Monday, January 14, 2008

"Law and Gospel"? or "Judgement and Grace"?

While in Bendigo recently, visiting Pastor Fraser Pearce, I happened to pick up his copy of Walther's "Law and Gospel" (the basic theses, without the expanded commentary, are here).

I have ever detested Walther--even as a Lutheran--despite having a convinced Waltherian as a lecturer and Seminary principal (Dr Elvin Janetzki of blessed memory). I let Fraser have the full force of my criticism, and he eloquently defended Walther (although I was not convinced).

My main argument against Walther is that he not merely suggests the "Law/Gospel" paradigm/paradox as a helpful way of interpreting the Scriptures, but rather as the ONLY way of interpreting the scriptures, which he imposes upon the scriptures as a cook imposes a cookie cutter on his pastry. The first two theses allow us no other hermeneutical option:
Thesis I.

The doctrinal contents, of the entire Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testament, are made up of two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other, viz., the Law and the Gospel.

Thesis II.

Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all the articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguishes from each other the Law and the Gospel.
It is too much! While you could (as Fraser did) defend the Law/Gospel approach as a useful one for understanding the way in which the Word of God is experienced existentially by the one to whom it is addressed (and this would be much more in keeping with Luther's original genius in this regard), Walther insists that it is an objective and exclusive characteristic of the very nature of the Word of God (much as any orthodox theologian would insist upon the two natures of Christ).

One could argue (and I do) that in fact it represents an approach to both the Law and the Gospel that is completely contrary to Scripture. Could Walther have truly said, along with the psalmist, "Oh, how I love thy law! It is my meditation all the day" (Ps 119)? Could he have acknowledged a proclamation of "the Gospel" which calls for repentance (Mk 1:14-15)?

Moreover, I believe that Walther misreads St Paul, who certainly could not have spoken of "the Law" without having the Jewish Torah in mind. The real contrast in St Paul is between seeking salvation by "faith in Christ" rather than in "the works of the Law (Torah)". The contrast is clearly between the Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant in Christ, ie. Law/Christ, not Law/Gospel. (Nb. this approach becomes irredeemably abstract when "works" and "faith" are set loose from "Law" and "Christ" to which they refer).

And above all, if this is the only orthodox way of reading Scripture, is it not rather odd that it has not been employed as such throughout the 2000 year history of Christian scriptural exegesis? Reading today Richard John Neuhaus' piece on Benedict's latest encyclical "Spe Salvi" with this question in mind, I realise that there is a much more accepted and acceptable paradigm in Christian tradition than "Law/Gospel", namely "judgement/grace".

Judgement and Grace have indeed been seen throughout Christian tradition as the two modes in which the Word of God has been addressed to humankind--and one can interpret Walther most charitably when it is assumed that he is speaking about just this (ie. Law=Judgement and Gospel=Grace).

Nevertheless, whereas Walther consistantly views the Gospel as "good news" over against the Law as "bad news", Christian tradition sees "good news" even in God's Judgement, as Benedict writes:
The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).
But then, by Walther's standards, Benedict fails the test as "an orthodox teacher".


At Monday, January 14, 2008 4:16:00 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Benedict failed the test when he prayed with the Moselems in Turkey.

At Monday, January 14, 2008 4:50:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Ah well, that would have to be another entire lot of theses, wouldn't it? Thesis One would have to be something like: "Orthodox theologians know that they can offer prayer to God anywhere upon earth except in Turkish mosques..." or some such.

Anyone got anything useful to say which is on topic?

At Tuesday, January 15, 2008 1:23:00 am , Anonymous Christine said...

I realise that there is a much more accepted and acceptable paradigm in Christian tradition than "Law/Gospel", namely "judgement/grace".

Right you are, David. The sad part is although I was steeped in scriptural references as a Lutheran it wasn't until I was praying the Divine Office as a Catholic that I began to see that, especially with the daily exposure to the Psalms.

At Tuesday, January 15, 2008 8:04:00 am , Anonymous Lucian said...

Anyone got anything useful to say which is on topic?

Yeah, actually, I do. We're forbidden to pray together even with schismatics or heretics ... not to mention Jews, Muslims, or even Pagans. (Canon Law, for what it's worth, forbids it, anyway).

At Tuesday, January 15, 2008 12:03:00 pm , Blogger William Weedon said...

I'd even say Divine Law forbids it. But that's off topic. About the Law/Gospel thingy, David, how on earth do you see it differing from Judgment/Grace? It strikes me as just another way of getting at the self-same reality. Dr. Raabe did a fine essay on the topic in the festschrift in honor of Norman Nagel: "The Two 'Faces' of Yahweh: Divine Wrath and Mercy in the OT." Very worth the reading.

By the bye, about the "law" being Torah, well, but of course. However, you cannot have it mean simply the ceremonial law. The Apostle clearly speaks of "thou shalt not covet" as his example in Romans 7, and that seems to indicate that the Law he was aiming at and by which no one can be accounted righteous before God is indeed encapsulated in the Decalogue.

At Tuesday, January 15, 2008 12:58:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

[Of topic bit first: there is nothing in divine law that forbids offering silent Christian prayer while standing shoulder to shoulder with a person of another religion, even if that person is saying prayers to his deity at the same time. This is what Benedict did, and what I myself have done on countless occasions. The kind of "praying with schismatics/heretics/pagans" which is forbidden is that type which actually joins them in offering their "schismatical/heretical/pagan" prayer. Lord help us, the next thing you will be saying is that I can't pray the Lord's Prayer together with my wife who belongs to a "schismatic/heretical" (take your pick) community!]

ON topic: William, of course, I realise that "Law" is broader than ceremonial. Torah cannot be artificially divided into cultic and ethical laws.

But I do believe Walther's Law/Gospel paradigm, while being based upon the judgement/grace hermeneutic, differs from it in a number of fundamental ways:

In Walther's paradigm the words "Law" and "Gospel" are given meanings that differ from their scriptural and traditional meanings. According to traditional scriptural interpretation, God's Law can be both judgement and grace, just as the Gospel also brings both judgement and grace.

Thus, unlike Walther, the Church does not teach that the whole of God's word can be divided into "two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other". Some scriptural themes are both judgement and grace (eg. Christ's death on the cross) and some are neither (eg. Christ as the ikon of the Father) since they simply make statements about the way things are.

Other scriptural passages, such as those which establish rules for prayer and the sacraments, are commands which we as Christians are to obey, but cannot be classed as either "grace" or "judgement" let alone "law" or "gospel". (eg. "Do this in remembrance of me", "Go therefore, baptising and teaching..."). Not surprisingly, Lutherans have a great deal of difficulty accepting that there are laws established by God regarding how to pray and how to celebrate the sacraments and how to order the Church (a connection there with our "off topic" thread). Many Lutherans would class such requirements as "legalistic" rather than "Gospel-centered".

Furthermore, although Walther conceives of "the Law" as something diametrically opposed to his concept of "the Gospel", the relationship between God's Judgement and his Grace is a whole lot more complicated than this simple opposition. I do think that it is possible to speak of God's gracious judgement. In fact, I have experienced it.

At Tuesday, January 15, 2008 3:25:00 pm , Blogger William Weedon said...

Well, at Walther's seminary, at any rate, I was taught that Law, in the sense of Torah, embraces both Law and Gospel and at times could better be translated "Gospel" rather than law! :)

The key to getting the law/gospel distinction though is to realize it's not a matter of CONTENT but of God's address to us: thus, for example, the Cross is both the severest law and the sweetest gospel. It is both at the same time. And God addresses it to us as BOTH.

As to Lutherans having a hard time accepting that there are laws governing how we pray or celebrate the Sacraments, well, Lutherans of course insist that only God in His holy Word can give such laws and where He does they are not to be dismissed. But we do not recognize the venerable tradition of the Church as being on a par with divine Law in regard to these matters. In concrete terms, we believe that singing the Agnus Dei and thus adoring the present Christ in His body and blood is wholly appropriate and fitting; but we don't believe that it is a divine Law that we HAVE TO pray thus before communing.

Also, I don't think Walther's concept of Law is as a simple as you've made it out to be. The Law is never less, in Walther and Lutheranism as a whole, than the perfect expression of God's will for human beings to live in love - love toward Him above all and love toward the neighbor as the self. Because we fail to do this with the perfection of God, the Law will never cease accusing us, and it never has the power to enable such love, to empower it, if you will. That comes from the shocking good news that despite and in the face of our failure to love Him like that and our neighbor as ourselves, HE has loved us so in the gift of His Son.

At Wednesday, January 16, 2008 1:13:00 am , Anonymous Lucian said...

Lord help us, the next thing you will be saying is that I can't pray the Lord's Prayer together with my wife who belongs to a "schismatic/heretical" (take your pick) community!

Well, ... You can't ... :-(

At Wednesday, January 16, 2008 1:18:00 am , Anonymous Lucian said...

Mr. William Weedon,

how do You reconcile Your view of the Decalogue with Luther's, found in his Catechisms ?

At Wednesday, January 16, 2008 1:11:00 pm , Blogger William Weedon said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At Wednesday, January 16, 2008 1:15:00 pm , Blogger William Weedon said...


Where do you see them differing?

At Wednesday, January 16, 2008 1:17:00 pm , Blogger William Weedon said...


Did you read this article:

I thought it very good.


At Thursday, January 17, 2008 10:17:00 am , Blogger Schütz said...

Yes, I do recall reading it. Oakes' thesis (that "When the Western Church fissiparated in the sixteen century, the Reformers took a portion of the essential patrimony of the Church with them, and they thereby left both the Roman Church and themselves the poorer for it") is not unlike that of J. Pelikan in his book "The Riddle of Roman Catholicism" (although we will never know just how and in what way Pelikan had modified his thesis by the time of his conversion to Russian Orthodoxy).

And it has an element of truth. But it is not the full picture and is too simplistic.

I waver between whether to call Protestants schismatics or heretics. To take two extreme examples: when they deny the real presence in the Eucharist, they are heretics; when they refuse to pray with us, they are acting more like schismatics.

I would have to agree that on very many points Protestant theologies (plural--Lutheran, Reformed et aliter) are orthodox; however, there are many instances in which these otherwise orthodox doctrines are pushed to the point that they contradict other aspects of the Catholic faith. When this happens it is usually because the doctrine is taken in isolation or given a significance all of its own in which it ceases to be catholic--ie. it ceases to a "according to the whole" of Christian tradition.

So. Protestant = Orthodox? Schismatic? Heretic? Depends on what aspect you are looking at. But Protestant almost never = Catholic.

At Thursday, January 17, 2008 10:25:00 am , Blogger William Weedon said...


I understand. But I hope that you recognize and remember that when Lutherans are actually being Lutherans and so true to themselves as witnessed in the Symbols, then indeed we are convinced that in our teaching there is "nothing that varies from the Scripture or from the Church universal or from the Church of Rome, as known from its ancient writers." AC (Summary)

FWIW, I think that what the Lutheran confesses in the Symbols is really nothing else than the Catholic faith.


At Friday, January 18, 2008 1:22:00 am , Anonymous Christine said...

FWIW, I think that what the Lutheran confesses in the Symbols is really nothing else than the Catholic faith.

Sadly, that is no longer universally true in the Lutheran fold. Various Lutheran bodies adhere to the confessions in greater or lesser degree.

Many in the ELCA still consider themselves as rooted in the confessions; note this affirmation of faith posted on an ELCA congregational website:

This church confesses the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This church confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe that…

Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate, through whom everything was made and through whose life, death and resurrection God fashions a new creation.

The proclamation of God's message to us as both Law and Gospel is the Word of God's message to us is the Word of God, revealing judgement and mercy through word and deed, beginning with the Word in creation, continuing in the history of Israel, and centering in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.

This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.

This church accepts the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds as true declarations of the faith of this church.

This church accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel, acknowledging as one with it in faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.

This church accepts the other confessional writings in the Book of Concord, (namely, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles and the Treatise, the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Formula of Concord) as further valid interpretations of the faith of the Church.

This church confesses the Gospel, recorded in the Holy Scriptures and confessed in the ecumenical creeds and Lutheran confessional writings, as the power of God to create and sustain the Church for God’s mission in the word.

Yet this congregation recently called a female pastor and their Synod is headed by a female bishop.
They have now essentially cut themselves off from the greater Catholic tradition. There are also still differences in the Eucharistic theology of Lutherans and Catholics.

I would certainly agree that there are catholic elements in the Lutheran churches, but I cannot agree that the Lutheran church today is Catholic in the way that the ancient traditions of East and West are.

At Friday, January 18, 2008 1:29:00 am , Blogger William Weedon said...


I mean this not at all unkindly, but there have been the gravest of concerns in the Missouri Synod over whether the ELCA can honestly be considered a Lutheran Church in any sense anymore. I say that not to ignore the grave difficulties that persist in Missouri, but to recognize that the problems seem to be of a different nature in either place. And because of the problems in my own Synod, that's why I qualified my statement with "when Lutherans are actually being Lutheran."

At Friday, January 18, 2008 2:57:00 am , Anonymous Christine said...

Not taken unkindly at all, Pastor. The heartbreaker is that there ARE still many faithful Lutherans (like my sister) in the ELCA but they are simply not being heard in Chicago.

I fear that what is happening in the Episcopal Church may loom on the horizon for the ELCA.

I do understand your qualification as regards the LCMS where there are, to be sure, Lutherans faithful to the Confessions.

I agree, however, that to be [C]atholic is to "engage the whole" and historically that has very different implications for Catholics and Lutherans.

I wholly respect and understand that you will disagree with me on that.


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