ELCA

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Ecumenism and Lutheranism – Reformation 500

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of what is hailed by many as the start of the Reformation: Luther’s sharing his 95 Theses. I’ve decided to celebrate my Lutheran Protestant Tradition by highlighting some of the major issues that Luther and the Lutherans raised through the Reformation period. I hope you will join me as we remember the great theological (re)discoveries that were made during this period.

Ecumenism and Lutheranism

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Franz Hildebrand, two German Lutherans in the early 20th Century, wrote a catechetical statement in response to the question: “Why are there so many churches?”-

We are really supposed to be one church. In the midst of our incredible divisions we urgently seek communion among all Christians. It will only be possible for us humans ever to have it if we keep waiting and believing [in Christ] who is faithful to his church. (Cited in Schlingensiepen, 80, cited below)

Bonhoeffer and Hildebrand’s response is brief, but shows key aspects of ecumenism that we can continue to seek today. The first point is to realize that the true church of Christ ought to be one both in spiritual and in temporal reality. The second point is that we remain divided, but seek such unity. The third point is eschatological: we must realize that no human efforts will succeed in uniting the church; instead, we hope for Christ’s return to bring about the ultimate unity of His Church.

Elsewhere, Bonhoeffer points out that ecumenical movements must never disregard that real differences in belief and doctrine and practice exist among the present day church. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer followed his own catechetical statement and urgently sought unity and communion among all Christians. Ecumenism does not mean ignoring all differences or agreeing they don’t matter; instead, we acknowledge our differences and seek to find unity where it does exist.

The church body to which I belong, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has recently made an ecumenical statement that both acknowledges continued difference and shows points of unity with the Roman Catholic church: the Declaration on the Way. I believe this document is an important one, particularly as we continue to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The ultimate prayer for ecumenism, I believe, is “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”

Sources

Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance translated by Isabel Best (New York: Continuum, 2010).

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!

Please check out my other posts on the Reformation:

I discuss the origins of the European Reformations and how many of its debates carry on into our own day.

The notion of “sola scriptura” is of central importance to understanding the Reformation, but it is also hotly debated to day and can be traced to many theological controversies of our time. Who interprets Scripture? 

The Church Universal: Reformation Review–  What makes a church part of the Church Universal? What makes a church part of the true church? I write on these topics (and more!) and their origins in the Reformation.

The Continuing Influence of the Reformation: Our lives, our thoughts, our theology– I note the influence that the Reformation period continues to have on many aspects of our lives.

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.

Who is Worthy?- A reflection on closed communion in Lutheran churches

I do not claim rights to this image and was unable to find original source. Possibly here: http://thehandsomehansons.blogspot.com/2010/11/lutheran-seal.html

I do not claim rights to this image and was unable to find original source. Possibly here: http://thehandsomehansons.blogspot.com/2010/11/lutheran-seal.html

My wife and I have been refused communion on more than one occasion. In each instance it was in a Lutheran church that we were turned away. We are, ourselves, Lutherans, but the church bodies that did not commune us were different groups of Lutherans, and held that the divisions between us justified not giving us the gifts of the sacrament that Christ promised.

Here, I’d like to examine this practice of some Lutheran churches, often referred to as “closed communion.”[1] What do the actual Lutheran Confessions say about who may receive the Lord’s Supper? That is the question which must be asked by any claiming to be Lutheran.

We believe, teach, and confess that the entire worthiness of the guests at the table of his heavenly meal is and consists alone in the most holy obedience and perfect merit of Christ. We make his obedience and merit our own through true faith, concerning which we receive assurance through the sacrament. Worthiness consists in no way in our own virtues, or in internal or external preparations. (The Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article VII, Section 20)

The Lutheran Confessions leave no wiggle room here. What makes one worthy to receive the sacrament? Is it one’s preparation? No. Is it one’s denominational commitment? No. It is explicitly and clearly stated here: “the most holy obedience and perfect merit of Christ” which is itself made our own “through true faith.” Indeed, what does it mean to add the requirement of complete doctrinal agreement onto these words? Would not such a teaching be to make one’s “own virtues”–here of the doctrinal variety–what makes one worthy? It seems so. The teaching here, however, is that it is only faith in Christ’s words and works that make one worthy.

Just in case one wants to persist and allege that there may be some difficulty interpreting these words, Martin Luther himself states, in the Large Catechism:

Now we must also consider who the person is who receives such power and benefit [from the Lord’s Supper]… It is the one who believes what the words say and what they give, for they are not spoken or preached to stone and wood but to those who hear them, to those whom he says, “Take and eat”…All those who let these words be addressed to them and believe that they are true have what the words declare…
Now this is the sum total of a Christian’s preparation to receive this sacrament worthily. (The Large Catechism, The Sacrament of the Altar, section 33-36)

What does Luther himself teach here? “[T]his is the sum total of a Christian’s preparation…” (emphasis mine). And what is that sum total? Simply being one who “let these words be addressed to them and believe that they are true…” Once again, we see no mention of further conditions. There is no place here for refusing communion to those who believe the words are for them. The Christian must simply take hold of the words of Christ, which promise his body and blood to them. They need not be part of a specific denomination (which would have been historically impossible or at least unlikely at this point). It is the faith of the individual that makes them worthy, not their adherence to a set of doctrinal truths apart from those affirmed about the Lord’s Supper.

What do Lutherans who turn away other Lutherans from the sacrament say about their reasoning? Here is one example, from the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod:

Because the Bible teaches that this Sacrament may also be spiritually harmful if misused, and that participation in the Lord’s Supper is an act of confession of faith, the LCMS ordinarily communes only those who have been instructed in the teachings of our church and who have confessed their faith in these teachings. (LCMS FAQ, cited below)

Here we see an unwarranted limit being placed on the sacrament of communion. What makes one worthy to receive this sacrament? The Lutheran Confessions make it explicit that that which makes one worthy is faith in the words of Christ. Here, however, an addition is made: “only those who have been instructed in the teachings of our church [the LCMS] and who have confessed their faith in these teachings” are “ordinarily” communed. Yet this limit is nowhere taught in the Book of Concord.

Counter-Argument

A possible counter-argument to the above is that there were no divergent Lutherans or Lutheran groups at the time the Lutheran Confessions were written, so they couldn’t have even addressed the issue. Apart from the fact that this is historically false (for parts of the Book of Concord were written to correct others within the folds of Lutheranism), it doesn’t change the Book of Concord’s teaching on the topic. The Lutheran Confessions make very strong statements. Phrases like “the sum total” and “alone” are used accompanying what the Confessions teach in regards to worthiness for the Lord’s Supper. These phrases are exclusive. That is, they affirm explicitly that no other expectations may be added. For what else might saying “sum total” or “alone” mean?

Conclusion

Those Lutheran groups who have added requirements for worthily receiving the Lord’s Supper stand against the Book of Concord’s own teaching on the topic. Time and again Luther and other confessors state that the only requirement for worthiness is to affirm the words of Christ and take hold of them by faith. Any who add requirements to receiving this sacrament have made their own words supersede those of the Confessions.

[1] Closed communion may also refer to simply keeping communion closed to those who affirm what the Book of Concord teaches regarding the Lord’s Supper. There is a fine line between this practice and making the additions to the Book of Concord’s teaching as noted in this post. I am not addressing this less stringent variety here.

Sources

LCMS Frequently Asked Questions Doctrinal Issues- The Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion (accessible here).

Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000).

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!

Adhering to the Book of Concord “In So Far As” or “Because” it Agrees with Scripture?– I argue that Lutherans must hold the position that we adhere to the Book of Concord In So Far As it Agrees with Scripture.

Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for posts on Star Trek, science fiction, fantasy, books, sports, food, 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.

“Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint” by Nadia Bolz-Weber: Book Review

Pastrix3Nadia Bolz-Weber is an edgy, hard-hitting, and often witty pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Her latest book is filled with autobiographical stories and a number of anecdotes which focus around the subtitle: they are often cranky, sometimes beautiful, and they reflect a sinner-saint.

The book traces Bolz-Weber’s path towards the ministry through her years in recovery from alcoholism to her starting a church: “House For All Sinners and Saints” and the struggles and triumphs she experienced throughout these events. I’ll not summarize the entire contents of the book but rather I have selected one story to give a brief sample of how the book flows.

The most poignant story in the entire book, in my opinion, is that of Bolz-Weber’s relationship with Chris Rosebrough from Pirate Christian Radio, a very conservative Lutheran (from the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod [LCMS]) who runs a very conservative radio show. He is, in many ways, all that Bolz-Weber would oppose. And Rosebrough often criticized Bolz-Weber on his show. Then, one day, they had a chance to meet and they talked through the core of Lutheran theology: salvation by grace. Bolz-Weber wrote, “[The other people witnessing their meeting] saw us share a thirty-minute public dialogue about our own brokenness and need for confession and absolution, why we need the Gospel, and what happens in the Eucharist… God made my enemy my friend that day” (113).

Later, Bolz-Weber experienced criticism from her “own side”–liberals [her word, I’m not trying to use it in a derogatory fashion]–and talked with Rosebrough [who is, again, staunchly conservative] about it. They didn’t have to agree on the issues to carry on a conversation about God. “Chris [Rosebrough] doesn’t agree with me [about various issues]… But the one phone call I got in the middle of being attacked by my own tribe was from someone who is on the other side of the issue entirely… [H]e knew what it felt like… [He] said that he loved me and would pray for me. His enemy” (119-120).

Awesome, heart-stopping stories like this are scattered throughout the book. But they are in-between stories that will surely polarize readers. One is a story about a transgender girl turned boy and how Bolz-Weber helped hold a ceremony to help recognize “Asher”‘s new name and identity as a boy. Another story is about her time away from Christianity in which she worshiped a “goddess” instead.

Pastrix ends on a note about Bolz-Weber’s vision of church. Mary Magdalene becomes her foil as she reflects upon the meaning and purpose of church. She wrote, “Like Mary Magdalene, the reason we can stand up and weep and listen for Jesus is because we, like Mary, are bearers of resurrection, we are made new” (201).

Evaluation

There are no words minced in this book. The f-word is sprinkled throughout (and even featured twice in one chapter title). Bolz-Weber continually describes situations or feelings as “s***.” She is completely unapologetic in her approach in this regard.

This raised red flags for me. What does the Bible tell us about the Christian life, and does it say anything about the requirements for teacher, overseer, elder, and deacon?  How might Bolz-Weber apply these to her life as a pastor? No, I’m not saying that as a woman she shouldn’t be a pastor–I’m firmly egalitarian. But I wonder about how she would take a passage like James 3 (specifically 3:1-2; 9-10):

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check… With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

Teachers are called to a higher standard. James noted that obviously people stumble, but that does not mean that we should give up or simply embrace whatever wrong behavior we are engaged in. “This should not be!” I wish Bolz-Weber had engaged with this issue in her book.

Another huge issue with the book for me is Bolz-Weber’s exegesis. It seems to me her preconceptions about what the text should mean often shape how she reads it. Specifically, this relates to the question of sanctification. Are Christians really in the process of being made new? If so, how does she reconcile this with the way she seems to conceive of “sinner-saint”–a valid concept–by which she seems to simply mean that one does not even have to try to change? She wrote:

Repentance in Greek means something much closer to ‘thinking differently afterward’ than it does ‘changing your cheating ways.’ Of course repentance can look like a prostitute becoming a librarian, but it can also look like a prostitute simply saying, “OK, I’m a sex worker and I don’t know how to change that, but I can come here and receive bread and wine and I can hold onto the love of God without being deemed worthy of it by anyone but God.”

It seems her primary point in this passage is that God’s grace is firm and sure and we, as sinners, can hold onto that. But I can’t help but feeling Bolz-Weber misses the mark at an astonishing margin in that she never discusses the need to go beyond that. Paul discussed various types of sins in 1 Corinthians 6, and then he went on to say “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” That is, God’s work does not simply end with justification, it continues on into sanctification. We are sinner-saints in the sense that we are yet sinners but God has saved us; but also, we are being made saints by the work of the Holy Spirit. We are to flee from sin, not ignore it.

Bolz-Weber’s entire autobiographical account does speak to the way that the powerful message of grace changes someone, but she never draws this point into the open. Moreover, when she speaks about the life of others, sin is often treated lightly or even entirely ignored. It seems that she is fully willing and able to apply the Law to her own life, but she does not universalize it; she does not make the Law applicable to everyone. Thus, it seems to me she fails to properly preach Law and Gospel.

Pastrix, was a book I really wanted to love. But… I didn’t. There are a number of great insights and anecdotes scattered through the pages, but ultimately readers have to slog through gobs of unnecessary cursing, shock-value stories, and more to find them. One moment, it had me cheering along with Bolz-Weber; the next, I found myself confused about what she was trying to communicate. Ultimately, the book left me wondering who, exactly, the intended audience was supposed to be. It’s not the type of book I’d hand to someone to try to convince them of Bolz-Weber’s view. Nor is it the type of book that I, as someone who agrees in part with her, particularly enjoyed. It seems to me the audience is ultimately those who already agree with her on basically everything. That isn’t a problem, as it is perfectly acceptable to write books that preach to the choir, but I am left confused as to why Bolz-Weber actually did write Pastrix.

Throughout the book it seemed that she was trying to convince me of something, but it never really became clear what that message was. There are times when I really did “get it.” It was like she grabbed that which is Lutheran in me and just played it for all it was worth. But then she failed to make it universal; it applied to her, but she never made Law and Gospel universal. She would discuss intense need for grace which is free and abundant and ever-flowing. She would point out how we need not do works to access this. But then, so often, it seemed she would conflate this with the notion that Christians are not all called to move away from sinner and towards saint. There seemed to be no sanctification in the work. It was all about the initial call to grace; but little about the enduring, sanctifying work of the Spirit.

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.

Links

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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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