Law and gospel and liturgy

In a recent post, Josh described how he doesn’t believe “that all of life or all of Scripture falls into some kind of terror/comfort dialectic of feeling guilty, then feeling absolved”:

I’m not Martin Luther. I don’t have his disposition or conscience. I do not continually feel God breathing down my neck with the fire of judgement for failing to have been good enough to earn his favor. I don’t see it everywhere in Scripture, either. I see it some places, mostly the Psalms and Prophets, and I do acknowledge that’s a part of human existence, but the Lutheran tendency is to boil all of reality down to this one thing. I don’t ever see Paul trying to scare people with the Law. I don’t see Jesus do it much, either.

Now, overall I agree with Josh’s point here (and share his lack of a “Luther-an” temperament), though I’m glad to say I’ve never come across the stereotypical “terrify then comfort” law/gospel preaching which Josh describes. But I think he exaggerates the extent to which this “part of human existence” is relatively marginal in Scripture, a point reinforced for me by reading Psalm 38 this morning:

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
   or discipline me in your wrath.
For your arrows have sunk into me,
   and your hand has come down on me.

There is no soundness in my flesh
   because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
   because of my sin.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
   they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.

If the law’s terrors are not to be seen “everywhere in Scripture”, that is in part because large swathes of Scripture are concerned with the exterior life of God’s people and of God’s purposes for them. However, once we focus on those parts of Scripture that reveal to us something of the interior life of God’s people – the psalms, parts of the prophets (e.g. Jeremiah), Romans 7 – then consciousness of sin and of the law’s terrors becomes more prominent.

That still doesn’t mean that every sermon should follow a simplistic wound-then-heal, terrify-then-comfort, punch-then-cuddle template. It’s more that the overall rhythm of the church’s liturgy – of confession and absolution, Lent and Easter, penitential psalms and joyful psalms – provides a means by which we can speak one truth about ourselves (that we are sinners deserving God’s condemnation, whether we feel that way or not) and hear God speak another truth about ourselves (that we are redeemed and forgiven in Christ, again whether we feel it or not). This is a liberation for those of us whose temperaments might lead us to overlook one or other of those truths.

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12 Responses to Law and gospel and liturgy

  1. Bror Erickson says:

    I normally don’t suffer from the pangs of conscience that Luther often describes. I wonder myself how often Luther falt them. We can develop a pretty thick skin in regards to God’s law. I think we often tend to minimalize it.
    I think Law Gospel preaching can be done in a very simplistic manner. Often in such a way as to deliver neither law nor Gospel. I have had the joy on certain occasions though of hearing the Gospel preached after my conscience had been terrified. And though it may not be the only model for preaching. I do think it is the most effective, and is Biblically sound. It is what it means to preach Repentance and the forgiveness of sins, as we (pastors) are admonished to in Luke 24.

  2. The Scylding says:

    Having grown up in a very legalistic, pelagian sect / cult, I can associate with Luther’s feelings quite a bit.
    The fear of imminent hellfire was drilled into me – together with the absolute necessity of confessing my sins to a ‘councillor’ – something which terrorised me no end. So I can relate to Luther quite well, although with time these feelings have mellowed, the more distant those experiences become, and the more present the preaching of grace,

  3. Rick Ritchie says:

    I know that many either have a problem with Law and Gospel preaching, or imagine that everyone manages to bungle it as badly as they tend to see it bungled. But there is a certain charge against the idea that I find rather odd.

    I don’t understand the Lutherans who are certain that the Lectionary should be preached, but seem uncertain of the distinction between Law and Gospel. I would think that from the Book of Romans our doctrine would be at least as clear as the idea that all Scripture should be preached at one point or another is from elsewhere. You have many, many texts to promote Law and Gospel. You have a relative few that give you an idea that the Scriptures should be preached on the way we do it.

    My point here is not anti Lectionary. I am all for the Lectionary. But mostly because I have seen good come of it, not because I think Scripture mandates it.

    If I were convinced that fewer texts admit of a Law and Gospel treatment, I would be more inclined to think that fewer texts should be preached. Or I would at least want to hear why other classes of texts deserve preaching and suggestions on how to preach them. But I don’t want to hear about how Lutheran doctrine is screwing up preaching. If I didn’t believe in Lutheran doctrine, I wouldn’t want to hear anybody preach at all.

    I don’t think that disposition is a good place to begin in deciding how these things should go. Where my disposition doesn’t match Lutheranism, it doesn’t match other forms of Christianity, either. By disposition, I’m probably a Deist. But since I find Christianity compelling, I have to allow myself to be corrected on many points. Including my natural approach to reading passages. Josh is right about how the way Lutherans ask people to read passages is not how we naturally read. But then the other books we read were not written by different human authors and inspired by the same divine author. The other books we read are not mostly written to challenge our natural ways of considering ourselves. If I were to read the Bible as I read other books, there are all sorts of books I wouldn’t consider all that convincing. My Law and Gospel readings may be a sort of package deal that many consider artificial. But so is holding much of the Old Testament to be divine in the first place. To imagine that it is only this one little thing that is an artificial accretion on an otherwise totally natural system is ridiculous.

  4. John H says:

    Rick: I entirely agree that the texts which teach (or exhibit) law and gospel should be preached as such. I think the problem comes when law and gospel is imposed on all texts, texts which might have other things to say.

    As I’ve posted before, it’s a case of distinguishing between law and gospel as a pastoral practice, vs law and gospel as a “hermeneutic” or “interpretive key”.

  5. Rick Ritchie says:

    I think the deeper question here is whether certain texts DO rule the reading of other texts. When we see Jesus or Paul read the Old Testament a certain way, should we not alter our own readings of the same, or of the New Testament itself? I don’t see Law and Gospel as an imposition. I did until I saw how often it was done by other readers of Scripture within Scripture. But this needs to be argued more on the basis of texts, which you have done.

    I am reacting more to Josh’s presentation which seems to dichotomize sermons into “intelligent sermons that don’t try to give any consideration as to whether God is commanding or promising anything” and “stupid, emotionally manipulative sermons.” I have heard well-prepared sermons that managed to find Law and Gospel in the text (even texts not obviously Law and Gospel to non-Lutheran eyes), to allow the text to say other things, and did not appear crafted to create a “mood” of terror during the Law or a “mood” of comfort during the Gospel. I haven’t seen that possibility acknowledged in his many rants against stupid Lutheran preachers. And I think his rants are likely to be read by outsiders in such a way that they think, “Well, thank God I don’t try to find Law and Gospel in every text. I’m above that error.” They’re not going to think, “Well, maybe I’ll become Lutheran. There’s one smart Lutheran out there.” They’ll think, “I can cross Lutheranism off my list. It’s distinctives are all stupid.”

  6. Rick Ritchie says:

    The above is in reference to specific posts by Josh, not the bulk of them taken together.

  7. Kobra says:

    I’m with Rick on this one. The Federal Visionists and the New Perspective on Paul folks often lay out the charge that Luther’s reading of, and written interpretation of Scripture, was prompted by his over-sensitive conscience. What Josh is saying sounds amazingly similar. [Sentence removed by moderator.] Maybe Josh needs a change of disposition. Great post as always, Rick!

  8. John H says:

    Rick: I don’t think we’re that far apart on this. The point in my previous comment about pastoral practice vs interpretative key is that the law/gospel distinction has more to do with how we apply the Scriptures, and with how the Scriptures function in our lives.

    However, I still think there is a danger with using law/gospel as a hermeneutic, as a “key to the Scriptures”, precisely because it short-circuits the process of pastoral application of the text. The risk is that the meaning of the text is distorted in order to fit a simplistic law/gospel template, rather than the text being allowed to speak for itself and then our application and understanding of what the text is saying being shaped by the wider law/gospel understanding.

    As for the impact that Josh’s comments might have on non-Lutherans: well, I don’t think we can get too hung about those sorts of considerations. There is far more off-putting stuff out there than anything Josh might say, as I found when I was exploring Lutheranism myself back in late 2003/early 2004, and as I was reminded the other day when I googled the expression “all theology is Christology”. Overall I think Josh is a good ambassador for the Lutheran perspective.

    Kobra: thanks for your comment. I’m less hostile than many to aspects of the new perspective on Paul, partly because I don’t think it is as great a threat to the Reformation understanding as many of its own proponents think (or wish!) it is, and some of the NPP’s insights can be reconciled with the Reformation understanding. See the post linked from my first comment in reply to Rick, above.

  9. Rick Ritchie says:

    But doesn’t Josh’s post sound like a rehash of “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West”? (Link here:

    These things have been said before. I don’t know why they’re being announced as recent realizations of a new sort. When a living fight is being waged on this very topic, I don’t think our guys should be announcing this kind of thing as a personal discovery. Wouldn’t it make more sense to present this by saying, “I think I agree with Krister Stendahl’s thesis.” Or “I agree with portions of Stendahl’s thought.”

    I had to sit through classes in seminary where my prof would announce that he was going to take apart the Lutheran/Calvinistic distinction between Law and Gospel. The prof wasn’t planning to refine our theology. He wanted to destroy it. There is an active hostility to Lutheranism in many of these circles. To express yourself in words that so closely match one’s deadly opponents is not a good idea. Whatever else is true, it should not be done informally.

    Now it could be the case that there are areas of our practice that need cleaning up. I do happen to disagree with you about whether Law and Gospel is an interpretive key. But I think even that discussion is different from what Josh’s post introduced. His problem was not even just bad LCMS practice, but Luther himself. Locating the problem in Luther is a sign that Stendahl has made inroads.

    All this is not to say that people should not be able to take issue with the tradition or make a case for a course correction. But when the opposing side has nuclear weapons pointed at your capitol, don’t be surprised if someone publicly saying they’d like to see certain buildings reduced to rubble taken as a broader threat.

  10. John H says:

    Rick: some of these points are probably better raised on Josh’s site rather than here. After all, we both agree that Josh was mistaken to a greater or lesser extent.

    However, I hadn’t read Josh’s post as saying, “the problem is Luther”. Rather, I read him as saying, “the problem is saying that Luther’s temperament and experiences are normative”.

  11. Brian says:

    Hi all. John and Rick, have you guys read Gilbert Meilaender’s wonderful little essay titled “Heart Set To Obey”? It can be found in *I Am the Lord Your God* (eds. Braaten and Jenson, Eerdmans) and also in *The Freedom of a Christian* (Brazos Press). Therein he sets out a healthy corrective, IMHO, to an unbalanced and often forced law/gospel dialect that is all too often found in contemporary Lutheranism, especially in its conservative manifestations.

    I went on and on about this essay on another popular blog, so I don’t want to sound as if I’m flogging a dead horse. But for this reluctant Lutheran, Meilaender’s essay was welcomed reading regarding the law/gospel hermeneutic.

  12. Rick Ritchie says:

    Thanks for the suggestion, Brian.

    I’m not in the position of thinking that our homilitics are perfect on this score.

    One of my closest Lutheran friends had his own training at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, in their Redemptive Historical tradition. I think perhaps that tradition is a good reminder that there are other traditions out there that can be accused of being light on application, but not because they were jamming the text into a preconceived grid.

    During one sermon at Christ Church of Hamilton and Wenham, our rector gave a sermon, which would have led any member of the congregation to conclude, “If that Corinthian congregation doesn’t get its act together, St. Paul is going to come back, and boy will he be angry!” That sermon reminded me that many of the applications we do are not preaching the text and nothing but the text.

    My frustration is when people don’t see how the ones who want to moralize on the text are being given a free pass. They love pointing out what the Lutherans do, but fail to notice just how many preconceptions their moralism requires. I am quite willing to trace out why I think Law and Gospel is not merely a doctrine but a hermeneutic. They hardly have to. They’ve so trained everyone else to ask, “What’s the moral of the story” that people can hardly imagine there is any other reason to tell a story.

    John is probably right. He and I are probably not far apart on this one. (Which is why I deal with it on his blog. He’ll offer me a fair reading.) But I want him and others to be aware of how this subject fits into a raging conversation, as the link to the piece by Stendahl shows. The importance of the Stendahl essay to the current debate can hardly be overestimated.

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