Inaugurating the celebration of the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation, David Zahl recently contributed a striking contemporary homage to Martin Luther’s law/gospel hermeneutic as the cover story for Christianity Today: “500 Years Later, We Still Feel the Pressure to Be Justified.” Anyone who follows Zahl’s first-rate Mockingbird site — a rich Christian commentary on contemporary culture with a decidedly Lutheran accent — will find no surprises here. It is beautifully done.
Zahl asserts that the pressures of self-justification that so afflicted Martin Luther in the early 16th century continue no less to oppress modern persons. Even if the forms of that oppression shape-shift from Luther’s tortured soteriological anxiety to our modern performance anxiety, Zahl sees a thread — nay, a thick rope — of continuity, showing the Reformation’s generative psychological insight to be permanently relevant. What afflicted the Augustinian monk continues to bear down on all of us, even if our awareness is not as keen as his, and even if its sources and guises are rather different. The gospel Luther rediscovered whereby the law’s unyielding requirements are met in grace’s rich store of acceptance, that same liberation can be ours. “[The Lord] has hushed the law’s loud thunder, he has quenched Mount Sinai’s flame.”
Five centuries this side of the Reformation, Zahl and his colleagues understandably find an urgency to repristinate Luther’s vision for the present hour. The law/gospel antithesis has both fallen on hard times in certain circles while, perhaps not accidentally, simultaneously enjoyed a revival in others. A substantial cadre of New Testament scholars doubts that Luther got this distinction quite right, and some think he got it quite wrong. Count me among the former. Reading Zahl’s article illustrates two things for me: the tremendous liberating appeal of this “almost right” understanding of the gospel and the grave hermeneutical consequence of being almost right in this way. I might say that the article demonstrates that the law/gospel antithesis has much greater psychological appeal than it has hermeneutical integrity.
It is not hard to appreciate the appeal of this law/gospel antithesis and even to concede that there is something to it. If we have pastoral experience with weary souls, indeed, if we know ourselves as the perpetual underachievers that we sense ourselves to be, we can only cling to and endlessly rejoice in a gospel whereby God has done for us what we could not have not done for ourselves — not meeting us halfway, just meeting us, wherever that might be. While it might be thought that this gospel would have the greatest appeal to those persons most notoriously sinful, most beset by addictions, most hopeless by their own reckoning to meet God’s approval, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is also a profound appeal among the most objectively successful and moral — modern Rich Young Rulers, inhabiting rarefied air while haunted by the pressure to construct an identity by means of performance.
Invited to rest in Christ, restless souls find an elusive peace in Christ. That’ll preach, and it should be preached. David Zahl preaches it very well in this CT article.
But I am not so sanguine about the means by which he gets there or the foundation that undergirds the larger project. As a scheme for reading and appropriating the Bible, the law/gospel antithesis is highly problematic, and Zahl’s article helps to illustrate just the sort of problems the scheme imposes.
For starters, there is the problem of changing the meaning of words. In the characteristic Lutheran account “law” and “gospel” become abstractions that lose the historical particularity of their original employ. Granting that it is already problematic to render either torah or nomos as “law,” all students of Paul know that, when the Apostle refers to the “law,” it is almost exclusively (save some wordplay) a reference to Israel’s inheritance of moral and legal requirements particular to Sinai or, as the case may be, the steppes of Moab — the torah of the Torah. The prophets might impose moral requirements upon their listeners or readers, the Lord Jesus frequently impresses his peculiar moral vision, and St. Paul’s writings are rife with moral exhortation — but none of this is “law” in this biblically particular sense. It invites mischief and assures misunderstanding to account for this material thusly.
Zahl, of course, knows this. Indeed, there is an attempt to first grant a limited or biblical definition of terms before adopting Luther’s theologically expansive abstraction. But it does not seem to matter:
What most of us think of when we think of “the law” in religious terms is the capital-L Law of God, the Oughts and Ought Nots that we find spelled out in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount (emphasis added).
The problems here are several. First, in Paul’s actual use, nomos cannot be reduced to the Ten Commandments, though they make a useful summary of Torah in certain respects. But it is much more problematic to count the Sermon on the Mount as “law,” and one gets there only by a precarious hermeneutical sleight of hand. No, the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of our Lord’s “moral instruction” are but one of many iterations of the “gospel of the kingdom.” It is hard to overstate the unfortunate consequence of calling the gospel law, not least as though St. Paul had authorized the exchange.
As with law, so also with “gospel.” The New Testament content of the gospel cannot be reduced to a message of grace for sinners (understood a certain way), though it is not less than that. It is, inter alia, an announcement of the kingdom, a summons to repent, a rehearsal of the Christ-event, or an endless unpacking of the theological consequence of the same. But it is not reducible to any of these. Likewise, useful though it is as an over-simplification, the suggestion that “gospel” = (the grammatical) indicative and “law” = (the grammatical) imperative just won’t take flight. Thus, in the very genius of the law/gospel antithesis itself — we might say a rather willful act of “theological interpretation” — is sown seeds for the misapprehension of the biblical text.
And, if we read Zahl’s article carefully, we begin to see how this one-size-fits-all construct proves itself exegetically Procrustean. Now, this is not an exegetical article, so it might be thought unfair to carp over his passing references. But it is actually in the passing references to Scripture where we learn just how controlling this paradigm is, and, if I might say so, distorting.
As Zahl reads it, when Jesus confronts the Rich Young Man with the commandments (Mark 10:17-22), the kneeling supplicant becomes the patent example of one who has fallen short. He knew the commandments, but he couldn’t keep them. But this theologically necessary reading won’t survive a close reading of the actual Gospel story. When the young man expresses his relief — “All these I have kept since I was a boy” — nothing in the story contradicts him or suggests he is bearing a kind of false witness, adding to his woes! To the contrary, even if every Lutheran reader of the text already knows that he couldn’t have kept these commandments, Jesus is not aware of that. “You are lacking one thing,” Jesus says, which can hardly be construed as No you haven’t!
There were, after all, reasons that Jesus names the six “commandments” he does. They are the commandments of the Decalogue’s so-called second table, the neighbor-directed, empirical behaviors. Understood in a certain way, they are doable, and there is every indication from the text that the young man did follow the “law” perfectly adequately (that the obedience had to be perfect is a Christian-theological imposition, not at work in this story). It is apparent that there is method in Jesus’ way of asking the question. Because in the exclusive fidelity to God for which Jesus called, idolatry and covetousness are excluded. Yet the ostensibly “good” — albeit idolatrous and covetous — young man can say that he kept these commandments with complete sincerity. The story is not about the failure of the man’s law-keeping but about the inadequacy of law-keeping when the Lord graciously summons us to renounce and follow. That’s gospel also.
A similar, if more egregious, passing casualty of the law/gospel hermeneutic is Zahl’s appeal to Hebrews 8:10, a direct citation of Jeremiah 31:33:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel. After those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, And I will write them upon their hearts. And I will be their God, And they shall be my people.
On which Zahl comments:
[The law’s] underlying logic is embarrassingly familiar: To get approval, you have to achieve. Behavior precedes belovedness. Climb the ladder, or else. No wonder Hebrews tells us that the law is inscribed on the mind (Heb. 8:10) (emphasis added).
So notice what happened here. The new covenant promise (!) of Jeremiah 31, that God “will put my laws into their mind and write them in their hearts” is now treated as a kind of psychological curse. It is an affliction to have the law of God inscribed on our minds, with all of its demands and reminders of our wretchedness. But if Jeremiah 31 is not “gospel,” then there is no gospel. Here the law/gospel hermeneutic turns this liberating promise into an insidious oppression. One suspects that the author of Hebrews, here arguing strenuously and at length for the superiority of the new covenant (cf. 8:8; 10:16-17), would find this reading remarkable. So, of course, would Paul (cf. 2 Cor. 3).
Speaking of Paul, this is, I think, finally the failure of this all-controlling hermeneutic. It is not so much, as often charged, that it imposes a radical Pauline framework on the whole of Scripture; it is that it is not radically Pauline enough. It truncates what Paul means by “grace,” bottling up grace as “unconditional gift” with no remainder. (On which now see John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift; for sneak previews see the reviews of Covenant bloggers, here and here.)
No less significant, the law/gospel hermeneutic is insufficiently Pauline because it highlights a single thread of controversy — justification apart from works [of the law] — and treats it as a center, yea, bulwark. Missing in this picture is Paul’s generous new-covenant/new-creation anthropology that renders redeemed persons able to rejoice in the imperatives of Scripture as gospel, as signs of the fulfilment of our eschatological participation in Christ. Just as conspicuously absent is the Pauline pneumatology, whereby once-captive-failing-and-[possibly-]despairing persons are granted the new covenant promise whereby enmity turns to love, rebellion to holy desires, and disobedience to joyful obedience. The once righteousness-wanting are now those wanting righteousness. We awake in Christ to find not that we must but that we can, and raised with Christ we find that we had always wanted to.
 From the first stanza of the hymn, “Let Us Love, and Sing, and Wonder.”
 Cf. five commandments in Luke and five in Matthew with the Lev. 19:18 summary of the law appended. And it appears that, in Mark’s version, the hardest of these six has been changed subtly, from “do not covet” to “do not defraud.”