Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Law and Gospel" and Contemporary Biblical Interpretation

This year's ELCA The Hein-Fry lecture topic for 2009 is Hearing the Word: Lutheran Perspectives on Biblical Interpretation

So time for another road trip to Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque to hear Mark Allan Powell talk on the topic of Law and Gospel.

Lutherans like to talk about Law and Gospel. A LOT. The problem is that often non-Lutherans don't really know what we mean by that and it's misunderstood and misused by Lutherans themselves. Sometimes people think we are setting up an Old Testament/New Testament dichotomy but that is not the case at all-as you can find Gospel in the Old Testament and Gospel and Law in the New Testament. Nor is it the case that Law is bad and must be avoided at all cost. the whole idea of the Law/Gospel dichotomy is that you need both.

Powell defines Law and Gospel this way - the Law is that which accuses and judges and teh Gospel is that which comforts and saves us. There are a lot of way to say that. I personally like the Law reveals our brokenness, the Gospel heals our brokenness. Faithful interpretation of scriputre discerns law and gospel; faithful proclamation declares law and gospel.
Two-fold or Three-fold Use of the Law?

Lutherans have traditionally recognized two uses and argued over a possible third use of the law. The first is the political function of maintaining some semblance of law and order in society. This is the law that everyone recognizes and we can keep in order to maintain civic order.
The second use of the law is the theolgoical function of showing us our need for the law. This is God's standard of righteousness that human beings cannot possibly fulfill and so are driven to rely on the grace of God instead.

Third Use? This is the ethical or catechetical function of teaching us right from wrong. The controversy comes about in that Luther did not actually mention a third use of the law, but Melanthon does in Article 6 of the Confession.

Powell handles this by talking about multiplicity of meanings for the word "Law" In this case he says there are two "Lutheran" definitions of Law -

1) God's standard of righteousness--the holy will of God in light of which all human endeavors are judges and

This law has only two functions - two maintain a semblence of order in society and to show us a our need for the Gospel.

2) Law as a genre of biblical literature--commandments and otehr materials that relate how God wants his people to live It has one function and that is to teach us right from wrong. According to Powell what some call "third use" of the law belongs in this category and not the first, which has only two uses.

I think this is helpful but thinking along those lines I can't really understand why the first use - civic function would not be in the same category as teaching us how to live. I asked that question during the Q&A and the answer was that the first use is for everyone and the third use is for the baptized. That didn't really clear it up for me.

According to Powell, preaching a catechitical sermon on how to live and the difference between right and wrong is not preaching Law at all. Preaching Law is proclaiming God's holiness that demands absolute holy perfection from us.

Powell argues against Carl Braaton who speaks of Law and Gospel as commands and promises. He sees that as a limited reductionist view of Law and Gospel. Law is not just about commands we cannot keep. The Law reveals God's holiness and ourselves as sinners. Even if we obeyed every command and law, we would still be sinners. We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.

Powell's thesis is that Law and Gospel is a hermeneutical principle, not an exegetical one. "The task of exegesis is to consider texts within their historical and literary contexts and determine the meaning of each text it was intended to have" We cannot assume that every biblical text intened a Law/Gospel message.

Law and Gospel is primarily a homiletical principle. Powell argues that the purpose of the sermon is not to teach but it is a part of the liturgy. "A sermon is a liturgical act that serves as ameans of grace, conveying law and gospel to people. The goal of a sermon is not to provide peopel with doctrinal or moral instruction. It is to proclaim gods' word that judges or accuse and Gods word that comfort or saves" But you would not necessarily use that principle in an educational setting.

Also Powell argues that Law and Gospel assumes a reader-oriented approach to scriputure. Law and gospel are defined in terms of how the recipient hears the message, not necesarily the intent of the auther. He talked about "Reader Response Criticism" Okay I've been out of seminary 20 some year. I try to keep up but I've never heard of this. This fills the gap between the historical critical method and the proclamation. This is how you get Law and Gospel from any text whether or not the author intended it. People can hear law and gospel in anything. "You shall have no other Gods" That can be heard as law if you have made other idols in your life into gods. OTOH, it can be good news to someone who has been trying to please a bunch of gods. Only one! Whoo hoo!"

I have to say this "reader response criticism" makes me a little nervous because I see a danger of turning the bible into "whatever it means to me"

So that's pretty much what I got out of the lecture. I was just starting to feel convicted (I heard LAW) because I don't consciously think in terms of law/gospel for every sermon. I do use the words "The bad news is...the good news is" quite a bit. I do consciously think "What is the good news in this text?" And I had a wicked thought..."Is it really so bad to preach only the Gospel?"

And then came the response session from Wartburg professors Dr. Gwen Saylor and Dr. Ann

Fritschel's response was a more traditional one. She sees the Law Gospel principle as one worth keeping but wants us to explore more updated images and language. She noted that the a existential angst about our inability to keep the law is not really at the top of North American post-modern folk. The question she hears today is "Where can I find value, meaning and purpose in a meaningless world?" She also said that most people experience Law in a thousand different ways in their lives and wonders if we really need to hear more of it on Sundays in worship. She also mentioned how often a 15 minute sermon will spend 12 minutes on law and then use the gospel as kind of the Jack in the box ending. And then Jesus makes it all better. Amen. To me that is the real challenge. It is very easy to talk about the Law, to articulate the brokenness and what is wrong with the world. How to make concrete the transformation that the Gospel brings into our lives?

Saylor is much more willing to throw out the whole dichotomy and look for alternatives to the Law Gospel hermeneutic. She noted how law/gospel tends to define sin in ways that do not reflect the experience of women. For women the basic sin is not always "pride" - it's often our inablity to see ourselves as the image of God and a unhealthy self-deprecation that leads to acceptence of abuse.

Saylor is also concerned about the sundering of sanctification from justification and noted that Pauls spends much more time talking about ethics in his letters than justification.

Saylor suggested that instead of started from anthropology (ie sinful humans) and moving to soteriology (justification) - that we should start with the salvation event and go on to how the justified live faithfuly in response to grace. She thought we should pay some more attention to the New Perspectives on Paul as an alternative.

It was all very thought provoking. I found Saylor's alternatives attractive, but Lutheran that I am, have some trepidation. I just don't think we can start from being saved and go on from there and never look back. I think Luther's understanding that day and after day we have to go back to our baptism and start again. I think we may get excited about living faithfully in response to grace and then we start thinking we are doing this on our own and that we can save the world and the only thing that can bring us back to reality is the Law which reminds us we can't save the world, and then the word of grace that it's okay, we don't have to save the world, and then we get back to the business of living out our faith in response to grace. But I agree there's not been enough attention paid to the business of living out our faith and that there is a place for that in proclamation.

Well, if you've followed me this far, I'd love to hear some comments - Lutheran or not!


  1. Let me try a few...

    Reader response criticism is "whatever it means to me" - but isn't that simply a truism? Have not Lutherans (and every other interpretive community) made certain claims that the Bible (or the Confessions, or any other "text") has the meaning that they hear?
    That is not to privilege any one reader's response over another, just to define where the action is.

    As to the third use of the law, many Lutherans argue (as you do) that the third use is really a subset of the first.

    For me the real action is on the broader question of is law/gospel a currently useful homiletical or exegetical or catechetical strategy? For the life of me, I cannot turn up much in the contemporary Lutheran world that makes law and gospel breathe.

    Now, I freely admit my own anti-nomian tendencies. But no one that I know is free from the law, even the greatest professed libertines. The law is imposed on us, and we sumbit to it consciously and unconsciously. Even in rebellion, we are captive to the law.

    Yet it is a Biblical insight that Jesus is doing something very different from law. Jesus fulfils the law - but it would be just as fair to say he demolishes it. When Jesus' law becomes a) love one another, even your enemies, and b) return good for evil, and be ministers of forgiving reconciliation, previous understanding of law are upended. When the fulfilment of the law is that it is the servant of humanity - then our relation to the law has profoundly changed.

    If law and gospel is so crucial (a word chosen judiciously), then who are the law and gospel preachers today, and why is this not more a living reality in our church?

  2. I think I am in the camp that still believes the Law/Gospel dichotomy is helpful and important, even possibly crucial but we need much more creative and relevant language and imagery to talk about it. Law is just too confusing.

    I think we need a mechanism for distinguishing between should and can...between what is teaching and discussion about how to live as God's people without confusing that with salvation (I would put the whole discussion of sexuality under third use of the law)and I think preaching always needs to make us be honestly confront our humanity, our limitations, our not-godness, but also proclaim God loves you period. No ands ifs or buts.

  3. So far as I'm concerned, point goes to Braaten. As usual.

    He gets it in a way that the others don't seem to. That doesn't mean I think his conclusions are always right -- I don't, to put it mildly -- but that his method seems more sensible, and strikes that chord in my gut that makes me say "yeah, exactly."

    If I'm not mistaken, Dr. Saylor was cribbing two famous ideas. Her case about sin not always being the same, and specifically about pride for women, is the Valerie Saiving hypothesis, which basically started feminist theology. It's a fascinating idea, although I worry that it oversimplifies the "old" categories unfairly. And "starting with soteriology" basically restates Karl Barth's idea that instead of talking about Law/ Gospel, we should talk about Gospel/ Law/ Gospel. Also a neat idea, although I have some misgivings.

    Here in Metro New York, by the way, a lot of our most passionate haggling over sex lately has revolved around the Third Use. There's a little subculture here (of which I am, however marginally, a part) for which FC6 is a battleground in the Thirty Years' War. Oy. Jesus wept.

  4. Pastor Joelle, what an overview! I think Law/Gospel is helpful in interpretation, but I am having misgivings about preaching it, lately.

    as for third use: where I come from (Luther Seminary)the dominant view is that the third use is a subset of the first (I think Gerhard Ford didn't really think there was a third use, reallly).

    I think I get what a law/gospel sermon is supposed to do, but I'm not sure I've seen it done very well very often. gospel/law/gospel, I think, is a not bad idea.

  5. Yes I can see Forde being in the camp that has no use for third use.