Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Current trends on Law and Gospel.

Recently a number of provocative conversations, essays and articles have prompted me to consider the distinction of Law and Gospel in the scriptural text, and whether such a distinction can be made. I guess this started when I read Scot Mcknight's commentary on Galatians, noticing that the bibliography of consulted works omitted any mention of Luther's historic work on this epistle. It seemed almost a statement in and of itself, especially in lieu of the fact that the only commentary written prior to the 20th century that he mentioned using was Thomas Aquinas'. When I had the opportunity to ask him about this in person, he sneered and said very sharply," I don't buy into the whole "Law and Gospel" distinction that Luther made in the scriptures."

Since the distinction of "Law and Gospel" had until now been meat and potatoes for me-one of the most freeing distinctions I have ever learned- I too was sneering (but for different reasons). To be sure, I had heard a fellow once say rather blithely that the Jewish consciousness had no knowledge of such categorizations, and that they were eisegetically imposed onto the text with Enlightenment presuppositions (a historical falsity, given that philosophic "distinctions" were used obsessively in Medieval interpretations of scripture). But nothing like this from a theologian and scholar in the Protestant quarter!

Later I read an interview* given for Ben Witherington III's first volume in "The Indelible Image" series where he mentions that," in some cases the Reformer did Paul no service by setting up contrasts between law and grace..." and in my Sermon on the Mount Class my professor began to excitedly talk about Christ bringing out a "new Law" with requirements that must be fulfilled. Verse by verse we were inculcated with the "reality" that the beatitudes were moral expectations (I never knew it was commendable to have an impoverished spirit!), that every jot and tittle of the old law must be understood and re-applied to today. The passages on anger, lust and divorce are covenantal expectations that (if not fulfilled) bring eternal damnation on the believer. At one point I asked my professor," So, this is the gospel that Christ came to bring?" to which I received an affirming nod. I gulped some air before saying rather snidely," Gee, that sure is good news." He thought so. I had never met someone who thought the "new law of the Sermon on the Mount", the law that expects much more of us than Moses did, was the gospel of our salvation! Such is where we have arrived now that the distinction between law and grace has been done away with... right back where Luther was in the 1500's, wrestling with Satans great effort to turn Christ into a "new Moses". I wouldn't be surprised if John 1:17 were re-worked to say," The law was given through Moses, and it came down much harder through Jesus Christ." Of course, not even those who think like this obey the covenant demands of Christ (numbering in the hundreds), and the ones in history who tried (most notably Tolstoy) spent their life in cyclical misery and despair. They would not be quite so quick to call this type of thinking "good news".

At any rate, this is alot of rhetoric and not enough research. In the up-coming posts this month I hope (God willing) to begin investigating the scriptural judgment of law from divers portions of the canon to test this new type of thinking. In the meantime, I leave this little chestnut for any passing reader to chew on:

"Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!" (2 Cor 3:7-9).

Distinctive or unitive? Would anyone say with a straight face that the gospel and the "ministry that brought death" are inseperable?

*Taken from "The Indelible Image---The Interview", Ben Witherington III

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