"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”.

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