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Friday, December 12, 2008

Law, Gospel, and Eschatology in Gerhard Forde

Gerhard Forde's understanding of law and gospel is partly determined terminologically, partly eschatologically. I've been pouring over what Forde has written and I must admit that much of what he says is highly convoluted and abstract. Many of his distinctions seem arbitrary at best, though, overall, they express many of his broader concerns of how man lives under the gospel and how man lives under the law.

First off, we should address what Forde sees as the content of the will of God. It might be said that Forde didn't see the "content" in a quantitative sense but rather in a qualitative sense. He was wary of seeing the will of God as an eternal set of prescriptions. "At no time, according to Luther, does man possess full knowledge of the divine will, but only a knowledge of the law appropriate to his actual historical situation. This is true both of man in his original state and in his fallen state." (The Law-Gospel Debate (Minneapolis, Minn: Augsburg Publishing House, 1969), 176.) While this may be true for man who is perfectly righteous, I don't feel this is beneficial understanding of the content in this fallen age. As Paul Althaus makes clear, man as he exists in a paradisical state fulfills God's will in an infinite number of ways; but man in his fallen state is continually thinking up, and acting out new ways of blaspheming God's name. The reality of this, it might be said, is the reason for the need of a law that is explicated such as it is in Scripture. Forde writes: "The entire law is summed up in the First Commandment, which demands a qualitative subjection of man to God in faith and love. No quantitative measurable limit can be set for the fulfillment of such a law." (Law-Gospel, 187) As far as this might be true, this does not mean that an explicated law is not still as validly God's eternal divine will as an ethic summed up under the First Commandment. I will go out on a limb here and say that stealing will never be part of God's divine will. Therefore, and this is what to a large extent Article VI of the Formula of Concord is concerned with, man in his fallen state, with his fallen heart and fallen mind, should apply himself to God's Word where he will find the definite shape of God's will for him. Under Forde, this begins to be more subjective.

For Forde, this content of God's will, whatever it may be, is not yet law. God's will only becomes law when it confronts sinful man. This is where terminological considerations come into play. For Forde, "law" may not even need any true content, rather, "Law is anything which frightens and accuses "the conscience." The bolt of lightening, the rustling of a dry leaf on a dark night, the decalogue, the "natural law" of the philosopher, or even (or perhaps most particularly) the preaching of the cross itself-- all or any of these can and do become the voice of the law." (Law-Gospel, 177) The reason for this is that Forde wanted to keep the term "law" with a completely pregnant definition as that which is contrasted with the "gospel." This in itself is not a problem. Althaus makes a fairly convincing case that the New Testament itself engages in making terminological distinctions between "law" and what the law demands, that is, its content. (Paul Althaus, The Divine Command: A New Perspective on Law and Gospel, trans. Franklin Sherman (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 3-7.) The problem with Forde is that his desire to keep a purely existential understanding of law is not coupled with an understanding of how God's will has a positive impact on the Christian in the outward expression of God's work of sanctification. To understand this we need to move from terminological to eschatological considerations.

Gerhard Forde places the law-gospel dialectic into an eschatological, before-and-after scheme. Now, this is not incorrect as far as how he defines law. The law, as "that which accuses sinners," is of temporal validity. Paul's existential depiction of the law and gospel is a reflection of this. The problem for Forde comes in in how these "two ages" relate and come about in the lives of believers. This is all closely tied to his understanding of sanctification. Forde liked to see things in wholes: either law or gospel; total judgement or total grace; this age or the next; death or resurrection; indicative or imperative; nothing or all; law (existentially understood) or fulfillment. For Forde things don't come in "parts." Let's hear some examples of this:

"From this point of view the way of the sinner in sanctification, if it is a movement at all, is a movement from nothing to all, from that which one has and is in oneself to that which one has and is in Christ. Such a movement can never be completed this side of the grave. Nor could it be a continuous movement through increasing degrees of approximation. Rather each moment, each encounter with the shock of divine holiness, could only be at once both beginning and end, start and finish." (“Eleventh Locus: The Christian Life,” In Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 2, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, 391-470 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 431.)

"There is no “system” as such which can distinguish between the ages or can provide a continuous transition from this age to the next. Only the death and resurrection of Christ, the act of judgment and grace, is "the way."" (Law-Gospel, 223)

"In the church the believer comes to understand his existence in terms of two ontological determinations of his being, being “in Adam” and being “in Christ.” This corresponds exactly, of course, to the dialectic of the two ages." (Law-Gospel, 225)

"The progress for Luther has in mind is not our movement toward the goal but the goal's movement in on us. Imputed righteousness is eschatological in character; a battle is joined in which the totus iustus moves against the totus peccator." (The Christian Life, 435)

"The decalogue remains eternally in the sense that the reality demanded remains, but not as law. Here the distinction is between reality (res) and law, but not between the essence of law and the office of law. The term “law” applies only to the “office,” and not to the res." (Law-Gospel, 184)

For Forde, it is either law in the old age or fulfillment in Christ in the new age. The problem with this is that this is not reflective of how life actually works. By this, I don't only mean that this is not how we perceive it working but also how it actually works. Forde continually asserted that the new life was a death and resurrection. The problem I see in Forde is in his depiction of how this "reanimation" takes shape.

"Thinking theologically about the dialectic involves the fact that this act is at once total judgment and total grace. The fact that it is total judgment means that there can be no attempts on man's part to translate himself prematurely into the new age either by his action or by his thinking. Man's acting and thinking in this life remain and acting and thinking in this age, under the eschatological limit. The fact that it is also total grace means that man can be content to allow his acting and thinking to remain as it is, totally in this age; he can trust in Christ entirely for the gift of the new age." (Law-Gospel, 223-224)

Forde believes that "the eschatological possibility is made a present possibility only through faith in Christ." (Law-Gospel, 185) Because of this, acting and thinking on the Christian's part is and remains an acting and thinking in this age. This places into question how the Christian plays any role in participating in the new age. And consequently what role the law (understood as to its content) plays in the life of the Christian qua Christian. Forde writes:

"Law cannot be reintroduced after the end, for the end means perfect fulfillment. A perfect lover would not need laws about what to do. A perfect Christian would not need to be told what was right or wrong. One must hold out for that vision lest law conquer all. The day when all will be “written on our hearts” is the center of the biblical promise." (The Christian Life, 449-450)

It should be noted that by "end" Forde does not mean necessarily the end of the age, he means, including this, the new age which comes even "now." If it is the new age then it comes completely; there can be no "partly new age/partly old age." It is for this reason that Forde was so skeptical of any attempt at "redeeming" the law in this age; if we are dealing with it with our thinking and action then we are dealing with it in this age, if it is the new age, it is simply fulfilled. This is reflected in how Forde saw sanctification, as sanctification would obviously be participating in the new age. We read:

"There is no calculation, no wondering about progress, morality or virtue. There is just the doing of it, and then it is completely forgotten. The right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. Good works in God’s eyes are quite likely to be all those things we have forgotten! True sanctification is God’s secret." (“A Lutheran View of Sanctification.” in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, ed. Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988), 30.)

Any of our own conscious attempts at bringing about sanctification would be a "false eschatology," as Forde would call it. It would be an attempt by our own powers to bring about something that simply happens by grace. Therefore one just preaches law and gospel, bringing death and new life, and we just sit back and "trust in Christ entirely for the gift of the new age." This is not only an incorrect understanding of sanctification but it is also an incorrect understanding of how God's will confronts us. In fact, it completely dissolves any idea that God's will confronts us in the new age because it is either law or reality (res), fulfilled. It is a confusion of indicative and imperative (See my post: The Word, Communication, and Sanctification). By making the new age and sanctification completely indicative, one does not then understand the communicative basis of our existence as being creatures before our Creator. The will of God always stands as an "other." Not that we in a paradisical state will not have the same will as God, rather, God's Word is always something that needs to be conformed to in faith; it is a matter of faith. Paul Althaus writes:

""Command": this implies that another will confronts me, which puts my own will under claim. There is not as yet any opposition between the two, but there clearly is a duality. Unity between God's will and my own is something that has to be realized, over and again; it is not presupposed. The command is a word that stands over me, a word spoken to me. My situation, therefore, is that of one who has to ask, who has to listen, for a word which I myself cannot speak. The fact that God's will confronts us as command is not a condition that arises through sin, or on account of sin; it is an ordinance of the Creator. For God is my Lord. What exists "in the beginning," in the primal state [Urstand], is not a mystical oneness with God, nor an identity of will, but rather a duality: a duality, however, that in every moment is in the process of becoming a unity. But this "becoming a unity" takes place only in obedience. The command does not originate after the fall; it exists already before the fall." (The Divine Command, 9-10)

This does not mean that our existence before God has an ethical basis, but rather it primarily has its basis in faith; it a question of whether or not I will trust God's Word in faith, or whether I will reject that Word. Forde's understanding of the new age, law, and sanctification would never be able to admit this. Forde would not be able see how this could fit into a scheme of salvation as total grace, a total gift. Forde writes:

"It is misleading to say that the command which confronts man is in its basic content nothing other than the gospel. To be sure, if the res to which the law points is realized in the gospel, then there is a sense in which this is true. But when the eschatological framework is missing the statement is misleading. The eschatological dialectic cuts through the underlying Ritschlian moralism." (Law-Gospel, 198)

For Forde it is simply either res, "realized in the gospel," or it is moralism. Kurt Marquart argues against this type of thinking, where sanctification becomes merely an unthinking action, and man becomes an automoton:

"Sometimes we are told that sanctification is best left to itself, that conscious attempts to please God lead to hypocrisy, and that if we just preach the Gospel, sanctification will happen automatically. No, we are not automata. We have a renewed will, which “is not idle in the daily practice of repentance but cooperates in all the works of the Holy Spirit that He accomplishes through us” (Formula of Concord, SD, II,88, p. 561). If being branches in the True Vine (St. Jn. 15) means that like plants we have no conscious intentions, but simply produce fruit “automatically,” then the same applies to the Vine Himself. And that is as absurd as saying that since Christ is the Way and the Door, He is as indifferent as ways and doors are to who is passing over or through them! This pseudo-biblical argument is exactly parallel to that of the old antinomians, who argued that Christians will do the right things “without any teaching, admonition, exhortation, or prodding of the law, . . . just as in and of themselves the sun, the
moon, and all the stars follow unimpeded the regular course God gave them once and for all”
(FC, SD,VI,6, p. 588).

"Clearly the New Testament exhortations to love and good works require conscious effort,
not unthinking, automatic compliance with inner instincts! Thus St. Paul begs the Roman
Christians by the mercies of God (which he had expounded in the preceding 11 chapters) to
present their bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, as their “reasonable worship”
(Rom. 12:1). And of himself he writes: “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is
ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in
Christ Jesus” (Phil.3:13,14, NIV). No automatism or somnabulism (sleep-walking) here!" ("The Third Use of the Law as Confessed in the Formula of Concord")

Forde recognized that this could be the result of his understanding. We read:

"There is also the danger that speaking of Christ as the “end” of the law (and thus of this age) will become almost exclusively a kind of negative theology, a kind of “negative theology of glory” in which it is difficult to give positive content to the new life in this age." (Law-Gospel, 215)

"But if man's acting and thinking remain acting and thinking in this age, then the problem arises of how the new age takes on any kind of positive reality in this age." (Law-Gospel, 224)

"The greatest danger for the eschatological view that speaks of the death of the old and the resurrection of the new is that the idea of the “new person” can all too easily become a mystical theologoumenon without substance, something the theologian calls on to solve all dogmatic problems. That, no doubt, is what those who insisted on the “third use” of the law were most afraid of: the “reborn” Christian who does not know what to do and is cast on his or her own feelings or autonomy. The new being, however, is to be incarnated in down-to-earth fashion in the concrete calling of the Christian. In that battle—in the calling in this world, in the flesh-- the law of God is ultimately not an enemy or an emasculated guide but a true and loved friend. For one should make no mistake about it: The law of God is to be and will be fulfilled. It will not be fulfilled, however, by our powers, but only by the power of the righteousness of God given in faith." (The Christian Life, 452)

This last quote is about as positive and descriptive as Forde ever gets concerning the shape of the new age. He even uses the term "law"! But the last sentence, "It will not be fulfilled, however, by our powers, but only by the power of the righteousness of God given in faith," and the rest of what Forde has written on this topic leads one to see the new age, the new person, fulfillment, as a mere abstraction, a "mystical theologoumenon without substance."


Augustinian Successor said...

Where did you get that picture of Forde, Joel? I like the hairstyle/haircut ... because that's how I comb my hair too! Well, those were the days ... the 1950s/60s

Joel Woodward said...

I nabbed it off of the Luthersem site. Its pretty fantastic isn't it? 8^)

Augustinian Successor said...

I didn't know that Luther Seminary had Forde's old photos. But the difference between young and old is, well, there. Would not have recognised Forde this photo!

Steve said...

More disrespecting of Dr Forde from LCMS folk who simply do not understand him. You write

"Any of our own conscious attempts at bringing about sanctification would be a "false eschatology," as Forde would call it. It would be an attempt by our own powers to bring about something that simply happens by grace. Therefore one just preaches law and gospel, bringing death and new life, and we just sit back and "trust in Christ entirely for the gift of the new age." "

Forde in no way believed that the Christian is to simply sit back, not do anything and simply trust that the Gospel would take care of everything. That is the type of thinking that he was completely opposed to. You completely leave out Dr Forde's understanding of "Creation as the arena for ethical action." Had you included that, or even been aware of it, it would have shed your unfounded assertions in a different light.

You accuse Dr Forde of only believing in extremes yet you, like so many other LCMS folk, like Dr David Scaer, do the same thing with your erroneous understanding of Dr Forde's theology. You assume that because he rejected the third use then he must simply essentially be an antinomian and, like Dr Marquart who obviously didn't understand Dr Forde also, accuse Dr Forde of believing that we are simply automotoms.

You seem to think that Dr Forde not only rejected the third use, but also the first use. Dr Forde did not object to the idea of the Christian as a new creation subjecting themselves to God'a law so as to hear the Word speak to us as a revelation of God's will for us to live out. He just objected to the idea that such hearing of God's Word should in any way be construed as the Christian sanctifying themself.

Indeed the law does serve as a revelation of God's will. That does not mean that it is a means for us to receive some sort of "atta boy" from God. And that is almost literally how I recently heard the third use of the law defined recently on Issues etc.

Dr Forde believed, with Luther; both of whom drew this belief from scripture, that faith is living and active and does not sit around and ask whether a good work should be done but does it before the question can even be asked, not to get some eschatological pat on the back, but because it needs to be done.

I recently read that when you disagree with someone it's always easiest to argue against a caricature of their beliefs, rather than the actual content of their belief. You, my friend are making an argument against a caricature of Dr Forde's beliefs.

Steve said...

I incorrectly accused Dr Marquart of making false assertions against Dr Forde. I apologize. It was not Dr Forde, but a particular viewpoint that Dr Marquart did not share.

Anonymous said...

Many years late to the party, but I have to comment that this argument falls apart very early in the thread. The author argues that "I will go out on a limb here and say that stealing will never be part of God's divine will."
But that's not true is it? Biblically: theft, war, murder, and even full-blown genocide have at times been part of God's divine will. That's why the Law is always qualitative. This is not to discount its revealed quantitative states, which the author seems to think Forde is aiming to do. Of course the author goes on to reveal his or her real issue with Forde: "This places into question how the Christian plays any role in participating in the new age." And Forde's answer is that he or she does not. And that is why most people have a problem with Forde. They are desperate to pull themselves up by their own theological, moral, or ethical bootstraps, when in fact they have played no significant role in their salvation - or their sanctification.

There will always be theologians and, yes, even entire denominations set against Forde for that reason and that reason alone: they want to take some of the credit for themselves.