In the introduction to Theonomy in Christian Ethics, first published in 1977, Dr. Greg Bahnsen sets his sights on a particular stream of unLutheran thought beguiling modern-day Lutherans. This stream (amber colored, it is to be assumed) has, in the almost 50 years since, cut an antinomian tributary to the river Acheron, and swept up many LCMS clergy in its current.

One need look no further for evidence than the regularity with which the LCMS brain trust thrusts Steven Paulson, disciple of Gerhard Forde (himself disciple of Werner Elert, named by Bahnsen below) in the faces of those seeking theological training from our institutions.

Nor should I neglect to mention Paulson’s contributing essays to the following Concordia Publishing House volumes:

Efforts to identify a common demoninator (the typo shall stand) have, of course, failed.

You’ll never guess who Jack Kilcrease’s doctor father was.
The one with the actual earned doctorate.

But enough digression. Read on for Bahnsen’s critique of the stream of unLutheran lufran thought from 46 years ago which has continued to ferment in the generation since, and the mast of which some prominent men wish to lash the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod to as they sail past Scripture and the Confessions.

Theonomy in Christian Ethics
Dr. Greg Bahnsen, 1977
Emphases original; new paragraph breaks added for ease of reading

Modern day Lutheranism propounds a view of God’s law which is as unsatisfactory as that of dispensationalism. The late Werner Elert (formerly professor of systematic theology at the University of Erlangan), writing on Law and Gospel, declares that they are in dialectical opposition to one another; indeed, “they are as opposed to one another as death and life.” While long ago the Lutherans officially recognized the law of God as providing a functional theological ethic which was authoritative, corrective, and relevant to personal and social morality, Elert dashes any hope for such a project in the current day:

And here once more it becomes irrefutably clear that law and promise… are irreconcilably opposed to one another…. In this new order, however, the law no longer has any voice whatsoever… The disciple of Jesus… no longer has any need whatsoever for the law’s threats or its promises of reward. The Holy Spirit’s entry into the world marks the beginning of the Christian church. Since that time the church lives no longer under law. That means it lives in freedom… When we look to Christ, the law has absolutely no validity… The irreconcilable opposition of law and gospel remains also for the Christian.

The law serves only in the destruction of the old man, says Elert, but cannot serve in the construction of the new man (i.e., traditionally termed “the third use of the law”). Another Lutheran theologian, Martin Scharlemann (professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Seminary), tells us that “there are two elements in Scripture: Law and Gospel. Each has its own kind of authority, which must be carefully distinguished from the other.” The Christian is to live under one, and not the other. Yet another Lutheran theologian, John Warwick Montgomery (professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), claims that the law primarily drives us to Christ so that we can (as contrite) be picked up by grace; certainly law and grace should not be merged or confused (e.g, seeing Christ as a new Moses or preaching law to those already convicted of sin).

It is most important that the gospel predominate over the law. However, neither systematics, exegesis, nor the history of Christian thought point to the appropriateness of this restriction of the law’s function and disparagement of its positive application today.

Paul Althaus, recognizing that the Bible clearly purports to direct Christian living, attempts to remain true to the Lutheran dichotomy of law and gospel by distinguishing “command” (God’s will for us) from “law” (a special form of that will). The “commands” of God are actually the summons to life and love, God’s offer to be man’s God, a challenge to accept freedom and permission to live in Gods love. Law, by contrast, is what became of God’s command through the fall: it distorts the command, always accuses man, demands greater purity than the command (indeed, an impossible purity), and applies always and only to the sinner before acceptance of the gospel. The gospel puts an end to the law, and through the gospel the law again becomes command; this command has a place in the Christian life, not as making works follow causally upon faith, but as showing the work in which faith finds Iiving expression.

The arbitrariness and tendentious character of this scheme should be obvious; indeed, it should be obvious to Althaus himself, for he admits that: the distinction between law and command cannot be derived from the terms themselves as used in Scripture (or the Lutheran confessions!), the law is interchangeable with command and applied to the Christian life at points in Scripture, the actual contents of law and command are identical, the law cannot be distinguished from command by the law’s negative form since gospel commands take negative form also, and the command (with its life and love) is still heard in the law. Althaus’ distinction, then, has been qualified so extensively that it virtually vanishes. However, the problem with the ethical scheme suggested by Althaus is not simply that he refuses to apply the term “law’” to the Christian life, but that in fact there is no absolutely authoritative law (or call it “command”) for the Christian life. While the believer is “well advised” to consider the biblical illustrations of God’s will, just as he might also consider the lives of the saints, these ethical admonitions (e.g., the Decalogue) are “aids and correctives” or teaching examples, but never “legal prescriptions.”

The threat of relativism or autonomy is clear when Althaus declares:

The Christian ethic is an ethic of the Spirit… This guidance by the Holy Spirit implies that (God’s concrete commanding cannot be read off from a written document, an inherited scheme of law. I must learn afresh every day what God wants of me. For God’s commanding has a special character for each individual: it is always contemporary, always new. God commands me (and each person) in a particular way, in a different way than he commands others. And his command is spoken afresh in each situation… The living and spiritual character of the knowledge of what God requires of the present moment must not be destroyed by rules and regulations.

While in actual practice the modern day Lutheran may wish to avoid concrete sins (e.g, murder, stealing, adultery) as much as in classic Reformed theology, nevertheless an ethical system such as that propounded by Althaus shows that in principle there is nothing to which appeal can be made in order to prevent these concrete sins in any unqualified and pre-established fashion. The general Lutheran disclaimer of any ”third use” of the law of God has regrettable implications for their “first use” of the law (i.e., the political use). A contemporary proponent of Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms, the “kingdom of the right hand” (redemption) and the “kingdom of the left hand” (creation), is Helmut Thielicke. He seems ready to admit that those dangers which men like Troeltsch, Wunsch, Barth, and Deutelmoser have seen in Luther’s doctrine (e.g., a double morality—one for each kingdom—as well as the secularization of the state so that it is ethically autonomous) are “theological possibilities”; however, Thielicke thinks that, outside of Luther’s unguarded expressions, Luther has two safeguards against abuse: the office holders of the state should remember that their purpose is to preserve peace (so that men can have the opportunity to accept the gospel) and that they should be motivated by love. Yet Thielicke suspects that this is not quite enough, for the commandments are not used to call into question the activities of the kingdom of the left (only their motivation); “there is still the possibility that in Luther the temporal kingdom is understood to be too isolated, too insulated, vis-a-vis the Law of God.”

Thielicke then offers his own social proposal, and it is a proposal that parallels Althaus’ suggestion for the use of God’s commandments in the Christian’s personal life (viz., that they are not positive legal prescriptions but only corrective illustrations that advise us). Thielicke holds that, just as God’s commandments necessarily suffer refraction when entering the order of this age, so the laws of jurisprudence and politics are alien so far as the kingdom of God is concerned. Relying heavily upon the negative form of the Decalogue, Thielicke says that the Law does not show us what is right but only what is naturally wrong. Thus the Decalogue can point out political wrong for a Christian (it illustrates the natural decadence and dehumanization to which the state is prone) but gives no specific program; Christianity cannot solve our political problems. While there are non-Christian forms of politics, there can be no such thing as “Christian politics’”; the Christian can only commend such concrete structures or orders as may befit the time and occasion. The commandment of God has no abiding affinity either to a specific economic order or to a specific political order.” Therefore, we are left with the same rejection of the positive and guiding function of God’s law as we were in the life of the individual believer. There are no unqualified and pre-established rules for the kingdom of the left, and the authority of God’s revealed law is reduced to that of a corrective illustration—resulting in the odd asymmetry that politics is subject to one value predicate (“non-Christian”) but not its opposite.

One wonders if there is any sense in which a biblical and concrete guideline can be suggested by the Christian to modern society under the terms specified by modern Lutherans; private and public morality are not, but vaguely, called back from the dangers of autonomy.

2 responses to “Wounds From a Friend: Dr. Greg Bahnsen’s critique of Lutheran antinomianism”

  1. The Law is either the unchanging will of God, as it is expressed in the Formula, or it is mere advice, a kindly suggestion, or a situational ethic. Or nothing at all! Destroy the Third Use and you’ve destroyed the First with it. Rather, throw all 20th century chiefly European “Lutheran” theologians away, and avoid those in our own time who continue to promote their false teachings.

  2. Grimdark Luther 40k Avatar
    Grimdark Luther 40k

    “It is most important that the gospel predominate over the law.” To me the distinction between the two types of law is part of the gospel. All negative references to law are ceremonial law and all positive are moral law. Christians have no use for the ceremonial law (unless perchance they can Origen an allegorical meaning pointing to Christ from it) but are still to keep the moral law. Paul even says flagrant violators of the moral law are to be “delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that their soul may be saved in the day of judgement” showing that the man in adultery with his father’s wife would lose his salvation if he did not eventually repent before death so the moral law even is ultimately necessary to maintaining salavation at least when it comes to the major prohibitions which Paul lists as excommunication worthy offences.

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