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Missing framework in ‘postlutheran’ Lutheran moral theology: The proper distinction between law and gospel

by Rev. Michael J. Langlais, Ph.D., (pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church, Norway, Mich.)

September 18, 2008

Robert Benne’s article in the July-August edition of Network News offers a deeply perceptive and nuanced theological analysis of some of the chief problems with the Evangelical Lutheran Church America’s present stance on sexual ethics. I am particularly impressed with his foundational approach to the moral positions set out in the ELCA Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality. Only an understanding of the essential philosophical and theological presuppositions underlying the draft statement will put us in a position to thoroughly grasp all the implications of the concealed ideological commitments of the new draft’s authors. It is, in fact, at the level of presuppositions that we can begin to order a proper response to the draft statement, and make its hidden conceptual “framework” transparent. It is also at the foundational level that I find one crucial difference of opinion with Benne.

In his opening statement Benne states, “. . . the kind of theological/ethical argument in this draft document on sexuality is precisely the kind that will set the stage for a revision of Lutheran teaching on sexual ethics in the future. Such a revision would mean that the ELCA is no longer a church following in the footsteps of the Lutheran Reformation.”

I’ve highlighted the words of Benne’s with which I respectfully disagree.

It can be convincingly argued, I believe, that Benne’s assessment of the present theological climate of the ELCA is overly optimistic. We might speculate that the stage was long ago swept clean of all recognizably Lutheran props and reset for revision with “postlutheran” scenery. When educational institutions of this church cast aside the modernist agenda for the postmodern, the process of confessional cleansing was closed. The expression of postlutheran Lutheran theology in the draft social statement represents fairly, in my opinion, the current state of general ideological decay and doctrinal confusion in the churchwide body. “The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it.” (Isaiah 1:5-6, ESV)

This is so primarily because of the widespread abandonment by many church theologians of the biblical-confessional principle of authority, that is, Sola Scriptura. The authors of the draft statement are not operating independently, but are sanctioned and sponsored by the ELCA. They are an official voice of the ELCA. They will make authoritative recommendations next year to the ELCA. Their opinions embody the legitimacy of their mandate. The document they have produced represents “the best thinking of the task force to date” (draft statement introduction), and that means, obviously, the best thinking that can be produced in the name of the ecclesiastical powers-that-be. So, Sola Scriptura as the foundational principle of formal and practical theology has been discarded by the postlutheran Lutherans in the church. The problem cannot be localized to the task force. They are an official part of the body, and cannot be considered apart from it. This means, of course, the visible church, that entity called the ELCA.

The chief dogmas of the postlutheran Lutherans are predicated upon their unspoken commitment to postmodern ideologies of epistemological pluralism and moral relativism. This commitment resulted from the decision of much of its professional caste to repudiate Sola Scriptura generally, and the proper distinction between law and gospel particularly. Both Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions direct the theologian to “properly divide the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), that is, to make a proper distinction between law and gospel (Formula of Concord Epitome 500-501; Solid Declaration 581-586. Article V of the Formula of Concord states—“The distinction between law and gospel is a particularly glorious light. It serves to divide God’s Word properly [cf. 2 Tim. 2:15] and to explain correctly and make understandable the writings of the holy prophets and apostles” (FC SD 581.1, Kolb/Wengert). The authors of the draft social statement make an improper division and separation between law and gospel, that is, completely separating and disengaging law and gospel, instead of distinguishing them.

They then reduce the gospel to the least common denominator, “God is love.” In this way they banish from the moral discussion not only the natural law, but the divine (revealed) law as well. One inexorable outcome of such an illicit reductive approach to God’s Word is that homosexuality is no longer considered a sin for which repentance is necessary. Such sexual sin becomes acceptable on the basis of a reduced gospel of universal love without responsibility toward the law. This is classic antinomianism, and it is this term that best characterizes the theological position of the draft statement.

The antinomian wants all of the privileges of the gospel without obligation and responsibility to the law. Luther called those who hold such a position nomoclasts, “destroyers of the law.”

Furthermore, based upon their failure to properly distinguish between law and gospel, the authors of the draft statement are unable to observe the law-law distinction enjoined by Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. This is the proper distinction between the ceremonial (civic) law of Israel, and the moral law (as inscripturated, for example, in the Decalogue). The Lutheran Confessions are clear in making this distinction between the moral law, which is still in effect for Christians, and the ceremonial law, which is no longer binding upon Christians (see Index, Kolb/Wengert, “Law, A. Concept: 2. Ceremonial law,” p. 732). One of the fundamental exegetical blunders made by the authors of the draft statement is that they fail to make this distinction between the law meant only for ethnic Israel and the moral law itself. As a result, they throw the moral baby out with the ceremonial bathwater.

The proper distinction between law and gospel and its correlate, the proper distinction between the ceremonial and moral law, are fundamental biblical-confessional principles that especially distinguish the Lutheran Church as the embodiment of evangelical and catholic Christianity. Once a theologian, or even many in a church, corrupt or reject them, they can no longer be qualified as distinctively Lutheran. What Robert Benne fears for the future of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is in truth a fait accompli in much of the denomination.

[Editor’s note: Rev. Langlais has written an extensive critique of the draft, “The Proper Distinction Between Law And Gospel: The Missing Framework in Postlutheran Lutheran Moral Theology”]