A Review of Law, Life, and the Living God: The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism by Scott R. Murray

[1] Scott R. Murray, currently a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastor in Houston, Texas, began this book as a dissertation at New Orleans Baptist Seminary. His work was motivated initially by what he perceived as an ethical libertinism in the ELCA’s human sexuality studies of the early 1990s. The goal of this book is to identify the influence of such libertinism or “antinomianism” in both the LCMS and the ELCA since 1940. For Murray, antinomianism is a result of a rejection of a “third use” of the law, which allegedly posits that the law has no bearing upon the Christian: “If there are no rules, how can the Christian know what does please God” (72)? What, for Murray, is the “third use of the law”? He claims that the third use “gives direction for the impulses of the Christian to do good works” (14); he also defines it as “the description of how the Law functions under the Gospel” (56). It is to be distinguished from the “first use” as “for unbelievers for whom threats of punishment can coerce only to outward obedience” (13) and the “second use,” “the distinctively theological use of the law that lays bare human wickedness and makes clear the need for a Savior” (13-14).

[2] He justifies his attempt to affirm a third use of the law with six reasons: (1) ecclesiastical conflicts have included battles over the applicability and meaning of the third use of the law, (2) divine direction in the law for the believer remains a blessing, (3) antinomianism is detrimental to the gospel, (4) legalism obscures the gospel, (5) the third use needs to be applied to today’s concerns, and (6) today’s theologians who reject the third use need a rejoinder. It is important to realize that the polarity which distinguishes the third use from the first is that between Christians and non-Christians, not old and new beings. To the degree that one emphasizes the latter, the third use tends to be subsumed under the first. The confessional basis for language of a “third use” of the law seems to hinge on giving a direct answer to the question, “do Christians still need the law?” To which, the confessional answer has been “yes, in so far as they contend with the old being.” What is most troubling for Murray is the notion that for some Lutherans, if the law is accusing, as is clearly defined in its second use, then it is not properly informative. That is, if the law accuses, then it only accuses, and never informs. An ELCA hero for Murray is David Yeago, who properly identifies the antinomian problem as playing off the gospel as good news from that of the law by affirming that the gospel terminates the law. That for Yeago is really in fact bad news because it lends itself to the ethical chaos that we currently see in our society.

[3] Whether or not this contention is actually taught by all those who reject a third use of the law will not be dealt with in this review. In the Confessions, it is clear that the law is informative of God’s will for old beings who are epistemically blinded with respect to God’s will. It is also confessionally clear, in the Large and Small Catechisms, that qua believer, one can regard the law as informative, and not solely accusing. If the second use were to be harmonized with this latter truth, we would have to affirm that though the law always accuses, it does not only accuse; it also informs, though, given our sinful nature, it never informs as a neutral guide. For the old being, law remains deadly. If more than a “first use” of the law is required to harmonize the law’s accusing and informing functions, it would be solely to make very clear the answer to the question, mentioned above, “does the law apply to the Christian?” The talk of “uses” of the law, while helpful, is limited in its helpfulness because we are speaking of one reality, law, which has different effects-accusing, instructing, goading, even as providential (in that the flourishing of created life depends on social order in church, home, and government)-on a person’s life, given where that individual stands, at any given time, and even simultaneously, in relation to God.

[4] The bulk of Murray’s work is presented as a survey of theological attitudes of selected Lutheran theologians about the third use of the law from 1940-1960, 1961-1976, and 1977-1998. Here thinkers reappear through the decades and Murray does not always clue us in that their minds might end up changing over the decades. Murray himself often takes no notice of this. For example, for Murray, the early George Forell, as influenced by existentialism, contributes to the antinomian problem; however, any mindful Lutheran would hardly think this of Forell today. Gerhard Forde, too, is seen as contributing to the antinomian blight. This is hardly accurate, though, given Forde’s constant contention, following Luther, that antinomianism is a play staged in an empty theater, as well as Forde’s recent discussions of boundaries in sexual ethics (the very issue that sparked Murray’s study). Similar defenses must also be made for William Lazareth, to whom Murray refers.

[5] Who then are the antinomianians in the ELCA? If they in fact exist, Murray has misnamed them. And, this is one of the major weaknesses of this book. Though Murray seeks to find trajectories of antinomianism and heroic opposition to such antinomians, the story of exchanges between villains and heroes in the book gets unwieldy. Additionally, one could list the names of others who get no recognition but who merit discussion, if one is seeking the thoroughness that Murray apparently seeks. Perhaps a better strategy would have been to take one or two perceived antinomians and thoroughly analyze their positions-what are the philosophical, social, and theological antecedents and reasons for their work and what might be appropriate Lutheran rejoinders? Murray tries to do too much and thereby ends up doing too little.

[6] Prior to examining the understanding of law in modern American Lutheranism, Murray offers a basic overview of the interpretation of the relation between law and gospel for Luther and the early Protestant confessors as well as influential views of law in the nineteenth century. He demonstrates that Luther affirmed that the law is important for the Christian in his expositions of, as well as his hymnody and preaching on, the Ten Commandments. He describes the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod “father” Carl Walther’s important classic “Law and Gospel” which focuses on the accusing nature of the law, not its “third use,” in order to help budding preachers distinguish, not separate, law and gospel in their preaching. We see this over-riding concern of the law as accusatory, for example, in this quote from Law and Gospel: “It (the law) conjures up the terrors of hell, of death, of the wrath of God. But it has not a drop of comfort to offer the sinner. If no additional teaching, besides the Law, is applied to man, he must despair, die, and perish in his sins. Ever since the Fall the Law can produce no other effects in man. Let us ponder this well.” A reference to the third use of the law here is notably absent, not because Walther himself did not accept a third use, but because his concern was uniquely pastoral, attempting to help preachers in the art of distinguishing law from gospel for the sake of delivering the promise in sermons. Walther’s work is more important, though, for the entire twentieth century debate in America than what Murray seems to imply. Many, but not all, of the “antinomian” “Valparaiso” theologians, as he labels them, such as the early Jaroslav Pelikan, Martin Marty, Richard Caemmerer, Edward Schroeder, Robert Bertram, Walter Bartling, Walter Bouman, and others, had a tendency to play, in their minds, the freshness of Walther’s approach to theology off the dead repristinating work of the dogmatician Franz Pieper. Of course, this hardly is accurate, since Walther himself endorsed the repristination of the Orthodox fathers and positioned Pieper as his successor. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that Walther was seen by some progressive LCMS theologians as a deliverer from repristinating dogmatics. In this regard, could not Caemmerer’s contention that new life is not simply “conformity to code” be, in its own way, a dig at not only Pieperianism but also the confessional rigidity of some Missourians? Admittedly, this is conjectural. Yet, given the “Valparaiso” theologians’ attempt towards developing a theology that would correspond to a lively use of the gospel, it might not be off the mark.

[7] Murray notes, quite helpfully, that many of the “Valparaiso” theologians finally could not live with the freedom from the law that they sought. Hence, they invented legal intrusions upon the gospel. For many of these thinkers, then, the gospel has imperatives, paraklesis, parenesis, and encouragement, all of which confuse law and gospel (145). Murray tends to set the “Valparaiso” theologians in opposition to those he terms “Missourians,” followers primarily of his teacher, David Scaer (Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne). However, given the history involved, should this best be seen not as non-Missourians versus Missourians, but instead as two camps within Missouri itself-two different takes on the heritage of Walther-, thereby acknowledging the complexity of theological positions which existed (and still exist) within Missouri?

[8] While Walther was seen as a basis to legitimate “antinomian” views about the law, it was the influence of Werner Elert, for whom talk of a “third use” of the law was deemed unnecessary, on the LCMS and, to a lesser degree, the predecessors of the ELCA, who was most influential and, for Murray, problematic. Scaer notes of Elert that “His ‘law-gospel’ principle hung suspended in theological thin air, almost in the same fashion as the Erlangen theology a century before” (68). For Scaer, Elert is a “Lutheran-Barthian” (137) in that law and gospel float like a historicity above history, a principle divorced from concrete encounters with biblical texts. Undoubtedly, what drives Scaer is worry about the status of biblical authority in Elert. In Scaer’s view, the law-gospel contrast for Elert takes on an authority which ought to be reserved to scripture alone; it is abstracted from scripture, which ends up having a kind of lesser authority. For this reviewer, Scaer is not entirely off target in his analysis of a problem. In Elert, God’s encounter with people is configured largely in personalistic terms as an “I – thou” relation-with-God, oblivious that God’s encounter is mediated sacramentally and creationally through scripture and all creation-a deeply physical word. (God “speaks to the creature through the creature” as Johann Georg Hamann put it.) This existential “I – thou” encounter apart from an earthly, cultural, historical, linguistic mediation is the “Barthianism” (a Hegel-like preference for thought over the sensuality that gives flesh to that thought), if you will, in Elert that needs to be countered.

[9] Another source that fed antinomianism was existentialism, which Murray sees as influencing the early Forell, Forde, and others. For the existentialist Kierkegaard, Kantian morality sublates pleasure-seeking, but is sublated in turn by the arbitrariness of God’s will (God request to Abraham to slay Isaac, seemingly a violation of the fifth commandment), which thus inspires a “leap of faith” to establish authentic meaning in life.

[10] Regardless of the adequacy with which Murray treats his subjects, he certainly puts his finger on some important questions. How will we as Lutherans respond in light of the current culture’s tendency to pair nomianism and antinomianism in certain specific ways by both the political left and right? The political left tends to be libertine or “antinomian” with respect to our “private” lives, particularly our sexual practices, while quite legalistic or nomian with respect to economics (presumably for the sake of those with the least economic power). In contrast, the political right tends to be legalistic or nomian with respect to sexual ethics and libertine or antinomian (laissez faire) with respect to economics. Unfortunately, both the political right and left tend to soteriologize politics-if we could get the right political system, we would be saved, i. e., have heaven on earth. In this regard, it would seem that both the political right and left tend to play off either greed (disordered economics) or lust (disordered sexuality). Do not we, as Lutherans, think that both greed and lust should be challenged (on the basis of the law, no less)? Additionally, our culture seems to be quite driven towards self-expression in both economics and sexuality. In a very real sense, we are not free but bound to the goal of self-expression. We quickly idolize such matters. As such, Enlightenment views of human freedom as autonomy are tantamount to a form of the bondage of the will. We are bound to wrestle a meaning from ourselves, from our interpretations of the ultimate, for ourselves. This we do to legitimate our behavior or validate our perspectives. As such, we are caught in our own trap. More than anything, we fail thereby to fear, love, and trust in God above all things, and thereby have love for neighbor, with appropriate consequences for both economics and family, unleashed.

[11] Undoubtedly, whether found in either the political left or right, antinomians fear limits to self-expression while nomians fear chaos. Human life, if it is to flourish, must find itself balanced between both order and freedom. The gospel is a promise given in scripture, in proclamation, in creation itself (the rainbow as a sign of God’s promise); it is a word which does what it says and says what it does. What it does is to build assurance with respect to God. God is for us. The gospel affirms that even our sin or God’s own hiddenness cannot separate us from the love of Christ. The gospel promises genuine freedom, liberation from incurvation, offering the only secure basis for freedom and risk. It restores us to creation as it is meant to be.

[12] Christ is the end of the law for faith, both as telos and finis. However, Christ is the end of the law only for faith. Outside Christ there is law, as accusing, as providing order-and thus as instructive. Indeed, God’s providential grace operative in creation is likewise operative as law, sustaining life and vocation. Lutherans will always acknowledge that the most important aspect of law is that it, coram deo, is not for the sake of actualizing self-potential, but to lead us to Christ. Our potentialities and possibilities are reconfigured in terms of service in light of the new life, which is itself perceived as a donation, a comprehensive aesthetic (inclusive of but far more than ethics) promised in Christ. We are free from ambitatio divinitatis in faith and are thus freed from the incurvation in which potentiality and possibility feeds self-security, self-trust, and finally narcissism.

[13] Gerhard Forde has helpfully distinguished “covert” from “overt” antinomianism (to which Murray fails to allude). “Covert,” in contradistinction to “overt,” antinonomianism reduces the law to size; thinking that the law can be made manageable. It is finally a way by which the self can potentiate itself-seen for example in contemporary “Evangelical Catholicism,” Catholicism ‘lite’-with no burden of poverty, chastity, or obedience-to which Murray appeals in David Yeago. By contrast, our Lord promises that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. One hopes that Yeago’s view that grace perfects, instead of liberates, nature is not what Murray means with his “third use” of the law for the Christian. For Forde, for instance, the law is never a neutral guide. This is not because it does not instruct, but because when it does so, it never does so neutrally-it is always accompanied with accusation. Nor are we to appeal to the Augustinian caritas ladder approach that Yeago seeks to restore in Protestantism. The answer to current antinomianism in wider culture is not nomianism. Rather, it is to proclaim law and gospel, distinguished, not separated, such that incurvated nature is returned to creation on creation’s terms, even with all its ambiguity and messiness, recognizing that God’s artistry is crafted even through this ambiguity. In Christ alone, not in law, not even in church, there is a new creation. And that new creation opens the old creation in new ways, such that we can hear and discern God’s address in it-the word of promise spoken in every grain of wheat, “I will provide,” or in the rainbow, “I will protect you through the rhythm of life,” and in one’s neighbor, whom one should love as oneself. Eschatology, by its very nature, sets limits to ontology-subverting our ability to transform faith into sight, either as contemplatio or actio, theoria or praxis. Non-self-justifying thinking and doing is first opened by faith, the passive life coram deo, the vita passiva.

[14] For the Solid Declaration’s position on law in the life of the believer, the believer is not under law but in law. The understanding of law in the believer’s life here arises out of the simul iustus et peccator doctrine. If one contends for antinomianism, either covert or overt, one pretends that the old is totally gone, which is not true because through God’s power its effect is lessening day-by-day. If one contends for nomianism, one pretends that the newness of God’s work is of no avail. In this regard, the problem ever with ethics as self-justifying behavior is that it, like theory (contemplatio), wants faith to be transformed into sight. Does faith work? If it does, then perhaps the church can have a longer lease on life in the world. It is so hard not to translate things into their viability for human potential, particularly in the modern world where we, like Atlas, hold all on our shoulders, a form of practical atheism, if not theoretical atheism, one might say.

[15] The purpose of the law is, shockingly, summed up in the first commandment-an end to our human potential coram deo and liberating of our potential to do good coram hominibus. In the Treatise on Good Works (1520) Luther is clear that if every one had faith, we would need no more laws. He points out that there are four types of people with respect to law: (1) those who need no law, because they are confident that God’s favor rests on them, (2) those who abuse freedom-they need teaching and warning, (3) the wicked who need restraint, and (4) the childish who need coaxing for their growth. Luther is adamant: works cannot be done apart from faith. Ironically, it is faith alone that would permit the fulfilling of the law, not our doing of works. Faith subsumes all under the first commandment. The first commandment is fulfilled only by faith alone and not works-it opens the horizon for the fulfillment of the other commandments. In the Large Catechism, through faith we, as redeemed, can even come to “delight” in the law, since in our agreement with God, even against ourselves, we agree that all God’s ways are holy and good.

[16] What needs to be acknowledged in the question of the relation between law and gospel in the believer’s life is that Christ as the end of the law or the gospel seen as an eschatological limit to the law does not entail that the law has no bearing upon the believer’s life but that the law is first of all, actually, and finally established in a non-soteriological fashion, that is, as a way for service to the neighbor and not as the old being’s quest to serve as its own deity for itself.

[17] Murray’s book is worth the time to read. He explores important terrain and does so as fairly as he is able, given his prior commitments. Since he is referring either to contemporary theologians or their mentors, the book deals with exciting material. However, he sometimes fails to nuance properly the complexities of the positions of many of the parties that he opposes.

Law, Life, and the Living God: The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism. was written by Scott R. Murray and is available from St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2002. 250 pages.