Daily Archives: February 19, 2010

On the “Catholicity” of the Lutheran hermeneutical distinction between “Law” and “Gospel”

In the discussion about Justice and the Gospel, Pastor Mark Henderson suggested that the Lutheran hermeneutical distinction between “Law” and “Gospel” would help understand the matter. I objected that this hermeneutic is quite unique to Lutheranism (it is, in fact, one of the aspects of Lutheranism to which I DON’T subscribe as a “Lutheran in communion with the Bishop of Rome” – and in it’s more extreme forms, such as that of C.F.W. Walther, I didn’t even hold to it as a Lutheran). He responded that the distinction could be found in the Fathers. “Show me”, I said. His response was:

OK, David, start with the Law and Gospel category over at Lutheran Catholicity, and I’ll get some more quotes together to show that the “Law-Gospel” paradigm is not confined to Lutherans.

Below I address all the quotations listed on the category of Law and Gospel on Lutheran Catholicity (only one entry, as I can see). In a post on February 7 Mark said that he had updated this entry, adding:

that this hermeneutical rule was not a Reformation innovation but a truth known by the early church and ultimately drawn from scripture itself. To be sure, the Fathers did not always grasp the distinction between Law and Gospel with the clarity that would be shown by the Lutheran Fathers, but these quotations show that this aspect of Reformation theology was a legitimate, organic development of doctrine by Luther and subsequent exegetes.

For the sake of simplicity, I will give my own understanding of what the Lutheran distinction is and is not (there is a Wikipedia article that isn’t too bad on this although a more authorative statement will be found in the Epitome of the Formula of Concord.)

Put simply, “the Law” is taken by Lutherans to mean any statement or teaching in Scripture which demands a human action. Such demands have at least two (or controversially three) “uses”: to curb us from doing evil, to show up and condemn our sin, and (this is the controversial one), to show us how to live a holy life before God (yes, really, this is controversial among Lutherans!). “The Gospel” on the other hand is taken to mean every statement in Scripture where God promises to act in mercy, grace and forgiveness toward us. Usually this means what God has done for us “in Christ”, but this does not have to be explicit.

Thus, anything that says what we “must” or “should” or “ought to” do is taken as “Law”, and anything that tells us what God does for us is “Gospel”. For eg. if we take the idea of the “Law of Love”, which for Catholics and many other Christians is undoubtedly a part of the Gospel, Lutherans would say that it is in fact part of “the Law”, at least in so far as it makes demands upon us in terms of action in response to God’s grace.

For eg.

You must love God = Law
God loves you = Gospel
God forigves you = Gospel
You have sinned = Law

Some bible passages can be interpreted both ways, for eg. Lev 19 “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy”. It could be “Law” in that it demands holiness from us, or “Gospel” in that God promises to make his people holy.

In this terminology, “Law” does not mean:
1) simply the 10 Commandments
2) the first five books of the Old Testament (the Torah)
4) Nor the whole Old Testament of the bible
5) Nor the Old Covenant in general
6) Nor even more broadly the Jewish “Halakah”
7) Nor Judaism in general

Likewise, “Gospel” does not mean
1) the announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of God in Christ
2) The first four books of the New Testament
2) the New Testament of the bible
3) the New Covenant in general
4) all the teachings of Jesus
5) The Christian faith

All these ways of speaking of “Law” and “Gospel” are, I will admit straight out, completely Catholic, and can be demonstrated to have existed in the Church from the very beginning. But this is not what a Lutheran is talking about when he uses the term “Law and Gospel”.

That said, let’s look at Mark’s examples. I’m going to admit straight out and admit to being a bit naughty by showing scholarly laziness in not going back to the entire passages in their context from which Mark lifted these quotations (I plead lack leisure for this endeavour). Due scholarly reflection would require also to consider the historical context in which these passages where said or written. Please don’t judge me too harshly for this – I think I can make my case nevertheless.

Both testaments belong to God, who says, “I kill, and I make alive,; I wound and I heal” (Deut 32:39). We have already made good the Creator’s claim to this twofold character of judgment and goodness, “killing in the letter” through the law, and “quickening in the Spirit” through the Gospel (2 Cor 3:6).
Tertullian, Antei-Nicene Fathers, 3:452-453

Tertullian is quite clearly using “Law” and “Gospel” here to refer to the Old and the New Covenants respectively (the translation “testaments” could give the impression he is talking about the books of the OT and NT, but I don’t think that fits his statement). He is not distinguishing “Law” and “Gospel” in the Lutheran sense.

The Gospel’s promise is distinguished from the law, and since it is different it cannot be mixed with the Law, for a condition invalidates the promise.
Ticonius (d.circa 390AD), Book of Rules.

Tertullian is here using the words “Gospel” and “Law” in the same sense Paul did. The “Law” is the Jewish law or Torah, the “condition” for membership in God’s people according to the Old Covenant. The New Covenant, “the Gospel”, Tertullian says, is not like that. It is a promise, not a condition. Still, this is not the Lutheran hermeneutic.

Therefore, whenever you hear sinners cursed in Scripture, understand it concerning the proud, as I said, that is, those who defend their sins. Likewise, as often as you hear the poor praised, do not consider it with regard to all the poor, but only those Christians who are meek and humble of heart. Of these it is written: ‘Upon whom shall my spirit rest, but upon the humble and meek, upon him that trembleth at my words?’ Caesarius of Arles, Homily 48

Not quite sure how this is supposed to illustrate the Catholicity of the Lutheran hermeneutic, other than that it refers to sinners being cursed and humble and meek Christians being praised – which a Lutheran would naturally interpret through his conception of “Law” and “Gospel”.

In the Law, he that has sin is punished,; here, he that has sins comes and is baptised and is made righteous, and being made righteous, he lives, being delivered from the death that sin brings. The Law, if it lay hold of a murderer, puts him to death; the Gospel, if it lay hold on a murderer, enligtens, and gives him life.
John Chrysostom, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, I, 12:307

Now, it is my guess that “the Law” Chrysostom is talking about is actually not religious law at all, but the law of the Emperor, as it is not “the Law” which puts to death a murderer, but the Emperor. “The Gospel” in this case would also, practically speaking, mean “the Church”.

Paul’s words are, “The righteousness of God is shown forth…”This is witnessed by the law and the prophets; in other words, the law and the prophets each testify about it. The law, indeed, does this by issuing its commands and threats, and by justifying no-one. It shows well enough that it is by God’s gift, through the help of the Spirit, that a person is justified. Augustine, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, I, 5:88-89.

Righto, Augustine. But it is clear here that he is not using he Lutheran scheme as “the Law” to which he refers has been coupled with “the prophets”. This can only lead us to understand “the Law” to be “the Torah”, which, taken together with “the prophets” can only mean the books of the Old Testament. Note that this is not contrasted here with “the Gospel”, nor even, “the New Testament”, but with “God’s Gift”, by which he probably means “God’s Grace”, given the reference to the Holy Spirit’s help.

If God has commanded that His precepts should be diligently kept (Ps 119:4) it is in order that, seeing our constant imperfection and our inability to fulfill the duty that we ought to do, we may fly to His mercy, and say, “Your steadfast love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3a). And not being able to appear clad in innocence or righteousness, we may at last be covered in the robe of confession.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Advent and Christmas Sermons.

You were sinning, O man, in darkness and in the shadow of death through ignorance of truth. You were sitting bound by the chains of sin. He came down to your prison not to torture you, but to rescue you from the power of darkness. And first the Teacher of truth dispelled the darkness of ignorance by the light of His wisdom. Then by the righteousness of faith he loosed the bonds of sin, freely justifying the sinner.” Bernard, Canticles ch.XV

Ah! From what great bitterness of soul have you often delivered me, O Good Jesus, coming to me!… How often has prayer taken me on the brink of despair, and then restored to me the state of soul of one exulting in joy and confident forgiveness. Those who are afflicted in this way, behold they know that the Lord Jesus is truly a Physician Who healeth the broken of heart and bindeth up their bruses”
Bernard, Canticles ch.XX

Okay, it is beyond me how this demonstrates that the Lutheran use of the term “Law and Gospel” is “Catholic”. Bernard describes what is the experience of Christians everywhere in relation to our sin and God’s forgiveness. This is not in dispute. It is the Lutheran “Law and Gospel” paradigm that I am disputing.

Nothing here has proved what Mark set out to prove, namely that “this hermeneutical rule was not a Reformation innovation but a truth known by the early church and ultimately drawn from scripture itself.”


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La Sacrada Familia to be consecrated by the Pope?

I was a fan of Alan Parsons when I was younger (still am sort of). It was their Gaudi album and the title song about the Cathedral of La Sagrada Familia which first drew me to this incredible work by the Spanish architect.

According this Zenit story, the Archbishop of Barcelona has invited Pope Benedict to consecrate the Cathedral “before it is opened for use”.

A couple of things spring to mind immediately:

1) I am astounded that the building is still not being used for worship! Gaudi started work on it in 1883, and it was still uncompleted when he died in 1926. Apparently work restarted in 1952 and current projection for completion is the late 2020’s. But this news must indicate that it is almost ready for use even in its incomplete state, given that they are asking the current pontiff (who, baring a miracle, will not be around in the 2020’s) to consecrate it.

2) Benedict is heading to Spain for the Madrid World Youth Day next year. Perhaps he could do the job then?

To get an idea of this incredible building, take a look at this 3-D virtual view on Youtube:


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