Conformitas Christi and Imitatio Christi
A while back I talked to a fellow Lutheran priest and and we talked, amongst other things, about some traditional differences between Lutheran and Roman Catholic views on our relation to Christ, and about the difference between imitatio Christi, which is a traditional emphasis in Roman Catholic theology, with an emphasis on our imitation of Christ (cf. Philippians 2:5, 1. Peter 2:18-25), and conformitas Christi, which is a traditional emphasis in Lutheran theology, and particularily in Luther’s own though, with an emphasis on our conformity to Christ (cf. Romans 8:28-30).I believe that those two concepts are both very important, but I also believe that something is lost when we see them in a kind of duality.
Most Lutheran Lutheran theologians hold that conformitas Christi is ‘more important’ than imitatio Christi. The latter, they say, follows from, or flows forth from, the former. But while that is true, I don’t think that we will really grasp them until we stop viewing them as a duality and start to see both, in their proper relation, as following from, and being based on, the more basic notion of participatio Christi, participation in Christ.Participatio Christi is often seen as an aspect of conformitas Christi, but I don’t agree with that. We partake of Christ, logically speaking, before we are conformed to Him, conformed to His image. The former is given us directly, through faith, in baptism, where Christ is truly present in the believer and the believer truly partakes of him, and the latter is a process through which God ‘molds’ us; forms us in, or conforms us to, the image of his Son (Romans 8:28-30), which then may result in our imitation of Christ.
In fact, I believe that this notion is at the heart of theology, and it is one of the main elements of my Lutheran defence of the Eucharistic sacrifice, and it was absolutely central to my PhD.When we properly understand our relation to Christ, through the hypostatic union, and expressed in (the Lutheran understanding of) the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, we see that it all boils down to this: Undeservedly, by grace, we are justified and made children of God, partakers of Christ, which, through the working of God, conforms us more and more to Christ, and which, again through the working of God, produces in us an imitation of Christ or what Christ and St. Paul calls ‘fruit.’ Note the important part of that image. No tree can force fruit to come. If the tree is good, and if it is well ‘fed,’ it will produce fruit. And we cannot produce fruit, says Christ, unless we are in him (John 15). He is the true vine, we are the branches, having been grafted into him.
When people argue what is more important; conformity to Christ or imitation of him, I say that they are both crucially important but must be understood in their proper relation to each other and, more importantly, to the more basic notion of our participation in Him. Without that as the starting point, it all collapses and we end up emphasising ourselves (either inwardly or outwardly) instead of Him.
For some points about this read Per Lønning, “Conformitas Christi,” in Lønning, The Dilemma of Contemporary Theology: Prefigured in Luther, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget 1962): 9-26, and Bård Norheim, Practicing Baptism: Christian Practices and the Presence of Christ (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications 2014): 104-106, 160-162, 174-176.
For some ideas on this, see Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, eds., Carl E. Braaten & Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1998).
See Kjetil Kringlebotten, ““Do this in remembrance of me…” A Lutheran defence of the sacrifice of the mass” (Studia Theologica: Nordic Journal of Theology 71, 2017): 127-147; Kjetil Kringlebotten, Liturgy, Theurgy, and Active Participation: On Theurgic Participation in God, PhD dissertation (Durham University, 2021).
See esp. Vidar Haanes, “Christological Themes in Luther’s Theology” (Studia Theologica: Nordic Journal of Theology 61, 2007): 21-46 (esp. 30-33); Johann Anselm Steiger, “The communicatio idiomatum as the Axle and Motor of Luther’s Theology” (Lutheran Quarterly 14, 2000): 125-158.