Feast of St Bessarion the Wonderworker of Egypt
IN THE EARLY 1970s, a group of scholars at the University of Helsinki made a startling claim: Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification is best understood as the real union of Christ and the believer in faith. Such a notion has tremendous ecumenical potential, they rightly argued, for this union with Christ closely parallels the Orthodox doctrine of theosis, or deification. In Orthodox theology, theosis encompasses the Christian’s entire life; it draws her into a life of participation in the Trinity through worship and the sacraments, prayer and meditation, and acts of love and moral striving. Luther does indeed have a similarly holistic vision of the Christian life. However, the language he uses to express it has a distinctly baptismal character that has yet to be addressed in the ecumenical conversations surrounding theosis. Therefore, in this paper, I suggest that a proper understanding of deification in Luther’s thought must be rooted in his deep love for and robust theology of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. For when Luther spoke of baptism, he described both its promisio – the divine Word attached to the water that guarantees forgiveness – and its significatio – the act of being buried with Christ and rising to new life in union with Him. I argue that together, promisio and significatio provide a pattern for the Christian life that bears striking resemblance to the Eastern doctrine of theosis; in Luther’s eyes, baptism involves both a constant repentant return to the baptismal promise of forgiveness and adoption, and a daily participation in the death and resurrection of Christ through Word and Sacrament, prayer and suffering, and the ongoing and ever-progressing fight against the old Adam within. For Luther, then, the Christian life is a baptismal life, and a baptismal life is no doubt a deified one.
Marie Schrampfer is currently completing a master’s degree in Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. This fall, she will be heading to Southern Methodist University to pursue a PhD in Systematic Theology, focusing on Martin Luther’s theology and all it has to offer to ecumenical, ecclesial, and ethical conversations.