Book Review: The Righteous One

The Righteous One, by Jordan Cooper

The Righteous One, by Jordan Cooper

The Righteousness of One: An Evaluation of Early Patristic Soteriology in Light of the New Perspective on Paul. By Jordan Cooper. Forward by Peter J Leithart. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2013. 147 Pages. Click here.

This book is to be praised for offering a new historical examination of the debate surrounding St. Paulʼs soteriology, especially in regard to the early church fathers and Martin Luther. Jordan Cooper engages the Lutheran tradition and catholicity in a spirited, critical way that serves a larger agenda: to critique the New Perspective on Paul by way of the Finnish Lutheran school of Luther research, specifically the work of Tuomo Mannermaa.

What Cooper does in the book, though, isnʼt so new. Pietism and radical spiritualism underlie his work. Cooper has found a way to make Lutheran pietism, or perhaps spiritualism, into a viable way of reading Luther and the early church fathers over against the New Perspective on Paul. Thus, his argument is concentrated on the “how” of salvation, a motif of Christʼs presence in faith and what union with Christ means.

Christ in faith, or what it means to be in Christ, was the original thesis for Tuomo Mannermaa in his primary work, Christ Present in Faith: Lutherʼs View of Justification. This thesis has been sustained by his students. Thus, underlying Cooperʼs thesis that the book is an evaluation of “early patristic soteriology in light of the New Perspective on Paul” is the specific term theosis, by which he attempts to correct the New Perspectiveʼs interpretation of Luther, the early fathers, and St. Paul in purely juridical terms.

Luther doesnʼt have much to say about theosis as it is used by Clement of Rome, Ignatius, or the Epistle to Diognetus. But he does have much to say about our exchange with Christ, being baked in one cake, so to speak—Christ in us, especially Christ in our conscience.

Tuomo Mannermaa and his students, on the other hand, think theosis is at the heart of Lutherʼs much respected and influential Galatians Commentary (1535). Following Mannermaa in this way, Cooper opens a way to argue that deification of human nature in Christ is a prerequisite for justification. Following the Finns allows Cooper to dance lightly around the confusion this then interjects into matters of glory-theology, faith and love, bondage of the will, simul iustus et peccator, and the works of the Holy Spirit.

Leaning on the Finns for his critique of the New Perspective on Paul, Cooper ends up launching a similar attack on forensic justification. He argues for an essential form of justification, an ontological change in believers. This renders the external word of God suspect apart from a corresponding inner movement that could be said to be “real” and measurable one way or another. The main matter is transformation of the sinner into greater conformity with Christʼs holiness. This quite naturally comes from Pietism, warmed up Lutheran Pietism at that. Cooperʼs approach in the book is older than Pietism, though, as his use of the early fathers indicates.

The presence of Christ is the “thing” in which the Christian participates by faith, Christ in the Christian. We find some of this already in Andreas Osiander: that oneʼs self and sin is like a drop of water dissipating mystically in the mighty ocean of Christʼs divine nature. But the actual source of Cooperʼs thesis, by way of the Finns, is Caspar Schwenkfeld. Schwenkfeld was the first Lutheran to teach popularly that mystical union with Christ was precisely with Christʼs “glorified humanity” or with his “heavenly flesh,” not only with the divine nature of Christ.

Schwenkfeld was the one to start talking among Lutherans about “participation” in Christʼs glorified humanity, or having a union with “heavenly flesh.” This is the very thing the Finns and Cooper are trying to connect to the early fathers and Luther via the tradition of theosis. Theosis is, in essence, enthusiasm, which grasps for God outside the Word, deep in the flesh (logos sarkos) in which we can “participate” in divinity.

The Righteousness of One, I agree, is trying to argue that there is something that happens beyond just appearing differently in Godʼs eyes. But where Cooper emphasizes increased holiness by divine law, there should instead be death and resurrection. Where he emphasizes ontology, there should be eschatology. Cooper would have us think Luther never really abandoned interest in ontology or realism of some sort or another, even though Lutherans have a “relational” way of speaking about God and human beings.

Luther makes the distinction between forensic and effective justification / sanctification a central part of his theology, especially in the differentiation of grace and gift in his Romans commentary, Against Latomus, and the 1535 Galatians commentary.

But Lutherʼs Galatians commentary is ground zero for the Finns and Cooper, for arguing that Luther understands deification in the person of Christ to be the precursor to our deification or justification. What Luther does not seem to be up to in the Galatians commentary, since Cooper does not emphasize these matters in his book, is distinguishing law and Gospel, the theology of the cross, or the theology of the Word. Instead, Cooper grounds his critique of the New Perspective on Paul by following Mannermaa into the Galatians commentary, where the latter emphasizes a theology of love which reflects, not Lutherʼs search for a gracious God, but Schwenkfeldʼs search for pure love, found finally in being formed in Christ himself as our complete and perfected holiness. Sin is then formulated as misdirected love. Faith is redirected love, when Jesus himself effects this in the Christian. Righteousness is an ontological reality.

Disputes about how the Church is to properly interpret St. Paul are not really debates about Paulʼs teaching on salvation. They are disputes about the person of Christ. Luther teaches us that if you are going to speak about Christ and union with Christ, which I think we can and must do, you must begin, not where Cooper begins with ipsa fide, “in faith itself,” but with iste homo, deus iste, “This man and this God.” This is routinely missed by Cooper in his book, who seems to think that being in Christ is a process of becoming less one thing and becoming (ontologically) more of another thing. In this case, the sinful human passing over into the holy divine.

However, in the Freedom of a Christian, Luther explains that Christians live outside themselves, in Christ by faith and in their neighbors through love. When Cooper writes about what being in Christ means, and talk of union with Christ, he ends up abstracting from the real, specific and concrete communcatio idiomatum of Christ, which is not kind to theology that always wants to move into an obscure, abstract mode of speaking. Thus it will be beneficial for readers of this book to consider first what Luther has to say about this matter in Against the Heavenly Prophets (LW 40:146–7):

“Now when God sends forth his holy Gospel he deals with us in a twofold manner, first outwardly, then inwardly. Outwardly he deals with us through the oral word of the Gospel and through material signs, that is, baptism and the sacrament of the altar. Inwardly he deals with us through the Holy Spirit, faith, and other gifts. But whatever their measure or order the outward factors should and must precede. The inward experience follows and is effected by the outward. God has determined to give the inward to no one except through the outward...Observe carefully, my brother, this order, for everything depends on it. However cleverly this factious spirit makes believe that he regards highly the Word and the Spirit of God and declaims passionately about love and zeal for truth and righteousness of God, he nevertheless has as his purpose to reverse this order. His insolence leads him to set up a contrary order and, as we have said, seeks to subordinate God’s outward order to an inner spiritual one... The Spirit, the Spirit, the Spirit, must do this inwardly [they say]. Can bread and wine profit me? Will breathing over the bread bring Christ in the sacrament? No, no, one must [do this] inwardly... But should you ask how one gains access to the same lofty spirit they do not refer you to the outward Gospel but to some imaginary realm, saying: Remain in ʻself abstractionʼ where I now am and you will have the same experience. A heavenly voice will come and God himself will speak to you.”

Donavon Riley

Webster, Minnesota