Calvin Beyond Luther: The Law of Moses

One of the textbook differences between Lutheran and Reformed theology is the Reformed assertion of the “third use” of the law, that is that the law serves to guide the conduct of believers. Thus, there is a way in which law and gospel co-exist in the believer’s life. Lutherans emphasize the contrast between law and gospel. Law comes “before” gospel in the sense that it prepares the sinner to receive the gospel. Gospel is deliverance from the law and the beginning of life in the Spirit. Part of the disagreement seems to me to derive from different descriptions of the content and function of the law. Randall Zachman gets at the problem:

Although both Luther and Calvin agree that the Old Testament contains attestations of God’s mercy as well as commandments and threats, it is nonetheless true that when Luther thinks of the law of Moses he thinks of the Ten Commandments in their theological use, whereas when Calvin thinks of the law of Moses he thinks of “the form of religion handed down by God through Moses” that sets forth God as Father to Israel in Christ under the double image of the tribe of Levi and the posterity of David.

This means that Calvin, in contrast to Luther, forces us to understand the Ten Commandments not as prior to, but as already contained within, the self-revelation of God the Father in Jesus Christ. This point will have direct implications on how Calvin understands the impact of the law in the narrow sense upon the conscience. On the one hand, it will mean that we cannot acknowledge that we are sinners who lack every good thing unless we at the same time know God as Father; on the other hand, it will mean that the principal use and proper purpose of the law will be in the lives of those who have already been adopted as children by the Father, and that this third use of the law will itself be given a christological meaning and shape just like the rest of the law of Moses. (The Assurance of Faith, 144)

Often the form of the question we ask determines the shape of the answer. An investigation into how a person might be assured of the favor of God will quickly (on Protestant principles) lead to a contrast between law and gospel. Likewise, an inquiry into the principles of Christian life seems to sputter or descend into subjectivism if “law” in some broad sense does not enter the picture.  Perhaps Christian theology needs multiple perspectives on law and gospel in order to handle every theological problem. I find it likely, though, that one conception will end up becoming architectonic, while others wills be slotted into it to fill out the picture. So far, I’m more confident in the ability of the Reformed system to appropriate the Lutheran contribution than vice versa.

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Augustine’s Advice for Christ-centered Teachers

Lutheran and Reformed teachers stress the centrality of the person of Christ and the gospel narrative in Christian teaching. In the last several decades, the Reformed community has produced a plethora of books advocating “Christ-centered” and “gospel-centered” (I will refer to them interchangeably) preaching, teaching, and living. The genius of X-centered teaching is its refusal to treat Scripture (or Christian living) as a series of disconnected episodes. These central themes are like stitches that transform a mass of fabric into a usable item, five dollars of unsightly fabric into fifty dollars of Vera Bradley merchandise.

Relating every text, doctrine, and command to Christ and the gospel brings unity, form, and health to the church. But, it is not without dangers stemming from human frailty. One danger is moving from “gospel-centered” to “gospel-only,” a position that undercuts the very purpose of the emphasis. The gospel is glorious in itself, but it exists also to illuminate all the corners of revelation. A lamp may be beautiful, but it is designed so that by it you may see other things.

An indicator of “gospel-only” teaching is cowering in generalities. The teacher may urge his audience to “preach the gospel to themselves,” but lacking any concrete demonstration, the exhortation is a thought-cliché. The same phrases, sprinkled through every sermon or article or broadcast, lose meaning. Bland repetitiveness, a soul-sapping monotony, ensues.

On the opposite side, there is the danger of “gospel-affixed” teaching. This teaching comes from someone who desires to be gospel-centered, but for a lack of practice or reflection or gospel-centered living is unable to pull it off. The gospel or Christ portion of the teaching is inelegantly tacked on to a message, because it’s supposed to be there. However, the teacher has done nothing to relate the topic under discussion to the gospel. The two merely sit uncomfortably jammed together like strangers on a crowded bus. This person too seeks refuge in generalities, cliches, and repetition, and justified boredom results in this case as well.

Some teachers, perhaps fearing boredom and redundancy, eschew Christ-centered preaching. However, that is to forfeit the battle before the fighting. The answer is not abandoning the practice, but improving its execution.

A speaker who clarifies something that needs to be learnt is a blessing, but a speaker who labours things already learnt is a bore, at least for those who were keyed up by the prospect of resolving difficulties in the matters being explained. But in order to delight one’s audience even well-known topics may be treated; here the attraction lies not in the topics themselves, but in the style…. A hearer must be delighted, so that he can be gripped and made to listen, and moved so that he can be impelled to action. (Augustine, De doctrina Christiana, 4.69, 4.75, trans. R. P. H. Green)

How can we seize this style? Throughout Augustine’s work, true rhetoric or style arises not so much from the clever appropriation of techniques as from the character of the speaker, honed by practice. Who a person is (ethos) grounds the orientation of his passion (pathos) to produce words (logos). The eloquence of Scripture is not produced by studied application of rules but by the fitness of the words to the necessity at hand. There is no trick to counteract this malady, only a lively experience of gospel power in the Christian life.

Intimacy with God, daily delighting in his secret kisses, furnishes a well-spring of reflection. The biblical authors called this “walking with God,” an apt metaphor since walking brings the sojourner to fresh panoramas. Many, if not most, of ancient literature consists of travel stories. They captivate with their exotic scenes and tug at the reader to seek out new experiences. Walking with God does this for the preacher, teacher, author, blogger, parent, or whoever else may impart scripture to others. It supplies fresh (not novel) material, so that day after day and week after week we really do connect life with gospel in ways that move people toward God.

Alternatively, the teacher (speaker, etc.) who does not walk with God has no flowing source. Eventually, the stock phrases, learned illustrations, and clever imagination will peter out, exposing him as one who scrapes from the cistern rather than gulps from the spring. He cannot tell others how to relate money, relationships, work, or anything else to the gospel, because he does not done so himself. For this person, too, the gospel speaks. Jesus, the prophet greater than Moses, revealed the Father flawlessly. Enduring an undeserved death and conquering it by resurrection, he offers his righteousness to all of us, who have failed to articulate God’s words. Resting in his righteousness, we partake of his Spirit, who empowers us daily to imitate our Savior.

He should be in no doubt that any ability he has and however much he has derives more from his devotion to prayer than his dedication to oratory; and so, by praying for himself and for those he is about to address, he must become a man of prayer before becoming a man of words. As the hour of his address approaches, before he opens his thrusting lips he should lift his thirsting soul to God so that he may utter what he has drunk in and pour out what has filled him. (De doctrina Christiana, 4.87)

Published in: on January 28, 2011 at 1:51 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Gospel according to Luther’s Mentor

Whereas every Protestant recognizes Martin Luther’s articulation of the gospel, his debt to his Father confessor and mentor Johann Von Staupitz is seldom acknowledged. Staupitz and Luther are by no means identical, but the gap between Staupitz’s devotional Augustinian theology and Luther’s Protestantism is the width of a running jump. If anyone dives headlong across the chasm with no reservation or thought to abort, one will land safely on the other side.

Here are some beautiful thoughts from Staupitz’s Libellus de executione eterne predestinatiōis (Eternal Predestination and its Execution in Time), a book far richer in wonder and thanksgiving than its title might suggest:*

“Since we are unable to acquire faith by our own means, it is clear that what flesh and blood does not reveal is, doubtless, a gift of God and not the result of our works.” (178)

“The justified man cannot but love.” (185)

“Far more exalted are the merits of Christ Himself, His actions, sufferings, and death, for by nature He was and is the Son of God. His merits are given to us to be ours and on them we found and build our firm hope, for we know our hope is firmly founded on them. Only Christ’s own merits can one call merit of full worthiness…. They are sufficient alone to save all Christianity or indeed the whole world.” (186)

“If Christ is I, I have a claim to heaven, I have hope, and I glory in that hope which belongs to the children of God; and more than that I also glory in all things which directly or indirectly foster hope.” (188)

“The lowest point of misery is called guilt. The highest point of mercy we steadfastly believe to be the Incarnation of our Lord. Only when we connect the nadir of misery and the apex of mercy do we extol God’s compassion above all His works.” (188)

“I am righteous because of Your righteousness and a sinner because of my guilt. You are a sinner because of my guilt and righteous because of Your own righteousness. By the same token, I am strong through Your power but weakened by my own feebleness. You are weakened by my feebleness and strong in Your own power. I am wise in Your wisdom and foolish in my stupidity. You are wise in Your wisdom and foolish in my stupidity.” (190-91)

“Thus fear is transformed into love, and the burden of Christ is made very light, the yoke very easy. The fundamental reason the law is a burden is that you lose title to yourself, but this fundament is destroyed when our Lord Jesus Christ becomes acceptable and pleasing to us so that He ranks above ourselves and all other things.” (194-95)

“Great certitude of salvation awaits him who ponders the good in others, who often contemplates his own evil deeds, and who makes it a habit to condemn himself and justify others.” (199)

* The page numbers correspond to the excerpt found in Heiko Oberman’s The Forerunners of the Reformation

Published in: on July 12, 2010 at 11:58 am  Leave a Comment  
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