Not Radical Enough – the Problem with Radical Lutherans like Gerhard Forde

21 Nov

“Without [faith in Christ], the law always accuses us” -- Philip Melanchthon, 16th century Lutheran confessor.

“Without [faith in Christ], the law always accuses us” — Philip Melanchthon, 16th century Lutheran confessor.

“For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. — Galatians 5:17

I’ve been doing a bunch of posts about  “The Third Use of the Law”.  Here is what we might call part I and part II.  This would be part III.

A couple years ago, on Gene Veith’s blog, I came across this fine quote from the man who carries the torch of the Father of Radical Lutheranism, Gerhard Forde – the ELCA Lutheran theologian Steven D. Paulson.  From the following, you can get a sense of what is appealing – and right! – about the “Radical Lutheran’s” outlook:

`I forgive you’… Luther taught and demonstrated that these simple words give absolute, indubitable certainty, and no one is more dangerous than a person who is certain. The certainty was not based on human self-certainty; it was the opposite of that. It was the certainty of forgiveness because of what the Son of God did by taking the sins of the world upon himself and defeating them at the cross… (p. 7)

Amen to that!  But he then goes on to say:

“…The decisive cosmic battle of God against sin, death, and devil was already waged and won when Christ was raised from the dead to make a new kingdom of people who live with no law, have nowhere to go, and nothing to accomplish. They were simply–free.” (7)

When I first wrote a piece on this called Dangerous children: to the world or to the word? a few years ago – in a post the Lutheran pastor Paul McCain was kind enough to pick up and re-publish – (see here and here) I said this: “I believe that we as God’s children are free indeed – to play and otherwise, but does this strike you as somehow a bit off?” 

For more explanation see here.

For more explanation see here.

It is.  The problem – other than the fact that it presents a more “theologically-liberal-friendly” and “hi-jack-able” view of Lutheranism* – is that it really ignores the concrete realities of the two natures of the Christian: the old man and the new man, each with their own separate – and battling – wills.  The old, unredeemed will, infected by sin as well as the will of the new creature in Christ, ever looking to Christ for all things – pardon, power, sanctification, etc.

Battling wills – what can it mean?  Two natures in the Christian?**  This is quite radical stuff!  Who can understand it?  How can our reason – or even the categories provided by philosophy – begin to accurately capture this divinely revealed reality?  And yet, in order that we might understand our situation as we must – and receive the corresponding medicine and help from God that we need – it is critical that we pay attention to the vivid and concrete language of the Scriptures.

Just like the Scriptures, I am particularly keen to see how all of this plays out on the ground, in our Christian lives (we rightly love Romans 7 but dare not isolate it from its wider context!).  I agree that the law can accuse while it instructs – or even that it can accuse while it is delighted in! – but then what happens when it comes to the Christian’s action?  What next really?  Of course in the midst of real life, we do not focus on God’s law and gospel in an abstract manner – or at least should not.  It is meant to not only accuse, but to be obeyed, period.

A = justification ; B = sanctification.  Thanks for the illustration Dr. Rosenbladt.

A = justification ; B = sanctification. Thanks for the illustration Dr. Rosenbladt.

I think the issue is that as regards the doctrine of justification (always to be kept separate in column A!) we go to the simul: 100% sinner and 100% saint.  In order to give certainty to those with terrified consciences, this doctrine is particularly critical.  On the other hand, as regards our active sanctification (which can be distinguished from the passive sanctification which accompanies justification in time), we go to the partim: we are partially sinner and partially saint, and the saint part in us is to increase in this life.  Here, we are talking about how there is really, somehow, a changed nature and will in the believer and this thing the FC calls the “inchoate righteousness” (see SD III, 23 and 32 – its like the two natures of Christ where there are two wills!) – and the battle is on… (to see more of this in Luther’s Galatians commentary, see what Trent Demarest has posted here).

In my recent posts about Jack Kilcrease’s view of the third use of the law, I think the problems of theologies influenced by Forde – where the partim is, in effect, made irrelevant to the discussion – become ever more clear.  Dr. Kilcrease goes so far as to say that:

“In all fairness to Forde… certain interpretations of the third use of the law made since the Reformation have described it as non-threatening and even pleasant.  If Forde means to take aims at those formulations, then, in light of the confessional understanding of the law, he is certainly correct to do so.”

(Jack Kilcrease, “Gerhard’s Forde’s Doctrine of the Law: A Confessional Lutheran Critique,” Concordia Theological Quarterly Volume 75:1-2 (2011): 174, bold mine).

Pastor Bill Cwirla: “You can only say you’re weak on sanctification if you view sanctification as your work.”  Not necessarily... (see conversation here)

Pastor Bill Cwirla: “You can only say you’re weak on sanctification if you view sanctification as your work.” Not necessarily… (see conversation here)

On the contrary, he certainly is not.  Sin decreases in maturing Christians as, driven by Christ and His Spirit, they eagerly seek the means of grace and strive in – not by – God’s Law.  They may not detect progress themselves (I John) – instead becoming ever more aware of their sin (I John 3:19-24 – whew!)  But at the same time their love for God’s law and its truth, goodness, and pleasantness nonetheless increases – along with, importantly, their thankfulness to Christ for fulfilling it in His life and death, silencing its threats against the sin that will remain until death (because, as Pastor Weedon reminds us, on the death bed, Satan will attempt to “play the tape” and get us to end in despair).

There is indeed something new in the Christian that, by nature, cooperates with the Holy Spirit of God in doing good.  While old Adam needs to be kept in check and dragged along in good works, the “new man” is not only passive in receiving God’s gifts but actively delights in the beauty of God’s law and delights in doing it as well.  This is why Martin Chemnitz, in the FC II makes a distinction between the state of man’s will before regeneration and after. FC VI distinguishes between the regenerated part of man and the unregenerated part of man.

Again, this is the partim which Radical Lutheranism feels no need to substantially address.   Not radical enough, it cannot bear what seems to be like a duality of nature, a duality of substance, a duality of essence, a duality of being… what we might call today a dual “ontological reality”…  Note that modern and “respectable” thinkers shun both substances and “dualisms” whenever possible.***

"Make duty a pleasure".

“Make duty a pleasure”.

So the Law always accuses… But.  Yes, I said “but”.  Christian maturity demands that we say more.

Philip Melanchton did say more (in Ap. IV, 167).  In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession for example, here is what he says:

When this keeping of the law and obedience to the law is perfect, it is indeed righteousness; but in us it is weak and impure. Therefore it does not please God for its own sake, and it is not acceptable for its own sake. From what we have said it is clear that justification does not mean merely the beginning of our renewal, but the reconciliation by which we are later accepted. Nevertheless, it is more clearly evident now that this incipient keeping of the law does not justify, because it is accepted only on account of faith. We must not trust that we are accounted righteous before God by our own perfection and keeping of the law, but only because of Christ. … All the Scriptures and the church proclaim that the law cannot be satisfied. The incipient keeping of the law does not please God for its own sake, but for the sake of faith in Christ. Without this, the law always accuses us. For who loves or fears God enough? Who endures patiently enough the afflictions that God sends? Who does not often wonder whether history is governed by God’s counsels or by chance? Who does not often doubt whether God hears him? Who does not often complain because the wicked have better luck than the devout, because the wicked persecute the devout? Who lives up to the requirements of his calling? Who loves his neighbor as himself? Who is not tempted by lust?  (Ap. IV, 160-161, 166-167)

Read those italicized and bolded remarks a few times over. 

Not radical enough.

Not radical enough.

We recognize that we, the baptized, have been forgiven in Christ and continue to be forgiven in Christ – and this gives us the motivation to call on the Holy Spirit, Christ’s Spirit, for power and strength as we seek to drive out our old Adam and his sin more and more.  How?  Through seeking out the means of grace and living by the full counsel of God, which means in part, living in, not by, the Law.

Luther is very clear on this exact matter – none of our current confusion would have caught him off guard.  In this case, at least, there is nothing new under the sun.

“On account of the Old Adam we are also baptized for repentance.  We must constantly repent; we must constantly mortify our flesh.  That is, we must continually mend our evil ways and be cleansed and at the same time always hope for that forgiveness that we now have.  When we are baptized and believe in Christ, we do all this…. Christ wants to say: ‘I baptize and call you to repentance.  But at the same time I confer on you the spiritual fire, that is, the Holy Spirit, so that you live under the forgiveness of sins, repenting daily and purging and cleansing the evil flesh, which strives against the Spirit’” (LW, 22, 179-180).


[The Lord’s Supper]…nourishes and strengthens the new creature…[it] is given as a daily food and sustenance so that our faith may be refreshed and strengthened and that it may not succumb in the struggle but become stronger and stronger. For the new life should be one that continually develops and progresses.  But it has to suffer a great deal of opposition…” (LC, Part V)


*To not have expectations of a person certainly could sound like love to the world – especially today’s world – but insofar as we are new creations in Christ we certainly know that this is actually rather disinterest, lack of concern, and lack of love.

**“The reason why seemingly contradictory statements are often made in the Bible about Christians is due to the Christians two-fold nature. The simple fact is that within each Christian two natures constantly oppose each other. “The flesh wars against the spirit and the spirit wars against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17) — end of chapter 1 of “On Christian freedom”

***a notable exception is this quote from Hans Ulrich Bumbrecht, professor of Romance languages at Stanford University, from his 2004 book “Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey”:

What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”.  To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become anonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves.  We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot (bold mine, quoted in Armin Wenz, Biblical Hermeneutics in a Postmodern World: Sacramental Hermeneutics versus Spiritualistic Constructivism, LOGIA, 2013)

As I noted in the past: “In other words, almost no one today in the academic world is a “substantialist”, or we might say “essentialist” –  to suggest that there are things in the cosmos that have firm categories of being, or essence, or substance, is anathema, for the universe is in flux.  To suggest that some of these things have an objective meaning or purpose we can discern takes even greater hutzpa.  Now, it is likely that some in the fields of the humanities see what has become their arch-nemesis, science, as being “essentialist”, however one notes the primacy (and difficulty) of interpretation in the modern sciences as well: to speak of essences is to speak of atomic particles, and not things we regularly see and experience in the cosmos, like males and females, and marriages and children, for example.  More importantly, the particles and assemblies of particles might “mean something” in a purely material sense – showing themselves to have a certain order and predictability – but a greater purpose in those things that contain them can only be a total mystery (I talked about the despair this creates here).”

Here, perhaps we should think about the English in the Small Catechism (“What does this mean?”) as opposed to the German (“What is this?”).

If we don’t treat the work that Christ does in us to produce a new nature with a new will with a new righteousness as a real in the Christian, is there, literally, any substance to what we are talking about?  How would this not be more appealing to persons who would like to, on the concrete ground, change the church’s moral teachings?

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Posted by on November 21, 2014 in Uncategorized


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