Antinomians: Then and Now

The following article originally appeared in the Winter 2002 edition of Lutheran Forum and has been reprinted with permission from the author.

[1] In appreciation for their diligent efforts, I want to respond briefly to the first dozen or so reviewers of my recent book, Christians in Society; Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001). Some of the most significant were printed in Lutheran Forum (Spring 2002), Journal of Lutheran Ethics (reviews of Christians in Society), and in Theology Today (59/II, 2002).

[2] Fortunately, there have been no major attacks on my development of Luther’s theological ethic in the central body of the book itself. As a Biblical and systematic rejoinder to anti-Lutheran critics, there seems to be a broad consensus in approval of its densely-documented central thesis: Historically, it was in meeting the challenges of the chaotic mid-1520’s that Luther increasingly supplemented-not replaced-(1) his earlier Biblical dualistic-eschatological model ( the “two kingdoms” of God or Satan) by (2) his later Biblical dialectical-historical one (the Triune God’s “twofold rule” of creation and redemption by Law and Gospel through Caesar and Christ, with their intersecting powers directed temporally and spiritually, both within society and before God, against the forces of Satan). This book intentionally integrates both these Biblical norms of Luther’s theological ethics.

[3] The initial reviewers’ intra-Lutheran dialogue centers instead on my own relation to past and present schools of Luther research and Lutheran church implementation. These queries and comments are based on either (1) my introductory chapter’s comprehensive survey of some 200 texts and articles in the twentieth century before and after the Nazi tyranny in Germany; or (2) my Afterword’s claim that the Biblically-coherent climax of Luther’s theological ethic of sanctification is better expressed by the ethical function of God’s Gospel rather than by God’s Law.

[4] For guiding and instructing the ethical lives of Christians, insofar as they are already righteous (nota bene), I advocate God’s sanctifying love command (Gebot), in what I have called “the second or parenetic use of the Gospel” as a superior alternative to any later-designated “third or didactic use of the Law” (Gesetz) (cf. below, Formula of Concord, Article VI).

[5] These issues deserve a well-documented summary response for the interested pastor-theologian. Moreover, the legitimate request for some normative direction in addressing current social ethical controversy should also be honored, especially in view of my book’s misleading (publisher-imposed) subtitle. One such paradigm on sexual ethics will be offered below, to be added to another earlier one on military ethics written soon after September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attack on the United States and before the 2002 confrontation with Iraq. That article has already been published as “Christians in Society: Implications of Luther’s Theological Ethics for the War on Terrorism” in LUTHERAN FORUM (Winter 2001, 14-16).

[6] Consequently, my aim here is to provide a Biblical-theological “paper trail” that begins and ends in ethical controversy-from Luther and other Reformers down to the ELCA’s present study process toward possibly changing its official standards for both ordination and union blessing of committed same-sex partners in the Church.

Luther on the Uses of the Law

[7] The twentieth-century Luther-renaissance analyzed at length Luther’s Pauline approach (es) to the Law. On the one hand, Luther explicitly summarized his support for only “two uses” of the Law, civilly and theologically, in both his magisterial Lectures on Galatians (1535) and his “theological last will and testament” the Smalcald Articles (1537). On the other hand, he also earlier interpreted the Ten Commandments (with gospel-enriched “meanings” for baptized Christians) alongside the Creed in both of his classical catechisms (1529). This was done, he said, so that through our knowledge of the Apostles’ Creed, “we come to love and delight in all the commandments of God” (Large Catechism, II.69).

[8] The international scholarly consensus on Luther and the Law was summarized in 1965 by Wilhelm Maurer. In contrasting Luther’s approach with the title and parts of the later Formula of Concord (1577), Maurer judged: “In Article VI, however, the Gospel is actually subordinated to the Law….Recent Luther research has adduced the evidence that the doctrine of the third use is foreign to Luther; nor is it set forth In the Augsburg Confession [1530] or the Apology [1531]” (Bodensieck II: 873). This authoritative evaluation covered the published research of such celebrated Luther scholars as Paul Althaus, Heinrich Bornkamm, Gerhard Ebeling, Werner Elert (Germany); and Ragnar Bring, Anders Nygren, Lennart Pinomaa, Regin Prenter, Gustaf Wingren (Scandinavia).

[9] Then at the end of the twentieth century, this preponderant academic viewpoint was once again corroborated by Karl-Heintz zur Mühlen as follows: “This understanding of the distinction between Law and Gospel led Luther to the doctrine of the duplex usus legis (the twofold use of the Law),” the civil use to promote temporal peace and justice, the theological use to accuse and torment spiritual sin and unrighteousness. He concludes:

A third function of the Law that followed upon this twofold function-as an instruction on living for believers or those who have been reborn-was rejected by Luther, because living faith spontaneously fulfills the demands of the divine law which coincides with the usus civilis legis [the civil use of the Law] as to its content” (Hillerbrand II: 405)

[10] Some of the additional Luther researchers now cited are Oswald Bayer, Bengt Haegglund, Lauri Haikola, Gerhard Heintze, Wilifried Joest, and Martin Schloemann.

The Sixteenth-Century Antinomian Challenge

[11] Luther’s position was also endorsed for over a decade by Melanchthon until the latter wrote his own later Commentary on Colossians (1534) and a revised edition of the Loci communes (1535). Melanchthon’s new position-following the shocking experiences of the 1527 Saxon visitations-was to broaden the Law’s coverage to include an additional didactic or “third use”, that is, permanent moral instruction for Christian believers, not solely insofar as they are still sinful, but now also insofar as they are already righteous. John Calvin promptly followed suit in Geneva-for different reasons, viewing the Gospel as illumined Law-and also taught “three uses” of the Law, with the third as the “principal one” of them, in order to instruct Christian sanctification in all the post-1535 editions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

[12] The second generation of the Reformation was thereafter plagued by a series of resultant antinomian controversies led by John Agricola over the Biblically legitimate uses of God’s Law. (See Timothy Wengert’s lucid survey on Antinomianism” and its antecedents in Hillerbrand I: 51-53.) Unfortunately, most of the relevant academic disputations by the Reformers are still not translated into English (see Luther’s Works 47: 101-106 and “Against the Antinomians” 107-119).

[13] Of special significance for us, however, is how Luther and Melanchthon were consistently united in rightly opposing Agricola’s proposed abolition of all law in the church-anti-nomos being Luther’s derogatory appellation of this neo-Marcionism. Whatever differences the two major Reformers may have taught one the uses of the Law in the life of the redeemed (twofold or threefold), they nevertheless joined ranks to oppose Agricola’s rejection of both the theological and didactic functions in the pulpit, while relegating its only remaining civil function to the town hall.

[14] There were, nevertheless, repeated antinomian controversies (1527-1528, 1537-1540, and 1550-1577) that threatened to mislead Lutheran Christians with over-assured consciences into unethical behavior. Confusing for many ever since, the disciples of Luther and Melanchthon earnestly carried on concurrent wars on two fronts: strategically united against Agricola’s antinomianism, while remaining tactically divided on their own distinctive grounds of opposition.

[15] The Formula of Concord (1577) addressed these and related issues in Articles V (“Law and Gospel”) and VI (“Third Use of the Law”). The Formula’s irenic purpose was to try to interpret pertinent articles of the Augsburg Confession and its Apology after four decades of Lutheran internecine strife. Worthy of our special attention in Article VI are: (1) the issue, (2) the condemnation, and (3) the supporting theological foundations for the condemnation on the issue. The new Kolb and Wengert edition of the Book of Concord (Fortress, 2000) supplies helpful accompanying footnotes to clarify the text’s complex situation.

[16] 1. The chief issue at stake centers on the alleged validity of a “third and final use” of the Law. It is described as taking place ” when those who have been born anew through God’s Spirit, converted to the Lord, and had the veil of Moses removed from them, live and walk in the Law” (Solid Declaration VI.1). In the Epitome, it is amplified further that the Law is to be urged upon reborn Christians “since nevertheless the flesh still clings to them-that precisely because of the flesh they may have a sure guide, according to which they can orient and conduct their entire life” (VI.1).

[17] 2. The concluding condemnation rejects the disputed teaching “among a few theologians”:

Therefore, we reject and condemn as a harmful error, detrimental to Christian discipline and true godliness, the teaching that the Law is not to be urged in the way just described upon Christians and those who believe in Christ but only upon unbelievers, non-Christians, and the impenitent (Solid Declaration VI.25).
[18] A footnote asserts that the condemnation is directed specifically against “the position of John Agricola; this viewpoint was not advocated by any of the so-called antinomians of the 1550’s and 1560’s, neither by Musculus nor by Amsdorf, Poach, Otto, and Neandor” (Book of Concord 591).

[19] 3. With regard to its theological foundations, the current editors of the Book of Concord also explain (p. 587, fn. 165) that the Formula’s mutual accommodation between the Gnesio-Lutherans and the Crypto-Philippists was accomplished by the original co-authors-Andreae, Chemnitz, Chytraeus, Körner, Musculus, and Selnecker-only when they editorially interpolated in the Second Declaration, directly alongside each other, the differing views of Luther via Musculus (paragraphs 15-19) with those of Melanchthon via Andreae (paragraphs 1-14, 20-25).

[20] Understandably, therefore, theological tensions continue to coexist therein for those who believe that God uses the Law to serve the Gospel, and others who affirm rather that God’s Gospel is to serve the Law. Nor is this merely an overblown clash over words: one’s coherent views of Christ’s vicarious atonement and Christian justification and sanctification are radically affected accordingly, as amply demonstrated in centuries of subsequent Lutheran church history and social ethical activity (or inactivity).

[21] Why did Luther also have serious reservations about an exclusive Latin view of the atonement (Anselm), where there must be a “vicarious satisfaction” paid by the Cross of Christ to meet the just demands of an alleged “eternal law” in an ideal cosmic order governing the legal relation between God and humanity? How are we to relate the Formula’s exclusively forensic (legal) model of justification to other major but non-legal metaphors of redemption also stressed in the New Testament? Is sanctification the ground or the goal of the Christian’s growth in grace? And how do we reconcile the Law’s “third use” with grace-based parenetic commands and exhortations for Christian ethics at the conclusion of the Pauline epistles and throughout the Johannine corpus? In my own book I suggest:

At best, if consistently understood as the Pauline nomos, the Law’s ‘third use’ in Article VI can rightly refer only to the legitimate application of these first two uses to the persisting sin (“like a stubborn, recalcitrant donkey”) of imperfect Christians, as well as elsewhere to non-Christians. However, that is not a new “third use” in kind, but solely a different area of the first two functions’ implementation (Lazareth 243).
[22] In other words, that is not a new use, just a new user!

[23] Only by allowing such complex questions to remain incoherently unanswered were both contending parties finally able in 1577 to converge in reconciled diversity and join together to denounce the perfectionistic views of their far more dangerous common theological foe: the indiscriminate lawlessness of Agricola’s antinomianism.

The Twenty-First-Century Antinomian Challenge

[24] Turning now pastorally to our own day, a variety of theological ethical stances tried to witness to the multiform American Lutheran legacy in the ELCA symposium edited by Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme, The Promise of Lutheran Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998). In my judgment, the most promising way forward is proposed by Reinhard Hütter’s essay, “The Twofold Center of Lutheran Ethics: Christian Freedom and God’s Commandments” (pp.31-54).

[25] In championing Luther’s law-free Gospel, Hütter seeks to combat current Lutheran antinomianism without resorting to legalism. In doing so, he also generously alludes to my own further development of views on Luther that were already well researched by Paul Althaus, Wilfried Joest, and Helmut Thielicke. Earlier I had published Luther on the Christian Home (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960); written and extended introduction to the English translation of Paul Althaus’ The Divine Command (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966); and also edited the English translation of Helmut Thielicke’s Theological Ethics: Foundations (vol. 1) and Theological Ethics: Politics (vol. 2) (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966, 1969).

[26] Their collective impact may be traced especially in the refined theological structure (chapters 3 and 8) of my recent Christians in Society. Luther’s Biblical construal of God’s pre-Fall and post-Easter “command of grace” (Gebot) both precedes and succeeds the interim soteriological dialectic of God’s judging and preserving “law” (Gesetz) versus saving and serving “gospel.” The “law” (Pauline nomos) joins sin, death, wrath, and Satan as interim powers of divine-human alienation and rebellion until the final judgment. Therefore, it should never be allowed to replace God’s gracious and loving command (Psalmic torah) in both the original Garden of Eden and the presently breaking in of the reign of God.

[27] It is the unique Biblical witness to the history of salvation that provides the theological foundations for the Spirit’s “imperatives of grace” to guide and instruct the ethical life of Christians insofar as they are already righteous (Christian righteousness). This is above and beyond the still applicable compulsion of “imperatives of law” insofar as these same Christians are still sinful (civil righteousness). To highlight Luther’s distinctive evangelical difference, I chose to call the underrated Spirit’s divine sanctifying activity the “second or parenetic use” of the Gospel (Gebot) rather than any “third or didactic use” of the Law (Gesetz).

[28] Reinhard Hütter aptly summarizes this Pauline and Johannine ethos for ethics:

While I agree with the insight that the “third use of the law” intends to maintain, it is crucial to distinguish between “law” on the one hand, and “commandment,” “mandate,” “torah” on the other hand. Due to the condition of sin, “law” in both its first and second use has an enforcing, restraining, and convicting character. This is not inherent in God’s Law, but is the result of the radical human estrangement from God. As the Gestalt (form) of the way of life with God – the embodiment of genuine human freedom – the enforcing, restraining, and convicting elements are lost.

Hutter continues:

The “commandment” in distinction from “law,” as suggested by Paul Althaus, embodies the goods constitutive of the way of life in communion with God. It is the usus practicus evangelii (in Wilfried Joest’s terminology) or the “second use of the gospel” (in William Lazareth’s words) . . . By grasping Christ in faith . . . Christian freedom receives its distinct Gestalt (form) through a way of life according to the commandments: the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, and the double love commandments. Here I am basically drawing upon Article VI of the Solid Declaration, Formula of Concord.

[29] Hütter’s discerning essay serves accurately to present and to locate my own position within a prominent strand of post-Nazi Luther research. In the United States, it also simultaneously highlights the doctrinal basis of my own continued social ethical opposition to the proposed ordination of practicing homosexual pastors and the blessing of committed same-sex unions. These proposals were earlier critiqued (when they were first proposed and then postponed at the ELCA church wide assembly) in my article entitled “ELCA Lutherans and Luther on Heterosexual Marriage” in Lutheran Quarterly, VIII/3 (Autumn 1994).

A Summary of My Own Position

[30] The authentic Lutheran Reformers were never unethical antinomians. An antinomian is opposed to all law in the Christian life. Luther, following Paul, taught rather that the Christian is (1) wholly free from the Law as a way of salvation, but also (2) still bound to the Law both religiously insofar as one acts sinfully, and ethically insofar as one acts civilly. Existing at once both righteous (in Christ) and sinful (in self), a Christian is divided into two times: “To the extent that he is flesh, he is under the Law; to the extent that he is spirit, he is under the Gospel” (Luther’s Works 26: 342).

[31] In harmony with these basic norms of Luther’s theological ethic, I again contend that the ELCA should now preach and teach God’s whole Word:

Homosexual citizens should benefit equitably from the government’s provision and protection of the Constitutional non-discriminatory rights and justice of all persons created in God’s image (Gen. 9:1ff.) within the present legal structures of our own modern democratic and pluralistic society (Law’s civil function);

Homophobic prejudice (attitude) is sinful; just as homosexual practices are also the Biblically-censured acts (conduct) of an intrinsic human disorder (orientation) that departs from Christ’s normative teaching (Mt. 19:4-6) on God’s mandate for our essential heterosexual complementarity “from the beginning” (Gen. 1:27; 2:24) of co-human creation (Law’s theological function);

Homosexual persons are also justified as saints by God’s grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith alone (Rom. 3:21-28), and are to be fully welcomed into the worship and witness of the forgiven sinners who compromise the communion of saints in Christ’s Church (Gospel’s salvific function);

Marriage is God’s holy ordinance for one man and one woman to live together personally and sexually as “one flesh” in a lifelong covenant of fidelity that resembles the unity between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:28-33), and also blesses Spirit-guided Christians both as a “remedy against sin” (Law) and as an “estate of faith” (Gospel) for their shared service in sanctified love and responsible nurture of children in family life (Gospel’s parenetic function).

[32] In conclusion, I pray that our official reaffirmation of such updated ecclesiastical applications of Luther’s historic theological ethic might greatly contribute to authentic signs of piety within the already-reconciled Church of Christ. In Christian ethics, baptismal vows must precede and govern our subsequent marital and ordination vows. Unless present-day followers of Luther and Melanchthon, through their disciples Musculus and Andreae, can now likewise mutually collaborate in doctrinal orthodoxy and pastoral compassion, the antinomian adherents of Agricola could soon carry the day politically in reflecting our morally autonomous and secularized society.

Sources Cited

Bodensieck, Julius (Ed.). The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church (Ed. for the Lutheran World Federation). Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1965.

Bloomquist, Karen L. and John R. Stumme (Ed.). The promise of Lutheran Ethics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.

The Book of Concord (Ed. and tr. by Robert Kolb & Timothy Wengert et al.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

Hillerbrand, Hans J. (Ed.). The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Lazareth, William H. Christians in Society; Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.