Friday, August 12, 2005

Why the Law/Gospel Hermeneutic?

In a recent thread on Pontifications, Chris Jones asked,

Why is the Law/Gospel hermeneutic thought to be the unique way to understand Scripture - the ‘canonical hermeneutic’ if you will? Why are we to believe that this is precisely what St Paul meant by rightly dividing the word of truth? Who among the Fathers before Luther not only used this interpretive method, but gave it the privileged position that the Lutheran Confessions give it?Don’t get me wrong; it’s a useful and illuminating interpretive principle. But from where I sit it’s no more a fit subject for dogma than (for example) a metaphysical explanation of the Real Presence. I’m open to correction, and I’ve asked before for an explanation of this from my more knowledgeable Lutheran friends. Can you help?

In reply, William Tighe punted the question about the scriptural basis of it in St. Paul, but averred that in any case Luther’s hermeneutic is new:

I’m only an historian, and as such, there is only one (or two) of your questions that I can even begin to answer, those contained in the third sentence of your second [here, first] paragraph. The answer (if it is one question) is ‘nobody’ and if it is two questions, it is ‘nobody’ and ‘nobody.’

To this I would have to agree: the Law/Gospel hermeneutic is, in the exact form Luther proposed it, new. This is not to say that it is not related to other patristic distinctions such as Spirit vs. Letter, Grace vs. Nature, Moses vs. Christ, just that it is not exactly the same as any of them. Why then was it adopted? Having thought about it, and having gone back to Hermann Sasse’s Here We Stand, the simple answer is that no other hermeneutic was found to answer the purpose. The purpose was to have a basis for reforming the Roman Catholic Church as it existed in 1517, but in a way that was truly a Reformation and not a revolutionary recreation of the Church.

Something was broken in the Roman Catholic Church of that era, and indulgences were the issue over which the debate over what was broken was joined, but it soon branched out to other issues. (Of course if one is not bothered by purgatory, indulgences, supererogatory merit, the funding of special masses as a propitiatory sacrifice for the living and dead, and so on, then the issue will not look the same way.) But as Luther perceived in his 1520 Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, any attempt to reform these abuses within the system was already blocked by the whole structure of churchly authority, which itself was backed up by the whole force of Christian tradition as it was known in the Latin West. Like other would-be reformers, they would be confronted with both claims that the continuous development of the church meant that no reform could possibly be necessary, that is, with the doctrine that the apostolic church cannot err, and the practical result of this doctrine in excommunication of any one who tried to do so.

Knowing that Chris Jones approaches this issue from the "Luthodox" position, one can put it this way: in the Latin West, simple return to the shared Greek-Latin Catholic-Orthodox consensus of the fourth-eighth centuries was flatly impossible. Why? Because part of that consensus was that apostolic sees do not err, at least not in the long run, and that Christian life outside of communion with apostolic bishops is impossible. Since the Papacy in 1517 was manifestly in institutional continuity with that earlier consensus and controlled the bishops, it was fundamentally uncriticizable from the perspective of that consensus, unless one could attach one’s self to an alternative Greek apostolic lineage and anathemize it from that perspective. For historical reasons this was completely impossible. (Which incidentally, I think, says something important about whether the fourth-eight century consensus really can serve as a norm of faith.) As a result, Luther and the Reformers soon grasped that there was no alternative between either accepting all the doctrines and traditions of the Roman church, or else accepting a new way of reading the Scriptures that allowed them to serve as a norm for church tradition. This was the Law/Gospel hermeneutic, which made clear and explicit what was wrong and unscriptural about indulgences, supererogatory merit and so on, and allowed Christian life to continue outside of the communion with the Pope, and yet strengthened, not destroyed, the centrality of the sacraments. Discovered and refined in the process of Luther’s attempts to reform the church, this hermeneutic was found wonderfully suitable to the reforming purpose, and it was this wonderful fittingness which made it the Lutheran hermeneutic.

A number of other competing hermeneutical principles were also at work in the Reformation: invisible spirit vs. visible flesh; Bible vs. tradition; repentance vs. ritual; called congregation vs. corrupt world. All of them, however, when made the central sorting device, resulted in the destruction of the sacraments and the refounding of the church on wholly different principles, manifestly incompatible with the New Testament, and the first centuries of the church: whether it be in denying any worth to the outward structure of the church at all (spiritualism, Quakerism), abolishing the liturgy with the regulative principle (Puritanism), turning the sacraments into outward signs of obedience (Zwinglianism), or recreated monastic communities on an egalitarian, sectarian, and pacifist basis (Anabaptists). Sasse’s review of theological history I think convincingly demonstrates that only the Law/Gospel could in fact be the basis for a "conservative reformation" of the Christian teaching in existence in Latin Europe in 1517. Any other principle either conceded that reformation was impossible, or else demanded that the reformation be both radical and revolutionary.

As a result, Law/Gospel, like the innovatory homoousion clause in the Nicene Creed ("being of one substance with the Father"), was adopted precisely because it was went to the heart of the opponents' case. Neither is groundless Biblically, but in both cases its vital importance in disallowing corrupted views became obvious only in the process of history, not simply through inductive Bible reading.

Originally posted at Here We Stand