Thursday, August 11, 2005

Moses, Luther, and Natural Law

Last night I finished "How Christians Should Regard Moses" (in Timothy Lull’s anthology Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings from LW, 35: 161-174). I loved it. But in it Luther says some seemingly very un-Lutheran things that are rather close to controversial issues today.

How should Christians regard Moses? In three ways: 1) as the lawgiver to the Jews. Luther is very clear, that even the 10 Commandments are not inherently binding on Christians: "Where [Moses] gives commandment we are not to follow him except in so far as he agrees with the natural law" (Lull, p. 147). The Law of Moses in its original form is addressed to the Jews as a nation, not Christians. "Moses is the Sachsenspiegel [the medieval German law code] for the Jews" (p. 141). 2) as a preacher of Christ and the Gospel promises. This is the best thing and is for all. 3) powerful examples of faith and unbelief. We follow one and avoid the other.

In the course of discussing no. 1, however, Luther says, "I keep the commandments which Moses has given, not because Moses gave commandment, but because they have been implanted in me by nature" (Lull, p. 142) Not only that, he extends this natural implantation to the first table: "[Moses] has commanded that we should have one God, that we should trust and believe in him, that we should not swear by his name; that we should honor father and mother; not kill, steal [etc.]. . . . Nature also has these laws. Nature also provides that we should call upon God. The Gentiles attest to this fact. For there never was a Gentile who did not call upon his idols, even though these were not the true God. . . Therefore it is natural to honor God, not steal, [etc.] and what Moses commands is not new" (Lull, p. 142).

Now if you are wondering what the fuss is, let me draw the implications out for you. 1) Luther believes there is a natural knowledge of God - - of the obligation to trust and believe in one God, no less - - in all people. Of course this natural knowledge apart from Christ does not save, but it is remarkable enough to find Luther admitting this, when so many Lutherans are convinced the denial of even this weak and beggarly natural knowledge of God is the key to being truly and confessionally Lutheran.

2) Luther seems to allow "civic religion," said to be the besetting sin of the Reformed. Observe: the law of Moses is the temporal law of a particular nation, which we might adopt in so far as it agrees with nature. All ten commandments (excepting only the Saturday sabbath law and the prohibition of images–see pp. 139-140 and 147) are in fact natural, known and acknowledged by all people. Therefore, there is no Lutheran reason why Britain, for example, couldn’t legislate monotheism and anti-blasphemy laws. In doing so, Britain’s temporal authority would not saved any one’s soul (this legal knowledge does not include Christ), but they would not be doing anything beyond or outside of the temporal kingdom’s sphere (remember the spiritual content of Moses is not in first table of the laws, but rather in the promises of Christ).

Now I know, certain schools of Calvinism actually hold what Luther (rightly) denied, that the laws of Moses are binding on us. This kind of (true) theocracy would be unLutheran (thank God!). But a public law that there is one God, that we should be believe and trust in him, and not blaspheme His name - - in passing such a law the temporal authorities would just be "doing what comes naturally."

Originally posted at Here We Stand

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