“If anyone should say XYZ, let him be anathema” – On The Usefulness of the Negativa

If one reads the canons and decrees of the seven ecumenical councils (Nicaea I in 325 through Nicaea II in 787), one notices that they include not only careful expositions of what must be believed, but also clear, stern expositions of what must be rejected, appended by the phrase, “let him be anathema”, i.e., let him be cast off from fellowship with the catholic and orthodox Church. So, too, the Lutheran Confessions, specifically the Formula of Concord, when sorting through controversies, list both affirmativa and negativa.

Why don’t the canons of the early councils or the Lutheran Confessions just “keep it positive”? Why do they have to follow up with all of that negative, condemnatory language? Why, that’s almost like following the Gospel with the Law!

Let me attempt a somewhat indirect answer.

“Bankers can spot counterfeits not because they have been trained to look for counterfeits, but because they handle real money all day.”

I’ve heard this aphorism before in various contexts. I’ve even quoted it myself numerous times. However, like many metaphors, it can only do so much work. It is only generally true. For example, it doesn’t take into account (pun intended?) the fact that when a banker is unsure about whether the bill in his hand is a counterfeit, there are manuals that he consults. It also doesn’t take into account the fact that counterfeiters are at times successful. Perhaps the most obvious problem with the aphorism’s implied analogy, however, is that most people are not bankers. Most counterfeiting schemes are not launched at the teller-window, but at convenience stores and in personal transactions.

This is the weakness of the “No one’s actually a soft antinomian” argument that’s been regaining currency in the Lutheran blogosphere and social media. “This is a fake problem”, “You’re hunting for Sasquatch”, “You’re thrashing a strawman”, “No one actually does this”, etc. There are varied refrains, all with the same gist: extended critiques of aberrant doctrine and practice are a waste of time, a tilting at windmills, and “confusing to the laity.”

But the (perhaps absurd) irony of this claim— i.e., that those LCMS pastors who are concerned about the specter of antinomianism (be it soft, neo, functional, practical, what have you) are just shadowboxing— is that, to a man, ever single one of the pastors whom I have seen writing about this problem have identified themselves, first and foremost, as epitomizing the tendency towards practical antinomianism at some point in their past (— quite apart from the fact that it is latent in every man’s flesh). When it was themselves that they were talking about, there one can read fruitful debate about whether the critique is correct. Such fruitful debate is actually interesting and informative to read.1


However, if the concerned persons do acquiesce to demands that they “name names”, the goalposts move once again: “You’re breaking the eighth commandment, failing to put the best construction on the actions of brother pastors!” Or this diversion: “That’s one sermon. This is not a trend.” Basically, the attempt to satisfy demands for evidence is said to be sinful and therefore inadmissible. The counter-thesis— “There is no practical antinomianism in the LCMS”— emerges as unfalsifiable, therefore triumphant. All is as it should be in the good ship Missouri— we’re just a big boat of sinner-saints, just like we’re supposed to be. Yes, we used to have a problem with “Gospel Reductionism”, but that was back in the 1970’s. The liberal, heterodox Lutherans were driven out, eventually forming the ELCA, leaving Missouri without spot or blemish. The ELCA— boy they sure do have a problem with antinomianism! We do not, though, because “antinomianism” means one thing, and so long as you don’t do that one thing, you are in no way antinomian. Everyone go home and have a nice quiet sleep.

“Simul ELCA et LCMS” Cute. Both of the individuals tagged seemed to think it worth retweeting.

What has happened to our ability to engage in substantive discussion and debate? So what if “it’s just one sermon” (it’s not)— would we even be able to talk about it and determine whether it is doctrinally sound? Can we do studies of several sermons and analyze trends? Why not? Can the Confessions even be applied as a rule to the things that Lutheran pastors and theologians preach and write?

Ah, there’s the rub. “Confessions as rule” sounds eerily like “Law as rule”, and “Law as rule” is one of the main topics of the ongoing debate. When we say that the Book of Concord norms our theology (being a faithful exposition of the doctrinal content of the Scriptures), what do we mean?

Perhaps we mean that the Confessions show us our doctrinal sin. They show us how abysmally we fail at being Confessional Lutherans. Perhaps they lead us to confess that we are simul Lutheran et non-Lutheran, with no hope of becoming more Lutheran, no ability to conform our thinking, preaching, and teaching more fully to the doctrine which they uphold. Maybe the Confessions always accuse— that’s just what they do. Maybe they only accuse. Maybe bringing them up and expecting pastors to conform their preaching and teaching to the Confessions is legalism. Maybe real Lutheranism is imputed to us.

How very meta.

I jest, but only a little. David Yeago, a Lutheran theologian whom I like, but do not always agree with, has something to say about such a connection between antinomianism and a derisive attitude towards doctrinal standards. What follows is an extended excerpt from the Rev’d Dr. Scott R. Murray’s historical-theological work, Law, Life, and the Living God, in which the latter presents some of Yeago’s thinking on this topic:

The larger interpretive context of Christian theology is dogma. Yeago claimed that the common 20th-century view of Law and Gospel as sharp antinomy leads to a rejection of dogma. One of the components of the Law-Gospel dialectic according to Yeago is the dialectic between form and freedom— form having its source in the Law and freedom having its source in the Gospel.2


But the principled antithesis of form and freedom involved in this construal cannot logically be restrained within the realm of the ethical. It is also corrosive of the very idea of dogma. A dogma is, after all, a rule; it is precisely a call for a particular ordering of thought and language, for a determinative reflective response to the love of God.3

If the Gospel truly terminates Law, and freedom overcomes form, then by implication a Gospel-centered church will be form-free, rejecting formation by dogma. Here Yeago has hit upon the antidogmatic bias of modern Christianity. This bias impoverishes the theology of the church by making the confession of the canons and decrees of the church’s councils unthinkable.


Yeago argues that this kind of rejection of dogmatic formulations leads to a rejection of the specific and historically bound self-revelation of God in Christ.


The church formulates dogma, one might say, in order to acknowledge the concrete form of God’s self-giving in Christ. The dogmatism characteristic of catholic Christianity arises directly from the conviction that God has definitely and unreservedly given himself to human beings in a particular history, in the person, life and destiny of a particular first century Palestinian Jew.4

If the Gospel liberates from form and order, then it liberates from the form and order of dogma. “The logic is simple: if form is enslavement, then a God who took form in history would be an enslaving God.”5 Thus, modern theology has created a god who can be imagined under a multitude of images, but who must not under any circumstances take on a specific form and whom Christians must not confess.6 Nothing less than the incarnation of God is at stake here. Where there is no incarnation, there can be no holiness.


Law and Gospel must not be divorced from the catholic truth, lest Law and Gospel actually attack that truth. Yeago indicated that the primal horizon of the Christian faith is the confession of the centurion, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”7 Christ is the primal datum of the faith, and only in that context does the Law have meaning. “The negativity of the Law is not located in its formal character as commandment, as proposal of form and order; its ground is rather in our disorder, our sin, our non-conformity to Christ.”8 With this proposal Yeago has cleared the ground for a positive, or third, use of the Law, without using the term. He has also shown that where the third use is taken seriously, there is a greater chance that the formation of doctrine will also be taken seriously. Where there is order, there will be both doctrinal and moral order.

So far Murray.

I think Yeago is onto something, and I think the unwillingness of many Lutherans— yes, many Confessional™ Lutherans— to take seriously the warning made from within our own ranks regarding our historical susceptibility to antinomianism, is the height of folly.

This may be just one man’s opinion, but I didn’t arrive at it on my own. When I returned to the Lutheran Church as an undergraduate, mine was a soft-antinomistic Lutheranism to be sure. I thought the “Radical Lutheranism” of Gerhard Forde with its white-knuckled “nothing but the unconditional promise of the Gospel” gloss of theology was the cat’s pajamas. It certainly helped me rationalize my own vices into a pastiche of stylish existential angst. Though I wouldn’t have described it this way at the time, I know now that I was romanticizing whatever made my status as iustus more unbelievable— within arbitrary practical limits set by my own inhibitions and the minimal moral expectations of Hillsdale College, mind you— into a perverse sort of personal sacrament. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? … What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” I never would have affirmed such statements, but my actions certainly belied my words. In truth, I just avoided such passages of Scripture, hurried over them, or engaged in absurd exegetical gymnastics to avoid the obvious sense of the text. Let’s give it a whirl: “Jesus didn’t sin more for me so that grace would abound!” Ahhh. Much better. No need for self-examination now.

If it was Law, it was only something that Christ did for me, not in any sense something that I was to try to do. Yet I would be quick to protest that the works of Christians would simply “be good” without our trying, that we wouldn’t be aware of them, etc., etc. Had I been aware of the nuclear option— the idea that Christ actually sinned, breaking the Law in order to rescue me from it (the blasphemous teaching of ELCA theologian Steven Paulson), who knows what I would have done. Thanks be to God, one day I figured that I had better read the Confessions if I was going to claim to be a Confessional Lutheran. That was a real eye-opener.

I’m reluctant to engage in too much telling of personal anecdotes, as no one likes to read humblebrags. What I have said is, I think, enough. I share it because I have since learned that my experience was by no means unique. Nor can it be explained away via some perverse felix culpa argument, as though I and others who wandered about in profound error, perhaps thinking ourselves to be hardcore “Confessional Lutherans”, were just going through a necessary and salutary phase, some kind of “Lutheran convert puberty.” Maybe pubescent Lutheranism is your thing— there are definitely “Lutheran” groups out there who can help keep you theologically hormonal, belligerent, and pimply unto the ages of ages, Amen. But I’m more inclined to think that doing a stint as a “Radical Lutheran” is neither necessary nor beneficial.

But it’s also difficult to avoid, it would seem. “I was assigned plenty of [Gerhard] Forde to read in seminary, and zero [Johann] Gerhard,” wrote the Rev’d H. R. Curtis in the comments to this November 2013 post on Gottesdienst Online. “That’s interesting, and I think it had consequences for me in my own pastoral practice.” Indeed. Pr. Curtis graduated from CSL in 2004.

Another fine Lutheran pastor— one whose writings greatly aided me during a very difficult time in my young life—, the Rev’d Dr. D. Richard Stuckwisch, commenting on the same article, had this to say:

Brother George [Borghardt], you keep referring to “name-calling” and a “straw man,” but where are you seeing this? The post at hand (quoting Luther), and the previous post (quoting Chemnitz), set forth some assertions concerning the preaching and purpose of the Law, and the admonishment of Christians to do good works. Maybe I’m simply naïve or missing something, but that doesn’t sound like an accusation or a provocation, but a topic for discussion. If there’s no problem or disagreement, great! But the responses would suggest there are some real differences of opinion in this area. The more people protest that something malicious is afoot, the more convinced I become that we ought to hash this out in the fear of the Lord, and in the wisdom of the Holy Scriptures. As I have previously said, I have found the quotes from our Lutheran fathers to be helpful and instructive to me. As recently as five or ten years ago, I suspect that I would have objected to the things they set forth and confess; so I am called to mind of my own need to continue learning and growing— both in my thinking and understanding, and in my preaching and teaching. These are not easy topics, far less so in actual practice; but faithfulness compels us to learn from the catechesis and confession of the Holy Scriptures.

Who can disagree with the good sense of the good Rev’d Doctor’s words here? (Well, we know of at least one person who can.) I find it hard to understand how anyone can read these honest statements of concern and think that we are not facing something of a problem in the LCMS, that this is all just dreamt up by closet-pietists.

With that said I want to draw the reader’s attention instead to a piece which probably hasn’t had much airplay in the ongoing Lutheran sanctification/antinomianism/third-use brouhaha of recent years. One reason for this is that the tour de force contribution of said voice to said boondoggle came way back in 2004, back when there was no Facebook or Twitter, back when the Rev’d William Weedon’s blog had only just shed its egg-tooth. Still another reason for the obscurity of the contribution is that its author has better things to do than troll the internet playing whack-a-heterodox-mole. It’s also not an easily accessible piece, but I, your hero, did indeed find it after many long minutes of trawling the River Styx of cached web-pages and archives.

Brouhaha, boondoggle…I’m trying to avoid calling it a “debate”. Sanctification barn-dance? Sometimes it feels like one.

Take a break, grab a snack, and visit this post for the big reveal of who it is that I’m talking about.




  1. The comment-sections of many of these posts feature some substantive, worthwhile debates for any who are interested.
  2. Murray’s footnote: “While in Luther the simultaneity of freedom and obligation was maintained for the whole person, in the enlightenment the freedom and obligation were related to the separation of the public and private use of reason so drastically expressed in Kant” (Vítor Westhelle, “Proclamation and Obligation: On the Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power,” WW 16 [Summer 1996]: 332–33). Westhelle also criticized Elert for his “negative definition of power as coercion and accusation” (Westhelle, “Proclamation and Obligation,” 335).
  3. David S. Yeago, “Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology,” ProEccl 2 (Winter 1993): 43
  4. ibid.
  5. ibid., 44
  6. ibid.
  7. Mark 15:39
  8. Yeago, “Gnosticism”, 48


  1. Thank you so much for this article ! I just read it and honestly what I’ve experienced and found out the past couple weeks from reading the comments section on blog posts and speaking with pastors online has shook my faith in the LCMS as an institution. You are definitely on my prayers to continue on in seminary. Continue to teach and defend the truth and so not let anyone intimidate you . You are an inspiration and a motivator. Thank you !

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