Lutheranism

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Adhering to the Book of Concord: “In So Far As” or “Because” it agrees with Scripture?

A title page of the Book of Concord

A title page of the Book of Concord

Lutheran theology is derived from and reflective upon not just Martin Luther but also the Lutheran Confessions, as found in the Book of Concord. Within Lutheranism, there is much debate over exactly how tightly one must adhere to the Book of Concord. On one side, there are those who insist we must affirm the Book of Concord “because” it agrees with the Bible. On the other side, others maintain we should affirm it “in so far as” it agrees with the Bible.

Because it Agrees

Representative of the view that one must agree with the Book of Concord because it teaches what the Bible teaches is the following:

Authentically Lutheran churches insist on a subscription to the Confessions [The Lutheran Confessions/Book of Concord are used interchangeably] because they agree with the Bible, not merely in so far as they agree with Scripture. Otherwise, there would be no objective way to make sure that there is faithful teaching and preaching of God’s Word. Everything would depend on each pastor’s private opinions, subjective interpretations, and personal feelings, rather than on objective truth as set forth in the Lutheran Confessions. (Book of Concord (.org) FAQ)

Note some important aspects in this quote. First, the Book of Concord just does agree with the Bible. That is insisted upon. Second, the Book of Concord is said to be “objective truth” as opposed to the “subjective interpretations” of the individual. These considerations frame what I’d like to comment on regarding those who hold to the view that we must agree with the book of Concord “because…”

Because? 

I’ll start with the second aspect noted above. There are, of course, all kinds of increasingly detailed issues people on either side of the debate might raise here. For example, how are “objective” and “subjective” being here defined? I’m going to set that kind of issue mostly aside and focus on a few difficulties I see.

The first is that one cannot simply read the words off the pages of the Book of Concord without going through the necessary step of interpreting them. That is, I as a reader of the Book of Concord must try to make sense of the words I am reading, and thus I am participating in the act of interpreting the Book of Concord. If, as the quote above states, the problem is the individual’s subjective nature, then the problem is completely unavoidable. Indeed, even if we grant that the Book of Concord is “objective truth” in its entirety, all we’ve done is moved the problem of subjective interpretation one step back. Now the reader must interpret the Book of Concord in order to get to the objective truth about Scripture found therein.

Another difficulty with this objective/subjective distinction is that it assumes the writers of the Lutheran Confessions were themselves either not subjective (which seems impossible) or explicitly guided by the Spirit to write out objective truth only. I would not dispute that the Holy Spirit could bring about a completely faultless writing, but the question is whether those who affirm the “because” position would like to argue this. The first thing we should do if they do want to argue this would be to see whether the writers of the Book of Concord assert the Holy Spirit did bring about such a completely objective, 100% correct work.

In the Preface to the Book of Concord, we can read:

Finally, with invocation of God Almighty and to his praise and glory and with careful deliberation and meticulous diligence through the particular grace of the Holy Spirit, they wrote down in good order and brought together into one book everything that pertains to and is necessary for this purpose. (Preface, 12)

Later, the Preface makes clear (15) that this Book was “the correct, Christian understanding of the Augsburg Confession…” In the closing of the Preface, we read (23) that those who signed on to it that they “are minded not to manufacture anything new… nor to depart in either substance or expression… from the divine truth… by the grace of the Holy Spirit we intend to persist and remain unanimously in this truth and regulate all religious controversies and their explanations according to it.”

These are all strong statements, and they clearly called upon God the Holy Spirit for guidance in the composition of the various works that make up the Book of Concord. But does it follow that they were explicitly, inerrantly inspired and guided by the Spirit to never once get a single thing wrong in this book? Those who affirm the “because” position must answer yes. There is no wiggle room.

But a close reading of the Preface seems to suggest that although the writers certainly believed everything in the Book of Concord to be without theological error (otherwise they would not have it regulate all controversies, etc.), I have yet to find anywhere that a claim could be made that the book is explicitly inerrant. It would have to be, however, for the “because” position to be true. This human composition would have to be 100% correct in every single minute detail down to the last proof text cited in order for it to be acceptable to affirm that we must agree with it “because” it agrees with Scripture.

Among other things, what follows from that is that anyone who subscribes to the Book of Concord “because” position must have read the entirety, looked up every citation, and assured themselves that every single interpretation, doctrinal position, and the like is 100% correct, lest they be saying that it is a human-made book without error on God’s Word without actually knowing every detail it contains.

The first issue raised above will be addressed in the section named “A Case Study,” below.

In So Far As

A supporting argument for the “In So Far As” position is that we should always only affirm that which is true. If we can agree that the Bible is true in all it teaches, then we should only agree with other writings about the Bible so far as they agree with the Bible. This seems like an obvious conclusion, but the whole debate centers on whether this argument is sound. It is difficult for me to figure out how to support this argument, not because I think it is a poor argument, but because it seems just intuitively clear.

It may help to use an analogy. Historians have debated how to write history and whether writers of history can ever fully get at the “true” history as it happened. Yet very few would deny that there is such a thing as a “true” history. There must be some absolutely correct sequence in which events occurred such that if we had a complete set of writings that simply reported those events, that would be the “true” history. Thus, there is an objectively true history, against which historians can be measured. Granting some of the hand waving involved in this thought experiment, suppose we had a book, The True History of the World, and we looked up the John F. Kennedy assassination therein. We would then have the objectively true report of that hotly-debated historical event as it really did happen. Now suppose I wanted to write a book about the JFK assassination based upon The True History of the World. However careful a historian I am, however excellent and detailed my mind is, however much guidance I may have had, would it be reasonable to say that you agree with my book, The Objective JFK Assassination “because” it agrees with The True History of the World or “in so far as” it does? It seems that the reasonable conclusion would be “in so far as” it does, because we know that The True History of the World is objectively true.

Though imperfect, this analogy gets at the argument written above. We can agree the Bible is inerrant. Thus, if I were to write a book entitled The Objective Bible, I think we can agree that we should only agree with my book so far as it agrees with the Bible, right? No matter how detailed I am, no matter how meticulous, no matter how large a group of thoughtful interpreters I got together to vet my work, it would be entirely reasonable to only affirm agreement with my book so far as it is biblical. Then why would such a standard not also apply to the Book of Concord? I see no reason why that standard would not.

Indeed, to argue against those who affirm the Book of Concord only “in so far as” it agrees with the Bible would mean that one would have to assert that the caution and respect for God’s word implicit in that position–that I would not want to affirm anything, even by mistake, as biblical if it is even possibly in error anywhere–are mistaken. That the care and caution necessary to say “I will only agree with any book in so far as it agrees with the Word of God” is mistaken, and that that the Book of Concord must also be included under the umbrella of books against which all others must be judged.

For the “because” position ultimately, unswervingly leads to the conclusion that we should only affirm any other book “in so far as” it agrees with the Book of Concord. After all, if it is true that the Book of Concord is affirmed because it agrees with Scripture, then it follows that the authority of the Bible is effectively equivalent to the authority of the Book of Concord. The Bible is God’s word, and the Book of Concord is the objective teaching of God’s word without even possible error. That is not simply rhetoric; it is what must follow from the “because” position. Any interpretation of the Bible must be judged against the Book of Concord; hence, any reading of the Bible must also be judged against it.

A Case Study

Finally, we are in position to ask whether the Book of Concord does indeed have any error therein. That is a crucial question, of course, and one not easily resolved by those who remain faithful Lutherans. If, however, there is even one incorrect use of a proof text in the Book of Concord, the “because” position fails.

In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIII (XI) on the Marriage of Priests, section 25, we read:

Therefore this law concerning perpetual celibacy is peculiar to this new pontifical despotism. Nor is it without a reason. For Daniel 11:37, ascribes to the kingdom of Antichrist this mark, namely, the contempt of women.

Daniel 11:37 reads (ESV) “He shall pay no attention to the gods of his fathers, or to the one beloved by women. He shall not pay attention to any other god, for he shall magnify himself above all.”

The whole passage is difficult to interpret given its prophetic message about the Kings of the North and the South. I’m not going to enter into whether this is specifically referencing “Antichrist” or “the kingdom of Antichrist” or anything of the sort. Instead, the issue is with the reading as “contempt of women.” The Reformers were obviously not using the ESV or anything in English. But older English editions like the KJV might support this text as a proof for contempt of women: “Neither shall he regard the God of his fathers, nor the desire of women, nor regard any god: for he shall magnify himself above all.”

But the problem is that critical editions of the Old Testament don’t support a reading as contempt of women. Without going into depths of detail, and because I’m not a Hebrew scholar by any measure, I would just point out that the Hebrew does seem to clearly state “the one desired by women.” So if we are to read 11:37 as a proof text for contempt of women, it doesn’t seem to be a right reading. It’s a minor difficulty, but one nevertheless. Did the citation above from the Book of Concord properly exegete the Bible? I would assert that the use of this proof text is mistaken. If we are to take “paying no attention” as “contempt”–itself a move that could be disputed, then the subject remains “the one desired by women” not “women.”

Now, if the Book of Concord should be agreed with because it agrees with the Bible, then how are we to take this? I don’t know. It seems to me that this is more an example of the way people read the Bible at the time and used proof texts–often stripped of context–in defense of their positions. A single dispute over a citation is not a paradigm shift; indeed, I think that the authors of the Apology were correct on this notion about the marriage of priests. But that doesn’t mean everything they wrote is correct.

Conclusion

I agree with and affirm the Book of Concord in so far as it agrees with Scripture. I think it is correct on a huge amount of the things it teaches. I am currently re-reading it (slowly) and checking citations as I go. I have found it to be edifying and a source of profound theological insight. But it is not the Bible, and I do not think that to be Lutheran–or even a confessing Lutheran–I need to affirm that the Book of Concord is without possible error.

Source

Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. with Charles P. Arand, translator, The Book of Concord.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

A Sacramental/Lutheran Response to Women in Church Leadership

785px-Bible_and_Lord's_Cup_and_BreadThe debate over women in the church–and particularly in church leadership–often has a different tenor when it is carried out in those church bodies which are sacramental in nature. A recent post over at The Junia Project entitled “Women & Leadership in Sacramental Churches” written by Tim Peck highlighted some of the different issues that come up in these church bodies. Here, I will present a few objections that often come up to women in leadership in sacramental churches, using Peck’s post for some insights. Then, I will note how from a Lutheran perspective, the notion that women cannot perform the sacraments is unfounded.

In the Place of Christ

One common objection to women serving in the office of the pastor has been that the pastor is to serve in the place of Christ when presiding over the sacraments. Thus, it is inferred that because Christ is a man, the pastor must also be a man. A similar objection is that Christ is the bridegroom of the church, and the pastor acts as Christ to the church. Thus, the pastor must be male, it is argued, because of the union of bride (church) and groom (Christ/pastor). As one complementarian I spoke with on this issue asserted, if the pastor were a woman, it would mean the church is in a homosexual relationship with the pastor (the inference being that the bride [church] would then be ‘married’ to the woman pastor).

The first part of the objection is answered fairly easily by pointing out, as Peck does, that:

Jesus was ethnically specific (Jewish), gender specific (male) and class specific (poor). To focus on just one and ignore the other two for the presider to function sacramentally seems arbitrary.

The second, similar objection can be answered by pointing out that the literal interpretation being used to exclude women from the pastoral office should also exclude any number of others from the office as well. After all, to turn the analogy the complementarian used above, if the pastor were married, then the pastor would be in a polygamous relationship with the church! But of course this is absurd. The reason it is absurd is because an analogy–the pastor being as Christ to the church–is being pressed into service literally. But this literalism is selective at best.

The Levitical Priesthood

Another argument I’ve heard a number of times is that pastors are analogous to the Levitical priesthood and, since no women were in the Levitical priesthood, women cannot serve as pastors. Peck again answers this argument:

[T]he New Testament itself insists that any priesthood existing among Christians would differ significantly from the old covenant priesthood. This should be obvious, since the old covenant priesthood was passed on by heredity. Moreover, men who suffered disabilities such as deformities, blindness, or mutilation were forbidden from serving as priests in the old covenant.

He offers other reasons to undermine this argument as well, but I think this one pretty much clinches it already: there is, again, a selectively literal reading happening. When it’s helpful for the complementarian argument, texts are taken literally, but even in the same contexts the literalism is not applied consistently.

A Lutheran Appeal

The Lutheran Confessions and the Administration of the Sacraments

From a confessional Lutheran perspective, the documents contained in the Book of Concord are binding. Yet, the types of arguments already analyzed above are often presented alongside the notion that a woman cannot perform the sacraments by virtue of being a woman. The reason this is true often varies from person to person, but the core of the reasoning is that women are excluded from the pastoral office and so by necessity cannot perform the sacraments. This reasoning reveals a presupposition: the sacraments, if performed by a woman, are made invalid.

The Augsburg Confession in Article VIII, states “Both the sacraments and the Word are efficacious because of the ordinance and command of Christ, even when offered by evil people.” In The Large Catechism, Fifth Part, “The Sacrament of the Altar,” Martin Luther states “Our conclusion is: Even though a scoundrel receives or administers the sacrament, it is the true sacrament… just as truly as when one uses it most worthily. For it is not founded on human holiness but on the Word of God.”

Thus, we find the unified teaching of the Book of Concord is that the efficacy of the sacraments is not based upon the person performing them. Indeed, if they were, then surely our confidence in the sacraments would be destroyed, for what pastor has no sin? The sacraments, then, cannot be made invalid because they are performed by a woman.

Responses to the Argument Above

The most likely response to this kind of reasoning would be to appeal to the biblical text to argue that women shouldn’t be pastors. However, this type of response would be a red herring. A discussion of the biblical texts is both necessary and valuable, but the argument that Lutheran complementarians have presented suggests that somehow the sacrament cannot be performed by a woman. Yet, as was demonstrated above, the Lutheran confessions themselves contradict this. The efficacy of the sacrament is not–thank God–dependent upon the one performing the sacrament. Thus, to argue that women would somehow invalidate the sacrament would be to deny the confessions of faith that we hold most dear and, indeed, undermine the very basis for our confidence in the validity of sacraments to begin with.

No human is without sin; none has no blemish. Our confidence in the sacraments is found not in the person performing them but in the unfailing word of God.

Another possible response is to appeal to, for example, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XIV, section 1 in which it states that “no one should be allowed to administer the Word and sacraments unless they are duly called…” The appeal would then go on to suggest that no woman, by virtue of being a woman, can be “duly called” into the administration of the Word and Sacrament. This counter-argument begs the question from the beginning. Rather than offering an argument as to why women cannot be duly called, the complementarian has here simply assumed that women cannot be called and then applied this backwards to exclude women from performing sacraments.

If the appeal is then, again, made to the biblical text, then that is where the debate must play out. But notice that if one moves in this direction, they have already conceded the invalidity of the reasoning the argument began with. Instead, they must continually retreat from the reasoning used above and try to argue from proof texts through specific–often unquestioned–exegetical methods.

Conclusion

There are many arguments put forward in sacramental churches against the possibility of women being in the role of the pastor. An analysis of two primary arguments have shown they are faulty in that they are selectively literal. From a Lutheran perspective, we find that the Lutheran Confessions themselves actually work against anyone suggesting that the sacraments are invalid when performed by any variety of people. It is God working, not some magical formula that the human must perform.

We must instead go back to the texts and approach them with a cautious eye towards the fact that we have selectively taken parts literally that cannot, when pressed, hold up. The conversation within Lutheran circles–and indeed, within sacramental circles generally–should continue, but the arguments analyzed herein have been shown to be wanting.

Sources

Tim Peck, “Women & Leadership in Sacramental Churches” 2015, online at http://juniaproject.com/women-leadership-in-sacramental-churches/.

All citations of the Lutheran Confessions are from:

The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008).

The Image in this post is from Wikimedia Commons and published under Creative Commons licensing. It was created by John Snyder and may be found here. Please appropriate cite if re-used.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Lutheran View of Law and Gospel is not an Old-New Testament dividing line

pdlw-waltherI’m going to admit a huge pet peeve of mine here: non-Lutherans misunderstanding the Lutheran view of Law and Gospel. I have found this demonstrated more than once in the Zondervan Counterpoints series. Now, I don’t want to take anything away from that series. My wife can attest that I love it. I have over 15 volumes of the series. But I have to wonder why it seems they rarely get Lutherans involved and, frankly, why they would have a non-Lutheran like Douglas Moo write the “Modified Lutheran” view in the Five Views of Law and Gospel book (an essay which I argued elsewhere is not the Lutheran view at all and should not be called even “modified” Lutheran).

Anyway, I was reading through another book in the series, Understanding Four Views on Baptism, and came upon the response to the Lutheran view written by the Reformed believer, Richard Pratt, Jr. He wrote, “Broadly speaking, Lutheranism has stressed discontinuity between the OT and NT under the rubrics of law and gospel” (Pratt, 117, cited below). He contrasted this with the Reformed understanding of the unity of Scriptures. Douglas Moo also made a similar statement in the Five Views of Law and Gospel book: “Basic… to biblical revelation is the contrast between ‘before’ and ‘after’ Christ, a contrast between two ‘ages’ or ‘eras’… the New Testament writers… relegate [the Mosaic Law] basically to the period of time before the coming of Christ” (322). Moo’s view is allegedly the “Modified Lutheran View” in this book.

What is astonishing to me about these statements, particularly the critical one made by Pratt, is that it seems to me neither of them has interacted with Lutheranism in a meaningful fashion. You see, Lutheranism has a very simple way to see what it does or does not teach: The Book of Concord. These contain the Lutheran Confessions which, from the earliest period of Lutheranism, are the means by which one may distinguish between teaching which is Lutheran or which is not Lutheran. Surely, anyone who seeks to critique the Lutheran view (Pratt) or “modify” it (Moo) should first go to see what Lutherans believe!

The Lutheran Confessions make it clear that both of these authors–and those who follow their interpretation of the Lutheran view–are mistaken. I’ll highlight a few statements below:

All Scripture should be divided into these two main topics: the law and the promises [Gospel]. In some places it communicates the law. In other places it communicates the promise concerning Christ… (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV.5)

…Scripture is full of such testimonies. In some places it commends the law, in other places it commends the promises… (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV.102)

These, and many other citations, make it clear that the entirety of Scripture contains both Law and Gospel. Moreover, the entire Article V of the Formula of Concord teaches that these two doctrines are found both in the Old and New Testament. In fact, the confessors noted that Jesus’ ministry demonstrated both aspects. Because Jesus’ ministry is in the New Testament, and yet Jesus utilized the law, it is clear that the Lutheran view is not a discontinuity between the Old and New Testament. For Pratt, this means that his allegation that his Reformed position preserves unity of Scripture as opposed to the Lutheran view which divides it is far off the mark. Lutherans hold that both law and gospel are found throughout the Bible, and the discontinuity is resolved by properly distinguishing these teachings. For Moo, this basically means his “modified Lutheran” view simply isn’t Lutheran.

Long story short: the Lutheran view of Law and Gospel is not a temporal dividing line between the Old and New Testament.

Links

The Law Always Condemns, The Gospel Always Saves. Or, why I’m a Lutheran.– I outline the Lutheran view of Law and Gospel with references. If you’re interest at all in this discussion, I recommend you read this post to be sure you’re not messing up the distinctions Lutherans make.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Sources

Douglas Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley Gundry (Grand Rapids: MI: Zondervan 1999).

Richard Pratt, Jr. “A Reformed Response” in Understanding Four Views on Baptism edited by Paul Engle and John Armstrong (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007).

The Book of Concord edited by Kolb et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Law Always Condemns, The Gospel Always Saves. Or, why I’m a Lutheran.

Gebhard_Fugel_Moses_erhält_die_TafelnComparing Holy Scripture with other writings, we observe that no book is apparently so full of contradictions as the Bible, and that, not only in minor points, but in the principal matter, in the doctrine how we may come to God and be saved… This riddle is solved when we reflect that there are in Scriptures two entirely different doctrines, the doctrine of the Law and the doctrine of the Gospel. C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, 6 (cited fully below)

How are Christians to view the relationship between Law and Gospel? The issue has generated countless views and debates. One recent work which illustrates the breadth of views on this topic is Five Views on Law and Gospel, which outlines the major views on the issue.

C.F.W. Walther’s work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, is what I would consider the definitive work on Law and Gospel. Here, I will outline what I believe is the correct understanding of Law and Gospel, while drawing heavily from Walther’s work.

Law and Gospel

The most central point of all–that is, the point that I hope readers remember if nothing else–is this: The Law always condemns, the Gospel always saves. This point is emphasized throughout Lutheran theology. What does it mean? Simply put: it means that these two doctrines, found throughout Scripture, have entirely distinct meanings and usages. One cannot intermingle law and gospel while remaining true to either doctrine. Wherever the Gospel is presented as if it had requirements attached to it, there the Gospel is not rightly preached. Whenever the Law is preached as if it offered some kind of free gift, it is not rightly preached. 

Law only has power to condemn. It cannot save. That is because none can keep God’s Law. All sin, and all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The Law shows what God requires of us. It “issues only commands and demands” (Walther, Proper Distinction…, 9).

In contrast, the Gospel only gives offers without requirements attached (ibid). The Gospel shows us God’s promises and offer of grace.

At first face, one examines the whole of the Bible and finds these teachings throughout. The teachings seem so at odds with one another that one might suspect a contradiction throughout the Biblical teaching. However, the fact is that both doctrines are “equally necessary. Without the Law the Gospel is not understood; without the Gospel the Law benefits us nothing” (Ibid, 8). The reason this is so important is because Law and Gospel are not opposites working against each other. Instead, both “have their final aim [human] salvation” (Ibid, 7). They work together to present a full picture of how salvation comes unto men.

The Law, as we have noted, cannot bring salvation because none but God can fulfill it. That is, it gives the requirements for salvation but no one can meet these requirements! We would all be lost if this were the whole of Biblical teaching. Yet there is more to the story, for the Gospel offers only its promises. God has promised to save. He is mighty to save. God has accomplished our salvation. And this salvation does not come with requirements attached. Such is our hope.

Most simply put then, the purpose of the Law is to show our need for the Gospel because we cannot meet the requirements of the Law. The purpose of the Gospel is to show that God has already met these requirements for us in Jesus Christ and to offer us that fulfillment through Christ’s atoning work. So the Gospel, without the Law, would be empty promises. What need have we for Gospel if we are not sinners? Yet without the Gospel, the Law is only a terror which tells us that all are condemned.

sketch-for-the-crucifixion-thomas-eakinsSome Distortions

A number of objections have been raised against this understanding of Law and Gospel. For example: “[The notion t]hat the law must be viewed as a single entity is one of the most common of all objections made against the Christian use of the Law” (Walter Kaiser, Jr., “The Law as God’s Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness,” 188, cited below). Kaiser then argues against viewing the Law as a single entity. He makes distinctions between Civil, Ceremonial, and Moral laws. I agree that we can make these distinctions, but they do not somehow mean it is impossible to refer to the “Law” as a whole entity with all of the commands God has issued.

Another common objection is that of dispensational thought. It is often charged that because we live in a new dispensation, the teachings of the Mosaic Law, for example, no longer apply to us. Without commenting on the plausibility of dispensationalism, I would simply answer that it seems extremely hard to reconcile the notion that the Mosaic Law has no applicability in our own context with Jesus’ words about the Law: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). Note that this verse also shows Christ using the “Law” as a single, coherent entity.

Yet does this mean that everything recorded in the Mosaic Law has applicability exactly as written? No. A further discussion along this line of thought would take me too far afield, but I think that the Bible does clearly teach there is some discontinuity between the application of Mosaic Law to the Jew and the New Covenant with Christians (for example, the dietary laws do not apply to Christians). This hints back at the divisions Kaiser was keen to make within the Law, and I think the application to the Christian life can be viewed within the categories he discusses.

Conclusion

There is so much more worth saying about Law and Gospel, but in the interest of keeping this post at a readable length, I have had to set some aside. Interested readers should see the annotated sources below.

We have seen that the Law and Gospel must be properly divided in order to properly understand the whole of the Bible’s teaching. Why do I say that this is why I’m a Lutheran? I hope, at least, that other branches of Christianity teach these distinctions between Law and Gospel. But I have to admit that I have not seen it so consistently done as it is within the Lutheran perspective. Martin Luther was right to focus directly upon this teaching, and I believe it is central to the Reformation[s]. It touches upon soteriology, sanctification, the atonement, and more. Thus, I think it is vitally important to get this doctrine correct. In my studies, I have found no teaching so close to the Biblical truth as the Lutheran teaching on Law and Gospel. I’m not saying that everyone should go and become Lutherans. Instead, I think that everyone should benefit from learning the proper distinction between Law and Gospel and apply it to their lives.

The Law always condemns, the Gospel always saves.

Appendix: The Modified Lutheran View?

I think it is important to note that the view put forth as “The Modified Lutheran View” in Five Views on Law and Gospel is not, so far as I can tell, the Lutheran view at all. I want to make this clear because we need to avoid this misunderstanding. Douglas Moo’s view essentially seems to be  temporally-based. He writes, “Basic… to biblical revelation is the contrast between ‘before’ and ‘after’ Christ, a contrast between two ‘ages’ or ‘eras’… the New Testament writers… relegate [the Mosaic Law] basically to the period of time before the coming of Christ” (322).

Those who have stuck with me this long should be able to immediately see how this is utterly different from the Lutheran view I proposed above. The distinction between law and gospel is not a temporal distinction whatsoever. The Law is still with us. Walther himself makes this explicit: “[W]e find both teachings in the Old as well as in the New Testament” (Proper Distinction… 62). There is no temporal dividing line between Old and New such that some new reality has dawned on Law and Gospel. Instead, the Law continues to condemn, while the Gospel continues to save.

Yet Moo goes so far as to say this is a point which needs to be “corrected” within the Lutheran view (ibid). He seems to think that Lutherans would deny that Jesus was able to speak law, while also mistakenly painting the Sermon on the Mount as being a preaching entirely of the Law. Indeed, Moo’s view seems to affirm many of the basic tenants the Lutheran view explicitly denies, such as mixing the uses of Law and Gospel.

I thus would say that Moo’s position is not at all the Lutheran view. It is not a modified Lutheran view at all. Instead, it seems to violate a number of the primary distortions noted above. That said, Moo does admirably to defend the notion of the Law as a coherent, cohesive whole. There is much to commend Moo’s essay, but it ultimately fails, I think, to provide a properly Lutheran view of Law and Gospel.

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Annotated Sources

C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1986). This is Walther’s magisterial work on Law and Gospel. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I personally think this book should be required reading for every single seminarian. He goes through and lists numerous distinctions to be made in learning, teaching, and applying Law and Gospel. Every Christian should read this book and apply it to their lives.

For a more succinct summary of what Walther argues in the above, see God’s No and God’s Yes: The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. This latter work is essentially the same in content as Walther’s text, but 1/4 the length. It is out of print, it seems, which is very unfortunate. I do recommend it highly. But if you cannot get

Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley Gundry (Grand Rapids: MI: Zondervan 1999) – I specifically used the following essays: Walter Kaiser, Jr., “The Law as God’s Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley Gundry, 177-199, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999); Douglas Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley Gundry, 319-376, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999). I found this book to be very helpful in outlining various views, but was disappointed with the “modified Lutheran view” (see my appendix here).

SDG.

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