Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Law and Gospel

While I was thinking about reviewing the Lutheran Study Bible, I was reminded of another topic that has been on my mind recently: the Lutheran concept of "law and gospel". Now, you may be a Lutheran and have never heard this specific terminology. Perhaps to the shock of my classmates, I can honestly say I had never heard the phrase "law and gospel" in my life before I entered seminary. I was baptized, raised, and confirmed in the Lutheran church—maybe it's a regional thing. I certainly hear enough about law and gospel out here.

The concept comes from Luther's writings, though it is not unique to Lutherans. Luther used law and gospel as a method of reading and interpreting Scripture. It is important to note that law and gospel is not supposed to be a parallel distinction to Old Testament and New Testament, or to Jewish thinking as opposed to Christian thinking (however, see below). Law is that which condemns us (and therefore forces us to recognize the need for God's grace). Gospel is that which proclaims that same grace. Any given text in the Bible can be seen as law or as gospel. For example, the Ten Commandments can be seen as law because they condemn us (because we fail to live up to their standards), but also as gospel because they are the words of God speaking to the Israelites who have been rescued from slavery. Likewise, the teachings of Jesus could be seen either as condemning (law) or proclaiming the good news (gospel).

As far as it goes, the law and gospel idea is pretty useful. It fits into the Lutheran teaching about salvation—that we cannot save ourselves, but are saved by God's grace. I have to confess, though, that I'm getting tired of hearing about it; I feel that it's being overused. At the same time, I have some serious concerns that the phrase runs the risk of serious misunderstanding. If I have to explain that by "law", I don't actually mean the law in the Old Testament, and by "gospel", I don't actually mean the Gospels in the New Testament, doesn't that indicate that I need to use some different terms?

Specifically, I worry that using "law and gospel" language encourages a negative view of Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures. It is too easy to equate "law" with the Law, the Torah, and "gospel" with the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. That naturally leads one to think that the Old Testament is all bad news or outdated, which is then replaced by the New Testament. (On the same note, the very names "Old Testament" and "New Testament" promote the same line of thought. One of my professors suggests calling the Old Testament the "Ancient Witness" instead.) When my professors or my fellow seminarians use the phrase "law and gospel", I know that they are not making these stereotyped assumptions—but what about all the other people, Lutheran or not, who are not familiar with the use of these terms? Why do we keep using language that is very easy to misinterpret and has the potential to be so harmful to people's understanding of the Bible?

Personally, I'm trying to avoid using "law and gospel" language. I can appreciate the value of the idea without using the same terminology. I just don't think we should hang on to certain language purely for the sake of tradition, especially when there are compelling reasons to do otherwise. Call the two "condemning word" and "word of grace", if you like. Just don't inadvertently teach a bad understanding of the Bible by using confusing language.

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