…thus read the tweet in question yesterday. In what has now become a Lutheran Twitter cliché (perhaps I flatter myself in thinking so, but this is what I’ve inferred), I piped up in defense of the Law’s so-called “Third Use.” Not really defense, actually— just inclusion…initially.
Had the author said anything untrue? No, certainly not. Did I object to anything he said. No…not initially.
Why did I feel the need to say this? Many have asked me this. Others have chosen, instead of asking me, to vent their frustration via subtweets. For you non-Twitter-users, the illustrious Urban Dictionary provides this handy definition of “subtweet”:
Perhaps my mentioning of this latter category makes me guilty of the same sort of passive aggression (perhaps this is a sub-blog-post?); I hope not, as I generally try hard to keep my aggression in the active voice. On the other hand, if I mention names, people will say that I’m breaking the eighth commandment. Catch-22. For the moment, I pick the first poison.
Whatever the case may be, it’s eminently fair for people to wonder why I regularly go to bat for the positive function of Divine Law, the “Third Use”, the “Law-as-guide,” etc. This post is my attempt to explain.
Narratio: Lex semper accusat et semper hortātur
Most Lutherans are familiar with the truism “The Law always accuses.” (lex semper accusat). To be doubly redundant, it’s true. But it only tells half the story, for God’s Law, when it addresses the Christian, always exhorts him, as well (lex semper hortātur), for the Christian is one person, in whom both Old Man and New Man daily contend. The Law addresses the Christian negatively and positively, accordingly. Lex semper accusat et semper hortātur.
It was wisely stated by an acquaintance on Twitter that…
Although this kind of statement (coming as it does from Gerhard Ebeling) is often used to contend that the preacher has no ability whatsoever to “use” the law, the author rightly recognizes that the preacher cannot determine what the ultimate effect of his preaching will be. Thus pastors should be bold to preach how they see fit, exhorting and accusing according to the wisdom they have been given. The fact that God will ultimately determine whether their exhortations accuse or whether their accusations exhort does not relieve them of their pastoral duty to tailor their proclamation to the specific needs of their flock, or to the specific needs of individual penitents.
Lex non tantum accusat et non tantum hortātur
Put a little differently, it must be stressed that while the Law always accuses, it does not only accuse. When we are constrained by context — as, for example, the exegete is when he is exegeting the Scriptures— we should speak specifically about what the Law is doing in a particular context, whether curbing, accusing, or guiding, etc. But when we are not constrained by context we should not speak of the Law in a truncated manner and promote a reductionistic understanding of the counsel of God.
It is often said (correctly) that we should not “hyphenate the Gospel”, that the free forgiveness of sins on account of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection should never be followed by a “…but.” This is most certainly true. However, we are often less prone to defend the Law. We are fine with “hyphenated Law.” And this is understandable, for the Gospel can be understood to “hyphenate” the Law in some sense: you are a sinner, and you will remain one until you die and are resurrected, BUT God counts you as righteous on account of Christ. This is what simul iustus et peccator means. Christ Our Lord is the end of the accusation of the Law, for its final accusation— which is to say, God’s final righteous judgment— came to rest on Christ on the cross and killed Him. But in killing Him, it was killed. And unlike Him, it did not rise again. Nothing proclaims this more beautifully than the traditional liturgical hymnody for the Feast of Easter:
Death and life have contended
In that combat stupendous:
The Prince of life, who died, reigns immortal.
(Wipo of Burgundy, Victimae Paschali)
It was a strange and dreadful strife
When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life;
The reign of death was ended.
(Richard Massie, Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands)
But we must be clear that what has been done away with is the Law’s negative— the Law “in the narrow sense”, if you will. This only is what has ended. St. Paul’s words in his letter to the Church at Colossi bear witness to this: “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh,” the Apostle writes…
…He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. (Col. ii, 13-15).
In this passage we see that the “negative of the Law” finds its end in Christ— “end” in the sense of actual termination, not just telos. Here we have the end of the “First Use” of the Law: “having disarmed principalities and powers.” And here we have the end of the “Second Use” of the Law: “having wiped out the handwriting that was against us, which was contrary to us.” Of course, the “curb” and “mirror” are still daily realities in the “already/not yet” experience of the Christian, for the Old Adam is still in the throes of baptismal death this side of the Resurrection. But these first two dimensions of the Law are not eternal, for the Old Adam is not eternal.
It must be recognized— and not merely grudgingly assented to, but joyfully confessed— that we should not, cannot, and ought not want to “hyphenate the Law”. The BUT comes only after the Law’s negating (curbing and killing) address to mankind. It does not come after something like this: “The Law of God is good and wise, BUT…“; or, “Lord, how I love Your Law; I meditate on it day and night, BUT…” To speak in this way is antinomian, pure and simple. (And contra Gerhard O. Forde and the tendentious arguments of his popularizers, legalism and antinomianism are not one and the same thing.)
The Law per se cannot and does not end, for it is the eternal will of God— lex aeterna. “Only the Decalogue is eternal,” wrote Blessed Doctor Luther in his Antinomian Disputations (WA 39.1:413.17, p. 75). This is the necessary “broad sense” of the Law. We cannot exclude it, as it is the category sui generis which includes the others. If we as Lutheran Christians are to speak of the Law in a general way, this must constantly be affirmed.
Essence precedes existence
And here we get to the root of the problem: you cannot hyphenate the Law in toto; you can only “hyphenate” its first two “uses.” If you attempt to hyphenate the Law in its entirety, you end up an antinomian. If we say that the Law only addresses the Christian as the Old Man and never as the New Man, we’ve stumbled into— you guessed it— the Flacian error. (NB: I believe this is pronounced “FLOT-see-un”, and that its namesake’s name, Matthias Flacius, is pronounced “FLOT-see-us”.) Only a Flacian errorist says that the Law only accuses. And before anyone gets their shorts in a wad and takes offense, let me say that I am not calling anyone in the discussion in question a Flacian. There is a difference between material/intentional error and formal/unintentional error. To me, this seems to be an instance of the latter. To whit:
Both of these statement fail to recognize that the “Third Use” of the Law is not so much a “use” as it is a revelation of the essence of the Law. That is why I suggested the following when I responded:
And now my typo will live on in eternity. Mea maxima culpa…
The Law is God’s good, gracious, and eternal will for His creatures. That is what essence refers to (Lat.: sum, esse – “to be”). A philosophy prof of mine was fond of referring to “essence” as the “is-ness” of a thing. On the other hand, the Law’s uses or functions are not constitutive of its essence; they are derivative attributes. One might say that they make up the Law’s economy.
Unfortunately, we American Lutherans are quite used to speaking in existential categories. Raise your hand if the first thing you learned about the Law in catechism class as a child was “S.O.S., Shows Our Sin”— believe me, I’m raising mine. While this is a true statement, it is not a statement of what the Law is; it is a statement of what the Law does, and an incomplete one at that, much like Mr. Grunewald’s original statement. (NB: I’m not saying that this catechetical motif is bad per se; however, it is often coupled with the sort of reductionism which is so prevalent in American Lutheranism, even within that which is putatively “confessional.”)
Beware the “Radical ‘Lutheran'” leaven
My dear friend Pastor Rich Shields— who, unlike myself, is an actual trained theologian, as well as one of the most capable exegetes I have ever met— noted wisely that context should determine the emphasis we take from the Law. However, when we’re not doing exegesis, but generalizing about the Law per se — i.e., when there is no context— it is not proper to speak of it as a mere existential category:
It is presumptuous to speak about only one aspect of what the Law does (the negative) when generalizing about the Law. Again, see Miss K’s wise emendation near the beginning of this piece. When one is not constrained by context, one should speak about all of what it does— it always accuses, and it always exhorts. Ultimately, one should move beyond this to speak about what the Law is. Not only is this proper rhetoric and proper logic, it simply proper theology. It bears mentioning that Gerhard O. Forde, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of “Radical ‘Lutheranism'” completely rejected this view of the Law, i.e. that it is the eternal will of God, and insisted that the Law was simply an existential category, “that which shows us our sin.” This is a prime example of Forde’s famous/infamous prioritization of “act” over “being”, in which God’s address of His creation— His “speech-act”— alone establishes the nature of things. Nothing has its own essence— things only exist inasmuch as they are “addressed” by God. “There is no continuously existing subject,” a thing does not have “a substance that persists over time,” etc., etc. There is, of course, the small problem of this making hay out of Article I of the Creed.
But I digress…
To articulate and proclaim the fullness of the Law and the fulness of the Gospel— this is the proper work of the theologian and the pastor alike. However, it is not popular work. You will never be a celebrity if you do this. You will fail to “reach people for Christ”— according to how this is popularly (and wrongly) understood. You won’t start the Third Great Awakening. On the other hand, if what you really want is the latest trending reductionist one-off of Lutheranism, go to Liberate.org or send your dollars to Matt Popovits; don’t come knocking on the door of the Church of the Augustana. And for the love of God — don’t pretend that there’s an equivalence between these two theologies; there is not.
If I might “drop the open-minded pretense” (hat-tip to John Jeremiah Sullivan) real quick and make an aside, it needs to be said that the recent Lutheran clambering and swooning over Pr. Tullian Tchividjian is embarrassing. It needs to stop, like, yesterday. The influence that actual orthodox Lutheranism has had on Pr. Tchividjian’s theology is practically nil, whereas the (deleterious) influence his theology seems to be having on Lutherans, especially new Lutherans, is ample. (Call it “one way love”— that just came to me.) Pr. Tchividjian has basically taken the worst aspects of heterodox “Radical ‘Lutheranism'”, amplified and sexified them with celebrity mega-church star-power, and then sold the end-product back to Lutherans— literally and figuratively. And he’s made a killing doing it. In this simile the Lutherans are like sick men paying a quack-doctor for transfusions of their own infected blood. The supreme irony of a Reformed-ish pastor peddling “Radical ‘Lutheranism'” to Lutherans is so rich that it would be funny if it weren’t…not funny. And, no, it’s not “doctrinal perfectionism” to say so. As I have written elsewhere:
[T]he reason for the recent hubbub about Forde, Paulson, et al, is that their errors have infected confessional Lutheranism in significant ways— some of them subtle, some of them not so subtle. Many of us were quite attracted to the “Fordean gospel paradigm” when we first came into confessional Lutheranism, even though we might not even have known who Gerhard Forde was— I know that I was in this camp. After awhile, though, the source or official nomenclature of the error doesn’t matter— “Radical Lutheranism”, “Fordeanism”, whatever one calls it, is heterodox and dangerous, especially for recent Lutheran converts. Like a bad gene, it keeps breeding mutation throughout successive generations. “Therefore let any man who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (I Co x, 12). It is important not only to stand fast, but to stand fast in what is true, “that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, and by the trickery of men” (Eph iv, 14). For “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (II Co xi, 14) — how much more easily might others deceive, wittingly or unwittingly, if the father of lies himself can mask himself in this way! We must be on guard.
I was about to write, “But I digress…,” (sorry — it’s an annoying habit) but this actually isn’t a digression: the consideration of the Law as an existential category and the denial of lex aeterna are hallmarks of the Elertian (cf. Werner Elert) school of Lutheran theology, from whence Radical Lutheranism largely derives (via such theologians as the late Gerhard O. Forde and Gerhard Ebeling, as well as the contemporary theologian Oswald Bayer; for a more detailed treatment of the Erlangen school of Lutheranism and the “Elertian” gloss of the Law, see Law, Life, and the Living God: The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism, by Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray, LCMS Fifth Vice-President).
The Law qua lex aeterna will always guide our doings, even in the Resurrection; it will, however, no longer accuse or curb, for there will be no sin. “The secret of the angels is: first they do, then they hear” (Rabbinic saying, source unknown). If we as Lutheran Christians are to speak of the Law in a general way, we must speak of it as a good and wonderful thing. The words of “Quiet George” are apposite here:
[W]e have not yet convinced ourselves that the Law is beautiful, and should in every way be our delight, simultaneously the object of our meditation, the joy of our contemplation, and ultimately (though not necessarily most importantly) the true work of our hands; for God is the Law, just as God is Love. If we say the Law only accuses, then we say that God only accuses. But it is the Love of God, that is, the Law of God, which effected our salvation. Therefore, we should rejoice in the Law always, for the Law is not something separate from God, a list of requirements; it is the essence of God made comprehensible to a created mind.
Conclusion, or something like it…
In fine, when Lutherans make faulty generalizations about the Law in public forums, it isn’t just bad rhetoric and bad logic (though it is both those things); no, it is a misrepresentation of our doctrine, that is to say, a departure from the “sound pattern of words” and a misrepresentation of Christianity. As Mr. Grunewald knows, I generally don’t care when non-Lutherans say insipid and spurious things about the Faith. But when Lutherans, especially Lutherans who should ostensibly know better (i.e., pastors and teachers), misrepresent Lutheranism in public, I just might have something to say about it. And why wouldn’t I? I’m a Lutheran; therefore I have as much stake as any other Lutheran in how our confession is made before the world. I know that my position really bothers some people and that not everyone agrees with me. But the same is true for everyone else, so sue me. If you’re reading this, and you have a face, somebody is complaining about you to somebody else — I guarantee it. I hardly think my interest in sorting through the issues in contemporary Lutheranism and critiquing people I disagree with is shocking or somehow “beyond the pale.” But, at the end of the day, that’s just my three cents. That and a dollar bill won’t even get you a cup of coffee. If this really gets your goat, and the only thing that will keep you from opening a vein is a ragey bout of sub-tweeting and passive-aggressive hash-tagging, then by all means be my guest. But if you can manage, please try to avoid doing either of those things.