectual perception is the means of apprehending Christ by faith" —a novel interpretation —and he backs this up by misquoting Luther: "Apprehenditur Christum [sic. The critical text reads "Christus" ] non lege, non operibus, sed ratione seu intellectu, illuminato fide," which actually means "Christ is apprehended not by the law nor by works but by reason or intellect, when illumined by faith" —a clear indication that Luther understood illumination of the intellect (and apprehending Christ) as a consequence of faith. (At least Vainio does provide a good translation of the Formula of Concord, where on at least ten separate occasions he uses the 2000 English translation of Robert Kolb [edited by Kolb and this reviewer] without any attribution whatsoever.)

The author announces at the beginning of the book that he will use (16, emphasis added) "a method of close reading and conceptual analysis. However, the study is not genetic; it does not seek to explain the causal connections between different theologies or the thinking of individual theologians. The analysis focuses [End Page 1306] on the internal coherence of the most prominent theologians." What this means is that this book is not history. The author wants to defend the Finnish school of Luther research and uses selected quotations from sixteenth-century theologians to do it. But the very method arises out of the school's basic presuppositions, which reject the "relational ontology" of German...


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