Preface to updated post:
This post originally was published on September 24, 2020. At the time, I did the review on the first edition of this book from 2004. Since that time I have now read the later 2015 edition. The text below is mostly the same with a couple textual additions and all of the page numbers from the original review have been updated to reflect the 2015 edition. As I suspected, none of the problems that I identified and dealt with in the original edition were corrected in the 2015 edition. One can only hope and pray that the book will be substantially revised if a new edition is in the works.
Better yet, one can hope, pray, and work so that Dr. Pless — who has also strongly supported ELCA theologian Steve Paulson — will be relieved of his duties at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne (fortunately, another one of the “big brains” behind the now infamous 2023 Large Cataclysm, Jack Kilcrease, is not teaching there). While I know this sounds harsh, I am also confident he can find other good work and know his family will be provided for.
This is a deathly serious spiritual matter. Pless’s friend Steve Paulson — in talking about his friend the late James Nestingen — said that at some point the “pious” would come for persons like him. When I tried to be generous to Paulson — leaving his name off of blog posts critiquing and asking questions about his theology — and asked him if he could explain his teaching in more detail, Paulson personally called me [Johann] Eck (one of Luther’s main theological opponents).
Make no mistake about it: Pless and Paulson certainly consider themselves pious Lutherans in their own way — and with this edition of the “Large Catechism” (Cataclysm) they came for you.
They started the fire. Let’s be dead clear about that.
Here’s the updated review:
We all expect our most respected professors to be very well-read individuals and fluent in their disciplines. The Fort Wayne theology professor John Pless, however, goes beyond even this expectation and has a reputation for encouraging his students to read some of the most creative and unconventional minds in academic theology, particularly Lutheran academic theology. And how many professors do you know who can admit to having a Facebook groups dedicated to them like “Theological works of Professor John T. Pless” or “Would would Pless read”? (you know, playfully imitating the “WWJD” fad of the early 2000s).
And this, to be sure, has its merits…. For example, even though I have not read Oswald Bayer’s book Promissio (I think it is only in German now), as best I understand it, his thesis about confession and absolution being the heart of the Reformation[i] is essentially correct even if it is not wholly in line with the traditional story that has been told…
Long live the Reformation!
That said, my reaction to the book I’m reviewing in this article is pretty much the opposite. And, interestingly, although this was not the intention (this was written weeks ago), the criticisms made of Dr. Pless’ book below can also basically be applied across the board to the latest Thinking Fellows podcast, entitled, “The Telos of the Law”.
Of course, it is not possible that John Pless’ 2015 book Handling the Word of Truth – making the effort as it does to sum up C.F.W. Walther’s greatest work – could be all bad. Indeed, there is much in this book that I found edifying (more of this at the end of the review). Nevertheless, in reading it I also came across a number of things which concerned me at best and caused me to cringe at worst.
For instance, we learn that the law cannot be presented as good news in preaching (36, 65) and, it seems, offers no hope or sweetness in any context (53, 54). In spite of Walther himself (“We do not by any means reject cooperation on the part of man after his regeneration; we rather urge it upon him lest he die again and incur the danger of being lost forever…”) — the man whose great work this book is summarizing — cooperation in sanctification also dare not be talked about without damaging Christian proclamation (68).
And while it is true that the law must sometimes be abandoned completely (38), Dr. Pless’ explanations fall short of Luther’s full understanding of this. As Luther makes abundantly clear in the Antinomian Disputations, the law must be abandoned completely when the Christian’s conscience is under vicious attack from the law of God as wielded by Satan, who does this specifically in order destroy our souls. In addition, the good Dr. never talks about the kinds of attacks weak and poorly-formed consciences might undergo from popular man-made expectations that are contrary to God’s law (is this because, as Radical Lutherans like to imply or assert, no one person or people, at bottom, is an antinomian?[ii]). In fact – in statements which carry particular weight in the dark days we are experiencing today – Pless insists that the Bible teaches that knowledge of the Ten Commandments would only make things worse for public morality, not better (29, though see 45 as well). “Why though,” one might ask, “say this if ‘without the true God, man will always attempt to create a substitute deity’”? (47) Is it because, in spite of the fact that “virtues may be praiseworthy and beneficial when it comes to life in human community,” (96) God has no desire for the nations to deeply study, understand, and learn His law? (also, does the specific public religion make any difference when it comes to how a people lives? One is left wondering…)
The book also talks about just how very different the Law and Gospel are: the “clash” between Law and Gospel “puts faith itself on trial,” causing us to wonder if there is something we must do if we are to have peace with God (40). At the same time, just because the uses of Law and Gospel by some might put Christian faith on trial in this particular way (hint: see above paragraph), does this mean that this is God’s intent for the doctrines (Pless himself also gets close to saying that this is not God’s intent, but does not quite get there — see page 38)? In the end, for the author of this book, the only change the law can work in us is death. If Christ is not the end of the law – not the end of the law for righteousness, as Luther taught – the law will lead either to a pride or despair focused on external works – the “Turk’s faith”… (25, see also 56-57).
In Handling the Word of Truth one gets the impression that the law’s only function is, in Sartre-esque fashion, to “post a ‘No Exit’ sign over every doorway we go through to try and meet God on our own terms” (48). And so what then would be the theological implication of the things we have spoken about above when it comes to preaching? It seems that the only way a Christian can learn from the law is that he is to die or must, somehow, learn to die… Even if Luther and Walther might have spoken of times where it is appropriate to attenuate the law for believers or even encourage them to do God’s commandments, the author repeatedly states, in a number of ways, the following: “[u]nrelenting in its demand, the Law can only make sin manifest for what it is and crush the sinner with its death sentence” (58). Faith in the Gospel, however, frees us from the ongoing death that is our own self-justification (66)….
In sum then, one is left with the distinct impression that if the Christian is ever being told to do something it is necessarily because he is a self-justifying sinner (perhaps I, holding the contrary view, am addicted to “lawfulness” !) and he needs to be put to death (he can’t, after all, no matter how good he is, do anything perfectly). To complicate these matters all the more, we are not only given the impression that the law merely “imposes itself ‘out of the conditions of creaturely life’” as James Nestingen says (55), but also that the moral teachings of all non-Christian religions are essentially the same (see 29 ; see 92 as well though). Of course this is hardly true, for it is clear that the law was given Israel to proclaim the identity of the only true God whom all men are called to worship.
Speaking of matters of identity, it is good and necessary to know the Christian Gospel in its narrow sense, where Christ’s death and resurrection frees us from sin, death, and the devil and “gives… rest in Christ” (49). At the same time, the Formula of Concord also speaks about the Gospel in the wider sense, and here it no doubt helps us to understand ever more deeply whose we are and what we are called to do as children of the household of God (see FC SD V:5 and the Small Catechism: “That I may be his own…”). So there is a real connection here with the law: the first table of the Law commands us to do something of the first importance… fear, love, and trust the one true God. One cannot help but think about the implications of this vis a vis Pless’ assertion on page 87 that faith can never be described as “our commitment, duty, decision…”. Why, specifically? Would that perhaps introduce the sin of people “motivated by the Gospel” (53) and a “theology of glory” (96)? For the author, “[w]hat law requires is freedom from the law” (quoting Leif Grane approvingly, 58). And yet, if freedom is “found only in the Law-free Gospel of Jesus Christ” (58), how are we to also ponder God’s law as “the perfect law of liberty”? (see the book of James).
I should add at this point that one of the consequences of the author’s approach seems to be one of the very things he warns about happening actually happening: “When antinomians ancient or modern try to make the Law go away by theological quackery, they only succeed in relocating the Law. They end up inserting it into the Gospel” (62, see also 94). I see this among many of those who appreciate and follow Dr. Pless. For example, it is thought by some that the new law Christ gives — “love one another as I have loved you” — really does differ from what the 10 commandments mean to get at in some very significant ways!
Not long ago, I heard a highly intelligent pastor (this is Pastor John Drosendahl, who told me to feel free to use his name here) who appreciates the good doctor say: “…if my member according to their new self desires good works, I’ll direct them to ask [‘Is this the loving/caring thing to do?’] so that they will realize that the Gospel alone produces good works.” First of all, this is better than the response I once heard from another highly intelligent Pless-following Confessional Lutheran pastor, basically “If someone is wanting help from me to become a better father or husband, for example, I know I am dealing with someone who is trying to save himself.” Second, my response to the pastor’s claim that this will make the member realize the Gospel alone produces good works is “Why would helping them to say ‘Is this the loving/caring thing to do?’ necessarily cause them to realize this?” I cannot understand why this distinction – this different way of saying what is in fact the same thing (Luther’s explanation of the commandments in the Small Catechism!) – is somehow the thing that pastors should be doing. What I think this pastor does not see is that this could be just as much a word of condemning law as simply urging someone to do their duty (the loving thing) by saying “God commands this [because he loves you and them].” The pastor says “…our attempts to ‘follow God’s commands’ do not result in doing the loving thing,” but that just is not necessarily the case. For instance Adam, in the Garden, didn’t need to ask himself the question about the “loving/caring” thing. Adam just needed to recognize that God was love, loved him, and desired him to follow His commandment for his and Eve’s own good for that very reason. And, as Luther says, the Tree was meant to increase Adam’s knowledge about God’s loving will.
Regarding this confusion about Jesus’ new commandment, my pastor talked to me about this years ago:
“Jesus said that He was giving the disciples a new commandment. First of all, why would they need a commandment? Secondly, is the new commandment for them to love? Well, if it is to love, than how is it new? Certainly the 10 commandments requires such love, as Jesus Himself taught. So it just must be that the love the disciples were to express had been modeled by Jesus, and so what was new, was that the love they were to express would be expressed by imitating Jesus.
So: Jesus fulfilled the law; the disciples imitated Jesus. In other words, the law was fulfilled by imitating Jesus who fulfilled the law.
But if there is no third use [of the law], then love must somehow be juxtaposed over against the law. So: either follow the commandments (the law) OR be loving…”
In other words, if there is no third use — or the third use is just the first or second use applied to the Christian — then the door is open for love to somehow be juxtaposed over against the law (because law which forces compliance might serve a salutary function in keeping order and peace without true justice which goes hand in hand with love)… Perhaps, in the end Jesus is *justly accused* as a violator of God’s own law so that all sinners may have assurance of eternal life? (Forde) In violating the law, for example, Jesus Christ is actually being faithful to his Father’s mission to save the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 10:6) and those from the other sheep pen? Think, for example, how Jesus *presumably* breaks the Law by, for example, dining with sinners! See what is happening here? Or, at least, how the door is opened up for this to happen?
What to make of all this? I’ll give you my own view. Many of the men whom John Pless touts like Bayer, Paulson, Forde, and Elert — and who it appears he has at times publicly touted without any warning or reservation – also reject the 3rd use of the law. For folks like me – who believe that a denial of the true definition and intention of any use of the law is a denial of the whole law – this is serious business.
Dr. Pless, as best I can tell, basically agrees with the substance of the critique of these men, which appears to be what he means when he talks about the “so-called third use of the law.” It is unclear, in my mind, for example, how his position would differ substantially from that of John Hoyum, who, I believe is more or less defending the Confessional Lutheran status quo when he states:
“Confessional Lutherans more positively disposed to the Formula of Concord (FC) than [Gerhard] Forde was might be more inclined to retain the category of the law’s third use. Even so, Forde’s rejection of the third use need not be especially upsetting at this point, since he affirmed that the law is used with regard to the old creature still captive to sin. In no way did he deny that the Ten Commandments are normative for the conduct of the Christian….while Forde rejects the FC’s designation of a third use, he upholds the position of the concordists and Luther’s antinomian disputations in specifying that the law must be applied to Christians who struggle against the old nature that remains bound in sin. Even while Forde disagrees with the decision to identify––in a titular sense––a third use of the law, it would be hard to demonstrate that Forde’s teachings on the law contradict the actual doctrinal content of FC VI. Forde’s criticisms of the development of the lex aeterna in later Lutheranism are fair game, and remain a convincing indictment of much orthodox Lutheranism and how it went on to deploy the doctrine of the law after the period of reform––regardless of how else that episode of Lutheran history might be rightly admired…”
I know I can’t be the only one who finds this kind of thinking to be both confusing and tragic. What if someone in the Confessional Lutheran house spoke about the “so-called doctrine of justification” — you could bet that every head would turn!
To me, it seems as if many among us are incapable of reading Paul’s epistles and Luther’s sermons at face value, even as they look askance at those who would attempt to sound like them today! I can’t emphasize how important I think this kind of shift really is, and Hoyum, at least, tips his hand about what he thinks this means vis a vis the LCMS: “[with Forde] a refreshing alternative to a fundamentalist construal of inerrancy comes into view…”[iii]
One final issue to address directly here: a common complaint is that Confessional Lutherans like me say people should not read teachers who speak error. I will heartily admit that recently I did stop listening to Steve Paulson, for the sake of my own soul. That said, overall that is really an unfair accusation, and strikes me as more of a rhetorical move which ignores the truth of the matter. I will again assert that there is much in Pless that is interesting, good and edifying (most all the stuff that is not in this blog post, especially all the quotes from the Bible, Luther, Walther, the Confessions, and Bo Giertz that I am not sharing…) – and he is far more careful in the way he talks about Law and Gospel as it relates to the content of the Bible as a whole than men like Forde and Paulson (see 38). I especially appreciate and take seriously the warning of Craig Parton that he quotes on page 74 about how the Christian continues to need to hear the narrowly preached Gospel (forgiveness, life and salvation in Jesus Christ for you!) his entire life. This is indeed the great treasure that Luther and those following in his train preserved and delivered more clearly than ever before in the church’s history! (the chapter “Looking in All the Wrong Places,” by the way, along with the appendix [one of Luther’s sermons] is the best and most edifying part of the book).
That said, I find the book to be severely deficient on several fronts. If it is not clear from what has already been written above, consider the following: First, as Walther says, “’What he said was the truth,’ and yet you do not feel satisfied” (quoted on 36): the problem is often not what is said, but what is left unsaid (for example, how did Luther treat passages like Romans 5:20 about the law causing sin to abound? – see 92 ; didn’t Walther also talk about the “true visible church”? – see 108). And this brings me to my second reason. As a friend recently put it in a conversation we were having:
“If the Lutheran Confessions are the apex of Luther, and Lutheranism is the apex of Scripture, then what else do we judge the Confessions on but Scripture? If we must read the Confessions in the light of Luther, and Luther in the light of Scripture, then we must read the Confessions in the light of Scripture as the source of Truth.”
And if that is true for the Confessions – and it is (though how many in the Confessional Lutheran world today could even articulate this?) – how much more so for teachers like John Pless!
Update: An earlier version of this post had a caption under the picture of the book. That quote did not belong there, as it was from a previous post that made use of the quote in a different context.
Update 2: A sentence in the above review has been changed above to increase clarity. From “which, interestingly, Pless gets close to saying given his comments on page 23” to, instead: “Pless himself also gets close to saying that this is not God’s intent, but does not quite get there — see page 23”
[i] Steve Paulson also notes this in the interest of promoting his own work and ideas. See the Outlaw God podcast as well as my own critiques of Paulson’s theology.
[ii] Note, for example, what John Hoyum says about American culture and ask what this necessarily has to do with God’s law: “I myself am highly skeptical that the ideology of modern, western liberalism is especially antinomian. Indeed, it represents a ruthlessly legalistic construal of human life in terms economic performance, the security of the self against death in a technologically reshaped world, and the chaotic embrace of alternative sexual moralities (not the rejection of sexual morality altogether).” https://thejaggedword.com/2020/07/23/on-radical-lutheranism/