Word and Faith in the Formation of Christian Personhood coram Deo

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Scott A. Celsor
Ecumenical Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Peter Lang Publishing
    , January
     2016.
     185 pages.
     $81.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781433131424.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation approaches, there will be many conferences, books, and articles assessing its relevance for today. Many will center around the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), evaluating its impact on Lutheran/Roman Catholic relationships. Scott Celsor’s book is one of those evaluations.

Celsor’s book begins with a brief overview of the reception of JDDJ and Lutheran objections to it by the theological faculty of Göttingen (Eberhard Jungel, Ingolf Dalferth, and Gerhard Ebeling). These objections led to a "Letter of Protest" signed by "over 250 theologians” (3-4). Because of Ebeling’s ecumenical involvement, questions arose as to why he would object to JDDJ. Most pointedly, these questions were (1) What elements in Ebeling’s hermeneutical theology led him to “reject” JDDJ and to sign the letter of protest? (11; and ( 2) What has been the “impact” of Ebeling’s rejection of JDDJ and the implications for future “ecumenical discussions between Lutherans and Catholics?” (12).

After an overview of Ebeling’s life and theology and his involvement in ecumenical theology, Celsor examines Ebeling’s understanding of “the task of ecumenism,” his “understanding of the church,” and the role of doctrine in the church’s proclamation of “the word of God” (16). For Ebeling the church is not an institution, but “the actualization of the life of Christ within the lives of people” (19). The true “unity of the church is Jesus Christ” does not lie in doctrinal agreements (22). The ecumenical task for Ebeling is not to try to establish outward unity by means of doctrinal agreements or mergers, but to take as a given “the already present unity of the church” found in the proclaimed “Word of God in its verbal and sacramental forms” (23). The other part of the ecumenical task is to determine which “doctrinal differences” are truly “justifiable” as church-dividing and which are not (22). “God’s Word” is proclaimed by the church to lead human beings “to understand” their spiritual needs and to answer that need by “creating faith” in Christ—which is “the life of God within people” (29). This faith is “a gift of the Holy Spirit” (63) to the human being who is “a passive recipient of the word” (61).

Celsor states “that in examining Luther’s hermeneutic” Ebeling discovered “his own theological method” (42). Both rejected Thomistic scholasticism’s nature/grace framework, its infused grace, and the human being’s active role in salvation, and replaced them with “a person/word” relationship (53). The human person is redeemed by union with Christ in faith. This union involves an “unequal exchange of righteousness and sin”—Christ giving his righteousness and taking people’s sin to himself (58). The foundation of the believer’s life is found “outside of the self” in Christ and his righteousness. Thus “Christology and the doctrine of justification become one” (59). Ebeling’s understanding of the Church as the life of Christ finds its center in the union of Christ and the Christian by faith.

Ebeling describes justification as the sinner being “made righteous” (69) as “one is absorbed by” God’s Word. God’s Word changes the soul “by creating faith” which brings one into God’s presence “coram Deo” (70). Faith itself is “a divine work” which changes a person (68). Celsor states that Ebeling’s understanding of being made righteous “cannot be understood in a traditionally Catholic sense” as is found in Trent. For Ebeling, Christ is coming to life in the believer and there is an “exchanging of one’s sin for Christ’s righteousness” (70). New life is found only in Christ. The believer remains “both righteous in Christ and yet sinful” (71). The justification of sinners is “God’s work” (73). The “radical” distinction between Creator and creature is lost if human beings have a role in their salvation (74). So Celsor finds that Ebeling’s understanding of justification has “broad affinities with” the understanding of justification “in the Formula of Concord” (71).

Celsor argues that Ebeling rejected JDDJ due to its “ambiguity” in “the doctrine of grace” which allows for “human cooperation in justification.” Ebeling sees justification happening “purely through the action of God’s Word, without a human contribution” (94). Ebeling also rejected JDDJ because he believed it was not “an agreement upon the nature and function of the church” which is “to proclaim justification by faith without works” through God’s Word and the sacraments (95).

In assessing the impact of Ebeling’s rejection of JDDJ, Celsor studies the work of those influenced by Ebeling’s theology who also rejected JDDJ – Mark Menacher, Gerhard Forde, and some members of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their primary objection is that JDDJ is “fundamentally unclear” in its understanding of grace (104). Celsor sees that Ebeling’s emphasis on “the word-event” and his rejection of “infused” grace have caused “great difficulty” for receiving JDDJ among “some Lutherans,” and says that if future ecumenical documents do not clearly define grace, Ebeling’s objection is likely to reappear (111).

Other questions have also arisen in response to the JDDJ: what is the “purpose of the church,” what is the “relationship between the Word of God and church doctrine,”  what is “the purpose of ecumenism,” and what “method” best enables ecumenical aims and purposes? (111-12). Celsor’s conclusions indicate that perhaps a different way of doing ecumenical work may be necessary to reflect the unity of the church in Christ.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Armand J. Boehme is associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Northfield, Minnesota.

Date of Review: 
May 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Scott A. Celsor received his PhD in religious studies (systematic theology) from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is currently Adjunct Instructor for Religious Studies in the Department of History, Political Science, and Religious Studies at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He has published several articles and translations for various scholarly journals, such as Lutheran Quarterly, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Philosophy and Theology, and Horizons in Biblical Theology.

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