Schroeder on The Promise of Lutheran Ethics

Postings to hosted by The Crossings Community, Inc. ( by Ed Schroeder. Used with permission of the author. Unless otherwise noted, the brackets are the author’s.

I. “The Promise of Lutheran Ethics – The First Part of a Review” (October 22, 1998)

[1] There could be more promise in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics. By that I mean the Biblical term “promise,” the term chosen by the Lutheran reformers to pinpoint what the reformation was all about. Melanchthon put it simply in his Loci, the first “systematic theology” to come out of Wittenberg: “Evangelium est promissio. The gospel is a promise.” If there were more of THAT promise in this volume, it would be even more promising for its intended audience, today’s USA Lutherans in the mish-mash world we live in as the millennium turns. More of that promise, I’d be audacious enough to say, would also make the ethics proposed here more Lutheran.

[2] It wasn’t just Melanchthon’s one-liner that put promise at the center. It’s the lynch-pin for the whole discussion of Justification by Faith in the confessional texts of 1530-31. It’s fundamental to the difference between law and Gospel. No matter how you calibrate the law, its basic verb still comes out “require,” say the confessors. Au contraire, the promissory Gospel where the fundamental verb is “offer.” Promises are offered. They are gifts, freebies. “Thou shalts” are requirements. Their grammar is reciprocity. Rewards for doing what thou shalt and sanctions for doing the opposite.

[3] In this volume on Lutheran ethics more than one of the ten contributors makes a plea for the restoration of the commandments into Lutheran ethical consciousness. Say they, it’s the place to go after justification by faith has taken place. And in the fascinating final chapter, a 25-page “Table Talk on Lutheran Ethics,” a bull-session among the authors, no one challenges that claim.

[4] Return to the decalogue is most forcefully promoted by Reinhard Hütter in his chapter “The Twofold Center of Lutheran Ethics,” namely, “Christian Freedom and God’s Commandments.” None of the other nine challenges Hütter’s reading of Lutheranism: “Christian ethics in the tradition of the Reformation serves the remembrance of God’s commandments and the interpretation of the innumerable challenges, complexities, and perplexities that we encounter in our world in the critical and wholesome light of God’s commandments. Christian ethics, in the Reformation tradition should, of course, end with praise of God’s commandments.” What ever happened to the “Promise” of Lutheran Ethics? Except for one of the essays, the term doesn’t even surface as an item for consideration. O tempora, O mores!

[5] And in that essay where promise does surface, “Ethics and the Promise of God,” by James Childs, it is not the “Gospel is a promise” of the Reformation era. Childs understands promise as one of the gifts of “the recovery of the Bible’s historical-eschatological character, [which] placed new emphasis on the promise of God’s coming future reign as the fulfillment rather than the antithesis of history.” Promise and God’s reign, God’s dominion, God’s future are his constant corollaries. So trusting the promise is trusting that God will indeed win when it’s all over. It is trusting that “[the] coming reign of God is not dependent on our achievements, but on the faithful promises of God.”

[6] Now if the “reign of God” were understood as Luther does it in his catechism’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer’s second petition, that still might pass for Lutheran. “The kingdom of God comes indeed without our prayer, of itself; but we pray in this petition that it may come unto us also. How is this done? When our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead a godly life, here in time and hereafter in eternity.”

[7] Childs implies that newer eschatological readings of the NT have expanded the “kingdom of God,” as he too expands the “promise,” to cosmic dimensions. Thus he can say: “The promise and hope of eschatology is for the transformation and fulfillment of the world in the kingdom of God.” Now that too might not be too bad if some distinctions [There’s that Lutheran word again!] were noticed. Every reference to “kingdom of God” in the synoptic Gospels is linked to what God is up to in Jesus. And the narrative context for all(?) of them is Jesus’ “mercy-management” with sinners.

[8] Au contraire the “kingdom talk” throughout this entire volume. Its cardinal term is “justice”- oppressed peoples getting a fair shake, getting equity instead of a raw deal – as articulated in the liberation theologies of our generation. Which is not exactly what Jesus gives sinners when he offers them forgiveness. Fairness for sinners is the opposite of forgiveness. Now linking justice to this kingdom that Jesus inaugurates could be kosher – but again only if you make distinctions. To wit, the distinction between law-justice (= people receiving what they deserve, sinners too) and mercy-justice (the kind of justice the Suffering Servant “executes” in Isaiah 41). It is this sort of justice, say the gospel writers, that Jesus fulfills when he forgives sinners.

[9] Childs’ and Hütter’s essays articulate a different Lutheranism from the one proposed in these ThTh [Thursday Theology, the title of the ListServ – ed.] weekly essays, although both authors acclaim primordial Lutheran building-blocks: justification by faith, the distinction between law and gospel, God’s ambidextrous – left hand, right hand – works in creation, and more. I propose to address all the essays in this important volume, d.v., in future issues of ThTh, including a more detailed look at the two mentioned above. It has been widely distributed (free!) throughout the ELCA, as a prize product of its Division for Church in Society.

[10] A dozen years ago, a doctoral thesis presented at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago by Tom Strieter found several different types of Lutheran ethics on the scene in U.S. Lutheranism. All but one of them, I think, are represented in the essays in this volume. Missing is the one that Tom calls “a struggle-resistance model within the church.” He mentions the theological ethics of the Seminex tradition as a sample of this genre. The next issues of ThTh will seek to show the promise of that perspective for Lutheran Ethics as we look at the writers in the volume that has that name.

II. “The Promise of Lutheran Ethics – Forgiveness, Faith, Freedom” (October 29, 1998)

[11] The three Bible readings appointed in the lectionary for Reformation Day (Oct. 31) are Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:19-28, and John 8:31-36. No surprise, there is a key Reformation message in each one. Curiously the key terms in those three texts all begin with the letter F in English: God’s new covenant of FORGIVENESS (Jeremiah), justification by FAITH (Romans) and FREEDOM – “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed” (John).

[12] These three “F-words” pop up all over in the essays presented in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics. But they are not used for all the goodies that the Reformers found in them. To illustrate that I propose to take these three terms and link them to the essays in this volume, beginning here with ThTh #24 and then, d.v., on some of the Thursdays that follow. So we begin with Bob Benne’s opening chapter: “Lutheran Ethics – Perennial Themes and Contemporary Challenges.”

[13] Benne’s essay is the most “classically” Lutheran one in the book, and may strike some readers as the book’s most conservative. His aim is twofold: to “identify the basic themes of Lutheran ethics,” first personal ethics, then social ethics, to examine “the points at which the modern world challenges” Lutheran ethics. These modern challenges are theological (exposing Lutherans’ over-reliance on justification by faith); ecclesiastical (little sense of the church as a “community of character”); and epistemological (post-modernism’s various forms of the “hermeneutics of suspicion”). Animating his essay is a “sense of urgency [that] Lutheranism as a living tradition is at risk.” In another generation or two it may be gone.

[14] Benne’s “basic themes” are classical Lutheranism. For “personal ethics” he lists justification by grace through faith, Christian morality as response to that justifying grace, twofold use of God’s law, orders of creation [or Benne’s preferred rendering of the term, which I like: “places of responsibility”], realism about human sin, theology of the cross, the “happy exchange,” and more. For the “Lutheran ethical tradition as it applies to public life” Benne has four themes: a sharp distinction between salvation offered by God in Christ and all human efforts, a focused and austere doctrine of the church and its mission that follows from the first theme, the twofold rule of God through law and gospel, and a paradoxical view of human nature and history.” So far, so good. Now enters a non-Lutheran theologoumenon that is dear to Benne: covenant. It’s not that this Biblical term was unknown to the Lutheran Reformers. But it was not a primal term of their vocabulary, and when invoked always was read with the hermeneutics of the distinction between law and gospel. Benne himself wants to hang on to law/gospel lingo, but he lets his covenant theology slip through the cracks without pushing it through the law and gospel sieve. He doesn’t let on – though surely he must know – that there is a law covenant with God and a gospel one. Therefore you can’t simply talk about “covenantal existence” as he does frequently, and still be talking Lutheran. I imagine that he also knows about “covenant theology”- a.k.a. federal theology (from Latin for covenant, “foedus”) – that arose in post-Reformation times as a conscious alternative to confessional Lutheranism. But if you want to do covenant theology and try to be Lutheran, how do you proceed?

[15] Enter Jeremiah 31:31-34, the first reading for the Festival of the Reformation. The big news, says the prophet to the Jewish exiles, is that God is working on a “new covenant.” Main point of the new one is that “it will not be like the covenant” at Sinai. Chief “unlikeness” in this new one is that God pledges to “forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Sinai was never like that. Just read the specs of that old covenant in Exodus 20 & Deut. 5. Sinai’s covenant had no place for forgiveness. Sinai is bad news for sinners, good news only for non-sinners. You got what you had coming. God “shows steadfast love to those who love me and keep my commandments,” and “visits” iniquity all the way down to the 3rd and 4th generation (yes, here God does indeed “remember”) of those doing the opposite.

[16] So when Benne says that “we are meant for covenantal existence,” that is true as Biblical anthropology, but is not ipso facto good news for sinners. Only one kind of covenantal existence is good news for the offspring of Eve and Adam. The other was the sort that when first announced brought no hallelujahs, but only cries of terror from the audience (Ex. 20:18f).

[17] In pursuing his own “classic” presentation of law and promise in Galatians, St. Paul too (chapter 4) reaches for two-covenant theology to hype justification by faith. These two covenants are not identical with the two parts of the Bible, which we (erroneously) call Old and New Testament. Since “testament” is just another term for covenant, God has two of them, says Jeremiah, already on the scene in dealing with Israel. Paul joins Jeremiah in Galatians 4 to use this two-covenant theology as his hermeneutic for interpreting the Galatians to themselves, as well as his lens for reading the scriptures. For a scholarly treatment on this, see Del Hillers’ masterful work, “Covenant. The History of a Biblical Idea.” He traces 2 covenant paradigms in the Hebrew scriptures, the “old” one operating at Sinai and Shechem, with the “new” one – new because it offers forgiveness to sinners – on the scene in God’s transactions with David, Noah and Abraham.

[18] Well, what then comes “new” with Jesus? Answer: He is the fulfillment of both of God’s ancient covenants. He fulfills the old one (Sinai’s law) as he dies our sinner’s death on the cross, & he simultaneously fulfills the new one (new, that is, all the way back to Abraham) as he interprets his death on Maundy Thursday as the “blood of the new covenant shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” All of that, both covenants fulfilled, then gets ratified when God vindicates Jesus at Easter.

[19] This bi-covenantal perspective has resources for ethics which would help Benne make an even stronger case for Lutheran ethics in our day. He could do worse than learn from Paul and his “grace imperatives,” his replacing Moses as “ethical coach” with Christ as Lord and the Spirit as Leader, his insistence that Christians are not “free FOR the law,” but “free FROM the law.”

[20] But Benne takes a different route. In order to get more concrete ethical action he urges Lutherans to “say more about the Christian life, whether shaped by the Decalogue and/or the Spirit.” He surely knows that he’s here “joining together” what St. Paul urges kept “asunder.” Decalogue and Spirit are opposites in Paul’s ethics throughout his letters. Nowhere is the antithesis sharper than in Galatians (5:18 & 22). “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.” Concerning the “fruits of the Spirit, there is no law touching such things.” If however Decalogue and Spirit can be merged, then the Galatian Judaizers had it right, and Paul had it wrong.

[21] You wonder if Benne is desperate when he concludes: “Lutherans need a more specific notion of the Christian life if they are to respond to this chaotic world. They cannot do that by relying solely on justification.” Granted, he wrote this essay before the Lutheran Brotherhood survey appeared documenting that over half of U.S. Lutherans say that they do NOT rely on justification by faith at all. So much for over-reliance. As an astute observer of the Lutheran scene Benne doubtless had a hunch that this was so. So over-reliance on justification can hardly be afflicting Lutheran ethics.

[22] More serious, I’d say, is that too many Lutherans (Benne too?) view justification by faith alone [JBFA] as a doctrine, and not as a hermeneutic, the gospel’s own criterion, for both proclamation and ethics. We discussed that in ThTh essays earlier this summer, where Edward Kennedy, chief respondent of the Vatican to the “Joint [= Lutheran and Roman Catholic] Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” just couldn’t see how JBFA could be the criterion for all doctrine that claims to be Christian. One important doctrine, yes, but surely not criterion for the whole ball of wax, he opined. But if JBFA is indeed the gospel’s own criterion for doctrine, isn’t it also the criterion for what counts as Christian in ethics? I think that the Lutheran reformers thought so.

[23] More on that next time as we hook up the pericopes for Reformation Day with other essays in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics.

III. “The Promise of Lutheran Ethics – Back to the Decalogue?” (November 12, 1998)

[24] Three weeks ago (ThTh 23) I noted how frequently the essays in this volume claim the Ten Commandments as foundational for Lutheran ethics. For authors claiming to show the “promise” of Lutheran ethics, it comes as a surprise, I said, that God’s law gets so much hype. God’s promise doesn’t even come close to getting equal time. It figures in only one of the nine essays – and even there it’s emaciated.

[25] “Back to the decalogue” is the drumbeat of Reinhard Hütter’s chapter on “The Twofold Center of Lutheran Ethics.” The two centers he finds are “Christian Freedom and God’s Commandments,” he says. And even with these two, the second one finally steamrollers over the first in Hütter’s conclusion (curiously labeled “The End”): “Christian ethics in the tradition of the Reformation serves the remembrance of God’s commandments and the interpretation of . . . our world in the critical and wholesome light of God’s commandments. Christian ethics in the Reformation tradition should, of course, end with praise of God’s commandments.” What ever happened to “Christian Freedom” here at the end? What ever happened to the “Promise” of Lutheran Ethics? It sounds harsh to say so, but Hütter’s conclusion really is “the end” of the promise of Lutheran ethics.

[26] Wouldn’t it be more Lutheran to say something like this to sum it up? “Christian ethics in the Reformation tradition calls us to remember God’s promise and our freedom generated by faith in that promise. It calls us to interpret our world in the wholesome light of God’s promise, and to live our lives in promissory freedom dedicating ourselves to the care and redemption of all that God has made. Christian ethics in the Reformation tradition ends with doxology to God the Promisor, his Son the Promise in Person, and the Spirit who preserves us in union with both in the one true faith.” But that would be a completely different essay from the one we have here.

[27] In the 25-page “table talk,” an appendix to the book, the authors react to each other’s chapters. But nobody challenges Hütter’s doxology to the decalogue as the heart of Lutheran ethics. Makes you wonder who’s taking care of the store these days in Lutheran ethics in the USA.

[28] Now it could be – though I don’t believe it – that they didn’t catch what Hütter was saying, for his chapter is the “heaviest” essay in the entire volume. One respondent told me that it fried his brains. His chapter is not an easy read. Although he has been teaching in the US for a good long while, his English prose is still a tad too Teutonic, even for serious American readers. That half of his text is in the footnotes, and that his footnotes constitute 40% of all the footnotes in this entire nine-chapter book, signals his formative years in German university theology. I should know. I did my doctorate there umpteen years ago. Not only did I have to learn German to do it. That was a piece of cake compared to the tough task of doing Theologia Deutsch, viz., theologizing as Germans do.

[29] Not that that is necessarily bad – when you’re in Germany. But to transpose German theological rhetoric into American vocables, even doing so with flawless grammar (as far as I could tell), is not yet to do Theologia Americana. Hütter is having as tough a time communicating to American ears as I did (and still do) when I try to talk shop with Germans. But be that as it may, here’s what I think he says: The 2-fold center of Lutheran ethics is Christian freedom and God’s commandments. Hütter wants to correct the “deeply problematic [that’s German for “just plain wrong”] opposition that many allege exists between freedom and law.” His thesis is that “Christian ethics in the Augsburg Confession’s catholic tradition” links the freedom arising from justification by faith to God’s commandments. His thesis is: “Christian freedom is the embodiment of practicing God’s commandments as a way of life.”

[30] One reason Lutherans have seen freedom and law as antithetical is the “decisive core fallacy of modern Protestantism,” namely, a shared assumption about justification, that justification by faith alone [JBFA] is “a ceiling that has to cover everything instead of the very floor on which we stand.” So Hütter wants to rehabilitate God’s law, God’s commandments, for use in the justified Christian’s ethical life, and do so without losing the “floor” of JBFA. And while doing so he will show that this is what Luther and the Augsburg Confession wanted all the time.

[31] One reason Lutheran ethics got led astray, seeing freedom and law as antithetical, comes from the Luther renaissance of the last century, a Luther research tradition that unwittingly read Luther with Kantian presuppositions, and thus read him wrong. It was wrong-headed to accept Kant’s notion of human freedom as a person being “free from” all outside regulators ( agents of heteronomy), who then drew on moral reason to became a “moral agent” possessing freedom within. From that freedom within arose “moral maxims” (autonomy) that shaped ethical life. When scholars blended Kant with Luther, the Gospel was understood as that liberating power which creates this autonomously free moral agent. All the while external law, even God’s law, is viewed as the antithesis to the entire ethical venture. Its only “good” function is the “negative” one of accusing sinners and thus driving them to Christ, where freedom, law-free freedom, is born.

[32] Hütter sees three 20th century movements that have been at work to reverse the “fallacy” that freedom and law are antithetical. First is Karl Barth’s theology which “de-centered the moral subject,” thus counteracting the Kantian infection of ethical autonomy. The end of the line for Barth was the unification, not the opposition, of Gospel and Law. Second is a recent movement within Protestant ethics accentuating “virtue” and “character.” These accents show that “moral agents are much more complex realities than the mathematical points to which they had shrunk in the wake of Kantian ethics.” Third is a “broad movement” that locates “moral agents” in human communities and creation-linked contexts, thus undermining the rational abstraction of the Kantian heritage. To this Hütter adds a fourth corrective for the fallacy: his own reading of Luther that combats today’s ethical antinomianism [=no place for law whatsoever] whereby the Reformer is shown linking Christian freedom to God’s commandments in his own theological ethics.

[33] Allying himself to David Yeago’s work on Luther, Hütter unfolds his fundamentally Barthian view of Lutheran ethics. But it’s finally more Barth than Luther, and not “promising” enough to commend the “promise of Lutheran ethics.” And I say that not to tar him with a Barthian epithet, but to say it like it is, since my own doctoral work referred to above was on Barth. When Hütter concludes his Luther section (p. 45) by saying: “in fulfilling God’s commandments [sc. love God, love neighbor], the freedom of the Christian finds its concrete fulfillment,” he has stepped onto another floor than the JBFA “floor” he early on had claimed as “the very floor on which we stand.” How so?

[34] Though wanting to counteract the Kantian fallacy that he says has infected Lutheran ethics, Hütter sticks with Kant at a most fundamental point, namely, when he links freedom to the law. To describe Christian freedom as “freedom FOR the law” is Kant pure and simple. Au contraire Luther, and the NT where he saw it first – and not only in Paul – Christian freedom, the promissory kind, is “freedom FROM the law.” In the Gospel for Reformation Day (John 8) Jesus claims that “If the Son makes you free, you are really free.” Is Jesus talking about freedom from, or freedom for, the law? The context of his words makes it perfectly clear. The Judeans who challenge him are claiming “freedom for.” Jesus has the chutzpah to call that freedom slavery. To be “really free” is something else. It’s liberation from the slavery of “freedom for.”

[35] But won’t that lead to antinomianism and libertinism, doing whatever you damn well please? That is the spectre, I sense, that haunts Hütter. That’s why he cannot abide Christian freedom simply under the over-arching “ceiling” of JBFA. Remember that the A here = alone. That is too scary. So Hütter adds something to the “alone.” He pays his respects, he thinks, to the Reformation core by granting that JBFA is the “floor” for the house of ethics. Yet faith’s freedom needs a “Gestalt,” he says, some concrete specs to give it substance. Otherwise, as “mere” faith, faith alone, it lacks concrete substance. [Tell that to those who heard Jesus say: “Your faith has healed you.”] The commandments supply the “Gestalt . . . the shape and form of believers’ lives with God.” But, say the Reformers, when you add anything to the “alone” of JBF, you’re constructing a different building. So the commandment-house Hütter builds on what he claims is the JBFA floor really rests on an other foundation.

[36] That gets exposed when you use JBFA not simply as a doctrine, even a fundamental one, but as a criterion, a yardstick for assessing any proposal that claims to be Christian. Here JBFA sizes up such a commandment-house and detects some other flooring, some other foundation. New Testament ethical admonition summarizes the substance, the Gestalt, of Christian freedom as having Christ as master and being led by the Spirit. These Twin Managers are the ones who constitute “the shape and form of believers’ lives with God,” not the commandments at all. It is finally Christ and the Spirit that will not abide any add-on, even one so noble as the divine decalogue. To insist on “finishing” the house that began with JBFA flooring by using “Mosaic” materials is nothing less than laying another foundation. Is it even as bad as that house Jesus once described, the one built on sand? Could be.

[37] But what about all those imperative ethical statements, especially in the epistles of the NT, all those commands and commandments, even the “new” commandment coming from Jesus himself? Thought you’d never ask. Here too we need to bring in the Lutheran dipstick, this time formulated as the distinction between God’s law and God’s gospel. Are these admonitions “law imperatives” or “Gospel imperatives?” Especially when citing Luther as an ally for his commandment-house Hütter (and Yeago too) bypass this primal Lutheran distinction.

[38] The Gestalt of law imperatives and the Gestalt of gospel imperatives are as different as day and night – even though the verbs in both cases are all imperatives – do this, don’t do that. There are several elements to these differing Gestalts. Here’s just one for starters: The Gestalt of law commands is that they are inescapably marked by recompense. There are always consequences for the person who is commanded, good ones for obedience, bad ones for disobeying. The Gestalt of Gospel imperatives is that there are no consequences at all for the doer. It is always someone else – sometimes even God – who is the beneficiary when the command is obeyed, and someone else the loser when it isn’t.

[39] When Jesus gives his “new” commandment, it is really new. It is not Moses repeated. Christ’s new commandment has a brand new Gestalt, most significantly that he himself is both its fabric and its form, wine and wineskin. That was never the case with Moses’ commandments. Even if he didn’t exist, his commandments still could. Not so with the new commandment and its author. That’s another reason why the old commandments cannot be glued to the author and finisher of our faith. Faith’s freedom is so radically new, such theological Teflon, that Moses’ commandments simply cannot stick onto it.

[40] Next time more about grace-imperatives and promissory freedom.

IV. “The Promise of Lutheran Ethics – Law/Gospel Grammar” (November 19, 1998)

[41] [To continue the topic of Grace-imperatives (Gospel-imperatives) and Promissory Freedom, I may be borrowing some paragraphs once sent out as Sabbath Theology #18 back in 1996.]

[42] From my last couple of issues reviewing The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, it might appear to some of you that I’m on a vendetta against the law, even against the 10 commandments. Not so. If I do have a “cause,” it’s the ancient one central to the theology of the cross – and seldom advanced without conflict among Christians, namely, to keep Moses from usurping the role of Christ and his Spirit in the area of ethics. No one, above all in the Lutheran crowd, disputes the role of Christ in justification. But when sanctification (ethics) comes up, for some Christians Christ and his Spirit seem to be insufficient for getting the job done. So Moses and the decalogue in some form are invoked as add-ons to give substance – “Gestalt,” as Hütter says – to our lives under Christ’s Lordship and the Spirit’s leading.

[43] To say no to Hütter is not to be an anti-nomian, one who just says: Toss out the law! My proposal is that of Formula of Concord VI (1577): Keep the law on hand for that candidate who needs it, that Old Adam/Old Eve not yet mortified in every one of the baptized. But…(and that’s a big but) keep that law away from every “new creation” Christian. For the newness of that new creaturehood is Christ and his Spirit, who have supplanted the law in every primal relationship that we humans have according to Biblical anthropology. First of all Christ is in the middle (mediator) in our relationship to God. Few would dispute that. The same is true with our relationship to our own selves: Christ is in the center of my new view of me. Few would dispute that either.

[44] If Christ has undisputed claim in these two turfs, he cannot be displaced in our third primal relationship either, our relationship to the world and people, what we call ethics. To move Moses back in here for ethics inevitably requires Christ and his Spirit to move out. That’s the simple thesis of Paul to the Galatians: to evict Christ and his Spirit from any one of the three relationships is to evict them from all three. But if Christ did not die in vain, to use Paul’s language, then he claims the mediator role in all three. He is the end of the law for righteousness (our God-connection), and for how we see ourselves (faith), and for ethics (our relationships with others).

[45] There are some internal factors that diminish the law’s usefulness even if you did want to use it for ethics. To begin with eight of the ten commandments are negatives, telling you what NOT to do. So right from the outset they are skimpy resources for determining what to do. So I’m commanded not to commit adultery. But what resource is that in giving any positive “Gestalt” for my sexuality, chastity, celibacy or marriage?

[46] The Lutheran Reformers linked this negativity in the decalogue to their axiom “lex semper accusat.” The law always accuses. Said they: God’s commandment never addresses us as though we ourselves are in some neutral zone, and then, after having heard, can decide to follow it or not. Rather when God’s commandment addresses us, we’re already over the fence in forbidden territory, already off limits. So, said the reformers, here’s what the commandments say: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me – and you already have several.” “Thou shalt not kill…and you already have a murderous heart beating within you.” All the “shalt nots” are accusations of where sinners already are, of what they already are. The Reformers were not original in this. They heard Jesus doing it in the Sermon on the Mount when he preached on the commandments.

[47] The Reformers were serious students of God’s law. They called attention to its operative verb “require,” God requires this or that of the addressee in the “thou shalts.” By contrast the Gospel’s operative verb is “offer,” gift, freebie, no strings attached. The require verb always has strings. They show up in the “grammar” of law and the contrasting “grammar” of the Gospel. The grammar of law is always: “IF you (human) do such and so, THEN I (God) will do so and such.” Even when the word Jesus appears in such a sentence, the grammatical structure of “If/then” makes it law no matter what. That’s grammar we understand. It’s the normal grammar of human interactions day in and day out: “IF you will do that, THEN I will do this.” Fulfill this condition and I will “balance” it off with stuff of equal value.

[48] By contrast the grammar of Gospel is: “SINCE or BECAUSE God is doing, has done, such and so in Christ , THEREFORE you now do this or that.” “Since/therefore” is the pattern of Gospel-grounded ethical admonitions in the NT. It is the grammar of Grace-imperatives. They are all over in the epistles of the NT. Not only are individual “paranesis passages” (admonition sentences) framed in this Gospel grammar of “since/therefore.” Larger segments of the epistles are formatted that way. Look at the six chapters of Ephesians. Its three first chapters are SINCE/BECAUSE Gospel-indicatives. Then at 4:1 comes a big THEREFORE with three chapters of Grace-imperatives to follow. Check them out for yourself.

[49] The code words “since (or because) and therefore” are not always present in the texts. But the “logic” and “grammar” of the sentences are clearly grace-imperatives. “[Since] you were bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your bodies.” The clauses can be reversed, but the grammar does not change: “[Therefore] be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as [because] God in Christ has forgiven you.” Or again, “[Since] God was in Christ reconciling the world until himself, therefore we entreat you, be ye reconciled to God (and with each other).” “I appeal to you THEREFORE [after the Gospel-indicatives of the prior chapters], siblings, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice….”

[50] The Law always has the specific grammar of requirements – if/then – which renders it inescapably contrary to the Gospel’s grammar. So it becomes downright contradictory to use Law as resource for living the Gospel-life. In the very vocabulary of the Grace-imperatives, it is Christ and the Holy Spirit who so dominate that when I checked recently I couldn’t find even one reference to a decalog commandment as I re-read the admonition sections of the NT epistles. There may well be some that I missed. But even when it comes to stuff for which there is a clear “thou shalt not” commandment – murderous hatred, sexual immorality, theft, slander, coveting – the commandment is not invoked. Instead Christ is, and the ethical imperative, even when it is sharp as it often is, comes in the grammar of the Gospel. E.g., on the matter of prostitution in 1 Corinthians 6, there is no mention of the 6th commandment. Instead the apostle’s ethical speech is: “Since you are one-flesh with Christ, since your body is the Holy Spirit’s temple, therefore stop fornicating.”

[51] One significant place where Paul does speak of the “covet” commandment, he does not use it for ethics, but with its accusatory function in his own biography. “I would not have known sin,” he says, “if the law had not said ‘Don’t covet.'” What Paul must mean, I think, is that his big coveting was coveting righteousness. When Christ’s offer of righteousness finally came through to him (Damascus ff.) his coveting of righteousness, the law’s kind, was uncovered as the essence of sin. He’d been coveting required righteousness all along, when one day it came to him as an offered gift.

[52] There may be ethical passages in the NT that show up as “if/then” in English translation, and possibly even in the original language. Even so, what’s needed is to check the theological grammar, the logic of the parts, and the operational verbs to see if it’s require or offer.

[53] What’s new about Christ’s “new ” commandment for ethics, “Love one another, as [because, since] I have loved you” is that it’s different from Moses, even the summary of Moses with the word “love” at the center: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

[54] The word “you” and the verb “love” in the new commandment is always in the plural. You can’t see that in the English translations where “you” and the verb “love” can be both singular and plural. But in every instance in the NT the “one another” imperatives are such plurals. That signals that they are inner-community imperatives: “Y’all do love to each other.” It’s “ping-pong” back-and-forth loving. Lots of folks are playing the game at the same time. Not so Moses. His is a singular imperative just telling each of us to do love to the neighbor. But is that any big deal? Well, hang on.

[55] The imperative for us to do this loving comes as second in the sequence. It’s framed in Gospel-grammar. Since Christ has loved us, therefore we are mandated to ping-pong this love with each other. Not so Moses. His command is a requirement without a prior indicative about God, or from God. The “Love God” commandment often paired with Moses’ neighbor commandment is equally unilateral and without a prior “since” on God’s part.

[56] The communitarian aspect of ping-pong loving is the consequence of each of the ping-pong players first having been receivers of the love of Christ. It is that individual reception of Christ’s “ping” of love, that puts each of us in the community, now under the imperative to “pong” the same to others also in the game. We are not isolated players, but ones joined to Christ and “therefore” joined to each other in the game. There is no such community factor written into the very fabric of Moses’ love commandment.

[57] Finally the criterion for the loving is brand new. “As I have loved you,” namely, all the way to the cross, is not only new, it’s as different from “as you love yourself” as day is from night.

[58] ‘Nuff for now. D.v., see you in a fortnight.

See Karen Bloomquist’s response to reviews of The Promise of Lutheran Ethics.
See John Stumme’s response to reviews of The Promise of Lutheran Ethics.