The “mystical union” in Lutheran spirituality

Medieval depiction of the Church as the Bride of ChristGoogling for articles on “Lutheran spirituality” (as you do), I came across the essay Lutheran Spirituality and the Pastor (PDF) by Gaylin R. Schmeling.

Two themes highlighted in this essay leapt out at me:

  • “Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio” (prayer, meditation, affliction), which Prof Schmeling describes as “the heart of Lutheran spirituality”.
  • “The mystical union” between God and the justified sinner (or as Prof Schmeling puts it, “Union and Communion with God through the life-giving Word and the blessed Sacraments”).

In this post, we’ll looking at the second of these themes, the mystical union. In my next post we’ll look at what Prof Schemeling says about the theme of oratio, meditatio, tentatio.

The “mystical union” is not, I have to admit, a phrase I have heard often in my decade as a Lutheran. “Mystical” is not a very “Lutheran”-sounding word, and apparently some have suggested that the concept is a product of Pietism, rather part of “orthodox” Lutheranism. However, Schmeling argues that the mystical union has been feature of Lutheran theology right from the start, finding references to it (if not the phrase itself) in the Lutheran Confessions.

But what is the mystical union? Schmeling quotes Johann Quenstedt (1617-1688):

The mystical union is the real and most intimate conjunction of the substance of the Holy Trinity and the God-man Christ with the substance of believers, effected by God Himself through the Gospel, the Sacraments, and faith, by which, through a special approximation of His essence, and by a gracious operation, He is in them, just as also believers are in Him; that, by a mutual and reciprocal immanence they may partake of His vivifying power and all His mercies, become assured of the grace of God and eternal salvation, and preserve unity in the faith and love with the other members of His mystical body.

The mystical union is, to use an image employed by David Jay Webber, a “bridge” between justification and sanctification: the sinner is justified by grace through faith, is united to God in the mystical union, and begins to live a new life of holiness and love. The three can be distinguished conceptually, but are simultaneous in practice, with each flowing through to produce the next.

The mystical union is not a dissolution or absorption of the human into the divine:

Rather the Lutheran theologians explicate the mystical union using the analogy of the personal union in Christ. As the human and the divine in Christ are united into one person and yet the natures remain distinct, so in the mystical union the Trinity makes its dwelling in man but God and man remain distinct.

Lutheran devotion has commonly used the image of marriage to describe this union as in Gerhardt’s hymn ending: “And there, in garments richly wrought / as Thine own bride, I shall be brought / to stand in joy beside Thee.” In marriage, man and woman are united as one flesh, but without losing their own identities or existence. (Hence the image used for this post, of the Church as the Bride of Christ.)

Nor is this a direct union which bypasses the word and sacraments, or the life of the church. Rather, “this gracious union with God is conveyed and preserved through the means of grace.”

Finally, it’s important to note the direction in which this union operates. It is not a ladder up which we ascend to God through our own efforts or contemplation:

in the mysticism of the Lutheran fathers man does not climb to God through contemplation, but God Himself descends to us in the manger and the cross. Christ unites us with Himself in the Word, He clothes us with Himself in Baptism, and He feeds us with Himself in the Holy Supper so that we have union and communion with the divine.

The concept of the mystical union is important in Lutheran spirituality because, as noted above, it is the bridge that connects our status as forgiven sinners (justification) with our life as Christians, growing in holiness and love (sanctification). It also shows how the Lutheran understanding of our union with God is richer than I had previously appreciated.

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