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Monday, December 22, 2008

Lutheran Quote of the Day: Althaus on Law and Command in the New Testament

This is a very interesting look into New Testament terminological usage. I think there is something to be said for Althaus' conclusion, here, that the writers of the New Testament are making theological distinctions by making terminological distinctions. What do you guys think?

"A distinction between command and law such as the one proposed cannot be derived from the inspection of the terms as such; this we freely admit. The distinction has a synthetic, not an analytic, character. According to customary religious language (based on the Bible), the law of God consists in a given number of commandments. A commandment is a part of the law. Thus, so far as their contents are concerned, "law" and "command" or "commandments" are synonymous. This is Paul's usage, for example, in Romans 7:7 ff. Likewise the Lutheran confessional writings use the term lex and praecepra interchangeably.

"But we can see already in the New Testament the beginnings of a terminological distinction. It is true that there seem to be no signs of this in Paul. "The law" is for him "holy," and "the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom. 7:12), no doubt for the reason that its content is the eternal, permanently valid will of God for man. Thus the apostle can summarize the very purpose of God's saving deed in Jesus Christ in such terms as these: "that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." The Christian life involves fulfillment of the law, through love; love is "the fulfillment of the law" (Rom. 13:10; Gal. 5:14). Indeed, since love to neighbor is the real meaning of the law, in all its various commandments, the same Paul who finds in Christ the end of the law (Rom. 10:4) can speak, paradoxically, of the "law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). He speaks of himself as ennomos Christon, "under [literally 'in'] the law of Christ" (1 Cor. 9:21). Here the term "law" is retained, to be sure, but only in order to express all the more sharply the contrast with the Jewish and Judaistic notion of law. Insofar as the term law is used at all, an element of continuity is implied (Jesus does not, according to Paul, bring any new law); but at the same time, the phrase "the law of Christ" implies a basic transformation. If anyone is in Christ, the new has come (II Cor. 5:17); as the law of Christ, therefore, the law is something new. Paul no longer lives "under the law," but neither does he live "without the law"; rather, he lives "in the law," namely, the law of Christ. He lives in the law because he lives in Christ. And what is true of him is true of all Christians (Gal. 5:18; Rom. 6:14, 8:2).

"Paul gives further evidence of the great transformation that has taken place in that when he deals with the question of norms for the life of the Christian and of the church, he very seldom refers to the law, and then only in a secondary way (I Cor. 9:8f., 14:21, 34). In the ethical chapters of the letter to the Romans (chaps. 12 ff.), the term law does not occur, except at the one place already mentioned (13:8 ff.), and there Paul, in effect, substitutes for it the command to love as its equivalent. Neither is there any mention of the law in the letters to the Thessalonians or in II Corinthians. Instead, Paul speaks in his admonitions to the believers of "the will of God," just as Jesus had spoken of "the will of my Father" (Matt. 7:21, 12:50, cf. 6:10). Not that this formula is original with Christianity; the phrases "to do the will of God" or "to do the will of the Father in heaven" were familiar to the Palestinian synagogue. Nevertheless it is significant that Paul in these passages seems to make it a point to avoid using the term "law." Thus in Romans 12:2, he sums up the whole body of Christian ethical insight as a matter of "proving what is the will of God" (cf. Col. 1:9). In I Thessalonians 4:3, he writes that the sanctification of Christians is "the will of God," as is the rejoicing always, praying constantly, and giving thanks in all circumstances (5:18). Closely related to this, or even synonymous with it, is the notion of what is "acceptable to God" or "pleasing to God" (e.g., Rom. 12:1f.; Col. 3:20).

"The use of terms in the deuteropauline literature is similar. In Ephesians, the law appears only as "the law of commandments and ordinances" which Christ has abolished (2:15). Elsewhere in the epistle we find, as in Paul, references not to the law but to the "will of God" (5:17, 6:6), or "what is pleasing to the Lord" (5:10). The situation is no different in I Peter: the term "law" is completely lacking; the writer refers instead to "the will of God" (2:15, cf. 3:17, 4:19). As to the book of James, one sign of its special position in the New Testament is that it does speak of a fulfilling or keeping of the "law" (2:8 f.). Surely it is not by chance that Paul, in his remarks on the relations of Jewish and Gentile Christians in I Corinthians 7:19, speaks not of "the law," but of "the commandments": "Neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God." In the Book of Hebrews, similarly, the term "law" is used only to refer to the Old Testament law; as for Christians, they are to "do the will of God" (10:36, 13:21).

"We have seen thus far that in practically all the passages which deal with the question of norms or the Christian life, the term "law" is avoided. The implication of this is clear: a distinction is being made between God's eternal will, on the one hand, and "the law" on the other.

"The Johannine usage is still more consistent and terminologically explicit. In the Gospel of John, "law" always signifies the law of Moses. God's will (or Christ's will) for the believers, like God's will for Christ himself, is invariably designated by the term "commandment," never by "law" (see especially John 10:18, 13:34, and repeatedly in chaps. 14 and 15). Likewise in the Johannine epistles, the term nomos is entirely lacking; the mark of true Christian faith is rather "keeping the commandments" of God or of Christ. John does speak, just once, of "keeping the law," but here he is referring to the Jews: "Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law" (John 7:19). The phrase "keeping the law" is never used with reference to Jesus' disciples. The same is true in the Book of Revelation: the term nomos does not occur at all. Christians are designated as "those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus" (Rev. 12:17), or "those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus" (14:12). We see, then, that John makes a strict terminological and theological distinction between law and commandment. The law was given by Moses (John 7:19), or by God through Moses (1:17), and it was given only to the Jews; but now God gives--both to his Son and through him-- the commandments.

"Thus we do have some basis in New Testament usage for our proposal that a theological distinction be drawn between "law" and "command." What impels us to make this proposal is the same factor that seems to underlie the consistent Johannine usage, namely, the fact that the "law," as Paul delineates it in contrast to the gospel, is not precisely the same as the eternal, unalterable will of God for man. Rather, the law must be seen as one limited and temporary form of this eternal will--a form that in Jesus Christ has been superseded and abolished. It does not matter what term is used to refer to this permanent will of God, as distinguished from the law. What is important is whether this needful distinction is in fact made, and is clearly expressed in the terminology employed. Some other word than "command" could very well be used to designate the will of God as distinguished from the law. But there is much to be said for following the Johannine usage. We shall accordingly refer to God's will for man, insofar as this is not identical with its form as law, as the divine "command.""

-Paul Althaus, The Divine Command: A New Perspective on Law and Gospel, trans. Franklin Sherman (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 3-7.

5 comments:

Jack Kilcrease said...

I think that this is a good post. Althaus stand in the tradition of Luther scholarship begun by Theodosius Harnack which distinguishes in Luther between the "wesen" (essence) and "amt" (office) of the law. Insofar as the law is God's eternal will, it is good, insofar as it possesses the office of destroying the sinner it is a tyrant.

How Althaus follows and implicitly follows Harnack here has two problems.

1. Most NT scholars have not found his exegetical argument very convincing.

2. Althaus appears to envision law as "command" as something that does not threaten or accuse. This cannot be the case though insofar as the law always accuses.

On this second point, this of course does not mean law can't inform regarding Christian living as well. As David Scaer points out, the law always accuses even in the process of informing the new person in Christ regarding Christian living. Nevertheless, contrary to the FC Althaus seems to regard the law as something which will be non-threatening at least after conversion.

Perhaps you think that I have read him incorrectly? There appears to be none of this thinking in the post you give (thought I detect it implicitly and remember it from the over all piece). Tell me what you think.

Joel Woodward said...

I don't believe Althaus ever suggests that the law stops accusing. Though, he never makes it a strong point to assure us that it still does. I agree with Forde to an extent, here. It implies that by merely making a terminological distinction, one can dispose of the law. Article VI, on the other hand, while not chalking this up to the definition of what the third use is, makes it clear that the law will continue to accuse us and that the third use is a function of how God works through the Spirit, not just a matter of words.

I think the problem is that Althaus, to a large extent, merely makes a theological distinction, reflective of an essence/office scheme. He does not bring it into the field of experience. He does not fully explain why the Christian can see the law in this way. This is where I believe the third use is a better formula (no pun intended). The third use is primarily concerned with 1) how God is working, and 2) how is the Christian interacting with the law. The third use is essentially described as a function of the Holy Spirit, not as a matter of gnosis. The third use exists whether Althaus makes theological and terminological distinctions, or not.

The third use is not necessarily concerned with what the law is in itself, but rather, how God's Word confronts man. In this sense, I believe the third use of the law is a better construction.

I believe I will address some of your other issues in my upcoming post.

Jim Robertson said...

Law vs.command in the article appears to be a distinction without a true difference. Either law or command is the revealed will of God. The third use of Law still shows the unalterable will of God. The question remains: what is the Word of God saying to you;and how then shall you live?

Joel Woodward said...

I agree.

If any terminological distinctions are to be made, we need to make clear that the terminology makes no difference to the Christian life as such. As Scaer says, in paraphrase, you can resolve the tension between law and gospel theologically, but not existentially. The possible benefit of making a terminological distinction, if there is one, lies in changing the way in which we think and talk about the law in a theological setting.

Forde's continual critique of things such as Alhaus' construction, is the idea that one can dispose of the law by changing one's actions or thinking concerning the law (that is, if we take Althaus' terminology, move it out of a theological setting, and into human experience. N.B. Jack, I don't know if Althaus intentionally does this or if he just leaves it open through negligence. I think, theologically speaking, an essence/office formula can be appropriate, though we cannot assume that we can apply this to daily life through our own action or thinking). Man himself cannot make the law into something other than an accuser and coercer. If there is to be a change, it is going to be through the work of God. I believe this is basically how Forde argued.

The problem I feel with Forde is that he divorces this change from the realm of human experience. For Forde, if change occurs, it just occurs. He does not deal with the dynamic experience of the human being who is addressed by God's Word. The FC makes it clear that we are not simply blocks of wood without feeling or experience in this regard. Rather, for the very fact that we are beings with reasoning and sensational capacities, God desires to work through means, those being Word and Sacrament. It is a personal experience to be addressed by God's Word (whether law or gospel).

FC Article II makes it clear that the baisc shape of human life is to be addressed by God--within the bounds of time, sense and experience-- and that through the work of the Holy Spirit in the Word we begin to change in heart, mind, and will so that we begin to have faith in God, to turn to him, and to desire and seek to please him through responding to his will.

We therefore need to make it clear that terminological distinctions is not what makes the difference in how we receive God's Word. We need to affirm that any change that does occur in how we recieve God's Word does not occur BY our action or thinking, though it does occur WITHIN our action and thinking, that is, it occurs within the experience of the Christian's daily life.

Sorry, I kind of rambled there.

Jim Robertson said...

Your last paragraph expresses what I was trying to say - but far better.