Law and Gospel: Not Just for Lutherans Anymore

Episcopalians in love with the distinction of Law and Gospel? Reformed theologians interested in Law and Gospel? That may come as a surprise to many Lutherans. But that is in fact the case. A group of Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Lutheran theologians gathered for a Colloquium on Law and Gospel sponsored by the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama from July 14-16. Many of those involved are involved in the Mockingbird network which has its own unique love affair with the distinction of law and gospel.

It was an incredibly stimulating and encouraging discussion. We found a number of things to be very impressive. First, it was amazing how thoroughly our counterparts in the Reformed traditions not only loved the distinction between law and gospel, but were well versed in the literature whether it was Luther, the Lutheran Confessions, C. F. W. Walther, or the debates of the last century from Karl Barth to Werner Elert! This provided an incredibly rich foundation on which to engage in the issues related to law and gospel along with the differences between the traditions.

The presentations included:

The Law in the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions
Piotr Malysz—Beeson Divinity School
Michael Allen—Reformed Theological Seminary

The Gospel in the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions
Charles Arand—Concordia Seminary
Scott Swain—Reformed Theological Seminary

Place and Purpose of the Law/Gospel Distinction in Lutheran and Reformed Theology and Ministry
Steven Paulson—Luther Seminary
Kelly Kapic—Covenant College

Lutheran appraisal of the Law and the Gospel in the Reformed tradition
Erik Herrmann–Concordia Seminary.
Reformed appraisal of the Law and the Gospel in the Lutheran tradition
Kate Sonderegger–Virginia Theological Seminary

Mark Mattes (Grandview College) and Kevin Vanhoozer (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) will be writing an assessment of the discussion to conclude the book.

Moderator: Jonathan A. Linebaugh—University of Cambridge

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There was widespread agreement among the participants about the importance and urgency of distinction of the Law and the Gospel for pastoral care and ministry. In his introduction, Jonathan Linebaugh had several beautiful examples of it in literature, particularly, a scene from George Eliot’s Janet’s Repentance, and this poignant example from William Inge’s My Son is a Splendid Driver:

“Every morning on the front porch we would see Mrs. Holt leave her house and start for the Catholic church, on her way to mass.

‘She doesn’t miss a day,’ Mother observed. There was a dedication about the woman that always gave us pause. ‘I wish I had a God to pray to now,’ Mother sometimes said, ‘but I don’t seem able to find Him.’

Mother had stopped going to church. ‘Church isn’t the place to go with your troubles. Church is just a place to go when you’re feeling good and have a new hat to wear.’ There was a little bitterness in what she said, a little self-pity, but there was also truth. Our minister would have been the last person in the world she could have talked to, to have lifted the curse she felt upon her and save her from feeling damned. She would have embarrassed the man into speechlessness had she gone to him with her story. He would have been unable to look at her or my father without coloring.

Most of our morality, I was beginning to think, was based on a refusal to recognize sin. Our entire religious heritage, it seemed to me, was one of refusal to deal with it.”

So it was that most of the discussion centered on the nature and role of law.

The first issue is the definition of the law. The Reformed participants tended to frame the law within the context of a covenant. But by covenant, they generally mean a context in which the law expresses the gracious/beautiful will of God (or the nature of our relationship to God) from eternity and into eternity. Such a definition included both aspects of faith and obedience. On the other hand, the Lutherans were concerned about giving the law rather than the gospel the role of defining the entirety of our relationship with God. By making obedience part of the foundational definition for the divine-human relationship, the gospel seemed to be merely a means to an end — it was simply getting us back on track toward keeping the law and thus our relationship with God.

A key moment occurred in the discussion when Jonathan Linebaugh asked whether or not we would regard God’s words to Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree in the garden as law or command? The Reformed participants said “yes,” (it was a “covenant of works”), the Lutherans, “no” (but it wasn’t gospel either…it was gracious invitation). Similarly, the Reformed gave the prelapsarian command in Genesis 3 a foundational role in defining the nature and relationship of the law and gospel. The Lutherans gave preeminence to Galatians 3. Consequently the Reformed tended toward unity and synthesis, the Lutherans antithesis and dialectic.

A second and related issue focused on the third use of the law (not surprisingly). For the Reformed, it tended to be conceived primarily as nudging and prodding us to live as God envisioned for us while for the Lutherans it might be portrayed as channeling our activities in God pleasing directions. Related to this also was the role of reason and wisdom in discerning how we apply the law to specific situations.

Related issues included the definition of law and gospel as content (verba dei) and as function/effect (opera dei).

Overall, it was a terrific two days with collegial and lively discussion and a real effort to gain understanding. Our host, the Cathedral Church of the Advent, was enormously gracious and hospitable. All those involved were incredibly thoughtful, well-read, and genuinely appreciative of each other. The papers will be published in a book by Eerdmans next year. So stay tuned….

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3 Comments

  1. Ross August 19, 2016
    Reply

    For the sake of clarification, how does one rectify the statement that Gen. 2:16-17 is not Law? The text says that God “commanded” what to eat and not to eat. Was God not communicating His will for His creation? Also, in his commentary on Genesis Luther treats these verses in light of this very issue and concludes by stating, “Therefore Paul’s statement should in no wise prevent us from declaring with Moses that a Law was given to righteous Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, just as commands are given to the angels. Because he transgressed this command, he sinned and later on reproduced sinners” (LW 1, p 110). What should we do with Luther here? And the Solid Declaration states “Also a law was given to the first man immediately after his creation: he was to conduct himself according to this law” (SD VI.5). What do we do with this references? Am I missing something? It seems like Luther and the Confession say it is law.

    • Erik Herrmann August 20, 2016

      Thanks for reading and thank you for your comment! You are right that a little clarification is needed here—my brief summary of the discussion makes too many assumptions about the context of what was precisely being asked and debated here and could be better stated. The nature of the question was aimed at what role the prelapsarian Genesis narrative played for how one understands the postlapsarian distinction of law and gospel. For the Reformed it was more central, for the Lutherans it was not. The question was trying to further tease that out. It’s not that there was no command given in the garden; it is just that it has very little relation to how the law functions now—lex semper accusat, etc. This is why Luther in his Genesis lectures tends to emphasize more broadly that this prohibition in Genesis is the giving of “the Word” which establishes the church, the preaching office, and true worship. Is Luther saying that the law establishes the church? That would be a strange thing for him to assert! But this strangeness illustrates how inapplicable the prelapsarian commands (“have dominion” and “be fruitful and multiply” should be included here too) are for saying much about the theology of the law in the postlapsarian situation. Eden is too distant and incomprehensible to extrapolate such things.
      Luther does then digress to go after a particular antinomian argument that tried to use the absence of the law in the garden as precedent for the law’s removal from Christian preaching. But even here he makes my point, namely, that one must distinguish sharply between the law give to Adam before sin and that given after. The theology of law and gospel that is derived from Pauline texts is not applicable to what we read in Genesis 2 and vice-versa: “Is it not a monstrous crime to jumble passages this way when so much is at issue? After sin Adam is not the person he was before sin in the state of innocence; and yet those people make no distinction between the Law given before sin and that given after sin. What Paul says about the Law which came in after sin they deceitfully and blasphemously apply to the Law which was given in Paradise. If sin had not been in existence, then that Law which forbids sin would also not have been in existence, just as I stated above that in the perfect creation there was no need of civil government or of laws, which are like branding irons, or of what Paul calls a school- master (Gal. 3:24).”
      I hope that helps somewhat clarify.

  2. Ben Maton August 20, 2016
    Reply

    Fine summary, Dr. Herrmann! I stumbled across the Mockingbird site a year or so ago–some guy artfully weaving stuff from Gerhard Forde (whom he called Mockingbird’s “patron saint”), Oswald Bayer and Robert Capon. Ever since, I’ve been a big fan of the site along with the Mockingcast and Mockingpulpit podcasts. Some of the most solid and life-giving L-G preaching I’ve heard (and they’re all Episcopalians…). It was only after being enriched for 6 months or so that I realized they claim Charlottesville, Va (where I serve) as there headquarters! Anyway, glad some to hear of the relationship you and others are nurturing with these folks. Highly recommended to all. I look forward to picking the book!

    PS — say hi to the missus!

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