|Martin Luther 1533 (by Lucas Cranach the Elder)|
Law and Gospel in Luther
by Herman Dooyeweerd
Luther [1483-1546], the great reformer, had been educated in Ockham's circle during his stay at the Erfurt monastery. He himself declared: "I am of Ockham's school." Under Ockham's influence the religious ground motive of nature and grace permeated Luther's life and thought, although certainly not in the Roman Catholic sense. The Church of Rome rejected a division of nature and grace, considering the former a lower portal to the latter. Luther, however, was influenced by Ockham's dualism which established a deep rift between natural life and the supranatural Christian life. In Luther's case this conflict expressed itself as the opposition between law and gospel.
To understand this polarity in Luther's thought, which today plays a central role in Karl Barth and his followers, we must note that Luther returned to a confession which had been rejected by Roman Catholicism: the confession of the radicality of the fall. But within the nature-grace ground-motive, Luther could not do justice to this truly Scriptural teaching. The moment it became embedded in an internally split religious framework, it could not do justice to the meaning of Creation. In Luther's thought this shortcoming manifested itself in his view of the law. He depreciated law as the order for "sinful nature" and thus began to view "law" in terms of a religious antithesis to "evangelical grace." It might seem that this contrast is identical with the contrast made by the apostle Paul in his teaching on the relation of law to grace in Jesus Christ. Paul expressly proclaimed that man is justified by faith alone, not by the works of the law. Actually, however, Paul's statements do not harmonize in the least with Luther's opposition between law and gospel. Paul always calls God's law holy and good. But he wants to emphasize strongly that fallen man cannot fulfil the law and thus can live only by the grace of God.
Under Ockham's influence, Luther robbed the law as the creational ordinance of its value. For him the law was harsh and rigid and as such in inner contradiction to the love commandment of the gospel. He maintained that the Christian, in his life of love that flows from grace, has nothing to do with the demands of the law. The Christian stood above the law. However, as long as the Christian still existed in this "vale of tears" he was required to adjust himself to the rigid frame of law, seeking to soften it by permeating it as much as possible with Christian love in his relation to his fellowman.
However, the antagonism between law and gospel remains in this line of thought. It is true that Luther spoke of the law as the "taskmaster of Christ" and that he thus granted it some value, but in truly Christian life the law remained the counterforce to Christian love. It needed to be broken from within. For Luther the Christian was free not only from the judgment of the law, which sin brought upon us; in the life of grace the Christian was free from the law itself. He stands entirely above the law. This view of law was certainly not Scriptural. In Luther's thought the Scriptural creation-motive recedes behind the motive of fall and redemption. This led to serious consequences. Luther did not acknowledge a single link between nature, taken with its lawful ordinances, and the grace of the gospel. Nature, which was "radically depraved," had to make way for grace. Redemption signified the death of nature rather than its fundamental rebirth. From the perspective of Roman Catholicism Luther allowed grace to "swallow up" nature.
But because of his dualism, Luther could not conclude that the Christian ought to flee from the world. He believed that it was God's will that Christians subject themselves to the ordinances of earthly life. Christians had to serve God also in their worldly calling and office. No one opposed monastic life more vehemently than Luther. Still, nowhere in Luther do we find an intrinsic point of contact between the Christian religion and earthly life. Both stood within an acute dialectical tension between the realm of evangelical freedom and the realm of the law. Luther even contrasted God's will as the Creator, who places humankind amidst the natural ordinances, and God's will as the Redeemer, who frees man from the law. His view of temporal reality was not intrinsically reformed by the Scriptural ground-motive of the Christian religion. When in our day Karl Barth denies every point of contact between nature and grace, we face the impact of Luther's opposition between law and gospel.
(Extract from "Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular, and Christian Options" pp 138-139, by Herman Dooyeweerd).
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