Summary and Keywords
The law both is and functions in Martin Luther’s theology. To the extent that it simply is, the law is wholly good, just, and pure. It reveals God’s benevolent providence for creation by instantiating structures of human relationships, natural processes, and social arrangements within which human life and all of creation can flourish. Luther regards the essential character of the law in a way reminiscent of the haggadah tradition of Rabbinic Judaism, where the law is a narrative which reveals features of the lawgiver. Under the conditions of sin, however, the law can be experienced as wrath by humans who cannot fulfill what it requires, and who suffer as a result of their own transgression of the Word of God or as a result of the transgressions of others. It functions thus as a curb against wickedness and as a means of exposing sin to be sin. Its continued presence in the life of the believer is necessary, as Luther clarified in his various debates with Johann Agricola and the so-called “Antinomians.” When the law is understood only in its antinomy with the gospel, the life-affirming elements of the law are occluded, even as the gospel’s life-redeeming elements are thereby rendered clear.
While numerous fine distinctions can be found in Luther’s theology of the law, it maintains a basic unity-in-diversity. God wills singly in dealing with human beings as his creatures. Therefore “civil law,” the Decalogue, and other manifestations of the law are facets of the one will of God for the flourishing of creation. Recent Pauline scholarship has criticized Luther for eisegesis on Paul’s view of the law; Luther needed to see his contemporary Roman partisans as Paul’s legalistic Jewish opponents, they say, and so he read Romans as a critique of 16th-century “works righteousness.” This view ignores the fact that Luther (and Augustine) viewed the post-conversion Paul as “continent” in doing the works of the law, neither weak-willed nor perfectly virtuous.
Law is necessary for doctrine, but it is also important for the “Christian life” because it helps the believer to understand the reciprocity that underlies interpersonal relationships, seen especially in the “golden rule” that functions as the epitome of the Christian life. The radical receptivity (i.e., passivity) that characterizes the life of faith in believers enables the experience of God’s will, understood as law or command, in a constructive and beneficial way. While Christian life should employ a “faith approach” rather than a “law approach,” genuine faith in God does, in fact, reveal the true meaning of the law. This might be called the “second use of the gospel” in that God’s command (Gebot), viewed in light of the gospel, becomes a source of guidance for the Christian life, the ten commandments, the double love command, and the Sermon on the Mount chief among them.
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