Luther, second from right in back row, and theologians, 1557 woodcut (Wikimedia)

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed an item on the Patheos website by Ted Peters, emeritus professor of systematic theology and ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. I like to check him out from time to time because he has a way getting abstract concepts down to where a layperson can understand them.

“I’m gonna preach the gospel on Sunday, October 30, 2022,” he promised. “Will I mention ‘justification by faith’? You betcha!”

Was I in the mood to read that kind of heavy-duty theology at the moment? No way. But Sunday was Reformation Day, commemorating the movement that that began 500-odd years before on Oct. 31, 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the chapel door at the Castle Church in Wittenberg. And the 16th-century doctrine of justification by grace through faith was central to the Protestant Reformation. So Peters warned his sermon was going to get heavy:

The Reformation insight swings on this hinge: it is God’s faith in us rather than our faith in God which justifies and, thereby, saves. So the theologian asks: just what dimension of faith is it that makes faith justifying? Is that enough to make your head hurt?

You betcha, I thought. On both counts.

Yes, know how important the doctrine is. I’ve done enough historical research on Lutherans (chiefly 19th-century Swedish immigrants who argued with other Lutherans about the “unaltered Augsburg Confession“) to be thoroughly familiar with it. And, yes, it makes my head hurt. So I put Peters’ blog post aside to read later.

I’m glad I came back to it. Turns out he has one of the clearest summaries I’ve seen yet of a trend in Lutheran theology, especially in Finland, that gets past the hellfire-and-damnation, sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God emphasis of so much Christian theology, at least in the West, so prevalent in the 16th century. In dialog with their Russian Orthodox counterparts over the last 50 years or so, theologians at the University of Helsinki have developed a way of interpreting Luther that focuses more on what they term the “indwelling of Christ.” Peters finds authority for this interpretation both in Luther and Reformed theologian John Calvin:

On the one hand, Reformation theologians emphasize that our eternal justice and, hence, our justification come to each of us as a gift from beyond ourselves, extra nos [outside of us]. On the other hand, these same Reformers emphasize the indwelling presence of Christ, intra nos. “Christ is not outside us but dwells within us,” writes Calvin (Calvin 1960, 3.2.24). Can we affirm both? Yes. The extra nos justice is a gift the Holy Spirit places within us, intra nos.

The indwelling of Christ is one of those theological terms that means something a little different to different people. And this whole area of sin, judgment, punishment and justification is a theological briar patch for little amateur theolgians like me. When you throw in the Holy Trinity, well, Peters is right: It makes your head hurt. But for Luther, it’s all about faith.

For Luther, it’s always all about faith.

One of my professors at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, Richard Marius, has an explanation that rings a bell with me:

Faith itself is a gift [from God], and the question must naturally arise, “How do I get it?” Always for Luther faith is not something one wills to have but rather a recognition that Christ is present in one’s heart. And Luther’s concept usually seems to be that if one yearns for grace and faith, the yearning in itself is a sign that grace and faith are present.

That’s reassuring. I was one Dr. Marius’ TAs when he taught Western Civ at UT, and I learned as much as the freshmen did. Probably more, in fact, because I paid attention in the lecture sessions and that year I picked up most of what I know about the broad sweep of European history. I think I was extraordinarily well served by it. But when I did a Google search on keywords “indwelling of Christ,” I got 1.55 million hits in less than a second. Peters cuts to the chase with this reference to Mannermaa and the Finns:

I pay theological homage to the new Finnish school of Reformation research led by the late Tuomo Mannermaa. “Christ–and therefore also his entire person and work–is really and truly present in the faith itself (in ipsa fide Christus adest). [Literally: “Christ is present in faith itself,” in Luther’s original Latin. Parentheses and links are Peters’.]

Mannermaa, of the University of Helsinki, came to this conclusion — Christ is present in faith itself — when he noted that Eastern Orthodox Christians explain justification, or salvation, “as a process of theosis, in which the individual is united to Christ and the life of Christ is reproduced within him” (I’m quoting here from the Wikipedia article on justification). To vastly oversimplify an academic dialog that went on for several years in three languages (Russian, Finnish and Swedish), Mannermaa and the theologians at Helsinki checked it out and found something in Luther very much like the Orthodox doctrine of theosis (which means “being made like God” in Greek). All the theologizing makes my head hurt, but it’s important.

The Finnish school is controversial, largely since Luther was also very much into the hellfire-and-damnation mindset behind the traditional Western concept of justification, and to many this business of being made like God smacks of heresy. But Mannermaa’s school of Luther studies is attractive to those of us who see self-identified Christians all too often as judgmental and overly concerned with sin, punishment and the specks in their neighbors’ eyes. The Eastern Orthodox idea that we can find the presence of God at work everywhere in God’s creation, even in human beings and, yes, even in ourselves, is also very attractive.

None of this it entirely absent in Western theology, but we could stand to give it more emphasis. I’ve been interested in Mannermaa and the Finnish take on theosis for several years now, and I’ve blogged about it HERE, HERE and HERE, writing the last post when I came across a master’s thesis at Luther Seminary in Minnesota titled “A Monk, a Martyr and a Finn Walk into a Bar” (it brought together concepts from Luther, Mannermaa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer). It’s a longstanding interest of mine because the idea of personal transformation and seeking the presence of God in my life is more closely aligned with my spirituality than residual16th-century language about heaven, hell, justification and vicarious atonement in the popular culture (although mostly not the Episcopal church) I grew up with.

So I was glad to see Ken Peters’ post about the indwelling of Christ and the Finnish school of Luther studies. Before going into his own take on the indwelling of Christ, he quotes theologian Kirsi Stjerna, who studied under Mannerma at Helsinki and now teaches at California Lutheran University:

Luther’s major insight was that justification is a grace event where one is gifted freedom and forgiveness, solely by the act of Christ, who has made the reconciliation between God and human possible

The central focus here is on freedom and personal transformation. And as much as I enjoy reading theology, that’s what I’m interested in. “We are set free,” says Peters, “by the gift of justification.” He goes on at some length, and I’m nodding my head in agreement with every word:

Faith understood as the indwelling of Christ, I contend, improves the quality of our daily life. To have faith in Jesus Christ makes us less anxious, less nervous, less defensive, more kind, more considerate, more loving. We can then enjoy the fruits of the Spirit, as St. Paul lists them: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22).

How does faith accomplish this? The main contribution of faith, I believe, is that faith removes the need for self-justification. Because Christ himself has become a twin within our soul, Christ energizes and directs our compassion, our loving, our caring. My head hurts a lot less now.

Mine, too.


Richard Marius, Luther (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1973), 100.

Ted Peters, “Reformation Sunday 2022,” Public Theology, Patheos, Oct. 29, 2022

Wikipedia articles on Augsburg Confession, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, justification (theological), Martin Luther, Tuomo Mannermaa, ninety-five theses, penal substitution and theosis (Eastern Christian theology).

[Revised and uplinked Nov. 14, 2022]

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