Justification: The Lutheran Deification View

March 13, 2012 — 3 Comments

[This is part of the Justification: Five Views mini-series]

Last week, thanks to IVP Academic, we continued our journey through Justification: Five Views by looking at the Roman Catholic view. This week, we’ll move on to examine the Lutheran Deification view of justification as explained by Veli-Matti Karkkainen.

Many people are familiar with movements like the New Perspective on Paul. Fewer are perhaps aware of a “New Perspective on Luther.” Growing from scholarly dialogue between Finnish schools and Russian Orthodox scholars, the “new interpretation of Luther” is gradually making its way here to America dialogue.

The idea of “deification” or “theosis” is a key component of Orthodox theology and the Finnish interpretation of Luther finds basis for it in his writings as well. The basic points, as summarized by Karkkainen, are (221-222):

  • Luther’s understanding of salvation can be expressed not only in terms of the doctrine of justification, but also – occasionally – in terms of theosis
  • For Luther, the main idea of justification is Christ present in faith
  • In contrast to the theology of the Lutheran confessions, Luther does not make a distinction between forensic and effective justification, but rather argue justification includes both
  • There, justification means not only sanctification, but also good works, since Christ present in faith makes the Christian a “christ” to the neighbor (! see fuller quote below)

As Karkkainen then says:

The purpose of this essay is to consider the ecumenical and systematic potential of the emerging convergence between the Protestant idea of salvation as justification and the Eastern Church’s notion of salvation as justification and the Eastern Church’s notion of salvation as theosis and the relation of those developments to the emerging rapprochement between Protestant and Roman Catholic views (222).

His aim is neither to convince readers that the new interpretation is supreme, nor to think centuries of debate could be erased if we just understood each other better. Rather, he hopes to introduce readers and his colleagues to new vistas of interpretation both in Luther and justification.

His essay has four parts:

  • Understanding Luther in relation to theosis
  • Exploring the implications of this interpretation of Luther to the Catholic-Lutheran joint agreement
  • Setting ecumenical convergence into wider theological perspective
  • Engaging in critical dialogue with the new interpretation of Luther

Overall, his essay was interesting, but again not all that convincing. In light of some recent email exchanges and reflecting on what I’ve written elsewhere (but need to revise/revisit) I thought it was worth quoting Karkkainen at length discussing Luther and good works:

In line with sola gratia, Luther insists we can certainly do nothing for our salvation. On the contrary, God makes the sinner nihil, “nothing” to help him or her to open up to the righteousness of God. Yet good works spring from the union – theosis, if you may – between Christ and the believer and, thus, from Christ’s real presence in the believer. The Christian becomes a “work of Christ,” and even more a “christ” to the neighbor; the Christian does what Christ does (228).

When put in this form, it seems just a bit odd to say that believers become “christ” to the neighbor. I’ve said similar things, but in the process of re-thinking, and this certainly helps frame things.

In response to Karkkainen’s essay, Michael Horton observes that “there is a significant difference  between saying Luther’s understanding of justification does not exclude deification and understanding his view of justification as deification” (244). I would agree, and also add Michael Bird’s point that Karkkainen “nowhere in his essay defines what he actually means by theosis or deification” (250). I’ve initially left it vague in my review here so you could experience that same effect. But, considering that “ideas of theosis are notoriously varied among ancient and modern theologians,” working with a vague concept is not bound to be very illuminating.

James Dunn and Oliver Rafferty are a bit more appreciative of Karkkainen’s position than are Bird or Horton, but even they are a bit apprehensive. Dunn is for exegetical reasons and Rafferty seems skeptical with a new interpretation of Luther moves the conversation forward between Catholics and Lutherans.

In the end, though I found his position interesting and am intrigued by this exposure to the “new interpretation of Luther,”  I don’t think theosis, unless strictly defined as participation in God’s energies (rather than his essence) is a helpful category for bridging the justification divide. It is however a topic for further examination, and maybe I’ll be able to dig into it more in the future.


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3 responses to Justification: The Lutheran Deification View

  1. Sdn Vincent Martini March 20, 2013 at 11:33 am

    I don’t think theosis, unless strictly defined as participation in God’s energies (rather than his essence) is a helpful category for bridging the justification divide.

    Thanks for sharing this information, I haven’t read this work. By the way, the Orthodox Church would absolutely view Theosis/Deification as a participation in the “energies” (activity/uncreated) of God. A participation in His essence is both absurd and impossible. FWIW.

    In peace,

  2. What are your thoughts on Karkkainen doctrines of Justification and Deification in his section on “The Spirit in the Lutheran Tradition?” Furthermore, what are your thoughts regarding the theosis and the Christological emphasis in western theology ( not equating Luther with Lutherism). I’m struggling with K’s text and I would appreciate it if you could shed some light on this. Thank you!

    • I’d have to go back and look at it. If I remember, I found his whole essay interesting, but not very persuasive or helpful. I explored theosis in Eastern theology early on at my time at seminary, so it’s been a while. I think Edwards’ idea of the beatific vision is a better route for the ultimate aim of Christian sanctification.

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