On the "Catholicity" of the Lutheran hermeneutical distinction between "Law" and "Gospel"

In the discussion about Justice and the Gospel, Pastor Mark Henderson suggested that the Lutheran hermeneutical distinction between “Law” and “Gospel” would help understand the matter. I objected that this hermeneutic is quite unique to Lutheranism (it is, in fact, one of the aspects of Lutheranism to which I DON’T subscribe as a “Lutheran in communion with the Bishop of Rome” – and in it’s more extreme forms, such as that of C.F.W. Walther, I didn’t even hold to it as a Lutheran). He responded that the distinction could be found in the Fathers. “Show me”, I said. His response was:

OK, David, start with the Law and Gospel category over at Lutheran Catholicity, and I’ll get some more quotes together to show that the “Law-Gospel” paradigm is not confined to Lutherans.

Below I address all the quotations listed on the category of Law and Gospel on Lutheran Catholicity (only one entry, as I can see). In a post on February 7 Mark said that he had updated this entry, adding:

that this hermeneutical rule was not a Reformation innovation but a truth known by the early church and ultimately drawn from scripture itself. To be sure, the Fathers did not always grasp the distinction between Law and Gospel with the clarity that would be shown by the Lutheran Fathers, but these quotations show that this aspect of Reformation theology was a legitimate, organic development of doctrine by Luther and subsequent exegetes.

For the sake of simplicity, I will give my own understanding of what the Lutheran distinction is and is not (there is a Wikipedia article that isn’t too bad on this although a more authorative statement will be found in the Epitome of the Formula of Concord.)

Put simply, “the Law” is taken by Lutherans to mean any statement or teaching in Scripture which demands a human action. Such demands have at least two (or controversially three) “uses”: to curb us from doing evil, to show up and condemn our sin, and (this is the controversial one), to show us how to live a holy life before God (yes, really, this is controversial among Lutherans!). “The Gospel” on the other hand is taken to mean every statement in Scripture where God promises to act in mercy, grace and forgiveness toward us. Usually this means what God has done for us “in Christ”, but this does not have to be explicit.

Thus, anything that says what we “must” or “should” or “ought to” do is taken as “Law”, and anything that tells us what God does for us is “Gospel”. For eg. if we take the idea of the “Law of Love”, which for Catholics and many other Christians is undoubtedly a part of the Gospel, Lutherans would say that it is in fact part of “the Law”, at least in so far as it makes demands upon us in terms of action in response to God’s grace.

For eg.

You must love God = Law
God loves you = Gospel
God forigves you = Gospel
You have sinned = Law

Some bible passages can be interpreted both ways, for eg. Lev 19 “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy”. It could be “Law” in that it demands holiness from us, or “Gospel” in that God promises to make his people holy.

In this terminology, “Law” does not mean:
1) simply the 10 Commandments
2) the first five books of the Old Testament (the Torah)
4) Nor the whole Old Testament of the bible
5) Nor the Old Covenant in general
6) Nor even more broadly the Jewish “Halakah”
7) Nor Judaism in general

Likewise, “Gospel” does not mean
1) the announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of God in Christ
2) The first four books of the New Testament
2) the New Testament of the bible
3) the New Covenant in general
4) all the teachings of Jesus
5) The Christian faith

All these ways of speaking of “Law” and “Gospel” are, I will admit straight out, completely Catholic, and can be demonstrated to have existed in the Church from the very beginning. But this is not what a Lutheran is talking about when he uses the term “Law and Gospel”.

That said, let’s look at Mark’s examples. I’m going to admit straight out and admit to being a bit naughty by showing scholarly laziness in not going back to the entire passages in their context from which Mark lifted these quotations (I plead lack leisure for this endeavour). Due scholarly reflection would require also to consider the historical context in which these passages where said or written. Please don’t judge me too harshly for this – I think I can make my case nevertheless.

Both testaments belong to God, who says, “I kill, and I make alive,; I wound and I heal” (Deut 32:39). We have already made good the Creator’s claim to this twofold character of judgment and goodness, “killing in the letter” through the law, and “quickening in the Spirit” through the Gospel (2 Cor 3:6).
Tertullian, Antei-Nicene Fathers, 3:452-453

Tertullian is quite clearly using “Law” and “Gospel” here to refer to the Old and the New Covenants respectively (the translation “testaments” could give the impression he is talking about the books of the OT and NT, but I don’t think that fits his statement). He is not distinguishing “Law” and “Gospel” in the Lutheran sense.

The Gospel’s promise is distinguished from the law, and since it is different it cannot be mixed with the Law, for a condition invalidates the promise.
Ticonius (d.circa 390AD), Book of Rules.

Tertullian is here using the words “Gospel” and “Law” in the same sense Paul did. The “Law” is the Jewish law or Torah, the “condition” for membership in God’s people according to the Old Covenant. The New Covenant, “the Gospel”, Tertullian says, is not like that. It is a promise, not a condition. Still, this is not the Lutheran hermeneutic.

Therefore, whenever you hear sinners cursed in Scripture, understand it concerning the proud, as I said, that is, those who defend their sins. Likewise, as often as you hear the poor praised, do not consider it with regard to all the poor, but only those Christians who are meek and humble of heart. Of these it is written: ‘Upon whom shall my spirit rest, but upon the humble and meek, upon him that trembleth at my words?’ Caesarius of Arles, Homily 48

Not quite sure how this is supposed to illustrate the Catholicity of the Lutheran hermeneutic, other than that it refers to sinners being cursed and humble and meek Christians being praised – which a Lutheran would naturally interpret through his conception of “Law” and “Gospel”.

In the Law, he that has sin is punished,; here, he that has sins comes and is baptised and is made righteous, and being made righteous, he lives, being delivered from the death that sin brings. The Law, if it lay hold of a murderer, puts him to death; the Gospel, if it lay hold on a murderer, enligtens, and gives him life.
John Chrysostom, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, I, 12:307

Now, it is my guess that “the Law” Chrysostom is talking about is actually not religious law at all, but the law of the Emperor, as it is not “the Law” which puts to death a murderer, but the Emperor. “The Gospel” in this case would also, practically speaking, mean “the Church”.

Paul’s words are, “The righteousness of God is shown forth…”This is witnessed by the law and the prophets; in other words, the law and the prophets each testify about it. The law, indeed, does this by issuing its commands and threats, and by justifying no-one. It shows well enough that it is by God’s gift, through the help of the Spirit, that a person is justified. Augustine, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, I, 5:88-89.

Righto, Augustine. But it is clear here that he is not using he Lutheran scheme as “the Law” to which he refers has been coupled with “the prophets”. This can only lead us to understand “the Law” to be “the Torah”, which, taken together with “the prophets” can only mean the books of the Old Testament. Note that this is not contrasted here with “the Gospel”, nor even, “the New Testament”, but with “God’s Gift”, by which he probably means “God’s Grace”, given the reference to the Holy Spirit’s help.

If God has commanded that His precepts should be diligently kept (Ps 119:4) it is in order that, seeing our constant imperfection and our inability to fulfill the duty that we ought to do, we may fly to His mercy, and say, “Your steadfast love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3a). And not being able to appear clad in innocence or righteousness, we may at last be covered in the robe of confession.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Advent and Christmas Sermons.

You were sinning, O man, in darkness and in the shadow of death through ignorance of truth. You were sitting bound by the chains of sin. He came down to your prison not to torture you, but to rescue you from the power of darkness. And first the Teacher of truth dispelled the darkness of ignorance by the light of His wisdom. Then by the righteousness of faith he loosed the bonds of sin, freely justifying the sinner.” Bernard, Canticles ch.XV

Ah! From what great bitterness of soul have you often delivered me, O Good Jesus, coming to me!… How often has prayer taken me on the brink of despair, and then restored to me the state of soul of one exulting in joy and confident forgiveness. Those who are afflicted in this way, behold they know that the Lord Jesus is truly a Physician Who healeth the broken of heart and bindeth up their bruses”
Bernard, Canticles ch.XX

Okay, it is beyond me how this demonstrates that the Lutheran use of the term “Law and Gospel” is “Catholic”. Bernard describes what is the experience of Christians everywhere in relation to our sin and God’s forgiveness. This is not in dispute. It is the Lutheran “Law and Gospel” paradigm that I am disputing.

Nothing here has proved what Mark set out to prove, namely that “this hermeneutical rule was not a Reformation innovation but a truth known by the early church and ultimately drawn from scripture itself.”

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16 Responses to On the "Catholicity" of the Lutheran hermeneutical distinction between "Law" and "Gospel"

  1. Terry Maher (Past Elder) says:

    Would you quit posting stuff — it’s 0100 over here and as soon as the laundry is done I’m folding it and going to bed. I’ll leave it to PW or PTM or somebody to wake up in a few hours and set you straight — except to say the Third Use is not controversial with this Lutheran, it’s right in the Explanation to the Small Catechism, and it’s not controversial with anyone I would call Lutheran either, neither giving a horse’s patoot nor a rooty toot toot what they call themselves.

  2. Joshua says:

    This Law/Gospel thing is the Urim and Thummim of Lutheranism – I don’t think any Christian outside of that spectrum has ever heard of it.

    • Joshua (and David), I shall be posting a series over at the old manse to show that the law-gospel hermeneutic is known and used outside of Lutheran circles. The first post is up today, and although relatively obscure in origins, it is as bright as the sun in what it proclaims, and I though it as good a place as any to start.

      David, if you read my comment carefully – and I’ll allow that you have been pushed for time, aren’t we all? – I said that I’ll provide quotations from non-Lutherans from the pre and post Reformation church to show that your claim that this hermeneutic is unknown outside of Lutheran circles is mistaken. I intend to draw from well beyond the Fathers of the early church in this endeavour.

      • Schütz says:

        I acknowledge that the terminology has been used in Reformed/Calvinist circles due to Lutheran influence (though not exactly the same way as Lutherans use it).

        That’s not my point really. I have two points

        1) The characteristic Lutheran distinction (as I have tried to describe it in this blog) is unknown before Luther and his followers

        2) It really only gets attention from Lutherans today, given that non-Lutheran protestantism has largely ceased to speak in these terms even where they once might have done. It certainly has not come up in our ecumenical dialogues with any other protestant body.

        • David,

          Well, I’m glad to hear that acknowledgement, because that is distinctrly different from what you were claiming previously. Nevertheless, I shall still post my citations, having collected them. They will also prove useful to others, I think.

          In a way I agree that the classic Lutheran distinction was unknown before the Reformation. The truth of the doctrine, in my view, does not rest on whether it has historical antecedents; they, where they exist, are merely useful and interesting insatnces of a ‘primitive’ understanding of the hermeutic. The question is, is it a scriptural hermeneutic, and then is it a legitimate development of doctrine (or a completely new insight?). That, as you know, is an old Lutheran question. Chemnitz, who, following his master Melanchthon, was the greatest synthesiser of Lutheran doctrine with the Patristic tradition in the interests of historical continuity, acknowledges that the Fathers were inconsistent in these matters relating to Justification. Interestingly, his comments somewhat parallel thye much later studies in the Apostolic Fathers by T.F. Torrance.

          The Reformed use of the Law-Gospel distinction does not always stem from a familiarity with Lutheran sources. Some of the Reformed developed the hermenuetic out of their own study of Paul. And, in any case, being derived from Lutheran sources does not cancel out the value of their testimony, especially when it is accompanied by careful exegesis which shows they have thought the issues through.

          And, finally, far from being the case that non Lutheran Protestants no longer ‘speak in these terms’, I can happily inform you that there is a revival of the true Evangelical (i.e. Lutheran) doctrine among evangelicals of all stripes, partly due to the attention Wright et al have drawn to these issues. Indeed, such is the fervour of some evangelicals for the Law-Gospel distinction as an antidote to rank Arminianism and semi-Pelagianism that many are labelled “crypto-Lutherans”.

  3. Michael Root says:

    Most contemporary assertions of a Lutheran law-gospel distinction as a hermeneutical principle must face the challenge that they are attempting to explain the obscure by the more obscure. I have become unconvinced that the distinction in most of its contemporary versions helps much with the questions that face the church (and the test of any hermeneutical principle is whether it leads to accurate and helpful interpretations).
    Michael Root

    • Schütz says:

      Michael, a pleasure to have you at the Commentators Table. (Past Elder, could you please pass your co-religionist the port?)

      [For those of you who don’t know Michael, you can read about his work here: http://www.ltss.edu/current_community/faculty/michael_root/ ]

      I agree entirely. In all the “hotspot”areas of contemporary ecclesiastical debate and disagreement, the Lutheran hermeneutic of Law and Gospel is practically irrelevant. Perhaps this is because many of the points of disagreement are specifically about morality or church order. “Law”, in a Lutheran sense, is of the essence in these debates, and when one introduces “Gospel” (in Lutheran terms) to these discussions, one generally ends up with anti-nomianism. The fact is that, like most Lutheran discussion on Justification, the “Law/Gospel” paradigm is really a pastoral paradign of the individual soul “coram Deo”, not the Church living in communion and society.

      • Terry Maher (Past Elder) says:

        The port is passed. Starboard too. (Since absolutely nothing is funny to the deadly serious postconciliar world, that was a joke.)

        The fact that the proper distinction between Law and Gospel has become obscure, even among so-called Lutherans, illustrates only how obscure either Law or Gospel has become in the so-called church, and therefore how irrelevant to either Law or Gospel the so-called church has become, having neither.

      • Perhaps that’s why I’m more happy describing myself as an Evangelical rather than a Catholic; the question of the individual soul’s standing Coram Deo is still immensely important to me.

        I would argue, though, that the classical Lutheran hermeneutic, properly understood, still has a lot to offer to questions of intra-church issues and relations to society. The Law-Gospel hermeneutic stands within the analogy of faith and the historical life of the church, not apart from it, which may be the version of it Dr Root is questioning (OK, I confess, I have always found Dr Root’s writing to be somewhat opaque – sorry, Michael!)

    • Fr Alvin Kimel says:

      I can think of one practical benefit of the Lutheran law/gospel hermeneutic: it would benefit the preaching of pastors who tend to descend into moralism. Over the past five years I have listened to bunches of homilies by Catholic priests. They overwhelmingly tend to be moralistic. On more than one occasion I have thought to myself, “This guy could use a little Lutheran law/gospel hermeneutic.” On occasion I’d like to hear just some good ole fashioned proclamation of the good news.

      So while I don’t think that the Lutheran hermeneutic can sustain too much theological and biblical weight, I think it can be helpful for preachers.

  4. Terry Maher (Past Elder) says:

    Ah, a good night’s sleep! Apparently PW et al are still in bed, or just perhaps have duties whose performance is prior to posting on blogs. I thought upon awakening from the arms of Morpheus I would feel refreshed to launch into an extended refutation of your extended post. However, the refreshment yielded another result. Which is, I see another matter, which renders such a refutation pointless.

    For some time, since the beginning of coming here actually, what you appear to mean by “in communion with the Bishop of Rome” has struck me as only tangentially related to what being “in communion with the Bishop of Rome” was taught to me to be when I was “in communion with the Bishop of Rome” but thoroughly consistent with the quasi Protestant “Catholicism” which emerged in its place at Vatican II.

    However, right at the outset of this post, another thing is clear which I have wondered about for some time, particularly re your enthusiasm for such garbage as the Joint Declaration. Which is, your characterisation of the distinction between Law and Gospel, in particular identifying Walther’s 25 Theses thereon as an extreme form which you did not believe even as a Lutheran, makes it clear that what you appear to mean by “Lutheran” is only tangentially related to what being Lutheran has been taught to me to be, in and by Scripture, Concordia, and for all their differences either Lutheran synod to which I have belonged.

    Therefore, finding Walther’s 25 theses not an extreme form of the distinction between Law and Gospel but a precise and exact exposition of exactly what it is, the real matter is not so much whether what you call Catholic is Catholic, but whether what you call Lutheran is Lutheran, other than tangentially, which I would not think appropriate to pursue on a blog which intends to “think with the Church” (read, as always, the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church).

  5. Tony Bartel says:

    What you demonstrate is danger of proof texting (when I went to Luther Seminary we were warned against this practice) in as much as you end up taking the proof text out of context.

    Every heretic has the Scriptures and can produce texts to support his or her position.

    Why should it be any different with an appeal to patristic texts?

  6. Fr Alvin Kimel says:

    I’m delighted to see this topic being addressed here. I’ve been away from the Lutheran literature for many years, but there was a time when I knew well, and attempted to follow, the Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel, at least as it was interpreted to me by Robert Jenson, George Lindbeck, and Gerhard Forde. After I became Catholic, I found it necessary to re-address the Lutheran hermeneutic and ask if the “rule of unconditionality” is to be clearly found in the preaching and teaching of the early Church. My reflections on this question may be of interest to readers of this thread: http://pontifications.wordpress.com/unconditional-gospel/.

    The simple fact is if one looks at the homilies of the Church Fathers, one finds the gospel often (always?) presented in a conditionalist mode–not that God needs to be persuaded to forgive but that our enjoyment of God’s mercy is dependent upon our repentance and ascetical commitments. As far as I can tell, the Church Fathers simply do not believe that one can have assurance of one’s salvation, at least not in the way that Lutherans typically say that we may and must.

  7. Matthew says:


    I know this blog post is some eight months old, however after reading it I couldn’t help but leave a comment.

    Your argument against the Law and Gospel distinction is honestly a little disheartening. I feel that you’ve missed the whole point of what the Reformers (namely Lutherans) were trying to accomplish by using this as a hermeneutic. Namely that the entire Scriptures (OT&NT) point to Christ and without Christ we have nothing, this is the essence of the Gospel.

    Though the terminology of “Law and Gospel” is not as prevalent as it may have been at one point (Reformation) we do see an ever increasing use of a Christocentric hermeneutic in most solid evangelical denominations (in the USA). There is a very fine line between Christocentric and L&G teaching. They both will still be preaching the same thing.

    All that to say, don’t lose sight of what they were attempting to accomplish with this systematic. Whether or not is has historicity to back it, let’s weigh the heart.



    • Schütz says:

      Dear Matthew, Thanks for this comment. I can understand how for a Lutheran the Lutheran Law/Gospel hermeneutic might seem to be the bedrock of a Christocentric hermeneutic of Scripture, but I would say that it is not so. I am most certainly fully supportive of a Christocentric reading of the Scriptures – I understand that this is the truly Catholic way of reading the scriptures also. However, whether the Lutheran Law/Gospel paradigm is the best, only, or even a merely helpful way of upholding a Christocentric reading of Scripture is an debatable proposition. In my humble opinion, it is not, as it in fact becomes a paridigm that obscures rather than clarifies the message of Scripture.

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