Is The Finnish Line A New Beginning? A Critical Assessment Of The Reading Of Luther Offered By The Helsinki Circle -- By: Carl R. Trueman

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 65:2 (Fall 2003)
Article: Is The Finnish Line A New Beginning? A Critical Assessment Of The Reading Of Luther Offered By The Helsinki Circle
Author: Carl R. Trueman


Is The Finnish Line A New Beginning? A Critical Assessment Of The Reading Of Luther Offered By The Helsinki Circlea

Carl R. Trueman

[Carl Trueman is Associate Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.]

The 1998 collection of essays on the Finnish perspective on Luther, edited by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, is both a fascinating contribution to modern ecumenical debates and an interesting challenge to accepted interpretations of Luther’s theology. Many of the issues raised are extremely complex and a short paper such as this cannot aspire to do much more than offer a few passing comments and criticisms on the whole.1

The context of the collection is the ecumenical dialogue between the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and the Russian Orthodox Church.2 While we must beware of reading too much significance into this context in terms of research outcomes, it undoubtedly shapes the contours of debate in which the protagonists engage. Tuomo Mannermaa and his colleagues in the “Helsinki Circle” are clearly driven by a desire to find in Luther’s writings more ecumenical potential with reference to Lutheran-Orthodox relations than has typically been assumed to be available. That the research of the Finns has borne just such fruit, and is significant precisely because it is pragmatically so useful for ecumenical relations, is confirmed with great and unmitigated enthusiasm by Robert Jenson in his own response to the group’s work.3

Without wishing to endorse all of the enthusiasm which surrounds the Helsinki Circle, I would like to note at the start a number of points at which this group makes extremely valid points and thus renders a useful contribution to the wider field of Luther interpretation. In the central contention that modern

readings of Luther have been distorted by the use of an anti-ontological grid provided by the post-Kantian trajectories of German liberal theology, I think the writers do us a great service. The work of those under the sway of Ritschl and Holl comes in for some timely and necessary criticism. To a historian, it is obvious that Luther is operating within an intellectual framework shaped by the late medieval schools; the kind of anti-metaphysical thinking propounded by Kant and those who came after him is simply inappropriate as a framework for reading Luther’s own writings. In addition, the kind of existentialist reading offered by Ebeling is equally d...

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