Law and the Purity of the Gospel

My post about the Augustana and article 7 occasioned the following, rather insightful comment from a man named David:
I'll admit I've only skimmed some of the work you're citing, but has anyone focused in more on the "pure preaching" and "proper administration" aspects? One argument I can see is that the gospel is not preached purely if the law is not also preached purely, and calling something not sin that is sin dilutes the purity of the law.
And that's exactly the place I want to begin, because David put his finger on one of the key complaints about preaching the gospel in its purity, the one that is most often framed in terms of "Gospel Reductionism."  It begins with the notion that the gospel requires the law -- that the dialectical relationship between law and gospel is necessary for the existence of the gospel.  The second move in the chain is, given the scriptural understanding that the gospel has an essence -- that as Paul says there is one gospel and only one gospel and it is thus-and-such -- that therefore the law has an essence.  That therefore the purity of one depends on the purity of the other, and any dilution of one has a direct effect on the other.  And so if we water down the law, we cannot be doing justice to the essence of the gospel.

(I might note that the argument rarely runs the other direction -- nobody shouts so loudly when we water down the gospel and deliver full-strength law.  They just blame it on the nature of Christianity as a judgmental and condemnatory religion.  It's expected.)

You might guess that I don't agree.  I think the logic is flawed -- though if you can give me a better chain of logic for the argument, I will consider it.  But the key problem is that notion that there is a "purity of the law" to be had, and that this purity consists therefore in some codification of the law.  The identification of the essence of the law with the code of the law.  And the 17th-century novelty of the identification of the code of the law with the words of scripture, just as we identify Torah with the Old Testament, and view the Bible as a compendium of doctrine to which faith gives assent.  (Yeah, that's Lutheran, we did that, and we called it the consolidation of the insights of the Reformers.  It was a sentimental error.)

This is the root of using sola scriptura to refer to the dogmatic adherence to the whole canon of scripture, without the awareness that we have therefore violated the other four solae: trust in God, by grace, for Christ sake, for the glory of God.  Salvation, redemption, reconciliation, and justification -- all these words we use to refer to the action that makes us people of God -- are the epistemological basis for reading scripture.  Scripture is not the epistemological basis for these facts of our life, least of all when read as a code of law.  It bears witness to them, and that is one of the things we mean when we say that scripture is the Word of God.  In fact, it is our sole normative witness, the ground of our confessional witness.  But that meaning is inseparable from the object of that witness: the understanding of Christ as the Word of God, which is our interpretive key to all of scripture.  The horse must lead the cart, and God must drive it.

We are accused, quite often lately, of "calling something not sin that is sin."  And the grounds for this accusation come from proof-texts in scripture, and the longstanding history of Western social morality -- bolstered by the suggestion that the Black Church agrees, in the case of sex and gender norms, which it does for its own reasons, and that especially the churches of Africa agree, which they do for their own reasons.  And I can go through and recontextualize those passages into more original meanings, which I will say still doesn't erase the moral opprobrium there.  And I can go through and explain why the prevailing social morality in these many places is what it is.  Which still doesn't erase the fact that it is what it is.

And so I have learned, from very early on in this process, not to begin with arguments that deny the accusation.  You call it sin, and you have supports for your position, and nothing I can do in direct attack will make them disappear.  That's fine; it's practically always the case in any argument.  Attacking the premises of an argument is mostly only good for juridical cases in which I'm not trying to convince you, but instead some external authority, or the audience.  When I do that, all I want is for you to lose.  I have given up on convincing you at that point.

(Note: The Augustana is like this -- it has ceased to be an internal argument within the catholic church, and become the debate of two parties before an arbiter, the Holy Roman Emperor who called the Diet of Augsburg.  Never mind that it was rigged, that's the way the evangelicals went into it.  I might go further to say that status confessionis is nearly always declared by the loser in a juridical contest, when it has become clear that the view of the other side will be accepted.  The winner has no need to say it, despite having convictions just as firm and justified.  The question then becomes finding another venue in which the arguments of this side will be heard sympathetically.  And so we part ways.)

Where was I?  Oh, yes, attacking the premises.  Now, before it becomes clear that we are irreconcilably divided and will seek some form of juridical arbitration, whether popular or hierarchical, we call this disputation.  We say to one another, "I'm not sure you're right about that -- I propose this set of alternatives and arguments which your position does not seem to address."  And David has done that in good form, and so I'm responding here.

As mentioned, I do not believe that the law has an essential nature.  Codes developed through a historical series of contingent events cannot be evaluated for their "purity."  The Torah and the Prophets are no exception.  Nor do I believe that it is necessary to uphold a single standard of law.  On the other hand, we frequently do uphold certain standards of law, and we have a long history of disputing which standard of law forms the essence of our obligations.  And I have no intention of denying that the people of God are under obligation to God!  The question is always: "what standard of law is normative for us?"  And it has been so since well before the Synoptic account in which Jesus is asked, "which commandment of the law is the greatest?"  Meaning, "Out of this whole vast set of guides that we find in Torah, and that we argue about and rationalize and try to adapt to our lives outside of the Temple" -- it is a Pharisaic question; the Sadducees had no trouble with Torah because they were the Temple sect -- "which ones form the structure that governs the rest of them?"

In the US, we do this with the Preamble and the Bill of Rights.  They are, as Matthew puts it, the peg upon which all the rest of the vast and cumbersome US Code hangs (kremannumi).  Jesus gives, and Paul agrees with it, the answer "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, life, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself."  If we agree, then we norm every other statement of law that we accept by this standard.  Not that that's easy, or has only one possible answer; those who firmly believe that homosexuality is a sin and that homosexuals must find repentance before grace remain convinced that this is a duty born of love, out of concern for the safety of the sinner in the presence of the holy.

Now, that also doesn't tell us what else is acceptable as law, except that we use those two declarations to norm everything else within the category of law.  I mean to suggest here that every other point of normative legal code that we may adopt is adiaphora so long as it does two things.  As law, it must conform with our accepted standard of law.  And as law, it must not interfere with the performance of our gospel duties.  When we order the world so that law precedes gospel in normativity, even using the love commands, we have put the cart before the horse.  Especially so when we do it with any other form of community rule, particularly the more restrictive forms, and most especially the condemnatory forms.  The gospel does not condemn.  It saves.  In the rites of entrance and maintenance of Christian community, which are Baptism and the Eucharist, it continually removes the condemnation against us and frees us to act on our obligations to God out of our gospel commission.  In confession and absolution, which may also be considered as the sacrament of Christian reconciliation, it does this explicitly in an individual sense.  In the performance of Christian preaching, it does this in a corporate sense.

Where the law is debatable, the gospel is not.  It has an essential nature; it is the proclamation of God's action in Christ, and its saving application to us and all creation.  It may take many forms, just as I'm stuck talking about salvation, redemption, reconciliation, and justification without being able to cut any one of them out.  But they are reducible ultimately to the purity of our proclamation of Christ.  These are results of that action of God's, but that action is the essence of the gospel.  Therefore we may speak of the purity of the gospel, and come to agreement across our many communities on what that is -- even if we do not always agree on the forms in which we prefer to proclaim it.  The gospel cannot be an adiaphoron; it is the basis for our becoming people of God.  It must always come first -- Christ must always lead us -- and what agrees with it may follow, but God must drive.

Given this, it is entirely appropriate to keep discussing what our obligations are, and which rules will norm our communities.  It is at the same time regrettable when we let that discussion inspire us to declare that one or another community is no longer "church."  This is why the minimal standard for unity set up in article 7 of the Augsburg Confession is the proclamation of the gospel in its purity, and the administration of the sacraments in accordance with that gospel.


  1. You miss something here, Matt -- scripture. In both Hebrew and Greek scripture writings, the saving act of God *ALWAYS* comes first.

    Two examples. First, in Exodus. God does not come to Israel in Egypt and ask them: "Do you wish to be saved? Yes? Then this is what you must do, follow these commandments. Then, after you have done that, I will save you. And only then." No. Israel doesn't even ask God to be saved from slavery -- Israel merely cries out, perhaps incoherently. (Exdous 2:23-25 can be read several ways.) It is God who decides to rescue Israel, without asking them, and then does so. The instructions for the passover are given only because, at this point, God has already decided to act. And once gathered in the wilderness -- where they have absolutely no mechanism of enforcement -- does God give the teaching to Israel. "I have saved you. I have gathered you. This is what it means to be my people." The relationship is uneasy in the beginning (God is new at this redeeming thing, and Israel is new at being redeemed), and several times God threatens to abandon God's people and start all over. But in this, God sticks by the people, even as they cannot stick by God.

    Second, Jesus does not approach the disciples and ask them: "Would you like to follow me? Really? Okay, here's what you need to do. Once you've done that, then you can follow." No. To James, John, Simon, Matthew/Levi, Jesus meets them when they are minding their own business and says: "Follow me." And then he gives the teaching. Even then, like Israel in the wilderness and the promised land, the disciples are incapable of being faithful to Jesus in the way he is faithful to them. But Jesus does not abandon them, does not say "you are no longer my disciples if you cannot keep my teaching."

    I have for some time come to have problems with the Law/Gospel dichotomy, for two reasons. First, it does a a tremendous injustice to the Hebrew scriptures, as if somehow they are only law and God tells Israel it can only be redeemed if they follow the teaching (read Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Exodus carefully -- the curses and blessings are about the gift of the land, not about God's salvation of Israel). Second, the Old Testament is full of Gospel, if by Gospel we mean the unilateral saving love and acts of God for God's people. I do not believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be properly preached unless it is absolutely and thoroughly grounded in Jewish scripture.

    Mostly, though, I am convinced that God does not work according to our the traditional Lutheran Law/Gospel dialectic. Jesus did not work that way either. Gospel is always first. Gospel forms the community. But the community is formed by God's saving act, by God's calling out, and not by our confession of "true faith" or adherence to the teaching. The teaching tells us what it means to be God's people, but it is done so with the full knowledge that we cannot be faithful in the way God in Christ is faithful to us. We are still church even if we cannot do what Jesus or Paul tells us. (Compare Clement's letter to the Corinthians with Paul's. Decades later that was still a troubled church, and it was still a church.) Because we don't form the church. Christ does. We will be faithful only because we are joined to Christ's faithfulness.

    There is a "law" that is, I think, understood in the OT, but it is not "you are sinners, and your sin in condemned." In forgiving sins, God has judged. That always seems to be forgotten -- the innocent or merely unfortunate have no real need of forgiveness and mercy, only the guilty. The true convicting law is the fear that God has or will abandon us -- Judges 10 (where God very briefly actually does abandon Israel), or Amos, or Jeremiah, or Isaiah, the fear expressed at the very end of Lamentations. Preach that law, if you dare.

  2. Charles, I love you, but that's a bit uncharitable. I don't miss it; I presuppose it! I have since you taught me the pattern of the Hebrew scriptures in the library one summer a few years ago. I find it everywhere. It is the ground bass of Romans, over which Paul performs his virtuosic solos.

    This is the reason why the law cannot legitimately obstruct the gospel, and why Barth is right when he declares that the law is a form of the gospel. This is always what I mean when I say that we have obligations built upon the gospel. God saves, first and definitively, and the saving action constitutes a people who are then bound by the consequences of their resulting freedom.

    But I always love hearing it said prophetically, and you know I don't do that part of the job very well. Thanks!

  3. At the same time, this is why I shift the discussion of law into a discussion of the rules that form community boundaries. Because clearly, if we remain one in Christ, we are still separated by the natures of our gatherings, even if only in form and not in substance. And if there is a civil use of the law, it must be restricted to this form. We have segregated ourselves out on the basis of how we mark the boundaries of our communities, and that is necessary for both to go on living without destroying one another.

  4. I always get the sense as Lutherans, we are confused on exactly what "Law" is, and we smoosh all sorts of things together and call them "Law." There is torah, teaching, which got badly rendered into nomos, law. It may have formed a "legal code" for Israel, but I don't think law meant in antiquity what it means to us today -- law was more moral exhortation, a form of preaching in and of itself, rather than a comprehensive series of restrictions, encouragements, and official consequences. In any event, there was no "state" to enforce such "law," and most consequences were handled by the leaders or tribes, clans and towns. Accusers actually did throw first stones!

    I'm not sure there is a first use of the law -- this civil use -- for any number of reasons. Mostly because I think "natural law" is an intellectual extrapolation created in the context of Christendom that attempts to secularize or universalize a very specific teaching to a very specific people in a very specific time and place. But also because, frankly, I don't buy the notion that some sinful human beings should be empowered to restrain the sinfulness of other sinful human beings. Who restrains the restrainers? Answer -- no one. It may be that sin does restrain sin, but only by accident, because sin cannot it, and not by design. This is not "law." God's "law" is not built into the organization of the world as deliberately or purposefully as we tend to believe.

    So we often times confuse human legal codes with "law" in this sense. Which is misguided and just plain stupid.

    I think much of this argument about church is still rooted in the expectation of Christendom -- that all in a "Christian" society/state will be meaningfully Christian in some way, and with a pietistic critique, that all will make a deliberate choice to do something morally difficult to be Christian (or at least those who constitute the core of the church). As well as a very old Christian fear, than any sin present in the community puts the welfare of the entire community (which is the nation-state, the Christian polity) at risk from God's wrath. This is why I am so very glad that Christendom is evaporating. Now we can truly comprehend what it means to be church without the distractions/illusions/temptations of nationalism or statism. We can begin to ascertain a call to be church in a society and state that isn't in any meaningful way Christian (and amen to that!).


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