Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gustaf Wingren on the Work of Christ.

More from my Forde book.

Among moderate revisionists, we will lastly turn to the theology of the Swedish Lutheran theologian Gustaf Wingren (1910-2000).[1] While Wingren’s main interests centered on the doctrine of creation, he nevertheless had many valuable things to say regarding the work of Christ and its relationship to the article of creation.  One of Wingren’s consummate concerns was the denigration of the doctrine of creation within twentieth-century continental Protestant theology.  In his classic work Creation and Law, Wingren blames Karl Barth and Dialectical theology in general for persistence of this trend.[2]  Within the articles of the creed and narrative presented to us in Sacred Scripture, creation comes before redemption.[3]  If therefore it is the task of Christian theology to properly describe God and his works based on the revelation presented in the Bible, God is known first as creator and only secondly as redeemer.  By contrast, on an existential level, humanity receives knowledge of God as redeemer through the preaching of the gospel and then only subsequently is God known as creator.  The irony of theology taught by Barth and the other Dialectical theologians is that by placing the second article first in their exposition of dogma, they continue the tradition of theological Liberalism by placing the human subject’s experience of redemption first: “Man, and his knowledge determine the Creed, and not God and His works.”[4]  Ultimately then, for Barth and theologians like him: “. . . the anthropocentric character [of their theology] is unbroken.”[5]

This nevertheless provokes the question: How does placing the article of creation first place the work of redemption in its proper light?  Much like Luther, Wingren understands the law as functioning through the medium of the created order.  God works via his creaturely masks (larva Dei) in accordance to his will of law.  The reality of the law present in these masks has the positive role of preserving creation by way of the created orders (family, state, Church).[6]  Nevertheless there is also a negative side to God’s activity in these means, namely, the inexorable and unrelenting experience of divine judgment by his creatures.  When a person is forced by the authorities to perform certain acts in accordance with God’s law, his conscience is necessarily accused.[7]  When humans are deprived of certain things that they in their egocentricity desire then accusation is also felt.[8]  Indeed, the human person in his or her everyday conduct “. . reveals that his [or her] heart is godless.  We might say that man’s conscience has a continual foretaste of the Last Judgment.”[9]  In this sense also, the emphasis of Barth and the Dialectical theologians upon the unknowability of God apart from revelation is meaningless.  The real issue is not the knowledge of God, but rather whether or not saving knowledge of God is attainable.

In spite of the fact that the world has become a realm of unrelenting judgment, creation in and of itself remains good, and is an object of God’s redemptive love.  Redemption is necessary because fallen humanity suffers the enslavement of sin, death, the Devil, and the law. Ultimately the human race must be freed by God’s conquest of the demonic forces of the old creation.  In his book The Living Word, in a similar manner to AulĂ©n, Wingren frequently uses the motifs of conquest and new creation to discuss the work of Christ.  Early in the work, our author argues that the “Bible’s theme is the conflict of God and the Devil.”[10]  Some, of course, might object to this idea on the grounds that the Devil is not mentioned in the earlier books of the Bible and only becomes a universally accepted figure in intertestamental Judaism. Wingren insists that the absence of Satan has little to do with lack of the presence of the demonic in the Old Testament, and more to do with the limited horizon of national conflict and apostasy within which early Israel operated.  Early Israel’s experience of conflict and temptation by idols of the pagan nations surrounding them was but a microcosm of the macrocosm of the cosmic battle between God and the Devil.[11] With the advent of the universal horizon of apocalyptic, Israel (and the Church after it) could finally properly understand the saving work of God was directed against a single demonic force behind the masks of the idols.  Hence Jesus is seen throughout the New Testament as a second Adam and restorer of creation, who has come to enter into conflict with the universal destroyer of creation, Satan.[12]

Therefore Christ’s task as the self-donating God is to free creation, thereby restoring and fulfilling God’s original purpose: “Christ’s task is to enter human life, destroy satanic might and free man.”[13]  For Wingren, this is the real meaning of the Lutheran understanding of the communicatio idiomatum.  Christ’s humanity does not simply echo to us God’s pre-temporal decrees (contra Barth), but is itself the very presence of divinity entering into the fray of the battle for creation as our champion: “Christ’s humanity is no limitation of the majesty of God, as Barth argues.  Christ’s humanity is the conqueror’s-God’s-presence on the field of battle where Satan is to be laid low in the conqueror’s death and resurrection and forced to let go his grip on men.”[14] 

Freedom from Satan and the wrath of God necessarily means the death and resurrection of the sinner.  God’s own presence is manifest not only in the flesh of Christ, but in the word of judgment and grace that he has given the Church to proclaim: “Even in the passage and even in preaching, the communicatio idiomatum holds sway.”[15]  The activity of the Word is divine: “The Word of the Bible, carries within itself Christ’s coming as its general aim, to which all tends . . . It is in the simple words, in what is human in the Bible, that God’s power is hidden; divine and human must not be separated.”[16]  Therefore, through God’s two words of law and gospel the battle of Christ for creation is continued.  By God’s effective Word, old sinners are killed and resurrected as new beings of faith.  This is because “. . . ‘law and grace’ is ‘death and resurrection.’”[17]

Nevertheless, this explanation of the saving power and presence of God does not specifically describe of the means by which redemption is accomplished.  Wingren’s answer to the question comes in his seminal work, Gospel and Church, where he develops a doctrine of recapitulation.  Wingren not only favors this idea because of his engagement with Irenaeus of Lyon (the fruit of which was his masterful study Man and the Incarnation[18]) but because of his earlier use of Luther’s theme of the unity of law and creation.  If the biblical word of law expresses the pattern, and order of God’s judging and coercion activity in creation, then a redemptive fulfillment of the law on behalf of humanity must also logically means the recapitulation and renewal of creation.  Similarly, if the demonic forces that enslave creation are God’s masks and instruments of his wrath against sin, then logically fulfillment of the law would conqueror the tyrants who hold creation in their sway.

Recapitulating Adam, Jesus enters into the place of sinful humanity: “As man Christ stands under the law.  Under the law and under wrath Christ lives the life of Adam, i.e. our human life, which means that he is tempted.”[19]  This descent to human existence did not merely assuming human nature, but also entering into all the terrors face humans under the tutelage of the hidden God: “In His temptation He is divested of His divinity in such a way that in the end it is His dread in the presence of God which binds Him to God.”  Indeed, he was tempted like Adam to seek divinity and not to take upon himself the form of the servant.  Perpetually confronted by temptation, Christ’s obedience to the Father grew ever deeper throughout his temporal life: “His temptations come to a climax in Gethsemane and on the cross.” His obedience actualizes what Adam should have been as a creature and as such breaks the power of wrath and of the law: “In the life which He lived as a man Christ succeeded in rendering obedience, even though he had ‘’emptied Himself.”  And this obedience broke the power of the law and did away with wrath.”  Such a victory is manifested in the resurrection: “The uncorrupted life is free from the law and therefore from death.  But this life has been realized only in the resurrection of Christ.  Humanity is to be found only in the one who rose on the third day, and if we would attain humanity we must seek it from Him.”[20]

Christ’s obedience is salvific precisely because he himself is the presence of God.  Wingren coordinates his description of Christ’s human obedience with the Lutheran doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum.  It is from within Jesus’ human ministry that God acts: “The power of His divinity to destroy the dominion of the law is effective even in his humiliation, for His humiliation is obedience that puts an end to the law and to wrath.”[21]  Indeed, “God’s freedom from the law and His power to create are not in effect apart from Christ’s human conflict.”[22]  Hence God manifests his divinity in, under, and with Christ’s humanity by redeeming, recapitulating and recreating the world from within it.  For “[a]s God Christ is at work in begetting and creating in others the life which they themselves do not possess.  Adam did not have the power to create even in his God-appointed state of purity.”[23]  He re-creates humanity by his effective word of forgiveness: “Since the dominion of death and the destruction of human life arose in man’s disobedience and yielding to temptation, Christ brings His creative power to bear at the critical point when He forgives sins.  His divinity was to be seen in his earthly life in His forgiving of men their sins.”[24]  Therefore it was his divinity immanent in his humanity (genus majestaticum) that broke the power of the law: “And it is manifest that His offer to forgive sins annuls the judgment which the law passes against man.  But He began to break the power of the law even before His death, and in this we see His divine nature revealed.”[25]  In the power of his resurrection then enacts freedom of the new creation.  This freedom is freedom from the condemnation of the law: “His resurrection has an added factor which marks it off from the resuscitation of others who were dead, viz. the offer of forgiveness.  This is the heart of His resurrection.”[26]

[1] See the following works by Gustaf Wingren: Gustaf Wingren, The Christian's Calling, trans. Ross MacKenzie (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1958);  idem,Creation and Law, trans. Ross McKenzie (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press,1961);  idem, Credo: The Christian View of Faith and Life,  trans. Edgar Carlson (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1981);  idem, An Exodus Theology; Einar Billing and the Development of Modern Swedish Theology, trans.  Eric Wahlstrom  (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969);  idem, Gospel and Church, trans. Ross MacKenzie (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1964);  idem, Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957);  idem, The Living Word: A Theological Study of Preaching and the Church, trans. Victor C. Pogue (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960);  idem, Man and the Incarnation: A Study in the Biblical Theology of Irenaeus, trans. Ross MacKenzie (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1959); idem, Theology of Conflict: NygrenBarth, Bultmann, trans. Eric Wahlstrom (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1958).  See the following secondary works on the theology of Wingren: Mary Elizabeth Anderson, Gustaf Wingren and the Swedish Luther Renaissance (New York: Peter Lang, 2006); Jonny Karlsson,Predikans samtal : en studie av lyssnarens roll i predikan hos Gustaf Wingren utifrån Michail Bachtins teori om dialogicitet (Skellefteå, Sweden: Artos, 2000); Tomas Nygren, Lag och evangelium som tal om Gud : en analys av synen på lag och evangelium hos några nutida lutherska teologer : Pannenberg, Wingren och Scaer (Skellefteå, Sweden: Artos, 2007); Arne Rasmusson, "A Century of Swedish Theology" Lutheran Quarterly 21, no. 2 (2007): 131-38.

[2] Wingren, Creation and Law, 12-14.

[3] Ibid., 12.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 149-73. Also see his aforementioned  Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957). 

[7] Wingren, Creation and Law, 174.

[8] Ibid.    

[9] Ibid.

[10] Wingren, The Living Word, 42.

[11] Ibid., 42-44.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 32.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 208.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 137.

[18] See the aforementioned Gustaf Wingren, Man and the Incarnation: A Study in the Biblical Theology of Irenaeus, trans. Ross MacKenzie (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1959).

[19] Wingren, Gospel and Church, 95.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 96-7.

[22] Ibid., 97.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 96.

[25] Ibid.  Emphasis added.

[26] Ibid.


  1. I would take his account of recapitulation as implicated and effected by Christ's true, fleshly, and conquering divinity (the genus majestaticum hidden in the one Person) but I am less inclined to accept his language concerning the language, status, and function of the Law. Also, I wonder about the language of coercion. Accusation surely, but coercion? I am thinking of Luther's account of the bound will in On Free Choice. In this spirit, if the Law is the lex aeterna (and it is) then enslavement to this eternal will of God would not be something one would need to be delivered from, but need to be bound to.

    There seems to be some implicit antinomian sentiment in the description of the work of Christ described above. The Law is only a problem for sinners, it is not itself the problem. The anthropological problem is what needs to be addressed - and it seems as if Wingren does seek to address it. Because fallen humanity is not able keep the Law, and because the Law is not given to provide what it demands, there the work of Christ delivers and restores the corrupted human nature for fulfillment of its own end according to the eternal will of God.

  2. I just revisited the FoC and found that the concordists do use the language of coercion to describe the Law in reference to the unregenerate.

  3. Okay, also in reference to the regenerate; specifically in reference to the, temporally speaking, remains of the old nature.

  4. One last, it appears I was not totally off concerning hesitation over coercion: "Believers, however, do without coercion, with a willing spirit, insofar as they are born anew, what no threat of the law could ever force from them." --epitome, VI.

  5. Gropper- When Wingren talks about coercion, he means God's activity through the kingdom of the left towards sinners and the old nature of Christians. He's not antinominian, in fact, it's his goal to validate the law and creation against the negative treads of the 20th century. Lex aeterna is valid, but we must recognize that for sinners (who Wingren is addressing) the law has the office of accusing and coercing (the first and second uses of the law). Moreover, though the law remains the content of God's eternal will after the work of Christ, it nevertheless loses its force and ability to coerce or accuse sinners. It becomes a "lex vacua" an empty law, since it has been silence by Christ's fulfillment of it.

    BTW, in my Christology book I largely take Wingren's posiiton, while synthesizing it with Lutheran scholasticism's threefold office. Adam was prophet, priest, and king. The threefold office recapitulates Adam, but also fulfills the threefold work of atonement: King=conquest of the Devil, priest=atonement, prophet=revelation.

  6. Where would you recommend beginning with Wingren's work?

  7. Would start with his historical studies: Man and Incarnation, and Luther on Vocation. Then I would move into the dogmatic works starting first with Creation and Law, and then moving onto Gospel and Church, and then finally to The Living Word.