Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Foolishness of God / final installment

Becker, pp. 215-222

Quote (all the bolding is mine):

Antirationalism in the Lutheran Doctrine of Law and Gospel.

As the last exhibit in the catalog of Lutheran antirationalisms, we turn now to an apparent contradiction which is both one of the most difficult and one of the simplest of all.  It is the distinction between law and gospel.  All the previous discussion is but a concrete demonstration of this fundamental distinction.  Luther held that a theologian worthy of the name must know how to divide the word of truth, that is, he must understand the basic difference between these two doctrines.  The chief founder of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, C.F.W. Walther, in 1884 and 1885 delivered a series of thirty-nine evening lectures to his students at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, on this subject.

...The doctrine of law and gospel is, to Lutheran theology, one of the greatest and most basic paradoxes of Christianity.  Lutheranism stresses the paradoxical nature of the Christian faith, particularly as it is exemplified by the distinction between law and gospel.  Because of this some have tried to draw a parallel between the doctrines of orthodox Lutheranism and Kierkegaardian neo-orthodoxy.  The similarity between them is more apparent than real.  And it is just here, in the matter of law and gospel, that conservative Lutheranism finds the greatest void in the Danish pessimist.  It is strange, in a way, that Kierkegaard, who delighted in paradox, never discovered or understood very clearly the basic paradox of the Christian religion.  J.T. Mueller has well said that Kierkegaard " never came to a clear knowledge of the basic difference between Law and Gospel, but consistently mingled Law and Gospel.  Ultimately, Kierkegaard's entire teaching was law.  Christianity to him was not essentially trust in Christ and the blessed rejoicing which flows from reliance on Christ, but asceticism, self-imposed suffering, work righteousness.

Dr. Walther, at the very beginning of his Law and Gospel, told his students:

"Comparing 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."

1.  The law is written in the heart of man, and is therefore known by nature (Romans 2:15).

1.  The gospel is a mystery unknown to man by nature (1 Corinthians 2:7 ff;  Romans 16:25).

2.  The law demands perfect obedience from men (Genesis 17:1; Matthew 5:48).

2.  The gospel makes no demands but only offers the grace of God to men (Ephesians 2:8,9).

3.  The law promises salvation and life to those who obey all its demands. (Luke 10:28).

3.  The gospel promises salvation to those who have broken the law (Acts 16:31).

4.  The law says that the doers of the law shall be justified (Romans 2:13).

4.  The gospel says that those who have not kept the law shall be justified without the deeds of the law (Romans 3:28).

5.  The law says that God will not forgive sin nor acquit the sinner (Joshua 24:19; Nahum 1:3).

5.  The gospel says that God has acquitted all men, that he has forgiven the sins of the world (Romans 5:18; 2 Corinthians 5:19).

6.  The law says that every sinner is to be cursed (Galatians 3:10).

6.  The gospel says that all the families of the earth are blessed in Christ (Genesis 22:18; Galatians 3:16).

7.  Law
The law says that God hates sinners (Psalm 5:5;  11:5; Hosea 9:15).

7.  Gospel
The gospel says that God loves all men (John 3:16).

... [several more examples are cited].

It must be borne in mind that both doctrines are solidly based on the inspired Word of God.  Both are therefore true, and we must say that they are eternally true.  If either of these doctrines were to become untrue, God would be a liar.  Even Jesus said that he had not come to destroy the law.  And St. Paul said that we establish the law by the preaching of grace, although it would appear that the law somehow becomes void in the gospel.

... The most common resolution of the difficulty is one which destroys both law and gospel, so that neither any longer says what it originally said.   There are those, for example, who say that since Christ came God no longer demands complete obedience from men, but that he is satisfied if we do the best that we can.  This is a watering down of the demands of God until they fall midway between his demands in the law, which call for perfection, and his demands in the gospel, which call for nothing.  But this is no longer the word of God.

There are others who make the promises of the gospel conditional.  They will say that God is only willing to forgive us provided we have the proper attitude, that God will be gracious to us if we repent, or if we believe, or if we are contrite, or if we are willing to amend our sinful lives. Bainton says, "That if bothered Luther," and it bothers an orthodox Lutheran to this day because it is so easily understood as indicating a cause on account of which God forgives us or a condition that man must fulfill before he can be forgiven.  There are "if's" in the law, but no in the gospel.  This sort of methodology in preaching and teaching is called, in Lutheran theology, a mixing of law an gospel.

... Both law and gospel must be allowed to stand without modification, in spite of all their apparent contradictions.  Yet, Dr. Walther is perfectly correct when he says in his Law and Gospel  "There are no contradictions in Scripture."  What looks like a contradiction to reason the believer accepts in childlike faith as perfectly harmonious divine truth.

Take a few of the seemingly contradictory statements of law and gospel to the foot of the cross in faith, and there see how perfectly they are joined.  God threatens to punish every sinner.  This he did through the vicarious atonement which his son made on the cross.  When Christ died as a sinner, he bore our sins.  We died with him.  Therefore God now forgives us in him.  The law also demands perfect obedience from man.
But this perfect obedience has been rendered vicariously through him who said that he had come to fulfill the law, to fulfill all righteousness.  Christ's obedience is the obedience of all men, as Adam's sin is the sin of all men.  Thus he met the demands of the law, and we are justified as doers of the law through what he has done.  Likewise, God threatens to curse the sinners, but Jesus was made a curse for us.  Therefore we are blessed in him.

Without the doctrine of vicarious atonement there can be no reconciliation of law and gospel, and without faith in the vicarious atonement men will never arrive at a solution to the paradox of law and gospel.  This, however, is not a rational solution devised to satisfy reason.  The vicarious atonement itself is an offense to reason.  To the natural reason of man, which even the believer will carry with him to the grave, the biblical message is foolishness (1 Corinthians 2:14).  In God's great revelation of his name to Moses at Mount Sinai he revealed himself as the God who forgives all sin and the God who punishes all sin (Exodus 34:6,7).  He is both a God of infinite justice and revenge and a God of infinite love and mercy.  To human reason this will always be an insoluble conundrum--one that can only be solved by making either God's love and grace or his justice and righteousness less than infinite. [Bolding mine]

But for the Christian believer God has at the cross of Christ found a way to demonstrate both his perfect avenging justice and his perfect forgiving grace.  The "Foolishness of God" thus shows itself to be "wiser than men"  (1 Corinthians 1:21-25).  And once a man has accepted that "foolishness" as divine wisdom because a new way of thinking has been created in him by the creative working of the Holy Ghost, that which looked like gross nonsense now appears to be the greatest wisdom, and what appeared to be an impossible contradiction is accepted as divine truth.

There is yet another perspective from which to view this matter.  Man was created for heaven, and by his sin he damned himself to hell.  Now he needs the law to show him his wretched state, and he needs the gospel to show him the way out of his impossible situation.  He needs the law to destroy his pride in his own character, achievements, and works.  He needs the gospel to overcome the despair which follows when he finds that he stands naked and alone before God.  He needs the law to destroy his faith in himself.  He needs the gospel to build his faith in God.  What appears impossible to fit together on paper fits perfectly in the human heart.

We see, then, how this paradox is resolved in utmost simplicity for the believer.  And we have the certain hope that the light of glory will finally illuminate and resolve many of the other paradoxes of the Christian faith.  Whatever still remains a mystery, we shall happily contemplate with the holy angels (1 Peter 1:12). 

End of Quote

From The Foolishness of God by Siegbert Becker (c) 1982 Northwestern Publishing House ( All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


My own comments:

Regarding Kierkegaard and neo-orthodoxy, I must admit pretty much complete ignorance.  I am curious as to how he and others handle "paradox" differently.

C.F.W Walther's landmark "The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel" has been reissued very recently.  It is some of the most valuable reading someone could invest time and money in.  It can be purchased from CPH here.  There are other resources on the subject.


Sam said...

In other words--the crucifixion (law) on the one hand and on the other hand--resurrection (gospel). Paradox or description: how-it-is.

Brigitte said...

And also in our hearts they are intertwined, though we need to understand the difference and cling to the Gospel for dear life.

"Though in their essential nature (re ispa) these two are far apart, they are nonetheless most intimately joined in one and the same heart. Nothing is linked more closely than fear and confidence, Law and Gospel, sin and grace. For they are so connected that the one absorbs the other. Therefore there can be no mathematical combination that is like this."

"We are so weak that we more readily follow the feeling of sin and death than this laughter and joy of the Gospel.

To speak about myself: Redemption and the life given through Christ do not move my heart as deeply as one little word of the law or one thought of sin and of the judgment of God terrifies my heart. The reason is that the difference between the Law and the Gospel cannot be learned well enough in practice.... It happens naturally that the open jaws of hell terrify us more than the open heaven elates us, that one thought of our sin causes us more sadness than almost all the sermons about the merit of Christ bring us joy."

"The Law is of no use whatever in the attainment of righteousness. correctly understood, it makes people desperate; not correctly understood, it makes them hypocritical. The Gospel, not correctly understood, makes people secure; otherwise it makes them godly. this is why the law has been given only for the sake of transgression (Gal.3:19), so that people might intensely long for Christ. Externally it serves as a political norm."

(What Luther says Anthology, pp. 740-741)

Sam said...

And it seems to me, one might assess, estimate one's personal pilgrim's progress at any point, hour, day in terms of one's law-to-gospel ratios going on & on.

Brigitte said...

"Personal pilgrim's progress at any point". (Interesting and nice alliteration.)

I think we get a bit stressed out when we hear "progress." We always think of the parable of the publican and the pharisee. We never finish saying "Lord have mercy on me."

As things happen in our conflicted heart simultaneously, we are always needing to find our security in another.

Walther's "Distinction Between Law and Gospel" is mostly about pastoral care. What is it we say to another person, especially when trouble? And how does one preach properly? What is a confounding of law and gospel which will harm a soul?

Brigitte said...

Walther's Theses can be found here:

If you think that's long, you should see the book. The new Reader's Edition has about 500 pages. Some of the best reading ever, though. Perhaps not for the poet. You might have to stick with Psalms and such.

Brigitte said...

I mean just in terms of your style and interests.

Sam said...

I'm happy with the distinction between law and gospel (grace)--incommensurate and yet Siamese twins, so to speak (as it were). Law crucifies (as it were) and Gospel resurrects (so to speak): the two complement and fulfill.

Brigitte said...

You are right in the emphasis. We like to say that the baptismal daily life is framed in terms of death and resurrection. We arise a new person in the morning contemplating God's great mercy toward us, and retire at the end with reflection on what has gone right and has gone wrong today and ask for forgiveness once more.

One could live each moment or hour this way, but that could be tedious. So a daily rhythm is something that overlaps with our rising and retiring with the sun and the work day.