ONE WITH GOD
by Brad Boydston
One with God: Salvation as Deification and Justification
by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen
Liturgical Press (2004) 160 pages
$10.17 on Amazon.com
The concept of theosis, the backbone of Eastern Orthodox soteriology, rarely receives even a mention in Western theology books. We tend to emphasize the concepts of ransom, or Christ the victor, or even more commonly, forensic substitutionary atonement. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, introduces the Western reader to the concept of deification (theosis) and attempts to build a bridge between the East and the West by flagging those areas of Western theology where the concept of union with or participation in God plays a role.
Most notable in his survey is his relatively easy to understand summary of what has been taking place in the Finnish school of Luther studies. Post-Luther Lutherans developed an understanding of justification by grace through faith which emphasized the forensic nature of being declared righteous in God's sight -- an aspect of salvation which is sharply distinct from sanctification and glorification. However, over the past 40 years Finnish Luther scholars have been peeling away the innovations of Lutheran scholasticism and have discovered a Luther which is much closer to the East. "Justification is a new status and relationship to God by faith in Christ through the Spirit. It means union between the human person and her Creator." (p. 16)
In very simplistic terms evangelicals have seen justification as an experience in the heavenly courtroom where the individual is declared innocent, in spite of all guilt, based on a certificate of innocence secured by Christ on the cross. The wonder of justification is that it is a legal fiction. Even though we are guilty and deserving of death Christ presents the judge with a "get out of jail" card on our behalf. So the judge looks at the guilty sinner, sees the work of Christ pass, and slams down the gavel declaring "not guilty!"
For Luther, however, the judge looks at the guilty sinner and sees a person united by faith with Christ -- a true participant in the divine community of the triune God. It's not that we are declared innocent when we aren't, rather it is that we are innocent by virtue of our participation in the life of Christ. Quoting Luther, "For it is true that a man helped by grace is more than a man; indeed, the grace of God gives him the form of God and deifies him, so that even the Scriptures call him 'God' and 'God's son.'" (p. 47)
"For Luther himself, the forensic and effective aspects of justification form an indivisible entity, while for the Lutheran confessions and later Lutheran theology these two aspects are distinguished from each other." (p. 52)
Furthermore, the Finnish Luther scholars are arguing that the reformer's understanding of salvation had a strong pneumantological aspect (Lutherans have traditionally argued that Luther's theology was extremely Christocentric). "Justification for Luther means primarily participation in God through the indwelling of Christ in the heart through the Spirit. Through faith, a human being also participates in the characteristics of God, or as Luther often says, of the Word of God..." (p. 59)
Kärkkäinen does a great job of summarizing some very complicated thinking which has until recently been only available in Finnish.
But it's not just Luther who had a strong deification streak in his theology. Kärkkäinen briefly lays out how this more mystical approach forms the backbone of Anabaptist, Pentecostal, and Wesleyan thinking, too. "By participation in the life of grace, a life given by the Holy spirit, the Christian is enabled to love God, other people, and whole of creation with a perfect love. It is noteworthy that for Wesley this vision of transformation of life not only encompassed individual life but also the whole creation--another indication of similar orientations between the East and Wesley." (p. 77)
The thing which really seems to excite Kärkkäinen about this unmined aspect of theology (at least in the modern evangelical world) is that it potentially provides a new leg for ecumenical dialog and even some discussion with non-Christian religions.
This is a great little book on numerous levels. Not only does Kärkkäinen expose Luther in new light but he offers a biblical critique of the shallowness of an evangelical anthropology built exclusively on individualistic and forensic terms. He introduces the Western reader to the Eastern way of salvation and he shows how several key movements have tapped into that theological tradition. This is a good read for anyone with at least an elementary understanding of evangelical theology. It is a welcome voice for those who suspect that we've got more to learn.