Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lutheranism and Covenant Theology

Lutherans have often criticized the Reformed covenantal hermeneutical principle. Lutheranism sees the law/gospel distinction as the fundamental principle of Biblical hermeneutics. This seems to exclude the theme of covenant as being basic to the understanding of the Old and New Testaments. The Lutheran theologian has often seen two covenants; one being that of the Old Testament, and the other being that of the New. However, this seems to promote too dramatic a split between God’s revelation in the Old Testament and that of the New. Rather than denying that covenantal principle, the Lutheran can more accurately divide law and gospel by seeing a greater continuity between both testaments through the distinction between what the Reformed have called the “covenant of works” and the “covenant of grace.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is in the prelapsarian covenant of works. This idea states that before the fall, God placed Adam as the federal representative of mankind able to eat of the tree of life by his obedience or the tree of the knowledge of good and evil by his disobedience. To many, this seems to promote a salvation apart from grace, thus overthrows the central principle of sola fide. However, grace is a term used for unmerited favor in the postlapsarian state. Though one may be motivated by trying to see a fuller use of the grace of God it ultimately removes it from its soteriological context. Adam did not sin, thus did not need to be justified by faith. He was created in righteousness, and need not earn it but maintain it. Adam is not in the same state as fallen mankind, and one not treat him as such unless one wants to fall into a Pelagian error. This does not mean that God need reward man for his obedience to his creational function. However, in the arrangement God graciously chose to do so. However, this needs to be distinguished from the grace given to ungodly sinful humanity.

Was this arrangement made in the garden a covenant? There has been much debate in Reformed circles of the nature of covenant and how this relates to the Adamic state. In Lutheran Dogmatics, using the law/gospel distinction rather than a strict covenantal distinction, this need not be important. What we do see, however, is that Adam could have earned life by his obedience. Essentially, Adam was living under law. This protects against any kind of Pelagian or semi-Pelagian system which tries to equate the state of man now with that of man in the garden. It is worthy to note that in Roman Catholic theology Adam was in a state of grace before the fall. Rather than being essentially righteous and falling into a state of total depravity, Adam was given, sanctifying grace which was lost in the fall. Thus the fall was simply a negation of a gift, not a true fall into a depraved state.
After the fall, any kind of law could not bring man unto salvation. He had lost his essential righteousness and could not earn life through his obedience whether this would be through congruous or condign merit. Only Adam could earn life by obedience even if graciously rewarded.

This idea of Adam under law, rather than grace, is helpful not only because it guards against Pelagianism, but because it helps explain Paul’s Adam Christology. Christ was created as the second representative of mankind. He was in the state of Adam. Christ was offered life through his obedience as was Adam. This is a pure state of law, not grace. Christ was not righteous by his faith alone or by grace, but by works. Thus Christ fulfilled the law that Adam failed to keep and therefore earned the righteousness that Adam failed to. This righteousness is then imputed to his sheep.

The reformed distinction between a “covenant of works” and a “covenant of grace” is used to describe the difference between the Abrahamic and Mosaic administrations. The covenant of grace was that given to mankind after the fall of Adam. He would redeem men unconditionally by the future obedience of Christ. This was expressed through the Abrahamic covenant. God granted Abraham, unconditionally, the promise of a future land, and seed. This was pure gospel, with no hint of law. God would bring Christ through the seed of Abraham, and bring the true sons of Abraham by faith into the New Jerusalem. Thus it is right to call the Abrahamic administration one of grace or of gospel rather than a covenant which contains both principles within it.
The Mosaic covenant on the other hand was a covenant of works. Through Moses, God gave the law. This law was not given primarily to show the Israelites how to live in the Promised Land, but to show them that they could not earn the Promised Land through their obedience to the Torah. Recently, a group of Lutheran scholars composed a book of essays, taken from the Concordia Symposium, on the Law of God in Holy Scripture. Several of the essays in this book argue that the law was given in view of God’s already gracious redemption of his people. Though the dogmatic third use of the law is present within the Mosaic legislation, it is not primary. The view promoted is fundamentally an abandonment of Luther’s insistence of the primacy of the pedagogical use of the law. To support the idea that the law’s purpose is primarily to condemn one must see the Mosaic administration as a covenant of works. It is, in contrast to the Abrahamic promise, primarily law and not gospel.

Aspects of the gospel given to Abraham do appear in the Mosaic Law, such as the priesthood and sacrificial system. These were types of Christ who would come as the fulfillment of both covenants. These, however should be seen as gradual fulfillment of the unconditional promise given to Abraham. That the Mosaic administration is primarily of law or works rather than gospel or grace, is evident by the mere fact that through disobedience of it’s stipulations Israel was removed from their land. This shows the conditional nature of God’s promise to Moses. Israel would gain the land if they obeyed Torah. This is directly opposed to the promise of Abraham which is given with no conditions.

The covenant of works, or administration of law, given to Moses is essentially a republication of what happened in the garden. People in the land are offered life through obedience as was Adam. However, in contrast to Adam, the Israelites were not able to keep the law unto life because they have been born in original sin. Thus the law given to Israel was not meant to bring life but to show them that they could not gain it through their obedience. Its goal was condemnation.

This seems to be the way Paul himself understands the law gospel contrast. He contrasts the covenant of Moses with that of Abraham. “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.”(Galatians 3:17-18 ESV) Thus the distinction in Reformed theology between the covenant of grace and the covenant of works is parallel to Paul’s distinction between the law and the promise. The law gospel contrast should be understood, not only in dogmatic categories, but also in redemptive historical categories.

Though many in the Reformed tradition have rejected this covenant of grace and covenant of works distinction because, they claim it is too Lutheran, many in the reformed church use these categories to uphold Luther’s distinction between law and gospel. Though the Lutheran church need not speak in the same covenantal categories as the reformed, we can gain a better redemptive historical understanding of our basic hermeneutical principle through the bicovenantal reformed community. Men like Meredith Kline, Michael Horton, and Jeong Koo Jeon, have done much to defend the distinction without which scripture is a closed book.


Nick said...

I think this is an important issue to discuss, because so much comes down to definitions.

Understanding what "law" Paul is opposing is critical to understanding Paul's whole message; get that wrong, and you've got a different Gospel.

The "Law" Paul contrasted to "faith" was the Mosaic Law and nothing else. The Mosaic Law was only given at the time of Moses and applied only to the Jews. It was not the same 'law' as in the Garden of Eden. Further, the reward/righteousness the Law offered was an earthly/temporal one, it couldn't save the soul. The 'life' it promised was earthly blessings (eg land, long life, big family, wealth, etc).

This picture is the only way Paul's message makes sense (eg Gal 3:15-18 can only be the Mosaic Law). To go 'expanding' this into Law/Gospel and Covenant of Works/Grace is a misreading of Paul's message.

Paul's MAIN concern was never Pelagianism (that was a secondary issue), because if it was his repeated 'Gentiles versus Jews' comments would be illogical (for both are equally liable). Rather, the main concern was a form of Sola Gratia; a racism with the Jews/Judaizers considering themselves a superior race by the sheer gratuity of God making them born Jewish. That's the heart of Romans 2:18-3:8 (a section often ignored/misunderstood); not about a 'courtroom.'

Jordan Cooper said...

I understand where you are coming from as I have read most of the important literature related to the New Perspective on Paul. I would encourage you to read the several blog posts I have put up responding to these ideas. I also recommend the book The Lutheran Paul and His Critics by Stephen Westerholm. He makes a good exegetical case from Galatians of the law-gospel distinction.

Gary said...

Hi Pastor Cooper,

Would you mind explaining something to me? Do Lutherans believe that the children of Christian parents are born with a "covenant birthright"? And do Lutherans believe that the children of non-baptized, non-believers should NOT be baptized as they do not have this covenantal "right" to baptism?

So in other words, in Lutheran teaching, the only infants who should be baptized are those infants of Trinitarian baptized parents?

I've heard some Lutherans make statements supporting this view and others condemning this view. Which is correct?


Jordan Cooper said...

Lutherans do not baptize infants based on the idea of a familial covenant. Rather, we do it based on the command of Christ and the promises attached to baptism. The reason why it is the children of Christians who are baptized, is because baptism is the beginning of a life of faith which has to then be nurtured by instruction in Scripture, church attendance, etc.

Gary said...

Why would an LCMS pastor be preaching this concept in a Lutheran church if it is absolutely not Lutheran? My LCMS pastor always makes the following statement prior to baptizing an infant in our church:

"This child comes to the baptismal font by way of Covenant Birthright."

He believes that the Church Catholic has always taught this and he seems to believe that his position is consistent with Lutheranism.

My pastor used to be a Reformed pastor but converted to Lutheranism.

Does the LCMS require some sort of extra training or at least some screening prior to ordaining a "convert" pastor into the LCMS?

I really like my pastor. He is a terrific preacher and our church is growing, mostly due to him. But this is now the second non-Lutheran teaching that he has taught from the pulpit and in catechism/new member classes. I have now lost confidence that I can trust what he says to really be "Lutheran".

I am very disillusioned.

Jordan Cooper said...

Yes, there is an extensive examination of one who converts from another tradition, and usually some time at one of the Seminaries. It's likely that the question about covenantal baptism wasn't even brought up. What was the other non-Lutheran teaching heard from the pulpit?

Gary said...

I forgot one issue: He condemns Biblicism, reading and interpreting the Bible literally. He uses this position to ridicule the idea of a six day creation and that Methusela was over 900 years old.

I could never figure out if this position is tolerated in the LCMS so I never made an issue out of it.

Gary said...

Other questionably Lutheran teachings:

1. Once baptized, always saved.
2. Man descended from Apes (not preached from pulpit). Classic evolution is true.
3. The story of Creation in the first chapter of Genesis cannot be believed literally.
4. Questions the limitation of Lutherans to only two or three sacraments.

John Morley said...

just ran across this after spending the better part of 2 days watching Jim Staley's sermons on you tube....ty for your words and clear definitions Jordan.....