Imitating Christ? Maybe not so much…

Hate it or love it, Luther has a fun habit of up-ending some of the most sacred and treasured notions of the ancient world.

One of these notions, which has become integral to classical Christian theology, is the notion of “imitation” or mimesis.

Mimesis is a conventional Greco-Roman way of understanding how knowledge, education, salvation, philosophical attainment – even the very fabric of being itself – “works”. The basic idea is that you think of reality as a huge set of images, cascading downwards from heavenly archetypes. Things find their being as reflections of higher images, and the way you learn/ascend/develop/advance is by more exactly imitating “higher”, better images. So, for example, in late Greco-Roman political theory, earthly societies are supposed to imitate divine models: people are to imitate the emperor, who is to imitate Christ, who imitates God; or, the empire is to struggle to become an ever better mirror-image of the kingdom of heaven. Likewise, in Christian theology, the Christian is to imitate Christ, and so become ever better conformed to the divine (the “image of God”).

The early church – innocently enough – adopted this whole conceptual framework pretty much wholesale.

But Luther smelled a rat.

He sums up the essence of the matter in his short but very important “A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels” (1521). His basic argument is simple: yes, Christ does provide us with an important example in his various works, etc. But:

“…this is the smallest part of the gospel, on the basis of which it cannot yet even be called gospel [Good News]. For on this level Christ is of no more help to you than some other saint. His life remains his own and does not yet contribute anything to you. In short this mode does not make Christians but only hypocrites. You must grasp Christ at a much higher level…”

(At this point, in a Greco-Roman text, this “higher level” would almost certainly be some mode of intellectual or supra-intellectual contemplation. Not for Luther!)

“…The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you.”1 (Emphases mine.)

What Luther is saying is that salvation has nothing to do with our own actions of imitating some higher models – this would require us to somehow “participate ” or “cooperate” in our salvation. Instead, salvation is 100% about what Christ does, and so entirely about accepting and trusting that what Christ did is truly given to us.

And Luther means this quite literally: we are given Christ’s actual righteousness. Christ doesn’t just “enable” us to create our own pale reflection or similitude of his holiness or righteousness, by some type of “assisting grace” or by any other means. No: the Good News is that God has promised to give us the real thing, the whole thing, in toto – which is, in fact, Christ himself. Here’s what he says, shortly after the above passage.

“See, when you lay hold of Christ as a gift which is given you for your very own and have no doubt about it, you are a Christian.”2

We are Christians not because we imitate Christ – we are Christians because we have been given Christ.

Christianity therefore becomes entirely focused on God’s giving, and God’s gift; not our actions. And so the Gospel becomes in its very essence a promise of a gift that we are simply to trust and to hope upon –not a model, or archetype, or set of regulations, to be conformed to or enacted.

This is a pretty radical shift.

Imitation is not entirely thrown out, of course. Luther makes it quite clear that it is useful to follow Christ’s example. But this only follows upon God’s act of salvation. As is characteristic of Luther’s theology, the key things is to get the order right. There can be no fusing, no “synergy”, no simultaneity of the human and divine. God FIRST acts and does everything. Full stop. Full, complete, earth-shattering, stop! THEN we can speak about what this means for how we act, and how we might usefully do things like try to imitate Christ.

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  1. T. Lull and W. Russell, eds. and trans., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 1st ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 106. []
  2. ibid. p. 107. []