The Proper Place of the Law: What of Antinomianism?

In the debates over human sexuality and the related discussions, the charge is frequently made by conservatives and traditionalists that the ELCA has drifted into antinomianism (rejecting the law). That charge has been unsurprisingly leveled once again by Robert Benne in the winter 2009 edition of Lutheran Forum in an essay titled “The Hazards of Lutheran Distinctives.” Benne suggests we’ve become too fixated on the doctrine of justification, even calling it an “almost monomaniacal focus” on that central tenant of Lutheranism. In the process he again brings up the idea that the ELCA is awash in antinomianism. (See Ed Schroeder’s response to Benne for both that useful response and the text of Benne’s essay. Schroeder’s article is here.)

This claim of antinomianism is common and deserves some attention, not because it is generally correct, but because I believe the claim is misplaced. How it is misplaced shows a significant theological problem in my estimation. The claim, it seems to me, is rooted in a mistaken understanding of the law, and a rather fundamental one at that.

The Uses of the Law

It is my contention that the charge of antinomianism involves a confusion about the uses of the law. Lutheran tradition speaks of two (or, for some, three) uses of the law. The first use of the law, sometimes known as the “civil” use, is the law which orders our life in community. Sometimes it is described as restraining evil, but I think that’s too narrow and negative a description. Its purpose is not only to keep us from doing harm to ourselves and others. The first use is present to make life in human community possible, and even to allow that life to thrive. Giving order instead of simply restraining evil, this law use is as much a blessing as it is a burden. When boiled down to its essence, it is nothing other than the law we use in any given time and place to bring order to our society.

The first of several errors, in my estimation, occurs here. This use is often posited to be a sort of divine decree giving a universal moral code for all people of all times and all places. Yet, you may have noticed, Christians do not generally follow the commands of the Torah or keep kosher. To ascribe the meaning of the first use of the law as a divinely presented universal moral code somehow requires a slight of hand. Given that the biblical texts contain many provisions that Christians have long regarded as not binding on our lives, somehow there needs to be a method of distinguishing the specific laws given for the Israelites from that supposed moral decree for the order of the universe contained therein. It is relatively rare that clear methods for doing so are presented, at least not convincingly, and especially not in the recent and ongoing debates over human sexuality. Luther is correct. Moses is dead. The specifics of the Torah are meant for the Israelites of ancient times. But that hardly means that the first use of the law has no import for us. We still need order so that life may thrive in human community, and we can even see it as a blessing.

The second use of the law, or the “theological” use, is that which shows us our sin. This is the law use that always accuses and which drives us to Christ, which shows us that we cannot live perfectly or earn salvation by our own merits. This is the law that shows us we cannot measure up, that we cannot help but to miss the mark. In short, it tells us we are sinners, broken, and in the grip of death.

Here, too, one finds another error in the construal of many traditionalists in the ELCA and elsewhere. While the law does show us our sin by showing us our particular sins, the ultimate point is not about our sins, but to show us our sinfulness, our sin (singular). There can easily become a fixation on particular sins or the supposed need of particular sins to be called out by the law. But that is a means, not an end; a means to showing us the need for Christ because of our sinfulness. The point is not about sins but sin. For it is the power of sin that the gospel of Christ addresses. We are saved from our sin, not our sins, for the former is our illness and the later its symptoms. The ability of the law to do its work is not dependent on a full list that some might include and somehow diminished or absent if someone’s list of sins might be smaller than another’s. (And, indeed, counting such a list is a bit beside the point.) We all have plenty of sins for the law to work with in order to show us our sin (singular).

Law Reductionism

That which gets labeled as antinomianism isn’t a rejection of the law, but an understanding of the law’s function as something else than a divine dictate about what is moral or what is not. It can be antinomian only if the purpose of the law gets reduced to simply providing a set and eternal moral code. But this doesn’t comport with either of the uses of the law. As noted above, the second use is very much the counterpart of the gospel, showing us our need for Christ’s grace and mercy because we always fall short.  The first use brings order to life so that human communities and individuals within them can thrive. Neither of these include the kind of use for the law that those making accusations of antinomianism seem to suppose.  A view of the law as divinely dictated moral code also has problems because it requires a selective application of the Torah as moral requirement.

Put another way, this labeling confuses antinomianism with a rejection of moralism. If anything, the most wide-spread problem in our contemporary situation is not, in fact, antinomianism (although, one can almost certainly find a few actual antinomians in the church), but a tendency toward moralism. (This will be found both in the form of familiar conservative moralizing and in the influence of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (link is to a PDF file) in the practice and outlook of both individuals and Christian communities. It seems to me that many conservative critics of liberal Christianity often confuse liberal Christianity for a pernicious Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is quite different, even if Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has many connections with a secularly liberalism of one sort or another and if many in the church are significantly influenced by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  It should be noted that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism cannot be identified with either liberal or conservative social and political outlooks, but is found across such spectrums.) It doesn’t help that self-proclaimed traditionalists and conservatives put forth, often in the guise of defenders of the Lutheran tradition, a version of the the law that reduces the law to moralist dimensions. Perhaps we could call this law reductionism.

Law reductionism blunts the law and contorts its purposes. It turns the second use into a moralist’s harangue. It easily turns the shades of gray in day-to-day ethical decision making into black and white moral absolutism. And while the law rightly calls us to account for individual actions that hurt others or ourselves and break our relationships with God and other human beings, law reductionism lets its attention to such particularities obscure the way the law points us to the real illness of the human condition. It also diverts the first use of the law, turning it into something that so easily gets wielded as a club against specific behaviors. It obscures its positive side and the ways in which it can be a blessing quite apart from the dynamics of eternal reward and punishment (to which the first use properly has no connection). The first use need not and should not be filled with dread or questions of ultimate fate, but law reductionism pushes it in that very direction.

Most importantly, it is at odds with the core of the Lutheran confession of faith: the gift of Christ is life to all who trust his promise an in no way a result of the individual sinners efforts. This doesn’t suggest that moral life and ethical behavior is somehow foreign to the Lutheran tradition. By no means! The law’s use, as noted above, needs to be preserved. We are also certainly called to live as disciples of Christ. But pushing the uses of the law out of whack and into moralist directions makes it harder to grasp the central insight of the Lutheran Reformation. Perhaps this principle’s most familiar statements, and one of the clearest, is to be found in the Small Catechism and the meaning of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true faith. In the same way he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church day after day he fully forgives my sins and the sins of all believers. On the last day he will raise me and all the dead and give me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.

Wrong Target, Inadequate Solution

Benne, like so many of his fellow travelers, focuses on sins not on sin. But in so doing, he diminishes both the problem of our sinfulness and the scope and value of the cure we receive in the promises of God in Christ Jesus. Sin manifests in sins, but the problem is not, at the most basic and important level, specific acts but the condition behind them. It is sin, not sins, that make the law necessary, especially in it’s second use, but also in the first use. To misplace the problem in sins rather than in sin, one also ends up misconstruing the solution, which is not in accounting us as sinless or erasing the guilt of sins, but in bringing that life which destroys our sin and death. Perhaps, then, it is little wonder he suggests there is too much of a focus on the doctrine of justification through grace and faith. That first supposed solution is inadequate because it creates a fictive state that can only remain superficial. But the gift of life and the destruction of sin, the restoration of all that is broken and joining us in communion with God, that’s what Christ offers us. It is a treasure of inestimably greater value, reaching to the very core of our being, and the whole of the universe.


8 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Jim #

    Thank you for your insights.

    Though I identify with many conservative and traditionalist concerns, I have been troubled by the theology of the law articulated by many in ELCA. Lex semper accusat, the Law’s “second use”, is not activated by having correct information about what is or isn’t a sin, it too is an active word of God, facing sin and sinner with the consequences of life lived under the law.

  2. 2

    Excellent post. Thank you. I think that many of the dissidents within the ELCA have made precisely the mistakes you outline in their application of the Law. They confuse ethics and morality. They want a black and white list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. The Law does its work not by finger-wagging in a malfeasant’s face but by conviction in a sinner’s heart.

  3. Tim #

    Clear writing, thoughtful analysis. Helps me a lot. Thanks!

  4. Tony Stoutenburg #

    While you are correct that we cannot rank sins, you err here:

    “The point is not about sins but sin. For it is the power of sin that the gospel of Christ addresses. We are saved from our sin, not our sins, for the former is our illness and the later its symptoms.”

    You want it to be an either or. It is a both-and. Ps 25:18, Mat 9:6, Mark 2:10, Luke 5:24 are just 5 of the 11 occurrences a quick Bibleworks search of “forgive” and “Sins” comes up with. And the Lord’s prayer speaks not of sin, but of forgiveness for sins. That is not to downplay our sinfulness as condition, but you want to go to the other extreme.

    The second problem I detect is that you fail to recognize the simul. We live simultaneously in two kingdoms. In the kingdom at God’s right hand, the Gospel does have control and we are the saints of God. In the kingdom at God’s left had we are sinners under the Law. Not the Law of Israel, but the Decalogue and the admonition that Love does no harm. It is because we need such in our sinful, already/not yet state.

    In his great Treatise on the Christian Freedom, the Letter to the Galatians, Paul makes all the arguments that we are free from the Law … and then pens chapter 5, admonishing against the works of the flesh. And he write this to those he has just declared free from the Law. Even as we are fully free from the Law in Christ, we are in need of it. Hence, FC VI, Antithesis 1.

    Blessings TS

    • restenergy #

      I did not argue that sins were unimportant or should be ignored, nor have I offered an either/or framework. But I also don’t think it is a simple both/and situation, either.

      The disease is sin (singular). Sins (plural) are the symptoms. Treatment needs to concentrate on the disease. We cannot alleviate the symptoms and declare victory over the disease. Paying too much attention to treating the symptoms runs the risk of not sufficiently treating the disease. It might also lead to the false conclusion that alleviating symptoms is taking care of the disease itself as well. It behooves us to be clear about the disease and to be clear that we are treating that first and foremost. Far too many, in the name of tradition, put too much emphasis on the symptoms that addressing the disease gets lost. Some will say, “Jesus takes care of those symptoms,” but the message becomes hollow, leaving the disease intact or only marginally addressed. Worse yet, others will say “Don’t cough, but be assured, Jesus will help you.” But what doctor would insist that his or her patient simply must not cough rather than treat the illness that causes it. We know the disease. God in Christ graciously offers a cure for it (even if we that disease remains with us the whole of our lives here and now). We obscure and diminish that great and wonderful gift when we do not make it clear that it cures the disease and thus it takes care of the symptoms. But that doesn’t mean we ignore sins, either. Sins are important because they are the key to understanding we have the disease. And sins are important to pay attention because as they are the concrete ways we hurt our neighbors and ourselves. But keeping the disease in proper focus, and being sure that the treatment targets the disease, the reasons that specific sins are important becomes clearer as well.
      The suggestion that I have failed to recognize the “simul” of two kingdoms is quite simply misplaced. That kingdom on the left is the place where the first use of the law has sway. It is the realm of authorities, institutions, and laws which provide order to our society on God’s behalf. The first use of the law is not only for the sinner, but needed by all if we are to live together in human community. It is as applicable to Christians under the grace of Christ as it is to any and all held in the bondage of sin. This is as Article VI, Antitheseis 1 of the Formula of Concord maintains.
      In Galatians I see Paul arguing that freedom from bondage to the law for righteousness is not an occasion for ongoing sin. But note that Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit, being guided by the Spirit, living by the Spirit. It is not a law, new or old. It is the Spirit. These come not from a coercive command, but freely from the Spirit and the gifts of grace, love, and mercy. That is, they are not imposed upon us but flow as natural consequence of faith, as we read in Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian.

  5. Tony Stoutenburg #

    Actually, you did offer an either or framework; From your original post:

    “But that is a means, not an end; a means to showing us the need for Christ because of our sinfulness. The point is not about sins but sin. For it is the power of sin that the gospel of Christ addresses. We are saved from our sin, not our sins, for the former is our illness and the later its symptoms.”

    As you have said in your response, we are saved from both.

    I really like your response. I have little to disagree with in it, except where it defends the original post. Are there two of you? :-)

    As I read between the lines, the real question between us is what is sin and who defines it.

    That is a disagreement neither of us are likely to sway the other on.

    Blessings TS

    • restenergy #

      The either/or you previously accused me of was a matter of paying attention to one but dismissing the other. But when we look to the cure we receive in Christ, it is, and must be, a cure for our sin (singular). Nothing more is required. Nothing less will do. The portion you quote above is making a distinction about where Christ’s healing cure is directed. When the disease (our sin) is cured it also clears up the symptoms (our sins). If the disease is cured and healed, there is no need to also cure the patient of the symptoms. It is, I think, vitally important to keep this distinction.
      In the context of my main post, the primary importance of this that a misconstrual of the law results also in a misdirection of, and even a deficiency in, the gospel in which the symptoms are treated but the disease itself at least under treated if not left untreated. The biggest problem in the theology that Robert Benne and others put forth is a problem of how the law is treated. That law reductionism narrows the scope and purpose of the law, and consequently ends up reducing the gospel to not quite so good news.

  6. Tony Stoutenburg #

    I am not sure that that is fair to Benne over all (I know it is not fair to Nestingen) but I do agree that that is the general tone of some of what has been written, probably by both. Good dialogue. Thanks

    Blessings. TS